The first dead body I ever touched was my father’s.
Incidentally, it also corresponded with my first comparative culture study. But I wouldn’t recognize what I did as such until years later- actually until last year. I was just searching for myself, or a community that didn’t make me feel so weird.
My father, Rev. Robert Alexander, had been exceedingly ill for years leading up to our last Christmas together. My mother had quit her job to be his full time caretaker and my siblings had all grown up and moved on. So those were the times of me, Robert and Sammie.
I helped my mom care for dad. The complications of diabetes had led to gangrene in his legs and hands. This meant that his body tissue was slowly dying off. Several times a day, my mother changed his bandages, cleaned the wounds that would never heal, and brought him his carefully cooked meals. After school, I would head up to his room to watch TV with him. I’m pretty sure he slept most of the time. I don’t really remember that clearly.
As his health deteriorated, my mother’s emotional stress also took a toll on her. It wasn’t an ideal situation. She yelled a lot. My father cried a lot. He didn’t want to die.
My dad was a well known fixture in my community too. I attended the school that was associated with his church. I was “Pastor Alexander’s daughter” for years. Then, one of my older siblings became well known on a popular television show and I was given a new name- “her sister”.
As a fairly shy kid, it was difficult to establish a personal identity in school because of those two factors.They also made me a perfect target to bully. There was the assumption that these pillars of status afforded me privileges that other kids in a forgotten, crack ridden, part of Brooklyn didn’t have. And in many ways, it did. I also had a lot of other things going for me. Things they couldn’t see.
But their perceptions made me weary of friendships very early on. I was scratched, picked on, called names, accused of a whole host of things that I wasn’t even thinking about. This doesn’t mean that I was without friends. It’s just the way it was. I had to toughen up. If I gave them my tears, they would surely give me hell. I didn’t need anymore of that, so I took it.
After school I developed a regular habit of blaring music, going to my room to cry a bit, throw things and changing my uniform before going to my dad’s room to do my homework and watch TV.
I was 11 years old when my mom repeated almost daily that this holiday season would likely be my father’s last. Almost. Daily.
My father started doing this thing where he would call my name over and over again- “Myeashea.” One day my mom asked him to stop because I kept running to the room thinking he needed something. She said “you’re gonna drive her crazy”. He looked sad as he explained my name gave him comfort.
I learned to handle the look of his gangrene, the sores, the smell- but to this day, his sad face, which looked child=like, still breaks my heart. He could’ve said my name a million times.
My father’s birthday, along with my parents’ wedding anniversary and Christmas all fell in the month of December. My dad was the best gift giver!!! And hider! He loved the holidays! He liked to buy my mom suits, and as the baby of the family, he would make my toy dreams come true!
We wanted to make that last Christmas special. All my siblings came home, and my father got to hear his first and only grandson proudly say “Grandpa!”
My mom made his favorite foods. What difference did a meat free, low sodium diet matter for one day to a dying man.
We had all our traditions, and it would be for the last time in my lifetime. Within two weeks, if memory serves correctly, my dad fell into a coma while sitting in his room.
I wasn’t panicked. My mother prepared me well.
The ambulance came for him and they left, my sister arrived with 2 beautiful chow chow puppies. She dropped them off and followed my mom to the hospital. I stayed with my brother. My older brother has always gone through great lengths to make me feel strong and capable and brave in uncertainty. If he was worried or scared I would never know. That night we played with puppies.
On the next school day, my mom was home in time to get me off to school. Considering my father’s social status, my school was informed that he was hospitalized. I was forced to participate in prayers for healing. I didn’t want my father to be healed. They hadn’t seen the years of suffering and the toll it took on my household. My father deserved release. He deserved the end of his pain. My parents needed to reclaim their dignity. I hated the phoniness of my classmates. The forced sincerity reeked. This process was hardening me in ways I didn’t understand then.
Over a week had passed, and finally my sister woke me in the middle of the night to say dad had finally gone on. I remember nodding my head and my sister rubbed my back. I slept harder than I had in weeks.
The following morning I got myself dressed for school. My teachers were surprised to see me. They made it clear that I was grieving wrong. I wasn’t disheveled. My uniform perfect. I wasn’t crying. I didn’t want hugs.
My mom brought me to the funeral home. She believed that seeing death would help to take the fear and mystery away from it. This was a natural process. We would all end up here eventually. He laid in the casket and he looked gray. His coloring was off and his skin looked tight.
I approached the casket slowly and carefully. My mom stroked his forehead and she noticed that I looked uneasy. My older sister was behind me terrified. She stood on a chair. And my mom tried to calm her down. I reached for his forehead. I was scared. I wanted to stroke it like my mom but instead I slapped it quickly.
