Devastation and a Detour Antonio Seay sat on the edge of his bed and tipped the photograph back and forth in his hands. The portrait had been taken a few years earlier when he was up North in college. He touched his image, wiping away a layer of dust.
Forget the past, he told himself, letting the photograph fall to the blue bedspread. He turned his attention to the day's mail, a stack of bills and paperwork officials required before they'd consider deferring payments on his $20,000 college loan. He sighed and tossed the envelopes to the far side of the bed, then flopped back on his pillow and stared at the ceiling.
Two of his college buddies had recently called. They had solid careers and fat paychecks. One was getting married. Antonio wanted those things too. He'd planned to go to law school or become a cop. Instead, at age 25, he was trapped in a housing project in a run-down neighborhood in Miami. Cockroaches skittered across the kitchen counter. The appliances were older than he was. The floors, even in the bedroom, were ancient linoleum, worn and chipped. The walls, grimy with sections of peeling paint, revealed decades of hard living.
Antonio glanced again at the photo of the young man full of dreams. Then he swung his legs off the bed and walked outside the bunker-like house into the night air.
The thump-thump-thump of rap music blared from somewhere in the dark. Up the street, someone shouted. Tires squealed. He went down a pathway littered with trash and turned and studied his home. The very place he'd vowed to escape. He closed his eyes and heard his mother's voice. She'd asked him to drive her to the store that day. That's where this journey of his had begun -- four years ago on a trip to the store.
It was a hot August afternoon in 2002 when Antonio rolled down the car windows and pulled away from the curb. He hardly noticed the bleak neighborhood where he and four younger brothers and sisters lived with their mother, Dorothea. In his mind he was already living in the future.
The first in his family to go to college, in ten months he would graduate from St. Peter's College in New Jersey, with a major in business management and a minor in criminal justice.
He glanced at his mother, who sat quietly in the front seat looking out the window. She was his inspiration, the strength in a family absent a father. She'd never complained. All she wanted was kids smart enough to avoid her mistakes.
"Sweetie," she said softly, "I got something to tell you."
Antonio's stomach tightened. When his mother talked like that, he knew it was something serious.
"I know I should've told you," she said. "But I didn't know how." She paused, searching for the words. "I'm letting you know, from mother to son, I've got HIV." Antonio was silent. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
"Sweetie," his mother said, "I'm going to die."
Taking the Wheel He returned to college, and each week he and his mother talked by phone.
Antonio learned a man she'd trusted and loved had infected her. By the time she got sick, tests revealed the virus had developed into full-blown AIDS. She was alive, though, when her son graduated and returned home in May. Two months later she was admitted to the hospital and soon afterward, a hospice.
Her death would rip the family apart. Antonio could escape, but only if he left behind his sisters, Shronda, 15, Keyera, 13, and his 14-year-old twin brothers, Torrian and Corrian.
Aunts and uncles lived nearby. Others were out of state. But none offered to care for the kids. They'd become wards of the state and sent to foster homes under the supervision of the Florida Department of Children & Families.
Then he got this crazy idea. What if he gained legal custody? He'd never heard of such a thing, but why not? He talked it over with friends. Some admired his guts. Others said if he had any sense he'd run and not look back. He knew his siblings would be a burden. He'd have to postpone any thought of a better life for eight years until his baby sister turned 21. A home in a nice neighborhood? Forget it. Law school? Out. He figured he could get some government assistance, but he had no job and no way to support himself and four children.
Maybe it would be better for everyone if the family split up. They could all start clean. The choice was clear -- abandon them, or his dreams. He prayed he'd do the right thing.
A Legal Aid attorney helped him prepare for court. She asked questions and filled out paperwork. Antonio was in her office the day in August 2003, just a year after his mother had told him the news, when a hospice nurse called. Dorothea had died.
Hours later he gathered his brothers and sisters in the living room and talked bluntly about the future. "We have to be strong," he said through tears. "It's not the end of the world because Mom's gone. We're still a family, still going on, no matter what. We have to be here for each other."
A week after the funeral, after mourners stopped bringing meals to the house, Antonio was on his own. He waited for a court date, hoping that the judge wouldn't think he was a fool, but a man who wanted to be a father figure the best he knew how.
At the hearing, the judge had Antonio and his brothers and sisters stand. "You look young," she told Antonio. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-three," he answered.
"This is a big responsibility," the judge said. "Most men might not take care of their own child, and you come in here to get legal responsibility of your brothers and sisters."
The judge studied the paperwork provided by Legal Aid.
