Preable: my maternal grandfather was admitted to the hospital about two weeks ago complaining of stomach pains. The doctors discovered he had cancer that had spread to most of his organs. A week later he was dead. If you read here regularly, or you know me well, you know my family relations are strained at best. Proceeding carefully, asking what is to be done to salvage my family relationship. Guh.
I remember also how during a fever I recalled that when a European is dying there is usually some sort of ceremony in which he asks pardons of others and pardons them. Now I have a great many enemies, and what should my answer be if some modernized person asked me my views on this? After some thought I decided: Let them go on hating me. I shall not forgive a single one of them either.
I cannot bring myself to make the flight to Jackson, Mississippi, and the hour-long drive to Hazelhurst--I am too afraid of being bound by old habits, and forced to sacrifice myself at my mother's altar while she postures grief over her father; so instead I make the three hour drive from Chicago to Danville, where my mother's younger sister, has organized a memorial service for him. I have driven to Danville many times on my own, and generally there is no trouble, but this time I was late. I went west instead of east and wound up in the deep Midwest, where acres outnumber people and the streets have names like 850 E and 1600 N. I found my way to the church half an hour after the service had begun, and flustered and sweaty from the worry and the July sun, I snuck in and perched on the very last pew.
The church was very nearly empty. A 30-foot aisle flanked on both sides by red-and-wooden pews, and only one quarter of them were full. In front of me, I recognized my family: uncles and aunts, cousins and spouses; a few rows back were my great-aunt and her daughter, my mother's cousin. And behind her was my grandmother in a powder-blue suit, sitting beside her best friend. They were all collected in a little white knot of suit coats and waving hand fans that read OBAMA! in blue-and-white letters. And at the altar, in front of the pulpit, was a small wreath of flowers and a picture of this man I never knew.
A paper appeared at my left shoulder. I turned, and there was the hand of an usher, an older woman in a red blazer and black skirt, handing me a program with his name printed on it, and the same photo as was framed in front.
"I look like my father," my mother used to say, notes of sadness in her voice, when we considered her reflection in the mirror. I looked at the paper in my hand with her father's picture on the front, and the framed picture on the altar, and i can see that she's right. She has her father's broad, flat nose and high cheekbones, over which are stretched dark, shiny, velvety skin. She has his eyes, dark brown and deep-set, marry and calculating. She has his hair, thick, dark, fantastically, wonderfully nappy, in a well-shaped Afro around his head. A small flower of recognition bloomed in my chest and I thought, Oh, this guy. There was a version of this picture hanging on my parents' wall of photos in my house growing up. I hadn't looked at it much, but I did recognize his face, his suit and tie. My mother never really talked about her father, so not much was attached to him, until now.
As the choir sang a hymn with the chorus, Jesus is my All in All, I read the program: an agenda for the service, another couple of photos, a poem and an obituary, with all of the factual, passive and reductive nature that they can have--was born, was united, was employed, is survived, was preceded, et cetera. It was just the first of many tropes of black grief.
The second was the church ladies. On the fringes of the sanctuary, and even in the choir stand, were older black women, saints of the church as the expression goes, who functioned as cheerleaders. They swayed heavily in time to the organ music, moaning harmonies and singing with the choir; and when the pastor, a narrow, bent brown man with glasses and a balding head, stood up in the pulpit and started preaching, they parroted back his words like so many Echoes listening with sacred rapture to Narcissus: "Whom the Son set free ("set free", "set free') , he is free indeed ("indeed", "indeed")...
There is more, of course. Yesterday I returned exhausted, discombobulated and sore from so much sitting that I didn't write last night. These 500 were born today, with a thousand more to join, and there is still more to say. It is hard to write about this so nakedly. I've left out all family names, and so in places the rhythm feels different and I know it. But I feel my censors kick in profoundly putting this here, and so I do my best to tell the truth and cover my ass. I have still not discovered how to reconcile the memory of a person as a lying, cheating abusive bastard with the hole in your chest that is left when he dies. It's not a hole I'm living with, but I wonder about his ex-wife, his kids, my mother. I never knew the man, but I know what he has done to his family is complicated, the narrative of which lies in this cloak of shadow, half story and clever one liners, and the kind of fluorescent candor that I want to shine on it all just may not be possible.