Of all the songs I listened to back in ’89, few made me think more about my future than Mike + The Mechanics’ “The Living Years.” It’s not a great song, not one that I’d recommend everyone I know to listen to. But it’s a contemplative piece, one that I’ve thought about off and on over the past two decades as my relationship with my father has improved, while the one with my mother has declined and remains somewhat strained. Luckily, both have spent time with my son Noah over the past six years.
I used to think that I didn’t have any regrets, that I maxed out my life as best I could so that there wouldn’t be anything to regret as I’ve grown older. Although that’s mostly true, it’s not, not in total. My deepest regret is that I didn’t have the courage to stand up for myself and my mother all those years ago. If I had not worn my kufi to my first day of seventh grade, at least made a move for my crush #1, and called the police on my idiot ex-stepfather, maybe so many other things it took me between the ages of twelve and twenty-four to figure out would’ve happened much, much sooner. Maybe I would’ve written Boy @ The Window in the ’90s instead of the ’00s. Maybe, just maybe, I would’ve earned a different set of degrees and be well on my way as the writer and author I still aspire to be.
But despite those regrets, at least by the time I first heard Mike + The Mechanics’ “Living Years,” I had found enough of myself to think about whom I wanted to be and how to get there. It was my junior year at Pitt, and my first full year without the personification of my abuse living at 616 anymore. It was a time of dates and new friendships, of thinking about the prospect of graduate school. It was, even with the stress of third-semester calculus, multiple integrals and differential equations, a fun time for me.
It was also a time of learning how to see myself for whom I was at that moment and not the person I felt I needed to be for most of the ’80s. I wasn’t just some skinny kid who was scared to have sex because I didn’t want anyone to get pregnant or someone whose sole purpose in life was to be there for his mother and for his four younger siblings. I was also a six-foot, nearly two-inch tall Black male who was a student and wanted more out of life than just striving for an emotional break from my past or for a 4.0 average for one semester.
So I did something that I hadn’t done in nearly four years. I started writing down my experiences from those most traumatic of days. My mother being beaten up in front of me. My running away from 616 and spending the night sleeping at Mount Vernon High School. My experiences in Humanities and with my former classmates. I hadn’t seen myself as a writer in years by then. Yet here I was, writing down my experiences, conversation for conversation, and almost word for for.
I had kept journals before, when I was eleven and twelve, before the crushing burdens of life and a horrible marriage had pushed writing — and reading — out of my mind. I tried at fifteen — in the summer of ’85 — to write down my account of what happened to my mother on Memorial Day ’82. I got just far enough not to start crying. I shut it down, deciding that August ’85 wasn’t the right time to write about such things.
But after my mother and my stepfather split in June ’89, all I could think of doing was to write. I wanted to write a book about my mother’s experiences on welfare and in welfare offices. I wanted to interview case workers and case managers, to learn about their experiences with their clients, to understand what made them as calloused as an iron worker’s hands. I wanted to write about my academic success, to understand what made me tick. I wanted to see a real history of race and poverty, education and educational politics written from the perspective of someone who lived with the sights, sounds and smells of inequality every day.
Still, I had some more growing to do. With the earthquake in the Bay Area in mid-October, I found myself re-evaluating everything and everyone who had been in my life for the previous eight years. Should I continue to communicate with classmates whom still barely saw me as an acquaintance, much less a friend? Did I still like watching baseball, or was I watching it out of habit? How do I support my mother and younger siblings now that the biggest threat to their future has moved on without them? Was I free now to make up my own mind about my future, my life, my calling without fear or without concern for anyone other than myself? Some of these questions took a few months to answers. Others would take years. But for me, these were truly the beginning of my living years, where the specter of danger and death no longer seemed so real in my life.