We Christians really love talking about grace- unmerited favor, gifts we don't deserve, blessings we couldn't earn. And grace is good. I'm down with grace, but I also really love mercy.
I had three cousins growing up. One was the girl I wanted to follow everywhere! I wanted to know what she was wearing, where she was going, and when she would be back to tell me all about it. I had the cousin who played tickle monster with me, who entertained me endlessly, and always made me laugh. And then there was Dalin. He was larger than life. He was cool. Elusive. He had a laugh that rocked the house, but he used it sparingly. He was only going to laugh if it was funny. He had friends who constantly walked in and out of the house. I couldn't keep track of them, but I always knew when Dalin was around. He was older than me (all of them were). So Dalin and I never really talked- not like with with my other cousins. But I liked him. I found myself often trying to inch closer to him when he slowed down long enough to eat a Thanksgiving meal at the table or sat on the porch during the 4th of July. He was funny, but you had to sit close to hear him (until he laughed, of course).
As we got older all of our lives took very different directions. I want to Catholic school and then college. Dalin fell in love with rap music, produced cds, and learned far more about the streets than I likely ever will. Eventually Dalin ended up in jail- a couple times. In my insular world, I didn't really know what to do with that. My social justice wings hadn't grown yet. I didn't know much about police brutality or illegal searches. I wasn't aware of public defender offices or how money is tied to a good defense. I didn't know much about life behind bars. And consequently, I no longer knew much about him.
In the years that he was away I don't recall once asking my aunt or cousins about how he was doing. I don't recall ever asking my dad to make sure we told my aunt (his sister) that we are thinking about him. I don't recall asking about him during major holidays when our family was sure to gather together- Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day. I didn't suddenly dislike him. We were just so far away from one another before, I didn't know how to cross this new barrier to our relationship, and I didn't try.
My cousin was home for one holiday, and we finally talked. Me and my "big cousin" had a real conversation with words and everything. I was on cloud nine. So when I later heard he was inside again (and therefore would not be making another family function for some years), I was genuinely disappointed, but again I did nothing.
Life continued to pass, and my understanding started to grow, culminating with my formal education in social justice. As part of the course we had to read a book about prison life. It rocked me. The book itself was good (sorry I don't remember the name), but I read it only partially a story about the author. For me, I was reading a story about my cousin. It was filling in gaps and holes to questions I had never asked. And for the first time I stopped thinking about my cousin as an object whose personality I wanted to enjoy and rather as a person- a real person- who's life was unfolding in ways I couldn't begin to imagine.
And in 2010 I decided to do something about it. I got on the internet. Figured out where he was and the protocol for writing letters. I bought stationary and wrote about 127 drafts of my first letter to my "big cousin". As I signed it, I got stuck. It had been years since I saw him. We only had one real conversation in my entire life. I love him. But would he believe me? I had absolutely no evidence to prove that I loved this man. Would he laugh and tear it up? Would it become a joke he'd tell to those around him? Would he call home and ask his aunt if I was for real? I was so scared of rejection (and for good reason) that I signed something generic. I slipped it in the mail, and waited and waited and waited. And then it came.
He wrote back. My fingers trembled as I picked up the letter. I was too scared to open it. I sat in my car staring at it, hoping it wasn't a letter telling me where I could shove my feelings. My hands shook so badly I ended up ripping the envelope something terrible, but the letter remained intact. I had a hard time focusing, but willed myself to slow down, breathe, and read every word. It was the most beautiful letter I have ever received in my life. His first line was "I know we haven't talked in a long time but we are family, and I love you". That was the FIRST LINE, friends! It only got better from there. By the time I got to the end, I was crying.
First I was crying because I knew I was finally going to get to know my cousin. We were going to be pen pals until he got out. We would start now, and by the time he joined the next family affair, we'd be old friends. But I was also crying because I knew this email could have rightfully been accusatory. I deserved far worse than what my cousin gave me that day. He had mercy on me. He forgave me. And I was overwhelmed by how completely I experienced hope and mercy in that moment.
