John was just the nice 18-year-old who lived in the basement in his own bedroom, always smiling.
John came to our family from a foster home of five. He had to leave because of numerous fights in the family and the invasion of his privacy when his foster parents installed cameras where he slept. My parents learned about his plight from our church, Brightmoore Christian, and decided he would live with us.
From the moment I saw John, I knew he was family. It's amazing how one person has the power to change your whole life. That person for me was John, the foster kid, who became my older brother.
John was a surprise. My parents never told me that he would come to live with us. One summer afternoon, before the 5th grade, I came down the basement stairs, skipping steps, a mind full of curiosity.
I wondered, “What is all this for?” I gazed at a large suitcase, a pile of black trash bags, and a plaid plastic bag with a zipper. From the left side of the stairs, I saw a tall, long, slim shadow on the dark sand-shaded carpet; the shadow originated from our basement workout room. I jumped down to the bristled, carpet of the basement floor and decided to investigate. I peeked through the small, creaky, cream door.
Photos by Heather Grasl
I celebrate my amazing gift from my brother John, as he does with mine; we were so good at choosing each others gifts, that we made it an annual Christmas gift exchange, on December 25, 2013. Of course, we added to our Call Of Duty Library
He saw me, and through his stubble-goatee, he grinned.
“Hey!” he blurted out smiling.
“H. Hhheh. Hi,” I replied shakenly.
“I’m John. You must be Sam.”
I analyzed him, and the changes in the old workout room. He wore a cloud-grey knitted sweatshirt, black jeans, and a pair of Jordan sneakers, sneakers I had never seen before. With his right hand occupied by a sponge brush, his dark left hand reached out to me.
My eyes glanced around, the Elliptical Machine was gone. I gripped his hand, replying, “Yes, Sam I am. What are you doing here?”
` “I live here.”
I smiled. I remember always asking John to never change. He said he wouldn't. I told him to never leave us. He promised me. Crossed his heart, and hoped to die.
He broke that promise.
He truly was the brother I always wanted; although he wasn't brother by blood, he was family. My family. He did change. He did leave. His hair grew out, got dreads. His honest smile became only a facade. His lies smothered my peace of mind. He became a danger. I remember back in 6th Grade, John would drop me off at school every Friday. I hated that old white, rusted, car; where every motion of that damn thing came in a skip or hop. As much as I despised that car, fearing for my life, holding the water jug to cool down the engine, I loved my brother. I loved his goofiness, his smile, his undying mission to be happy and to make those around him glow.
John helped me conquer my fear of rollercoasters. With him, I was dauntless. We loved spending time together, our favorite past time- Call Of Duty; the game my mom hates, but we love.
Summer of 2013 things were getting weird with mom and him; something was up. They would always whisper in secrecy, and with this sense of anger that you feel from across the room. I didn't understand what was going on, and that scared me. But I knew that, no matter what it was, as long as we stayed together, we can overcome. If he stayed. If.
Fall, the season my heart fell.
“Hey, John! Do you wanna play some C.O.D?” I asked enthusiastically.
“Yeah, sounds fun. Aye, do me a favor and set it up for me. I gotta go dodooh.”
I ran downstairs, into the basement. Entering our “cave”, well that's what our mom nicknamed it, and set the game up, and waited. And waited.
Thirty minutes had passed. With my glistening eyes, shielded by tears, I went upstairs. I asked my blood brother Zac where John went. He gave me a supercilious stare and said curtly, “Sam, John left like half an hour ago.” I ran downstairs; I couldn't have gone faster, not even if the devil himself was chasing me. And. I. Cried. That was the first time John had ever lied to me. First. Not last.
From that moment on, things just got worse after each day, and every night; he was acting very strange- John came home later and later every night. He would disappear randomly, and pop back at home an hour later, and act like nothing happened, and he would always have these near secretive whispers with mom in his room; always ending with Mom leaving the room with expressions of anger and annoyance. John’s a morning person. Every day he woke up late, rushing out the door, leaving for work, and he just always had an excuse to not hang out with me- but still, he insisted nothing was wrong. John was a horrible liar. Something was wrong, there had to have been. Because why else would he be leaving?
