New Notes from a Native Son

On Everyday Matters that Make a Difference

Blog(ged) Down: Mourning and Digital Silence June 23, 2010

This blog died about a year ago. Not due to disinterest on my part, though I had a particularly busy schedule teaching this year. But a lot of things happened. Things I wanted to write about, but things I just couldn’t find the words, the right words, any words, to say.

So nearly everyday, I would look at the bookmarked tab on my browser and say, tomorrow.

I didn’t know how to write about the fact that my mentor, teacher and father figure, the man who got me started in teaching, supported my dreams, encouraged them, Dr. Frank N. Mickens, passed away unexpectedly last July, not too long after what felt like a personal loss in the passing of one of my childhood heroes, Michael Jackson.

After working with “Mick’s kids,” his Boys and Girls High family, his family, and Brooklyn, for what seemed like 10 straight days of being awake in a sleep walking state, to celebrate Mick/the Chancellor of Fulton Street’s life, I high-tailed it to Guyana and dove into a coma of research and relaxation on the Essequibo Coast. There I scoured the landscape for traces of slavery while taking pictures of its ghosts that still linger in the refurbished architecture (sea walls, bridges, kokers, etc). I visited my grandmother Ninny’s hometown village of Queenstown for traces of her early days, and even performed some poems (one dedicated to her) on the opening night of the Anna Regina Emancipation Day Celebrations. (Ninny was supposed to travel but could not because were weren’t sure how her body would hold up while cooped up on a Caribbean Airlines flight, with an overnight stop over in T&T–hey it’s cheaper to fly that way.)

I began my second year at Sarah Lawrence, teaching two awesome classes and had my first year of donning (academic advising/teaching a first year studies class). I loved it because my students were as usual “tres fab”; teaching helped me to heal in however small ways from losing physical contact with Mick.

But it was also hella hard because it was usually during the beginning of the year that I would meet Mick and talk about our plans for the year and what goals we had. He was the man who I knew was always proud of me, and understood what teaching means to me. And because he was such an awesome educator, he also understood the difficulties of being black, “young,” even younger-looking and a college professor. He was home, Boys and Girls, BK, my father, brother, colleague and mentor.

I always enjoyed “grounding with my brother.” In September, especially, I missed that.

From working on his services, I understood why Mick taught, how a loss made him a better educator,  and this new understanding and renewed love for Mick actually made me a better teacher this year. Plus, I began to value even more the people in my life.

It was the closest loss I have experienced in my adult life. And it hurt. Physically pained. I do not cry as much as I did as I child, but I often cried like a child and at random times after Mick’s passing. Every day before leaving the house to go teach, I spoke to the button of Mick on my fridge, giving it our usual dap and a smile before I went out the door. (Thanks Drea for making that up.) I didn’t visit Boys and Girls, or substitute teach as much this year, because I could not. Too many memories, too great of a loss. I felt his absence too greatly. It was even more difficult taking the Whitestone to the Jackie Rob and having to pass through Evergreen to get to Fulton and Utica. (I have now learned to say, sup, when I pass.)

So I did what I knew to do TEACH! I worked. If anyone needed a speaker or there was a conference for which my research would fit, I was there. I started to call my parents, friends and family even more, but even then it seemed like not everyone understood the pain I was feeling and still feel. I also began to feel more distant from some, as I, the one who called all the time to check in, ceased to call.

Mick and my grandmother were my two elders and mentors. Mick my link to the old ways of Brooklyn, and my grandmother, the link to the old practices and memories of Guyana.

At least I still had her, Ninny, and the two of us gaffed and laughed often. Ninny, my other mentor and grandmother, for whom I, her grandson, was her last son, made the passing seem not as bad because in those conversations she always reminded me of where I came from and that I should be happy with where I was and what I was doing.

I saw Ninny for Thanksgiving. Chatted up through Christmas. And we booked tickets to go to ATL for a long visit during our Spring Break in March. But Ninny had to go in the hospital soon after Xmas. She didn’t want any more surgeries she told me over the phone. She was released and put on Hospice care. “Hospice Care?” I asked my mom as I heard her voice tremble as she was relaying this to me. I now know what that means — death is imminent.

