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Following the girl I had been dating at Ball State, I headed west to Denver after graduation. By the time I arrived, she had moved on. But I met Teri, a very lovely and fun-loving nurse at one of the local hospitals. She loved to drive her red Triumph through the mountains above the city at hair-raising speed sometimes only by the moonlight. She and her other friends from the hospital lived life with abandon, perhaps in response to what they saw in the wards and ERs every day. I loved Denver, Larimer Square, Washington Park and the mountains that backdropped it all. It was a city of energy, a total contrast to the Indy of the 70’s when you could stand in the middle of a downtown street at night. People lived outdoors taking full advantage of nature’s handiwork. Vietnam had depleted the male population creating a bachelor’s paradise. White girls would yell at you from their cars as they passed. I’d look around to see who they were yelling at! It was as if racism didn’t exist and color didn’t matter. It wasn’t Indiana! However, after trying to just get an interview with any ad agency in town for a few months, I threw in the towel and decided to head back to Indy. It seemed everyone wanted to live in Denver and businesses had their pick of the litter. I hated to leave. I can still see the tears running down Teri’s face as I walked to my gate at the airport. We lost touch in time. I sometimes wonder what became of her, was she happy and how different my life might have been had I stayed.

I didn’t have enough money left to buy a plane ticket home so I called my older sister, Pat. She was a single mother of five after her divorce, working long hours and multiple jobs to get by. Her life was not easy but it didn't dampen her entrepreneurial spirit. Even so, she was generous to a fault. She was the personification of “giving the shirt off your back.” Pat once took in one of her former husband’s girlfriends when she was down on her luck. She even lost the house she loved sacrificing for a family member. I told her I needed help. Pat bought my plane ticket. I don’t know if I ever paid her back.

The phone rang as I sat in my cubicle at Lilly. It was Pat. She was upset. She had been experiencing mobility issues that seemed to get worse by the week. It was alarming to watch the erosion. We thought it must be a brain tumor to cause so dramatic a decline. Something that could be fixed. Finally, Pat was hospitalized and her daughters refused to allow her to be discharged again until a diagnosis was made.

Pat was crying into the phone. I could barely make out what she was saying. Then I heard “ALS.” I didn’t know what that was so I turned to my computer and did a quick search. With Pat sobbing in my ear, I stared at the screen and uttered, “Oh my God.” Pat kept asking, “Why me? Why me?” “I don’t know sis,” was all I could say.

Pat was actually my half sister from my mom’s previous marriage. She was three years old when dad married mom and he raised her as his own. She was eight when I was born and I never knew life without her in it. I was the stereotypical little brother who annoyed her at every turn. Pat was a beautiful girl, the product of beautiful black features and a significant amount of White DNA inherited from slavery. And the boys took note. One evening, a young man had come to call. He and Pat were sitting on the couch watching television when there was a knock at the door. I raced to answer it and opened the door to see another young man standing there. He asked if Pat was home and with a grin on my face I said, “Yes she is. Come on in!” I will never forget the stare on her face as she sat sandwiched between those boys.

In just a matter of months, the disease had reduced Pat to a living corpse able to see, hear and comprehend as always but unable to move or speak. Visits were difficult seeing her once so vivacious then totally dependent for her most private needs. I would steel myself to go have one-sided conversations until I decided to take a book and read to her. The book I chose was Just Shy of Harmony written by Philip Gulley, a Quaker pastor from Danville, IN. It’s a collection of short stories told by this small-town pastor of a Quaker church of the hilarious and heartwarming happenings of its townspeople. As I would read, Pat would respond with a tear, a smile or a muffled laugh. As I would finish a story, she would tell me with her eyes that she wanted me to read another, then another, then another. After several stories, I would say I had to go but that we would read more when I returned. Seeing a smile, I would slip out the door but not before leaving the book on the window sill. When the kids arrived to make sure she was being well cared for, Pat would motion to them with her eyes to the book. I’m sure she heard every story several times but she never tired of the time spent with those who loved her.

