The Second Year

I was born on a Sunday. You died on a  Sunday. Coincidence can feel significant. That I was your kehinganda. I am. Some tenses still confuse me. You are not the past tense of being my mother. You are my mother. Tenses confuse me.

I planted two varieties of pentas under the window of the room where you slept: a vivid pink and a blush pink. They joined walking irises and lavender. A feast for the eyes and the nose. Perfume used to waft through the air, filling the house, and it could not last. I said it had done its work, given its love where it could. Where it should. And it should not persist where it was unloved. You will understand.

I have added gaura to the garden. That’s new this year. Poppies. Those are also new. I have plants from loved friends, grown from cuttings, shared with love. Some thrive. Others try to learn the taste of the soil here, the push of the wind, the dances of pollinators so that they, too, can find ways to make roots and thrive. The banana trees you left are laden with fruit—in a few weeks, we shall taste the sweetness you left for us. The jasmine is blooming. That, too, is a sweetness.

The day after my father died, his brother—yes, that one—came to you and demanded to know how much money was in the bank account. You had four children to educate, but this was irrelevant. When you told me this story, about a year before you died, you were telling me something that I heard and misheard. I thought this was a story about the cruelty of patriarchy. And it was.

You were also telling me that grief is not sacred to those who hate us.

On the day you died, someone who should have loved you invited friends over to your house—it will always be your house—to drink and celebrate your death. I was not there. I had gone somewhere else, to sit with my grief and fatigue. Those who should have loved you were cruel and indifferent. Should have? Yes. I insist on this.

Grief has been difficult. Kin and strangers have been indifferent to its rhythms and needs. You had warned me there would be cruelty. And I think you wished that I would escape it.

And, there has been slow, sustained comfort from friends and strangers, soft places to land, worlds that have cradled and named what I still cannot grasp, but need.

I continue to inhabit the space your imagination made for me. You always imagined me in ways I could not imagine myself. Joy James has been telling us that the mother breathes for the fetus before it develops into a form that can breathe for itself. I do not know how to think about mothering, but I think this is part of what Alexis Pauline Gumbs means when she talks about revolutionary mothering. I know it’s what Christina Sharpe means when she writes about the spaces her mother made for her: space to read, space to dream, space to make beauty.

You would complain that I am still reading too many books. A familiar complaint. But a complaint that was uttered with such incredible pride: “my kehinganda reads too many books.” It did not matter to you if the books were romance or thrillers or history or theory or poetry. You did not ask. They were simply “too many books.” And in naming them “too many books,” you made them proximate to each other, cross-fertilizing as all promiscuous plants do. Plants are nothing if not relentlessly promiscuous, seducing pollinators, taking wind and water to travel to other tastes, other places. I am still talking about plants. And us.

Too many books. A tangle of books. A tower of books. The books lie in piles, the words twining around each other.

Grief has twined and become tangles. An aunt and uncle died soon after you. I have told you this before. Grief twined. And expanded. It filled rooms with silence. We waited for what else would come.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have waited.

Our grief tangled with the grief of friends and strangers in a global pandemic. I know you’d have had opinions. And plans. You were always planting. You’d have spoken to the nurses you trained with and the doctors you worked with. You’d have spent endless hours on WhatsApp with those conspiracy theories you loved so much. It’s difficult to imagine you in the subjunctive. Even those we love and think we know always surprise us. We cannot always trust the subjunctive.

Our grief continues to tangle, to spill over, to trip us over, and each day, each minute, the tangles grow thicker, stronger. I do not know how we can live with it. Or what it will do. Perhaps it will topple whatever structures we imagine can ward it off. Perhaps it will move into the crevices we do not know. Grief is neither poison nor cure. It sits. It lingers. It creeps. It spreads. It entangles. I am always tripping over someone else’s grief, as I try to navigate my own. There is no disentangling. We are entangled.

The vines are uneven, as grief is uneven. Some simply want to rest in the presence of other vines. Some sprout thorns and keep opening wounds we are trying to repair. Some grow thick with grief and demand more than we can bear. Others smother. I’m sorry. The metaphor is not working. It’s difficult to find a way to name these tangles and how they are working as I’m still trying to be in them in whatever way is possible.

I have been trying to track grief’s sensorium as it works through my body and relations. At first, it felt like a dull weight. My bones felt heavy. As though, for the first time, I could feel gravity pulling. After that was a sense of wading through thick mud, the pull and slomp of cling and wade. You know how thick clay pulls off your shoes and loves you too much.

Forgive me if I return to plant metaphors.

YouTube gardeners say it takes a perennial plant at least 3 years to become what it will be. In the first year, it looks like nothing is happening. The plant is tasting the soil. Figuring out how water works. Befriending the fungal and other microbial networks that will feed it. Meeting nearby plants and figuring out how to be a good neighbor. It requires attention and care. Close tending. In the second year, it begins to put on more robust growth. It becomes even more social. And if it survives the second year, in the third year it puts on steady growth, secure in its food and water sources and relations with other plants.

Grief feels a lot like this plant. It is here to stay. Twining through body systems and relations.

You taught me to see flowers. To watch them move from bud to flower to seed head. To wait until the last petal dropped off a stem before deadheading. I do not always follow this advice. Perhaps I will learn to wait until the last petal falls.

I miss you.

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