Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Teaching Our Sons to Walk


There are few things that suck the joy from my soul more than talking on the phone. As an introvert in the cyber age, I find calls taxing, senseless even.

But I always take Robert's calls.

When his name popped up last week, I grabbed it. I was standing in the bathroom covering my dark circles, about to head out and tackle a couple of errands.

"Mom? Can I borrow twenty dollars?"

These calls are not outside the norm, but his heavy breathing was. I could tell he was running.

"I'm at my probation meeting and I left my money in my other pants. I'll hit you back later today. I promise. I got it. Can you please help?"

Of course I could.

"I'm almost there. I gotta hurry. My PO's gonna kill me if I take too long."

~

An hour earlier I had gone looking for my Bible and couldn't find it. I searched all of the usual places. Nightstand? Coffee table? My purse? No, no, no. I ran outside to the van, remembering my hands had been full the night before after Bible study. I had grabbed the empty soup pot, the giant bag of paper goods, and my purse, leaving the Bible on the middle console.

Now, it wasn't there.

I ran inside and called Cory to see if he had borrowed it. No, he didn't have it either.

It hit me that my Bible, with its cover split along the seams, held together by strips of tape, filled with notes and underlines and the picture of my friend out there somewhere strung out and chasing death, had been stolen.

Moving to the city hasn't cured us of leaving our doors unlocked, not even after having several things nabbed overnight - a power tool, a jar of change, a Red Robin gift card we were saving for a rainy day. The drill was the most expensive loss and in each case, it was easy to assume the taker needed whatever it was more than we did. We hardly gave it a second thought.

But my Bible? That one was both easier to swallow, and much, much harder.

~

I was still getting ready when he burst through the door, panting. He bent over at the waist to catch his breath, having run a mile from the courthouse to our front door - his front door, where he knows he never has to knock. He yelled back outside, "You can come in!" then looked at me and shrugged, "I guess he doesn't want to." I still have no idea who was out there, but it's not unusual for him to show up with extras.

We talked for a second about his meeting with his Probation Officer while he clutched the waistband of his baggy, black shorts so they wouldn't fall down around his ankles. Silently, I questioned his choice of attire for this meeting where he already knew he was in hot water. He could have at least tried, I judged.

He was upbeat that day, as usual. But lately, I've noticed a thin layer of paranoia skimming the surface of his mundane, and he's never been one to borrow trouble. It used to worry me, the way he seemed almost oblivious to this world he's very much in, whether he acknowledges it or not. There was the time he laughed it off when he was pulled over five times in one weekend for having a tail light out. He was proud of himself for willingly sitting on the curb while his car was searched without a cause or a warrant.

Last week, after complimenting my hair (just like Silas, he notices these things and I love him for it) he brought up a few stories that had been in the news. He talked politics, which almost never happens. He flexed his hands, open and shut, counting the years since he's been caught up in the system, "I've passed every drug test. I've done everything they want me to do. I just want to live."

Then he kissed my cheek like he always does, drew a sharp breath for the run back, and blew out the door. Ten seconds later, he bolted back in, guzzled a glass of water from the tap, and was gone again.

~

I grabbed my purse moments later and headed out to the van, wondering if I would drive past him and his friend, wondering how fast they ran. I wished I had thought it through and given them a ride.

My purse felt heavier than usual and I peeked inside. Right at the top of the stack of granola bars, chapsticks, earbuds, and old grocery lists sat my Bible. I still have no idea how I missed it when I had checked earlier.

Just as I hopped into the driver's seat, an unfamiliar Jeep with rusted wheel wells pulled up behind me, blocking my path. A stranger approached me, her face set and serious. I rolled my window down.

"Ma'am, are you missing anything from your van?"

I glanced behind me, thought about my Bible. How did she know? It took me a second to reconcile reality. Wait, no one took it. It's right here. 

"Nope," I smiled. "Why?"

"Well, we drove by a couple of minutes ago and saw some very suspicious activity outside your house."

I immediately knew where the conversation was going, but let her continue.

"Two guys were acting very suspicious." She paused, waiting for me to react. Leaning in closer, she lowered her voice, drawing out the next nine syllables. "They were African American."

I swallowed hard, held eye contact. "Yes," I said. "That was my son."

~

If she'd been seated on a ten-speed, her back-pedaling would have set her five miles North in no time flat. She apologized profusely, backing away from my van, ashen.

"They seemed fidgety" she stammered. "They were running."