When I heard Phil was speaking at a Jewish synagogue, I took the book with me. Afterwards, I told him how the book was bringing such joy to Pat in her waning days. He was very touched and wrote a personal message to her inside the cover. When she read his message, a tear rolled slowly down her cheek. The book is now with her youngest daughter, a piece of Pat’s memory.

Pat died of ALS December 17, 2000 at the age of 55. It was the most pain I had borne since the breakup with Marcia but we had months to say our goodbyes. The day of her passing, we celebrated all day with friends and family coming to say their goodbyes. We were afraid the hospice nurses would tell us to keep it down out of respect for the other patients. But instead, they encouraged us as it was so different from the usual dirge. People came and went all day. It was so surreal knowing that at 2 o'clock the doctors would be coming. But in the spirit of how we had lived our life as family full of laughter and jokes, on her death bed, mom told her to give me permission to tell all of our secrets. Mom’s imagination of what we were holding back far exceeded the reality. Pat looked at her, smiled then looked at me and made the only gesture her body had left her. She gently rocked her head back and forth to say “No.” It was more fun to leave mom with her wonderings. It was the last moment of levity I shared with her. I promised Pat I would look after the kids, then grown. An hour later, the doctors removed her life support as she had requested and she slowly drifted away. My tears still come.

I have tried to be the best uncle I could be as promised. Always there if they needed me, including when Brandon, my niece, Ellonia's oldest son, was murdered by a White man. He was out one summer night with some of his friends doing what teenagers do to kill time and have some fun. One of his buddies thought it would be fun to egg cars where they would have to slow down to cross some train tracks. Eggs in hand, they divided them and took cover at the crossing. When Brandon was offered his share of the eggs, he declined. My niece had instilled in him a strong sense of respect and responsibility. He knew if his mom found out he had participated there would be holy hell to pay. He probably should have headed home at that point but these were his friends and friends stick together. Brandon was a star on the Ben Davis high School football team and dreamed of becoming an attorney someday. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to learn that there are limits to friendship.

As the eggs were finding their targets, a red pickup truck approached the crossing and slowed. An egg found its way through the open driver’s side window breaking on the side of the driver’s face. What they couldn't see was the rifle hanging in the back window. Realizing what they had done, the kids ran to find cover. The driver stalked them. When he found them, the boys broke their cover and began to run. The driver pointed his gun out the window and fired hitting one of the boys in the leg narrowing missing his femoral artery. Another shot was fired and a small 22 caliber bullet entered Brandon’s back just below his right shoulder blade. The bullet then ricocheted inside his chest puncturing his lungs and other organs. Brandon managed to run on into the darkness until he fell to the ground and drowned in his own blood alone. It was July 25, 2005. He was 15 years old.

The shooter had left the scene after being questioned by a sheriff’s deputy before he realized he was speaking to the perpetrator. The incident lit up the news. In typical fashion, a picture of Brandon mugging for the camera with some of his friends was flashed on the screen and immediately they were branded as gang bangers who “got what they deserved.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. I became furious. If this was going to be the story told, then Brandon was just going to be another “dead nigger” that the police would not bother to bring justice. After a couple of days, the story would be pushed aside for another sensational tragedy. Nothing would be done. His death would become invisible, ignored and forgotten. I needed to give his story “legs” so it would remain in the public’s eye. The community needed to be reminded again and again to keep watch and keep pressure on the police to smoke the shooter out of hiding.

Through a friend at Channel 13, I connected with a reporter and invited him to meet with my niece in her home, to meet Brandon's family. I wanted him to see the falsity of Brandon’s portrayal, his home, her firm parenting. It worked. He felt the pain of the family and learned the promise that Brandon’s life held but was cut far too short. The story ran for days. Five days later, the shooter’s girlfriend came forward. Convicted of 2nd degree murder, he still sits in prison. And Brandon lies beside Pat.


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