Grief The World Loses Its Former Shape: Caught in the Undertow of Grief
I whisper to my great-grandmother a burden I’d like lifted, one she might take to the next world with her.
My great-grandmother, Maggie Margaret Montague James, had held on to life for 112 or 113 years. Like most black folks born in the decades after Reconstruction, she didn’t have a birth certificate. She’d always assumed that she was born in 1900 and counted her age by the last two digits of the year during the twentieth century, but a census from 1900 that Auntie Nessa found shows her living in a household with her mother as an infant of one year. This is the only evidence that she was ever a child. The only photo that survives of her that was taken before she was a centenarian shows her as a fully grown woman standing with pride next to her favorite horse, her features shadowy, her build tiny but sturdy. Great Grandma James was certified as the oldest living person in the state of Virginia. Stubbornly clinging to the quiet, steely existence she had always led, surviving her husband, both sons, and most of the people she would ever know, she had taken her social security and used it to move into a nursing home of her own free will some time after her hundredth birthday, rather than burden the family with her care.
She had never liked the taste of pork and ate cornflakes and a banana for breakfast every morning. It was the best explanation she could offer for her longevity. She was bewildered by her ability to outlast the generations. “It’s nothing but God,” she would say if pressed. She had left school after the sixth grade to help her family, but still enjoyed reading her bible and the newspaper. Her husband, my Great Granddaddy James, left her to tend the farm while he worked away from home during the week, but on Sunday nights he would wash her hair for her, lathering up the strands with a touch too gentle to be a laborer’s, and then he would plait it into the two thin braids she’d been wearing coiled about her head for longer than most people had lived.
I was in awe of her when I was a kid. Before she’d moved into her nursing home, when we used to visit her at the greying two-story farmhouse her husband and their neighbors had raised from the ground on the occasion of her wedding to him, I had noted the pale yellow coating of buttermilk—which my great-grandmother drank by the glassful—on the hairs of the older woman’s mustache. I wondered how the adults could understand her when she spoke, because, to me, my Great Grandma James’ spoken words were an incoherent, garbled code. I wondered if I would speak like that when I got old, in a secret grown-up language. I also wondered if my skin would become the color of eggnog like hers in the same way you wonder if you will have breasts like your mother does when you’re a girl.
We had never been particularly close, even though we both had the occasion to ask God why we were still around despite everything. We’d had no reason to become close. It was hard to get one’s head around what we were to each other. Imagine that first Great Grandma James had a kid, then her kid had a kid. Then that kid had a kid, and that was me. We were removed by many decades, and I was unsure of my ability to touch my great-grandmother at her solid core. Great Grandma James was a constant, like the sun in the sky. Her life had spanned three centuries.
Now she is gone. When my father gets the news that she is dying, he drives the few hours to Virginia so that he can hold her hand while she slips away into the next dimension. Still alert in her last moments, she widens her eyes in recognition of him. She goes soon after, as if she was only waiting to see her grandson again before she could give herself permission to join her many loved ones on the other side. I feel the loss, like something dropping from my heart into my guts. The constant sun has fallen from the sky, this time never to rise again.
I get permission from Frank at the bookstore to take some time off to travel to Caroline County, Virginia, the rural enclave where my father had grown up barefoot, and where my Auntie Nessa and cousins still live. John Wilkes Booth had been captured in a barn in this very same county, where he was hiding out after firing the bullet that had shattered the president’s skull; and the first legally married interracial couple in the US had come from Caroline, too. But few of the people who now inhabited it were aware of living lives with any historical significance. Abandoning the fields where the corn and tobacco their ancestors had planted grew, they commute to the closest metropolis to work blue collar jobs, returning home to cricket song and extra sweet tea. They nurse the complications of diabetes and break each other’s hearts quietly.
I fly into Richmond International Airport for the first time, having come by car each of the hundreds of times I’d been to my father’s birthplace over the course of my life. My cousin, a hairdresser, pays her last respects by doing Great Grandma James’ hair in graceful curls. I am not afraid to look upon my great-grandmother’s face in the coffin. She makes a beautiful corpse, and I whisper to her a burden of mine I’d like lifted, that perhaps she might take to the next world with her.
After the service, we drive in my father’s car behind the hearse, through the woods flanked by marsh. We pass the lily-padded pond where my grandfather had gathered watercress—called “creases”—when my father was growing up, the forest where they’d hunted raccoons and squirrels to supplement their meager diets. We pay our homage to the small house of greying wood where we had visited Great Grandma James for nearly our whole lives, which her husband had built with his hands, and which had seemed to be a slightly mildewing mansion while we were children, although it now appears as a modest structure, worse for the wear. The screen door off the front porch is hanging off its hinges now, and our cousin Bay Boy is rumored to be sleeping in the dilapidated house many nights. The dry husks of cicadas cling to trees in the little yard, frozen in death.
The sadness stays with me a long time. I can’t explain it. Great Grandma James was someone I’d seen twice a year, who probably could not relate to many of my worries and fears, and who had toiled long and hard for things I took for granted. Everything is colored by my grief. Everything elongates until it loses its former shape. My husband Reda comes upon me, smoking a spliff on one of the couches our downstairs neighbor Andy keeps outside, where I often go to gather my thoughts. A fear crept into his normally jaunty and confident way of moving and this fear troubles those topaz-colored eyes of his. I haven’t been myself since I got back from the funeral, I know. I normally hovered over Reda like a mosquito after his blood. Maybe he misses that. Since I’d been back from Virginia, I’d left him alone more. I’d been less attentive in general, too.
