My best friend Keith, at left, my sister Kim, Robin, and my sister's best friend Gene, on a birthday outing to the Fleischacker Zoo in San Francisco. They sure dressed us up in those days!
I've wanted to write about my childhood friend Keith for a long time and this week, writing about my father's remote controlled model airplane, the Sparky-K, I came across a picture of the two of us, long long ago, with my Dad. Keith was my best friend growing up and his bittersweet story has haunted my life.
Keith lived just up the street and he and I were close in age, so it was probably inevitable that we would be friends. Or, it may have been that I always felt Keith somehow needed my protection: odd for a girl to say about a boy, but I was boisterous where he was shy and we became inseparable.
His father was a big bear of a man--dashing, handsome, a man who loved to laugh and who was born with oodles of élan. He had been a fighter pilot during World War II and he was, when we were children, an airline pilot--quite a glamorous job in those days. He had the improbable name of Exline Brown, but everyone called him "Brownie." He adored me and treated me as if I were Keith's sister, the little girl he'd always wanted. Where my parents were cool and distant, Brownie was warm and affectionate. He thought up tasks for us to do and he called me Towhead.
Brownie had a Chevrolet station wagon that was two-tone red and white and he had a fishing boat he had painted red and white to match. Once, he had Keith and I help him clean his garage (it was the immaculate garage of a meticulous flier) and I remember he pointed to a bucket and asked me to take it out of the garage so he could sweep. I reached down to pick it up. It weighed more than I did! He gave me a wink. It was a bucket full of fishing weights and when I found I couldn't budge it he reached down and picked it up with one hand. No wonder we adored him.
The elephants get the most ink in this shot on the same birthday outing to the zoo: Robin at left, sister Kimberly, Keith, and friend Gene, clowning it up.
Keith was adopted. It wasn't a secret. I think Keith told me himself. His mother Alma was thin and fragile and Keith had no brothers or sisters. I remember his mother Elma as ethereal--almost the opposite of Brownie. Where he exuded happiness and good health, she looked liked porcelain--as if you could see the light through her skin and hair. She dressed beautifully every day and wore a neatly-ironed apron when she came to the door to call Keith in from play. She was very nice and loved Keith dearly, but there was a shadow over her that even a child could see. We were told she had asthma and she was often ill.
The year I was six, Elma's health deteriorated. Keith's father was often away with his airline job and Keith spent most of his time at our house with me. His mother's asthma had gotten worse, they said, and she was often bedridden. Doctors came and went. My mother asked Keith to eat dinner with us some evenings and that was pretty unusual.
One morning, the phone rang before school, also unusual. When my mother put down the telephone she looked worried. Keith and I always met on the corner to walk to school together. She took me aside.
"Keith's mother has died," she said. "Brownie called to say he would tell Keith when he gets home from school today. Please don't say anything to him. His father wants his mother to be gone before he breaks the news to Keith." Keith's mother had had lung cancer, not asthma, and though I didn't understand then what "gone" meant, I do now.
It was an awful day. For a child to keep such a dark secret from a best friend was awful. I said very little. My mother even came to school at lunchtime to see me and make sure everything was okay. It was okay. I hadn't said anything. But it was a terrible day.
And then it became a terrible year. Because Brownie was gone so much, he hired a series of housekeepers to care for Keith. And Keith was miserable and absolutely awful to all of them. He cried often and shouted at the housekeepers that he hated them--of course he hated them, they were not his mother--and he stomped his feet a lot and begged his father to come home. I did what I could to comfort him, but there wasn't much I could do. Imagine what his father must have gone through. He had lost his wife and had to work to support his son. Flying had been his life. And now it was keeping him away from the son who needed him.
After a year, Keith had what sounded like good news. His father was going to get married again and he, Keith, was going to have a new, older sister. Brownie had known the widow of a pilot friend for many years and I'm sure he felt that marrying her was a solution to the seemingly impossible problems he faced with Keith.
Keith was intrigued. He loved the idea of a new mother and a new sister. I remember Brownie and his bride going to the Caribbean on their honeymoon. They brought Keith and me back some some maracas.
But the honeymoon was a short one with Keith and his new stepmother. He wasn't used to having a sibling, favored by the new mother figure, and he wasn't used to sharing his father with this stranger. He made life difficult for himself and his family with his misery and grief.
Unfortuantely, just that year, my own mother's health took us to Phoenix for one winter school term. Keith, who had been forced to adjust to death, the absence of his father, and the addition of two strangers in his home, had now lost his best friend. In desperation, his father bought the family a new home and it became another agonizing adjustment for Keith.
So when we returned to Los Altos nine months later, Keith was no longer a neighbor. I wanted to go over and see him at his new house, but we had a family vacation planned and Mom and Dad said we could go over and see Keith when we got home.
We went on vacation. Then, at my grandmother's house in Spokane, my parents received a special delivery letter: Keith had drowned in a swimming pool accident. I remember my mother telling me and I remember how unreal it seemed. I hadn't seen Keith in ten months and I was never to see him again. There were no goodbyes. It was an impossible concept for a nine-year-old child. Keith had vanished from my life.
The funeral was over when we got home, but Brownie called and asked if I would come over with my Mom to see him. I knew Brownie loved me and I wanted to see him too. I thought perhaps he could explain this sad thing to me--I expected a lot from adults back then. The Browns new house wasn't far away but instead of letting me ride my bike, my mother put me in the car and we drove to see Brownie.
It was a pretty house and Keith's stepmother answered the door and asked us in. She served us lemonade and cookies. The house was dark. It was a sunny summer day, but all the blinds were closed and the dark room made me shiver. And then, I heard a sound I shall never forget. I heard Brownie sobbing in the next room. Big, hearty, handsome Brownie was crying. We sat and sat, but he was unable to come out and see me. Finally we went away. Brownie had not been able to leave his room.
I hadn't thought about Keith in many years when I came home one year to Los Altos during a difficult time in my own life. I was all grown up and I was getting a divorce and I was hurting. In my family, if you are hurting, you are expected to hide it. I kept it in.
One day, I reached for a book on a bookshelf in the house my parents had owned since I was a child and as I opened the book, a letter fell out and drifted to the floor at my feet. I picked it up. It was a letter from Keith that he had written to me during the nine months my family and I were in Phoenix, the year of so many sad changes for this young boy.
We miss you. My Dad says to say "hi" to all you girls. I hope you will come home soon.
How that letter got into that book and how I happened to select that book at that very time in my life is a mystery. It was as if Keith reached out to me to remind me that I had once given him my unconditional love, and that he had returned it and that it had never really gone away. Perhaps that kind of love doesn't disappear and is only transmuted.
I've thought for many years that young Keith's life had become too painful for him to endure and that his death at the age of eleven was a release for him. The letter that fell at my feet that day touched me, because it suddenly made it clear to me that my own pain was not as his had been. Mine was endurable and I would recover.
You never lose a friend like Keith. Perhaps I had only been able to help him a tiny bit long ago, but that tiny bit of love had connected us. And perhaps, just when I was in need, he had reached out to me as a way of saying thanks.
Subscribe to Robin Chapman News