washingtonpost.com
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."

HOW TO SAVE A CHILD who is loved by the same people who loved you, the same people who -- perhaps unwittingly and unaware -- laid their shadows and growing demons in your path? And who are now unleashing some of those furies upon the child? But, oh, how they love little Andre.

I am talking of the flood of destiny and existence, of being.

Growing up, I fished and camped out in the woods of northern Ohio. I was a Boy Scout. At home, my grandfather hovered over me and gave stern lectures when I acted up. I had tall uncles who would not tolerate me doing wrong against right.

It is so very different for Andre.

I hate -- and wish there were a stronger word -- that little Andre has heard gunfire. That -- not long ago -- he saw his mother cry, because of the bullets that killed Mike, her boyfriend. Mike made me nervous, but little Andre loved him, wanted to take on his killers and avenge Mike.

Little boys, of course, will find love where they can.

And tough guy Mike, Andre's mother just knew, adored Andre.

EARLY LAST YEAR -- when Andre was 9 years old -- he hopped into a car in our home town of Columbus. Climbed into the back seat, as if he were being chauffeured. The driver was his 13-year-old cousin -- who had swiped his dad's car keys -- and was taking little Andre for a joy ride. Off they went, around the block, through the sunshine, and, boom, a headlong crash into the side of a house. Andre bounced in place like a rubbery mannequin: He had remembered to buckle up. An ambulance was called, mothers wailed on the way to the hospital.

Andre's mother, Fashun, was on the phone: "Uncle Wil. Andre has . . . Uh. Andre's been in a car accident. He's all right, though."

I was furious; I wanted to blame the whole lot of my family, the criminals and the substance abusers, well-meaning siblings whose intentions have so often led to mayhem and lunacy. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, prison, death from drug overdose, financial scandal: It is all there, bleeding from beneath the skin, bad decision upon bad decision, one family's cursed lineage. I used to imagine things would change. That crooked roads would straighten themselves out, that looking down on the grave of a beloved grandfather, the patriarch, would make the wayward right themselves. But the storms kept coming. In a small room in Boston one afternoon, a family counselor stared me in the eye and said: It is what it is. Move on.

But when there's a child, you ache. How can you move on and leave a child to face the dark twists of family history alone?

This time Andre was okay. He was in his hospital bed, right next to his mom, who was looking down on him, talking to me. He was awake. I told my niece to put Andre on the phone.

"Hi, Uncle Wil."

It was the voice of a little boy who knows he has done something very wrong -- hollow and jittery. And that voice made me shrink inside myself, because usually Andre is full of little-boy bravado. He sounded scared.

"You must never" -- and then I caught myself; I needed to be comforting and soothing. I'd lecture him later. I told him I loved him, told him to put his mom back on the phone, threw detective-like questions at her: Where were you? Why did he get in the car?

Andre would be okay, she huffed over my questions, then said she had to go. Enough of me. Click.

Only he wasn't okay. But he was lucky: A doctor found something that would have otherwise gone unnoticed: a cyst on his brain. There would be brain surgery.

Let potential tragedy come to a child, and clocks will stop ticking. Rivers will dry. We turned on heels with anguish, and learned searing lessons: Mike, the doomed tough guy, the criminal, was steadfast, there like a soldier alongside Andre.

Andre came through surgery fine, his head swelling terribly. No more football, the doctors said.

Andre went about recuperating. He played games with his mom and Mike, who slept in the bedroom next to Andre.

THEN JACK, MY FATHER, GOT SICK.

I went home to Columbus last June. His grave situation had worsened. For some reason, I couldn't face going to the hospice alone to see Jack. So I took little Andre. We glided along the gleaming halls of the hospice to Jack's private room. Once inside, Andre searched it, poking his head into the closet, as if spies were hiding. "When you gonna drive your car again, Grandad?" he asked Jack.

"Oh, I don't know," my father said. "I hope soon."

Watching them, Andre, full of life, and Jack, losing life, it seemed as if I were floating, between the things done to a child, and the things done to save a child.

Jack died 2 1/2 weeks after that visit. I had never lived with him. He drank, often found the truth a hard road to traverse, and fathered another family. But I know this: He had loved Andre and loved him fully, grinning at that boy as he circled my father's shaded porch, zooming past Jack into my outstretched arms.

