And even now being in Jamaica and writing this and knowing that I am writing these words thinking about death and the end of all things and the loss of everything—for loss has indeed recently come very near; has knocked, made itself felt, known, present. And thinking about it, loss, death, so much because there has been so much death in this family, my family, recently, so much: the death of a cousin, a fundamentalist born-again Christian who committed suicide not long ago by firing a gun into his chest after losing custody of his sons in an acrimonious divorce case and also discovering that one of those sons was not his own, his biological own (though very much his spiritual own, the child who had always known only him as, and called him, “Daddy”)—the child not his biologically but, as he learned to his evident devastation, his best friend’s. Then another cousin who died only weeks ago and completely unexpectedly; and that cousin’s sister-in-law who died after a brief time in a coma, and so young, so very young, only in her thirties; and then my beloved and favorite aunt thinking that she was going to die and suffering a profound mortality crisis upon pondering the very real proximity of her own death, who as of this writing lies slowly dying in a Northeast Bronx hospice.[i] And then most recently my always-vibrant and impossible and sometimes viciously cruel, sometimes deeply loving mother, who at eighty-seven years of age in the spring of 2011 suffered a stroke, a massive stroke, people said to me over the phone: my mother lying on a bed without speech and without mobility on her right side, first in a hospital, then in an “acute rehabilitative facility,” and then in a “sub-acute rehabilitative facility,” regaining speech though slowly, painfully, with great difficulty, and still no sign of any significant restored mobility. And then remembering my sister, my only sibling, dead these many years from breast cancer at the age of forty-one. It was not right, such a death can never be right for anyone. It was not right for her children who were teenagers at the time; not right for her husband who, though I have never at all really cared for him, and in fact for very good reasons have often despised and utterly loathed him and loathe him still, I know loved her beyond imagining. And it was not right, that death, for my mother, who herself proceeded into an unfathomable tailspin after her daughter’s death—the daughter who, in fact and very unfortunately, she had physically and emotionally abused and tormented, for years, unmercifully, alternating that cruelty with genuine love, or what she had perceived to be love, in the deeply twisted way some people perceive and define love. And then, four years before my sister’s death, the death of my father: my father whom I had without question worshiped and adored for all of his life, for all of the time I had known him, even as I later came to scorn him at times, and even to repudiate him, as surly rebellious teenagers are often known to do with parents, at least in the contemporary West. My father, beloved, idolized: a gray-headed man who was born to garden, blessed with intuitive understanding of the soil and green things. My father who, like so many Jamaicans and especially those raised “in country,” in a small farming community in deep central Jamaica, loved his garden, and died in a hospital at the age of seventy-two when I was still quite young, after which death (“after the first death, there is no other,” the poet wrote—but he was wrong, so very wrong) I immediately lost all sense of time and place and purpose and even being, by which I mean my own being—for what could be the point of being after something like that? Who would wish to be, to be alive still, to breathe and walk upon the blessed gorgeous earth, this planet so miraculous and life-sustaining (but also life-taking) anymore after something like that? He died. They all died. But his death especially, his leaving this planet especially, his departing with a gasp in the last spasms of cardiac arrest and physical expiration in that cold clean sterile machine-filled hospital room in the Northeast Bronx, was cataclysm. Indefinable. Irrevocable. The unquestionable and utterly ultimate and terrible, awful, ending of all things, I believed at the time; in that time, that awful very dark time, during which I wished during the very empty—actually hollow, and strangely soundless, feelingless, sensationless—chilly days and nights and weeks that followed only to lie in a dark room for days and cease to be, just cease to be—let it all end now, my limp body had thought (my body in that time thinking because my mind, shattered or simply shut down somehow throughout those endless airless moments quite unable to think)—so my body had thought in that protecting dark dank room in the basement of my parents’ house, where, across a dirty, rumpled sheet on a caving-in mattress, my body had thought, if I can just stay here for the rest of my life I will be fine, just fine: my mind filled with (filled with? Or, more accurately, possessed by?) the strangeness and stupidity and outrage and blankness of grief. Too much death in what was and remains for me the inescapably personal realm: a lot of death, through which, in moments of clarity and compassion and human caring, makes me want to feel and feel and know the sorrow and grieving and agony of all those in all the villages across the world that have been incinerated, that have been firebombed, that have been bayoneted, that have been machine-gunned, where nearly (or all) of the women and children, and many of the men, have been raped, then raped again, and where the old people have been knocked senseless to the ground and trod upon by soldiers’ or mercenaries’ boot steps and intestines from those of all ages have been left out to dry in the hot, the very hot, sun. The grief of one, the grief of another: even (especially) in the midst of my own much smaller grief I wish not to forget them. I will never forget them, faceless though the world at large often wants them to be, and small though my grief actually is or would appear to some alongside the (in some cases) centuries-long shadows of theirs.