I remember the day he left.
The day he left, I again bounded down the stairs to the basement, a mind full of dread. I wondered “why, what, what are all these bags for?” From the left side of the stairs, I saw a tall, long, slim shadow on the dark sand shaded carpet, originating from John’s room. I jumped down to our thin, short bristled carpeted basement. I decided to investigate. I peeked through the small creaky cream door. He saw me.
“Hey, Sam”, he whimpered, frowning,
“h. hhheh. hi” I replied shakenly “What's going on?”
I analyzed him, and the changes. All his clothes, packed. All his frames, empty. All of it. Everything he owned. Packed. In these five plaid plastic-like bags, zipped up and ready to go.
“I have to go. I have to make some things right.”
I wasn't ready for him to go, nor was he.
February. Thirty-seven days gone. He finally came back! But he brought someone with him. I finally figured it out; John was going to be a father. With her right index finger with long glossed acrylic nails, she pushed the doorbell, I rushed down to open the cherry, hardwood door. With a smile bigger than Mississippi, I greeted the stranger at the door. It was a woman, I later learned to call her my sister. She was wearing this highlighter hot pink shirt, off-brand black leggings, and the darkest blue washed Levi jean jacket I’d ever seen. And a belly.
“Hi, are you Sam?” she said with the same smile of John,
“Yeah? Who are you?” I blurted out.
Before she could finish, my Mom rapidly appeared,
“HI! You must be Jazmine. John had told us so much about you”.
The whole family rushed down to John’s old, empty room. We’re all laughing, sharing joy and positivity.
My mom asked, “Can I feel your belly?”
Jazmine nodded, “Yes, of course, Mom.”
My mom smiled, showing so much happiness for John and Jazmine. And that's when my epiphany came, at that moment I knew our lives would never be the same, and boy was I right.
March 11th, 2014. Myla Rae was born. John’s first and currently only genetic child. I thought things could only get better. Sadly, they only got worse. And worse. John moved in with Jazmine, at her family's apartment: a place highly unsuitable for any child, a small apartment in downtown Detroit, thirteen people living under one roof. All the people living there were either prostitutes or addicts, including Jazmine’s mother. The craziest part about that place was that every time my parents and I went to pick up Myla Rae and her brother Lewis, was that we never went to their home. We always went to some, strange friend’s house- a house where Jazmine had arranged for the kids to stay at for a few days.
My Mom had to report them, it was the right thing to do. The court stated that Myla Rae and Lewis could not stay with their parents until they- my brother and Jazmine- secured a safe place for the kids to live. Finally, after four months of us caring, nurturing, and loving these kids, John and now his wife, Jazmine, found a home in Detroit. It was a fixer-upper, but it worked. Sending those kids back “home” was heartbreaking, hearing them say “I don't wanna go back home”. We wanted them to stay, because we knew that nothing would change, moving houses doesn’t do anything when the problem will always be living with them. We knew these kids deserved more.
John and Jazmine were never happy together; one night the melting pot tipped. They got in a fight, a violent one; the police came- 2 am- my parents rushed to the house, praying no one was hurt. Thank God there was no physical damage, but those kids were traumatized: seeing their mother threatening their father and throwing kitchen knives at him.
This, this was the last straw.
Photos by Heather Grasl
My niece Myla Rae and nephew Lewis tumble and fall in our emassed leaf pile in the front yard October, 2015. If there's one thing they learned from their dad and my oldest brother, John, it was to enjoy falling.
After months of argument in court, my parents won custody of the kids. Two years now, my parents have been the legal guardians Rae and Lewis. Sadly, though, part of the deal made by the court was that neither John nor Jazmine are allowed to see the kids. Their kids. Making it impossible for me to see my brother. I miss seeing him, and my whole family acts like he no longer exists, like he was never part of this family. To help the kids remember who their father is, we have two pictures of him in the house, but these also remind us that he was here, that he was part of us, and that he is still family.
To honor him, I decided to wear his smile for him, to see the positive even in the times we fall.