How to See the Dead and Yourself by Niama Sandy

Editor Colin Farstad, Editor's Choice, June 15th, 2014

So many unsung songs in his blood that they spilled into the way he walked...

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As I watched Horace Ové’s King Carnival set in 1973 Port of Spain I found myself scanning for my father in the many crowds jubilating pushing pan, jumping up in a band. I discovered his Army discharge papers just after he died. He had gone AWOL that year in February. If I know my father – a man with so many unsung songs in his blood that they spilled into the way he walked – there is no place else he would have gone. London had just hit a wall and was a few years from recovery. There was not enough happening in Brooklyn to shake a stick at. There was no DC, no Miami, and who was schlepping to Toronto? In those times Trinidad was it for de mas.

I wondered about where he kept his jouvay shoes. Were they caked with years’ worth of mud, paint and oil, as mine are years later? Was the feeling of the Caiso hitting yuh pwefwen the same? Moving through the spine to all of the places we feel our heart other than our chest – the hips, waist, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, lips to give praise for life, love and rhythm? I know that it is. But, sometimes that I cannot call him and ask is painful.

No one ever warns you about how any of that is going to feel. About all of the beautiful ugliness.

The hardest part was watching him wither away. Seeing the tears in his eyes as he realized that cancer was just about to claim him. He who was always the coolest, sharpest person in the room – everyone there howled when they realized it was no longer true. Except for me. I stood next to him, his hand in mine. My mind was blank and calm. I felt him leave his body and drift into the ether. I said nothing. There were no tears – a paradox as I typed this with tears in my eyes. I didn’t cry at the tragicomedy of a funeral.

I have wondered why no tears came on those days. My eyes could do nothing but record everything I was seeing as they secreted my tears away. I realize that I was too exhausted, emotionally and physically, to deal with what I was seeing then. The tears were to be re-membered to me, joined with me again in a way that will make me whole, at another time and space when they could come down fiercely and freely. Recently I’ve started having flashes of fragments of moments from those last weeks of my father’s life. They are as vivid as if they are happening in front of me. I imagine that this happens because my body understands those moments to be important, if traumatic. Initially, it was startling – what with his stark frailty, and the possibility that I was going mad – but the tears I didn’t shed back then came. The tears made it okay.

None of this was made easier by fact of the sometimes difficult relationship I had with my father. One of the last times my father spoke to me he said “Sorry.” At that point, as the cancer had literally ravaged his whole body, speaking was difficult for him – which made posing the question of what exactly he was sorry for impossible. Throughout my lifetime I can recall countless broken promises, periods of quasi-estrangement – the last ending as we learned just how ill he was. I realize now that these visions may be my mind’s way to lament and celebrate not merely my father, but also myself. He was among the first to teach me how disappointment felt; but also how to love, to forgive, to drink in people and moments, and how to let go.

I sat to finish writing this on what would have been his 65th birthday, I imagined us having a drink to celebrate. Him raising his obligatory bottle of Heineken, and me doing the same with whatever I may have fancied at that moment, in toast to life and the hopes of the many more moments – whether trying or triumphant – to come.

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writer niama sandy How to See the Dead and YourselfNiama Sandy is a Brooklyn-born creative of Caribbean heritage. She is a force to be reckoned with in any arena she sets foot. A graduate of Howard University’s illustrious School of Communications and current MA candidate in the Anthropology department at the renowned School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London, Sandy is a lifelong creator, lover, and patron of the art of life. Her interests cover a broad range of topics including music, art, the African Diaspora, the constructed nature of history, human rights, race, gender, economies (and the nation-state), and their social and political implications on everyday life.

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Colin Farstad

Colin Farstad's work has most recently appeared in Spilt Infinitive, Analekta Anthology, and Coal City Review. He is the editor of the short story anthology The Frozen Moment : Contemporary Writers on the Choices that Change Our Lives (Publication Studios, 2011). Colin has been a teacher, editor, writer, event coordinator and connoisseur of classic cocktails for years. Currently he's living in Brooklyn, hard at work writing a novel tentatively titled It's Never Over and working at the literary agency DeFiore and Company.