The tears wouldn’t stop.
I was sitting in an apartment in Cambridge, Mass., last year unable to move, not able to utter a word.
I had just read a series of text messages from my siblings rejoicing over the unexpected. The oldest among us, Herbert Lee Bailey, whom we call Moochie, was granted parole after serving 32 years in prison on a first-degree murder conviction.
I thought it was a prank. But it wasn’t.
He had left the world in 1982 and would be returning to it in 2014.
I had given up hope that day would ever arrive, had stopped attending parole hearings years earlier. It was just too deflating sitting in a prison meeting room, hearing members of the state’s parole board tell us “denied,” as they had about a dozen times before last summer.
I fully expected Moochie to be behind bars forever, or maybe be released on his death bed.
Instead, at age 54, he became a free man again, a person much different than the 22-year-old he was when shackles and handcuffs and cold, steel bars separated him from us.
It’s been almost 5 months since he got off a bus in Charleston and several members of our family celebrated his return at a Moncks Corner restaurant shortly before Thanksgiving Day.
We’ll have a fuller celebration this weekend in St. Stephen.
I’m still having trouble processing the new reality.
I was a quiet, stuttering 9-year-old boy when he left, a 41-year-old married father of two when he returned.
Maybe that’s why this is the first time I’ve publicly mentioned my brother’s return. I feel stuck between the boy I was and the man I’ve become, between the dream that would be his homecoming and its actuality.
I’m overjoyed for myself — and for my mother in particular — and was when those tears were streaming down my face, but afraid in ways I didn’t expect.
The boyhood dreams I had of my hero big brother coming home were visions of us picking up where we left off, his leading the rest of us like the Pied Piper on long runs to strengthen our bodies and long talks to strengthen our minds.
The man in me knows that’s not to be, and also knows that his re-emergence, as welcome as it is, means grappling once again with the ugly that led to his imprisonment.
No doubt, he paid dearly for his crime; his entire family did. His was no slap on the wrist.
That’s why I know anyone who argues that anything less than a death sentence is akin to allowing a person to skirt responsibility for his actions simply don’t know what they are talking about.
I also know, though, that even 32 years of punishment can’t make up for what happened in April 1982.
I’m still not ready to process that part.
But I am ready to acknowledge the fear, the fear that Moochie wouldn’t be allowed to re-emerge in society and redeem himself, to show others what his family members have long known.
I’ve been accused not a few times of being too quick to give people second chances, after they’ve paid for their actions, no matter what they did.
My argument has been — and always will be — that we must leave room for people to make amends, to start anew.
Had Moochie not left us in 1982, had we not spent more than three decades following him from S.C. prison to S.C. prison, had I not known him before the murder that would change the trajectory of two families and two small towns — had I not seen him protect my mother from an abusive, alcoholic husband — maybe I’d be where many others are, believing that some people are beyond redemption, that some lines, once crossed, is akin to a person forfeiting his humanity.
But I do have those experiences, and while they’ve made life challenging and painful in ways I’d never wish upon anyone else, they’ve humbled me and taught me to love in ways I otherwise couldn’t.
Maybe that’s why I was crying, why those tears just wouldn’t stop flowing, because accepting life as it is, rather than we wish it to be, is a great blessing — and burden.