my friend charity died on july 8. she’d spent more than a month in a coma after a hit and run accident in ny. since she was hit i have been in a grief process, been of a community in a grief process.
i visited her in the hospital, where a split happened. part of me knew, seeing her on full life support, that she was not there and would not be back. another part of me felt numb, hungry, thirsty. another part bucked up with an obstinate hope, because something was filling up the room, and it felt like an aspect of her, and she was a genius and if anyone could figure this out she could. i imagined her telling stories about it.
i have been sitting with the complications of knowing her, the mysteries, the struggles, the differences, the unfinished conversations, the respect of her spirit, the awe of her mind. where do these big things fit between two people trying to do a piece of work together, through the daily tasks of justice, each one so small?
another 44-year-old woman i’d known briefly in california also passed, of whatever natural cause can kill a brilliant woman of color leader in her prime, priya haji. she’d offered me important guidance once when i was just starting my short and intense path as a non-profit leader. she saw that i was called to other things and told me to do what i could, but not to waste time.
the day before charity’s funeral i flew home from a mindblowing, generative and romantic trip with my sweetheart in amsterdam. while i was in the air, another flight that had left from amsterdam was shot out of the sky on the russia-ukraine border, leaving no survivors. a third of the passengers were heading to an aids conference in australia. i am thinking about how our movements are precious, how we can’t afford these losses. and how we can’t do anything in response but keep stepping up, seeing leaders everywhere and in each mirror.
throughout charity’s funeral, and in this moment, there are wars being waged. these are generally purposeless, endless, violent, rule-less, ruthless wars. these are mostly wars about borders that spill over whatever boundaries we determine to be humane when setting out to kill and conquer each other. the loudest in my world is the continued colonial war against the people of palestine, happening at genocidal pitch in gaza.
after charity’s funeral, i watched a video of a father named eric, murdered in the crook of a police officer’s elbow.
all of this is simultaneous, and the frequency is increasing, or we are simply more immediately aware of the crises. i say this as a person with a life full of miracles, laughter, creativity and love: it is overwhelming to be alive with all of this violent, sudden and constant cause for grief, most of it extracted from the brownest bodies and communities under the dispassionate sun.
at charity’s funeral i wept, i screamed, i sang. i averted my eyes from her person, on display – i had seen her far enough on, i didn’t need to see her absence. i believe she is gone.
afterwards i went to a wedding as a dear friend’s date. she was taking a break from sitting at a beloved family member’s hospital bed. we’d planned to go before the funeral was scheduled. we kept the plan because we needed some black joy.
i witnessed two beautiful black strangers dedicate their hearts to each other with their families watching, praying, dancing. i danced with them, i needed to feel like i was a pure body.
they committed til death do them part. i have been reflecting on how falling in love is, among other things, committing to future grief. the more you know someone, love them, share life with them, the more you also carve out the space for future grief. i have been falling more and more in love lately, even with this awareness. i know it is worth it, to find a woman i connect with in ways that make me long to be my best self, to gift her my attention.
love is what i am most certain we are here to do. sometimes it is the only clear thing to me. i still want love to be the thing i am best at, even if i fail at all else.
the evening of charity’s funeral there was a beautiful celebration, ‘i do mind dying’. i was reminded that detroit is overly familiar with grief, and has a capacity to erupt into grief-stricken celebration that i have only seen before in new orleans. when david blair died, we artists and activists who loved him marched around the cass corridor singing and chanting while a police precinct erupted in flames where we passed, which felt like his kiss blowing to us.
the night we let charity’s body go, we screamed and sang and a marching band led us out under projections of ‘wage love’ and ‘water is a human right’. it felt like charity was there in the crowd, i kept thinking i saw her just moving through the people, laughing and smiling and pushing us further, louder.
a day later i came to minnesota, thinking i would bury myself in the sweetness of my nephew and nieces and not think about endings too much. and, of course, the main topics they have been interested in are grief, death, extinction, how we let people go.
my sister and brother-in-law told me that last week finn was weeping over extinct animals and death. they said at one point he grabbed the edge of the table and cried, what is the point of all of this? why are we here?
he is five. i am wrestling with the same questions with 30 more years of experience and no clearer answers. they told him simply that those are the big questions.
