The freshly cut grass was not an ideal place for a wheelchair but here it was. And there they were. I spotted my cousin Wayne standing behind the wheelchair in the near distance with his wife Eunice and two of their three children on the campus green. The wheelchair was there steadying Eunice,Wayne’s wife of 27 years, who resented its presence and her reliance on it due to the progression of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) that with each year greedily took more of her ability to walk on her own.
We were on campus for Wayne and Eunice’s oldest daughter’s outdoor commencement ceremony. Simone was graduating with honors from Illinois Wesleyan University as a pre-med and Spanish major. Over the school’s traditional post graduation dessert on the green of strawberries and cream I remarked that someone should do a story about Wayne.
A month ago I spoke with Wayne during our seasonal check-in conversation. He was driving back from the University of Pennsylvania with Simone who is in her last year of medical school and was coming home for a week long study break. We updated each other on family news. As he lives in a suburb of St. Louis not far from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, I asked him his view on the turmoil. He provided a perspective that only a long-time resident could provide and helped me contextualize the place and the resident reaction. I hung up the phone thinking again, someone should do a story about Wayne.
This is that story.
Wayne will not be the subject of a reality television show. He will not grace the cover of any newspaper or magazine and he will not be interviewed by any host. He hasn’t sold one million copies of anything. But his story must be told because of who he is as a man, a husband, a father, a son. He fulfills these roles with the energy, intensity, and athleticism of a hall of fame athlete. But to borrow from Drake, “They don’t have no award for that.” But there should be.
When I was in fourth grade my mother took us on a road trip from Indiana to Queens, New York to visit Uncle Elias and Aunt Joyce, Wayne’s parents. The Queens two-flat was modest and Wayne’s room was small, but in my mind it was stadium- sized . It seemed that every space in the room was dedicated to planes even the ceiling. Wayne wanted to be a Navy pilot. Years later those dreams were dashed when vision tests rendered him ineligible for pilot training. Disappointed but undeterred he enrolled in St. Louis University to study Aeronautical engineering. It was in St. Louis where he met Eunice, a math and business who was interning there from Florida A&M University.
They visited us in Indiana one Thanksgiving break from college and I remember they went to see the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High with my older brother and sister. I don’t know why I remember such trivia but reflecting now perhaps it is because anything that was associated with Wayne was cemented in my mind.
Wayne and Eunice both graduated from college with honors and had found jobs before they walked across the stage to collect their degrees. They married that summer and settled in St. Louis. Soon after Simone was born, then Jenelle, and a few years later Aaron arrived.
By this time I had entered college and on visits to Wayne and family, I paid attention. He was gentle and loving with Eunice. He was loving and affirming with his children. His gentleness was tested with a 5-year-old Aaron who was kicked out of at least four kindergartens for “aggressive” behavior. I witnessed Aaron’s behavior firsthand that included grating screams and gymnastic floor routines. Wayne’s face was pained during these tantrums but I never saw a slap delivered or a curse word shouted when Aaron was giving a performance. He disciplined with controlled command couched in patience. Eunice partnered with humor and expectation that he would outgrow the tantrums.
For his children he built a deck by himself with an above ground swimming pool. Wayne was a Queens kid whose father didn’t do weekend construction projects. To me that was the amazing Wayne because he built it himself. Again, another memory just because it was Wayne. The house was filled with as many toys as it was filled with love and achievement expectations of the children. Their basement looked like a Toys R Us clearance aisle. (20 years later, mine did too and again I thought of Wayne!)
On one visit to Wayne and family I ran some errands with Eunice. She was the more gregarious of the couple and was quick with jokes and humorous life observations. She drove to her church and introduced me to several people as we headed to the church’s bookstore. I don’t remember the book she bought but I remember that we chatted in the parking lot. During the conversation the air became heavy and Eunice’s voice tenored with uncharacteristic seriousness.
Tears defied her orders to stay hidden. She admonished me to do everything that I thought I wanted to do in this life because life has no guarantees. She stated that MS was kicking her ass and although she seemed ok, she was not ok. By this time, Eunice was walking with a cane. MS does not operate like a robber who suddenly appears and takes, it operates like a high interest rate that readjusts annually sapping more and more each year. Eventually, Eunice could no longer drive and she could only work from home. The wheelchair became a necessity.
Though his job for a defense contractor remained demanding Wayne’s family remained prioritized. He assumed more of the cooking responsibilities and child pick-up responsibilities. He shuttled Eunice to doctor visits while making family meals and shuttling children to practices and school-related activities. If there was any resentment about this change of fortune on life’s roulette wheel , Wayne never expressed it and it never showed up in the way he interacted with his family. It wasn’t as if he was holding anything in, Wayne just accepted it, adjusted and remained focused on the entire family.
But there’s more.
Wayne’s mother had a stroke that rendered her paralyzed on the left side of her body. Another wheelchair. He made the trip to visit. Sandwiched is what the sociologists call his circumstance. He has responsibility to care for his school-aged children and he has responsibility to care for his aging parents. The fortune is that my uncle was then in good health and was able to care for aunt Joyce on a regular basis once she was released from the hospital. With breaks from work, Wayne would drive from St. Louis with the family in tow to visit when school was out. He regularly flew to check on his parents as well. Five years ago my uncle Elias, Wayne’s father, fell ill. A stroke failed to break his reed-like spirit but it did fold his ability to walk. Another wheelchair arrived. Wayne, as usual, responded with support and visits.
There is an essential, existential quality in Wayne that betrays the emotional stress, multiple demands on his time and energy. He remains rock-like, not in the sense of emotionally flat, but in the sense of being a place of solace, a source of stability. Controlled. Thoughtful. Available.
This man, this Black man is who we should know about but few ever will. He hasn’t starred in a film, he doesn’t throw, kick, or shoot a ball. He hasn’t been arrested, preached, elected, written, or Facebooked. But the essence of Wayne Francis should celebrated. It is Wayne who leads. He is a son who cares. He is a husband who loves. He is a father who directs.
If the wisdom of the aphorism, “You can judge a tree by its fruit,” is true then judge Wayne and Eunice by their three children. Simone graduated from Temple University Medical School last month. Jenelle is in entering her third year of veterinary school, and Aaron who easily could have been labelled behaviorally disabled is following in his father’s footsteps as a junior aeronautical engineering major. While we hear of the challenges of Black men in the public eye, we too often do not hear of the triumphs of Black men in private. That is why a story about Wayne had to be told. Wayne and men like him provide role models of the familial success and unity necessary for community progress.
Wayne has done what so many have failed to do – be selfless, thoughtful, responsible, committed, and loving. These traits don’t make for good copy but for good families. Unfortunately we are more likely to hear of Lil’ Wayne than we are about Wayne. Part of the challenge of Black men and family is that we have not been exposed to many positive role models for family. Readily on display are negative images of masculinity and family. Fortunately, I knew Wayne before I knew about Lil’ Wayne.
Yan Dominic Searcy, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean in the School of Health and Human Services at Southern Connecticut State University