It smells like brimstone. Hell swims in my nostrils, explodes onto my tongue, and spits out venom. I do not want to stain the pews of this church. It would be unbecoming.
I stand here, with Walter behind me, in the middle aisle of a church I have not entered in five years. It stopped being a place of frequent visits when my mother realized her husband was not going to love her as Christ loved the church. He loved her as Christ loved his cross – you hang in there out of love and destiny, but you will die here.
My mother did not die here. And yet, days later, we must revisit her death as this fresh occurrence. Something to sink our grieving hearts into. And by all of us, I mean me. My grief is the only one that matters. Unless these others are willing to reach my level – the level of a son losing his best friend, confidant, security and place of rest – then no, you may not claim grief. Not now. Not in my vicinity.
Walter stands by my side now. I do not know when he arrived there, but he is there, like he always is. Funny how someone with seemingly no redeeming qualities can be such an outlet at a time when I am burying my mind’s focal point.
“Dude, this sucks.”
“Yes, that it does.”
“I’m sorry, man.”
“Just something else we have in common now.”
“I didn’t want that.”
Time refuses to sit still…
The sanctuary is three-quarters full. Friends. Co-workers. Family members. Strangers. Each with their own reason for being here at this time. I just wish they would stop consoling me. Words can do nothing at this time. None of these others were there on my level while my mother was alive so how can they join me in grief? They could not join me in love so how can they join me in grief?
My eyes water. I hate this emotion. I hate that I cannot control it. It is the only way my body knows how to express itself. I wish there were another way. But there is not. I will spend the rest of my life trying to find another way.
I do not hear any of the words rendered during the service. I am sure they are nice. I sit here between my father, and his politically correct grief, and my friend, Walter, whose attire is just as renegade as my own.
The naked eye would deem my attire angelic. This beautiful black boy draped in light. But how these others look at me is what this color, this light, this white, deserves. Stared at in disgust, stared at with disdain, lost in this flood of black and grey. This light seems out of place in this darkness.
My skin crawls. The fake in the air stifles. I find myself watching as these others find it in their hearts to mourn. Their backstories each scream of negligence; showing their faces here now is just a means of clearing a conscience.
Oh, it’s my turn…
I find myself being called to the microphone. The expectation is for me to say something about my mother. Seems like a simple enough task.
I step to the microphone and turn to the crowd. Draped in my socially incorrect garb, it is difficult to ascertain exactly why the others stare. Nevertheless, they all expect words to leave my mouth. For them to receive some level of understanding, of the one relationship my mother had that no one else could quite understand. This bond was something unseen before.
But even as paragraph length stacks of sentences with Baldwin-isms flanking every precisely put together turn of phrase crafted with a seamless literary quality barricade themselves behind one another expecting to be released into the awaiting ears of the others – I cannot speak.
There are no words. I am incapable of expressing myself in this moment. So I stare into the audience, pick out one by one those that intrigue my eyesight. All the while hi-jacking the attention of all of those in attendance.
I’m so sorry… that I’m not sorry…
Angst fills a row with a divorced man on one end and a divorced woman on the other. It is palpable, the angst. It is clear that the angst is between them specifically. The angst is theirs. They know the angst all too well. It chokes their breaths as they attempt to mourn, but they cannot decide whether they are mourning my mother, or mourning the death that birthed the angst. Too bad they cannot go back and do it again. Too bad they would not know that they should try again anyway.
My mother tried to help them…
He has beaten her. Over and over. She stays still. Over and over. She refuses to move from beneath his iron fist to shelter. He uses her face as a launching pad for his insecurities. He marks his territory with black and blue bruises encapsulating the loathing of his mother, in her lack of a father. She never knew what the love of a man entailed. So she suffers a sick retribution for mistakes she never made.
My mother consoled her…
Muscular arms across his chest. He needs no seat. Just the vestibule. His jawline screams of past battles, both with himself and his demons. But he has won now. He has taken his innumerable mistakes in his youth and transformed them into a ministry, guiding young men of today away from the drugs, sex and violence that consumed his once frail psyche. I welcome his presence here, despite being unaware of his why.
My mother respected him…
An elderly woman sits solemnly, Baptist church-goer hat adorns her petite head. Her eyes, fixated on me. That matters not. All that matters is that she has been here before, too many times, yet this, is still, her first time.
My mother honored her…
A civil rights activist who brought me non-fiction upon non-fiction books to add to my colossal collection of literature. She saw something in me. She saw herself. I welcome her presence here.
My mother adored her…
A young girl, innocence drips from her eyes as everything that reaches them is new. She stares at her mother, engulfs the image of her scowl, her inability to feel, and packs it, only to be used later when her attitude blossoms and she needs a reference point for her immediate demolition of souls. She had to get it from somewhere. That somewhere is here.
My mother prayed for her…
I burst from my post at the microphone and back into the pew. The crowd incapable of gathering the proper response to such awkward emotion. I am an emotional embarrassment of riches as I struggle to find my place among the two men in my life.
Tears dart down my cheeks. My father to my right. My Walter to my left.
I rest to the left…
My father, rigid. He sees nothing. Blind to emotional dexterity. His natural inclinations muffle the silent cries of parental instinct. He does not recognize his child in need. He will, though. One day… if it’s the last thing I do…
I stand at this, at this microphone. Make eye contact with a hoard of strange spectators gathered for sport. My stomach gurgles, pushes through my esophagus, creates a bile word vomit to land on the laps of those who dare to watch me speak. I do not apologize for such things. The taste, one of decadent souls and rotten relationships.
“’No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time’… James Baldwin.”
The crowd hushed.
“’Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up’… James Baldwin.”
Does no one understand this grief of mine?
“’Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within… James Baldwin.’”
Their eyes feel so violent against my skin.
“’It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive… James Baldwin.’”
Tears in my eyes. So necessary. As is my anger. My voice betrays me, crackles in the pool of pain in my throat.
“’To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time… James Baldwin.’”
Each time I say Baldwin’s name, more and more of me is released into the air. I am relegated to a sounding board, a young man whose voice is no longer his own.
“’You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do it to yourself… James Baldwin!’”
They are scared now. They should be. They do not know how to handle my emotion. So they sit still. Soak in my breakdown with a sponge-like quality.
“’Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them!’ James Baldwin!”
Screeching. Shrieking. Howling. Face flushed.
My mother is dead…
My father stands up. Fixes his suit jacket. Turns to his minions first. Half smiles. Walks in my direction. He matters not.
“’The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in!’ James Baldwin!”
My father attempts to grab me, wraps his arms around my waist. This is the closest thing to a hug he has ever given me…
I fight him at every step, my voice incapable of being muzzled. I feel like Samson when he got his strength back that one final time. No one could stop him. No one will stop me.
“’The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose!’ James Baldwin! ‘The future is like heaven, everyone exalts it, but no one wants to go there now!’ James Baldwin!”
Within our struggle, my father finds my ear and coarsely whispers into it.
“You have effectively ruined your mother’s burial service. You have effectively ruined everything. You are effective. You are defective.”
“’People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned!’ James Baldwin!”
Defective… defective… defective…