The debt I owe is the gift we share

I rolled my new pre-owned car home from the lot and phoned my stepbrother Phil in Nevada. "I'm getting rid of the Civic," I told him. "It's yours."

Phil drove an Accord whose odometer had rolled over twice. I figured he could use reliable wheels that had traveled only 100,000 miles. "No thanks," he said. "My Honda's running fine."

"Phil," I persisted, "you don't have to buy it. It's a gift. I owe you a vehicle."

I took Phil back to the dealer-plated '74 Dodge pickup he bought the year before we graduated from our Massachusetts high school. My mother had married his dad not long before, and had moved her three children in with his four. In a house with seven kids, thrift was king, and cars were purchased used, never new. The town was semirural then, and it was as common for teenagers to have their own cars as it was to pose for a yearbook picture.

We stepkids' ages overlapped, so most of us attended high school at the same time, which meant that our driveway was a jumble of rusty station wagons parked next to teen-envy vans with shag-carpeted interiors. My stepfather's agreement to cosign Phil's new car loan, representing a departure from family culture, demonstrated faith in Phil and his future.

In 1977, Phil got behind the wheel of that future, drove the Dodge west, and found a permanent parking spot in Nevada. The next year I followed and settled in San Francisco. Every few months he took the pickup to the Bay Area to visit me.

"Don't you remember what happened?" I reminded Phil now.

During one of those visits, he loaned me the truck. While I cruised at 55 m.p.h. in Interstate 80's slow lane, a flatbed pulled in front of me from a shoulder stop. I skidded, rear-ended the flatbed, and spun 360 degrees, wrecking Phil's pickup.

"That was long ago," Phil said. "You do not owe me a car."

"Yes, I owe you," I thought. "No way I'll accept your refusal."

Before my mother married Phil's dad, the only stepfamily our parents knew was "The Brady Bunch." On television, conflicts were resolved in 30 minutes, minus commercials. Bunk beds blend a family, the newlyweds decided.

Meanwhile, we stepchildren circled each other like cats, trying to adjust to a marriage we hadn't chosen. Yes, we doubled up in bedrooms. But we functioned like seven only children tossed together rather than one unified family.

Phil and I were the independent, well-behaved middle children. We showed up for school, turned in homework. We got our chores done and came home on time. I baked double batches of tollhouse cookies. Phil mowed the lawn. We avoided activities that would call attention to us.

Then one day, after Phil finished raking, he joined me in the kitchen, where he nibbled steaming cookies and gulped milk. "Mmm, good. Thanks," he said, lingering.

Baking was my job, and thanks were a surprise. I expected Phil to grab a snack and hide in his bedroom with the stereo cranked, not keep me company and throw in a compliment. We became buddies.

He had a motorcycle that he seemed to disembowel once a month, diagnosing a problem only he could detect, then reassembling it bit by greasy bit. On summer afternoons, I sat and watched.

After he kick-started it, I'd put on the second helmet and climb behind, leaning with him into the curves as we cooled ourselves in the wind's air conditioning.

When he traded the motorbike for the pickup, I helped him buff it to a high shine. We pulled on cutoffs, loaded a rowboat and a cooler in the back, and drove to the nearby lake. We took turns pulling oars.

At the lake's center, where the depth turned the water ebony, we dove in and floated on our backs, gazing at the lazy sky.

Phil and I never talked about what drew us together, but we had plenty in common. We'd each lost a parent and we stifled our feelings, even from ourselves. We moved cheerily into our parents' second marriage. Then, at the eye of our unwieldy clan's cyclone, we blended into the background.

Although neither of us could express losses deeper than that summer lake's center, I think now that we understood each other. Phil reached toward me when I didn't know I was sinking. And instead of diving in to contemplate the water's bottomless darkness, I resurfaced and found a friend splashing beside me. Our companionship assured us, gently, that we would survive.

Now I offered Phil a car and he refused. How would I compensate him for the demolished vehicle?

I thought back to the phone call when I told Phil I'd totaled his treasured truck. "Phil, I have bad news. I had an accident."

He sucked in a breath. "Were you hurt?"

"Phil, the truck's totaled."

"I asked, were you hurt?"

"No."

"That's all that matters," he said.

And I realized that crashing Phil's pick-up didn't put me in his debt. His love for me did. Giving him a car wouldn't even my balance sheet. I'd owe Phil for the rest of my life. And this was an obligation that, finally, I would never want to be rid of.

Do you suddenly wonder, hey -'Whatever happened to...?'

Wonder no more! Write and tell us who or what you'd like to catch up with.

Send ideas to: One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail: whatever@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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