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Lions Roar : January 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 85 As painful as the trial had been, I realized, as it drew to a close, that I had expected it to bring a closure of sorts, or at least start a process of healing. Instead I found myself and my family re- traumatized and numbed by the details of the murder recounted during the trial. EVENTUALLY WE MOVED ON to live new, “normal” lives. The numbness made it seem like we were doing fine—or even bet- ter than fine at times. But at a certain point, a grief counselor magically appeared in my life and told me, “Numbness often gets mistaken for courage.” That message didn’t sink in at first. Family and friends had expressed relief at how I hadn’t disappeared from the scene or descended into a swirling tunnel of despair. I could talk nor- mally about everyday things. I could even talk about “him” without collapsing into the gut- wrenching sobs that I knew everyone feared I would succumb to. They began to think it would never happen. When one of my closest friends called me her “hero” for my stoicism, it made me question my seemingly passive reac- tion to the heart-shattering loss of my son. I tried explaining to her that what she was seeing in me was not really courage. It was the skillful dodging of a reality too unbearable to process in my own lifetime. In spite of my misgivings, however, I began to find the hero identity appealing. Adopting this role provided me with a place to hide as my life began to unravel around me. It seemed safe and elegant and, before long, it became solid and fixed. I was a hero even to myself. I imagined myself as a courageous bodhisattva, because I couldn’t think of anything else that would keep me standing and moving from one side of the day to the other, teaching, meditating, engaging. Four years later, quite comfortable with my courageous bodhi- sattva identity, I sat upright and serene on the final day of a week- end meditation. program. Then we began to practice tonglen, the practice of taking into our hearts the suffering of ourselves and others and of sending out compassion. This practice had become second nature to me over the past four years, so as I began to move through the beginning steps, I was completely unprepared for what happened next. As I breathed in, sobs rose up from unfamiliar depths. I found a young man named Germaine, a friend of Jamil’s, sitting right there in my heart. At five, Germaine had watched as his father shot his mother to death. With his mother dead and his father in prison, he and his brother and sisters were separated from each other and placed in foster care. By the time he was fifteen, when he and Jamil found each other, Germaine had lived in several foster homes and had spent time in juvenile detention. I met him briefly when he and Jamil got into some trouble at school. I found his detachment and simmering rage too hard to take, and I just wanted him out of our lives. Now he was sitting right there in my heart. Then an- other scene arose: Germaine sitting on our couch two months af- ter Jamil’s death, in heartbreaking disbelief at the news of Jamil’s murder. He had been living out of town; he didn’t know. As I continued to feel Germaine’s story take root in my heart, I tried to stop the tears I’d been holding back for so long. Con- cerned with disturbing the quiet in the meditation hall, I strug- gled to get Germaine out of my heart. I wanted this weekend for myself. I felt my composure, my hero identity, slipping away. I tried and tried so hard to shut Germaine out of my heart, but my resistance was turning the sobs into roaring waves too great to control. There he stayed, and with him his story. The day when I told Germaine about Jamil’s death—and watched him sit, stunned, unable to cry, expressing love for a most trust- ed brother and swearing to take revenge—he met my attempt to embrace him, to calm him, with a cold rigidity that seemed to say, “I can never be loved.” I felt the cold rush through me as an accusation. Only later did I realize it was also an invitation. GERMAINE WAS ONE OF THE MANY “others” that Jamil brought into our family’s life. As politically astute and progressive as we considered ourselves, we also didn’t want Jamil’s life, our lives, made messy or problem- atic by getting too close to people who had “those problems.” As quickly as he would bring them into our lives, we would move to banish them, to diffuse the scent of oth- erness, so that we could get back to the ongoing challenge of liv- ing the American promise of a comfortable, protected, middle- class life. As an African-American family living in a mid-sized, mid-Southern town that had not yet (and still has not) thrown off the vestiges of slave-plantation society, we were fully caught up in the daily strains of trying to make good on the promise of America. We were so caught up in our lives that we failed to notice something profound going on beneath the surface of our material life. Now, with what I had been through, with feelings welling up from deep within, I was beginning to take notice. I began to notice how children present us with deep questions about the contradictions in our lives—questions we need to ex- amine as individuals, as families, as a nation. The United States is the wealthiest nation on earth but has the worst record of mate- rial, psychological, and spiritual care for children among indus- trialized countries. A litany of dismal statistics—high poverty, homelessness, hunger, homicide, suicide rates—tells us this. Yet, it is individual stories, like Jamil’s and Germaine’s, that might finally capture our attention and arouse our compassion. We might finally notice just how many marginalized young people are haunted by our society’s disregard for who they are. It is these young people we have chosen to ignore who can shake The last photo of Jamil, taken just weeks before he was killed.