So Jack is gone.

And for some reason, after he died I needed Andre to come see me, to come to Washington for the first time. He had been engulfed, encircled by so much death and dying, and I worried about him.

Is it too much to wish to stand tall before a child? To save that child from the clinging sweetness of family, the prying, the ill-conceived decisions; from the laughter that holds secrets, the secrets that point toward calamity?

Is it too much to want to breathe air into a child's lungs?

MY NIECE FASHUN was born in 1976, the year I graduated from college. A year later I was living with my grandparents, on the north side of Columbus. My daily routine was simple: I'd rise early, catch the bus and go fill out job applications. Civil service, gas company, phone company, everywhere and anywhere it seemed. For months no one called. I made half-serious inquiries about joining a semiprofessional basketball team.

My grandmother baby-sat Fashun, and everyday, late afternoon, Fashun would be at the back door, waiting for me to come home. Her walk was more a waddle, and she'd rush into my arms. There was no other moment of the day that gave me such joy.

I bounced her on my knee. I read books to her. In the evenings, I'd stay with her when my sister Wonda and her boyfriend -- Fashun's father, Butch -- roared off in his red Corvette, both behind sunglasses, headed to some nightclub. I didn't care if they ever returned. I would care for baby Fash forever.

Nothing excited Fashun more than going to Weinland Park playground. There were swings and monkey bars and slides. I'd scoop her into my arms, and off we'd go three blocks through the sunshine. Once, she came down the slide fast, and I was there to catch her. She quickly pushed herself out of my arms and circled to the back of the slide to climb the stairs again. Only she tripped and fell. I turned her over in an instant. Blood gushed from her lip. I gasped and bolted with her in my arms, her lip swelling. I was filled with terror, though the child was eerily quiet. I crossed Fourth Street, holding my arm upright, stopping traffic cold. I turned into the alley, her blood now on the shoulder of my shirt, and nearly stumbled through the screen door. We had to get her to the hospital. Hold on, Fashun, Uncle Wil will save you.

A grandmother's calm: Medicines were pulled from a cabinet. Just a swollen lip.

It happens to children, my grandmother explained.

I took Fashun to the Ohio State Fair and rode the kiddie rides holding on to her, tight. I roamed with her through the agriculture buildings, and we stared at the chickens, at the pigs. We watched horses jump in the shows. And, afterward, I held her out to touch the noses of horses. She squealed with wonder and delight.

Wonda is my twin sister. Maybe that is part of the reason I feel as close to Fashun and Andre, her daughter and grandson, as blue to sky. Wonda began showing up late to pick up Fashun. Her eyes were bloodshot, movements antic. She would sweep in, snatch a piece of chicken from the stovetop, hoist Fashun and bolt for the door. She had become a drug addict. It was hard for me to be surprised: In ninth grade, coming home from the end-of-school formal dance, sitting in the back seat of the taxi, my sister grew dizzy, then slumped into unconsciousness. At the emergency room, they pumped the drugs out of her stomach. She was all of 14. Through the years there would be hopeful interludes, but the alligator has really never unfastened itself from her neck.

THE PHONE CALLS reached me in Boston, where I worked then: Wonda hasn't been seen in days; you must come home to Columbus. So I would -- to check on Fashun, to find Wonda slumped over, to suggest this or that rehab center.

Through the years there have been so many rehab stints that they blur now. During one stint she was making progress. She swore to everybody she'd get it together. Then staff members caught her behind a tree of the rehab center, smoking a joint, and booted her off their premises.

She threatened suicide.

Only she didn't do it, because she'd gotten sober, was going to go back to school, was going to become a drug counselor. Only she didn't become a drug counselor.

Because, high again, she was threatening suicide, again.

I once stood in the bushes as a SWAT team (fearful for Fashun, I had dropped a dime on Wonda) was getting ready to storm my sister's house and rescue my niece. Men were inside with guns strapped. They were arrested; my sister wasn't. Fashun had been upstairs, locked away in a bedroom -- a terrible life for a child, which is why I had flown home and asked the police what to do.

