He broke my heart. After that night I’d see him act the same bewildering way many more times. It was, I eventually learned, what too many beers did to him. But the first time my uncle hit me (I was 4 or 5 years old), all I knew was that something had changed. Not in him. No. Something had changed in me.
I was named after my Uncle Mike, and that already made me feel close to him. When he started calling me his “bodyguard,” though, and especially when he’d introduce me to people that way (“This is my bodyguard,” he’d announce, and gesture toward me in an almost cocky way that made me feel strong), that made me feel special.
It made me feel like my Uncle Mike loved me as much as I loved him, which was more than infinity. So the night my mom shouted at me to “be good” as she rushed off to her bartending job, and that Uncle Mike was going to come watch me, I was ecstatic. Usually, I’d complain that I wanted to go with her, but that night I felt happy and lucky to stay home.
Night had already fallen by the time mom pulled out of our driveway. The headlights of her car showed like brilliant extensions of Mom’s protective and sometimes worrisome nature, spying in on us one last time through the windows, then sweeping across the front yard like security searchlights as she turned onto the street.
At this dramatically lit farewell, Uncle Mike simply pushed a movie into the VCR. He coolly plopped down onto the far end of the couch, beer in hand, and invited me with a slight nod to sit and watch with him. I rushed to the cushion at his side, quickly studying his relaxed, yet confident posture so that I might imitate his greatness. Then I turned with him to the screen.
Together we watched whatever it was, the bonding silence between us throughout this blessed cinematic experience only ever interrupted by the hiss and crack of beer cans opening every so often — not to mention the loud, intentional way he sometimes burped, which made both of us laugh every time. And I loved every minute. Not of the film, but of being so close to the awesome man who loved me, who was even like a father to me while my real father was locked somewhere in a prison cell.
Being too happy
When the movie ended, I was terribly excited for whatever we’d do next. I jumped up and down on the couch next to Uncle Mike slapping at his broad shoulders and shaking him, asking him what he wanted to do now. He didn’t respond except to carefully balance what must have been nearly a full can of beer in one hand, while the other took me at my shoulder.
Slowly, yet with an effortless dominance, he forced me back an arm’s distance away from him. I thought he’d started an impromptu game of play-fighting. So I leaped from the couch, undaunted by his challenge, and continued my hyper assault on him, now slapping at his knees and thighs. I laughed. I was so happy. I was having so much fun. Until …
This time he wasn’t careful at all. “Goddamn it!” he roared, the unexpected burst of anger in his voice shocking me. I froze. Then, even more to my surprise, he drew one giant leg into his body before driving the hard sole of his massive boot into my soft little belly. The force was great enough to shoot me like a cannonball clear across the living room. At once, I couldn’t breathe and I was scared. But Uncle Mike just left me writhing there in agony, struggling for air as much as I struggled to understand what just happened. What did I do wrong?
I didn’t know yet to blame alcohol’s control over him. And I loved him and looked up to him too much to accuse him of hurting or betraying me, or of being imperfect for even a second in my eyes. So, as soon as I could gather my wits and my wind, I apologized for misbehaving.
That is, though I never said this aloud, I apologized for being too happy, for ignorantly displaying love and affection (especially with such abandon), which I believed was my offense. “I’m sorry, Uncle Mike,” I pleaded at his feet, but my words fell short. He just sat there, drunk and quiet, can of beer still held loosely in one hand. He didn’t even bother to look at me, which somehow stung most of all.
Uncle Mike continued to be my beloved hero, my idol, and I his loyal bodyguard after that night, but I was different around him now. Even though I did still feel a joyous surge in my belly whenever I saw my favorite uncle, or even at hearing his name, I quickly doused this dangerous feeling with a flood of guilt and shame, and I suppressed even my smiles.
No liberation from the truth
From then on, too, I practiced speaking as little as possible to him about myself, especially anything good, afraid of disappointing him if I celebrated too much. And if Uncle Mike praised me (for being a wrestling champion, for instance), I thought it was a challenge, one I met without fail with stoic nods of tolerance more than of acceptance or gratitude.
This hard emotional conditioning eventually carried with me into the rest of my life as well, where countless people would often warn me that I was far too serious. They’d say that I should smile more.
“I want to,” I’d think, mournfully, without admitting it aloud. Sometimes I was desperate to smile but I was still too afraid. I never lifted Uncle Mike’s heavy boot from my bruised core, so not smiling always felt safer.
It took me many difficult years of desperate reflection, painfully honest introspection and careful study before I finally figured it out. Uncle Mike didn’t so violently lash out at me that night to punish my exuberance.
I figured out that only a man in tremendous pain himself would ever do such harm to a 4- or 5-year-old child, or any child, but especially one he cared for so deeply. I may never know the secret hurt he suffered, the horrible demons that must have plagued him, or why ever Uncle Mike actually became so enraged that night. But I finally figured out that it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t deserve to be punished. Not by Uncle Mike that dreadful night, nor by myself or those sad years after.
Very little relief came from this realization, though, and very little reason to celebrate. I should have felt liberated, I’m sure, like a great weight had been at long last lifted from my burdened soul. Instead, I was left with another shame, and the sickening fear that it was too late, for by now I had withheld so many smiles, suppressed so many of my emotions — wonderful ones and tragic ones alike. I had denied my own humanity, mistakenly convinced myself that Uncle Mike’s vicious boot proved once and for all that I couldn’t trust myself to feel. I did it wrong.
I’d been a fool, I clearly see today. Everything I once hoped to keep hidden from the world actually built within me like a powder keg until, in a fuse-lighting drunken rage of my own, I exploded. And now a man is dead, murdered in cold blood at my numbed hands.
And for no real reason except that I finally needed to be heard. I’m 32 years old and 15 years into a life sentence in prison, now haunted by the constant regret that I could have saved both of our lives long before I ended them so needlessly. If only I’d been brave enough any time before to welcome myself to be happy — or sad, or scared, or lonely, or in love, or to fully feel whatever else I denied. Both of our lives, mine and the one I took from another, could have been so wonderful.
“Oh, my God,” I’m driven instead to beg, often through relentless streams of shameful tears, “What have I done?”
The heavens keep quiet and still at this painfully desperate question. Nothing divine answers me. There is only ever a small, familiar voice to be heard, a soft, sweet, innocent voice from deep within myself.
The voice of a 4- or 5-year-old little boy not yet scarred by the lies he’ll tell himself later, a beautiful boy who still knows how to be happy. He reminds me, no matter how many times I forget, to say I’m sorry, and to promise not to do whatever I did again. “It’s OK,” the strong, brave little bodyguard smiles and assures me. “After that, we can go play again.”
And just like that, I can’t help it any more, but to finally smile too, happy at this little boy’s gift of a second chance to play.
Michael Cabral started his journey through the system 15 years ago, at age 17, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. A longtime contributor to The Beat Within, he won first prize for this column in a contest that was supported by the Center at the Sierra Health Foundation.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.