Many stories begin with a simple lesson learned, and our family's story
is no exception. For brevity's sake, I'll summarize.
In the beginning, we children were conceived. And the lesson learned-at
least according to my Catholic mother-goes like this:
"Always remember," she told me, "that no matter what the church tells
you, the rhythm method doesn't work."
I looked up at her, twelve years old at the time. "You mean to say that
we were all accidents?"
"Yep. Each and every one of you."
"But good accidents, right?"
She smiled. "The very best kind."
Still, after hearing this story, I wasn't sure quite what to think. On
one hand, it was obvious that my mom didn't regret having us. On the
other hand, it wasn't good for my ego to think of myself as an accident,
or to wonder whether my sudden appearance in the world came about
because of one too many glasses of champagne. Still, it did serve to
clear things up for me, for I'd always wondered why our parents hadn't
waited before having children. They certainly weren't ready for us, but
then, I'm not exactly sure they'd been ready for marriage either.
Both my parents were born in 1942, and with World War II in its early
stages, both my grandfathers served in the military. My paternal
grandfather was a career officer; my dad, Patrick Michael Sparks, spent
his childhood moving from one military base to the next, and growing up
largely in the care of his mother. He was the oldest of five siblings,
highly intelligent, and attended boarding school in England before his
acceptance at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. It was there that
he met my mom, Jill Emma Marie Thoene.
Like my dad, my mom was the oldest child in her family. She had three
younger brothers and sisters, and was mostly raised in Nebraska where
she developed a lifelong love of horses. Her father was an entrepreneur
who ran a number of different businesses in the course of his life. When
my mom was a teenager, he owned a movie theater in Lyons, a tiny town of
a few hundred people nestled just off the highway in the midst of
farmland. According to my mom, the theater was part of the reason she'd
attended boarding school as well. Supposedly, she'd been sent away
because she'd been caught kissing a boy, though when I asked about it,
my grandmother adamantly denied it. "Your mother always was a
storyteller," my grandmother informed me. "She used to make up the
darnedest things, just to get a reaction from you kids."
"So why did you ship her off to boarding school?"
"Because of all the murders," my grandmother said. "Lots of young girls
were getting killed in Lyons back then."
Anyway, after boarding school, my mother headed off to Creighton
University just like my dad, and I suppose it was the similarities
between my parents' lives that first sparked their interest in each
other. Whatever the reason, they began dating as sophomores, and
gradually fell in love. They courted for a little more than a year, and
were both twenty-one when they married on August 31, 1963, prior to the
beginning of their senior year in college.
A few months later, the rhythm method failed and my mom learned the
first of her three lessons. Micah was born on December 1, 1964. By
spring, she was pregnant again, and I followed on December 31, 1965. By
the following spring, she was pregnant with my sister, Dana, and decided
that from that point on, she would take birth control matters into her
After graduation, my dad chose to pursue a master's degree in business
at the University of Minnesota and the family moved near Watertown in
the autumn of 1966. My sister, Dana, was born, like me, on December 31,
and my mother stayed home to raise us while my father went to school
during the day and tended bar at night.
Because my parents couldn't afford much in the way of rent, we lived
miles from town in an old farmhouse that my mother swore was haunted.
Years later, she told me that she used to see and hear things late at
night-crying, laughing, and whispered conversations-but as soon as she
would get up to check on us, the noises would fade away.
A likelier explanation was that she was hallucinating. Not because she
was crazy-my mom was probably the most stable person I've ever known-but
because she must have spent those first few years in a foggy world of
utter exhaustion. And I don't mean the kind of exhaustion easily
remedied by a couple of days of sleeping in late. I mean the kind of
unending physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that makes a person
look like they've been swirled around in circles by their earlobes for
hours before being plunked down at the kitchen table in front of you.
Her life must have been absolute hell. Beginning at age
twenty-five, with three babies in cloth diapers-with the
exception of those times when her mother came to visit-she was
completely isolated for the next two years. There was no family nearby
to lend support, we were poor as dirt, and we lived in the middle of
nowhere. Nor could my mom so much as venture into the nearest town, for
my father took the car with him to both school and work. Throw in a
couple of Minnesota winters where snow literally reached the roof,
subtract my always busy dad from the equation, throw in the unending
whining and crying of babies and toddlers, and even then I'm not sure
it's possible to imagine how miserable she must have been. Nor was my
father much help-at that point in his life, he simply couldn't. I've
often wondered why he didn't get a regular job, but he didn't, and it
was all he could do to work and study and attend his classes. He would
leave first thing in the morning and return long after everyone else had
gone to bed. So with the exception of three little kids, my mother had
absolutely no one to talk to. She must have gone days or even weeks
without having a single adult conversation.
Because he was the oldest, my mom saddled Micah with responsibilities
far beyond his years-certainly with more responsibility than I'd ever
trust my kids with. My mom was notorious for drumming
old-fashioned, midwestern values into our heads and my brother's command
soon became, "It's your job to take care of your brother and sister, no
matter what." Even at three, he did. He helped feed me and my sister,
bathed us, entertained us, watched us as we toddled around the yard.
