Tragedies can dim bright futures and limit lifelong goals. Keith is one who overcame such, with collateral damage.
Loosely based on actual events, this drama highlights a family’s struggle. Learn how one trauma can manifest cascading social and psychological effects throughout sibling lives.
Maturity Age 14+
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By Kevin RR Williams
Breath of Life
Childhood upbringing influences our mental, social, and physical wellbeing. This is the case with Keith. As a child, according to medical authority, he was sick of everything. He couldn't breathe well due to asthma and allergies. This had a huge impact on his social interactions and sports activities—or lack thereof.
A skin allergy sensitivity test performed on Keith’s back revealed he was allergic to anything from dark chocolate to green grass. When Keith asked the nurse to be more specific, she simply said, “You’re allergic to everything.” Most of the allergies were triggered by winter mold or dust within the basements, motels, back houses, and low-budget apartments in which his family thrived.
At the time, with so many triggers, allergies would cascade into full-blown asthma attacks. These would result in frequent emergency room visits. Keith is thankful to all the school nurses and doctors that kept him breathing. Eventually, he outgrew asthma and most allergies.
Keith’s earliest recollection of the importance of the breath that so many take for granted, involved a newborn brother. At age 3, Keith had two older siblings—a brother 18 months Keith’s senior named Marcus, and a sister who was 6½ years older named Candace. Each manifested great creative and intellectual potential.
Keith’s grandmother, who was a wife of a hard working steel mill employee, flew in from Indiana to view her new grandson. The portentous overcast afternoon was illuminated by the presence of the gray-haired matriarch, aglow with excitement.
This grandmother, seated on the sofa within the sparsely furnished apartment, knew that each generation of children extended her own earthly footprint. With reoccurring unemployment of the postpartum mother, who struggled to survive on the streets since she was 15 years old, it surprised the matriarch that there was any furniture at all.
The three children were sent to retrieve the newborn from his slumber. This allowed Keith’s mother to entertain the exuberant guest and privately receive her annual monetary assistance. But something was amiss.
Without a crib, due to meager means, David was placed on the top of a bunk bed. While sleeping, he rolled over. All but his head slipped between the wall and top mattress. At the tender age of 3, the only news Keith could bring out to his grandmother is, “Something’s wrong with David.”
What should have been a bright joyous occasion, was suffocated by a dark blanket of mourning and inquisition. Candace, who placed David on the bunk, was accused by police officers of doing so intentionally out of jealousy. This notion would seed lifelong emotional issues. The tiny lifeless body was lowered from the bedroom window to minimize the trauma of seeing him roll through the living room on a gurney.
Keith’s mother would hope that, without a funeral service, her remaining children were young enough to forget he ever existed. She, herself, endeavored to erase the thought after the commotion subsided. The distraught grandmother stepped onto a plane, carrying a Kodak Instamatic camera filled with unexposed film. Then the mother walked away from her children in order to cope with her own mental trauma.
Left wallowing in blame, Candace tried her best to feed two younger brothers with rudimentary breakfast preparation abilities. Running low on food, she was afraid to make their plight known to visitors expressing condolences. One, though, had the persistence to force her way in.
Looking into the glare of the empty refrigerator and bare kitchen cabinets, Sandy realized the children were living alone. This friend bought bountiful bags of groceries and comforted the guilt-ridden 10-year old girl.
Candace had no idea where her mother was or if she would come back. Sandy kept in contact. A week later, Keith’s mother did return, ready to resume her parental responsibilities, as if nothing happened.
What occurred during parental absence was a forbidden topic of conversation. Had it been discussed publicly, the children would have grown up in foster homes. Nevertheless, the event became a catalyst of lifelong emotional consequences for the entire family.
At age 15, Candace went back East to live with her grandmother. So now there were four remaining in the household. With the prodding of that grandmother, they grew up in a Christian family of professional “movers.”
Keith’s mother was baptized in an effort to bring salvation to the child she lost. Despite family attendance at religious services, this only widened the pool of gullible contributors to underprivileged plight. Unbeknownst to the youngest children, their mother was a grifter.
