AMONG THE EVENTS THAT SHOULD BE ON THE FRONT PAGE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES: the death of a non-celebrity.
The reason being, on the front page of a major newspaper of that caliber, you mostly read about earth-shattering events that can change the course of the world and reality as we know it. And if one has lived long enough to bear the cancer that is grief, they know this: that the announcement of a loved one’s passing is as cataclysmic to the world as the death of say, John Lennon (may he rest in eternal peace).
…if not more because they did not know John, but knew that person who passed away and who says, who in this god-forsaken world gets to say that the death of a singer, a princess, or a Nobel prize-winning physicist is not as important as the death of the passerby that pollutes your view from the empty street your coffee shop of choice stands on, nestled between other buildings filled with future corpses, to the brim with impending nothings ? Would it be because the passerby and the celebrity are not equally loved somewhere or is it that they are just not equally known?
I have ran out of tears for the time being but I tell you, when it strikes again that some of the people I love are gone forever and that whenever I go to the cemetery, all I can have as a memory of their physical presence is a rectangular mound of dirt and a picket sign with their full name, and DD/MM/YYYY — DD/MM/YYYY to summarize their lives, they will certainly gush forth. My misplaced anger is at the earth who is able to transform every seed I’ve buried into trees, flowers, food, life, yet cannot give me back the very dead ones.
My uncle’s name was Abou Touré and he was a teacher. He was tall, handsome, extremely intelligent and charming, he played the guitar. He spoke timeless wisdoms like ‘courage is the lack of an alternative’, ‘life doesn’t always follow the path of our desires’, and scary stuff like ‘what stops a man from sleeping with his mother is calculation. Calculation is what separates man from animal you understand?’ or, when he was irritated with a student ‘you are an accident of nature living with humans’. He often wore a fedora or panama hat. He helped thousands of students ace the hardest national test and influenced them to become agents of change in and out of our country. He owned a school in his later years. He wrote a book and never published it. He passed away exactly one year ago.
My father-in-law’s name was Bou Kounta. He came from a long line of Muslim Sufi chiefs. He led a modest life and prided himself in the way he raised his children, one of whom is my husband. He spoke with a thunderous voice and his eyes transpierced your soul; they could turn the most fervent atheist into a believer of an omniscient, invisible, benevolent force. I never heard him sing, but in the very last weeks of his life, he would sing to my one-year old daughter. The illness gangrened his unwavering stature, and yet he prayed, steadfast in his covenant. He only ever wore white. He taught me the meaning of patience and tough love. He brought peace into my life. He passed away a week ago.
The memories I have of my high-school best friend are now sparse. Her name was Dieynaba Gakou. She was the funniest and prettiest girl of the classroom. We hung out a lot in Dakar and spent most of our time doing what adolescents do: girl talk, exam preps, sharing and healing our insecurities. We barely saw each other once I moved to the United States and she to Canada. From what I hear, she’d just finished her studies, was getting ready to settle, and had bought a ticket to return to Senegal for the holidays. I believe her death was my first real shock and this shock buried her far into my subconscious and effectively actuated my insubordinate panic attacks. She passed in 2014.
The reason you cry. There is so much regret about the things you could have done for your father-in-law, or your friend, or your gem of an uncle, or whoever you loved and died because this person was, you feel, an unknown treasure that only you knew. Beyond just missing their everyday presence, you wish people around the world were made aware of how many lives they touched that might’ve also touched the lives of those who love strong enough and wide enough, and with a little push of destiny are mourned the world over. Like John Lennon. You wonder, don’t these people I loved deserve that recognition too?
But think about trees. Because sometimes I think that you are, I am a tree. I’m stuck between a swamp and more trees like me. I grow. My leaves come and go. The rain breaks them brings them back. I have thick and slit alligator skin. I despise the light but it keeps me alive. And I’ve lived what felt like thousands of years without reason. Then the rind peeled off. I rotted my way up the earth. Now I have spirit and soul and I can’t get enough of the sky. My roots are my ears and they run deep. I’m almost ubiquitous. Every thud on earth echoes all the way up to the branches. My sap is honey. It thickens the branches. My fruit is red, ripe and ready. And there are many trees, whose trunks become so lean and inviting, spilling honey sap in nests full of termites and the mildew of their spirit through the cracks of the alligator skin. Who is going to talk about these trees in all the glory they each deserve? Whether known or loved, who fends for the trees in the middle of the savannah, or the Amazon, Central Park, submitting to the laws of nature, the ecosystem, just there to give fruits, shelter, a shadow for the goat herder, the tree the shaman, the healer?
I want to convince you, through my words, that it doesn’t matter if your tree falls and no one hears it but you. If it has filled its purpose, rest assured that the world has felt it crash. Perhaps the earth has transformed its seeds in new trees with fruits yet undiscovered. Has your tree not shielded you as much as a president leading a nation, a revolutionary at the pinnacle of a movement, or as much as a celebrity who was merely lucky to be universally recognized for having lived, you know, because living is worth being universally recognized for? Because life is a precursur to love. And love bears many fruits, among them grief, and you are allowed to grieve spectacularly or as you see fit. This is the way I do it. This is my epitaph for you, my departed loves, if you can read or feel it.