I remember my sister telling my mom to make me stop. But I just kept doing it. I was working up my bravery. Eventually I lightly stroked his forehead and said goodbye.
The funeral was a big deal! Officials from all over NYC sang. I picked his casket. It was pale blue with chrome accents. My dad wore a suit that my sister bought him. His hands were gloved due to the gangrene.
Choirs sang, preachers preached, we read, eulogized and remembered my dad. I looked up and saw my classmates, singing songs of remembrance and loss. This was so fake. Later one of the other students told me that during the funeral several kids made fun of me and called me a black string bean.
The teachers made the students make us sympathy cards. I threw theirs away. I no longer felt compelled to even tolerate the gestures. Fake was fake. These weren’t sympathy cards. They were homework assignments. Fail.
One teacher gave me a book- “Sad but OK; My Daddy Died Today”. She said “it’s okay to cry”. I came home livid. I was done crying! I cried for 3 years! Why did they need my tears?! What did they want from me?! I grew harder, less tolerant.
A few days later my mom woke me up and told me she wasn’t taking me to school. I was staying home to learn about how to deal with finances. She said “I won’t live forever. You need to learn to take care of yourself.” I was mad at her. In my 11 year old mind, she was saying she was dying. Her intentions good. But I still question her timing.
My father’s death resulted in a monthly pension being paid to one of my sister’s and me. We were the two youngest.
For the rest of the year whenever I bought something with the money, I said my dad got it for me. My school gave me free tuition- dad paid for school. I knew that if he hadn’t died the money would not have been there.
The next Christmas, we tried hard to keep the same traditions going, but my father’s loss was felt. I bought my own gifts from FAO Schwarz, wrapped them with tags “from Dad”. My siblings thought it was morbid. I’m grateful my mom didn’t stop me. She respected my process. I just needed to do what my dad would do.
My mom has also purchased a complete set of encyclopedias. It came with the great books of philosophy, canonical literature books, the classics, everything!
And so, I read. I was still greatly interested in concepts of death and life. I learned from Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Aesop, and Maya Angelou. I read about funerary processions, death rites, and rituals from India to Canada. There were areas of the world where death was celebrated, not mourned! I wasn’t weird. I was in the wrong community.
Then I met a woman from Kenya. When I told her my name, she looked deep in my eyes and said, “you have a very powerful name”.
Myeashea (Maisha) means life. She told me that my name was sung, included in rituals of life/ death. “Ishi maisha”. “Live life.”
I was who I needed to be. I was collection of experiences- some of those experiences my own, and others more ancient and unknown to me. What I had come to recognize, while on my own search to not feel weird about my father’s death, the loss of certain traditions, to grieve in my own way, that what people wanted me to experience was what made THEM comfortable. I had landed smack in the middle of a social and cultural contract. I was in breach. Yet, I learned that the world was so big that I wasn’t in breach everywhere. My mourning didn’t need to happen all at once, and my sense of relief was the most appropriate reaction for me, my moment, my experience that they could not have.
The holidays are hard for people that have had a loss of a loved one, fallen on hard times, are apart from families, the list goes on. Think about the words that we use to communicate how certain groups describe why the holidays can be a really depressing time: hard, loss, absence, suffered, distress, etc.
But these issues don’t go away once the holiday season passes. Perhaps we are less conditioned to regularly focus on them and provide constant reminders of our “loss”. My dad didn’t die just in time to ruin my holiday season. Divorces don’t take a vacation for Chanukah. Cancer doesn’t break for Kwanzaa. The company downsizing that leads to the loss of jobs is not looking at a calendar and thinking, “the solstice is on the way- let me chill for a minute”. These things happen all the time.
We don’t always have to participate in social contracts that don’t feel good or authentic. Sure, something may have happened to you that sucked, but if you would prefer to spend one day or one time period in celebration of the one thing that doesn’t suck, it’s okay! It’s okay to acknowledge your pain in your own way.
I wrote this because I recently came across ALOT of stories and posts about people who felt like they were under pressure to be or feel sad during the holiday season because of an unfortunate event that they recently experienced or are in the middle of. They wanted to quit being reminded of their misfortune so that they could have a moment to enjoy or reminisce on the times they did feel safe and content. I read comments over and over again asking people to not judge them or think that they were over whatever issue they had just because they went to a party or hung up decorations- found a way to enjoy themselves.
Quit being assumptive jerks! If you know a friend or family member going through tough times, don’t tell them how to act or display pain because of some arbitrary social rule. Sometimes that makes them feel even more isolated. Just remember that these attitudes and responses change over time, across the world. Also, it isn’t a holiday everywhere.
Reach out to each other. Learn from one another. Be a friend. Be aware of the connections around you. It’s a big, weird, diverse world!