Showing the Way

By Wil Haygood
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Imprisonment, addiction, overdose, scandal: It is all there in one family's cursed lineage. But so is the love that could keep an innocent boy from sharing that fate

He is but a child, and I've always loved seeing the child, the little boy, rocket up and out of him. He'll challenge me on a basketball court, all three feet of him.

"Show me what you working with, Uncle Wil," he'll say, sweet and cocky.

I laugh, and I melt.

He'll dare me to a footrace, then take off.

This boy, this child, makes me wistful for fatherhood, awed by it. I've never had children. I've thought that being an uncle and a surrogate father figure would be enough -- in fact, all I could handle. When my grandfather, who raised me, was dying, he told me there was something he wanted me to do for him: take care of his sprawling, tortured family, filled with traumas and substance abuse. I took it to heart. I'd introduce girlfriends to my nieces and nephews -- the children I was helping to raise through all the troubles. It was a test: She had to adore them. It was also a warning: My family line is fragile; I must do all to keep the young ones marching forth. They come first.

Of course, in time, the months on the calendar turn and turn. The children grow. The uncle is left with pictures, memories. But, in a given moment, to love a child seems a forever thing. At such moments, time becomes an ally.

SO HERE WE ARE, ANDRE AND ME, licking at ice cream cones on a Columbus, Ohio, sidewalk, then finishing them, then eyeing each other and the car, across an expanse of grass. We know what we know: Man and little boy will race, as we always do, jetting away from each other, yelling with laughter and intensity. We're gone, through the air, and I pray that the little boy ahead of me doesn't trip, scar himself. He doesn't, but when we come to a stop, he bends in sharp distress. The air, the damn air, won't get into his lungs.

I hover. I want to breathe fresh air into him, to cure him once and for all. Instead, all I can do is kneel, eye to eye with him, to make sure he is okay as he sucks on his sky blue asthma inhaler. It is a malady, sure enough, and it pains me because it seems so much more awful than the memories of my little-boy stutter, when words slammed shut on my tongue, and my stomach tightened, and people stared.

I wonder how he copes, how he climbs. Everyone has hills to climb, even when the landscape looks flat. I take hold of his hand.

ANOTHER MOMENT, ANOTHER MONTH, and I am all tensed up. Andre is "lost" in the mountains of Colorado with Billy, my sister Wonda's boyfriend. Hasn't been heard from for 12 hours. He had been visiting Wonda in sunny California. Now, Andre and Billy are headed east in Billy's beat-up car. The money for plane tickets was spent on something else. My sister -- a quote-unquote recovering drug addict -- grows angry when questioned over the phone. "Just let me handle this," she snaps at me, sounding stoned.

I am poring over a big map, wondering which airport I'll have to jet into to begin my search for Andre. Lord only knows where he'll end up. Wonda had said Billy might make "some stops." My mind races on: Maybe issue an Amber Alert, advises another sister. Then, finally, Billy's voice, from just over the Colorado border: "Man, we're fine. What's all the fuss about? They know I ain't going to let nothing happen to this boy. Andre, here, take the phone. Your uncle Wil wants to talk to you."

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