I started the next letter and plopped it in the mail. But I don't know if he ever got it.
For more then 40 years, my family has gathered for Memorial Day. We go to the cemetery, clean off the headstones, and share our favorite memories of the deceased. We laugh through our tears as we remember aloud. When we get to the final site, we hold hands and pray as a family. If our family circle remains unbroken that year, we praise God for that. If we've lost someone dear to us, we ask for the strength to make it through.
That day we were asking for strength. You see earlier that weekend, we lost my Uncle John. So we stood there in support of on one another, propping one another up as we continued this family tradition. We usually did this in the morning, but it had been raining. So we waited for the storm to pass before going out. Once our tradition was complete, we went back to the house and ate, comforting one another and telling stories. (My family can tell stories like nobodies business). And then it was time to go. We all stood in a circle and prayed, gave out hugs and kisses, and turned to leave.
Before I could make it out the door, a young man pulled up to the curb, almost landing on the grass. He got out the car so fast, he didn't even bother shutting the door. Taking the stairs two at a time, he raced into the house. There were too many bodies for him to make sense of, we were still hugging and crying, and he wasn't sure why. What was going on? In desperation he yelled out, "Is it true? Is Dalin dead?"
The room stopped cold. For a second no one moved as his words sank in. All the air was sucked out of the room as we collectively inhaled in surprise. My aunt was the first to speak, "What are you talking about?" she yelled back from the other side of the room.
The young man started talking faster. Something about a storm and a phone call and other things we just couldn't process. Suddenly the room erupted. We hadn't even had the funeral for my uncle yet, and now we potentially had two unexpected deaths on our hands. It was too much. I've never heard wailing like this in my life.
I sent my sister outside to tell my dad to get his Bible and come on back in the house. We weren't going anywhere for awhile.
For hours we waited. My dad expertly moved among the family members as waves of mourning and exhaustion rose and fell among them. For hours we waited. The emotions were so think in the room as we wondered if this night would end in relief or pain. For hours we waited. We alternately grabbed on to hope with all of our might, until it gave way to despair. And when despair had momentarily run its course, we'd grab onto hope again. For hours we waited. We called and called and called. Until finally my only girl cousin (the one I wanted to emulate) had enough. She picked up her phone, called the prison, and refused to get off the phone. She refused. She explained that her mother had already lost her husband this week, and we needed to know if she also lost her son. She was not getting off that phone until someone told us if he was still with us, or if he was gone. She was tenacious, and it worked.
We held our breath as my aunt took the phone. We all focused on her face as she listened to the voice on the other end. She gave no clues until the call was done. Her daughter kneeled down in between her legs, staring at her face. They saw only each other in that moment. As my aunts eyes filled with tears, her daughter whimpered, "no." over and over "no. no. no. no." At first in a small voice barely perceptible to those not around. The two clung to each other. And the wave moved across the room. We were exhausted but now we knew. He was gone.
The same storm that had stalled our tradition, headed his direction. He was out in the yard when the storm came. Unable to get inside, he was struck by lightening and passed away.
It was a day no one in our family will ever forget.
For weeks after, I searched our mailbox. Hoping against hope he received my letter and wrote one back. For weeks I held my breath, not wanting our new relationship to be gone so soon. But none came, and eventually I had to mourn that it was done.
Turns out my aunt received a ton of letters from other inmates. The letters told her how much of a difference Dalin had made in their lives. How he had mentored them, cared for them, shared with them. Apparently I wasn't the only person who experienced an extraordinary amount of hope and mercy through him.
So today, I am thankful for mercy. And I am filled with hope that one day I will walk 'round heaven with all those we've lost. And I'll be sure to inch my way over to Dalin and wait for that laugh.
*please forgive typos. As you can imagine this is a difficult story to recount and then re-read.