Monday, July 17, 2006

July 17, 1996

My mom was at Yale for the month of July 1996. She was there at a summer writing workshop, similar to the kind she did at Yale, Harvard and other Ivy League schools when she was an undergrad at Jackson State College in the 1960s.

Mom was at Yale, Jordan was at Washington & Lee at a summer program, getting ready for his senior year in high school, and Marjon was visiting my aunt Sebetha in Hawkins, Texas.

I was working at Cable Access of Dallas that summer. That was my summer of vindication. Having just been accepted at Morehouse College on May 8th of that year, I spent the summer working and preparing to enroll at Morehouse that August.

I remember it being unusually hot that day, and the ride home from Cable Access seemed to take longer than usual. I made it home before my Dad, and made a turkey sandwhich on rye and took a nap. Later Dad came home and we talked for a while, and eventually he made himself dinner and I went upstairs.

The Olympics had just begun, so the buzz was all about Atlanta, the place that I would soon call my temporary residence. I remember that clearly, July 17th was a Wednesday.

My Dad is the oldest of three. His sister Alecia, or Aunt Lisa as I called her, lived in New York. His brother Michael or Uncle Mike, lived in Houlton, Maine.

Aunt Lisa was the coolest. She lived in New York and loved it supremely. She got married in the late 1980s and moved from New York to Atlanta, and later had a daughter, my cousin Twyla Jewell. Aunt Lisa taught English at Morehouse in the 90s and got her Masters at UGA. She was too cool, and even let my brother Jordan lecture in one of her English classes at Morehouse when we came to visit in 1992.

That summer, Lisa and Twyla were going to Europe for a vacation and a writer's workshop. Actually, they were headed out to Europe that day on a morning flight. I thought about the flight, and them that morning, and the glee in Lisa's voice as she told me about her new apartment and what she would be doing in Europe.

The last time I'd seen her was in New York in the summer of 1994. We dined at the Tavern on the Green together one night, and later that week went to Riverside Church with her. As I said, she was the coolest.

I called out to Dad,
Me: "Dad!!! What airlines was Lisa flying?"
Dad: "TWA, son."
Me: "Dad, was she flying out of LaGuardia?"
Dad: "Yes, son."
Me: "Dad...was...she..."
Dad: "No son, she took the earlier flight out this morning."

So, she and Twyla were set to fly to Europe that morning, but they missed their flight, and caught a later one out of LaGuardia. Dad and I didn't know that as we both watched news footage of TWA Flight 800 burning in the Hudson Bay. We didn't know that Lisa and Twyla were on that flight. We didn't know that what we were watching, and seemingly couldn't turn away from, was the slow, mysterious death of my aunt and my first cousin. But, like I said, I didn't know.

The next day at work, everyone was talking about it, and how sad it was. I hadn't given it to many more thoughts other than how horrible it must've been for the people whose lives it had affected.

I was at work on Friday, and I got a call from my Dad while I was producing a show at Cable Access.

Dad: "Joseph...when are you getting off of work?"
Me: "5 Dad, why?"
Dad: "Come home as soon as possible son, okay?"
Me: "Okay Dad."

Now, with my mother at Yale for the month, and my brother at Washington & Lee, my mind was racing as to what had happened. I heard a great sense of urgency in my father's voice. I rushed home, and it struck me as odd when he mentioned to me to "not answer the phone."

I made it home minutes before he did, and I was sitting in our living room on one of the white couches that we're really not allowed to sit on except for Christmas and special occassions.

The blinds in the front of the house were left open, and I saw my Dad's black jade LS 400 roll down the street and up into our driveway. He parked the car and jumped out. He didn't even park it in the garage. At this point I was terrified.

I walked out to him, and he motioned me to go inside.

He sat me and my sister who had just come back from Hawkins down.

My father is a strong man. He is a physician, and he deals with the frailties of life and death on a daily basis. So, I was surprised to see him so hesitant to tell us what he had to say. His voice quivered ever so lightly, but his eyes were as clear as the sky as he looked at me and my sister and said these words...

