Look Both Ways: And Other Lessons I Learned Too Late
A story about accidental healing.
“Okay, hold my hand,” I announce exactly ten steps before arriving at the crosswalk. Chloe attaches her middle-child fingers to my hand. My lesson is not complete.
“What happens if you get hit by a car?” I say, polling the teeny audience as the other two tugboats push their mom along.
Rehearsed, morbid answers pour in and we safely arrive on the other side of the street. The midday sun marches us along pristine sidewalks leading to tailored suits, sundresses, beauty supplies and empty stores full of stuff we don’t need but make-believe we do.
“You’ve got your hands full!” A silver-haired passerby cheers me on while I lead our five-person expedition through the Waspy terrain of Southlake town square. I nod and smile, retreating behind sunglasses lest they actually want to stop and talk to me.
Chloe, Caleb and Chandler toddle towards a stone fountain in the center of the park. I say a secret prayer. Thank you, God, for another good day. My kids are safe, healthy and alive.
“What are you thinking about over there?” Alisha asks.
“Nothing, just chilling.”
I lie. I’m thinking about Aja.
I see you. You’re fidgeting in a cranky wooden desk tracing the letters B-R-I-A-N beneath your biology lab notes. You’ll see him at lunch, and, if you’re brave enough or he’s lucky enough, you’ll happen to sit at the same table talking about Tik-Tok and Steph Curry
I know you don’t love basketball as much as your Uncle Bobbie. But since he loves to watch you and says you’re a natural scorer, you’re actually starting to like his new courtside moniker for you: A-Buckets. Besides, hearing your family coach the actual coach while you play is worth every minute of weekend free throw drills.
Your Grandma Peggy’s cheers have become legendary, effortlessly breaking sound barriers in every gym, spelling bee and church service you shine in. “You’re still my baby,” she reminds you. Instead of rolling your eyes, you smile.
Mama is on to you. She suspects you try on her skirts and too-tall heels when she’s away. Mostly, she wishes time would slow down.
Ever since Googling the meaning of your middle name, you decided to like it and even start defending it. “Dakota is not just a state,” you say. “It means friend.” You are a good one.
As I drive past your grandma’s street on Barron Lane, on the way to my parent’s house 7 blocks away, I slow down. A little brown girl with beaming eyes and coiled plaits crosses in front of my car. She waves.
She reminds me of you, Aja. She should be you.
And you remind me of Chloe, my daughter. She’s almost the same age as you were 5 years ago.
“What time do you want to head out?” Alisha asks, bringing my brain back to the park bench. The little people have managed to plop around the park without a fall, fight or meltdown so she doesn’t want to overstay our welcome.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I reply to Alisha. Immediately, her built-in chaperone voice interrupts the playtime to start a countdown to our exodus. We say “You have 5 minutes,” which roughly translates into “whenever we feel like it.”
I pretend to relax. I have never met a relaxed Black man but I imagine he plays golf, wears his pants above his waist, takes pride in mowing his own lawn weekly and gets his spinal cord aligned monthly.
I went to a chiropractor once. He told me to relax my body and I realized I didn’t know what that even meant. Alisha and the kids go all the time. They call it “popping the popcorn in your back.” They will grow up knowing foreign feelings like relaxed, safe, secure and protected.
Alisha is beautiful. Her caramel tone and black curls frame a smile that became a lighthouse 14 years ago when we first started dating. I was broke and broken. She didn’t fix me or always know the right things to say but she stayed close and never left.
She tells me I’m good with words and always know what to say. Someday, maybe, I’ll admit it’s because words have a way of sheltering me from what I don’t want to think about. I say happy things that make her smile. Funny things that make the kids laugh. Exciting things that make me forget.
We round up the kids, reattaching our hands like harnesses as we leave the park. “Look both ways,” I command, even though no cars are near. Just in case.
Alisha is strong. She reminds me of Tia, a mother braver than any mom should ever have to be.
You probably don’t remember me but I’ll never forget you.
Like sunrise, your daughter’s eyes are following me around, dropping into my Facebook feed and TV screen.
In a better world, I would not know her name. In a safer world, we would never have spoken.
