In literature, an elegy is a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead. Although a speech at a funeral is a eulogy, it can be customary to later compose an elegy to someone you have loved and lost to the grave. The purpose of this kind of writing is to express feelings rather than tell a story. The noun elegy was borrowed in the 16th century from Middle French élégie, from Latin elegīa, from Greek elegeia, from elegos “mournful poem or lament.” This elegy is a lament of my heart on behalf of my family for our dearest brother, husband, father, and uncle Dannie.
In the shock of the immediate loss of Dannie, my emotions and thoughts were a mixture of acute pain along with an urgent need to remember who he was as a full person. Perhaps I felt a call to protect his life legacy from being truncated by the one act of a tragic death. However, my journey to deeper pondering and search for understanding came through phone conversations with my brother just older than me Marvin McBrayer. He took the time to call me during these recent days of grieving to check in on how I was handling things, so I in turn did the same for him. It just happened that way.
Marvin and I talked about our brother Dannie. Covering many areas, we kept trying to perceive together what might have been the root of the despair that could lead our life-loving brother to take his own life. After thinking it over again and again we could come to no absolutely conclusive answer of course, as matters like these are often left unknowable in a complete sense. But there was a general theme that reoccurred as a very likely source of the calamitous clouds that ultimately proved to be more than Dannie’s beams of beautiful sunlight could shine through anymore.
This poignant poem was written by the author of a book that turned into a feature length movie that many may have seen. The film explores themes of abandonment, child abuse, race, psychiatry, and general healing. I have been deeply moved each time I’ve seen Antwone Fisher. It seemed to honor the profound human reality that we seldom truly move beyond deep trauma in our collective or personal lives until these is an equally deep experience of authentic healing. This could be said for a group like Black people who strive to survive the “Maafa” or African Holocaust which includes the Arab and Atlantic slave trades, and continued through imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression to the present day. Or it could be the vulnerable little boy still wounded inside of a grown man, but never healed.
I am fond of revelling in how much me and Dannie look and are alike in so many ways. He used to call me a bad carbon copy and other joking put downs that were part of our brotherly fun. An Adonis of a man physically and Imhotepian in his brilliance, it made me very proud growing up to be even considered a facsimile of the first born son in our family. As I lay in bed early this morning, comparisons between Dannie and me kept swirling through my mind as I struggled to understand what was different about us that would keep me from reaching the same conclusion that he did about life. The answer came to me in a clear vision that was both the fruit of discussions with my brother Marvin as well as a revelation of transfiguration.
With all the problems that have been a part of my life, the core of my childhood is not one. I was blessed to experience a relatively secure upbringing, where needs were met and nurturing love abounded. These were as much the gifts of my doting older brothers and sisters as it was that of my parents, all seemingly in cahoots with an open conspiracy of affection and most notably protection. So in my moments of greatest despair through life, I always had this reservoir of self confidence and intrinsic value to pull from when existential emergencies of personal self worth required it. Along with divine Grace, I have often been able to make it back from the brink of self destruction with this internal tether of love.
I am not here to say that Dannie did not have this. Nor am I offering some psychobabble explanation of the complexities involved with Dannie’s life. My point is mainly to lament for Dannie what some know to be too true. While every home can have its bad and good times, the McBrayer household Dannie grew up in held deep pathologies created or inherited by those within. This is the insight that Marvin shared with me as an older sibling in our talks, but then it became the awareness that I’ve come to know deep in my own heart. Dannie could not find healing as a man because like Antwone Fisher, he needed to discover healing for the little boy within himself first.
In the movie, Antwone’s character acted out his childhood trauma by being temperamental and often behaving violently at inappropriate times. He struggles to find the balance in his life until a compassionate and insightful psychiatrist offers the right therapeutic response he needed (notably without medication), allowing him to begin a self guided journey to real healing. At the core of the healing process were confrontations with his childhood abusers and even his own mother who had abandoned him to that fate. For his own peace of mind, Antwone needed to express how he felt to those who had hurt the little boy inside of him now that he was man enough to stand up for himself. This cathartic exercise of psychic vindication not only freed him from the anger that blinded his ability to see contemporary life clearly, it also allowed Antwone to trust love for the first time with a woman that truly valued him for the man he was.
In my grief, I had been so focused on waxing nostalgic about all the wonderful things Dannie had done for others his whole life that it took Marvin to help me consider that maybe this was also a cover for the inability of Dannie to actually care for himself. Similar to Antwone’s violence, Dannie’s extraordinary benevolence may have obscurred something we all needed to see. Whatever the tragedy of his suicide is now, I believe it began many years ago with the trauma of an abused little boy who never learned to cry for himself. With the full mind of our mother gone from us due to Alzheimer’s disease, it is left to our father to offer some closure on this if he has the courage and will to do so. Often abusers have their own stories of abuse to tell.
Most importantly, we must decide going forward as a family to never again allow harm that can be prevented to visit upon the most vulnerable among us: our children. With all reasonable considerations, we must be unwavering in our determination to protect the right to a safe childhood for those who can’t defend themselves. The lives we save will be our own.