Every bereaved parent wonders each year on the would-be birthdays what their child would be become. My son, Andrew, died 39 days before he turned seven. And today on the Fourth of July in 2020, he would have been 24.
I wonder what a 24-year-old Andrew would be like, what things he would like and how he would have loved. When he died, I wrote down a list of things he liked; a list that was tangible and easy to trigger the memories I would someday forget.
It’s easy to make your lost child into an object of perfection; easy to remember how his chubby hands would hold mine, how he cared for his younger siblings in a way that was peculiar at his age, how he thought any time he saw cake it was a party! It’s easier to forget that he never slept well and woke up at 4 a.m. more mornings than not, how he was irritated if I took a new route to a familiar place or how I sometimes got annoyed with the never-ending bouncing balls, that as a result, broke all the glass in my picture frames.
Not only am I a mother of a child who died, I’m the mother of a black daughter and black sons. And although I experience White privilege, I carry the heavy burden of all mothers of black children, worrying about how my children are treated out in the world. I hold my breath until they are safely back home, I hear about Travon Martin and tell them to not wear their hoodies up, I tell them to always comply with police and call me when they get to the station. I tell them to just get home alive.
And I learn. I learn from my daughter that she doesn’t feel she can run down the street without fear someone will think she’s suspicious, that she can’t go into the Walgreens where we are often, and put her hands in her pockets for the same reason. I learn things I would never know TO teach them because I am not always aware of the most basic privileges I have that they realize they don’t.
My former husband and I didn’t adopt them without doing the best due diligence we thought we could. We talked to other families like ours before we made our own, talked to black friends, withstood questions about race from our black adoption worker and our classmates in the adoption class we took, where we were the only white couple in the room.
All our children were babies when we added them to our family. And while they were unquestionably adorable and spirited young children, we rarely got negative looks in public or found our friends uncomfortable with their race.
However, there was the ever-so-subtle changes we weren’t aware would happen. We didn’t know how they would start to be perceived differently as puberty changed their chubby cheeks into angular jawlines. The strangers at stores who cut up with my young kids now pulled their purses closer, locked their car doors as we walked past in parking lot or called police because they didn’t look like they belonged in the neighborhood.
With the current racial reckoning, the Fourth of July is hitting me in an all new way. We have always, even 18 birthdays later, made this day more about Andrew than America. Independence Day only meant freedom for the privileged and my children have never felt they could say the pledge of allegiance sincerely, because they are reminded every day that there is NOT justice for all.
We are still crying out for justice for all–for Breonna, Elijah and a long list of others. As we mourn so many who are only absent because of the color of their skin, I’m pondering in the deepest parts of me, the fantasy-Andrew who would 24 years old today.
Would he have even made it to 24?
Would he have been pulled over or called-on countless times because he was a big man?
At six-years-old, Andrew was over four and a half feet tall and a hundred pounds. His adoption worker called him “juicy” and my mom joked that Shaquille was his birth father. He would always be known by his size, and the America we live in, would see him as a potential threat regardless of his amazing heart. He reminds me of my friend Kiel in so many ways, with a teddy-bear frame and a giant heart for others. Kiel has told me of how acutely aware he is that people see him as a threat because he’s a “big black dude.”
This year, I’m wondering if a grown-up Andrew would have had to constantly tell others his loving heart outweighs his color and size. Even though Elijah was in a slight frame, his sweetness, medical issues and love of people sounded eerily like Andrew. It could have been him, but honestly every mother of black children thinks that with every one of these stories we hear.
Then I think of how Andrew would be processing all these current events. Would his tender heart hurt like the rest of our family? Would it make him more empathetic, or less so? Would it make his heart softer, or colder?
Maybe Andrew IS the lucky one. Perhaps it’s better to not see the people who know you go from thinking you’re adorable and kind to fearing you because of your color and size.
The next time you start to fear a black teen or young man, think about their mamas at home who know their tender heart. The next time you want to call the police on one who doesn’t look like they are in the right neighborhood, remember when he left that day, there’s a mom who quietly whispered, “Just get home.”
Us mamas need you to help by speaking up, by being anti-racist, by checking your bias, by standing against police brutality and by helping our kids just get home.