Deaths and Entrances

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s dad. One of the things that struck me was how “at home” at felt, as if I was surrounded by my own family. I need to mention that I don’t know my friend’s family. I’ve met his mother, I know his partner, but that’s all. And, too, I have an unconscionably small family, so what I was feeling wasn’t in any way related to how I’ve ever felt when surrounded by my actual family because I’ve never been around that many people who are related to me. Usually, when I attend services like this one and I only know one or two people in the room, I start off feeling awkward and uncomfortable, but there was none of that at this morning’s funeral.

What I felt was about being surrounded by Black folks, specifically Black folks who are close to my age. My friend’s dad was nine years older than I am, so the cousins and friends in the room were all within 10 or 15 years of my age –both older and younger. All those beautiful Black faces, all the nods of acknowledgement, all the warmly grasped hands. Family.

Faces of Black folks always feel familiar. And they can make me feel comforted.* I’ve written in the past about how seeing African American faces made me long for home when I was in France. My response to seeing Black people gathered, seeing all the different and lovely features that make up their faces, has only increased since that moment of recognition in France. There was a moment after the service, when we were all outside waiting for the family to depart for the interment, when a crowd of men – cousins and nephews, a brother, maybe a friend or two – all came together for a photo. They were the most beautiful thing. I wanted to hug every one of them, my heart was so full.

Funerals are such strange things. They can be beautiful, sad, celebratory, painful, life-affirming, cold. All these things at once, even. And even if we plan them ourselves — as my dad scripted the run of show for his funeral — we can’t truly orchestrate them, won’t have control over what they will be.

Today, September 30th, would have been my father’s 88th birthday. The fact of it being 30 years since his death is shocking and unfathomable to me. I have to do the math, see it plainly on paper, on a calculator screen, have to make myself see the number in order to believe so many years have passed.

My father planned his funeral. Once he stopped talking about surviving his cancer, when he had accepted that survival wasn’t going to be a thing for him, he moved immediately into writing out his wishes for his homegoing. At first, I thought it was strange, morbid. Then I saw how it made so much sense. True, he wouldn’t exactly be there to enjoy it, but a) he would surely be watching and would want to see things that pleased him, and b) what better way to guarantee the inclusion of people he wanted in the proceedings? (People like me. If plans had been left only with the people who were responsible for arranging his funeral, it’s pretty likely that I would not have been asked to speak. My father clearly understood that and made a point of assigning me a specific reading.)

Planning the ceremony pleased him, so how could it be wrong? The way he got into it reminded me of the intensity with which he had once planned elaborate halftime routines for my high school marching band. He was careful, thinking through options, order, all the possible configurations. And he thought about music, what songs he wanted sung, what lyrics he wanted read out.

As I walked into the funeral parlor yesterday, Earth Wind and Fire was playing. I was instantly lifted. “That’s the Way of the World” is one of my favorite songs, and to have that playing as I stepped inside from Amsterdam Avenue was so right. I’d walked up from the subway thinking about when I used to live in that neighborhood, thinking about how long ago I’d been priced out of that neighborhood, thinking about how not like home some things I’d seen on my walk felt. And then to walk in and be welcomed by those familiar voices and those excellent lyrics. It was perfect.

In 2003 when I was convinced I wouldn’t survive the fibroid surgery I was about to have, I took my father’s example and began to write out what I wanted for my service. I started with the music, with the very simple desire to have “Oh, Freedom,” played or performed. I sat with that idea for a while and then built from there.

When I’ve thought about that final playlist in the years since, other songs have risen up as obvious additions. First is “City Called Heaven,” particularly the way it is sung by Jubilant Sykes in his glorious voice (and once I get started with Sykes, I have to add “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance” because … well … of course). But my set list isn’t all church-approved. Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” has to be there. And Amos Lee and Willie Nelson singing Lee’s “El Camino.” These songs will always make the list. And so will Earth Wind and Fire. The first musical selection during the funeral service yesterday was “Fantasy,” and that made me so happy. It’s my all-time favorite EWF song, and it’s on my funeral program, too. Hearing it in the funeral parlor was beautiful. Seeing people sing along was that much more beautiful. Adding my voice with theirs made me smile and cry at the same time.

As much as my heart breaks for my friend, I was so glad he had the chance to honor his dad the way he did. I saw and felt so much love in that room, so much beautiful Blackness. May we all be so embraced, today and as we are ushered home.

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* I’ve also written about times when seeing the faces of other Black folks have made me feel sad, feel vulnerable and threatened – not by the people I’m seeing but by the truth of living in a world where the simple fact of our Blackness can put us in danger.


(My title is borrowed from Dylan Thomas. I’ve always loved that title … and the “incendiary eves” that occur and reoccur in this poem.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Clearing My Head

Ok, not really, but kind of.

I’ve had a hard-working April.  So much so that I’m not sorry to see it draw to a close.  I had four big grant proposals to get in, a family health scare, a niece’s birthday, a nephew’s confirmation, the start of the new term.  And mostly I’ve just been painfully tired, unable to do little more than pick a poem to share for National Poetry Month.  And then the Bell verdict came down.

As may have become obvious, I’ve been a bit derailed by that one.

But I’m feeling a little freer tonight.  Maybe that’s because the last of the big proposals has gone in.  (Yes, a small one just landed on my desk … but, after the last batch, it’s not looking too scary.)  Maybe it’s because tonight I had my first ‘oh, we’ve totally become our own little group’ night with my new class.  Of course, maybe it’s because I’ve hit such a level of exhaustion I can’t maintain the depth of sadness tonight and I’ll get right back into it tomorrow.

I’ve got work to do.  And I’ve got work to do.  This week has actually pushed me back to my paper journal, and I think that may be the place where a lot of my ‘figuring’ is going to happen.  Not that I’m plotting a revolution and want to be all hush-hush about it.  Hardly.  But when I get deep into the ugly, I think that’s something I want to keep to myself.

So thank you, everyone, for your kind, supportive words.  Knowing you heard me, that you were (and are) willing to read through my sorrow and anger day after day absolutely helped keep my head from exploding.  I haven’t stopped posting about this, but the tightness in my chest has eased just a bit.

Day 4 — Hidden sister

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Maggie’s post about her sister has gotten me thinking …  Today is my grandmother’s birthday, and marks almost exactly five years since her death.  Today she would have been 104 or 106 (depending on whose data you trust).  She is my paternal grandmother, the one I most resemble — my round face and long-fingered hands, my slow temper, my bridgeless nose.  She is the one who spent the most time looking for her first grandchild, my father’s daughter, the older sister who is lost to me somewhere in the world.

My father never spoke about his first child.  I only know she exists because my mother told me about her.  I can’t think how that could have come up in casual conversation.  There must have been some reason she told me.  I’ll have to ask her.

I wish I could ask my father about her, about what he felt and thought when she was removed from his life, when his ex-wife took their daughter away.  My grandmother was convinced the ex-wife told her daughter that her father was dead.  And I guess that could certainly explain why she never came looking for us

I’ve always wanted to meet her, my secret sister.  When I was younger it was more about curiosity.  Now it’s about family, about feeling incomplete … and it’s about my grandmother.

Keeping our family connected was important to my grandmother.  Finding my half sister was important to her.  She had three grandchildren, and she loved us fiercely, but having a void where a fourth child should have been was hard for her.

I’ve never tried to find her … but I’m suddenly thinking I should