From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

C. Michele Davis

A Promise to Roxanne

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.

Christina Georgina Rossetti

“Breakfast!” I call and within seconds, the floor above me shakes as feet gallop down the steps. And as I turn, I see the photograph. It’s of the boys sitting with their mother. Her arms are around them. Roxanne, I think, your arms are still around them.

Although my brother Ross was the oldest, Roxanne, the middle one, was always my rock. “Be strong,” she’d tell me after our parents divorced. Somehow, there was something spiritual about Roxanne. Her words of comfort always made me feel better.

Justin was her first child; two years later, Shaun was born. And when I’d watch Roxanne cuddle with them, I’d think, Someday I want to have two boys, too.

But Roxanne’s life wasn’t perfect. She got divorced and I moved in to help so she could go to work and school.

“Aunt Rhonda, watch me!” Justin would cry from his bicycle. And Shaun would crawl onto my lap with his teddy bear. Later, I moved out and into a life of my own. And Roxanne met a man I didn’t care for before finding Tony, who loved her and the boys. To my joy, they married. But something was happening to Roxanne.

“I fell asleep in class today,” she’d say. “And my fever won’t go away.” Finally she went to the doctor.

“It’s advanced AIDS,” the doctor said. A shocked hush fell over the room. Ross and Mom went to embrace her while I stood there shaking in disbelief.

But though Roxanne cried, she didn’t look surprised. That man she’d dated, the one I didn’t like, he had been an IV drug user.

“Don’t cry for me,” she said, “look at all I’ve enjoyed.” Then she turned to me, as if she’d already thought about it. “Rhonda, I want you to take my boys.”

Oh Roxanne, I thought. You won’t die. They’ll find a cure! I went home and cried through the night.

All we told the boys was that their mother was sick. We wanted to spare them the grief for as long as possible. But maybe it was the not knowing that made them angry. It wasn’t long before they started playing hooky. From Roxanne’s window I’d watch them with their new friends, kids you could tell were trouble. “These are difficult years,” I told Justin. “But don’t give in. Remember who you are.” My heart constricted. They’re the sons of a mother who’s dying, I thought.

Then one day while I was away on business, I got a call from Roxanne: “Justin stole a car, and someone gave Shaun marijuana!”

When I raced to her house, Roxanne’s cheeks were wet with tears. “I’m too sick to care for them, and Tony is caring for me. They need you now!”

“Now?” I stood trembling.

“I want them to be good boys,” she wept. “I want them to be fine young men.” I looked into her sad, pleading eyes. She needed me. How could I let her down?

I wasn’t there when Roxanne told the boys that they were losing their mother and would be leaving their home. But in the darkness of my living room, I imagined their tears, and wondered, Can I ever be enough to help them?

I didn’t have time to worry; two weeks later I was awarded custody. Nights were hard, especially after the boys had spent the day with Roxanne. Shaun’s arms would wrap around me and I could feel his tears against my shoulders. “I’m afraid, and I want to go home,” he’d cry.

“It’s okay,” I’d whisper. “Your mom and I love you.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Justin just standing there in his pajamas. He’d told me firmly that he wouldn’t cry.

As Roxanne worsened, I knew I had to be strong for them. “Homework first,” I’d say flipping off the TV. “But Mom lets us!” they’d protest. “No church!” they said. “Yes, church,” I replied.

And though at first they went with long faces, over time, they looked forward to seeing their new friends. There were fewer battles, and visits with Roxanne were calmer. I’d watch as they sat on the bed chatting about school. Roxanne would take them in her arms, and from over their shoulders, her eyes would meet mine and she’d mouth the words “Thank you.”

It was at church that I met Jerry. When Roxanne met him, she must have thought, This man may raise my children. I was thinking the same thing. That spring, he was the one to play ball with the boys when Roxanne was too ill for them to visit. “I asked God for this one more summer,” she told me in June. “It brings me peace to know how their life is going to be when I am gone.” Five days after autumn began, Roxanne joined God.

In the weeks that followed, the boys and I talked about heaven. “She’s our guardian angel,” they’d tell me. And we shared stories about Roxanne. Memories will keep her alive, I’d think.

Soon our tears were replaced with hugs. And the next June, the boys stood at my side as Jerry and I took our vows.

Today, if we’re out and someone says to the boys, “Your parents. . .” I always correct them. “We’re Aunt Rhonda and Jerry,” I say. I could never take Roxanne’s place—and I don’t want to. I just want to raise the boys to be the fine young men she wanted them to be.

“I’m working tonight,” Justin reminds me now at breakfast. He’s sixteen and saving for college.

“Love you,” Shaun says, leaving the table. He’s fourteen and wants to be a marine biologist. I know his dreams may change a million times. But he has dreams!

“Your mom would be so proud of you,” I sometimes say as the boys head out the door. They smile, and in their fresh, confident grins, so full of the promise of life, I see my sister still, and I know she’s watching over them.

We’ve come so far, I think, and I know we’ve never walked alone. God has guided our family. And Roxanne, we all feel your arms around us.

Rhonda Adkins
As told to Carla Merolla
As appeared in Woman’s World

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