I wrote this poem purely adapted from my own relationship with faith and belief. It’s inspired by the aftermath of Auntie Luisa’s death in regards to me and my family.
Also, it’s inspired by the poem “Agnostic” (which I related to) by poet Roscoe Burems on the WAN (Writre About Now) Poetry channel on YouTube.
Auntie Luisa had a heart full of batteries. A morning of activities would leave her drained. You know, breathless. She’d be plugged into her flat throughout most of the afternoon and replenishing that energy back would take all evening.
In her last days, she had a renewed faith in God – like my mother and grandmother had their whole lives. They owe their lives to their faith and I’d often go to Church with them. Not like I had a choice.
And as Auntie Luisa lie in that closed casket, my grandmother remembers all the times she (my grandmother) has died. Good Friday laying its hands on her body like a defibrillator.
My grandmother thanks God that for the ten years more we got with Auntie Luisa. She wasn’t supposed to survive six months. She thanks her faith not the doctors. And the Luisa we had in 2016 was not the same we had in 2006.
How anatomies and personalities undergo transformation. I observe a lot – even in her spirit, despite her best efforts, I saw a different Luisa. There were a lot of changes between this modern edition and her earlier rendition. Much alike the Bible I suppose.
Healthy, smiling, joking. Not saying she didn’t smile, because she was larger than life (even in death). I grew up with her sickness and the older I got, the worse she got… at hiding it.
I think in her heart, Grandma thought her daughter would be with us forever. They were like two peas in a pod, like Christianity and Paganism. No parent should have to bury their child.
Before 2016, I was an atheist. Now I’m agnostic. I can’t choose to believe in nothing. I’ve just stop dancing outside the pigeon holes of religion.
I don’t believe in God but I believe there’s something and those higher powers are beings too big for a chapter book.
I don’t pray, I meditate. I don’t just speak, I listen. I don’t just read, I write.
I read a bunch of stuff – on history, on the history of Christianity, things I will not talk to my mother and grandmother about. They’d likely not talk to me for a long time if we entered that debate. Sometimes peace is better than winning the argument.
My grandmother says she’s praying for me. Never actually says what she’s praying for. She thinks I’m a non-believer and when I see her with the holy book I smile.
I came to think there were a million and one differences between me and Luisa. When the doctor told us she’d gone, I responded with poetry. That’s my religion. That’s my meditation. That’s my mantra.
And when I found my chi, I saw the similarities between me and her were uncanny. It was right after hearing my uncle cry about her coma and her cardiac arrest, split chest like Moses in the Red Sea, watching Scleroderma be the nail in our family.
Experiencing stuff like this made me doubt religion. Seeing my family fall from grace. But watching their two-year ascension gave me hope on this ball in vast expanse of space.
And maybe they’re blind. Maybe I’m blind. Or maybe belief is about being blind. Blind faith you know. Trusting your feelings rather than your eyes. Trusting the spirit rather than your head. Definitely not following your nose!
In Star Wars, they call it The Force. In the East, they call it chi. In Church they call it God but I call it poetry. My family found it in a book and I found it in them.
Look, I’ve learned too much about religion to follow it without question. But they have endured too much not to. My mother has my great-grandmother’s bible by her bed.
Religion is the reason why my mother and grandmother are still alive. Still with me to guide me, raise me and educate me.
One day, I will read that thing all the way through and add a chapter about them.
What I’m trying to say is I’m not an atheist. I’m agnostic. There’s times where I think I’ve seen too much suffering in the world to believe in God but I’ve watched my mothers be God too much to not believe in them.
I wrote this poem as prequel-sequel to “Grandma’s House” and it’s very loosely based on “The Type” by poet Sarah Kay.
When you grow up in a West Indian household most things turn into a joke, eventually (whether you like it or not).
Growing up Black is me as a child opening the cabinet of glasses to be told no. They’re there for display like a museum exhibition.
It’s going to the cutlery draw to set the table for dinner and be told “not them ones.” They’re mash up. “Take these; them the good ones” – from a big container in the conservatory inside a box inside of another box behind something like it’s the fifth Indiana Jones film.
It’s Grandma telling me to hide when the Jehovah’s Witness come knocking at ridiculous times in the evening.
It’s answering the door to that one relative who turns up when the word on the grapevine is that Grandma’s been cooking – the fried chicken, the saltfish, the oxtail, the curry goat, the rice and peas, – the full shebang!
You had him at saltfish. He’s at the door within an hour. We call him The Tupperware King and he’s as persistent as an IOS update. Not even a lie!
listening to Grandma Cathy tell me about her mother is like hearing about Nanny de Maroon. Grandma Toile she was called –
she was no school. She was no speak English. She spoke French and double Dutch. She spoke a version of English that some understood but she was pure Patois, ready to survive with head, mouth and heart.