"I respect you," the judge told him, before turning her attention to his siblings. "Do you want to stay with him?"
"Yes," they answered.
Five minutes later the hearing ended. Antonio signed papers and drove his family home to start a new life.
Instilling Passion "Homework?" Antonio asked.
"Ain't got none," Keyera said. Antonio frowned. "I mean," she said quickly, "I don't have any tonight."
He spotted Corrian and asked him how he'd done in school.
"I had to find a way home this afternoon," his brother grumbled. "I didn't have bus fare 'cause I had to pay $15 for that book bag I lost. I'm still short. How about it?"
Antonio raised his hand. "Your responsibility," he said. "You lost it, why should I bail you out? Instead of taking the bus, you walk for a while. Each step, you'll learn to be more careful."
Antonio turned away to make sure his brother and sister couldn't see him smile. He remembered how naive he'd been when he first took charge of the family. He'd wanted to be liked, and made few demands. But the family started falling apart. The grades were terrible, homework missing and no one helped out at home.
And so one night, he closed the door to his room and evaluated his brothers and sisters as if he were a cold-hearted boss sent in to turn around a failing company.
Shronda's grades were lousy because no one pushed her to do better. Corrian was a follower who got in trouble because his friends manipulated him. His twin, Torrian, liked to be sneaky and never feared being caught. Keyera worried too much and didn't believe in herself.
That night Antonio called a family meeting. Everyone found a seat on a dilapidated sectional sofa that relatives had given to the family. He stood in front of them, pacing the floor, making sure they got his message. "We're all we have in the world," he said. "We're going to succeed in life. That would make Mom happy."
He began writing on four pieces of paper. Then he walked to the kitchen and taped the papers to the refrigerator. "Chores," he called out. "Your chores." His brothers and sisters moaned and hustled to the kitchen. Clean the dishes, the bathroom and the kitchen. Take out the trash. Clean the living room. Everyone had tasks, and on Saturday everyone worked together.
They grumbled and said he was too strict. But he was just warming up. He imposed a curfew. Homework would be done on time. He'd read every paper and help figure out every math problem his mother had been unable to do. And if his siblings thought the teachers were demanding, wait until they dealt with Antonio. He planned to bring a little college home to Miami.
And he demanded each of them find a passion, a hobby, a sport, something that would make them see the world was bigger than this neighborhood. Their future would not be the streets, or falling in with drug dealers who claimed turf up the block. They'd go to college, just like he had.
Man of the House In time, Shronda went from C's and D's to A's. She made the honor roll, as did the twins. Corrian played on the football team. Torrian discovered he liked to sing and joined the school choir. Keyera and her sister joined the dance team at church. One day, the girls brought home two bumper stickers that said: "I'm the proud parent of an honor student." The stickers went on the front door to let everyone in the neighborhood know who lived in this house.
In December 2003, Antonio got a job as a youth counselor for a nonprofit agency, making a salary of $31,000 a year. The job had regular hours, allowing him to be home every day to make dinner for the kids. He attended their football games, church performances and parent/teacher meetings. And every month he put a little money in savings accounts for each of them.
Tonight, another hot Miami evening in 2006 with the old photograph and the bills lying on the bed, Antonio stopped short on the littered sidewalk outside his house. Down the street he saw Corrian talking with some boys. Around here -- in a neighborhood of single mothers -- Antonio is known as the strict man who doesn't tolerate people hanging around or traipsing in and out of his house without a reason.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a copper-colored $50,000 Hummer slowly making its way down the street. "I don't know who that is," Antonio said to himself.
"Hey, you all get over here by the house," he called to Corrian and his friends.
Arms crossed, Antonio stared straight ahead as the Hummer stopped. Fifteen seconds passed before the vehicle moved up the block to where drug dealers lived. "You all stay by the house," Antonio said. "You hear me? You listening?"
Satisfied for the moment, Antonio walked inside and stood next to a display cabinet. His mother's ashes are in a white box on the cabinet. "Mama, we love U always," one of her children had written on the outside of the box. A small snapshot of Dorothea Seay was tucked in one edge, making it appear as though she is looking down, watching her family.
The man of the house yawned and rubbed his face. He had to be up at to wake everyone and get them breakfast before he took them to school. From there he'd go to the counseling office. Grab groceries for dinner on his lunch break. Tight, but doable. He sat on the edge of his bed. The bills were still there and the photo of the kid with the dreams.
He heard laughter out on the stoop. "Is everything cool out there?" Antonio asked his brothers. "Don't want no problems."