And so even now I am here in Jamaica where in the language, the daily and nightly language and voices I hear them all: hear those close to me who have died or who are dying. Those who are leaving, who have left. I continue to hear all of them in the patois, the creole, the cadences, the words, the intonations, the sounds, the expressions, the proverbs, the syntax, the utterances of Yes, my dear and Massa God, do and But see ya? and Mi cyaan believe seh and Ah mi one know seh him woulda drop lick pon har, and more, so much more: here in Jamaica at this time partly because this, this is what I must have, I think: this, the primal language of my existence and being that, for me, conjures them, the living and the dead. Conjures and summons memory. Language that is memory. That is recollection. For aside from the profound love that I feel, feel for this country that yet cannot love me because of who I am and how I love and desire and exist—and in spite of and also alongside the fury that I feel for this country that cannot love me or sometimes even see me because of who I am and how I love and desire—it is here where I most often wish to be, and must be, so that—in part—I might hear and feel and walk through the language that conjures all of them, those no longer here and those here for perhaps not much longer: here, parents and family, who, though I may sometimes hate them, though I may hate them and love them, I nonetheless hear them in the language that conjures their presences and beings once again so that they are not dead they do not feel dead; so that hearing them, I feel more safe—perhaps what can only be an illusory feeling of safety from complete aloneness and finally mortality – than I have ever felt anyplace else: here, on this island where those more inclined to violence and hatred would (at the least) scorn or avoid me, and at the most do far worse; far worse such as kill me, of course. Here, on an island that, in these years of intensified crime, violence beyond belief, is in no way safe. Jamaica. This place of the language. This place that is home but that, like “home” itself, is uneasy; offers often unsafe, often deceptively welcoming arms.
And so in hearing the language here and feeling them all of them in the cadences I am returned to—I am in—the most core part of myself (so I believe) and my past: a past which one would often rather not remember or think about, especially the more distant historical one. Here among my people, my insufferable and hateful and loving and deeply beloved people, where I hear the parents and their parents and all of them going further back in time than I can possibly imagine; and so in moments of deepest loneliness and longing (my sister should not have died so young; my father should not have died at all; my mother, spiteful and cruel and loving as she has been and even in the midst of her stroke still is, should not die at all, though her dying would, I have often thought, be to me an absolute relief, an absolution, deliverance), the language of daily living comforts and assuages. It assures me, even if the assurance is only an illusion that I not only accept but grasp in unabashed desperation: the desperate belief that there is and must be some continuity, some consistency, some possibility—the raw possibility of going on, continuing—in the radical adventure known more often as life; the vastly unpredictable arena known as life. Life most definitely not everlasting. Here, watching the distant mango trees respond with what looks like lilting pleasure in response to the evening breeze’s caress, I hear them. Feel them. I know that they, those people, are here, contradictory as the feelings about them will be and are. It remains unfathomable to some non-Jamaican friends how much I adore this country and its complicated, exasperating people who, over centuries, fashioned a brilliant, acrobatic language—one well familiar with harsh and more gentle irony—out of unspeakable suffering, but also out of the miracle of (against so many odds) survival.