Growing up Black was going to watch my grandfather do gigs in his steelband. Tune after tune, whilst the band drink dodgy beers that look like they were made in a popup factory.
Growing up Black is cringing every time the English say Goat Curry. Growing up Black is learning about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam before you reach your tenth birthday.
It’s being introduced to N.W.A and Public Enemy at thirteen. It’s being told about your lack of privilege by your mom, that you ain’t like your white friends; you have to work twice as hard for half as much.
It’s being followed around the supermarket by security seconds after walking in. It’s being at Grandma’s House and finding anything but butter or margarine in that container.
It’s having aunties and uncles and grandparents who buy everything big. And I don’t mean big, I mean flipping enormous! Two-kilogram bottles of ketchup. It’s being at weddings and funerals and there being the token Caribbean buffet. Sweet Christmas!
It’s being told that there’s no pepper in the saltfish fritters until it’s lodged in your throat. Grandma’s joke at everyone’s expense.
It’s walking into the living room met with mustard gas, and by that I mean fog that burns. Not hot sauce from Tesco, I’m talking sauce fresh from our homeland, the small islands – the Caribbean, the West Indies and the Dutch Antilles.
Yellow liquid gunge, filled with bits and pieces. Someone has home-grown the Grim Reaper and put him into a plastic water bottle, labelled Hot Sauce in black marker pen. It should be called Put This On Your Food If You Don’t Want To Live Sauce.
It’s watching my grandfather and his friends slap dominoes on the table. Bloodclart!! followed by laughs and gulps of Wray, Appleton and what I like to call Cerberus, named for that dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. One sip of Rivers Rum is enough to knock a person out for a fortnight.
Growing up Black is being told you’re a great cricketer. You’re like a Michael Holding or Clive Lloyd. And those pioneers became my idols – Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers. Top top players of the game at the highest level.
It’s testing what your white friends say to their parents to your parents. It’s safe to say I lived… just about.
Growing up Black is living on a fault line between identities, it’s telling your family about the first time you were called nigger whilst ticking British on the application form. They will understand.
It’s being looked at oddly when you show your passport at customs abroad. Where are you from? No, really, where are you from? Making you feel you like you don’t belong.
From Slavery to Windrush; from the Nationality Act to Brexit; from curry goat and rice in a butter container to a hostile immigration policy,
growing up Black is family and community. It’s dinner round the table. It’s history and politics and West Indian superstitions.
It’s kakaje, sleep dust. It’s a childhood and upbringing in Dutch pots and crisp n dry. It’s immigration in plastic. It’s a family that spans thousands of miles and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
This poem is inspired from grief, and a depression that grief can bring; I say “a” rather than “the” because it’s different for everyone and not definitive.
Furthermore, this poem is semi-inspired from “How to Fold a Memory” by Sabrina Benaim, in her book Depression & Other Magic Tricks.
I remember the feeling of pain,
like the crater in my leg after climbing that fence
on that holiday at my grandparents’ Alicante apartment –
whether it be: physical, mental or emotional.
I remember it in hope of avoiding it tomorrow.
Let’s begin there,
I remember the imprint my hand made in yours.
Like a paper prayer, you can always start over.
I remember when Uncle Morten gave you the Evenstar,
and I recall the smell of homemade lasagne.
I can’t eat that anymore without getting hungry
for your sorrow smile and slow resolve of your soliloquies.
I remember your exaggerated anecdotes
at Grandma’s House. I remember how you
hummed Cameo’s Candy in flawless harmony.
I wish I could forget you existed.
I remember you carrying this child as a little one.
We marched, my hand in yours on the streets of London
and there was no map. We just walked.
Let’s go to the last stop –
Camden Town in the warm bohemian breeze
unfolding into silence. In the quiet, it’s hard
to tell what others think without entering their eyes
like Lucy Pevensie with her doorways to Narnia.
With every journey back into my past, it becomes harder to find my way back again.
Since I have been practicing unremembering,
I’ve pondered living more times than not.
I take in the smoke of yesterday in attempt to pacify
the synapse between you and the scent of lasagne .
I drink beer as if I am trying to save the world from inebriation,
to get my childhood so pissed that the narrative changes.
But the trauma of daydreaming, the ache of muscle memory;
my body will always remember.
Like a goldfish, six-second slate wiped blank,
grief-stricken with an etch-a-sketch mind,
gumming the water I think is air.
The octaves of my voice box forget the long sounds
of the name my grandfather gave you.
How do I teach my ears to listen to song lyrics
free from your ghost inside of them?
I don’t know which way is up in these incandescent thoughts,
if the present tense is the present tense.
Or if the imperfections are slipping into past transgressions,
still my mind heeds your advice like proverbs.
I lose teeth like I lose days but you’re the wisdom tooth.