Soon after the Winter Break, in late January, my mom said Ninny had taken a turn for the worse, and we should come down there to see Ninny while she still could make us out. We flew down. I spent the weekend watching how our presence lighted her up, and how much love and life she continued to give to us by telling us stories about her past, and sharing advice and encouragement for the future. I watched, tried my best to be present and not mourn too early, knowing that she was near that precipice. Some people, you miss before they leave, Deborah McDowell, once told me. And I had begun to miss Ninny for years now. The Empress and I had told her that we were expecting a son when she first got ill, hoping the news would give her something more to live for. And I think it did. During this visit, the first since the good news, she blessed us and said she hoped that she would live to see a “fruit from [me].” We left the Monday morning.

As soon as we left, my mom said that Ninny was having trouble recognizing people and was talking to our people, her people, from a past that my mom did not know and in a tongue that was difficult to recognize, her rich Queenstown Guyanese Creolese. We started making preparations.

I was on edge, anxious.

I was trying to teach, but worrying, knowing that this was my other rock. Worrying: what will my mother do? How can she bear the loss of a woman with whom she has lived and/or who has lived with her for all her life? My little niece who had become her companion? My sister whom my grandmother raised along with me? My little brother who had spent the last five years being her afternoon companion? My stepfather, no father, whom she loved like her own son?

I was not strong enough to feel my own pain so I thought of what I needed to do for others and Ninny. I began to use what I had learned from having to be so close to the homegoing plans for Mick — funeral services? where to church? obituary?  Program for church and viewing services? And new questions — foreign burials? Guyana death announcement? Bereavement leave?

I woke up that Friday. Drank my hot cup of tea as Ninny taught me. Before I knew it, it was mid morning; the wife was out at work. I opened the computer to check email, and my middling fantasy basketball squad. Had that weird feeling. I closed it.

Something said, your grandmother is dying. And I felt it.

I went into my bedroom, called my mother who told me she was at the doctor with my lil bro and to call my father who was at home with Ninny.  He answered the phone. I asked for my mom, knowing she was out. The pain of death is a difficult conversation to broach between two men not use to speaking about the joyous feelings of everyday life, much less the despair and despondency of permanent physical leave-taking. I guess I needed to find some way to start the conversation.

I asked about Ninny. After he said, “your mom is at the doctor,” he said, “I think Ninny’s gone.”

In his voice, I knew exactly what he was doing, biting his nails, as he usually does when he’s nervousness. The two of us scurried together a plan so that some more people would be there when my mom got home and they told her that he best friend was gone.

And thus began what seem like a simultaneous slowing down of time, while things raced and changed all around me. I don’t know how to describe it. It was like I was closer to death. You know, I was closer to become that memory of the old ways, which I learned from her. A numbness pain began to hurt all over. Blood rushed to my head, which made me swoon when I tried to get up.

I had to lie back down. It only dissipated when I started to cry. (Been here before and recently.)  My grandmother, my mother who raised me from two days old, the woman who allowed me to name her and claim her as my Ninny, had gone.

Among her last words were, “One must go so that one can come.” The one who was going was her. The one who was coming is to be my son. We didn’t tell anyone outside of close family about his coming because the homegoing of our Ninny was so painful that we didn’t think that we bear hearing that our son would be comfort for the loss, though we knew that he would be. This was a joy to be celebrated, but it didn’t feel right. We wanted to feel our pain. Everything had it’s season. We wanted to feel, be present in, our mourning as our Highest Queen Mother went over to the other side because the Ancestors needed her more now. She had done her work preparing us for her leave-taking.

I taught to the best of my emotional state.  My students stepped up and held me down for many of those days, including the Monday, Thursday and Monday after when I went in to teach. (Thank you emerging scholars of Sarah Lawrence!)

Many days, I looked at my blog. I thought that I should write. It would help. After all, it’s advice I have given time and again, and a path I have used over the years–just write.

But words failed me.

I could only do what those two people, Mick and Ninny, did for me for all those formative years — TEACH.

I taught.