My son is home from school. He stays in bed while I take his little sister to her fourth grade class. He watches about eight hours of television. I have to work. We watch Skyfall together in the morning. The violence is a little beyond what I would normally allow, but something about a father and son watching a spy thriller together…I can’t resist. A final showdown at the Scottish manor. Helicopters and explosions. Cars with semi automatics in the headlights. Sawed-off shotguns.
I pick my daughter up at 3:30 while he stays at home. I take her to the grocery. We talk about persimmons and how to tell if they’re ripe. She asks me how I decide which chicken to buy. I explain about air-chilled, and free-range, and grain-fed, and hormone-free. I realize that I don’t actually understand “air-chilled.” I send her clear across the store to go find peanut oil. She does. I am impressed.
In the car, she asks about her brother. I tell her he’s home alone. She is quiet for a few more minutes. Then she tells a story of the time her mother went to the store and left them home alone. And they heard a sound. An explosion of some kind. And her older brother started panicking, telling her it was gunshots, telling her to close the blinds and hide on the floor. And how she became terrified and FaceTimed Mommy from her iPad. And Mommy tried to calm her down, but eventually came right home, leaving a cart filled with groceries in the aisle.
Helicopters are already circling downtown.
She tells me that she now knows that they were overreacting. That it was probably fireworks. It didn’t sound like real gunshots. She has heard real gunshots. They happened one afternoon while she was playing in the schoolyard. The teachers told them to run inside and they didn’t even have to line up. That’s how she knew it was serious.
We come back home and the kids are reunited. Rare is the day that one has school and the other doesn’t. They are so used to being together in the same cars, on the same schedule, even at different schools, that when they see each other, there is awkwardness. They want to check in. If they were adults, they might say “how was your day?” and “I missed you!” But they are not adults. So they argue about who is the worst teacher at the elementary school, and then reminisce about funny episodes of sitcoms that they’ve watched. She quizzes him on his menu, keen to make sure that he didn’t get an ice cream or a cookie on his day off. She’s always keeping track of things like this. Everything must be even.
The grand jury decision is expected to be read at 8pm CST.
She begins her homework. He watches vaguely racist and sexist YouTube videos.
I make her a snack of plain yogurt and granola.
Rumors are starting to spread that there will be no indictment.
I already know there will be no indictment. I’ve been a black man in America for a long time.
The house is quiet, everyone engrossed in their screens. I am agitated, scrolling social media, lead in the pit of my stomach.
We’ve been here before. As a family.
We are black people in Oakland. We talk about race a lot. We talk about gender a lot. We discuss transphobia and homophobia a lot. We discuss capitalism and civil rights a lot. We’ve heard helicopters and chants and seen the streets burn. We’ve been to protests. We’ve held signs and played drums. We’ve had our car broken into and our heart-covered backpack and pink size 3 trench coat stolen from the front seat on the first night of Occupy. We’ve driven past armies of cops in riot gear in our minivan. We’ve been here before. We are black people in Oakland.
I send them to the corner store, so they can get outside and I can have some quiet. They have $3 each. I wonder if they’ll be attacked walking down the street. Black people sometimes get attacked when white people are scared of the reality of race.
Darren Wilson is not charged, and it makes me wonder if someone is going to attack my black children.
I decide to make tacos al pastor. I’m keeping it simple this week because Thanksgiving is a few days away and there’s going to be a shitload of cooking for that. I already have some frozen pork that I made months ago. I heat up the meat and tortillas. I am not very woo woo at all, but the one thing I know is that when I cook while agitated, the food does not taste good. I try to calm down but I can’t. I bring my phone and Twitter feed into the kitchen, and scroll with my pinky, leaving cumin residue on my screen.
They return with Rollos and 7 Up.
People are now live-tweeting the speech. Apparently it’s taking forever. “What’s next, an interpretive dance?” a particularly funny tweet asks. The tortillas burn. I throw them out. Start again.
I consider playing the press conference on the living room TV. But my daughter warned me about that. She warned me when she told me how frightened she was of the firecracker that may have been a gun. What will the TV show my 9-year-old before she goes to sleep? I decided to let them stay lost in Netflix.