But, in spite of all of it, Fashun soared in Catholic school, and when it was time for her to go away to college, we all pitched in. All the while, our weekly phone conversations would end the same way:

I love you.

Love you, too, Uncle Wil.

I lectured her about partying, about boys.

Back in Columbus that summer, she became pregnant and never returned to school. I was saddened but couldn't feign surprise. The women she loved, looked up to -- my sisters, her aunts -- were all single mothers with children. Time for blankets, baby clothes, pillows, help with bills. Not recrimination.

But secretly, I thought: little Fashun, a mom, a single mother. Jesus.

I chuckled when I first saw Andre, and then laughed when I ran through toy stores with him, hearing him call my name:

"Uncle Wil, Uncle Wil, can I get this?"

We carried toys taller than Andre through the malls.

We slid down the huge yellow slide of the Ohio State Fair. Just as I had done as a boy. And we watched the little chicks in the agriculture building. We waved at the cowboys and cowgirls on their horses inside the coliseum. And we pointed at each other's greasy faces as we gobbled into corn on the cob.

Fashun found a job in banking. She got a car. She started taking on the ways and habits of my sisters: Friends from her past who were shifty remained friends. Around me they sometimes talked in whispers, as if in code. Her girlfriends were young, many with babies. Babies making babies, went the song lyric.

When I left Andre off at home, it was in a neighborhood where the flashy rides and sharp clothes belonged to criminals.

It was bad enough that he had heard gunfire of gangs warring. There would come telltale signs in little Andre's life that worried me. He wanted a pit bull. And he wanted a pit bull because bad characters in his neighborhood had them; he had seen pit-bull fights across fenced yards. He began singing out those hateful rap lyrics, only to be censored by me, his mom, his uncle Tony before he reached song's end. I didn't expect him to wear preppy attire, but the rap clothes -- baggy sweat suits, the billed cap at a raffish angle -- seemed too much the mimicry of a DMX, an R. Kelly, rappers in the headlines for the wrong reasons. He gets the lectures, but he wants to be a little boy; he will be a little boy. Curious, a little rebellious.

Show me what you working with, Uncle Wil.

In school, Andre seems on the cusp of believing in himself and books, but his hold on the future is still fragile. Not many months ago, I sat across from his elementary school principal. She told me of Andre "acting out," sometimes becoming temperamental on the school bus.

I made calls to St. Charles Preparatory School shortly thereafter, without Fashun's knowledge. It is an old prep school in Columbus, set back and beyond a field of grass. It looks almost baronial, and when I was growing up I'd sometimes roll by the school and gawk. It was mysterious, off limits for kids like me. I hatched an idea to have Andre go to St. Charles. I talked to counselors there. I got him put on a list to receive literature, and I found out about open houses. When I told Fashun, she balked. "I don't like it over there," she said, and I pressed for an explanation. She mentioned the cost; her bank salary is already stretched thin. I said I'd pay. She mentioned the racial makeup -- overwhelmingly white. I told her he'd be welcomed with open arms. Maybe she thought he'd been through too much in recent months. Maybe she simply wanted him near her, in her familiar world. The unknown, of course, can frighten.

She said she'd consider it. But, for now, the answer was no.

THE MEN IN LITTLE ANDRE'S LIFE:

We call his father big Andre. He's short and compact. Once he hit Fashun, and

little Andre, 4 years old at the time, rolled toward him like a bowling ball. A boy will try to save his momma. Big Andre left.

His uncle Juan -- my sister Geraldine's son -- is in and out of jail. Once on a drug charge, another time on a child-support charge. Around my friends, especially my white friends, Juan likes to mention having read The Autobiography of Malcolm X -- "while I was away." He makes it sound like he was away on vacation, in Rio; he really means the Orient Correctional Institute, not far from Columbus.

Harry, my brother, is a ne'er do well, a one-time resident of Los Angeles's Skid Row, off and on heroin for two decades now. He is mostly estranged from his own children, but he loves little Andre in bunches. Last year he gave Andre a $50 bill. Andre looked at it quizzically, and simply handed the thing to a nearby adult.

Harry is the second of my mother and father's five children. First Diane, then Harry, then Geraldine, then me and Wonda.

In the summer of 2002 Geraldine, 49 years old, died: It was an overdose. They found her body in a drug house.