It is something to know that you so dearly and even desperately love a country in which you know that you are not, in fact, safe, no matter the seductiveness of your illusions; no matter your desire for safety (actual safety itself, whatever it actually is and wherever one finds it, being finally perhaps simply the assurance of love), or for faith. Such love (or faith, or desire) is not quite a choice; it simply is a way of being, foolhardy in this context, perhaps; a way of being that beats and beats its way insistently through your pathetic vulnerable heart and is, simply, somehow enduringly, there. It is something to know that the place that provides you with such indescribable joy in your heart—yes, in your very deepest heart, upon arriving in it in the present day at the same airport where you arrived in it as a child over and over again and where, far beyond that airport, in the hills of cooler, greener upper Saint Andrew, you spent time as a child—is a place that, no matter how much you love it, you know could destroy you; as, indeed, could several other places. For where, finally, is “safety”? I have never quite fully known. Only a very stupid or self-deceiving black man, and in my case also a homosexual with clearly not-white skin, living in the United States (or in many other places) would believe that he is in any way “safe.” What we can know is that “safety” is, in this deeply fraught world, as elusive as shadows at dusk: glimpsed for a moment, then gone; then maybe returned at some future point, but not, I suspect, for long. Some children, often the most vulnerable among us, know this; some people in besieged places, whether nation or domestic sphere, seeking safety for themselves and their children, know this. In my smaller circumstances, I can hope that some kind of safety resides perhaps in particular memories; perhaps in language that brings back both substance and occasionally remembered form and flesh of those both living and dead.
(But then for a moment, with great happiness, indeed even joy, I remember Denver’s conversation with her deceased grandmother Baby Suggs in Beloved: Denver, the at-her-wits’-end daughter and granddaughter fighting to save both her mother Sethe and herself from “the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead,” rescued and heartened—emboldened—by the sudden, unexpected voice in her ear of one long-dead black woman—the heart and prize of connection:
“You mean I never told you nothing about Carolina? About your daddy? You don’t remember nothing about how come I walk the way I do and about your mother’s feet, not to speak of her back? I never told you all that? Is that why you can’t walk down the steps? My Jesus my.”
But you said there was no defense.
Then what do I do?
“Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.”[ii]
If people with whom you are close have begun to die or sicken to some extent, the dying or sickening occasioning in you feelings of longing and loneliness (and also fear), and if you are me or someone like me, like so many of us—you might begin to court the dead; to have conversations, and then maybe longer conversations, with the dead. (If you are of African descent and the descendant of slaves, as I am and as so many of us are, this is something that you may not be able to do without eventually losing your mind, acknowledging the enormity of the history and experience; if you are of African descent and the descendant of slaves, as so many of us are and as I am, you will know that, acknowledging the enormity of that history and experience, this is eventually something that you will probably have to do, hopefully without risk of losing your mind. Peace, and ancestors, you might think, as I often have thought; for in the journey of engaging with the dead you must, I have learned and still am learning, move yourself toward some conceptualization of peace, however defined, and some squaring with ancestors, which, paradoxically, given one’s history as a person of African descent, may bring anything but peace.) You feel them around you, sometimes, those ancestral dead; you know that they are there. Of course you hear them in the daily Jamaican language that brings them back to you. But you also dream of them, ruminate about them, wonder what (for those whom you did not actually know) their faces looked like. You wonder even what the face of your paternal great-great-grandfather Stephen Sharp Glave looked like: a white man born in Lythe, North Riding, Yorkshire, England, who emigrated to Jamaica from England in the early nineteenth century and died there, in Manchester, in 1873, and whose gravestone you saw not far from the town of Mile Gully, Manchester, in the churchyard of the now deconsecrated supposedly haunted Anglican church (“the duppy church”). That had originally been St. George’s Church, where, in the late nineteenth century, Stephen served on the church committee and at one point also as one of the church’s wardens. (And it was very moving, you remember, and deeply strange, to see your surname on a worn, weather-beaten nineteenth-century gravestone . . . knowing that, in addition to sharing that name, some DNA of the man buried in that ground moved in the present through your living body.) You wonder about the “brown” woman, Catherine “Kitty” Wright—your paternal great-great-grandmother. Was her gravestone among those more unreadable in the weed-choked churchyard? Where did her bones lie—the bones of the woman whom Stephen did not marry and who bore him several children, among them an earlier Thomas Glave. (The very accurate family genealogy shows that there had already been several Thomases in the Glave line, going as far back as the 1740s in England.) Stephen’s and Kitty’s son Thomas was your great-grandfather, born in 1839 in Whitby, Manchester, and deceased there in 1901: the Thomas who fathered your grandfather, Caleb Glave, and the Thomas for whom your father, that Thomas’s grandson, was presumably named.
