You would not cry
if you would know
that by looking deeply into the rain
you would still see the cloud.
— Thich Nhat Hahn
After I left the reading, I checked my phone for the first time in hours. The last time I’d checked it, my friend Monica had sent me an email reminding me that the deadline for the blurb I was writing for her second book of poetry was due.
Instead of her reply, under her earlier email, was a message from Cornelius, entitled, simply, Monica Hand.
Erica – I’m sorry…Monica collapsed…the library…her heart…
My grandfather was a guru. In his nineties, he had a following of young white hippies in Central Florida who lovingly called him “Raj”–– short for Guru Raja Bahari, his yoga name. After one of their meditation sessions, a hippie dad with a daughter named Autumn had us ride in the bed of his pickup truck while he took my grandfather on some errand or other. Will and I got nervous when it started to rain, but Autumn just smiled and pivoted around with her back to the cab window. She waved us next to her and we watched the rain magically pass over our heads and hit the rear of the truck bed past our feet.
Wow, said Will, who never said “Wow.” He reached his arm out through the sheet of rain, and raindrops spattered to his elbow.
What are you doing? Autumn grabbed his wrist, laughing. Your granny’s gonna be mad if you come in wet!
Now I know the pickup truck magic was the fluid of the air accelerating over and then downward as the truck moved forward; in front, the windshield hit rain and wind both, and the heavier rain won through to pound the glass; but in back, once the body of the truck tore through the air, the wind gained enough speed to sweep the raindrops back and away, an invisible protector from the storm.
At the end of his life, my grandfather ceased to see his students, ate little, and meditated all day long. My grandmother banged pots and opened and slammed doors shut in the quiet of the house, though she never actually dared open the door to his room. When he went for his evening walk, and she went into her back vegetable garden, I would quickly enter his room to study its single cot, seven-day candle, and black and white pictures of Parahamsa Yogananda on the dresser next to a photograph of my grandfather in his Rosicrucian robes. In the photos, Yogananda and Grandpa’s faces were smooth and evenly brown, as though they were simply boys in the same grade school class, their bright eyes lit from inner depths. On a low table lay a Bible and several copies of Autobiography of a Yogi, which Grandpa kept to give to everyone who visited. Compared to the rest of the house, which was floor to ceiling multiple patterns in green, pink or yellow, the blue room where he spent hours in silence was stark and bare.
He won’t even talk to me, Grandma whined to Mommy when she called from New York. He shut up in the room all day, all day. She sucked her teeth and passed me the phone.
Is that true? Mommy asked me. Is she exaggerating?
I hesitated. It isn’t all day, all day, but it is more than he used to, I avowed.
Is he eating?
I don’t know.
Have you seen him eat?
I hesitated again. No.
Thus, she swept south like an angel.
My grandfather was so happy then, so sweet and friendly. His tiny frame was gossamer from daylong contemplation and lack of food. When my mother arrived to check on him—He is so frail!—she took us to the grocery store. He greeted everyone with brilliant smiles. Hello! Hello! His few white hairs were wisps of cloud, his quick, gentle steps, rain on concrete. She tried to make him eat, but he was too happy; he returned to his room to become nothing. When the fever began, my mother took him to the hospital, while my grandmother fretted. Don’t worry! He told her. Every day, and in every way, I am getting better and better!
We Caribs are more susceptible to pneumonia, Mommy told me tearfully. I had it, you had it, and now my dad has it. But he’s so weak.
I was sure she was exaggerating, like her mother. But she wasn’t. Native people are more susceptible to, and four times more likely to die from, pneumonia.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Parahamsa Yogananda tells this story, which my grandfather must have read hundreds of times:
Swami Pranabananda, “the saint with two bodies,” also confided to me the details of his own supernatural experience.
“A few days before Lahiri Mahasaya left his body,” Pranabananda told me at the time he visited my Ranchi school, “I received a letter from him, requesting me to come at once to Benares. I was delayed, however, and could not leave immediately. As I was in the midst of my travel preparations, about ten o’clock in the morning, I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy to see the shining figure of my guru.
‘Why hurry to Benares?’ Lahiri Mahasaya said, smiling. ‘You shall find me there no longer.’
“As the import of his words dawned on me, I sobbed broken-heartedly, believing that I was seeing him only in a vision.
“The master approached me comfortingly. ‘Here, touch my flesh,’ he said. ‘I am living, as always. Do not lament; am I not with you forever?’”
When Grandpa died, my brother and I came down to Florida early to help my mother with my grandmother and the arrangements.
