Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bearing Witness

Raphael was just shot and killed.
I get the text message from Adam as I pull out my phone to switch on airplane mode, squished between two strangers on a nearly-empty flight to Chicago.

I text questions furiously with few answers, before dutifully switching off my phone as the plane taxis to the runway. Finally, trying to distract myself, I read Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. She writes poetry-prose about her husband’s death:

It’s a fact: black people in this country die more easily, at all ages, across genders. Look at how young black men die, and how middle aged black men drop dead, and how black women are ravaged by HIV/AIDS. The numbers graft to poverty but they also graph to stresses known and invisible. . . And so the black artist in some way, spoken or not, contends with death, races against it, writes amongst it . . . Survivors stand startled in the glaring light of loss, but bear witness.
We realize this flight is quite empty, the stewardess announces over the intercom, but please don’t switch seats until after take-off. Weight balance is most important during take-off, especially on such a light flight.

During takeoff, however, my seat mates fall asleep and I don’t want to wake them to move, so I try to type quietly and without jostling my arms, my laptop partially closed to fit on the small table folded down from the seat in front of me. We bounce over clouds, and my stomach drops again and again.

I sit here in this tiny airplane seat (seriously, have they gotten smaller?), helpless against this loss. And so all I know to do is bear witness. This witness-bearing to his life is not quite my job; nor even should it necessarily be my privilege, considering how little we knew Raphael. But I am desperate for the world to know the ways he made life bright. For my friends to understand all the boys in our neighborhood, to know the ways they carry light and life, along with the weight they shoulder and the ways they are shaped by the landscape they walk as a young black male in this country.

Though we have lived in our neighborhood five years now, we strangely only just met Raphael this past basketball season. His younger brother has played on our football team for years, even before he was technically old enough. He is the smallest one on the team those first years, but athletic and fast, and his mom tells us the football games in the park are the first time she has ever watched him play. This season he is one of the largest players on the team, and I cajole him back onto the team when he quits every time we lose.

I am bouncing Isaiah when Raphael first knocks on our door. I swing Isaiah to my hip, and answer without checking the peephole, surprised when I don’t know the young man standing on the other side.

Good morning ma’am, he says, is Mr. Adam home? I smile and tell him Adam’s at the office, asking what we can do. I would like to play basketball please, he says politely.

Oh we would love to have you I exclaim, always overly eager when meeting new neighbors. I direct him to Adam’s office, pointing him the back stairway visible from our front porch. Thank you ma’am, he says. I am surprised to hear my mother’s voice coming from me as I scold him for calling me ma’am: I’m not that old, I tease. Yes ma’am, he responds, then laughs when he realizes what he’s said.

Raphael shows up that season for every game except one. Every week, he’s a few minutes early and turns down my offers of food, sitting on the green lost-and-found box by the front door (yes, we have a lost-and-found box at our house, mostly full of smelly t-shirts and shoes discarded before or after sporting events, which I wash and stack in the large box, hoping they will find their way back to their rightful owners).

What school do you go to? I ask Raphael one week. Oh I dropped out ma’am, he tells me (his use of ma’am a habit we haven’t quite been able to kick), but I’ve received my GED and now I’m working, he continues: Oh and I’m sorry I missed last week’s game, I had to work.

We never quite dive below polite answers, and now we will never get the chance.

Adam and I have forewarned each other, just a few months ago: its only a matter of time before one of these funerals is for one of our boys. I am frustrated at this inevitability, at my inability to help, at the inadequacy of words. I want to somehow do justice to who Raphael was, to who he was becoming, before he fades to the background as another statistic, another life lost to bullets strewn across pavement and lives.
I return to my book, looking for light even as my seat-mate lowers the shade against the brilliance of sun reflected on white clouds, scattered over patchwork brown laying beneath us like a quilt:

Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes it quicksilver. Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.

I write as revolt against his death. I write to find the light, to acknowledge the loss, and to carry gently the weight and honor of encountering the life of Raphael. Even without knowing the details surrounding his final moments, carried through bluest skies on silver wings, I settle deep in the knowledge of the Father's tender mercies through every unspeakable tragedy. I stubbornly believe in the grace and beauty of holding close to the brokenhearted, of breaking my heart alongside theirs. Because I don't have answers as often as I allow myself to widen in pain that mysteriously births new life, new mercies that rise on the gentle and fierce tides of life and death and every sacred moment between. 


  1. I am so sorry... I know how closely you connect with these young men & the loss is so heavy on you all.

  2. This is a beautiful witness, Becca. Thank you for trusting us with it.

  3. I have no words, because I've gotten this phone call or text one too many times, and I know how it feels, I know even more how it feels when people try to comfort me, when honestly sometimes I just need them to not say anything. I love you my sweet friend and I am praying HARD for you and Adam as you walk through this with your boys.

  4. Precious words you have written. Praying for your family...this moment.

  5. I FINALLY remembered to pull this up and read it. Powerful, piercing words. And so beautiful, as always. You have honored him here, and I'm so sorry for the loss of his sweet life.

  6. This is beautiful. Achingly beautiful.


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