Two years earlier I had stopped responding to Harry's pleas for money; he said he needed it to get "straight" before the heroin killed him. I'd send the money, but he never got straight. And then I stopped.

Three siblings. Three alligators.

At Geraldine's funeral, Andre sat on Fashun's lap, staring at his lifeless aunt. He sat so very quietly, the rambunctious little boy refusing to rocket up and out of him. I watched him, and worried.

I can still see Geraldine climbing the steps of my mother's house, a bundle of clothes in her arms, little-boy clothes.

"These are for Andre."

My mother, lifting the clothes, a scowl already forming. "Geraldine, you know darn well that boy is too big for these things."

But love was in Geraldine's madness. She had come down off her drug high, rushed out to scavenge the Salvation Army stores, grinning as she picked at the bundles of used clothing with more love than sense. And that is what must give families hope. That the sibling will snap out of it. That the alligator will drown itself and leave the human we know and love to us, whole and pure again.

After the services, family members -- including my mother, now in her seventies -- gathered on my father Jack's porch. I was out of sight, but within earshot, when Sonny, Geraldine's ex-husband, came looking for me.

"Harry, where's Wil?" Sonny asked.

Beer in hand, tan suit falling from his wispy body, Harry took a gulp of beer: "I ain't got no brother," he said.

Andre was nearby. Heads swiveled.

Sometime later, Harry was on the phone from California, regaling me with the story of his having given Andre a $50 bill. "I love that little dude. He cracks me up," Harry said.

Love love love everywhere. So much love it hurts.

I wondered if Harry was going to his methadone treatments.

"Hell, no," said Wonda.

And then there is Tony, my sister Diane's son. He is a wonderful soul. He doesn't drink or smoke. Same as me. We've seen too much carnage. He spends time with Andre, loves him dearly. But he is busy, so busy, working full time and then rehabbing houses on the weekend. I wondered why he was working so hard. I once asked if he was in debt, if he needed financial help.

"Oh, no, no, I'm fine," he said.

I didn't pry. He's only made me proud through the years.

A FEW YEARS AGO, I was knocking on the door of Fashun's apartment on the east side of Columbus, and I found myself staring at boyfriend Mike sitting on the couch, his arms wrapped around my niece as if I had come to spirit her away. Andre was at football practice. Mike didn't work, but, presto, there was a brand-new TV he had brought into the house, sitting on a stand, new as new. A gift for Fashun and Andre; anything for them.

"Uncle Wil, this is Michael."

"Hey, man," said Mike, nodding up at me. Then he went silent.

Wonda told me that Andre was crazy about Mike, but Andre sometimes had nightmares; he needed to sleep with his mommy, but Mike was in the bed with his mommy, so he couldn't.

When I was 10, I saw a Bette Davis movie, "Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte," at the Garden Theatre in Columbus. The movie was about a recluse, who may have murdered someone years earlier, and who lives in a dilapidated and spooky manse. I have no idea why I was allowed to see it. It scared me terribly, but I lost the rush of fear waltzing home, cutting through Weinland Park playground, playing. Then that night, the skies dark above our house, my mind wandering back to that movie, my eyes peering toward the window as if someone, the old wild-haired Bette Davis -- Charlotte herself! -- might come swirling through the window, I bolted from bed and ran to my mom's bed. I fell asleep as if given a pill.

When Wonda came down with breast cancer two years ago, she left Cathedral City, Calif., and moved back to Columbus for treatment. To Andre his grandmother is but another Mommy. I flew home to Columbus to help Wonda settle in. She was staying with our sister Diane. I dashed upstairs. It was late, and there they lay, side by side, asleep, Andre and Wonda. I leaned on the wall outside the bedroom door and felt comforted just staring at them.

When Wonda got better after breast cancer surgery and received a positive prognosis from doctors, she announced she was moving back to California with her companion, Billy. It sounded nonsensical; they had little money, they had no jobs. But Wonda told me that if she stayed in Ohio she might relapse. "Her dopamines are gone," Diane snapped to me.

I had to go look up the word dopamine: It's a brain chemical.

Wonda left, and little Andre cried. However, she told him, and with extravagant braggadocio, that as soon as he healed from his brain surgery he'd be coming to California to visit her with his mommy. She talked of mountains, of fresh air, of "our swimming pool."

