In the first week of June 1994 my church planned to hold the dedication services for our new facility. Days before the dedication commenced I walked through the sanctuary, taking in the stained-glass windows and a pulpit large enough to accommodate ten ministers comfortably. The First Lady of my church, Sis. Wilson, stood at the lectern in the choir stand, her glasses set low and her face beaming with pride.
The First Lady had a special place in my life at the time. The relatives of clergy can be standoffish and snooty in their interactions with parishioners, but Sis. Wilson wasn’t like that at all. She was a genuinely kind, considerate woman of God who took her faith seriously.
As I matured she took an interest in me. It started on a Sunday the previous year. When she saw me standing at the altar, arms locked tightly against my chest and a scowl etched across my face, she swiftly moved from her spot and led me out of the sanctuary. We sat down and she faced me, looking directly into my eyes as she held my hands. “Baby”, she began in the Louisiana drawl that she still held after three decades in Seattle, “what’s wrong with you today?” Because I trusted that she wouldn’t judge me for my feelings I told her. She listened and helped me work through my emotions. From that day on the First Lady looked out for me, carving out time to speak with me about womanhood and answer any questions I had. I deeply admired Sis. Wilson.
Sis. Wilson’s infectious joy was in my thoughts as I got ready for the first night of dedication services. I donned the ankle-length black skirt and short-sleeved silk fuchsia blouse that was our choir uniform at the time, always remembering my Grandma’s admonishment to wear a dark bra and camisole to conceal my ‘undergarments’. Before we left for evening services I lined my eyes with Maybelline liquid liner and swept a light pink gloss over my lips to spare myself the lecture from my aunts about looking together and “ladylike” at church. My excitement briefly dampened when I remembered that a few of the particularly boorish young men from our sister churches would be there that night. But as long as Eric was there to intervene I knew I’d be good.
Eric was the grandson of my pastor and the darling of our congregation. He was two years my senior and my frequent companion through the long hours of various church services we were both required to attend. I can’t say Eric was like a brother to me, for I had an on-again off-again crush on him from the time I was ten. At times he reciprocated it, staying close to my side. When we walked to the corner store to get treats after Sunday school he would hold my hand once we were out of eyesight of the adults. When we arrived at the corner store he would buy me whatever I wanted, which was usually a bag of Swedish fish. Eric was the only boy who could call my house, and when he gave me my neatly-wrapped Christmas present in 1991 my Grandma did not object. I followed Eric around like a puppy and believed that once we were both grown our union was inevitable.
I only had eyes for Eric, but he had eyes for others. On long rides on our church van and late night phone calls at home Eric and I talked and laughed together, becoming close. We spoke to each other without pretense, bonding over our shared experience of being raised by our grandparents. But that emotional connection and mutual desire seemed to go out the window whenever older and more physically developed girls came around. In their presence Eric would change, treating me more like a little sister and a pest. It hurt when he acted like that, but my ego would never let that hurt show.
I would watch Eric pursue other girls for sport but we remained friends. I was the girl who was more like one of the guys, and I was still the one that he told everything to. And though I wasn’t his girlfriend he still looked out for me. As my body began to change and my curves took on the form of a woman he saw the awkwardness and frustration it caused for me. Eric saw the revulsion on my face when a certain deacon hugged me too long and tight. He listened when I needed to vent about the creepy, predatory behavior I encountered from grown men. Eric couldn’t do much to stop that, but he came to my aid when his peers bothered me.
Years prior I was placed in the tenor section of the choir. In time I came to hate that placement. I hated singing tenor for two reasons: 1) the tenors were seated in the far back 2) I was usually the only girl in the midst of boys and young men. Whenever we united and formed a mass choir with our sister churches the boys would get fresh with me. When I squeezed out of the aisle they would cop a feel. When we sat next to each other their hands would wander up my skirt. No matter how much I scowled or pushed their hands away they would still do it. I told Eric what was happening. The next time we lined up he made sure to stand with me so that we would end up seated next to each other in the choir stand. And when Rodney, a boy my age from a church in Tacoma, attempted to touch my legs as usual Eric reached across my lap and gripped his wrist. After service Eric stepped to him and got directly in his face.
“Today was a warning. Try touching her again and I’ll break your wrist next time”.
From that day on the word got out that I was “Eric’s Girl”, and if anyone did or said anything out of line to me they’d have to answer to him. So as I waited for my ride to arrive for the dedication I didn’t worry too much about being harassed in the choirs stand. I knew that my boy Eric would always have my back.
Our dedication services went smoothly, and we began worshipping in our new building. But on the second Sunday of June 1994 I woke up to the confusing sight of my Grandma in tears. I said good morning and asked her what happened.
“Sis. Wilson died last night”, she replied, her voice low and weak.
Sis. Wilson was DEAD? I didn’t understand. The First Lady wasn’t sick. And she was only her early 50s, too young to pass away from the typical complications of old age. I just saw her at choir practice less than twenty-four hours ago. My Grandma explained that Sis. Wilson suffered an extremely severe asthma attack. My shoulders heaved and I joined her on the sofa, wrapping my arms around her as we cried together. I hurt thinking of what my pastor and his children were feeling, but I thought of Eric the most. Knowing how much his Grandma meant to him I wondered how he was going to take her loss.
Later that day my Grandma and I came over to express our condolences. Eric was red-eyed and quiet, not wishing to speak to anyone. All of the joy everyone felt over the new church quickly evaporated, that energy replaced by a heavy sense of grief. Death is never easy to deal with, but the timing of Sis. Wilson’s death seemed especially cruel. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”, my Grandma said with resignation.
Six days later I sat in the choir stand as usual but Eric, along with other relatives of the First Lady, was in the front three pews of the congregation. Our pastor took up his regular spot in the pulpit, but the impact of the sudden loss of beloved wife was obvious. His bulbous eyes were bloodshot and shiny, his usual military-like posture gone. When he stood to address the congregation he spoke of the night his love died.
“I saw the Angel of Death”, he said, tears streaming down his face, “I saw him in the doorway and knew he was there to take her. I prayed to the Lord and asked Him to save HER, to take me instead…I wanted to take her place but I couldn’t…”Overwhelmed with grief he soon took his seat again.
After a long, beautiful ceremony to honor the First Lady we departed to lay her to rest. The minister recited the required scripture as her casket was prepared to be lowered into the ground. When she was buried Eric lost it, sobbing loudly and losing his footing. The quick thinking and strong embrace of his aunt kept him from hitting the ground. Eric and I locked eyes over his Grandma’s grave, and my heart broke for the pain in his.
Years later the life of Eric, my pastors’ grandson and the boy who gave me my first kiss, would go in a direction none of us ever imagined. When I hear Aaliyah’s “Back and Forth” I think of June 1994 and the day we buried Eric’s Grandma. I understand that we are ultimately responsible for our choices in life. Yet there is part of me that believes that the chain of events that led Eric to catch a case later and become a convicted felon started the night his Grandma died.