Temporary residences were shoddy apartments, back rooms, rear houses, and motels. Within 90 days of each there were adult arguments over missing possessions or back rent. Amid prejudice and civil unrest, the gypsy-like family lived a baseline destitute existence—sometimes sleeping in a car. This was punctuated with brief moments of plenty, at someone else’s expense.
They moved so much, that there is no single neighborhood, school, or childhood friend with which to identify. Like discolored photos in an aging scrapbook, there are transient images of persons, places, or things.
Keith’s preference was to leave clothes in cardboard boxes and suitcases. It minimized the time required to clear an apartment. The siblings’ best timing was four hours to pack and load a truck heading to destination unknown.
By now, according to the mother, a new member of family included Robert as a replacement for David. Where does a mother get a replacement? No child dared to ask.
There were only two spans of time when the family had their own transportation. The first was when Keith was in the fourth grade. A good deal on a used Volkswagen lasted until the car required more than gasoline. At times, all the passengers would rock forward to assist momentum.
Keith was too young to comprehend the depths of their poverty, or why they moved so frequently. This was, in part, due to his mother’s remarkable ability to create stories.
Where she was born, her actual name, and even why they lived as a single-parent family were all carefully narrated fiction for each child to absorb. For example, to embellish her cooking ability, she claimed she was born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised in Louisiana—places her mother never resided.
On the Move
During the six years, from the seventh to twelfth grades, there were 26 residence moves. Most were throughout Greater Los Angeles. But there was one memorable excursion. During the summer leading to Keith’s sixth grade school year, his mother and siblings charted a path half way across the country.
The transient family wore out the welcome of a nurse who assisted their mother with illegal methods of controlling family size. In Richmond, California, they crowded the home of a woman near the same age as their mother.
Then economy plane tickets landed them in Detroit, Michigan during the popular Motown era. This is when Keith first saw the Jackson 5 and Temptations on television.
The family lived in the home of “Uncle DJ.” Keith slept on a basement cot until the school year began. They remained until winter, where Keith saw his first snowflakes.
Months later, the family imposed upon the two-story home of their mother’s only sibling. She had a husband and 10 children of her own. So they had to learn to synchronize chores to keep the house running smoothly. But their imposition was short-lived since the children had to enroll in school. Keith finished the sixth grade in Los Angeles, California.
The second family vehicle arrived when Marcus turned 16. Better research would have revealed that the Ford Pinto was prone to explosions from rear-end collisions. Nevertheless, with much pleading, mother turned over the keys to the young driver. Marcus promptly packed the car with his closest teenage friends, including Keith.
While speeding around corners, he lost control, hitting two parked cars, before landing upside down. Fortunately, no one was physically injured. But for decades, the driver no longer felt safe transporting passengers.
Through remaining teen years, Marcus resisted authority with arguments and fights, as the grip on religion subsided. Older now, it became apparent to each of the children that family behaviors they assumed normal were actually subterfuge.
In the weeks leading up to the mother’s eventual death, Keith remarked that the “nationwide” summer tour was one of the highlights of childhood. This was a way of finding peace with all the deception. But the subsequent response shocked him.
She somberly said the reason for the trip was to find someone who could take over raising her children. While inside the notion cut like a knife, he smiled at her inability to perceive how hurtful such words could be to a child.
The trauma surrounding David’s demise followed each sibling in different ways. Until her death, Candace maintained guilt and fear of male authority figures, despite ongoing psychiatric treatment. Calorie overconsumption resulted in lifelong weight battles for her and the next oldest sibling.
Justification for becoming a recluse is always directed towards society, or the behavior of others. Marcus lived a reclusive life of chemical dependency in order to dull past memories, before succumbing to his vices. Robert bounced between marriages until also becoming a recluse.
By outward appearances, Keith is the “normal” one. He lacks interest in sports—preferring more creative or intellectual activities. With a protective callous, he displays misaligned emotions during others’ sorrow—or avoids interaction altogether.
Some medical professionals may consider his apparent lack of empathy to be symptomatic of a social disorder. But as the Tears of a Clown, internal solemnness contrasting external humor is the last remaining sibling’s adaptive coping mechanism.
The child who fell between the cracks had cascading effects on the lives of each close relative. Like an echo of gunshots on a still night, the death of a family member can reverberate emotions in multiple directions. How resilient have you been, or will you be?