We cannot control what we see but we can control how we see it.
I eat lasagne easily, without thinking of you.
I say your name over and over, and I am content.
I fold my depression like an origami plane,
crafting those paper wings into a pleasant amnesia,
a collateral beauty in this newfound adolescence.
I wrote this poem inspired by the many times my mother and grandmother have sent me to the supermarket on trivial errands.
Moreover, it’s also inspired by a documentary series called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners by British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga.
However, it’s the seemingly trivialities that one sees on a supermarket run that turn out to be not so trivial. Everything has story, especially brands, and we often take things like this for granted.
My poem takes its name from the region Demerera , previously a Dutch colony in what became British Guyana, and then simply Guyana. But what most people know it for is the famous brand of sugar that comes from there.
When I came across Demerara,
my journey was cut short.
I weighed the packet in my palm
and thought about the blood of the yesteryear –
juice reserved for the Guyanese.
The shoppers around me minded their own,
one foot in the river of cane,
the other in the bank of Barclays and Lloyds –
a nationwide story. Rumour was, the pickers
had one and a half legs… like Kunte Kinte I suppose
just another a day at Tesco.
We take so much for granted
I said, watching the flag kill the wind.
The Brits said God Save the Queen,
taking a minute’s silence for the dead.
I declare war on their allegiance.
The Armistice forgets the colonised
and I’ll be damned if I keep this to myself.
So I put it in a poem, as you do.
I find Liz and Vic guilty of forgetting
their progeny’s childhood –
granules in their tennis shoes,
blood on their shirt…
a lazer to history, branding the pages
with a poker like Samuel Johnson.
The man standing next to me puts
a Granny Smith in his trolley,
along with a box of PG Tips,
did they steal that too?
I see whips in the grains,
a tale in nine parts.
Demerara looks at me,
staring me down like a cat.
I look up to see bunting,
in rows and rows like plantations,
a loud arrogance to
those who know where to look,
like reciting the poem “Mandalay”
on the beaches of Burma.
Each time I look up, the flags stand taller,
floating into a Technicolor sunrise.
I hold Demerara
in the cathedral of her youth,
where they belt God Save The Queen,
where they sing Britain! Britain!
I’ve broken ranks here. As well as poetry and journalism, I do write other stories as well. Inspired by the short story “No Results Found” by Nicholas Montemarano, this is “What’s Up, Trouble?”
General opinion suggests you should not look to grief counselling until at least six months after the deceased’s death. You should let the dust settle. I lasted six days. The dust hadn’t settled.
Auntie Luisa was barely in the ground before I started taking steps. I can still hear her voice. “What’s up, Trouble?” she’d say. She was always the artist. Even the way she walked was that of a practiced actress, elegant and tall. Always the performer and storyteller and when she told those anecdotes from her childhood, she would always have a voice for every member of our family.
No matter how hard things look, people say it’s better to read about grief and talk to your family than to rush into counselling. Not for me though. I rushed in. Counsellors seem to know a little about lots of things.
Ask Natasha about: “books with terminal illness or losing someone.” Natasha says: “A Monster Calls, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Me Before You, Still Alice, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, My Sister’s Keeper.” All those books are just interpretations though, aren’t they? People say everyone reacts to loss differently. Perhaps it’s best to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a story about a boy called Charlie in an American high school who is lonely and depressed after the death of his aunt (like me). Fitting, isn’t it?
Ask Natasha about: “dead aunties in popular culture.” Ask Natasha about: “grief over dead aunties.” Ask Natasha about: “grief over best friends.” Maybe it’s best to leave her alone with things like this. She can help in all numbers of ways but she didn’t know Auntie Luisa like I did.
Maybe I should look at photographs of Auntie Luisa with my mom and Uncle Dean from their childhood. I know Grandma has them somewhere. Maybe look at photos from Dean’s 40th. Maybe look at photos from her wedding to Uncle Morten who she nicknamed “The Viking” because he happened to be from Denmark.
Should I ask Natasha the questions my younger cousins ask? Should I ask her my brother’s questions? “What happened to Auntie Luisa? What was her illness? How did she die? Will I die?” I could write a poem made up of their questions and my observations and fictionalise the answers. Maybe I should read some Sylvia Plath. ‘Widow’ and ‘Insomniac’ and ‘Mirror’ – the words consume their victims like fire on oil. However, I might learn something new from poetry and imagery and the connotations that poetry brings after you lose the ones you love.
I remember how Auntie Luisa was the one to turn to when I finally had the courage to talk about the school bullies – their own version of discipline – the the racism, the abuse and psychological torment. And all those memories were resurrected when I watched Goodbye Christopher Robin. On our many trips together, you were Nanny and I was Billy Moon. And whilst my parents bickered, you were there. You knew that I wanted someone to think I was important, that someone cared about me and you were that person until the day you died. I won’t ever forget.
