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Death


Now that I have a family, I cannot imagine the end of this life. Oddly enough, now that I have a family, I spend way more time than I ever have before, trying to avoid thinking about the end of this life. Trying to avoid fearing it. Trying to forget it is inevitable. Trying to touch its contours in my brain, and hoping I can't because it's so, so far away. Trying to prepare for it in functional ways (nothing says hello, thirtysomething like planning to create your will) with one eye shut.


Celebrity death is fraught with many things--anger, disbelief, outpourings of grief and remembrance, the people who want to make sure none of us forget the shitty parts of that human, the people who want those people to shut the fuck up, the deeply strange sadness for a person you did not actually know--but it gives an opportunity for a collective airing out, for the opportunity to ponder death in public, without feeling weird or superstitious or left-of-center. In a way, it’s like we get to try on death and its rites.


I did not live a childhood visited often by intimate death, and thus, I have no blueprint for the what and the how of death. I recognize this as an odd privilege.


My father's aunt died when I was a junior or senior in high school. We never lived in the same city, and she was the kind of family member that all of my family members are like, seeing as how I don't live in close proximity to any of them--I saw her at family functions, and considering how little we visited, I cannot recall seeing her more than a few times over the course of my short life. The most vivid memory I have of her is hearing her speak, in her delightfully Charlestonian-Geechee patois, and imagining that maybe my family was actually from somewhere exotic and forgot to mention it to me. I asked my mother if we were Jamaican, not yet understanding the connection between Charleston and Africa, and having so far only heard Jamaica as a representative of Caribbean patois. She laughed at me and told me no.


I was the one who fielded the phone call when my great-aunt died, and I did experience a kind of clairsentience as soon as I answered. Sure, it was a late call (for my house, at least), but I had an inexplicable feeling. My great-aunt had experienced a stroke, if I remember correctly, and the last time I'd seen her, she'd been in a nursing facility, which was a complete pivot from the independent life I'd known her to have. I remember adults speaking around me (but not to me, of course) and hearing that she'd stopped eating. I knew then, somehow, that this phone call would be the result, sooner or later. Her funeral, the first that I can remember ever attending, was full of the weary, deep ache of Black people in mourning. There were bits of laughter, because that is also how Black people grieve, but also resounding sadness that attacked the knees of my cousin, causing her to collapse in the aisle and holler. That same sadness jumped from the throat of my other cousin as he wept raggedly for his mother as we watched the casket be lowered into the ground. I had never heard hurt escape a grown man this way before. I wept behind dark sunglasses, gutted at the sound, an empath who didn't know it at the time, who was soaking in all the energy, who would store it away until years later, when she would write about it, and her skin would prickle. The only person who asked me anything after the funeral was my teacher back at home, whom I loved dearly and thought of as a kind of friend and mentor. He was the only person who ever asked me if I was okay.


My mother's grandmother died when I was in college. I had spent more time around my great-grandmother than my great-aunt, but still nothing more than requisite visits to her home whenever we were in the town where my grandmother lives, and where my mother is from. My great-grandmother would ask me the few questions a woman over seventy years my senior would ask, and I would answer them delicately in the presence of the thick quilt of multiple generations in one room, aware that my manners were more important than my answers, and also painfully aware that my stitching was the odd one out on this quilt.


My favorite memory of my great-grandmother, and what feels like the only memory I have of her that belongs just to me, is when I was barely a teenager in Atlanta on a rare trip without my parents. I was sitting on a porch with her, and I remember the sound of baseball commentary melding with static, loud against the suburban quiet. She loved baseball, just like all my other Georgian family members. We did not watch nor listen to baseball in my house, far away in the odd swampy sprawl of Florida. We were sitting there together, not saying anything, because my great-grandmother could sit and sit and not disturb the peace around her. I wonder now what she thought about. A bumblebee buzzed its fat body into the summer air around us, and I started to panic. Before I could cause a ruckus, without moving an inch, she told me to be still. She may have told me that the bee wouldn't harm me if I just sat still, or I could have added that in over the years. But I know that any time a bee buzzes around, I think of that moment, and I think of her.


She was in her nineties when she died, and to a Black Southern churchy family, that is an honorable death. Her funeral was stiff and small-town Christian--old hymns from old church members with questionable harmonies, the praises for a long life lead in the service of God, the promise of a meal waiting just off in the wings after watching her casket be put into the ground. I think of that day on the porch with her, and the time when we were in church and she quietly called someone ugly, and I know she wasn't as stiff as her funeral. And I wish I could have known her more. Before the service, I went with my mother to see my great-grandmother in her casket. Her body was still and waxy, already not the person I'd spent my short life knowing. My mother took a photo of her with the camera on her phone. If I go through her photos, I bet, if she has actually learned how to move photos from phone to phone, I bet I'd still see that photo in there. My sister and I clowned my mother on a move that seemed relatively gauche. She blamed her lack of emotion on being a nurse. She looked impassively down at my great-grandmother, remarking on how great of a job the funeral home did on her lifeless body. I remember never wanting to look at another dead body in a casket for the rest of my life. We never talked about that funeral either.


 

I pray that my children will also live a childhood free of the intimate knowings of death. I will give them the blueprint I didn't have, though, all the while hoping the plans can stay rolled up and collect dust in an attic they don't have to visit for many, many years. I hope the first time I talk to my kids about death, it’s like seeing a bird on the sidewalk, flightless and forever still, its feathers barely ruffled, the kind of death that looks like sleeping even to an adult eye that knows better. I hope I have the opportunity to gather and give of myself to them, and ask them if they are okay. To hold them, and provide space for the confusion in their bones. I hope I have better words for them than the ones that were given to me, even if all I can tell them is that sometimes, life really, really hurts.

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