“One day he just left.” That was my mother’s answer about the disappearance of Uncle Lance. I remember being around seven or eight years old when my mother explained that she had another brother outside of the six I had grown to love and looked forward to seeing at family gatherings. The only other nugget of information my mom would give was when he left in 1984, he had his heart set on Philadelphia.
Growing up, I would hear my mother talk about and continuously pray for this shadowy figure. A figure I heard about when my mother felt like reminiscing about the life she lived before breaking out of the bleak, alcohol filled cocoon that nearly suffocated her. In retrospect, my mother was really good at rehashing the same minute details she felt were interesting enough for me to carry for when the shadowy figure chose to stay a myth. When mom got tired of waiting on the figure to materialize, she would do internet people searches that forced her to continue to rely on memories. The fact that this figure continuously hovered over family holiday celebrations and gatherings remained unspoken. The golden rule of growing up in a southern family: ignore the looming obvious in public and talk about it with the most trusted sibling; then when another sibling calls, deviate from your own opinion and conform to theirs. It seems to work.
I like to think Uncle Lance left because he had dreams. So I can only imagine the possible starry-eyed ambition Uncle Lance had when he left the small, rustic Georgia town that many of our family members never leave. The kind of town where everyone knows everyone and are rooted with well-known blood lines whether good or bad or “stock” as the family calls it. Uncle Lance had already become a well-known officer in the town; a feat that was unusual for a black man in a small southern town in those days. Once he left for a large metropolis such as Philadelphia, he could shatter the bucolic ceiling and use that idyllic ambition to transcend barriers. However, sizable accomplishments and mammoth sized dreams usually lead to a despairing assassination.
Uncle Lance’s assassination would come in the form of a job termination. The hope as fast as it came was gone. Dream assassination seems to do more harm than the assassination of a human; like the murder of Martin Luther King Junior and his withstanding dream of racial unity. Even after losing his job, Uncle Lance was still determined to leave. This time it wasn’t to ease that idyllic ambition that weighed down so heavily, but possibly to escape the small-town whispers about how he fell from grace. The kind of small town whispers that spread like disease and infect self-esteem and thinking to the point when the knowing stares are exchanged and it’s obvious they know the lurid details as if they have stood outside of a window. The kind of small town whispers that cause irrational decisions such as leaving and never contacting a relative until thirty years have passed.
On a Thursday evening, my mother ran through the backdoor looking for a stable place to sit. The breathlessness, the shouting, and the running would cause me to beg for details about what had happened. “I just heard my brother’s voice for the first time in 30 years!” Though excited and just as happy as she was because her faithful prayers were answered and how the shadowy figure chose to materialize, I couldn’t help but think about that hulking time span. Suddenly, I understood why some people have a fear of missing out and want to languish in every moment. Uncle Lance had missed the rise of two generations, the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the death of a beloved brother. Addiction and more than likely, shame, became the blockade keeping Uncle Lance from contacting the family and held the Beretta to the temple of his dreams. Rehab became an aid in resuscitating the tiny fragment of life he held in his hands. Now as a family, we have to prove that we are willing to stare in the face of grotesque flaws and prove victorious the way Uncle Lance did and make sure family members stay materialized and not engulfed in shadows.