Nobody teaches you how to grieve.
I fumble through it, swallowing words and tears and pain like pills I have to take for my own sanity. My sorrow sits there on the throne of my soul, passing judgment on my ineptitude at expressing loss and love and loneliness. With every expression of my life, all I have is my words. That’s all I have to give in times when every other part of me is dammed off so that I might survive another day. This round though, I ran out of words, out of stream. I went into full survival mode: no poems, no stories, nothing but sadness and anger and tiredness covered up by me working and me crying alone.
But now the waves of memories and whirlpools of grief envelope me more and more regularly. I recognized that before I am swallowed up, I owe my Popo the honor of the words I couldn’t really give him when he was alive–not because he wouldn’t have understood but because I really didn’t know how to convey how much he meant to me.
For the longest time those words would not come. I sat frozen through a trip to Mississippi to say final goodbyes (completely devastated because we didn’t expect it to happen so fast), a complete disengagement from my job (where I was flailing and fighting irrational hate flung at me), the falling apart of the little life I’d built in Nashville (we couldn’t afford the rent), a move back to the place I swore I never wanted to be again (I never wanted to come back to the Saint Louis area and it was demoralizing), and the total falling apart of my mental person behind fake smiles and secret wall punches and absolutely falling off the grid (my little family had gone through another spate of what we refuse to call homelessness). I opened up WordPress over and over again, staring at old drafts and reading other people’s work unable to like a thing–angry because I couldn’t write a thing myself. While I would never harm myself, I knew the familiar feelings of shut down as the depression I’d been battling for months finally got the upper hand. I could not foresee myself taking another step.
I gave up for a minute, y’all. I did just enough for us to live. Thassit.
It took an incredibly belated listen to Chance the Rapper’s free mixtape/album/masterpiece Coloring Book to open up my voice again. And it took a completely unrelated listen to his tribute to Muhammad Ali to give me the strength to write in honor of the first man who loved me.
What does one have to do with the other, you might ask? Chance the Rapper is a Chicago rapper. My grandfather probably never listened to anything that wasn’t Southern Quartet Music. But the spirit of the both of them is the same. This incredible, indelible black boy joy. Everything I have seen and heard in Chance the Rapper drips in a kind of “joie de vivre” that I have only ever seen in one other person: my Popo, carefree as fuck (excuse the language, family, but nothing else fits right there but that).
Before hashtags and internet fads flicked flippant phrases faster than tongue twisters on hot country porches where we sucked down freeze pops and water from the hose, my grandfather floated through this life as carefree as somebody who grew up in sharecropping, black coding, pig coding, Jim Crowing, segregationist, hateful ass Mississippi could. He was a black man–dark skinned, slight in height and weight–who gave everybody a smile as he drowned them in conversations about his favorite singing groups and his never-ending love of cars, motorcycles, and lawnmowers. Never learning to read or write, he sang with the sweet warble of quartet men who lifted their complaints to God in songs that whooped and swooped and rocked your pain in their repetitive loops. He was a tenor–but you best believe he could sing every part flawlessly. And I bet you better not mess up the harmony. He would have words and a nice corrective practice right there with you on the spot.
A full on Libra with a touch of Scorpio, Popo laughed and argued with the undying passion of one who knew what he knew–and you wouldn’t tell him different. It made for many funny and also many stressful days at the Sunday dinner table as he argued his point until everybody else gave up (as I type that I had to smile because that’s ME, yo. You will not win ever). A mama’s boy til the end, I have dreamed my whole life of someone loving me with the kind of blind devotion he reserved for my great grandmother and then my grandmother. Which is not to say he didn’t have some problem areas; I mean, don’t we all? But what he didn’t do well, he made up for with his laughter. He never met a stranger; he never met an enemy. When he lost his voice to a bout of throat cancer, he didn’t skip a beat with arguing you into the very ground on which you stood. And while it was only a whisper, his tenor was still as sure as any classically trained vocalist. He brought joy to lives slowly suffocating on the pressure of being poor and black and working hard trying to make it.
When I listen to Coloring Book, when I run back “I Was a Rock” on YouTube (because Chance is so carefree, he ain’t bother to put it on iTunes or Spotify so I could download the masterpiece), I hear Chance, but I see my Popo. I see the life we lived together at my grandparents’ house. I see the “aww shucks” happiness that my Popo moved in. I get a few minutes to relive the pure appreciation of living to see another day he walked around with. I get to sit with my Popo again.
There are people who are a part of your life that you just assume will always be there. And he was one for me. I could guarantee coming off the highway, making that right turn into their driveway and he’d be there to wave. His hug was always the first hug of coming home, his voice the first voice of concern: how was my trip? How was the drive? What about the weather? Did the car hold up? What kind of car did I have now? Where are the kids? I can’t think about going home right now because I’d fall apart rolling up on my childhood sanctuary and not seeing him sitting there with his coffee cup in his hand, some hat we bought him pulled down over his soft hair and crinkly eyes, excited for a break in his daily routine as me and my kids turning into the driveway to get our hugs.
This ain’t close to eloquent. But neither is the emotion that hits me when I least expect it. I am glad my grandfather is no longer suffering. He finally made it to sing in the heavenly choir that he’d been practicing for all his life. And if God is a God of purposeful fun, I imagine my Popo gets to sit at the gate with Saint Peter, sipping coffee and waving at angels flying by while remarking on the new model of wings being flown these days.
I miss him, but I will see him again. Meanwhile, I listen to the pure joy of Chance the Rapper and think about how awesomely wonderful but rare it is to see a black man move through life carefree and joyful. Lord, wash your men children in joy. Amen? Amen.