On Being A Black Sheep…

Posted: July 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

I rounded the last corner of the jetway feeling the delight that comes from stretching my legs after sitting in one place for too long. I had two large carry-on bags packed with enough clothes and gadgets to last me a week. I rarely checked my bags anymore since the heightened security measures of post 9/11. This meant no waiting for the trundling baggage carousels to vomit my precious luggage, and thus less time spent inside the airport. Maybe I’ve heard too many horror stories of lost luggage, or watched too many movies where the faithful air traveler becomes victim to rough baggage handlers, whatever the case, I felt compelled to keep my goods close at hand.

I used to relish air travel, but had become increasingly uncomfortable with the whole experience. Visiting an airport meant waiting in long lines, sluggishly making my way through degrading security screening, my own dull annoyance mirrored on the faces of countless other travelers.

As I passed out of the territory of the security zone, the potpourri of jet fuel, fried food, and dozens of conflicting designer colognes, seemingly ubiquitous at every airport, left my nostrils. I began looking for my cousin Jake who was to meet me and escort me around town during my brief stay in Dayton for my Grandfather’s funeral.

Now a short word about my cousin Jake. He was the first-born out of our generation, successful in just about every sense of the word. He got his start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher, and worked his way up the chain until he became manager. He married a great woman and they started a family. Jake continued to work his way up in the business learning most of the skills and building the capital he needed to open up his own restaurant. He has always had a natural ability with people, and he eventually worked his way into politics. Now right about this time, his family life started to crumble. On the surface, they had the appearance of the idyllic family, the great American dream come home to roost in the Midwest, peaceful, stable, and praiseworthy. Under the surface however, things weren’t going so well. Jake and Mindy got a divorce. He started carousing around town with various women and partying late into the night, much to the chagrin of his kids and supporters. Eventually, this hedonistic behavior caught up to him in the form of legal trouble. This led to his name being smeared all over the local papers and pretty much ruined his future in politics. I say all of this only to illustrate that I was never really close to Jake. Out of all of my cousins, he was the one I related to the least. His business-minded financial success and my bohemian, free-spirited, apparent lack of concern for all things he had cherished so highly had always ensured that we would be worlds apart. But he was indeed family and he was the one who offered to pick me up from the airport, and nothing brings family together quite like a funeral.

I was expecting a downtrodden, beleaguered, and perhaps world-weary version of Jake. I hadn’t seen or talked to him in six years, and had heard about his recent troubles only through vague and sketchy descriptions from my other relatives. But there was Jake, cheerful as ever, greeting me at the airport with his new girlfriend Leslie. As we loaded my bags into her BMW and drove off, there was the usual amicable small talk about my job status, love life, and the lot. Truth be told, I wanted to dislike Leslie. See, Mindy, Jake’s ex-wife was well-respected and admired within the family. It broke everyone’s heart to hear of their divorce and quite shocked the hell out of me. Mindy and I had always gotten along pretty well, so naturally, I favored her over Leslie. What I didn’t expect was to actually like Jake’s new lady. She was charming, spunky, and seemingly possessed of great reservoirs of compassion to accept Jake for all of his vices and to stick by his side in the wake of his fall from grace. I purposefully stayed away from any topic that revolved around his recent legal skirmishes, not wanting to spoil this warm reunion.

During the course of the week I was in Dayton, I would catch my family off guard by cracking jokes, and none laughed as hard as Jake. I figured that most of my family thought pretty poorly of me anyways, had their own crystallized opinions of me, as I had always been the token black sheep, so why not just speak my mind? What did I have to lose? Why not have some fun with it?

One night after an especially solemn day, we all went out to a Mexican restaurant. Jake’s mother June, who is very religious, was to meet Jake’s new girlfriend for the first time at this dinner. The mood was very apprehensive as we all awaited June’s arrival. I kept ordering margaritas just to make things that much more interesting. June and her conservative husband arrived, and the games began. June spewed her typical venomous barrage of insinuations at Jake’s girlfriend Leslie, who was surprisingly formidable and resilient. I kept making slights and mutinous comments at the expense of my stuffier relatives who, incidentally, didn’t understand half of what I was talking about. Jake got it though. His face would turn deep red and he put his silverware down on his plate, hard, and he filled the room with his maniacal, tittering laughter. Jake laughed with the abandon of a man who has nothing to lose, a man who has hit rock bottom and has nowhere to look but upwards. We were on a roll, Jake and me. The laughter spawned more laughs and more jokes, and by the end of the night he was calling me his “Margarita Man.” The white elephant in the room was Jake’s run-in with the law, but interestingly enough, no one mentioned it. I guess Jake’s new girlfriend was controversial enough to distract the pious zealots at the table from discussing the easy pickings of Jake’s publicized embarrassment.

Of course, when Jake wasn’t around, there was plenty of talk, and I couldn’t help but to think, this is probably how they talk about me when I’m not around. It doesn’t matter how successful I might be, or how munificent I try to be towards my family; it is always easier to point out the ugliness in others, and by doing so, we make ourselves out to be ugly. Sure, he kind of went off the deep end on some things, but so have all of us at one time or another. What I saw of Jake was a man who had to go through this experience to help discover himself.

When Jake and I parted ways, he gave me a big hug and a business card, admonishing me to be less of a stranger the next time I came to town. I realized that at the beginning of this trip, I had had the wrong measure of him. I had only heard of cousin Jake’s wild excursions vicariously through the family gossip network. They had painted a rather dismal picture of the once absolutely adored family favorite, Jake. But now he had become the one who was judged, the scorned one, the wayward son, the black sheep. So I was discovering this relatability that I never had with him before. We were in some ways, freer than the rest because we had faced our trials, faced ourselves, and come out of the darkness stronger. I thought back to the funeral, where Jake was joined by his children and ex-wife. It reminded me that we all make mistakes, but it is the power of forgiveness and compassion that triumphs over scorn and indiscretion. As he walked with his estranged family by the graveside of my Grandfather, he carried himself with the dignity of a man who still possessed the best parts of himself, and I respected him for it.

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