Where is Ano? asked Grandma. My brother and I exchanged panic-stricken glances.
Dad died, Mom, said my mother, shuddering.
Oh my God, no! cried Grandma, just like she had the first time, and could not be consoled—until she forgot, again.
Quickly, my brother and I learned it was our responsibility to remind Grandma and spare Mommy the chore of saying over and over again, Dad died, Mom. Dad died, Mom. Dad died, Mom.
Somehow, when we said, Grandpa died, Grandma, a few times, it seemed to stick.
The next time she asked, Where is Ano? she paused, and then her face crumbled. Oh my God, he dead, he dead. But why, God? Why? she pleaded. He was so young! He was so healthy!
My brother was incredulous. Grandpa was 96 years old, Grandma! But she would not be comforted. She wept, asked for him, declared him dead, declared him young and in the peak of health, and wept again.
I guess she’s right, in a way, I told my brother, he’s two years younger than she is.
My grandfather’s dying, despite his relative youth and lifelong vigor (that did not so much decrease as become transformed into light by the force of his meditations), threw my grandmother’s mortality into stark relief. She was the one whose knees were kneaded nightly with varieties of tiger balm and Epsom salts; she the one who took handfuls of pills a day to control blood pressure, glaucoma, and arthritis; she the one whose mouth was crooked by stroke; she the one whose uterus was torn out without hormone replacement to brittle her bones and wrinkle her cheeks; she the one who prayed in the kitchen, out loud, over dishes, Sweet Jesus, please take me, Jesus, I cannot wait to be with you, my Lord and Savior!
She lived to be 102.
In cemetery meditation, we contemplate our attachment to our own bodies and the bodies of others, the inevitability of that loss, and the suffering that loss engenders.
My own life does not seem hard to let go of. I am not glad the dead are not me. I do not wish to be immortal. My ideation position went from fatal to neutral and I am still holding, holding, holding.
But others, other bodies, are the once invisible air around me that suddenly has force, mass, fury. They were so young. Why?
When Sandra Bland was murdered, I was enraged. There was an enemy, the state, and I knew, as black women know, who kills us. I have been trained in that logic by my ancestors.
When an elder goes beyond past, present, and future to the timeless land of the dead, I have been trained in that logic, also. Say, Ibae, bae tonu, and offer water, food, fire. Look for the spirit in the eyes of a new child. Know the burial places: La Peyrouse, Plainview, Forest Glen; but, do not visit. It is not our way. We see the dead, the Egun, when they visit us, instead. Sitting in the kitchen, in a dream, a shape on the wind, or a voice in the mind, saying, Go.
But when the soft hand of a friend slips away, I lose my bearing. This, I have not learned.
Only to say their names.
Oh my God, why? Why. They were so young.
Our àse̩ ̩ flows through us, as through all matter, and when someone dies, the dimensional moorings come loose in our skins. If we grasp too hard, they cut our palms.
Like the physics of the pickup truck’s mechanical encounter, when I slammed into the storm that was my mother’s death, the rain hit my face so hard I nearly drowned. While my life reverberated from the impact, the liquid filled my nose and mouth, the horizon became a foul dark mass. I could not see how time then bent and sped beyond me, accelerating to form the shield of wind that held future-me up while I gazed at the lifeless face of my friend. Monica Alene Hand.
Everyone you love will die.
Monica slept in the bed next to mine in the small room in the monastery. She warned me about her snoring and tried to get me to be tidy, nodded when Sister Sonia said to make our bed every day if we wanted to be poets, and made me eat breakfast. I went to sleep much later than she, and her sounds were fluid in the room between us as we shared the night air and the dawns. Later, she was always trying to get me to plan something, to go to Paris, to come to Columbia to do a panel, but I was the butterfly to her tree, forgetting because of flowers. I made a book; she taught me. She sent me poems. On the phone she said, I feel like an imposter, and then wrote it to me, again, in her last email: I’m feeling a little insecure about how some of the poems are strange and in your face crazy. I’m feeling like an imposter.
As she lay dying, two hours later, I wrote her back, all unknowing: I’m sorry for my delayed response. I’m feeling a little sick.
When we step into an accelerated stream it may feel like trying on another coat for size, that we misstep, are pretending, when, really, this is simply the house that forward momentum designed.
Are they not with us forever?
We push forward. The universe reshapes itself around us. Àse̩.̩
You are not an imposter, I should have said, reaching my arm through the sky. You are the future.