When some people talk of death, they talk of pain and loss and all the rest of it, the rest of it we have been taught to associate with death. Funerals require black dresses and suits. Mourning periods require that smiles are frowned upon. There should be long lines of the bereaved, showing their pain in how many tears they shed and in their whispered conversations with one another in the church. Depending on one’s denomination, or religion even, laughter is strictly forbidden. And when people do find a way to laugh, usually when they come together after a funeral to remember the deceased, if you look long enough and carefully enough, then you can see the tears hiding behind the laughter, waiting for a chance to be alone again, so that they can pour out and return one to a sad state. Also, In some cultures, one must dress in dark colors long enough to remind people that death, despite the stories about Heaven, is not something to feel joy about. And for those about to say, well in Africa, we dress in white and celebrate with drums and food and ancestors, well all this is true and all, but what is also true is that we as Africans also find ways to sit in sadness, just not in ways as obvious as some others.
I saw my first death when I was about ten. One day my grandfather was watching a boxing match with me on our black and white TV and the next, he was laying on his bed with the Catholic priest praying over his dead body, one week he and I were eating blackberries in our Brooklyn backyard and the next, he was being buried back in Calvary Cemetery in Jamaica. There were very few people I was closer to than him and so when he died, you would think that I would have been devastated. But it was hard for me to be sad about him being gone when every night I went to sleep, he would come to me in my dreams and talk with me and laugh with me and simply be with me. Maybe it was then I realized that, in many ways, death is more like a means to be everywhere without having to be in only one place. Because, not only was he coming to me in my dreams, but many other family members said he was coming to them as well. And if I could feel his presence in my dreams, and sometimes even outside of them, then was he really ever dead?
Since that first death, over the course of my life, I have known thirteen others, more or less. Some of those deaths have been tragic and have come to me as surprises and some of them have come to me over years, giving me time to prepare, as best one can, for the passing. Some of them left me devastated and some of them left me simply nostalgic. Some of them changed my life and some of them simply changed my thinking. One of them has even caused me, for the last ten years or so, to help children deal with something more devastating than death, to help them deal with life.
And yet, if death has changed my thinking and the way I live, if it has been, somehow, a teacher in my life, then why do I still have moments when the sadness remains, demanding nothing less than tears?
One day someone from my job, someone who went through something similar with their father to what I am going through now, asked me how everything was going with my dad. They caught me on a bad day, a day I was tired and stressed and completely overwhelmed, a day after my dad told me he had a tumor that was once removed that had been stabbing into his heart like a knife, and that maybe the pain in his chest now was caused by many knives all trying to get their revenge for getting rid of their brother tumor. He said that with his crazy dry humor which is sometimes more dry than humorous. The day he said it I did not laugh.
So when that person asked me about my dad, I found myself saying the most incredibly horrible thing. I responded, without thinking, but I still responded, “He won’t stop dying.”
And thank God the person understood the pain of it all and said what she said, otherwise I think I would have been devastated by how callous I sounded. She said, “I know.”
And yet there was once that child who understood that death is not an ending nor a beginning, but rather, that dying and living may just be different names for the same thing. So if that child existed yesterday, where can one find him today, when we are older and, supposedly, wiser?
Yesterday, I was walking down Broadway, window shopping, when all of a sudden I felt an onrush of love, a surge of it so strong that I felt like maybe I had accidentally gotten a contact high from someone, maybe someone who had been smoking some weed next to me. Because it felt otherworldly, like someone with invisible hands was holding me and filling me up with waves and waves of love. It left me feeling blessed. Later that day, my mom, without me telling her about the incident, reminded me that is was the anniversary of my uncle’s death, my uncle who, in terms of time and effort and concern, was far more of a parent to me than most parents are to their own children. And when I was reminded of the anniversary, I smiled, because it always happens on the same day each year. He always visits me and walks with me, for a bit, and blesses me with his love. I have had this feeling so many times with so many loved ones that for me it is as natural as a loved one sending a postcard or calling to say hello.
And yet, in the face of death, we will cry, whether we do it like that relative who falls on the coffin, at the funeral, because of how authentic their love for that dead family member was, or because of how inauthentic it was. Or if we do it like Florida, the mom on Good Times, did when she went through the funeral and the wake without shedding a tear, and only lost it, when she was by herself in her kitchen, shattering the glass bowl and saying, not screaming, not whispering, but saying, simply, “Damn… Damn…. Damn…..”
How beautiful it sounds when people say shit like, “Don’t worry, the spirit will always be with you.” Who the hell wants to hear that? Most of the time, the person saying that to you is someone, that if you could choose, you would rather be saying goodbye to than the loved one who is gone.
At the moment of loss, who cares about the spirit?! Who cares about the soul going to a better place?! Shit. Let the soul go and let the body stay then! Because we want to hear their voice, to feel their touch, to see their face. We want to have their love revealed for us in a way only a living body allows. We want to laugh with them and maybe argue with them or just exist with them. We want them alive with us and not anywhere else, even if that anywhere else is with the Lord or in Paradise or sitting under a Bodhi tree with the Buddha. When we mourn, we mourn because we simply want them back. As one mother said to me when her daughter was murdered, “Why the hell did God have to take my child when he already took back his own?!”
But having said all of this, I still think of that child who saw his grandfather lying there as the priest said prayers over the body. He loved his grandfather, so much so that he can point to some of the happiest moments of the first ten years of his life to moments he spent with his grandfather, just the two of them in that little house in Brooklyn. And the funny thing is that this child, being a me from many years ago, still hears his grandfather in his dreams and still feels him around him in his life, as he does with all his loved ones who are gone.
Perhaps, if that child was here today, seeing death visiting many of us again, he would say you need to feel what you are feeling, scream if you need to scream, cry as much as you need to cry, and maybe even cry more than that, shatter all the glass bowls in your house and stand alone and say, Damn…. Damn…. Damn….
And only when you have done all of that, try to remember that there will be days when you need them, days when only their words will suffice, only their touch will heal, only their love will strengthen, when they will come, in as many forms as they can, to let you know, that for as long as you need, and or want, they will be there to hold you and keep you strong. And the ways they can be there for you when they are gone are even more powerful than if they were still here, body and all. Because, not for nothing, all bodies fade away in the end, but in my humble experience, the spirits of our loved ones, stay with us forever.
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