There were so many false starts -- plans made for the much-ballyhooed trip, then abandoned: Billy would be away; Wonda would be sick; Wonda would be back in rehab.

But then, finally, there they were, Fashun and Andre, in California, visiting Wonda and Billy!

I loved their phone calls to me here in Washington. "I have never seen mountains like this," Fashun said to me.

"I went swimming yesterday, Uncle Wil," piped Andre.

Wonda would call me at 7 a.m. -- 4 a.m. her time -- and be talking about what a wonderful visit she was having. She was up so early because she was scrambling eggs. Usually, her being up at 4 a.m. meant she was scrambling something other than eggs.

I've long felt deep sadness for Fashun, her mother largely having abandoned her because of drugs. But now there was joy in Wonda's voice. She didn't talk of Fashun's anger toward her, only Andre's splashing in the swimming pool.

A week later Fashun had decamped for Columbus, leaving Andre behind, because "Mommy" would bring him home by plane.

The flight was missed.

I couldn't reach Wonda by phone, my calls going into voice mail. When I finally got through, she wondered why the edge in my voice: He will be coming tomorrow, she told me.

"How will he be coming home?" I demanded to know.

"Don't you worry about it. He'll get there."

Click.

Another missed flight.

And thus that frantic phone call to me in Washington -- that Andre was lost, that he hadn't been heard from in hours.

That's when I discovered that Billy was bringing little Andre home in his old Chevy.

They're in Colorado. They're in Nebraska.

"Fools," I cursed Billy and Wonda, over and over. "Fools."

My sister Diane was giving me the reports: They're in the mountains. How do you know? "They'd have to be in the mountains," she said. "I can't get through on the cell."

Harry was on the phone. "I can't believe this!" He cursed; he wanted to wring Wonda's neck.

Fashun was on the phone to me, having a panic attack. Sobbing, howling. I imagined Mike on the couch, quiet. I wanted to come home and throw him out of my niece's apartment.

Then, after two days of torture: I'm home, Uncle Wil.

It was Andre.

We had him back.

I fell asleep that night, easily, quickly, as if I had been sleeping next to my mother after a horror movie had climbed into my imagination.

HOW TO SAVE A FAMILY FROM FAMILY ITSELF?

Last year, I tried to convince Wonda that she should leave California and return to Columbus. There had been another relapse; I heard ice clinking in the glass when I called, and I didn't suspect it was a soda pop. At one point, she laid the receiver down while I was on the phone and went back to a discussion with the evangelist who had been camped out on her couch for hours.

Wonda soon complained about me to Fashun. Of course Fash would be on my side. Or so I thought.

Fashun sent me an e-mail.

Wil: You should lighten up on Mommy. This is the family you were born into, and you can't get away from it. Let me tell you something. There are people in this family who think you wear your hat a little too high on your head sometimes.

There was no "Uncle" Wil, just Wil, as if I had suddenly lost my stature in her heart. The e-mail stunned me, infuriated me. I couldn't bring myself to respond. I wanted to remind her of the past, of the things done to save some part of her childhood, of the sweet days at the Ohio State Fair.

You wear your hat a little too high on your head sometimes.

Indeed I do. I'm not Harry, and I'm not Jack, and I'm not Mac -- a half brother, an ex-con -- and I'm not Juan. I'm not her Michael, either.

"Let me speak to Andre," is all I said to Fashun when I called.

So be it.

And then she and I were on the phone again a few weeks later, and her tears broke my heart. Michael had been in a nightclub. Some words were exchanged with some other young men. Mike was followed outside and shot dead. It was Sunday morning, November 14, 2004. My thoughts went to Andre. His brain surgery. What this might do to his healing brain, his head.

In the ensuing days, more drama: Some friends of Mike's were bizarrely pointing blame at Fashun, saying Mike had been distraught because of an argument, that he didn't have his right mind inside the bar, on and on. Fashun called me in despair, wondering if she were going to be attacked. She moved out of her apartment for a time; Tony went to check on her every day. I insisted she pack and bring Andre to Washington to live with me until things blew over; I'd have tickets at the airport; I imagined they'd move here forever, and the thought made me happy.

