Monday, July 27, 2009

Inspiration Through Tragedy

Five years ago this past Thursday, my cousin Michael Douglas Hairston was taken from this world in an act of violence that is so common to my home city, Washington, DC, that the event only received a paragraph in the next day's paper. We affectionately knew him as 'Douggie.' Being an only child and having cousins that were all mostly old enough to be already married with their own kids and family, Douggie was the closest thing that I had to a brother. He was about eight years older than me and would always come over to play video games, hang out, or just be around me and my mother. I always looked up to him, in that way that little kids look up to the figures in their lives that are grown but still young enough to remember what it's like to relate. He looked up to me, too, in a way, because of my success in school and being a 'good kid.' You see, my cousin had anger problems which translated to school issues and eventually a high school dropout. I saw him at his most vulnerable at times, frantic with tears that wondered what his place in this world was. I often remember him like that, but I try to keep the memories of the fun-loving jokester who would stay up late nights to play Halo, talk, or have pillow fights at the forefront of my mind.

I received the call while riding on a bus to the mall with a summer program I was in (MS Squared). My mother told me that she had bad news and that Douggie was dead. At first, it didn't really hit me. It was like hearing something happen to someone else, or watching a car crash from very far away. I remember the call ended shortly after that and then a new wave of reality and realization came over me. I called her back and we cried together. I asked how...why...when, these questions that wouldn't make anything better but they felt like maybe if I kept asking, maybe if I kept getting more information, something would change and my cousin would be alive. Because there is nothing quite as final as death. If you get a call that someone is sick or in the hospital, has cancer, been in a car crash, or even shot, you can still have hope. But once you hear those words 'he's dead' you think it must be some sick joke but you just know that no one would joke like that and no hope can exist.

Douggie was shot and killed over an altercation that, if my information is correct, involved some women on DC streets in the middle of the night. He was DOA. In the papers, he wasn't named. All he had meant to me was reduced to '25-year-old man.'

The first time I wrote about Douggie was for my admissions essay to Stanford University. A little bit before I had gotten a piece printed in The Washington Post (In DC, A Life and Death Overlooked), but honestly, my mom wrote the bulk of that and wanted me to put my name on it because she writes to The Washington Post often and had exceeded her quota (or something). It felt kind of wrong so we agreed that I would change things up a bit and add my own writing to it. So it's about 50% my words and 50% hers. But anyway, in my essay I talked about Douggie's death, its impact on my life, and how I was more committed to helping people and lending a hand to those less fortunate so that they wouldn't fall by the 'wayside' like my cousin. I sometimes think that my essay is what got me in to Stanford and that is a haunting thought. Would I have been admitted if I hadn't wrote that essay? Even deeper, would I have been admitted if my cousin hadn't died?

I have had these thoughts for a while, but recently a special friend of mine put it the best (I think so, anyway):
"We are all handed specific outcomes in life which set us on particular courses none of which any of us think can bring our lives to an end. I am sure that at many pivotal points in your life you are gonna reflect on [Douggie], but also know that he created the ripple he was suppose to make and that his life is still continuing through those he impacted in life and in death. You are one of his ripples and your offspring will be as well."
It's hard for me to think that my cousin's life was meant to be some kind of inspiration for others, or some kind of lesson for us all to learn from. I don't doubt these wise words, but since his death I have often wished that we could trade places. Not on some 'I don't want to live anymore' tip, but moreso that I would want for him to be able to experience the same opportunities, successes, and joys that I have had. So it is bittersweet when I write about my cousin. In a way, I know he'd be proud and honored, but in another way I feel like I am exploiting his death, even though that is not my purpose at all.

More recently, my cousin has flowed into my creative works. In the novel that I want to write based on my experiences in Ecuador (Souls of Rain), I visualize the main character fleeing the States after committing murder in avenging his own cousin/brother's death. I even want him to be from DC. I often thought about what would happen if I had tried to go that route, the revenge route. I even know the name of the shooter. It was one of those thoughts that I knew I'd never actually act on or would never be more than just a thought, like when people dream of flying, having magic powers, or wanting to kill their boss (<--I guess some people DO do that, but just humor me). I guess that's also one thing about writing, you get to explore scenarios that connect to your own life, scenarios that just would have never worked out. Do I think it will bring some type of redemption or comfort? Not that specific part, but I think that exploring the emotional struggles of a character much like myself through writing can be both therapeutic and honoring.

I'm also working on a screenplay that's more tightly based on my cousin's death. There are a lot of questions that surround not only his death, but his life as well. Some of these things, I think, are too personal to divulge here, but certain truths came out after his death that just left a lot more things unanswered. In my screenplay I wish to explore those questions and provide my own kind of answers. It is my first attempt at a full-length screenplay.

I know that my cousin's life and death has had great affect on me. I still think about him a lot and the issues that I bring up here still haunt me. In the end, I hope that any work I create or path that I take that is inspired by his existence is something he would be proud of. Although I am not completely comfortable with being one of his 'ripples', if that's what God intended for me to be, then I plan to be one that reaches all the way to the ends of the pond so that everyone on shore will know not only my story, but his too.

1 comment:

  1. First, let me just say how sorry I am about your cousin. I can't imagine what it must've been like to lose someone that you were so close to in such a horrific way. My heart goes out to you.

    I am so drawn to this post because I have had similar feelings and wondered things along these same lines.

    Years ago I applied to NYU as a transfer student and wrote an essay about my childhood. I wrote about my alcoholic mother and absent father; I wrote about being abused; I wrote about living in foster care and being the only person in my family to finish high school (let alone go to college.) When I got into NYU, I was proud, but I always wondered if I got in because of the adversity I had lived through, and was I exploiting my childhood (myself?) to get something?

    Now I feel a little differently. We're all dealt a certain set of cards (so to speak) when we come into this world, and the hand we're dealt becomes the frame of reference in which we view the world. Whatever happens in your life shapes you and that's what you have to work with. I think rather than looking at using the things that happen in our lives as an exploitation of sorts, I see it as playing the hand we're dealt to the best of our ability. You can either allow your circumstances to keep you a part of the cycle, or you can use them to get out of it...if that makes any sense.

    Your work is very interesting--write on! And go wherever you need to go with your work to make sense of the chaos and take something useful from it. Blessings & Light