It was cash. Large denominations, some with paper bands around them like they came fresh from the bank.
Looking back, I’m certain I was committing some crime. I could have been robbed by some young hoodlum in that dark inner city hallway that day. Some of my neighbors’ activities were just as questionable.
I believed God winked at me, dispatching angels to protect me as I transported hundreds of dollars in cash.
My eight-year-old mind couldn’t fathom any of this. I was just a niece doing a favor for my beloved uncle.
I don’t know why Billy would entrust that much cash to a child, but he did. Perhaps he knew I wouldn’t follow him in his activities. Maybe he knew I’d have no interest in it.
Several years passed and I moved back to the midwest with my mother. Billy remained on the East Coast. Not sure what happened in the years we were apart but we wound up together again, living at my grandmother’s house. I was 13 years old.
Something had changed between us. We were worlds apart now, but yet there was something we had in common: we were both depressed. I never asked him what happened to his luxury vehicle, fine clothes and cash. I could only speculate. Life in the fast lane leaves as swiftly as it comes.
What I knew for sure was that he was mourning his girlfriend, who was long gone. I was mourning my own losses. I had lost all my friends when I relocated. I had lost my privacy, as my grandmother’s house was always bustling with activity, and I had the body of a woman, though I was still a child. I was perplexed as to how to deal with all my new stressors.
We both seemed to be having a difficult time adjusting to life’s changes. We were like two cars that wound up in the junk yard. We needed to be reclaimed, restored, and put on the road of life again.
We didn’t know how to help each other. One afternoon, after watching me mope around, looking the way he felt, my uncle practically shouted, “You need to get on with your life! Get out of the house; all your friends are out there!”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself.
It didn’t take very long, but things began to change for Billy. One fall day, as I was coming home from school, I could hear the radio blaring as soon as I stepped onto the porch. There through the three-paned window on the front door, I could see Billy strut back through the kitchen, singing at the top of his lungs as he mopped my grandmother’s kitchen floor. I smiled to myself as I stood there watching him as he begin to ballroom dance with the mop.
Before the song’s end, the mop transformed into a microphone as he leaned forward and put the finishing touches on a song that sounded like he was singing at the Apollo.
It felt good to see life come back to him. He had just landed a good paying job at a utility company in town and had found a new love interests.
“I told the man on the job, ‘ I won’t lie to you, sir, I did some things in my past but I’m trying to reform my life’ ” he said, smiling broadly at his truthfulness. He proceded to tell me how that supervisor told him that he seemed like a good man, and he was willing to take a chance on him.
“It pays to be honest with people, Tam” he told me that day.
More time passed. I was now an adult and mother. I had become a Christian and was proud of my newfound faith. Billy was now married and had moved back east. We didn’t see each other much except for at family reunions and milestones.
I noticed that he was now drinking heavily. It seemed that whenever I’d see him at family functions, he didn’t seem to like me as well. He would make sarcastic remarks. He had become someone I no longer recognized.
One evening after attending a family affair, we all gathered at my grandmother’s house. Billy had been drinking heavily and whenever he did, there was no end to any conversation you had with him.
I was still very excited about my Christian beliefs and would gladly share them with anyone I saw. I felt compelled to share them with Billy that night.
We were discussing current events, which were his favorite topic, when I started talking about the faith we all needed to have to sustain us during these challenging times.
“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE…PREACHING TO ME?!” he hissed through his slurred speech. I guess I should have known right away to blame it on the alcohol. I didn’t. I was shocked and hurt. He had never talked to me like that.
I apologetically explained that I was just sharing my faith. He fussed back and basically told me he didn’t want to hear that coming from me.
I thought the incident would die down, that he would forget about it all once he sobered. It was quite the contrary; he told a family member the next day that I had disrepected him by talking about “religious things with him.”
That night drove a wedge between us. Although I was always polite when he came around, we hardly ever talked.
But none of that mattered, several years later, when my aunt walked in the house, telling me that Billy wanted to talk to me. He was in the hospital. He had come home by Amtrak for Memorial Day and fell ill. The doctors said he was too sick to go back to the East Coast. I had been staying there at my aunt’s home to help with his care.
I was living in Baltimore, when I heard the news that he was ill. I took the subway downtown to Penn Station and traveled to the Albany, New York train station, where his car was parked. Then, I drove it to his home in Connecticut. Once there, I packed his belongings, closed up his home and drove his car and things to Michigan.
