July 29, 2002

I Really Shouldn't Share This, But...

A Little Warm Death; or, Rambling, Remembering & Retreating

On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father's funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker's chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass. -- From page 85, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Nearly fifteen years ago I was in a near catatonic state, preparing to bury my mother just five short weeks after burying my father and dealing with the ramifications of these two deaths, after not dealing with mom’s short, intense sickness. As the co-oldest of seven and the only true adult present in the day-to-day lives of my three youngest siblings, I was basically given the task of deciding their immediate, and therefore, ultimate fate. Should they remain with the older of the siblings -- two still in high school, me about to enter college after taking a year off after high school to "find myself" and my twin in Asia, serving the remaining term of his four years in the US Marines -- should they go live with an aunt in a crowded apartment in a crime-infested housing project, or should they move in with a distant (in terms of personality) aunt who was semi-retired, had a large house in a relatively safe area of Flatbush? While it appeared the choice were easy, it would actually mean the end of our daily relationship. Once I entered college I would be consumed with work (to pay off bills accumulated in the weeks since Big H. died) and the scary proposition of college. I knew I would barely see them and I was in a state of mind that any further loss may have pushed me over the edge.

With financial difficulties, tons of paperwork to deal with and less than enthusiastic older family members assisting, mom’s funeral was delayed and she was buried on my twentieth birthday. Again, I was so catatonic that I didn’t realize it until the ride to the funeral parlor. For several years I imagined that I would never make it to see my eighteenth birthday, let alone the end of my teen years. Many pooh-poohed the milestone as either just another birthday or not really the end of my teens. They considered 21 to be the start of adulthood. Afterall, I would be able to drink legally, enter adult establishments and it was, to them, an ideal age to assert your readiness for the world.

For me, the 19th of June, 1987 was the day I became a true adult. I was anxious to establish myself as an independent, self-sufficient man. I entered the full-time working world almost a year earlier, starting as a gallery guard at the Guggenheim the day after my high school graduation. It took a five-minute interview and a firm handshake the week before and I thought I was on top of the world. Little did I know that Big H. would die in his sleep at home and I would come to hate working long, tedious hours to try to pay off bills, comfort my younger siblings and keep my own sanity.

The morning of the 19th came about just like any working day. I didn’t have to be in to work until 11am so I was enjoying an early morning. After a quick breakfast of orange juice with a blended egg, I decided to get my hair cut at Harold N’ Dave’s on Sumner. I was barely out of the apartment complex when my sister S. called from the 11th floor window for me to come back upstairs. I initially thought she was calling me to tie Li’l H.’s necktie as he was getting ready for his graduation from the sixth grade. I knew Big H. was tired from long hours with Uncle S.’s furniture moving business as a potential future partner (an opportunity that enlivened the entire family) and would probably still be asleep at this early hour. This opportunity made my final decision to obtain my own apartment, most likely a run-down studio, uplifting. I was thisclose to being responsible for myself.

The frantic tone of S.’s pleas let me know it was much more serious than tying a hand-me-down necktie. I raced upstairs, but I already knew Big H. was gone when I entered the spare bedroom. His eyes were barely closed, his chest didn’t move and the crying and wailing of mom and Li’l H. confirmed it before I checked his pulse and lead them out of the room. I didn’t know if I was selfish for immediately thinking my chance to finally enter college, get my own apartment and to be alone, away from everyone were all dashed, but I could think of nothing else. Not the consequences of Big H. leaving us with debt, no insurance (canceled just a couple weeks earlier in his final act of blind rage) and no immediate assistance from familial relations in sight -- due to both circumstances beyond their control and a hatred born of fights years past.

Mom’s death was less of an ordeal, but no less of a burden. I felt selfish and cold and bitter once she finally passed. I still don’t know if I was more relieved that her suffering was finally over, or if I knew I would be relieved by some older, wiser and richer family member from the obligation of raising the little ones. I didn’t cry then and I can’t cry now over the deaths. It’s as if something in me also died and I retreated into a stoic, cold reality that allows no one in, fearing hurt and pain and abandonment. Since I was about five I’ve always felt alone in the world. This despite being constantly surrounded by siblings, cousins, close relations (both grandmothers and my step-grandmother lived within blocks of us at one time or another) and stray kids that moms could never turn away from our home. Hell, I wasn’t even born by myself. Still, I know I am a loner, even now with a partner of nearly two years and a few good friends and generally good family relations.

Feeling the need for flight returns every year with the last dregs of July. Birthday wishes, the occasional present/card and calls just exasperates me and I simply wish everyone would forget the day. It just reminds me of that time fifteen years ago. That and what has happened since: a fracture family life, disillusionment about my so-called relationship with my biological father, and the constant, nagging suspicion that I didn’t do the right thing with respect to the youngest amongst us. Although I know I could not have taken care of at least three young kids -- I have neither the patience nor wherewithal to deal with small children, not to mention the financial strains I was already facing at the time -- I will always believe I abandoned them and that their lives would be so much better today. Despite the fact that they are all relatively safe, sane and happy. Just that nagging feeling.

* * * * * * * * *

From random jotting of notes:

13 July 2002: Strand Bookstore: next time I'll give the motherfuckers away; Thanx Baby Bu, you are my rock and my salvation; Thus begins my Year of Absolutes

I need about a month to gather my thoughts, chart my immediate future (finding a new studio or 1-bedroom, possibly suing my landlord, severing several ties and establishing a steady stream of revenue) and get over a forboding sense of betrayal and deceit. Don’t want to be a drama king or anything, just need to rest really. I’ll answer email on an irregular basis, so apologies in advance.

Peace to you and yours...

Posted by ronn at July 29, 2002 11:30 AM

*smile* *hug* Posted by: Donald on May 28, 2003 08:02 PM
I get weepy every year just before Mothers Day till about a week after my birthday. This year will be different. Just wait and see. Posted by: ronn on May 29, 2003 09:19 AM