The food is…meh. Pork is overcooked. Salad dressing too vinegary. Beans underdone. But the rice turns out great. When all else fails I can always make amazing Spanish rice. Nevertheless, they finish every last bite and ask for more.
I retire upstairs while they do the post-dinner chores.
I want to put my phone down, but I can’t. Every moment without it feels terrifying. I read more on Twitter. Protesters have taken to the street. They’ve closed down 580, the freeway. I’m happy for them. Friends are uploading videos. I’ve been to enough protests in Oakland. I know this will be relatively harmless. A few white kids with masks will try to break shit. The police will not be stupid and everyone will go home relatively unscathed. It just has that feel.
It’s hard to continue. I wish it was my kids’ bedtime. I wish the dishes were done. I wish the house was clean. I wish America wasn’t racist. I wish Mike Brown was in police custody. I wish Darren Wilson admitted guilt. I wish America admitted guilt.
I post on Facebook “How do you parent on a night like this?” People respond with advice about how to talk to kids about race. Well-meaning, but missing the point. I don’t mean “What do you say?” I mean “How do you go on?”
How do you go on.
How do you make lunch for tomorrow and sweep and handle bath time?
How do you parent with a permanently broken heart?
I text their mother. “Hi” I say. She responds. But I stop. She is white. I don’t actually want to talk to any white people right now. I love her though. She is an exceedingly kind, strong and loving person. And I make a note to tell her that the next time I see her.
My son is being a dick.
He keeps messing with his sister. He keeps not following directions. He keeps jumping around the house like a…well like an 11-year-old boy. My patience is wearing thin. I want to yell at him. Will you calm the fuck down?! Do you know what the fuck is happening out there?! But I don’t. Because he will know way sooner than I want him to.
Mike Brown kept messing with people.
Mike Brown kept jumping around.
Mike Brown kept not following directions.
But when I tell him to brush his teeth and he bullshits for another 10 minutes. I finally lose it.
“Hey!” I yell. The room grows intensely quiet. “Get your shit together.”
I can see behind his eyes as he calculates how to respond. Another joke? An angry backlash? He does neither. He looks hurt. He fixes me with a sad stare, milking it just a bit, and then mopes upstairs. When he is five steps away, I call him back. He makes a joke of not wanting to get closer to me. “Come here” I say. He moves an inch. “No HERE.” He moves another. “HERE!” We do our little routine a few times more. We watch a lot of comedy together.
When he is close enough to touch, I reach out and hold him to me like I’ve maybe never held anyone to me in my entire life. I feel his warmth. The narrowness of his bones. The quick beat of his little heart. I bury my face awkwardly in the back of his neck. I choke back tears. I don’t want tears now.
“Dad. Are you alright?” He knows this is the next funny thing to say.
“I love you” is all I can manage.
I stop before it gets any weirder for him. “I love you too, Dad. You’re a great dad.” And I can tell he means it.
Later they are both in my bed, in jammies, wet and clean from showers, blankets pulled to their chins. I read them two chapters from E.L. Konigsburg’s From The Mixed Up Files Of Basil E Frankweiler. They are fixated. They laugh hysterically at parts. They sit quietly rapt at others. Good food, good hugs, and good writing. For a second, I think I may have solved all the world’s problems.
She falls asleep after a time, curled like a conch shell in the vastness of my bed. He, as per usual, won’t quit. He begs me to continue. I tell him that it’s not fair to her. He is disappointed but understanding. He turns off the lamp next to my bed, and nestles himself in my blankets, not even pretending that he’s going to his own room, not even pretending that it matters where I sleep.
I read Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony by the light of my phone.
Two hours later, I’m prepared to try and face the darkness and quiet of night.
I look at them both lying in my bed. They are unbelievably gorgeous children.
The thing about sleeping kids is that, in that moment, you can express your love for them in its complete fullness. I stare at them for a long time and memorize their faces. I allow these faces to be etched into my soul for all of eternity. I do this because I’m afraid I will lose them. I do this because I know I will lose them.
I may have even said “I hope you don’t ever grow up.”
But now, one day later, I’m not sure if I did.
Follow Carvell on Twitter @carvellwallace. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Manifest Station. It has been republished with permission. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.