In the pre-dawn hours on a recent Friday, my vision shifted between the dimly lit road in front of me and the sleeping visage of my 19-year-old cousin, as he slumped in the passenger seat on his way to college.
It was 4 a.m., and my mind, normally peaceful at this hour, raced uncontrollably.
There was the normal stuff that filled my head, like whether we forgot to pack anything and whether he’d hit it off with his roommate.
But mostly I thought about how improbable that very car ride was. I marveled at the many obstacles my cousin had overcome and, at the same time, kicked myself for not being more involved in his education — something that might have made his journey from a high school where 90 percent of students scored below average in math on standardized tests less difficult.
As the first person in my immediate family to attend and graduate from college, surely I had a lot to offer my cousin, who was embarking on a path that mirrored my own. Instead, my cousin Ronald was left alone to navigate the myriad tripwires waiting to cause black boys to stumble, such as the increased rates at which we are suspended from schools, many of them “under-resourced and performing poorly,” according to a report that was a part of the national 2025 Campaign for Black Men and Boys.
But in the years between his transition from a scrawny middle-schooler to a young man sporting facial hair and a deep voice, I was too preoccupied with raising my own children to recognize how my involvement with an extended family member could have been useful.
At least that’s what I told myself during his transition from a pre-teen to a young adult.
The truth, however, was far more complicated.
Growing up as an only child, I longed for a sibling.
When I was 9, as a result of a tragic string of events, my wish came true.
An aunt, who had been a witness to a homicide, was murdered in Southwest Washington in 1991, leaving behind three children, the youngest a 5-month-old boy named Joshua. My grandmother decided to care for the older children, but the infant was too much for her aging body to handle. Another aunt, who happened to live less than a five-minute walk from my home in Northeast Washington and was childless at the time, agreed to raise Joshua as her own son.
At long last, I’d have the sibling I always wanted.
We lived in different homes but developed an inseparable bond. I treated him like the little brother I’d never had.
In 2004, during the weekend of my college graduation, I took him to school with me and showed him around campus, impressing upon him the idea that his attending college was a foregone conclusion. I mixed in a few clichés about him being destined for greatness and ignored his constant eye-rolling.
About five years later, I was filled with immense pride when it came time to take him to college. Joshua had beat all of the odds by growing up to become the first person in his immediate family to attend college.
We packed a car and headed for his new school in West Virginia.
His first year of college was a blur. Both of our lives, it seemed, were changing. My wife and I became the proud parents to twin boys, and this cousin was a rising college sophomore.
Between seemingly never-ending feeding cycles, I found time to tell him how proud I was of him and to encourage him to continue to work hard in school.
I was sitting in the living room of my Baltimore rowhouse in 2010, as my wife and I fed our barely 1-month-old boys, when the ringing of my cellphone cut through the pre-dawn silence.
I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation.
There had been a shooting in his neighborhood and my cousin — my brother — had been shot. I closed my eyes and tried to listen to the voice on the other end, but it was pointless.
I eventually got dressed and drove to Washington to sit next to a bed in an intensive care unit in a hospital and pray for a miracle that didn’t happen.
Joshua died shortly after my visit.
After his death, I found visiting my extended family difficult. My aunt, who in the meantime had two biological children (one being the cousin in the seat next to me), lives blocks away from where my cousin was murdered, and his not being there left a painful void that I wanted to escape.
Whenever I’d feel guilty about the expanse of time that collected between visits, I’d pin the blame on my own growing family, which expanded to include a daughter. I’d comfort myself with the belief that focusing completely on my own children — and their ever-growing schedules of activities — couldn’t be a bad thing.
But while I spent the seven years since his death focusing completely on my own children, who by comparison have infinitely more advantages, my living younger cousin, Ronald, who had been born to the aunt who took in that baby so many years before, was left to figure things out on his own.
That’s a fate that even his late brother didn’t have to manage.
In fact, in 2008, the year before my late cousin went away to school in West Virginia, I developed a multipage college acceptance strategy, complete with measurable goals and concrete steps to help turn his dream of attending college into a reality.
Fast-forward to my recent car ride with Ronald, who was embarking on his own transition to college, and I kept returning, in my mind, to the shield of privilege my wife and I have worked hard to cocoon our children in.
There are regular lessons for piano and French. There’s a constantly rotating schedule of athletic activities, such as golf, swimming, soccer and basketball. There are tutors and vacations, and we sacrifice financially to send them to a school where annual tuition outpaces the per-capita income of people living in Baltimore.
All the things my younger cousin didn’t have access to.
On the ride to college, I looked over at this 19-year-old that I’d barely had a chance to get to know, and as he slept I wondered how my wife and I might teach our children to do better in a similar situation than I’ve managed.
How can we ensure that we raise them to understand the precious gift they’ve been given and to develop, as they grow into adulthood, a spirit of investing in our family’s next generation of young people, who have backgrounds similar to my cousins and me?
The truth is, I don’t have an answer yet. But I know, since taking my cousin to college, that my wife and I need to find one.
As darkness gave way to the bright sunshine of morning, we finally reached Petersburg, Va., where his college is located. We made our way to the gym on campus where students were gathered for freshman orientation.
I helped him pick his classes and hounded a staffer at a nonprofit that had awarded him a scholarship but was late sending the payment to his school. I lugged bags of clothes and a mini refrigerator inside his new dormitory. And I talked, probably too much, about the importance of him focusing the majority of his energy on his school work.
I snapped cellphone pictures of his class schedule and promised wake-up calls.
But in the end, I did something that for far too long had been a struggle for me to manage.
I was there.
Lester Davis is deputy chief of staff and communications director for the president of the Baltimore City Council.