This story is by Dalphany Brown Barber and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
What Was Lost
Tanya brought in the last of the empty boxes she’d need to finish packing up Travis’s room. He died a year ago today and now it was time for her to move forward. As she packed, she thought back to the day of his funeral. In the sanctuary, the phrase “I’m so sorry for your loss” was stuck on repeat as she spun around from one mourner to the next. She thought about the word, “loss”. She understood what people meant when they said it but, the fact was she didn’t lose him when he died. No, this was the one time when she knew exactly where he was, lying in that mahogany, satin-lined casket in the quiet of the funeral home. She had lost him years before when he decided to dedicate his life to the streets. She stood by his side, in death, praying for his eternal soul to be spared as she had so many times before when he was alive. Only now she wasn’t sure he deserved it.
As Tanya packed up her son’s childhood trophies, artwork, and random knickknacks collected over the years when he cared about such things, she was overwhelmed with the memories of their life before. She had hoped all the time they spent at little league games and basketball tournaments, making friends and winning games, was setting him up for a bright future. Tanya flipped through his first sketch book. He filled it with drawings of beautiful sunsets and lush rain forests. His drawings were just amazing. Everyone said so. He was a natural talent at almost everything he tried. But his accomplishments and the praises he received never seemed to make him happy.
Tanya was certain that he needed his father to be more involved in his life, but she could never convince him to do right by their son. To try to make up for his absence, she worked hard to make it better than great that he wasn’t around. She threw him enormous birthday parties. She planned trips around the world to show him that they didn’t need his father to live a good life. She immersed herself completely in whatever activity he was interested in and cheered him on. However, no matter how loudly she cheered or how many people showed up for the parties, she always found her son looking toward the door for his father.
Unsure when it actually began, maybe around year 16 or 17, Tanya started losing Travis to his new friends. They weren’t on his teams or in his classes and he was reluctant to introduce her to any of them. She kept quiet at first, aware that he needed space to become a man, and hoped that this phase would soon pass. Instead, Travis grew more distant and repeatedly missed practices until, suddenly and without explanation, he altogether quit everything he once loved – sports and drawing. His coaches reached out, but he was so unresponsive they gave up. Equally as troubling for Tanya, Travis started wearing new, expensive clothing that she hadn’t purchased. When she questioned their mysterious arrival, the items just as mysteriously disappeared. Tragically, secrets and half-truths replaced the easy conversations they once shared.
Tanya was proud that she alone provided a good life for her son. But now afraid, she swallowed her pride and went to see Travis’s father to describe the changes their son was going through. She begged him to spend more time with his son. He argued that he was too busy, and that she should quit meddling. Eventually, he agreed to come.
Two anxiously long weeks later, he finally knocked on their door. Travis, so used to his father’s sporadic phone calls and even more sporadic visits, wasn’t moved by his presence in their doorway. Their short conversation, icy and tight, ended quickly when Travis mumbled that he had somewhere to go. Tanya’s heart crumbled to see how much her son was hurting. However, his father, unfamiliar with his son, was angry that he hadn’t shown more enthusiasm for his visit.
As soon as Travis left, he turned his unjustified fury onto Tanya. “I can’t believe you let him disrespect me like that!”
“Disrespect you? Can’t you put aside your own feelings to see that our son is hurting?”
“Dammit, I’m his father! I took time out of my day to come see him and he barely said a word to me and then he just leaves. I feel disrespected. That’s what’s wrong with these young boys nowadays. That’s why I don’t come around here.”
Tanya walked to the door and snatched it open. “I couldn’t care less about how you feel. You’re so damn selfish! He needs you!”
After his father’s visit, Travis began to spend much more time in the streets with his friends. Tanya did everything she could think of to discourage or distract him, but nothing worked. Finally, to her relief, it was time for his high school graduation. But to her frustration, he barely graduated and refused to participate in any of the traditional senior year activities. Any discussions she tried to have with him about his future plans always ended in arguments or tears.
As Tanya continued to pack, she recalled the last time she saw her son. Late one summer afternoon, there was a knock at her door. Her heart nearly stopped; it was the police. They were looking for Travis because they had questions about a robbery. After informing them that he wasn’t there, she was given a number to call when he returned.
Travis’s irregular coming-and-going routine reminded Tanya of his father. The difference, though, was whenever she texted her son, he’d answer.
Once alone, Tanya stood outside her son’s bedroom ashamed that it had been at least six months since she’d been inside.
His usual two piles of clothing were on the floor; one clean and one dirty because he said it was just easier that way. His collections of things littered the dresser tops, and car magazines covered his bed. But what struck Tanya was the smell. Gone was the pre-teen funk of budding maturity she had gotten used to over time. In its place was a dangerous scent. She searched his room until she found it and much more. After stripping his bed, she laid everything across the bare mattress: drugs, gun, ammunition, and rolls of cash. Then she waited.
Hours later, Travis found her sitting in his room in a chair facing his bed, praying.
He instantly whipped out the age-old – ‘it belongs to a friend’ excuse.
“The police came here looking for you and not any of your friends.”
“Ma, it’s not what it looks like. I promise.”
“I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself mixed up in, but you have to go. Tonight, or I’ll call the police myself.”
She watched as he grabbed his things from the bed and angrily shoved them into an empty backpack. “I know you’re feeling rejected. First by your father and now by me. But we can get through this if you really want to.”
Travis shook his head. “It’s too late for that.”
As he walked away, she told him that she would keep his phone line connected and when he was ready to leave that street life for good, all he had to do was call and she’d come. While they spoke from time to time, he never would say that he was ready to come home. Two years later, she finally received that call. Travis was leaving the street life for good – just not the way she had hoped.
Light-headed from her memories, Tanya sat gingerly on his bed. Recalling her son’s last days usually put her in such a depressed, fragile state that she often had to be hospitalized, so she rarely did it. Today, a year later, she felt a little stronger.
The detectives said that it was a drug deal that went off the rails where nearly a million dollars of drugs and cash were found at the scene. Travis wasn’t the only one lost that day. Three other families also have reason to remember today. But what unsettled Tanya the most was what else they found. A box truck that was being used to sex traffic young girls was riddled with bullets. Two girls inside the truck had been shot. Thankfully, they recovered. Later, they identified Travis as one of their bodyguards and sometimes driver.
Tanya’s body felt slow and heavy as she lifted herself from the bed. But she willed herself forward as she learned to do through much therapy and prayer. She covered the last of the boxes with lids and stacked them for storage. Reaching to turn off the lamp, she spotted Travis’s phone on the bedside table. She never got around to disconnecting his service. She held the phone, the lifeline he refused, between her hands, close to her heart, and cried for what she’d lost.