But then who was that brown woman, Catherine “Kitty,” whom Stephen Sharp Glave, for whatever reasons, did not marry, though she obviously shared his bed? (Or at least bore him children). How did she live? How did she live, Catherine great-great-grandmother, her skin marking her in the post-slave colony as most definitely not white, a person virtually without rights or claim of her own? A woman-ancestor who had lived through the late slave era in Jamaica and into the time of Emancipation? How did she live with and bear children for a man who stipulated in his will that, as we have known definitively since the early years of this century, any of his children who married a “Black Person” would be disinherited?[iii] (He made good on this threat with one of his progeny, leaving her only a mule. A resounding brava! to that daughter, one Maria Glave, who, born in Whitby, Manchester, in 1840, married one (evidently black) Lionel deSilva Henriques, thus daring to buck her intransigent and, as we would say in this “modern” century, bigoted father.) How did she live, how did she die? I would like to know her face and her voice, and the sound of her nineteenth-century brownwoman Jamaican language. I would like to know her life, as much as I would like to know that of the man whose property, in a sense, she became after Emancipation: the lives of these great-great-grandparents and the lives of all those who followed, as much as I would like to know the lives and faces and voices of all the Thomas Glaves who precede me over the past two hundred and fifty years, and others. They are there, in my imagination and historical memory; they are most definitely there.
At certain times—times like this one, when your mother has recently had a massive stroke and you are feeling extremely overwhelmed and very alone, alone and often really frightened—frightened when you wonder what will happen next, what can happen next, and how you will get through all of it without actually losing your mind (but then thank God for prayer, and for open night skies and stars and memories of warm Caribbean water and whispering trees. Thank God for quietness, and the possibility of prayer)—at times like this, you do wish very much, yearn very much, for a brother. An older brother. An experienced one. One who, in the face of trials and great anxiety, would always, invariably, be confident. That brother. The one who, like your dead sister, would seem always to know everything. The one who would always have a reasonable (if sometimes acerbic, even unkind and condescending, as was often the case with her) response for everything; the one who, if he actually existed, would surely, in this idealistic imagining, have broad shoulders to rely upon, and a deep resonant voice to match the frequent smile on his face: the smile that, like the calming assurance in his so-confident voice, would have said to you on numerous occasions, without being authoritarian and with steadfast good humor, Yes. Yeah, man, as a Jamaican would say. All right, then. Don’t worry. No bodda worry. That one: the brother about whom you have often dreamt. An older brother (although a younger one would be welcome) as well, of whom, as you listen hungrily to the sounds of your parents and other bloodpeople in the daily Jamaican language, and hear them, you would ask, And so how is Mother doing today? Did you visit her? Does she seem depressed? Is she responding to the speech therapy? Is she forming entire sentences yet? Are they actually giving her anti-anxiety medication? Is she making any friends there? Will you go to the “facility” today, or tomorrow? Should I go there today, or tomorrow? How are you holding up? You know that I love you, don’t you? And oh yes, you would tell him, that brother, remember that: remember how much how very much I love you. How much I love you dearly, and how we will, we will get through this together, brother. Yes, of course we will: because the older people will die, and some of the younger people may die also, as our sister did, and as we—who knows, who can possibly know?—may die sooner than we think; but we will, my beloved brother whose voice and presence I also hear in the language, we will get through it all. Trust me on that one. Believe me. All right.