In a world where cars don’t race down residential streets because they know the smallest souls are the ones holding our hearts together like velcro…
In a world where prayers and praise dances were enough to protect us from missing stop signs and speed bumps…
In a world where happily ever after is not a fantasy and the flowers at your wedding are tossed by your youngest daughter…
In a world where she is an 8th grader with middle school crushes, choir rehearsal and basketball games…
In a world where your baby girl still wants to dress, walk and be just like you…
In a world where Aja is 13 years old in real life, not only in my imagination…
That’s the world I want for you because it’s the one I so desperately need for myself.
You probably don’t remember me.
I’ll never forget you.
Blame it on the juice cleanse. Like the accident that will change Tia’s life by taking Aja’s away, talking to Tia that day was a mistake. Day 3 is walloping my willpower like a category 5 storm and I desperately need real food.
Apparently, I also need a new wife since only Delilah would talk her man into foregoing solid food for 5 days straight in favor of pressed juices that cost more than prime rib.
I am not myself. This newfound yet temporary vulnerability penetrates the force field of my productivity long enough to do something profound. Pay attention.
Any detox worth sharing on social media should also be accompanied by something Christianish for maximum return on religious investment. So I also journal and read the Bible every day. I decide this is how I will start to live like Jesus.
Replace my junk with Jesus, I write. Shape my heart for your people, your plan and your purpose. That’s TD Jakes-level alliteration right there! This is great. I continue writing, “Transform me. I don’t want or need to be the same.”
I pray for Dad and his church.
I pray for Alisha. She told me to pray for her balance and motherhood. I try but mostly I end up thanking God for blessing me with a sexy butler. Lord, thank you for Alisha and all she does (for me). Lord, give her strength to keep going (for me).
I pray for Caleb. God, heal him from his sickness. Pronto would be nice.
I pray for Chloe. Lord, I pray for her progress in potty training. If God doesn’t come through I’m going to bribe her with suckers and milk chocolate.
I pray for my job. Lord, I know I need to be doing more for your kingdom. Not more selling tequila, rather, more talking about Jesus while I’m selling tequila.
On Facebook, I see a family is hurting. On TV I spot a neighborhood in crisis, collapsing under the weight of a smile they will only see in pictures. They all wear purple, Aja’s favorite color, and sing “This Little Light of Mine” in the street where hers dimmed that day.
Aja, her brother, and her cousin were playing outside Grandma Peggy’s house. She was in the garage, close enough to hear but too far to help. Oak trees, perched on green lawns, climb up to the clouds in front of rows of ranch houses. Sidewalks are absent on the 50-year-old streets of Harmony Hills so this spring break the patchy concrete doubles as a play space and running trail.
Lyn, Peggy’s neighbor, is out for a Tuesday afternoon jog.
Aja rides her scooter, more like a ballerina than a daredevil. Push, push, glide.
The kids play chase. Push, push, glide.
A white car races through the street — much too fast yet a happening all too familiar. Vroooom.
Neighbors shake their heads.
The kids get back to scootering. Push, push, glide.
Another car is coming after the white one.
No one hears it.
No one sees it.
And the driver doesn’t see Aja.
The driver of the black Dodge Charger doesn’t even stop to help after hitting her body at 60 miles per hour, tossing a lifetime of talent, dreams and memories into the pavement. They run away.
Lyn runs back. She moves faster than ever.
She tries CPR. She tries to save her.
But Aja is gone.
Her brain dies before her body does. Two hours later Tia will have her daughter taken off life support to begin a new life with her heavenly Father.
Grandma Peggy cries daily, haunted by both the sound of the crash and the symphony of silence that comes after.
The driver who left her lifeless in the street is still free, even after being located and questioned by police. Aja’s family has forgiven them. The Fort Worth Police Department says they will treat this investigation like “it was their own child.” I would hate to be their kid.
Aja’s smile still glows from afar like light from other suns. I keep seeing her face.
What do I do?
I pray. I pray for a family I don’t know. And for myself. I pray afraid of living in a world where little girls are plowed over in the street without justice.
I pray for a little girl whose face I can’t forget. Lord, comfort and sustain her family.
I try to sit with the sadness but I can’t. I must fix it. God, I should pay for the funeral.
No family should have to plan a funeral for a child, let alone pay for one. God, give them your presence. Walk with them. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Jesus must have thought I said talk with them, as in, Adrian should talk with them.
God is about to make his first mistake.
Walking through the soundless halls of Spencer Funeral home, it feels like being in a school building during summer break. I shouldn’t be here. It’s awkward. I see offices and slacks and desks and papers. I remember a funeral home is also a business. The red bricks and white columns outside disguise the death inside.
