The Life Lost But Never Forgotten and The Movie I Struggle to Watch Because Of It (Happy Birthday, Tra)

Illustration for article titled The Life Lost But Never Forgotten and The Movie I Struggle to Watch Because Of It (Happy Birthday, Tra)
Photo: Panama Jackson

I can’t just watch the movie John Q.

I’ve tried a few times. I actually managed to make it all the way through to the end for the first time in almost 10 years a few months ago. It was on, I was up late and I decided to force myself to make it through the movie. “It’s been 9 years,” I told myself. I can’t let a movie—especially a movie I liked—to have so much negative power over me and my psyche.


But it does.

I don’t pray nearly as much as my wife (and her mother...and my mother for that matter) would like, but that night, I prayed that I hadn’t done something stupid. I prayed that watching John Q didn’t push some imaginary button or summon some doomsday siren. I anxiously waded through the next day praying that my phone wouldn’t ring, that some unknown number from a familiar area code wouldn’t pop up on the caller ID and alert me to some new tragedy befallen an old friend. Again.

My phone never rang with bad news.

See? I can’t just watch John Q.

On January 12, 2011, just before midnight, I got a call from my daughter’s mother: My 2-year-old daughter was having breathing issues and needed to go to the Emergency Room. I met them there. I remember spending less than 3 hours at the hospital which felt like a short amount of time. We were discharged after some breathing treatments. I went home. At about 2 a.m., wired and unable to sleep, I turned on the television and began watching John Q.

That would be the last time until recently I was able to watch that movie until the end. I went to sleep around 4 a.m. I guess because of how tired I was, I was knocked out cold because I didn’t wake up at the sound of my phone buzzing at around 5:45 a.m. When my alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. I did wake up, saw the call, checked the message and was informed by one of my longtime friends via voicemail that I needed to call immediately, something bad had happened. It was Tra, my best friend. My brother. I was jarred awake, immediately called and was told that there was a terrible accident and it didn’t look good.

I can’t describe the feeling of being 700 miles away from a person you love while waiting to hear for more information that you know will change your life and the lives of so many people while hoping that the news comes back okay. But the voice of my friend who called was the unwanted confirmation. I’ve never heard somebody say “it’s bad” that way before. He told a whole story, a tragedy, with two non-specific words.


At 8 a.m. while I was pulling out of my apartment complex to head to work with a head full of uncertainty and dread and my mind in a complete fog. I got the worst phone call I’ve ever received in life. One of my other friends, one of my closest friends from back home, one of my groomsmen when I married in 2018, called me. I saw his number show up on my caller ID and I just knew. I felt it. I answered and before I could say “Hello,” he just said, “He’s gone. Tra’s gone.” He hung up. I hung up. I crumbled into tears in my car.

An electrical fire sparked by a fire heater set off a blaze around 2 a.m. CST. He was in the house with his girlfriend, her two kids and another of our friends. Three people made it out. Two didn’t. My brother and one of his girlfriend’s daughters died in the fire trying to get out of the house; he was trying to get her out. According to the newspaper article that I have, the fire was put out around 2:30 a.m. CST, making it 3:30 a.m. EST.


While I was at home watching John Q, wide awake, my best friend was dying in a house fire.

I’ve never been able to shake that. The fact that what set off the night was going to the Emergency Room because my daughter was having problems. Only to end up watching a movie about a man willing to give his life for his child and while I’m watching it, my best friend loses his life while trying to save the life of a child. My mind just won’t let me shake it. Perhaps it meant nothing. But it somehow means everything. To the point where I, again, was afraid I’d done something stupid by watching, in 2020, this heavy-handed movie that is mostly saved by a Denzel Washington performance.


Today is Tra’s birthday. August 12, 2020, he would have turned 41. His death impacted me in ways that I still discover. I told my wife that today was his birthday and she asked me if I was sad. I said yes. She asked me if I cried and the answer was “no,” but just her asking me made me feel like I was about to fall apart. I even started to get sick to my stomach. I’ve been blessed in that I’ve never lost any of my parents or siblings. Tra’s death though, I’ve never been able to get over it or entirely let it go. I’m not consumed by it, by what we were supposed to do together or who we were supposed to become. When I got married, the fact that he wasn’t there was something I had to sit with for a little while in the quiet of my room before I tuned into the joy happening a room away. As the years go by, it gets easier, the pain less instant, less present. There are things I do with him in mind: The book I will write will be dedicated to him. There’s no book of my life that doesn’t include a chapter on Tra. In that, through his son, myself, his family and friends, he will live forever. In the moving-on is a healing of some sort.

But that healing isn’t always clean. For in my mind those last moments are always connected to a visual and a feeling of me watching a movie about death while my brother was actively dying. I’m still afraid to watch it again. I may never. Its existence brings up one of the most painful, and enduring, eras of my life. A movie. A fictional recounting. A fear that’s taken up room in my head that seems to be intent on staying. One day it will all make sense maybe. Maybe one day it won’t immediately register. Maybe one day.


Like I said, I can’t just watch John Q.

Happy birthday, Tra.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



You can find him at your mama’s mama’s house drinking all her brown liquors.

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