If I were to read this ten years from today, it will certainly trigger off the memories of spending many a weekend in Colindale, with you, dying, in your North London flat. We’d go to the Tate or we’d stay in and watch The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (back-to-back) or meet your “friend” Morten at the New Chandos after he had finished work. I’d have an Ocean Spray cranberry juice and you’d have a Martini Rosso on ice.
When you both came to Northampton, we’d go for walks. We’d play in the woods. We’d go to Delapre Park and Salcey Forest. It would often rain and that’s when we’d run back to the car laughing.
I always imagined that one day you’d collapse right in front of me but you never did. You always played a role. You were the fun auntie and I can understand why you did that – a kid who grew up before his time. You were forever the performer pretending you weren’t sick, even in front of me, whilst you smiled and laughed. Quite like chess, you were playing a game within a game. You were the queen. You went here, there and everywhere. I was jealous: Denmark, Spain, Japan and most recently, going to live with Morten in America.
Woody Allen once said something about life’s absurdness in one of his films: “life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.” I took that as him saying live everyday like it’s your last because it could be and that’s life’s great joke isn’t it? One minute you’re a pawn one square from the end of the board, ready for your coronation, and in the next, that very same pawn, (your last pawn) has been outmanoeuvred. And in the next moment, you’re moves away from being checkmated and you don’t even see it coming.
It’s a famous fact that Auntie Luisa was vain. She told me so herself; ‘one day I said “auntie” and she replied “don’t call me that. It makes me sound old.”’ And when she got sick she felt even older. I felt older as well – at twelve years old subjected to mortality’s dread. I have been twenty-two for the last ten years. Ask Natasha: “what happens to a person’s body between being diagnosed with Scleroderma and death?”
Or ask Natasha about: “feel-good films with terminal illnesses.” I could watch Me Before You with Mom; or Breathe with Grandma; and Forrest Gump with Uncle Dean and Auntie Mary. Forrest Gump is somewhat uplifting – spoiler alert – until the end when Jenny dies. As if YA fiction and coming-of-age films will somehow change my reality. It allows me to hide, to run like Forrest. “Run Forrest, run” Jenny says. But then her heart gave out – much alike how Luisa’s did. She could no longer see. She could no longer hear or speak. She just was. She was no longer in pain though. No more pills, no more mid-street panic attacks or shivering hands from sudden changes in temperature.
I was home alone with Grandma when Morten called. In Auntie Luisa’s solemn silence, he talked with Grandma. Thousands of miles away, her daughter lay punctured with tubes. Covered in blood. Ten years and done. “We can keep her on life support”, Morten says. “The doctors can’t do anything for her. You must give consent to turn the machine off. It’s breathing for her. Do you understand?”, he sobbed. “I’m sorry Cathy… our Lu is gone.”
There were some murmurs. Then the screams came, paralytic and piercing. Grandma clung to me. My mother arrived as I was giving my grandmother words of endearment, seconds after she had consented for her child to be taken off life support. “It’s okay Grandma. It’s okay.”
It was definitely not okay but what else could I say? Your child is dead and there’s nothing you can do about it but I’m forced to lie to you because that’s what people do in times like this – words of endearment in times of grief. You probably won’t be okay ever again.
Tennyson wrote a poem called In “Memoriam A.H.H” in which he talks about the loss of a friend and how people who grieve often struggle to find meaning. If anyone has had similar experiences, I get it.
I’m sorry for jumping around like this between these different events but they are important in showing the different perspectives, as my family are extensions of my own consciousness. Ask Natasha: “how long is the proper time to grieve?” Ask Natasha: “Do human beings have souls?” Ask Natasha: “Is there life after death or do we float through a void for eternity?”
Do we do away with Auntie Luisa’s possessions? You know, like her clothes and hairbrushes and handbags – and her iPhone4, her philosophical teachings or Jane Austen novels. When is the right time? When Granddad wails asleep or is it when Grandma sobs over the kitchen sink?
I think back to the good times in London as a child. And I’d often watch Auntie Luisa sleep, as children often do with their parents. But she wasn’t my parent; at the same time, she played both mother and father to me. She’d lay snuggled under the duvets and all you could see were her long hairs. “Wake up auntie,” I’d say and she’d smile and laugh. However, in one of my dreams recalling these weekends, when I said “wake up”, I wanted her to smile and laugh (like she normally did) but she didn’t. She was only forty-four. She was too young to fall asleep forever, and when she did she reminded me of the dead.
Despite the subject matter here, I really enjoyed writing this. At some point in our lives we will have to bury someone and it’s pieces like this which define soul searching. It’s possible to learn things about yourself in stories of self-analysis and evaluation. And if you managed to get to the end, well done.