[Editor's Note: I intended to write this about a year ago when the original incident happened. I couldn't then, today I am. If you need some insight into why I wrote what I did about the Mike Brown murder, I'd suggest you digest this.]
I had an 18 year old nephew.
Last summer, that 18 year old nephew (technically my second cousin) was gunned down while sitting on the back of a car in Ft. Myers, Florida. The assailant, who snuck up from behind the house and fired shots at the car, intended to shoot my nephew's friend. He accidentally squeezed the trigger at the wrong person, presumably because they both had the same hairstyle. I will not pretend that my nephew was a saint. He was not. He made some poor choices in life and hung with the wrong crowd. But he was attempting to turn his life around, get a job, and complete his GED when this happened.
As I flew to Florida for the funeral, I had to confront a lot of previously unprocessed feelings. I had last spoken with my nephew a few weeks earlier, not long after he'd finished a 6 month stint in the county jail for a crime he actually didn't commit (he was released and his record was expunged after the alleged victim changed his story). He seemed genuine in his goal to move forward, even as the bitterness of a lost half year of his life lingered. He asked me for money to get a driver's license. I said I would, then I got busy with my life and I never got back to him. I felt guilty about this. I felt guilty about a lot of things, actually.
My nephew was my spitting image as a child. He was smart, witty, funny, maybe a little too mischievous, but still, he was my buddy. When I'd take him out with me, people always assumed he was my kid, even though he was my cousin's, by a man I'd only met a couple of times and who bore no resemblance to me. As the years passed, I moved away from NC and saw him less often. His mom moved him to Florida, and I saw him even less. Between the time he was in my wedding as ring bearer (around 5-6 years of age) and the time I last saw him alive (he was maybe a preteen at this point) there wasn't much contact. The occasional phone call (usually for "I got a good report card!" money, which I gave when I could) was about it, until I found out he was in jail. From there, we reconnected, sending smail mail letters back and forth. I tried to encourage him, convince him to change his lifestyle. He gave me a the typical "I got this" brushoff that 17 years olds are apt to give, but some of it sunk in, I'm sure. Or at least I hoped it did.
Reality is, I couldn't do much for him. Physical distance aside, there were other rifts that were too large to bridge. He briefly lived by my brother and his family in Boston, but became such a disruption to the household that they sent him back. In Florida, he had chosen friends unwisely, made typical teenage decisions. The juvie stint wasn't warranted, but he'd done plenty else already to make himself familiar to those in local law enforcement. I would have loved to help my nephew. To get him out of Central Florida and move him to DC. To get him in better schools, with better support, and help him achieve a better outcome. But I have a life of my own, with demands of my own, a family of my own, problems of my own. I could have found time to get him the money for the driver's license. Maybe it would have helped him find a better job, an education, a way out. That, of course, never happened.
When I saw my nephew, in a casket, I barely recognized him. The bright, cheeky kid I'd last seen as a tween was gone. In his place, was someone I didn't recognize. At all. Survivor's remorse enveloped me like a wool blanket. Reality is, I didn't do more to help him. I'm not sure anything I could have done would have helped. But I didn't do enough.
Neither did the local cops, who in an ironic twist of fate, helped the person whom the bullets were intended for flee town for safety, then escorted him back into town for the funeral. And before you ask, yes, the guy whom the bullets were intended for knew who the shooter was. And no, he wasn't talking. And the cops also knew, but because the intended victim (and the others present when this happened) wasn't talking, they couldn't bring in the guy who did it. So I watched, in suspended disbelief, as the nigga who should have been in the casket, got police protection to come to my nephew's funeral. From a logical standpoint, this made sense. If the shooter came back to their original target, you'd want cops there. From any other standpoint, this was fucking insane.
And I couldn't take it. I left the burial, skipped the repast, and went back to my hotel. I couldn't bear the thought that the man who should have been dead (and who could help get the shooter locked up) was going to live, while my nephew's casket was being covered with dirt. Something about that reality was perverse. Disgusting. It made me feel both vengeful and depressed at the same time. It made me hate myself for not trying to do more to help my nephew, even while acknowledging that he was so deep in the lifestyle, so far gone, that nothing I did would I likely spared him the fate he met. Delayed, maybe. Prevent? unlikely.
I have an 18 year old nephew.
He is smart, witty, funny. On rare occasions when he was younger and my wife and I had him out in public, people would often mistake him for my child, which is kinda silly because we are related by marriage. He was also a ring bearer in my wedding, along with the aforementioned nephew.
Some days, when I sit alone with my thoughts, I am absolutely dumbfounded by how much their lives diverged since the only time the two of them met, some 13 years ago. While one nephew is in a grave, the other leaves for college, at my alma mater, to pursue the same degree as his uncle later this week. And I couldn't be prouder of him.
This nephew had advantages my other didn't. A two parent household. A safe neighborhood. Good schools. Constant reinforcement from those around him. I cannot pretend that I had any bearing in how he turned out. I was just his uncle, a guy helped a little at the end, with college applications and visits. That was about it. But in many ways, I feel like it's my son headed to AggieLand this weekend.
I just wish there were two of them.