My eldest son had a classmate, a good friend. We’ll call him Toby. A likable, polite, full-of-fun kid, Toby was around our house often. I didn’t know much about him, save one thing: he lived with his grandparents, not his parents. I believe it was my son who told me that. It was nothing I pursued, but at school occasions I had the opportunity to meet these nice grandparents, where we exchanged pleasantries about our two boys.
One day, as spring break approached, my son was making preparations for a week of Boy Scout camping. Toby was at our house. “Toby,” I asked. “Have plans for spring break?”
He said, “I wanted to go visit my parents, but my grandparents said I couldn’t. So I’m just staying home.”
That gave me pause. I decided I needed to know a little more.
What I learned was not much, but a lot. Via the parents of another of my son’s friends-who knew Ian’s grandparents far better than I did, I learned that Toby’s parents had been divorced, that they lived in different parts of the country, and had been deemed “unsuitable” as parents, and that Toby’s grandparents had been named guardians by a court. That’s all I learned, and it was made clear I would not learn more. I had no particular desire to pursue it.
These circumstances, however, became the basis of my book, Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name. It tells the story of Owen, who lives with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, but runs away to track down his parents in New York City. With the help of a secretive girl, Nancy, a girl with a butterfly tattoo (this was published in 1982) he finds his parents. The results are devastating.
Curiously enough, perhaps a year later, the real Toby did have a chance to visit with one of his parents. As I would learn, what happened was, alas, very much like the plot of my novel. Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, is, I think, the saddest book I have ever written.