his primary text for life is a pretty incredible nature show called wildkratts, in which two brothers and their entourage explore the natural world by taking on creature powers to learn about each animal’s unique gifts. recently wildkratts did two shows where they traveled back in time to see now-extinct creatures, both to educate themselves and us about said creatures, and to raise a desire in young viewers to see all animals, especially endangered ones, as precious.
in both episodes, towards the end, one of the brothers tries to bring the extinct creature (first a dodo, then a tasmanian tiger) back to the present. they decide not to, adhering to some unnamed logic of time travel.
and afterwards, finn wails: why can’t we save them? why can’t i meet them? he is truly heartbroken, feeling everything, a leo with a new moon coming right at him.
when he learned the other day that there are not even (currently) time machines, he was again shocked. but he quickly adapted, saying, ‘we can just make one. using batteries.’
he may be finding his life’s work through this grief.
two days ago siobhan found a dead dragonfly in the driveway, a big one. there are so many dead things in nature, it helps to see how normal it is, even beautiful. you get to bloom, be beautiful, be a visible distinct part of an ecosystem, and then become one with it. i am excited to see how being raised here will shape the babies’ relationships to mortality.
siobhan called the other kids over and they did a little ceremony and buried the dragonfly. finn explained that this is what happens when we die, people cover us up. mairead tossed dirt on the dragonfly, then grabbed it out of it’s little grave and tried to throw it in the air to fly again. i cheered for her instincts.
the other two explained that dead things don’t fly, and buried it again. mairead didn’t buy it, we finally had to just lead her away. the first stage of grief is denial.
siobhan is obsessed with death right now too. yesterday she told me her baby doll was dead, that she was so sad that she was going to have to burn her baby up and put her in the sky.
her great grandfather was cremated this year.
as i write this she is ‘reading’ a book where a whole chicken family dies, daily, over and over. she is making up the story as she goes, looking at me intensely as she turns pages in an unrelated book. i’ll just document a moment of it for you:
‘the babies were dead, the mommy was dead, the daddy was dead. all the people were dead. everyone was dead. and they were so sad and said, ”but why, why is everyone dead?” (here she takes on a sobbing stage whisper) but everyone was dead, everyone was dead, everyone was dead! except the pond. the pond was alive! and the tree. and the universe! it was alive. and there were no humans left. that is the end of part one.’
i wonder if she can feel the suffering of little ones her age and younger happening right now around the world. i also wonder if she is a prophet or conduit.
two other reminders of how unavoidable grief and death are showed up during this visit. a friend-family came to visit, with their kids. at one point their daughter was saying something about how her grandpa should bring pizza pies to her dad’s funeral. and her dad responded, i want tequila and dancing at my funeral, ok honey?
it was cute and i also logged it because i want to know how everyone i love wants to be remembered, celebrated, burned, buried, released. because it is happening, all the time, and we should know these things about each other. and i felt that sliver of bitterness again, looking around this table full of loved ones who are going to die, as i am going to die.
i am holding the babies too close and eating too much trying to just feel this singular truth in a new way. i have moved through grief before, i have reached places of peace and even liberation around it. but now i am like a child again, distraught, incredulous.
it helps to look at the pond, to wake up early and listen to life in the woods.
two nights ago there was a performance outside at a local college. a singer named robert robinson came up from minneapolis, a black disabled gospel operatic tenor with a queer beautiful energy and way with the mostly white crowd.
after one song, he shared that just before he’d come onstage he’d received a text that a good friend had lost her battle with stage four cancer. he then sang ‘i hope you dance’ and ‘tears in heaven’, with that loss in his pretty voice. and again i was crying in public, singing through tears, raising my hands to offer my gratitude to this stranger who knew my heart’s need in that moment. he also sang songs about how god has never failed him yet, and aretha’s arrangement of bridge over troubled waters, and i just let his voice work me.
and i am left with the fact that grief is not linear. i can still tap into the tender wound for each person i have lost, from charity to my grandfather to a boy i had a crush on in middle school who was killed by another boy playing with a gun. i have personal ancestors, not as many as some, more than i’d want. i feel them learning how to be elsewhere, i feel them still connected to me.
i feel them everywhere.