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And there goes Ralph.

Ralph was my brother, but I never knew him well. I'm not sure whether it was a ruling by the juvenile court, or a difficult decision made by my parents, but Ralph largely left the family when he was about 11, and I was 8. When we visited him, the sign out front called it a "Children's Center," but I accompanied my parents for a few of those visits, and it was a prison. Calling it a 'children's center' was like calling a morgue a 'rest area'.

What does an 11-year-old boy do to warrant imprisonment? To this day nobody in the family talks about it, but from my memory and what few answers I've pried out over the years, here's what happened:

Biologically, Ralph was my cousin. His birth parents — my mother's sister and her husband — were mentally ill and in near-constant legal trouble, and it was obvious that they were mistreating their children. I've seen photos; all three of their kids were malnourished, basically skeletons, sickly and bruised.

My own parents, to their great credit, saw what was happening and petitioned the court for custody of that fucked-up family's three children. Their parents didn't object, and indeed endorsed the idea, so I grew up with five siblings instead of two.

Which brothers and sisters were adopted and which weren't was never a secret — it couldn't have been; all the kids except me were old enough to know what was happening as it happened — but it was never a factor in our lives. Family is family, period. They were my brothers and sisters.

Ralph was always trouble, though. He stole neighbors' bikes, and beat up other kids. He smoked cigarettes, threatened teachers, and was frequently suspended from school. My memory is hazy, but I think he was banned from our church for pilfering from the collection plate. He had already been in juvenile court, for shoplifting or vandalism or what not, and then came The Incident.

I might be willing to discuss The Incident some day, but that day has never yet come, and today isn't that day, either. I'll say only that 11-year-old Ralph had a plan, and he invited 8-year-old me to be part of it. Together, Ralph and I did something ghastly and illegal. It did not involve violence toward any person.

Ralph already had a rap sheet, but I didn't. I'd never done anything worse than staying up past bedtime or talking too loud during church. When what we'd done was discovered, my parents decided that Ralph was a danger to the rest of the family, and almost immediately, Ralph became a ward of the state.

He was usually with us on Christmas, sometimes Thanksgiving, and one year my parents brought Ralph along on our camping vacation, and regretted it — he beat up some other kid, stole his fishing tackle, and shattered some stranger's windshield. After that, there were no more vacations with Ralph.

Mom and Dad often visited him at the 'children's center', but other than holidays and the annual family photos, Ralph was gone for the rest of my childhood, and his.

As an adult, he continued to be trouble. He was frequently arrested, for petty crimes like breaking and entering, maybe a fist fight here and there. He was jailed, then released; then arrested and jailed or imprisoned again. This was repeated so often that it became sadly comical.

In grown-up prison, Ralph always became devoutly Christian, leading worship groups with fellow prisoners, and never getting into trouble, so he always looked good come parole time. After being released, though, he was less interested in the good book and good deeds, and more interested in burglary and dealing drugs.

To Ralph's good fortune, all this happened long ago, before extended sentencing for habitual criminals became a popular strategy. His prison stints were all short — six months at a time, or a year or two. It wasted a long chunk of his life, though, and put great distance between us. It's hard to get to know someone when they're behind bars.

I'd see him now and then, at ball games or picnics when he was on parole, but we never hung out, just the two of us. I never had a beer with my brother Ralph. The longest time we ever spent together, just him and me and nobody else, was the night of The Incident, when we were kids.

As he got older, Ralph's out-of-prison times grew longer, and he was arrested less often. After the mid-1980s, when he would've been about 35, he was never in any legal trouble. He'd been successfully rehabilitated — he got a job, settled down, became a productive member of society.

We still never clicked like brothers, though. That closeness is hard to start in your 30s, all the more so because I always keep strangers at a distance, and to me he was almost a stranger.

Eventually, a few years after Ralph went straight, I left town. The last time I saw him was at my sister's house, for her birthday party, circa 1991. Thirty years ago — damn.

By all accounts, Ralph made himself into a good man. He got a promotion at work, bought a house, made music that didn't make me wince, and he had a girlfriend he was planning to marry, until cancer came calling. And there goes Ralph. He died almost ten years ago. Toward the end, I talked to him on the phone a few times, and sent a heartfelt email. He replied, "Thanks. Same," and I appreciated that.

A couple of summers ago, I visited my home town and spent some time with my family. Among many other things, we talked about Ralph, and I visited his grave, and met his fiancée. She seems like a good woman, and she's invited to all the family's parties and dinners and events — family is still family, period. She misses her fiancé, my brother, Ralph. I miss him, too, and I've always missed him, even before he was gone.

 

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