There are pictures in our family albums of Micah rocking my sister to
sleep while feeding her a bottle, despite the fact that he wasn't all
that much bigger than she was. I've come to understand that it was good
for him, because a person has to learn a sense of responsibility.
It doesn't magically appear one day, simply because you suddenly need
it. But I think that because Micah was frequently treated as an adult,
he actually believed he was an adult, and that certain rights
were owed him. I suppose that's what led to an almost adult sense of
stubborn entitlement long before he started school.
My earliest memory, in fact, is about my brother. I was two and a
half-Micah a year older-on a late-summer weekend, and the grass was
about a foot high. My dad was getting ready to mow the lawn and had
pulled the lawn mower out from the shed. Now Micah loved the lawn mower,
and I vaguely remember my brother pleading with my father to let him mow
the lawn, despite the fact that he wasn't even strong enough to push it.
My dad said no, of course, but my brother-all thirty pounds of
him-couldn't see the logic of the situation. Nor, he told me later, was
he going to put up with such nonsense.
In his own words, "I decided to run away."
Now, I know what you're thinking. He's three and a half years old-how
far could he go? My oldest son, Miles, used to threaten to run away
at that age, too, and my wife and I responded thus: "Go ahead. Just make
sure you don't go any farther than the corner." Miles, being the gentle
and fearful child that he was, would indeed go no farther than the
corner, where my wife and I would watch him from the kitchen window.
Not my brother. No, his thinking went like this: "I'm going to run
far away, and since I'm always supposed to take care of my
brother and sister, then I guess I have to take them with me."
So he did. He loaded my eighteen-month-old sister in the wagon, took my
hand, and sneaking behind the hedges so my parents couldn't see us,
began leading us to town. Town, by the way, was two miles away, and the
only way to get there was to cross a busy two-lane highway.
We nearly made it, too. I remember marching through fields with weeds
nearly as tall as I was, watching butterflies explode into the summer
sky. We kept going for what seemed like forever before finally reaching
the highway. There we stood on the shoulder of the road-three children
under four, mind you, and one in diapers-buffeted by powerful
gusts of wind as eighteen-wheelers and cars rushed past us at sixty
miles an hour, no more than a couple of feet away. I remember my brother
telling me, "You have to run fast when I tell you," and the sounds of
honking horns and screeching tires after he screamed "Run!" while I
toddled across the road, trying to keep up with him.
After that, things are a little sketchy. I remember getting tired and
hungry, and finally crawling into the wagon with my sister, while my
brother dragged us along like Balto, the lead husky, pushing through
Alaskan snow. But I also remember being proud of him. This was
fun, this was an adventure. And despite everything, I felt
safe. Micah would take care of me, and my command from my mother had
always been, "Do what your brother tells you."
Even then, I did as I was told. Unlike my brother, I would grow up doing
what I was told.
Sometime later, I remember heading over a bridge and up a hill; once we
reached the top, we could see the town in the valley below. Years later,
I understood that we must have been gone for hours-little legs
can only cover two miles so fast-and I vaguely remember my brother
promising us some ice cream to eat. Just then, we heard shouting, and as
I looked over my shoulder, I saw my mother, frantically rushing up the
road behind us. She was screaming at us to STOP! while wildly waving a
flyswatter over her head.
That's what she used to punish us, by the way. The flyswatter. My
brother hated the flyswatter.
Micah was unquestionably the most frequent recipient of the flyswatter
punishment. My mom liked it because even though it stung, it
didn't really hurt, and it made a loud noise when connecting with
the diaper or through pants. The sound was what really got to you-it's
like the popping of a balloon-and to this day, I still feel a strange
sort of retributive glee when I swat insects in my home.
It wasn't long after the first time Micah ran away that he did it again.
For whatever reason, he got in trouble, and this time it was my dad who
went for the flyswatter. By then, Micah had grown tired of this
particular punishment, so when he saw my father reaching for it, he said
firmly, "You're not going to swat me with it."
My dad turned, flyswatter in hand, and that's when Micah took off.
Sitting in the living room, I watched as my four-year-old brother raced
from the kitchen, flew by me, and headed up the stairs with my dad close
behind. I heard the thumping upstairs as my brother performed various,
unknown acrobatics in the bedroom, and a moment later, he was zipping
back down the stairs, past me again, through the kitchen and blasting
through the back door, moving faster than I'd ever seen him move.
My dad, huffing and puffing-he was a lifelong smoker-rumbled down the
stairs, and followed him. I didn't see either of them again for hours.
After it was dark, when I was already in bed, I looked up to see my mom
leading Micah into our room. My mom tucked him in bed and kissed him on
the cheek. Despite the darkness, I could see he was filthy; smeared with
dirt, he looked like he'd spent the past few hours underground. As soon
as she left, I asked Micah what happened.
"I told him he wasn't going to swat me," he said.
"No. He couldn't catch me. Then he couldn't find me."
I smiled, thinking, I knew you'd make it.
Excerpted from "Three Weeks with My Brother" by Nicholas Sparks. Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Sparks. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.