The funeral director is pleasantly professional. I always imagined funeral people to be creepy cartoonishly tall folks who don’t smile. She produces the paperwork for the funeral and verifies the total amount. As I struggle to write the numbers in word form as required on paper checks, I’m sure to confirm the most important thing.
“This will all be anonymous, correct?” I confirm. She nods in assurance. Proudly, I shake her hand. God has blessed me to be a blessing. God is good.
Satisfied, I drive back home, to drink beet juice and answer emails.
Until the call comes.
“Hello? This is Adrian…” I sputter. Phrases fumble out of my paralyzed lips faster than my mind can catch them. How did she get my number?
“Hey, this is Tia, Aja’s mother.” I want to leave my body. Or find a fast-forward button.
“I’m blessed to know she’s with Jesus.” Her faith echoes in my ears.
“I know where my baby is.” How is she… so strong?
“There was just so much blood.” I can fix this.
“They tried to save her…” I must say something so powerful it heals her heart…
“But I knew she was gone.” Or so uplifting she forgets it’s broken.
What do I do?
Pacing a pothole into my driveway, my feet finally plant. I remember to breathe. I can not leave my body. There is no fast-forward button for this scene I worked so hard to avoid. Lord, help me.
What do I do?
“Tia, I don’t know you but I mourn with you. Even though we don’t know one another you’re my family and I’m praying for you,” I reply. My words blur into platitudes from some sermon I heard one Sunday as we worshipped a God who ensures conversations like this don’t happen. Inside, I hear a pop. It was the pride balloon I had so skillfully inflated after writing that check.
Tia thanks me for the support. She invites me to meet her at the funeral I have no intention of attending. We swap goodbyes and God bless yous. Tears tidal wave down my swollen face.
It’s not fair. I’m walking back into a house to hug my two kids the same week Tia buries one.
What do I do?
As I open the back door I close my eyes. For the first time in a long time, I see truth.
I was the comforted. I was the poor in spirit. I was the hungry and thirsty. I was the mournful. Tia’s sermon to me was more powerful than the hundreds I heard comfortably in a padded pew.
I thought paying for the funeral would comfort her family but it was also a way to maintain a safe following distance from the heavy load of their loss.
I want to help without experiencing hurt. Soothe without touching. Cure without feeling what she felt. I can’t get close to the pain that lies beyond my perception. I can’t replace the past so I try to repair it. I put a down payment on the peace I want for her, mainly because I need it myself.
I can’t face a world where daughters die before their dads do.
I want a painless faith.
Then along comes Jesus bringing pain closer. Right there, tethered to Tia’s grief, was his strength. His healing hand held her tighter than mine ever could. Paying for Aja’s funeral was certainly an act of kindness, but it was no more sacred than Tia calling me to share her faith, inviting me closer to her.
She blessed me more than I imagined I could bless her. It wasn’t my job to be Jesus. All I could do was need him, trust him. All I knew was this: He was as close to Tia’s tears as mine. And he was there all along.
So what do I do now?
I look both ways.
I try to spend less time praying for people and more time praying with them.
I try to stop living like I am Jesus and start living like I need him.
I try to say portable prayers that show up at funerals.
I try to grip the withered limb instead of just praying for it.
I try to hand out hugs to the dazed yet hopeful pregnant teenager.
I try to say I love you to the heart who’s always known they love differently.
I try to pray with the guy who realizes his version of Black manhood is a myth.
I don’t try to earn anything but I know Jesus gave everything.
I no longer think I’m special, I know I’m special. Just as special as everyone else.
Instead of using money or work or busyness or status to stay distant, I try to use love to be awkwardly, uncomfortably and courageously present. I mess up. I’m a much more clumsy Christian but I stay close. I try.
I am not the blessing. Neither is anyone else.
We are the blessing. Together.
My kids still hold my hand as we cross the street. My eyes still scan horizons as they ride scooters, bikes and skateboards around the neighborhood. When they fall off I still run over.
Soon we will drive, slowly, past the purple memorials and patchy concrete on Barron Lane. I will stop and tell my kids this story. I won’t lie and say I’m fine.
We will talk about who Aja was and where she is now, not just what happened. They will ask me what I did to help. Then I will tell them everything Tia taught me on the call that wasn’t supposed to happen.
And maybe, on that same day, as I reach up to hold my Father’s hand while I’m walking, they will do the same.