"Guys, you know the flight that crashed on Wednesday night? It turns out that your Aunt Lisa, and Twyla were on that fligh..."

He couldn't get the words out before my sister started to scream, and before I joined in unison. Tears instantly rolled down my face, as they are doing right now as I write this. I couldn't stop crying and I looked up, and my father, who was so strong, and noble, and decent, and right, was crying too at this point. My sister jumped to him, and stumbled over his way, and we all cried...together. I told him that Lisa loved him very much.

As soon as I said it, I remember him saying that newspapers and television shows would be calling soon. Almost immediately, the phone would not stop ringing. And there, in the Dallas Morning News, right on our kitchen table, was the list of the names of the passengers; A. aunt Lisa, Unidentified passenger with A. cousin Twyla.

That night, Mom came home from New Haven, and cut her writing workshop short. A few days later, Jordan came home from Washington & Lee. The people there prayed with him and watched over him that day and the rest of the time he was there. He was the last of us to see her alive, and he and Lisa were very close.

The next day, a family friend of ours who was a newscaster in Dallas, Steve Crocker, came to the house to interview Dad for a story about Lisa and Twyla. It was in the papers, on the was everywhere.

Those were very dark days, very dark days.

A few weeks later, my mother told me that we were going to funeralize Lisa and Twyla in Dallas. Family and friends came from all over the country to be at New Hope Baptist Church that day. I don't remember much of what anyone said, but I do remember and to this day appreciate the outpouring of respect, love and understanding the Dallas community showed my family.

I remember riding to New Hope and sitting next to my Aunt Mary, who is such a beautiful woman. I was pointing out different sites in Dallas on our ride from the house to the church, trying to say anything to keep our minds off of what was happening. I remember walking in to church, and it being solidly packed. The congregation stood up, and it seemed like I was in Muir woods. Everyone seemed so big and tall, and looked at us with such sorrow. I simply couldn't stop crying, and when I did, I looked and saw my cousin's small, white coffin, and I lost it totally. I looked down at my Dad, and he was so poised, but so very hurt. I looked at my Uncle Mike, and he was so deeply wounded by all of this. I looked at my Uncle Kent, who was my aunt's estranged husband and Twyla's father, and he was stoically inconsolable.

The next thing I remember was walking to the cars and driving to Restland Cemetery for the interment. As I stood there, I couldn't watch it happen after awhile and just broke away. She was a baby, and she was gone. She was so sweet, and beautiful, and intelligent and full of life, but it was God's will that it was her time. My cousins and friends rushed over to hold me and console me, but I was a wreck. And yet, while I sat there feeling sorry for myself, I looked back and saw my father and my mother and I noticed their strength. I noticed my amazing Aunt Sebetha consoling my mother. My parents were the picture of stability and being grounded. That type of resilience could only stem from one place, their faith.

A few days later, my father and I boarded a plane for Atlanta, so that I could participate in New Student Orientation and enroll at Morehouse College. We didn't speak much on the flight, but we did when we got to Morehouse.

Dad was so adamant that I walk circumspectfully, and act right and honor my ancestral heritage while there. My Aunt Lisa had taught at Morehouse, and here I was enrolled as a student, like she always wanted. I never knew that he had wanted to attend Morehouse, and in a sense, this opportunity was not one for me, but one for both of us. Though my mother wasn't there physically, she was there in every moment, every move, every word and action as soon as I got there.

That Sunday night, the first night of NSO, in full suit and tie, my Dad and I both walked from Benjamin Elijah Mays Hall's fourth floor to King Chapel. We passed Dansby and Brawley, and as I crossed over Westview, I saw two lines of young men. Each one of them greeted me and shook my hand and said, "Welcome brother." I looked back for my Dad, but he had been escorted through another door and up the stairs. That night, 'Welcome to the House' struck my soul.

It's been ten years since July 17, 1996 and not a day goes by where I don't think about them, nor does a visit home go by where I don't visit the resting place of my aunt and cousin.

Live life to the fullest, and take nothing for granted.

I'm Joe, and that's how I see it.