He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother: In Memory Of…
Admin Note: This may or may not end up being the longest VSB post in history. I won’t know until I finish. I do not intend to stop writing until I feel like I’m done. Bare with me, for I’m not exactly sure where I’m going or how I’m trying to say what I’m about to write.
I still have the message.
Donny Hathaway is my favorite singer of all time. In fact, he’s one of two artists to ever bring tears to my eyes, with the other being Phyllis Hyman. It’s not lost on me that my two favorite vocalists ever both committed suicide.
But Donny Hathaway. I have all of his works. Anything he ever lent his arrangement or vocals to. I’m that big a fan. I have played “Thank You Master (For My Soul)” on repeat for hours on end. On January 13, 1979, Donny Hathaway either fell or threw himself out of a window in New York City to his death. I wouldn’t be born for another six months and somehow, even today, it still pains me that the world lost such a talent and voice.
My brother and I are very different. Well, let’s start at the beginning. He’s not really my brother. We just “grew up” together. I don’t actually remember meeting him. It just seems like he was always there. One day I didn’t know him and the next day we were inseparable. This happened in high school. His mother is my mama. My parents are his parents. He took my little sister to prom and I was okay with it. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. I love him. I’d literally do anything to make sure he was okay.
I remember once, he needed new glasses. For some odd reason, he just never was able to get medical insurance and couldn’t afford to go to the eye doctor. Well I gave him the glasses off of my face. I had contacts. I’d be okay. He needed glasses. He was happy because he could see again. We were the same age but he was my little brother. His mother always wanted me to be a positive influence on him. I know that he loved me to no end but I’m sure that he resented that his mother thought more of my life choices than his.
Of course, this is the same fool who bought 23″ inch rims for a 1987 Nissan Sentra. Real talk, we couldn’t actually make full turns. We had to coast into whatever direction we were trying to take. Needless to say, we never took hard rights. We always had to make a lot of left turns. Guys do really dumb stuff sometimes. But he really liked those rims. They were cool…they just didn’t fit his car.
We’d spend summers in Chattanooga, Tennessee – that’s where he was originally from – hanging with his grandmother and grandfather. They were very, very famous and important people in that area. His grandparents were revered. And they treated me like their own. When he called to tell me that his grandmother was a few days from passing in March 2010, I flew down from DC to Atlanta in the morning, drove to Chattanooga in the afternoon, then back to Atlanta to fly back to DC in the evening just so that I could pay my respects to him and his family. He was my family and his family was mine.
Nobody could have been closer to me that didn’t share actual blood. His son is my godson. There was no question about it. I’d always hear random stories about how my brother would be doing some dumb sh*t and that I needed to talk to him because he wouldn’t listen to anybody but me. In fact, his own mother would often tell me that I needed to talk to him for that reason. Not that he was a bad guy at all. To the contrary, very, very few people ever had a bad word to say about him. His heart was pure and he always wanted everybody to be happy and be alright. Because of that he’d often find himself used and end up making some bad decision because of it. Hell, he entered into a super questionable ass marriage because of bad decision making. I was the best man. Nobody could talk him out of that decision….great wedding though. It was hood as hell but man was it fun. And I couldn’t have been happier to be there for him.
The goal in life was for me to make it as some hugely successful entrepreneur or something and then bring him along for the ride. That’s what big brothers do. You take care of your siblings. On one trip from Huntsville, Alabama, to Jackson, Michigan, we drove up I-65. Somewhere just south of Nashville are these two houses that sit about 300 yards apart. We’d always planned on someday buying those houses and settling down there; me with my wife and kids and him being the coolest uncle ever. He beat me to both the wife and kids (and also to the divorce and baby mama). For some reason, this dude liked to beat me to everything. It’s like his life wasn’t complete unless he tried everything once, positive or negative.
But his heart? Pure. He was the kind of guy to give his life for another.
My daughter used to have an interesting array of medical issues. Nothing too serious, but when she gets sick, she gets sick. We’ve been to the hospital late at night enough times to be familiar with DC’s Children’s Hospital. She’s not sickly, just occasionally sick. But she is also a baby so things like croup turn into bigger problems so you have to be proactive.
Around 1130pm on January 12, 2011, my daughter’s mother called me to let me know that my daughter was having trouble breathing and kept coughing which was exacerbating the problem. She said she was taking her to the ER. She picked me up on the way. I refuse to not be there if something’s going on. I know she always wants mommy, but daddy will be standing right there in case mommy needs to go to the bathroom. Forever.
