Back in the Seventies when we had just moved to the States, back in the days when snow was still a thrill to see and NYC winters still a wonder, my family, on East 96th street between Church and Linden, would call Jamaica every time the news showed the latest story about the political warfare taking place in Kingston. If the NYC Times did a story about the political gangs warring in the streets, long distance calls would fly from Brooklyn to my uncle’s house in New Kingston or my aunt’s house in Drumblair with the question, Are You Okay? And each and every time my uncle or aunt would tell everyone to calm down and not lose their minds from what American TV was telling us about JA.
“Things are not as bad as they make it out to be,” they would tell us as we watched images of an armored vehicle driving up King street on the Nightly News. “You know New York is much deadlier than Kingston. Yes man, America overall has far more violence than we do.”
The words of my family back home did little to ease my grandmother’s worries or even the worries of my mom and her sisters. Because even when sibling wars were in full effect, with either my mom or one of my aunts battling with either my uncle or my other aunt, they never let sibling conflicts get in the way of the massive love they had for one another, the massive kind of love my family has always had in abundance, the massive kind of love that causes one to worry when seeing video footage of gangs having gun battles in the country where your loved ones live. And of course, the fact that my mom had the kind of job where she could get the real facts about the political machinations back in Jamaica, the political machinations that were causing garrison communities to commit to a full blown war, did not help to ease family worries about the violence in Jamaica.
When I went to Jamaica that summer to stay with my uncle for my yearly escape from New York, I learned that for all the protests of my uncle and my aunt, Jamaica was just as bad as the American press had been telling us. When I walked with my aunt in Kingston and she held on to her mace in one hand and clutched her purse for dear life with the other, the whole time telling me to keep my eyes out for anyone who looked like they could be trouble, I knew things were not normal by any standard. When she checked every door and every gate at night and talked about hearing badmen running through the yard deep into the evening, I understood that she was far more scared of the reality in Kingston than she had been letting on in the conversations with us during those many calls. The same was true for my uncle who while driving one day showed me a bag in the middle of the street that was suspiciously long and wide enough to look like it could hold a body. “You see that bag, there, Sean, that bag there probably has a body in it. Last week they found two bags with body parts on different streets. All those body parts belonged to the same body but for some reason the murderers decided to drop them off on different streets to make a point I think.”
As a result of this bumbaclat virus, every day now I have friends and or family members calling me to ask me if I am okay and I cannot but think of those days in the Seventies and Eighties. I tell them everything is fine and that we are safe and healthy and our fridge is full of food. “But the news is saying that New York City is the epicenter of the epicenter. One channel even said that New York has more cases than any country in the world.”
The sarcastic idiot in me wanted to repeat those words… Any country in the world, huh. Versus any country on the planet Mars. But this fucked-up situation doesn’t even allow me to be sarcastic to people who are calling me because they love me enough to give a damn. So instead, I reassure them that we are fine and there is no need to worry.
I don’t tell them that the phone calls are getting to be a bit much and I don’t mean their phone calls. I am talking about the ones I have aptly titled the Dead and Dying Phone Calls. These are the calls where people list off the latest victim of the virus, the latest victim whose body is stacked away, possibly, in a refrigerated truck outside of city hospitals. Or the calls about someone who has a severe case of the virus that people suspect is bad enough to kill them off before they have a chance to see their loved ones on the other side of the hospital walls. I don’t tell them that almost everyone I know has a friend or a family member who has passed away because of the virus. And I definitely don’t tell them that my friends and I believe the official count of the dead is way off the mark because our gut instincts tell us that the numbers are too high to report on TV without folks all losing their marbles and running for the hills.
I also don’t tell them that every time I go out to the stores I think about what would happen to my family if I died. Shit, for the first time in my life, I actually go insane about making sure bills get paid on time so that if I do die, there would be one less worry hanging over their heads. How shitty would it be for my family to find out my lungs have failed me while also finding out the lights were cut off? And of course I check all the time now to make sure I am up to date with my insurance payments for obvious reasons. As for how this ever present panic has affected how I shop, let’s just say I shop to ensure that if something does happen to me, my wife can mourn my passing without having to worry about what to cook for dinner that night.
I tell them that everything is fine even when the phone call I was on only minutes before this one was with a friend who was crying about another friend who she spoke to on a Monday only to find out he died on a Tuesday. Yeah, who wants to hear about shit like that over the phone?
The funniest thing though is that there are moments when I forget that the world around me has gone insane and the only thing that reminds me is a phone call from someone asking me if I am am okay and that they are worried because on the news they hear that New York is the epicenter of the epicenter and that they see Governor Cuomo talking about floating hospitals on the Hudson and hospital beds being put up in CitiField and funeral homes having to turn away mourning families and dead bodies being buried on some fucking island of the dead and ……………
There are actually moments when the news is off and my wife, my daughter, my dog and I are sitting in the living room watching High School Musical for the umpteenth time while devouring ice cream when I forget ever so briefly that right outside our door the city that we love is literally becoming a ghost town. These are the moments I call the Precious Moments when time seems to stop long enough for peace and calm to enter my heart and a sense of God resides in the presence of love in our home.
The last time I stayed with my uncle in Jamaica was when he found out he had an aggressive form of cancer. It was a time when nothing in the world was okay for me because the thought of losing the man who was more father to me than uncle was a pain I still feel to this day. And yet, every night he and I would sit on his balcony overlooking the Caribbean sea and talk. Those conversations were some of the most powerful conversations I have ever had with anyone in my life ever. We spoke about things I am sure we never would have spoken about if things were okay. Hours we would spend on that balcony. Sometimes we didn’t even talk but instead would just sit there looking either at the waves crashing against the sea wall or at the red sun sinking behind Blue Mountains. We would sit there in a silence filled with the same presence of love I feel now during this time when my family and I watch TV together or eat together or laugh together as the virus rages outside our apartment door.
When I sat with my dying uncle, things were truly not okay and yet we found love and laughter in the middle of it all. And as for how things are in New York right now, things are without a doubt not okay, and yet, I have not loved this much or this deeply in many, many years. I have had conversations with friends I should have had years ago. I have pursued dreams I have been dreaming since I was a child. I have forgiven many things and apologized for many more things. I have spoken to God more than before and more than this, I have listened more than ever before. I have entered a space of intentionality that has made my life feel not only richer but incredibly more fulfilled than the life I had before this crisis. And I have finally accepted a lesson God has been trying to teach me for the longest time which is that it is okay to ask for help and receive help.
The last call I got was from a friend of mine who asked me if I was okay to which I surprisingly responded no. With trembling hands I told him what I was feeling and worrying about and seeing around me. I told him my fears for myself and mostly my fears for my family. I told him so many of my fears that I worried he would hang up just to keep his sanity intact. He did not hang up, but instead sat through my testimony of madness. When I was done, he spoke life and faith and hope and love into me and then as if all of that was not enough he prayed for me and with me over the phone. And as he prayed I cried the tears I probably should have been crying from the beginning of this chaos. He then said he would check on me again and that until then I should stay open to people wanting to support me and my family.
I will probably still feel funny about people calling to ask me if I am okay. Years of avoiding asking people for help or really liking to receive it too much does not go away overnight. But in this time when the world is truly shifting underneath our feet and everywhere we turn there are reminders to just how impermanent this life is, one cannot help but feel grateful for those phone calls from family and loved ones who really care enough to reach out and ask….. Are You Okay?
Please share this post if you were moved by it.