My cousin recently returned home after 18 years in prison.
I have to admit for me it was like looking at photographs of people you used to know but weren't really sure how you and they got along but your sure you missed them but just not enough to dwell on it because your sure it would be kinda painful.
He missed a lot of goings on in our family...his father's sudden illness and funeral, weddings, birthday parties, baby showers, births, family reunions, group pictures, arguments, graduations, house warmings, cell phones, LCD television, XBox, Spiderman, Christmas dinners but most of all he missed us.
During his time away from us he became more of a fabled account of my Uncle & Aunt's oldest baby than a "real live boy".
Mentioned less and less at gatherings as the years went by until he was someone we'd all known but didn't really know at all anymore.
We missed a lot because we didn't want to remember.
It would begin uncomfortable conversations and finger pointing about church, family dynamics, personal responsibility, fathers and sons, right and wrong and we'd never get beyond what used to "normal" for us.
For his sisters he lived in their versions of everyday life that re-occurred whenever they looked around their childhood and thought about what was missing. They filled in the gaps others of us let fall away because they were reminded of him when they ate, graduated, had birthdays or new babies, got married, fought with significant others, needed protection or just a male presence.
They told his son stories about growing up and how he played drums at church, reminded him that he "looked exactly" like his father when he was that age. They told him what to avoid and not to let "it" bother him that he was miles away when the bad days took over the good ones.
My cousin was shrouded I guess in this cloak of anonymity and restlessness young men cling to when trying to find themselves and their place. He wanted to prove to himself and his mother that his choices were valid and he was ok on his own. She needn't worry so much he was just fine. But we all knew she didn't believe him.
Like any mother who loved her first born in a way only she can, his mother stood beside him and tried to hold on tight. She prayed and she pleaded with not just god but her husband and her son. She intervened and took the good times as signs of better things to come instead of intermissions of inevitable challenges he faced.
I don't remember much about that time except hushed tones and late night phone calls and car rides I wasn't invited on. "Children" in my family stayed in their place.
But I saw the sadness in my aunt's eyes even when she smiled and how she praised the lord a little more loudly than was necessary whenever his name was mentioned. Over the years she came to terms with everyone's part of the puzzle and she became more reflective than tearful after then. But his life lessons made her thankful, strengthened her faith and pulled her children closer in ways she hadn't expected.
Being broken doesn't mean you can't be whole.
My grandmother never says much, she holds her pain in quiet, somewhere along the line we just never asked. But we knew she kept in touch, shared herself with him in ways we could never exhibit.
We stood by and let our lives move in too many directions that didn't know how he fit in.
My cousin missed so much by not being in the center of everything and we moved on, lingering in stories that someone else remembered better than we did. He was always somewhere but just outside where we could see.
My cousin wasn't dead, it might have made it easier to talk about him if he was but instead he was missing from our lives and we sort of forgot about him. Not intentionally and most definitely without malicious intent. we simply kept living and forgot to look at the pictures so that we could recall the moments where he fit in. We selfishly refused to regret not making room for him.
When an unfamiliar voice asked me if I knew who this was. I did, without hesitation but I didn't want to offend someone by accident and have to apologize for not remembering them, they were excited. But I accidentally hung up the phone and scrambled to reconnect because I didn't want him to think I didn't care.
I'd heard he was home and I was feelin some kinda way that no one had let me know, but in that moment I didn't care, my cousin was home and I was ok with just that.
When he confirmed who he was, I screamed.... I know I hurt his ears cause I hurt my own, but I didn't care because suddenly 18 years had melted away and I no longer had to wonder how he was, I could ask him myself.
We tried to close the gap much too quickly and stuttered through words and talked over one another rushing through catching up.
Then he told me something that took me by surprise...he missed my mom. Unbeknownst to me, for years she had sent him photographs (names filled in and family details etched in letters), family newsletters, money, love and encouragement. For a moment we felt like crying but we didn't, we just went silent a bit and started over.
I told him our family wasn't the same, we were fragments of our former lives, he just laughed and said confidently that it would better now because he was back...I wanted to believe him.
I wanted years back but I have issues with denial I'm working through.
Suddenly, I was remembering Christmas's and family barbeque's with him in it. I didn't dwell on what hadn't been and he told me about discovering the internet. It was awkward but it felt good to be cousins again.
After it was over and I had the chance to let it all sink in, I felt like those women I used to laugh at when I was little.
The one's who live deep down south who sat on the front porch spittin' into jars and schucking corn. The one's who remembered past way back when. Who knew all the children's children and who raised them. They reminisced about lies somebody told and when there was that time so and so's eldest baby boy who had done this and that...they wondered how he was getting on now....if he still looked like Daddy's cousin, had his Momma's smile, his Dad's temper and if he was ever coming back. Never once missing a beat as they rocked back and forth in the evening summer heat.
I felt like that for a while...it felt really good to just rock and remember this one or that time. For a few minutes in my mind I didn't have to miss my cousin....he was just fine.
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