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My Corner of the Sky

In loving memory of Michael Thomas Brown, my great-nephew

11.6.2018

Monday, April 30, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. precisely. It's not a day or moment I'll ever forget. My day began at the office especially early, before 7:30 a.m., and it was breakneck all day long. About 3:30 p.m. or so, I was spent and headed out of my Rocky Mount office a little early. I stopped at the BP station a couple miles from our house in Salem to gas up for Tuesday's trip to Raleigh. As I stood pumping gas outside my car, I could see on my car's front seat my iPhone light up with an incoming call. It was my niece, Jessica.

Honestly, I was so exhausted that I thought "not now, I can't take another call today, not even from my precious niece." Settled back into my car, something told me to quit whining and call my niece back. Before the first ring was even audible to me, my niece was on the phone screaming "Michael is dead."

"What?" I said, certain I'd heard her wrong. My great-nephew had taken his own life. "You need to come to Virginia." "I'm going to pick up Granny and we're on the way," was all I could muster. That three miles home to pick up my mother seemed like an eternity. I'm sure our neighbors wondered why my little white Buick was careening down our country roads at 80 miles per hour. I didn't notice.

All I could think about was how to tell my mom that her beloved grandson, Michael, the baby child she adored and babysat for 2 years of his young life, was gone at 19.

Honestly, I don't remember much of the next week. It was a blur of disbelief, shock, anger, guilt, funeral planning, ordering Mike's high school pictures, meeting his friends, school events and, at last, on Friday, a devastatingly beautiful ceremony in the old Battleboro cemetery where I helped carry the coffin of my beloved great-nephew to his final resting place beside my Daddy, his Gray Papa.

I think of myself as a pretty tough old guy, and my family was welded from steel. My maternal family name is Hull, after all and, as Mama's friend likes to say when one of us is being particularly stubborn, "you know the hardest part of a nut is a hull." But nothing prepared any of us for the absolute confusion, disbelief, and grief from Mike's suicide.

I'm sure we aren't the first to say this in such situations, but at least for me, this is the last kid on earth I'd ever think would take his own life. Now, it's true, that Michael was a unique boy. We always said he was born full grown — an old soul in a young body. And, he was persnickety. Oh yes, since I can remember, his clothes had to be a certain way. His hair a certain way. His car a certain way. Everything had to be a certain way and there was no changing his mind or persuading him to a different perspective.

But, that oddness was an absolute part of his amazing charm. My sister Robin, Mike's Nana, always said that Mike came into this world fighting and never really wanted to be here. That said, he was happy, kind, loving, generous, and warm. He could play any instrument and that boy could sing, but only when he wanted to. And he loved his family.

When my niece remarried and moved to Emporia, Virginia, a few years ago, we saw less of the boys - Mike and his brothers. But sometimes, without notice, Michael would just drop by on a day off from one of his part-time jobs he worked while finishing high school. His were no obligatory, quick visits. He came and stayed and stayed. He'd hang out with his beloved Granny for hours, just talking.

For all the fun and music and laughter that was Michael, he was a serious soul. My niece always said that, of her boys, he was the most like me. Not sure what that means, but I always loved hearing it. But, he suffered.

Michael did not see the world in terms of skin color, gender, sexuality, or class. To him, everyone was equal. In fact, he hated racism, sexism, and bigotry profoundly and talked about it often. And he was a tender soul. Things that most kids brushed right off stuck to Michael, and they stuck hard. Maybe too hard.

Like most families that experience teen suicide, we've asked ourselves why, how, what did we miss, where did we fail? Our family's world is forever changed by this, forever.

But I believe there is light in every darkness. And, Michael was such a light, and remains so today. The outpouring of support from his school mates, teachers, friends, and even strangers from his death have been overwhelming. His school held multiple events in his honor, and dedicated their Senior Graduation to him. Mike died just weeks before graduating high school.

My niece talks and writes openly about teen suicide and is working, in Mike's honor, to start a teen suicide program in Emporia, where there is none now. Our family is creating a fund at Haven House Services in Raleigh to help provide stability and security to our community's most vulnerable and at-risk youth. Michael would have wanted that. The child would give his last nickel to a friend in need. And the list goes on. It seems that every day, Michael appears in our world in some strange, magical, beautiful new way. I often wonder if he really understood how much he was loved, by so many, and what a legacy he left behind.

When all is said and done, we each have to make peace with the choice that Michael made. For me, I believe that my nephew saw this world as it should be, a place of beauty and light and joy and song, free from bigotry, hatred, racism, and smallness. When this world could not live up to Michael's awesome expectations of it, he went to one that could. I've often said that my nephew didn't die of a gunshot wound. Not really. He died of a broken heart.

I decided to share Michael's story and that of our family, and to speak openly here about his suicide, in the hopes that someone, somewhere also sees Mike's world, and lives to make it a reality. And, to remind us all to look around, I mean really look, for signs of depression and potential suffering.

As I often do when my own words fail me, I turn to music or poetry to understand and express what's in my mind and heart. One day while I was thinking even more than usual about Michael's passing, I stumbled across this old song and I thought "that's it." This is what was going on in Michael's head and heart. And I played it over and over again and thought "now, I understand."

Everything has its season

Everything has its time

Show me a reason and I'll soon show you a rhyme

Cats fit on the windowsill

Children fit in the snow

Why do I feel I don't fit in anywhere I go?

Rivers belong where they can ramble

Eagles belong where they can fly

I've got to be where my spirit can run free

Got to find my corner of the sky

Every man has his daydreams

Every man has his goal

People like the way dreams have

Of sticking to the soul

Thunderclouds have their lightning

Nightingales have their song

And don't you see I want my life to be

Something more than long...

Rivers belong where they can ramble

Eagles belong where they can fly

I've got to be where my spirit can run free

Got to find my corner of the sky

So many men seem destined

To settle for something small

But I won't rest until I know I'll have it all

So don't ask where I'm going

Just listen when I'm gone

And far away you'll hear me singing

Softly to the dawn:

Rivers belong where they can ramble

Eagles belong where they can fly

I've got to be where my spirit can run free

Got to find my corner of the sky

These words give me comfort and understanding, and a renewed sense of commitment to do what I can to make this world a better place. And I hum them often on a starry night as I watch our precious Michael flitting among the stars.

In loving memory of Michael Thomas Brown, my great-nephew. Too tender for this world. Too soon gone.

———

Haven House Services: Strong Youth. Bright Futures.

Website: www.havenhousenc.org | Phone: 919.833.3312

Suicide Prevention Resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-276-TALK (8255)
  • Crisis TEXT Line: text TALK to 741741
Physical Address: 301 Fayetteville Street, Suite 1900, Raleigh, NC 27601 | © Poyner Spruill LLP. All rights reserved.

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