I feel fragile lately. The ground feels unstable beneath my feet, so that I want to micromanage everything, lest it spin wildly into catastrophe. This is highly annoying to other people. I know this hyper vigilance was bred into me in a childhood in which my father was an alcoholic. He wasn't a mean drunk, lucky us, just tediously sentimental about growing up roaming hills in the country and his schoolboy days at a boarding school in town and meeting my mom as a young man. He was also highly functional; he didn't begin drinking till all his cases were studied, all his opinions written, his work put to bed. But my mom hated his drinking, and so he tried to hide it, which he couldn't of course. I knew all the places where his bottles of gin were stashed, and we all knew when he crossed over into being drunk. I'll never forget the night he made me stand there and listen to him sing every verse of his high school anthem, tears rolling down his face. I only wish I could throw my arms around him now, remembering.
But still. Growing up with an alcoholic parent makes you watchful. It attunes you to the shifting molecules of air in the room, the careful way my dad placed his steps when he was drunk, my mom's lips pressed together in disapproval when she realized he'd been drinking again, the dangerous silences in the house. Then morning would come and my dad would be up before everyone, putting in a load of laundry, juicing oranges for breakfast, making the cup of tea that he brought in to me when he woke me up for school. He was a good dad. He just drank too much. It almost killed him when I was fourteen or fifteen, when he was sick with something and mixed the medicine he had been prescribed with gin. He quit drinking after that. He promised us all from his hospital bed, on the day after his heart stopped beating and the doctors brought him back, that he wouldn't touch another drop. And for the rest of his life, till the cancer ravaging his body took him at the young age of seventy-two, he never did.
I wrote a typo there. At first I wrote he never died. I went back and fixed it, but it strikes me this morning that the typo is what I want to be true. He has been so alive for me these past weeks, in the wake of my brother in law's death, and also, in this continuing brutal summer, the passing of one of my cousins, Diane. She died in West Palm Beach, Florida, last Friday. She had been rushed to the hospital with double pneumonia the very night Bruce died. We got the call about Bruce near midnight and then I picked up my phone and there was a text from my cousin Joy, Diane's sister, letting me know what was going on.
Joy had been sending me and the rest of the family daily updates, and it sounded like Diane was improving. Then last Tuesday she texted that they had removed the intubation tube and her oxygen was low. She was reminding her to take deep breaths. On Wednesday, the day we said goodbye to Bruce in the majestic and historic Cathedral of St. John's that he had lovingly helped to restore, there was no text from Joy, but we were so caught up by the pressing moment, I failed to notice. Thursday, we went to help clear out Bruce's apartment, as the landlord wanted to show it the next day. There was no text from Joy that day either. Life hurries on.
Friday was a beautiful family day. We had promised ourselves one day at the beach, and we honored that. We started the morning with breakfast as a family at a lovely little place near Blue Waters, where my parents used to live during the years they lived in Antigua; they stayed in the island just long enough for me to meet my husband in 1983. A year later, my dad got promoted to Chief Justice of the region and they moved on to St. Lucia, the central court of the Eastern Caribbean judiciary. My son and daughter spent time with their grandparents in two different islands as children.
After breakfast we drove all over the island, my husband revisiting places that held special meaning for him, our kids revisiting their own childhood memories made on visits to their dad's birth place, all of us realizing we'd been away too long, nine years, and now we were all reclaiming the land as our own. That was the best part of the whole trip, really, our children realizing that Antigua was still theirs, even though their grandparents, aunt, and uncle were gone. They still had cousins, and other uncles and aunts, and the island had welcomed them home.
We went to the beach at Longwood. Walking into the water I kept exclaiming how clear it was, like liquid blue glass refracting the light, every grain of sand visible beneath my feet. As if I had not grown up in Jamaica with this same sea. We got there at noon, and swam and tread water for hours, talking, laughing, being. At three in the afternoon we packed up to head to another beach, this one at Ffryes, just down the road from Valley Church, where my husband picked lilies for me one night in the rain before we were married, and in whose country graveyard two days before, we had buried his brother.
My son had been one of the pallbearers for his uncle, who like my husband was a big guy. "One last workout with Uncle Bruce," he grunted as, along with the other pallbearers, he helped lower the casket into the open earth. My daughter's heart was in her throat the whole time, as dirt slid beneath her brother's dress shoes at the grave's edge, his white shirt transparent with sweat from his effort to maintain tension on the rope, men shouting directions back and forth, it was a scene. But they managed the task without falling in. And then a back hoe filled in the hole as mourners found what little shade we could under trees and warbled hymns around Bruce's grave.
We had a plan to meet up with some cousins and an older aunt at Ffryes Beach at four thirty on Friday afternoon, when the baking heat would ease a bit. It was on the way there from Longwood that the text came in. "Diane passed away this afternoon." It felt like a gut punch. And then, honestly, I felt numb. We met up with our relatives, we swam in the healing water. The day continued to be a connected and joyful family outing, even though shadowed by my news. It had been hot as blazes all week. Yet now I felt cold.
I'm back in the city now, back to work by the window, trying to craft the book's final chapter. My man is back at museum. My niece who lived with us during the month of August while she looked for a new apartment, has now found a place and moved there on Labor Day with her former college roommate and best friend. I am alone in the days, and sometimes, I climb under the covers and just cry. I wont be able to go to my cousin's funeral. We are pretty much broke from burying our brother, and from a bedroom renovation that is underway in anticipation of my niece and her husband bringing baby Harper to visit us at the end of the month. I have to deliver the last chapters of the book right before they arrive, and then start at the beginning again to address the notes my subject has already made and returned to me on Chapters 1 though 17. And so I push back the covers and go back to the window and try to lose myself in channeling someone else's magnificent life. It does help.
Good morning, dear friends. I'm still standing.