This is not a list. Or a solution or a practical guide. This is the letter of remembering gratitude that I am writing to myself for those nights when sleep is a cold and distant lover.
This is for the woman I was before the death of my sister. And the woman I am becoming after. This is for me, trying to make sense of life that continues in the face of death. For the compartment in my mind that I used to keep death in. For the ordered thoughts I had before and the order that I am hoping to create out of the chaos that exists now.
It’s like when you have to go out and you can’t find the thing that is just right to wear. And you dig in your drawers and you fling clothes all over the floor and you hold up your clothes to yourself. You turn this side and that, you turn your cupboards inside out, looking for the perfect thing. You find, after too much time that you have nothing that’s appropriate. You regret waiting til this last moment to decide. You have to settle for what looks okay.
Her body was still in the house, still warm on the floor of the bathroom where she had collapsed and taken her last breaths. People were gathering, I had to cook. It was corn soup. It was not my best effort. I discussed it with my mother. It was a reasonable conversation about the ratio of coconut milk to shadon beni to split peas. The phone rang and I answered. It was a cousin calling to find out who died. I have a conversation while I focus my attention on the soup. Later that night when sleep does not come, I wonder at how we fear dying mostly because we can’t bear the fact that life goes on without us.
There are no compartments. There is no pocket into which I can put death. No place where it exists politely. I feel like a child who can’t connect the drumstick to a chicken, a tree to paper. In the chaos I am recalling that to think of death as a separate place is a lie created by those who see themselves from separate from nature.
We sit on the Babalawo’s mat and he asks the universe questions about my sister’s transition. He explains that Ifa sees death as part of life. Her time at the marketplace is over. She has gathered what she needs to go back home. I know this. I have known this. In the order I create from chaos I am reminding myself to make a list so I don’t forget what I have come to the market for.
Her daughter danced limbo and bongo for her. Her body leaping into the air and landing lightly to the earth again and again, her sons played the drums. We all dance and sing until we are hoarse and our feet blister and we are too tired to notice the dull chest ache. In the compartment we created for our dances, the gaudy spectacle we make of ourselves for tourists, we forgot that way we used our bodies to tell the story of our transitions, the way we learnt to open our hearts and release the grief. Dancing, drumming, singing – your body screaming into universe, this is me, I am you.
Death reminds us of the urgency of living.
After the nights of waking vigil. After the prayers and rituals, our village is still there. It is physical, spiritual and global. Help is needed and it appears. People reach out, they do not shrink away from questions, from the sadness. They share their stories. It helps. We laugh and shed a few tears to ease the pain. We see the shadows of our loved ones. Grief is a collective burden. In the face of death the strength of your community is determined by those you can depend on to help you carry it.
How do I show gratitude in the face of death? By living in the moment. By owning all my emotions, even the complicated ones, the ones that have no greeting cards. By not being ashamed to say that I have allowed grief to consume me and I am slowly trying to find a different language to express what a good day is. By giving thanks for what is to come. By honouring every living thing and person that died for me to live.
Death is a living thing. Coming to terms with death is coming to terms with humanity. That is why so many traditions in the Caribbean have celebrations and rituals around death. That is why every Carnival we are drawn to the dark pain of jouvay, that is why so many of our surviving masking traditions are a reflection of those who are gone, whose faces and voices we remember. They are there with us, their laughter echoing in drum sounds, in the shuffle of our feet, in our rum soaked waists. Moko Jumbie, Pitchy Patchy, Short Knee, Pierrot Grenade, our Egungun smiling dancing living with us, through us. We live, not through trying to cheat death, but by ensuring that we dance enough for our echoes to continue long after we have ceased to mark the ground with our steps.