"Right. They were late for a meeting." I hated myself for offering an explanation. I hated her for stopping. I hated the world, every shaded corner, every block where the truth has been twisted in knots.

Still, I knew her intentions weren't harmful.

I asked if she was a neighbor. I'd never seen her before, and there aren't many I don't at least recognize. I thought maybe she'd slipped under my radar, that she was actively involved here enough to at least think she knew the comings and goings of this place.

No. She was just passing through.

Over and over, she tripped on her own explanations, stopping mid-sentence to weigh each word. All I could think was, "Lady, I get it."

I have been her before, to some degree. This is how insidious racism has become. It has colored the air we breathe. It hangs in the air between the best of us. And I am not immune. But it didn't stop my cheeks from burning. It didn't stop me from forming a long string of words I wanted so badly to level at her. It didn't stop me from sitting there silently, far more graciously than my son deserved, defaulting to the avoidance of conflict and knowing full well that there was nothing I could do to shame her into greater awareness.

For the rest of the day and the days that followed, questions spun on a loop. Would she have circled the block to warn me if Robert and his friend had been white? More middle class looking? Would she have bothered to stop if my house was a little rougher around the edges, like so many of the houses in my neighborhood?

The truth became unavoidable. The guys caught their attention because they were two black men with rippling biceps, locs in their hair, and sagging pants. They dared to run into a pristine, middle-class looking home, then run back out. They didn't fit the frame. They didn't fit her ideal of "safe". They didn't fit me.

My heart couldn't help but take it further.

What would have happened if she had called the police? They'd have seen two men fitting her description running through the streets. What would Robert have done? He has always complied in the past, even when he knew he hadn't done anything wrong. But he was already late to his probation meeting, that day. His neck was already on the line. He was almost there. His PO would help him explain. That's the logic I imagined him constructing. What if he'd kept on running?

My heart stopped cold. What if?

I'm not sure running is safe for a black man anymore, or even a black boy. I'm not so sure it ever was. Yesterday a neighbor sat on my front steps reading a comic book while he waited for me. Just as I pulled up, an officer crept by, coasting more than driving.

I nodded toward the cruiser, "What's going on up there?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "He keeps driving by, looking at me."

~

Later that day, Robert stopped by, just as he had promised. "Mom?" he asked, "what do you think the neighbors think of me?"

He had no clue about the confrontation with the woman in the Jeep. In four years, he has never asked a question like this.

I told him the truth. He's a grown man raising boys of his own. He needed to know.

"It don't surprise me," he shook his head and laughed. Sometimes, in an unfair world, laughter carries the frequency of pain. Some boys learn it's their safest response. "It's like all the sudden, I'm noticing the way people look at me."

My son is under the thumb of an oppressive, messed-up system because of a mistake he made over five years ago. I will go to my grave believing I wouldn't have been punished in the same way for the same crime. But he still has two years to go. And he'd better be perfect between now and then, because people are watching. They're watching his hair, and his clothes. They're watching him drive. They're watching his skin. They're watching him run.

~

A year ago, I set out to pay closer attention to my world. At first, I thought I was just walking my kids to school. But those trips up my street and back down turned into a condensed sort of weekday church, and then they turned me inside-out. Rooted in my unique place, I noticed the boy on the bike, and the one walking around in the middle of the day when he should have been in school. My heart grew heavier, quieter, fiercer. I began to care about different things, read different books, listen in a different way.

I watched as my oldest son became anxious, always teetering on the razor-thin line between proving everyone wrong and breaking under the weight of the pressure.

I listened as my two youngest sons unpacked sad stories of schoolyard bullies, one of them believing along the way that he is "ugly" and "looks funny," the other growing quieter every day.

I thought I might write all of this down, for me, for Robert, for the lady in the Jeep. For you. I thought I might draw parallels to the all-familiar headlines flashing across our screens, each of us choosing sides before the last word loops back to the first.

Instead, I picked up this book and devoured it in two days. I fell into the story, only in my version, Khalil was six foot four and calls me Mom. And in my version, Starr was a young man with tired eyes, code-switching between the world he's always known and the one that exists between these four walls.

A few days later, Jordan Edwards was murdered, and it felt like deja vu.

So, here I am, writing this down, believing all of it matters.
We can waste our time if we want to, trying to decide if Robert is Khalil, or if he's Jordan.

The truth is, he's neither.
The truth is, he's both.

He's my beloved son who makes me proud every day.
He can run into my house whenever he wants to.

He never has to knock.