The Mo(u)rning After

swimming amidst the unknown and unknowable of cancer and the United States of America

I have been the storyteller of my dad’s non-Hodgkins, mantle-cell lymphoma since he was diagnosed in early 2019 to his extended community of friends and family. It’s a difficult story for me to tell. It requires delicacy, nuance, and just the right amount of revelation and firmness to share it in a way where everyone knows enough information and (hopefully) respects personal and familial boundaries.

It’s also created opportunities for healing, especially during COVID. My parents and I have had deep conversations about risk factors, end of life, and personal convictions. We’ve had to navigate the balance between physical health risks from visits from friends versus the mental health toll of isolation, and how to communicate all of it as simply as possible within a community that loves my dad and may also not have the same understanding of COVID as a family who is living with compromised immune systems does.

I’ve had to sit with the discomfort and depression of being so far away and having a deep fear of flying home and infecting my family with COVID. I want to be there to help care for my dad. I want to be able to comfort my mom and wrap her in a hug. I want to see my sister and brothers and their families and hear the laughter of my nieces and nephews. I want these precious moments before cancer does its deed. I also don’t know that I can handle the risk. At least at this particular moment. That may be shifting soon.

It’s a perpetual feeling of being in the midst of the unknown and unknowable with no horizon anywhere. You have to just tread water, survive, outlive the exhaustion, find a way to float, suspend despair.

You also have to notice all that is around you.

*****

I float in the unknown and unknowable. It seems as if there is nothing holding me up other than my will to keep my bellybutton and nose above water. Everything is choppy, rough, ready to swallow me whole. I cannot see anything other than what is right above me. And what is above is only a dark cloud. Not only is this the unknown and unknowable; there is a storm brewing.

I could fear this storm and the unknown and unknowable, but fear is not what I feel. If I close my eyes and let go, I notice that I am treading amidst a sea of others. I am not alone. Some of those others are thrashing, and I can hear their struggle. I hear others trying to drown their neighbors—full of fear and violence—believing that if they just get enough bodies underneath them they will be standing on solid land. And if I tune out the thrashing and those drowning their neighbors, I can sense a whole body of people caring and comforting and loving and surviving. I do not feel fear.

I cry, let the salt of my tears join the salt of these stormy waters. On their journey home, my tears pass my lips, and I taste the material of this world. It reminds me to journey towards the whole body caring and comforting and loving and surviving. That I, too, am a part of this collective body. That the only way is through.

My cries turn to sobs, and I am no longer floating. I am swimming. I’ve joined the collective body, and we work in concert to rescue those that are thrashing. We, too, find ways to isolate those who are drowning our comrades and neighbors. They are a danger to this collective body, and while we desire all to join our body we also know, deep within our salt, their violence and fear oppresses and suppresses.

There is still no horizon and these waters are still stormy. All is still unknown and unknowable. Tears still flow into the the sea. Salt joins salt.

The collective body doesn’t just survive. We swim.

*****

This weekend, my dad’s condition worsened. It again surfaced being in the middle of the unknown and unknowable. It mirrors being in the middle of the unknown and unknowable of the United States of America.

Where is the collective body? With whom am I swimming?

Image description: A selfie of me dressed as a clown with a Cruella DeVille black and white wig on taken on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. I am looking out a window and the shadows from the window grate spill across my face. I have on gold glitter eyeshadow, defined black eyebrows, and blue liquid liner. My lower lip has a strip of black glittery lipstick outlined by liquid blue liner.

*****

Yesterday, I hosted an Election Day / Night Gathering on Zoom. I invited friends and comrades to pop in any time between 2pm PT and 9pm PT (though I ended up ending at 8:30pm PT.) There were some simple guides: come as you are and respect conversational boundaries.

Over the course of seven hours, a collective body emerged. It spanned what is known as Minnesota and New York and California and North Carolina and Wisconsin and France. It included intimate conversations about hiding Muslim identities amidst growing US Islamophobia, anti-Black racism within US institutions including libraries and elections, young adults struggling with a growing awareness of the depth of US inequities and oppression while also searching for work and a place to live, elders sharing tips on how to deal with and heal physical pain, painting and art and more painting and art, and laughter, lots and lots of laughter. We found each other, connected, swam for a moment together and felt the solidarity of shared space and time.

I did not share the story of my dad. I didn’t desire to, nor did I feel a need to. For I was swimming with a collective body, and this space and time together healed and continues to heal.

Amidst the unknown and unknowable, we found joy and love and sadness and rage.

*****

This morning, I sent out an email to those who joined me on Zoom. I wanted to acknowledge not just our time and space together but how our moment together spans generations. We are a part of a millennial old collective body that faces these storms and swims in the unknown and unknowable. We survive.

It is also a love letter to my dad, though, right now that is unknown and unknowable to him. Luckily, he swims with this collective body.

*****

The Letter I sent.

Dear Friends and Comrades:

I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of you for simply being you. I feel incredibly honored to count you among my comrades, especially as our country continues revealing its legacies of theft, genocide, and slavery.

I am reminded of three poems by John Henrik Clarke, a pan-African scholar and poet born in 1915, published in a booklet / zine called New Foundations in 1947. New Foundations was created by a multi-racial group of international, veteran Marxist students who, after fighting fascists abroad, came home to find fascism thriving in the United States.

We've been in fascism for a while now. We are steeped and seeped in it. So I share John Henrik Clarke's poems as a sort of soothsaying salve. May they help us center all "struggling desperately to keep alive", help us remember all the ways we've "outlive[d] the oppressors", and help us sing "a song of a people hungry for freedom".

AND A CHALLENGE TOO

"no age for roses"
This is no age for roses.
The air is filled
With rank fallacies,
And reason is dead
As last season's leaves.
With men struggling desperately
To keep alive,
How can roses thrive?

"I will live on"
My feet have trod the sands
Of many nations;
I have drunk the water
Of many springs.
I am old--
Older than the pyramids;
I am older than the race
Which oppresses me.
I will live on . . .
I will outlive oppression . . .
I will outlive the oppressors.

"sing me a new song"
Sing me a new song, young black singer,
Sing me a song with some thunder in it,
And a challenge that will
Drive fear into the hearts of those
Who think that God has given them the right
To call you slave.

Sing me a song of strong men growing stronger
And bold youth facing the sun and marching.
Sing me the song of the angry sharecropper
Who is not satisfied with his meager share
Of the products that he squeezed from the soil
While watering the earth with his sweat and tears.

Sing me a song of two hundred million Africans
Reviving the spirit of Chaka, Moshesk and Menelik
And shouting to the world:
"This is my land and I shall be free upon it!"
Put some reason in my song and some madness too.

Let the reason be the kind of reason
Fredrick Douglass had
When he was fighting against slavery in America.

Let the madness be the kind of madness
Henri Christophe had
When he was driving Napoleon's army from Hatian soil.

Sing me a song with some hunger in it, and a challenge too.
Let the hunger be the kind of hunger
Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey had
When they rose from bondage and inspired
Ten thousand black hands to reach for freedom.

Don't put "I ain't gonna study war no more" in my song.
Sing me a song of people hungry for freedom
Who will study war until they are free!

In love + camaraderie + solidarity + artistry,

Jason

P.s. A special shout out to my dear friend Mark, who gifted me my copy of New Foundations.

Image description: A photo of John Henrik Clarke’s poems “no age for roses” and “I will live on” in New Foundations, published in 1947.

Image description: A photo of John Henrik Clarke’s poem “sing me a new song” in New Foundations, published in 1947.