The phone rang at 5 a.m. Then it rang again. Then again. The insistence of it was the only reason I answered at that early hour. It was my mom and aunt. I could only partially make out what they were saying. Both were in tears, voices shaking, neither able to form a complete sentence. “Stabbed. Motel. Hospital.”
Finally, I understood. My cousin had been murdered. I later learned that he’d been stabbed in the neck with a homemade shank inside the Houston motel room where he’d been living.
By 9 a.m., I was in a meeting with the dean of my college, where I’m a professor. Then, because I’m also a film director, I went straight to an editing session to complete a film I’d be showing the next week in Cincinnati. My first thought was to cancel it all, but there wasn’t really anything I could do. My cousin’s body was part of a murder investigation, and none of us were allowed to see him until he was transported back to San Antonio to be buried. It was a practical decision, but it also gave me cover. If I immersed myself in work, I wouldn’t have to feel what I was feeling. He could be alive for one more day.
The next afternoon I drove to Houston to see his wife and my mother, who had arrived the night before. I didn’t know then that I’d end up at the scene of the crime and hear from someone who’d witnessed the entire gruesome murder firsthand. A man about his age stood there for 10 minutes detailing the whole violent scene.
My cousin was in his room when a man he knew entered. About five minutes later my cousin came out, blood covering his shirt. Putting it all together, we figured the guy crept up from behind him and stabbed him in the neck. Our evidence came from the blood splatters on the ceiling, the curtains, the bed post, the floor — in my reflection in the mirror as I stood staring into it, fighting back tears that could have easily been his, in a fate that could have just as easily been mine.
A struggle ensued, and my cousin fought him off. Blood spewing from his neck, he took off out of the room and ran into the hotel breezeway. I stepped in his dried blood that trailed from the bed to the door and out into the foyer. The guy followed, and they ended up scuffling against a wall, where he delivered the fatal blow to my cousin’s neck.
No fight left and now just running for what life he still had, my cousin took off down the stairs, where his body finally gave out. I stood at the bottom of those very stairs, where a small vigil of candles and flowers had been set up.
That was three years ago. It’s taken me this long to think clearly about it, to process it, to make some sense of the devastating loss. For three years, I’ve wondered why I needed to see this. Why, after my family urged me not to go there, something pulled me to the place where my cousin took his final breath, to literally walk the footprint of his murder.
I’ve come to realize that witnessing was my way of both understanding and accepting. Understanding why he died. Accepting that his death was real. Hearing it was one thing, but walking the path, trying to relive his final tragic moments, was the catharsis I needed.
A few days later, I stood in front of his body at a private viewing the funeral home had arranged for me. He lay on a gurney covered in a white sheet. I had five minutes. Five minutes to honor him and say my final goodbyes. Five minutes to imprint this image in my mind. Five minutes to touch him one last time.
Standing there I wondered about all he could have been, and as tears streamed down my cheeks, survivor’s guilt set in. Could I have done more? If I hadn’t distanced myself would things have been different? How did I make it out and he didn’t?
I had never known my existence without his. I call him my cousin even though we’re really not related at all. I’d lived in his home. He’d lived in mine. His mom and my mom did everything together for a time. There were seasons when we were inseparable. We both lived in the same housing project in San Antonio. Both of us were raised by single mothers. Both of us spent a lot of our time in church. Both of us dodged stray bullets walking home from school. Both of us were tempted to become corner boys. Either of us could have gotten lost to the streets, but instead I became a professor and filmmaker, and he lay lifeless in front of me, a victim of street violence.
Similar violence that had taken his 22-year old stepson only a month prior — a tragic irony that was not lost on me, and one that made his death even the more difficult to process. In the forgotten jungles of America’s inner-cities, dying young is oftentimes passed from one generation to the next.
My cousin had become an addict. It was addiction that had him living in the hotel where he took his last breath, there on the stairs between freedom and bondage, between the gravitational pull of the streets and his soaring dreams.
Many of us assume that those lost to addiction and violence have no dreams and aspirations, an assumption that is doubly reinforced when it comes to Black people. We overlook the societal issues that plague so many from birth, overlooking the fact that fatigue and hopelessness come quickly when you’re born fighting. My cousin had dreams — dreams we’d talk about over the phone, over meals or when we were just hanging out. He wanted more, but life piled so much on top of him that those dreams seemed like fantasies, and aspiring to fantasies seemed futile.
My cousin’s short 36 years on Earth were extremely complicated. Gangster. Preacher. Drug dealer. Felon. Addict. Good father and husband some days. Neglectful husband and father on just as many, if not more. A man who survived a gunshot that almost took his life more than a decade before a hand-sharpened shank did.
Cousin, I know that you had such great hopes and dreams for yourself. That you wanted to be better. That although you lost the battle, you never stopped fighting to free yourself from the demons that had you bound. I learned so much from your tragedies and triumphs. You’ll always be a part of me, because you left an indelible impression on my life. I loved you your entire life, Chad Adonis Jones, and I’ll continue to love you until we meet again.
Ya’Ke Smith is an associate professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin, an award-winning TV and film director, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.