But he, that beloved but imagined and fictitious brother about whom you have dreamt and for whom you have yearned for years upon years since (if not before) your sister’s untimely death, does not breathe air, at least not the air of this planet. And so because he does not exist and has never existed, you know, know, that you will have to move through this landscape alone. Move at times with the support of loving friends, who are loving, yes; but whom you know also do—as they should—have their own lives, their own responsibilities; as he, your imagined brother, no doubt would have had his own. But responsibilities and life of his own though he would have had, he would have been one of your bloodpeople—and hopefully one of the kind ones, unlike those in Jamaica not pleased with your most profound pleasure and yearning, with your longings for other men. Ideally, whatever your imagined brother’s erotic inclinations, he would not have reacted to you in as cold a manner as many of the other bloodpeople have done. Ideally, you and he would have been not enemies, not irritable and sarcastic in each other’s presence, but friends—dear friends. But you do not have a brother who is either a friend or an enemy, except in the place for which, at times like this one, with your mother lying in a “facility” because of a stroke that has reduced her to an invalid, you are deeply grateful: your imagination.
And when you are in Jamaica as you are now, listening for your living and many dead bloodpeople in the language and seeking to conjure them, conjure them and bring them all around you—for this is partly a search against loneliness, partly a quest for companionship and the belief that you are, in truth, very loved, partly because you wish so much to give love—you also think: and yes, would it not be wonderful, I mean truly wonderful, to have someone to love just now? Someone against whose smooth body you could slide of an evening after time at the “facility,” in an hour when you feel very close to, or actually possessed by, tears; someone about whom you could wrap your arms and whose arms would wrap about you, holding you like that, like that: pressing his face against yours and all of himself against all of you; in the darkness that would be the darkness preceding far less agonizing dreams, saying things, very quietly, like Oh, but you know, it’s really going to be all right. He would, for sure, say things like that. But really? you would respond, silently apologizing for the warm saltiness on your face, the saltiness that he would taste and taste many times again. Yes, he would say, doing that—what he always had enjoyed doing to you—and then doing it again to your eyelids and to your mouth, your eyelashes, and all the parts of you that he would, rest assured, know by heart. It really will be, he would say, pulling your face against his, and then perhaps holding it on his chest. Holding. And God, yes, you would think, how good his hands feel. How like prayer and absolution itself his hands feel. I am loved, you would think, and love him. And so by God above and all around, in spite of this grief, in spite of this pounding and scratching in my chest from watching my mother shrink in her own disabled and disabling agony, love—love!—actually is possible.
But of course, he would say again, it really will be. Will be all right. He would say that even though you would of course know and suspect that, as smart as he is, as sensitive and compassionate and honest as he is, he really does know, as do you, that it will in fact not be at all all right. It will in no way ever again be all right. How can it be all right, you would not ask him. How can it possibly be all right when after all this time she, your mother, is still there in the “facility” and it has now begun to look as though she will never regain full speech or full mobility, never leave the wheelchair in which you have always seen her over these months, and thus, it is clear, possibly never be able to return to her own home to live out her very old years with the cat she adores and the garden without which, it always seemed, she could not live for long? Or, at least, if she returns there, she will not return as the ambulatory and powerfully energetic person, even in her late eighties, she had previously been? How can it in any way be all right when she becomes more and more depressed and devastated each day when she cannot form her words, barely can form entire sentences, and spends so much time both when you visit and when she is alone crying and screaming, perhaps thinking things like Where is my life, what has happened to my life? All right? How can any of it really be all right, you would not ever ask him. But then you would know that the mere fact that he said it was enough, in those moments in darkness before the advance of less agonizing dreams (more agonizing when you are alone). It would be enough for you to know then in that shared darkness why, yes why you had always loved him so much. Because yes how lucky I am to have you and to love you and to feel you holding me like this, you would think, saltiness on your face and his face against yours and those arms so about you, holding you, and yours about him. It would be then that you would know that there are times, maybe many times, when people do not have to tell you the truth, the absolute truth, in order for you to love them and for them to love you. There are times when life actually can be possible in spite of the absence of ultimate absolute truth; times when lies, utter lies, can make you smile—or at least can make it possible for you to open your eyes in a dark room and look at someone, really look at him, and think, know, that jumping off a building or cutting your wrists (ideas which have, even if briefly, flashed through your head these past weeks) is really not the best way to do things; that there really is a way to do things, even with, or especially with, lies—a way, ways, that can be noble, bracing, embracing, even brave—and very necessary. But, like the brother of your most primal and reaching dreams, he, that wonderful man who would have held you and pressed your face into his as he whispered All right, it will be, now try to sleep, does not exist. It is possible that you will listen for his voice and presence in the language also—in a language, that is, that might finally be a different one entirely from any language you have ever inhabited or known.
