“My brother is in the hospital,” he said simply.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is it serious?”
“Unfortunately, everything is serious when it comes to my brother.” That was true. A run-of-the-mill cold could be near fatal, much less the pneumonia he currently had.
“Tell me,” she pressed again.
He wanted to, but he had to be careful. “If I do, you have to swear that you’ll never tell a single soul what I’ve said. It’s absolutely critical that no one know about this.”
“Okay,” she said. “You have my word.”
Somehow, Julian knew that Gretchen wouldn’t spill his secrets, but he had to put it out there and let her know how serious it all was. “I have an identical twin brother named James.”
“I didn’t realize you had a brother, much less an identical twin.”
“No one knows. I try to keep my life before I went to Hollywood very quiet for my family’s sake. They didn’t ask for this spotlight to be shone on them. And since my brother has so many issues, I’m all the more protective of him.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
Julian sighed. There were so many things. James had never had a chance to live the truly normal life he wanted, no matter how hard they tried or how many specialists they brought in to see him. “My brother has a severe case of spastic cerebral palsy. The doctors said that he sustained some kind of brain injury in utero or during his birth that impaired his ability to function.”
Gretchen didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure if she was surprised by his tale or wanted to let him just get it all off his chest.
“He was diagnosed when we were about two. My mom was in denial, thinking he was just slower to crawl and get around than I was, as though the two minutes older I was than James made that big of a difference. She finally took him to the doctor when she couldn’t ignore the disparity any longer. The diagnosis was devastating, but the hardest part was not knowing how it would fully impact him until he got older. The severity of cerebral palsy can vary widely based on the injury. Some people can live normal, long lives with only a few limitations. My mother hoped for that, but by the time we were getting ready to start kindergarten and his problems became more pronounced, it was easy to see that it was getting harder for her to stay positive. She cried a lot when she thought I wasn’t looking. James was wheelchair-bound and needed constant supervision. He had an aide at school that stayed with him and helped him through his day.
“The medical bills were crippling. Even though my father had a good job at a nearby production facility with solid benefits, it didn’t cover everything. James went through so many surgeries and treatments. Hours of therapy and trips to the emergency room. Cerebral palsy doesn’t get worse, you see. But the complications can. He’d had trouble swallowing and breathing since he was a baby. James nearly choked to death a couple times, and every time cold and flu season came around, we lived like a quarantine facility to keep him from catching anything. Eventually, when he was about ten, they had to put in a tracheostomy tube.
“As we got older, it got harder. James wasn’t a little boy anymore—he was a growing teenager. Simple things like getting him out of his chair and into bed, or giving him a bath, got so difficult. We got a home health nurse to help out when we were in high school, but by the time I went off to college, Mom just couldn’t handle it anymore. He had a really severe bout of pneumonia and he ended up in the hospital. The doctors told us that he needed better care than we could provide, and they recommended we put him in a state facility that was better equipped to handle James’s treatment.”
Finally, Gretchen spoke. “That must’ve been a very hard decision for your parents. Hard on all of you.”
“You have no idea. I’ve lived my whole life with this guilt.”
“Guilt? Why would you feel guilty? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Julian stroked his hand over Gretchen’s soft curls. “I was healthy. I was everything James wasn’t. We were identical, we started absolutely the same in every way, and yet something went wrong—something I could’ve caused before we were even born. It’s very easy to feel guilty.”
“Did the doctors ever say that? Did they ever directly blame you for it?”
He shrugged. “If they did, my mother would never tell me. It wouldn’t matter, though. I was still active and went out with friends and did all the things he couldn’t do. When I went off to college and he went into a state hospital, the disparities were painful. And then my father died my junior year of college. In addition to our grief, we had to cope with the fact that now the family had no income and no insurance. My father’s life insurance policy was barely enough to pay off the mortgage so my mother wasn’t homeless. Something had to be done, so I dropped out of school and moved to LA.”