Harry called from California. "Doesn't Fashun know Andre don't need this madness around him. Dammit. Gangbangers. Call me tonight. I gotta go."

Anger was everywhere. Love was everywhere. Family.

After Mike's funeral, things calmed. But Andre couldn't sleep. Nightmares.

When I was young I never knew death, never smelled it or touched it. Save for little Jeffrey, my cousin. He was a fragile child, a very good boy, the color of cocoa butter. He had asthma, and one evening, when he was 7 years old, he became short of breath. My uncle Ira bolted to his car, the boy in his arms, speeding toward the hospital, telling Jeffrey to hold on, and Jeffrey trying his best to hold on, wheezing harder and harder, until he no longer could.

THEY REPRESENTED TWO POLES of the family lineage -- the oldest family member, Jack, my father, and Andre, the youngest. Andre just knew him as a big light-skinned man with a deep voice who loved him, on whose porch he ran around through curling cigar smoke.

It was early last June when Jack had an aneurysm. I spoke with him in his hospital room, and he sounded fine. "Having problems with this one leg, though," he said.

But it was followed by a stroke. Suddenly, he was terminal, and I was home and reaching for Andre's little hand and walking with him to the car for the ride to the hospice. In the car Andre and I talked about my airplane trip, about his summer plans. He sang along to the O'Jays on the radio. I sang along to the O'Jays.

"Uncle Wil, what you know about old school music?" I chuckled, then lost the chuckle as we turned into the driveway of the hospice.

Andre dashed from the car, through light raindrops. In the elevator he stepped behind me. When I looked over my shoulder, he was sitting down on the floor.

He uttered not a word. The asthma.

Jack couldn't get out of bed. Andre had recovered enough to roll around the room as my father lay there, watching.

There was a tray of half-eaten food, a TV turned low. He had lost weight, and his body lay a little twisted, like a man who had been knocked down by a boxer and was just waiting for the count.

I stood looking at a man whom I really didn't know. Jack Haygood, World War II vet, auto mechanic, father of a dozen children. "I claims every one," he often said, as if by way of defense.

On his birthdays, and for holidays, I sent fancy cigars to him from a store on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston.

I didn't lean over and kiss him. I did touch his shoulder. I did call him Dad. "Take care, Dad, now," I said.

The halls were quiet, and a nurse smiled at me as I stepped into the elevator with Andre.

It was the last time I would see my father alive.

JUST NORTH OF COLUMBUS, hugging the Olentangy River, lies a wonderful tucked-away spot. My family had picnics there when I was a boy, huge gatherings, smoke wafting from a grill, my mother, Elvira, woozy from booze, staring at me with an intensity I never saw while she was sober. Now and then, when I'm in Columbus, I will ride out to that spot on the river. On approach there's a huge subdivision that has sprouted, but, still, it is rustic enough. I smell the past; I daydream. I look out over the water. Fashun rumbled across this sacred spot as a child, but Andre hasn't.

Our family is scattered now. We don't get to the river anymore together. The last time I tried, in 1992, relatives showed up late. Harry got into an argument with someone. Maybe he had been drinking; or maybe he hadn't been drinking just yet, which made him surly.

Andre was not yet born.

Fashun didn't have a boyfriend.

Last July, my nephew Tony -- old enough to remember those picnics off the Olentangy River -- took Fashun, Andre, Diane and Wonda on a surprise ride. When he stopped, 150 miles into the journey, they were on an island in Lake Erie, perched at the front door of his cottage in Put-in-Bay.

All those mysterious weekends away from home, all those Saturdays and Sundays hard at work, earning extra money, Tony had quietly purchased this dwelling near this scenic bay. He had told me about it, almost casually: a little place he had bought, he wanted to show it to me. I promised to come take a look on my next trip home.

He saw it like I did, a family spot, a place for Haygoods and their offspring to come to, and linger, and sit. He had planned it for a very long time. I have since seen the cottage. It speaks of nostalgia, and of family, and not the least of love -- in the way he sets the table for us all, the wind blowing gently, the candles flickering.

MAYBE I WAS MORE EXCITED than they were.

Fashun and Andre were coming to Washington to visit Uncle Wil!