Once, once upon a time—
Once upon a realm, in a far-off kingdom by the sea, there lived a small boy who believed that his elder sister knew everything. He believed that she knew the names and historical categories of snails (which she did), and the infinite personalities of trees (patient, impatient, skulking, among them), and how mustard leaves crept and crawled—crawled, and even walked—until taller plants could no longer ignore them, had to engage with them; and exactly what the ancient order of rainbows—rainbows well-known and those more elusive, that sometimes nourished secretive, determined sea creatures—had to do with words like homunculus, with words like crepuscular and even (of all things) adamantine; with notions like space, consume, and unrendered. He knew that she, his elder sister, stood approximately seven feet tall when measured with bamboo yardsticks, and slightly taller when measured with those made of cane. He imagined, that boy (and in truth he could be at times a rather silly, fanciful child), that he would one day grow old with her—foolish child, can you imagine?—and that they would talk about things as old people. Talk about things like the beautiful lines in the poem by the French poet who wrote incandescently about, of all things, soap; and the way light glanced off a bowl of apples in a still life at three o’clock in the afternoon; and what the insightful artist had really had in mind when he had painted that woman sitting so lonely-looking with her absinthe; and why the man who had loved his piano and the gorgeous, if often haunting, music he wrote for it and played on it had finally retreated into utter madness, leaving his desolate and devoted wife behind; and many, many more things.
But she, the small boy’s very tall, very all-knowing sister, did not, in time, survive; without warning, she departed the earth one afternoon, eaten alive by something inside her that succeeded in devouring her most secret parts. (She departed with her eyes closed; she departed, someone said, seeing something altogether different than what, in those moments, had actually been present before her narrowing eyes.) The small boy, now rather a grown man, has discovered that he is truly astonished that, even so many years after his tall sister’s death—more than twenty years, in fact—the event of her being devoured still, in very quiet, very private moments, knocks him utterly to his knees; steals all of his breath; blurs his vision; causes a weary dullness behind his eyes to ache, then really ache; and even impels him (though he rarely does this) to (in the most uncivilized manner) scream. He is surprised. He remains shocked. Sundered, sometimes. And—and (but then he often cannot summon the proper word). Sundered and surprised that, on particular mornings and afternoons and evenings on the green island of his people’s origin and history, he finds himself listening—listening especially when he finds himself beneath heavy star-apple trees, touching gently the waists of those dark heavy trees—for the sound of her in the language. For the sound of all of them in the wind-language. In the wind-language of memory and time that, irrespective of his own intentions, returns to him without fail with his own words; words like I still cannot believe that you are gone, like I still hate you so much in so many ways for having gone. Words like I cannot stop missing you for being gone, and I will never forget you. Yet sometimes how I wish—yes, sometimes really truly wish—that I could, one day—one night—simply, peacefully, forget you.
[i] My aunt, Phyllis Monica Melbourne (to whom my book Words to Our Now is dedicated), died on September 21, 2011, at the age of eighty-nine, some months after the early drafts of this essay were written. When I think of her in connection with the word “here,” I feel a momentary joy – for she was here, and she did live to eighty-nine years old, and these words, for a little while at least, can take me back to the time before things began, vis-à-vis her illness, to get much more . . . to get very much more.
[ii] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), p. 244.
[iii] In regard to this testamentary stipulation, the exact language of Stephen Sharp Glave’s will, dated February 25, 1873 and probated in Manchester Parish, Jamaica, reads as follows: “I also will and declare that should any of my children marry to any Black Person, all bequests in this Will shall be cancelled and be null and void, as also if any should marry contrary to the wishes of my Executor and Executrix.”