When somebody dies we keep them alive with stories. It’s the same with incarceration, writes Semira Davis.
Let me tell you a story about your uncle.
My brother was fearless. A toddler scaling the living-room wall to drop out the window and run across the field to the school next-door. This kid doing a glorious flip on a BMX, out of the skate bowl and into a banana tree, winning a competition. That teenager, trying to catch a horse and breaking his leg when bucked off. My brother was often in hospital, accidents or near fatal asthma attacks, but my brother was fearless.
I last touched him ten years ago. I’d left our small town for Auckland, and was bringing home my fiancee. He’d just been on a stint.
As we got out of the car he sauntered around from the side of the house. I charged into his arms. He was taller than me now. Musclier.
Absolutely covered in tattoos. The house still had no water so we went to the river for a wash.
He took hold of the rope at the river bank and swung out so high he back-flipped into the water. I could never quite calculate parabolas and landed on my face.
We laughed because nothing had changed.
He was back inside before the wedding.
The story of my brother will be familiar: a child whose neurotype mismatches the school-system.
Dad would take him to the dump to find anything with wheels. He’d construct trolleys, restore bikes, build forts from recycled wood. His christmas presents were lengths of rope and a bag of nails. He created spaces for us to play. We’d cart his trolleys to the farm hills and race.
He taught himself BMX tricks seen on X-Games.
Despite having a helmet just like the pros, he’d hardly wear one.
Maybe it was a sensory thing, or an of-that-age obsession with perfectly waxed hair.
His lack of helmet brought the attention of cops, and now he was known to police.
I can’t recall the amount of visits from police, but it created in him a dislike and distrust of authority. I once started a shift being told my brother was in the manager’s office for stealing a spanner; a bolt on his bike had broke and he didn’t have $2 or another way home.
Known to police turned to wanted by police.
His teens were filled with curfews. The cops would arrive for random checks – waking up a child in his bed with a torch in his face to make sure it was really him.
When a burglary was reported as “someone on a bike” my 17-year-old brother was arrested.
It didn’t matter that Dad and I said we were up watching movies that night, that my brother was asleep on a couch the whole time. The arrest was still made, a court date to come – for now there were bond conditions: more curfew, more checks.
My brother was found riding home from a friend’s place a little after curfew.
They sent him to prison on remand.
What do you get when you take a boy who is made to feel like he doesn’t belong anywhere and put him inside a prison?
The education system didn’t want him.
The town via police didn’t want him.
What you get when you take a hyperactive physically savvy smart boy and put him in prison is the perfect prospect.
The justice system created the person they painted him as.
He would go in and out on short stints for crimes he did commit.
I moved away. He had a new family now. It made sense that we didn’t talk.
I’d hear news from Dad. Whenever things looked hopeful a new fall would come.
I disconnected myself from my brother.
It was Dad who told my brother I was pregnant.
I got a call that started, “I hear you’re having a breed.”
He was on remand in Auckland this time, he didn’t want me to visit him inside.
I’d write. Send photos. Take his calls.
He’s send me his tattoo designs.
Early pregnancy was spent picturing my brother coming out of prison just in time for the birth. This one was a crime he didn’t commit, so it made sense he’d be free after court.
Worst case scenario would be three years max, leaving only two to serve.
Out when baby’s walking and talking.
Right on time for Uncle to teach them how to skateboard!
He was sentenced to eight years.
I had no expectation for who my child would be but I knew her Uncle.
He’ll teach you what to do with a board.
How fast to run to clear a jump, how high to hold a rope.
How not to catch a horse.
My baby climbed up a slide before she could stand.
My brother’s voice in my head – the patience, kindness, and care – helping me to guide her.
She’s four now. She has his middle name.
She’s waiting for her uncle to teach her skateboarding.
I process my world through writing. When I lost my brother to incarceration I untangled the grief; a short story, became poetry, became runner-up in 2019’s Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.
Five years after his sentencing I told my friends I would self-publish those poems.
To make a book I’d need more pages. I asked my brother to send me drawings for it. He said most of them were half finished; I said that’s OK, I’d finish them.
For a month he’s sent me letters filled with drawings.
The house we grew up in.
A portrait of my child based on a photo I sent.
It’s like he’s passing me a threaded needle and with each finished picture a stitch is pulling closed the wound of his incarceration.
With every phone call I see him grow.
He’s left the gangs.
Gone through counselling.
And he listens to his niece growing up by the sound of her voice.
Semira Davis is running a Boosted campaign to cover the cost of publishing her book.