Coming to celebrate little Andre's birthday. He was about to turn 10.

I mapped out an itinerary; I thought of restaurants we'd visit together. Places we just had to see.

And there they were, at National. Every time I kiss Andre -- he has done this for years -- he'll spin around and wipe the kiss off. As if I don't see him as I am standing over him. It is oh-so-funny, and so little-boyish.

Hi, Uncle Wil, said Fashun. (My "Uncle" signature back in vogue).

Hey, Uncle Wil, said Andre.

Fashun wanted to go to the shopping mall the next morning, so Andre and I trooped off alone. We went to the zoo and to the train station. I tried not to be too conspicuous in looking at the eight-inch scar from his brain surgery, trying to monitor the healing process. Because every time I saw it, I became a little spooked. At the fragility of things: a child in a car, a child in a hospital room having a tool cut into his head, a child in the mountains of Colorado.

Andre and I scooted across the Mall, him stepping quicker to keep up with my long legs until I slowed, realizing it was his asthma.

He told me about his B average in school, and I was proud. I asked him how he slept the night before his trip.

"Like a baby," the baby said.

In Columbus, when we are out together, he rarely wants to hold my hand.

Here, in the big bustling nation's capital, he did, even when we were stopped at a crosswalk. This must be the beauty of being a father. A child holding your hand, for safety, that warm grip precious as life itself.

Andre regaled me with stories of his journey to Put-in-Bay with Uncle Tony, of how he ate "all kinds of food."

We went over to the White House, and Andre stared at the mansion itself, the gate, the lawn and the guards.

He had read, in his history books, of the Lincoln Memorial. So we had to visit it. And there we were, standing before it, shaded, amid the tourists. The giantness of the monument astonished -- as it must to everyone who sees it for the first time, especially a child. "Wow," Andre said, over and over, holding my hand, walking closer. Then we were inside, beneath the rotunda. It felt coolish. He stared up, high, higher, until he lingered on the words of the Gettysburg Address. He started reading:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition . . .

He did not stumble on the word "proposition."

. . . that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure . . .

It is the great sorrow of my life that I do not have children, at least not yet. But I did have a little boy's hand right then, and he was reading to me, and I had to watch myself from tearing up.

. . . and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I was fairly knocked out. Not just by his eagle eyesight, but by his fascination with the words.

We descended the steps, squinting into the sunshine, Andre still holding my hand. We strode away from the memorial. After 50 feet or so into our walk, Andre said: "Uncle Wil, I do believe I love President Lincoln. Because he freed the black people."

I was speechless.

This idea I had that being a surrogate father figure to nieces and nephews would be enough? It was wrong. And I must deal with the emptiness even on the sunniest of days.

Andre spotted an ice cream stand and pointed. We ordered popsicles.

As I looked at him, I thought of all the things poured into him -- the strife, the death and dying, the brain surgery. The things that disturb a child's imagination, keeping him up at night.

And still, he smiled and smiled.

Later, Fashun and Andre and I slid into the booth of the restaurant I had chosen for dinner at Union Station. He leaned over and whispered to his mom, "My uncle Wil knows I like real napkins." Then he unfolded the cloth napkin ever so gently on his lap. Barbecue, seafood, collard greens, chicken, a feast. Andre asked if we could go someplace for birthday cake. The uncle had a move up his sleeve, and here came the waitress, from the kitchen, with the cake. Chocolate, with blue and green trimming. We sang happy birthday to little Andre through the candles.

We walked away, as happy as can be.

Jack is gone. And yet, he's not: He has given my mother and the world Diane, Harry, Geraldine, Wonda and Wil, and more children from those children, Fashun and Andre and Juan and Tony.

After Andre left, I went crazy for Lincoln-ania. I bought Lincoln biographies and photo books. When Andre returns again, we will visit other places. But we will check in on Mr. Lincoln as well. I will have questions for Andre, about school, his mom. I may ask him what he remembers about Jack. I want Andre to know about memory. I want him to know that wishing is a good thing. And I pray that it is not too selfish on my part to want this boy to wear his hat not at just any angle, but to wear it high. It might, in the long run, help him to breathe easier.

Wil Haygood is a staff writer for The Post's Style section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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