Remembering What’s Not Lost

I was at a red light when I glanced over my shoulder and saw it.

I’d been at this intersection dozens of times during my summer commutes, dropping the kids to camps and part time jobs, and my wife to the community clinic in North Philly where she works, but on that day the traffic line was a little bit deeper and pushed me alongside the parked casket, sitting on a wheeled stand between two cars.

“Is that a…” I heard myself mumble aloud, staring at the weather-worn wooden box with chipping paint, wondering how and why it was here. I couldn’t force out the final word that would name this thing and give it power. But I already felt overcome by a wave of emotion, and knew I wouldn’t be shaking this image anytime soon.

I’ve often considered myself one of the lucky ones over my nearly 50 years of life. I’ve only seen four other caskets, at four different burials. My maternal grandfather’s — an educator and bricklayer who built his own house on the outskirts of the projects in New Bern, North Carolina, and bought himself a new Cadillac every couple of years. My maternal grandmother’s — a former French teacher with a graduate degree in a time when that didn’t happen for Black women, who lived out her last days up north under my mother’s care until her depression took too great of a hold. A childhood friend’s, whose carefree glow was taken from us way too soon after a long battle with a rare blood condition. Her funeral was my most recent, in 2018. I missed my planned train to Harrisburg that morning, finding it too difficult to face the fact that this person who I laughed with at the school bus stop and had just seen at my parents’ house earlier that year was gone.

And then there was Brigitte’s.

Brigitte was my wife’s oldest sister, who made the drive from White Plains, New York to Philly every other weekend to pick up our kids and take them on an adventure. She’d press play on the latest cartoon DVD in her black Suburban and be off to the flea market for corn dogs and collectibles, or the zoo, or to a Jersey gym for one of our nieces’ basketball games. This second mothering gave my wife the breathing room to get through medical school, even while pregnant, and allowed me to get my doctorate and keep my side hustles going while working my old 9–5. It was a lot. It was always a lot, for all of us. But love and commitment were the glue that made it work. Family was everything, and Brigitte was in all the photos, at all the events, and in every future plan.

I remember the afternoon my wife called me at work, barely able to speak. She told me that our eight-year-old daughter had just phoned her saying “Aunt Brigitte didn’t wake up this morning. We kept waiting and shaking her but she wouldn’t move.” Tomorrow will make it 11 years, August 25, 2010.

Brigitte had come down to get the kids for a couple of weeks in White Plains, swimming in the inflatable backyard pool she’d bought for them. My wife and I were set to drive up that weekend to celebrate our son’s seventh birthday. We instead drove to the White Plains police department that Wednesday to pick up our three children who had spent the day there, anxious and confused. We learned days later that Brigitte’s cause of death was meningitis.

That drive, I’d never shed so many tears in my life. For the kids, having to go through this trauma on their own, and having someone so special taken away. For my wife, losing her best friend. For the extended family, burying a daughter, sister, aunt, and dear friend. For the memories that none of us would get to make.

The casket at 16th and Lehigh is also about stolen memories and unfinished futures.

There have been a few different ones going back to 2014, set up by community activists to put the stark aftermath of gun violence on full display. There’s no escaping the visceral grip of walking past this kind of symbol. At least, there wasn’t for me, someone who happened to be passing through on his way to somewhere else. But I wonder, for people who spend time at 16th and Lehigh every day, or near a memorial tribute site to a child hit by a stray bullet, or in a neighborhood with a mural honoring the names of local heroes lost, or around the remnants of yellow tape that roped off another crime scene on another block, do you have to make sense out of senseless death to keep on living?

When you sit on your stoop across the street from shells of houses — hollowed, rotten fruits of redlining that have haunted the neighborhood for decades, what does death really mean? When you feel the cold shadow of nearby developments gradually but hastily replacing the shells and lots and former neighbors and block parties, and you know that the rooftop deck and off street parking is not for you, how are you supposed to value your own life and space? You have been told, in so few words, that nothing is yours, except the pain. What is death when the world is waiting for you to die?

Each day this summer, driving to and from, I’ve watched lots get fenced off, old buildings get torn down, and new things go up. I’ve seen every phase of development all across the city — demolition of the old strip mall on Spring Garden, leveling foundations and setting up frames throughout North Philly, progress on a new tower at the site of a former neighborhood school near Penn, and new town homes for sale on old South Philly blocks. With each change I try to remember what was there before, and who was there before. It seems like more often than not, I can’t recall.

All of this creates the kind of calcifying tension that not talking about race produces. In my adulthood, there’s been little confusion for me about the role of American capitalism in devaluing Black lives from the very roots of this nation. Our “free” market is quite literally built on slavery, and the compounding interest does what it does for the owning class, while the residue of racial subjugation has made Black oppression legal, natural, and virtually inescapable. Nothing has changed there; the data has always been clear and consistent, and any measure of Black progress comes at the heftiest of prices with the least guarantees. My question, and my work today, has been about centering the power of humanity to tell different stories and shape more meaningful futures. In some ways, I guess I want to know what America can look like if it begins to invest in Black life as urgently as it has done for Black death.

Losing Brigitte was the wake up call for me, and initiated my career shift to becoming a full time educator focused on social impact. Her death was the most brutal reminder that our plans are never really ours. They are always conditional, always fleeting, always more urgent than we can ever imagine while less important than our stress levels allow. There could be a tomorrow, or perhaps not. We must trust. And live. And love. And do everything that we can to make it better, to fully see each other, and to know that something different is not only possible, but right there for the collective taking.

This spirit guides my daily walk, but it is far from easy. I’m raising children in a city where over 300 people have been killed by gun violence this year; at least one person lost every day except one. A city with a poverty rate so high — over 23% — that it feels hopeless to ask about the people who are hovering right above, and what additional impact COVID has had on the most marginalized.

That casket at 16th and Lehigh is a reminder that the truth is always there, rising above, even when we try to bury our fears for better and for worse. Having a conversation across racial lines shouldn’t be harder than building a new condo. Truly committing to social equity is only a radical socialist pipe dream when you remain beholden to keeping Black death alive. Heather McGhee makes it plain in the The Sum of Us that we can be better than this, and we all win every time it happens. That’s the safer, fuller world that Brigitte would have wanted for her babies, and it’s the world that I push for with every word and breath.

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