He had been living alone in a small suburban New England town. It had been a year and a half since his wife had passed away. He had become a bonafide square. He still had that boyish strut and was still a dapper dresser. He spent his days going to the store for the evening paper and Newports, watching heavy rotations of CNN or riding a couple of blocks to the town square to the listen to the summer jazz concert series.
All his neighbors adored him. He had become a cool grandfather type, who wore round wire rimmed glasses and a Gilligan style hat. He had even grown a garden of collards greens, peppers and melons and would help neighbors with theirs.
“Oh, we wish all our neighbors were like him,” one of his upscale next-door neighbors told me one day.
On the way to the hospital in Michigan, I thought about how surreal it was watching him suffer. To me, he was always a boy wonder, a Peter pan type who would never die.
I wanted to talk to him about spiritual matters but everytime I thought about it, I remembered the awkward experience I had with him at my grandmother’s several years prior.
Entering his hospital room that day, I noticed he had a face I remembered very well: the face of depression.
“You talk to my doctor?” he asked almost soon as I walked in the door. I’m not sure what I said; I was trying to make it seem like I didn’t know he was dying.
“Don’t think I’m gonna make it out this time, Tam,” he said staring straight ahead.
“Oh you’ll make it” I said trying, my best to sound optimistic, “You always do.” He’d had been hospitalized for practically nine months several years ago, due to complications with minor surgery.
“No, not this time,” he said, his voice trailing off. We talked about a few of other things. I was trying hard to change the subject.
Inside, I prayed silently that the Lord would help me lead him to Himself. We sat for a good while. I couldn’t take my eyes off him; he couldn’t look at me.
“So they got mansions up there?” he asked, looking me directly in my eyes. “I heard that once and never forgot it,” he said, trying to sound tough.
I told him yes and explained what the scriptures said in John 14. I reminded him of how much he enjoyed family reunions and told him that he would have one of the best reunions if he went to heaven.
“Yeah, that’s what I want… to see my family” he responded, flashing what I thought was a faint smile.
So right there in his hospital room that crisp fall afternoon, I led Billy to Christ. The first thing he noticed was that he was no longer afraid. “I’m ready now,” he said, relaxing his shoulders. We sat for the next 45 minutes in total silence as he enjoyed his born again bliss. His countenance was peaceful.
Shortly after, he had a visitor who entered the room and sat silently as well.
After a while, Billy said, “You all can leave now.” We did.
During the weeks that followed, my uncle would tell anyone who visited him that he had said the sinner’s prayer.
“Close the curtain, will ya? My niece is here and we are going to have prayer,” he would say to the nurses. We would pray practically every time I visited him and I would read him the Psalms.
“I know that it’s not enough just say a prayer, you have to serve Him…I didn’t do that.” he said sadly as we discussed his life.
His transformation blew me away. Once, on the drive to the nursing home, he told me that someone had invited him to a local eatery, to listen to jazz. “I don’t think I want to do that,” he told me that day. It was as if he didn’t want anything to taint his newborn soul.
Billy’s doctors had done all they could to make him comfortable, but his organs were failing. He went to his sister’s home to die.
I had to go back to Maryland, as I had accepted a work assignment and was scheduled to report to California by the end of the month.
By the time I’d returned to Maryland from California, Billy had died peacefully at his sister’s home, with loved ones around him.
I chose not to attend his funeral. I went to work instead. I didn’t need to pay my final respects. I had done so by providing care for him for almost two months.
I heard it was a beautiful service. Full of laughter and life. A real celebration of a soul who loved folly, family…and faith.
One night I dreamed of him. He was living in a penthouse way up high. His place was so far up, the tree tops that could be seen below resembled green grains of sand.
I was visiting him and sitting at his dining room table with other family members. He was rearranging the furniture in the rooms, telling us that he was going to make the living room his bedroom and his bedroom, the living room.
We sat there befuddled as we watched him drag a huge antique mahoghany headboard out to the living room. A relative asked why he wanted to switch the rooms. Billy simply said it made more sense to do it that way.
He always had a logic only he understood.
“It’s his place; let him do what he wants,” I said to the family member with a smirk on my face.
I woke up pondering the dream. It didn’t need much interpretation.
Billy had found his mansion.
“Don’t know why Billy was making his living room a bedroom, but he did,” I said to myself laughing as I rose to start my day.