We spent something like three hours at the ER. Not a bad stint considering how long you can stay there. I got home around 345am. John Q was on. I watched the rest of it. That is one deep movie. The extent for which he was willing to go to save his child’s life is always moving to me. I mean, he was willing to do whatever to save his child’s life.
I must have gone to sleep at like 430am.
At 635am, my phone rang. I recognized the area code but not the number. Not sure why but I let it ring instead of answering it. I laid back down and waited to see if there was a message. I’ve never been a stranger to random early morning phone calls from home.
The voicemail alert went off. I checked the message.
“******** this is your boy *********. ****** was in a really bad accident, man. Call me back. It’s not looking too good, I just…like…call me back…we’re all here…”
I sat up wide awake.
I still have the message.
My brother lived in a house in Huntsville, Alabama. I went to high school there. In this house there were several electrical issues. One of which was a broken heat unit. This was a particularly cold winter. Especially for Alabama.
At about 2am, one of two space heaters in the living room of the house caught fire. It engulfed the old house very quickly. There were five people in the house. My brother, his girlfriend and her two children, and our other boy who lived there. My brother got out with his girlfriend and one of her daughters. My other boy managed to get out a window.
But one of the little girls was stuck in the living room where the space heater was. My brother, not even thinking, went directly back into the house trying to find her.
He never made it back out. He and the little girl both died in the living room of that house. The roof collapsed. The smoke enveloped. Their souls ascended.
He’d made it out. But he thought nothing less than to go back in and save the other child because that’s what you do. I know him. I know that without hesitation he ran back in there without thinking of what might happen to him.
While I was at the ER with my daughter trying to make sure she was okay, my brother was dying in a fire some 700 miles away.
January 13, 2011.
At about 815am, I got another phone call from one of my other boys who was nearly as close to me as my brother: “P, he’s gone….he’s gone. He passed away. I have to go.”
I immediately broke down into tears. I also had no idea where to go. I’d never felt so alone in my entire life. I just kept looking at the sky trying to find him. Or praying that I’d get a phone call that it wasn’t real. I saw my cousin get murdered. That’s a hurt I’ll never forget. But hearing that my brother died…that was the most pain I’ve actually ever felt. I can still feel it.
If you read VSB, there’s a week back in January of 2011 where Damon wrote for two weeks straight, or something like it. I was gone. I couldn’t write. I was fortunate enough to get support from those I loved and those that loved me. From both likely and unlikely sources. Sources that I never got a chance to thank for their support. I owe them that. I went home and as soon as I touched down in Alabama, I broke down into tears. I cried on the whole drive from the airport to my parent’s home. I cried on the way to my brother’s house. I cried when I saw his son. I cried and cried. I tried to keep myself together since everybody was waiting on me to get in, but I couldn’t do it. I cried when I spoke at the funeral. I cried when we interred him.
I know that part of the pain of losing a loved one is the loss of future memories. I know that. I realize that. But I just feel like my brother’s time wasn’t up. Nobody who cared about people that much should go that early. He wasn’t supposed to beat me to death. He just wasn’t. At least he will always be considered a hero. He gave his life trying to save the life of somebody else. And for that I will always be able to remember him the way I always hoped everybody else would: a selfless man who cared about others.
It annoyed me reading newspapers where they said a 31-year-old man lost his life. I just felt like he’s so much more than that. Not just a man. He was a brother, a son, a father, an uncle, a great person.
But that’s because he matters to me.
Yesterday was his birthday. August 12, 1979. It’s always hard for me because I suppose I’m still hoping that it’s not true and that I’ll call him one day and he’ll answer.
August, 12, 1979 – January 13, 2011.
Donny Hathaway and my brother both passed on January 13, something that dawned on me as I took the podium to speak at the funeral. While there’s zero connection between the two, they’re two people of great import to me. Two of my favorite people passed on the same day. His family asked me to speak. That’s how close we were. Family members I didn’t even know asked me to speak at his funeral. I still speak to them now. Just like I still speak to his son. They’re my family.
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. Thank you master, for my soul.
I’ll see you when I get there.
There’s no way I can truly put into words how I feel. I can’t even fully try. I miss my brother. And the realization that this will be a permanent feeling is defeating.
I believe to my soul.
And…I still have the message.