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On February 20, 1965, I accidentally shot my brother JJ. I say accidentally now, but for many years I would say, “I killed my brother.”

From the first day of my incarceration, I believed I was undeserving of love, family, and community. I was filled with anger, hurt, and shame, frightened that other inmates would know what I had done. It took me over 50 years to make sense of the day I killed my brother.

It was JJ’s birthday. He was turning six and I was a year older. We woke up that morning talking about all the fun we knew we were going to have. JJ was my best friend. He followed me around and I loved that, like a baby duckling following his mother. I’d answer all of his questions and share with him everything I learned.

That morning, I remembered seeing a small handgun under my mother’s bed. While she was asleep, I crawled under her bed, JJ right behind me. I grabbed the gun and we crawled back to our room. I knew the gun was real. It was heavy and I saw bullets inside.

“Pull the trigger,” I heard.

I shot. A bullet went into my brother’s stomach. So much commotion ensued. My mother and older siblings came running into the bedroom; the smell of smoke was in the air; my ears were ringing; every sound muffled.

Then came the ambulance and police. They asked me what had happened. I told them my brother crawled under the bed and grabbed the gun. I said he began spinning the gun around his finger like a cowboy in the movies and the gun went off. I totally lied about what happened and for many years I kept isolated from family and everyone. I was depressed and ashamed. No one in the family would talk about JJ’s death.

I loved my brother. It wasn’t until I came to prison did I have the courage to allow myself to be vulnerable and speak about JJ’s death. While I was in county jail my mother and I talked about JJ’s death for the first time. She told me she knew.  She said after JJ was shot, before he died, he told her I was the one who got the gun and shot him.  He told her before he died he wasn’t mad at me. I was overwhelmed with grief. I cried from the guilt and hurt I carried.

Talking with my mother opened the door for a lot of family healing.

I was able to truthfully tell my siblings and my children what happened that morning so many years ago. I told my children how important it is to talk and not keep feelings of shame and guilt inside. I had lived with a horrific lie, long after the truth of JJ’s death had already been revealed.

Every year on my brother’s birthday I take the time to reflect and pay tribute to his life. I’m continually comforted by his last words. He wasn’t mad at me. JJ forgave me.

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