I’d always been spacy, but now I spend long hours staring out the window of the living room, into the open blinds next door—not to wonder at the neighbors’ comings and goings as I had before, but simply to have something to fix my gaze to. I am eating less. I am reading tarot cards several times a day, and they tell me about how the world will end soon, and about family secrets Great Grandma James would have been buried with if the cards hadn’t revealed them to me, like how her son, my Granddaddy Fats, hadn’t killed himself at all but had been murdered telepathically by his psychopathic brother.
It is getting harder to deal with Reda’s nighttime schedule at work. The darkness presses against me and I’m afraid to be alone. I’ve come to dread the lonely nightfall. One night, I’d gotten out of bed and flicked on all the lights in the apartment, thinking it would help dissipate my fear. But it only served to further wake me, so I’d spent that night on the internet, searching for symptoms of illnesses I was sure I had.
“What’s wrong with you?” Reda asks from the stairs, leaning on the flimsy banister to peer over at me.
“I’m sad,” I say, pursing my lips to blow smoke away from him.
Reda descends the stairs and positions himself in front of me. Nervous, he instinctively draws his hand to his mouth to nibble the nails. “Well,” he says between bites, “What do you think you need to do?”
“I don’t really know. Haven’t you ever been sad?”
“What makes you feel better?”
“Friends,” he says. “Maybe Alexis is home?”
“I don’t really know, I haven’t checked.”
“Jma rassek, Chantal,” he says. “Get yourself together.”
I feel he’s being unfair to me, but I don’t say so. It’s not like me to let Reda know when he’s out of line. I’ve had a rough time lately. Reda has always seen me strong, and he expects me to always be strong. Now that I might be breaking, he doesn’t know what to do. I want to pull myself out of the sorrowful mode I’ve been in for the sake of Reda, but I’m not sure how.
Then comes the day that the voice of my Great Grandma James speaks to me clearly and distinctly as I’m rising from bed in the morning. “Do you even know who you are?” Great Grandma James says shrilly. It staggers me, because I don’t.
Fearing being alone in the dark apartment at night—where malevolent spirits skulk underneath my desk and in the sink drain—and absorbed in my apocalyptic tarot readings and the private writing projects I’ve designed for myself that ever-increase in number, I cease to sleep altogether. My tarot cards are telling me to beware of psychopaths like the woman who fired me from my internship. They come from families like mine that have strong strains of what is called Messianic DNA—a direct injection of the sun’s powerful energy into the genetic code when a Messiah is produced by virgin birth—but they’re the dark side of that. The cards tell me to take heart, though, because the Messiah is coming back soon. He will be the son of the next daughter that is born to my sister-in-law, a girl so white that she will need to cover herself from head to toe to avoid being roasted by the sun. This girl’s son, the Messiah, like all the Messiahs who have been born, will have skin as black as night. That will be the sign.
Time expands and there is barely a barrier between twenty-four-hour periods; it all becomes an eternal day for me as I lose the need or capacity for sleep. In the morning, after many of these days pressed together into one, fluorescent pink flowers on trees that line the street unfurl brighter than they’ve ever been, bright with the beauty of another world. The whole earth is radiant. When I call to Reda in my mind and ask him where he is, he tells me he’s in Japan. I know I have the courage to make the journey across the Earth to Reda. The sun is coming up, lurching itself above the bruised lip of the horizon. My ancestors have told me that a great apocalypse is coming, to clear the Earth of all its bad people so that the Messiah can return. Their many voices criss-cross inside my head, and their whispers sound like they are made of tinkling glass.
I know what I must do now, because they have told me. They said everyone in the world had been watching me and rooting for me for my whole life, just like in The Truman Show, and that I must cross the entire face of the earth barefoot. I’m wearing a T-shirt with no pants or underwear, but they tell me to go ahead as I am. No man will touch me, because they know I carry Reda’s child, and Reda is respected and revered throughout the entire world. It will be a perilous journey, they tell me, but no harm will come to me. I will see many dead and mangled bodies, but I must look away. This is part of the carnage that God is bringing to cleanse Earth of its alien influence, and to prepare the way for the day when the son of the Sun, the next Messiah, will walk among them. It makes me weep when I think about how glad I will be when I have the opportunity to look upon the face of the new Christ.
I close the front door, muting the brilliant flowers outside and the rays of sun spilling down the street, and go through the house to the back door, the one in mine and Reda’s bedroom. I unlock the top lock and go down the hallway in my bare feet and still without pants or underwear, down the back steps to where Andy lives. There is a hole in the fence, which I’ve often gone through to escape to Highland Avenue. Once on the other side, I find myself in the neighboring apartment complex. I begin speaking to the man outside there, only the words that come out aren’t English or French or Darija, but a combination of garbled syllables. I’ve broken the language and come to its other side. Neighbors begin to come outside to stare at me, and soon an ambulance arrives.
The ancestors tell me that it will be okay if I allow the medics to capture me. Reda will find me. As I lay on the gurney inside the moving ambulance, the leaves of the passing trees through the vehicle’s small windows become planets, and the planets become all of the children I’ve given birth to, Reda’s children. When I get to the hospital, they take me to a small room in the basement on whose whitewashed cinder block walls I see rows and rows of numbers, and the numbers become lines, and the lines configure themselves into patterns. After injecting me with a needle, nurses at the hospital lock the door to the small room so I can’t get out. I am terrified and I beat against the door until this tires me. Then the ancestors tell me I will be fine. Reda will find me. Mathematical equations dance down the walls, and then the complete blackness comes, my first sleep in nearly a week.