by Brandon Wint.
My love runs naked into the ocean to mark the new year,
asks night waves to comb grief from her oil-dark hair &
frigid water to believe her when she screams it’s a new era
& startles gulls into brief flights along the shore.
At home she burns cedar and rosehip in a shallow bowl,
spreads petals to every corner of our house–
lays a branch across the doorway as protection from sorrow
though it clings, like dust, to our blinds,
meshes, like sweat and dead skin, into our bed sheet–
my pillow is black and wet with ink of obituaries:
the new year is already ragged with counting,
with names of the breathless.
Let this be an unnumbered year, a moment of silence
where I audit my life by how often my mother laughs,
how many times I’m offered my grandfather’s voice
before another January pushes my lover into the Pacific, screaming.
Today, the thought of my mother made me weep until my eyelashes tangled and salt stung my eyes. We, like the world, are in the middle of a pandemic; locked, literally and figuratively, in our respective houses–hers in Toronto and mine in western Canada– hiding from a lethal, contagious virus. It is reasonable to think of my mother in a time as surreal as this. The pervasive uncertainty that trails me on my way to the grocery store, or as I lean over the kitchen sink and scrub my hands for the eighth time in a day, makes me think of precariousness, fragility and care. Because I am afraid; because there are unfathomable distances between us, because the violent, incessant music of capitalism has, for once, wound to a near silent hum, I think of my mother more often, wishing to face this early-apocalyptic moment in the presence of a love I trust.
For all of these reasons, I call her on the phone. Hearing her breath on the other end of the line, I call out her name playfully–like we are old friends–like we have been in conversation, somehow, since this crisis began, but only our voices can confirm the intimacy of mutual fear we feel, as well as the love that surges beneath it.
As we talk, the familiar names come up: she has just spoken to my grandmother about how they are coping with COVID-19 in Barbados, where my grandparents live. Mom relays a joke about how social distancing is no problem for granddad–”you know he doesn’t like to leave the house, anyway”, she says, and we both laugh. It’s true. He will spend entire days on the verandah letting the sun batter his forehead, raising and lowering a small punch glass, sheened with the sugar of the rum he’s learned, dangerously, to love in his old age. We laugh at the joke because it is true, but maybe also because we are relieved to think of him, to imagine the elegance of his stubbornness, the simple, beautiful repose of an 83-year-old man doing only what he pleases as the world seems to crumble around him, around us.
It is always good to laugh with my mother. I have not lived with her consistently since I was 17, and there are parts of me that cannot be expressed anywhere but in the rooms and moments we share. We laugh because it has been a long time, and also because the music of my laughter is something I inherited from her, her father, her brothers, too, who raised me into the rites of masculine love by teasing me mercilessly. I was raised by the men of my maternal lineage to understand laughter as a sort of currency. Before I could speak full sentences, my grandfather incubated my sensibilities in the language of gentle teasing. From my mother’s four brother’s I learned the nuanced rituals of male belonging, which mostly had to do with my ability to receive a joke and return a pointed, but ultimately playful quip at the right moment. For men born in the 1960s and ‘70s, for men raised by my grandfather, who, before softening into the candour of old age, was a stern man–angry with the world– it might have been hard to say ‘I love you’, but they took me to the court to play basketball, rushed into crowded elementary school gyms to watch me play volleyball, had faith enough in my disabled body to teach me to ride a bicycle, though I never learned. Most of all, though, they joked. They made fun. And from the close attention to detail that produces truth, and also humour, I was to understand that I was accounted for, loved–even when their spotlight and their ribbing occasionally stung.
To hear me laugh in an honest way, to topple me, perhaps, with a laughter that brings me to my knees, is to be introduced to my mother, and some of what her sacrifices preserved in me: an optimism about the world, an easy faith in the possibility of goodness, a trust that those around me are capable of integrity and care–that which my mother offered as daily as breakfast. To hear me laugh is to hear my grandmother. The part of her, long subdued, that is still wild, welcoming of mischief and visceral experience. My grandfather says that my grandmother was, in her youth, a wild, rough-and-tumble woman. I have imagined her this way in poems: dancing, running through the woods with the spark of something untameable in her eyes. This is not the woman I have known my grandmother to be, but when she opens her mouth and cackles in recognition of something sweet and human, the sound is an orange streak that envelops entire rooms, stains weeks with its wake. To hear her this way, as I only seldom have, is to be certain that before arthritis, before diabetes, before the racism of Canada was brandished against her, she was a riotous magic, a joyous scream. I want also to describe my father’s laughter, which is different, but which I still fiercely claim. Jamaicans have the sweetest laughter, yes.The sweetest. To describe it is to describe the raw intimacy of the sun against earth, the lushness of a countryside, the equal harshness and healing of the sea, the blood of slave history carried by a wave, scrubbed by foam–yet producing such a remarkably resilient joy, such a risible afterlife. My father’s laughter in my mouth is a crescendo, a high note, the red tail of a hummingbird, fanning. If I laugh like someone who has known love; if my humour has been moulded in and by a maternal dialect of care, what must it mean to now be in my early thirties and tasked with caring for myself, becoming my own mother?
Perhaps it begins with the recognition of complexity. My mother’s care is and was undeniable, but not unassailable. Not perfect. I begin my healing, foremostly, by acknowledging my wounds, the moments where my mother’s vigilance was perhaps too intense, or misunderstood what it was fixated upon. My healing begins in holding my woundedness the way I would hold my mother: with tenderness, with forgiveness and the possibilities of mercy also in my grasp.
As a disabled person, there were ways in which laughter was weaponized, spiteful, disdainful, packed with mistrust. There are moments, still, when I carry this laughter, too–cover myself in it, silence myself with it. To become my own mother is to note that while I have been marked by the cruelty and ignorance of others, and of ableism, I have also been shaped by my mother’s joy, its expression and inalienable depth-of-goodness, which she confides in me out of sheer intuition of love. Sure, the eyes of strangers and the jeering of my childhood peers give me a memory of unworthiness that I sometimes crawl into, but to mother myself is to give myself over to a more gracious recollection, a more charitable fact: I do not believe any greater human love exists than that which I have inherited from my mother. I am her only child, her only son, and while it would be arrogant to presume that I am her only joy, I have felt in her humanity a delight that nothing except motherhood can stir. I have heard a laughter from her so remote, so tethered to love, that its joy nearly breaks into tears. To love myself, to heal myself, is to remember that I was raised by this sound, or if not this sound, this deep potential within Mavis Weekes to cherish and honour me, the gift she helped make. For her sake and my own, I claim music, walk in the recognition of the ways my mother’s generosity and sacrifice accounts for and makes me, still. To become my own mother is not at all to erase what she has given me. Rather, it is to take the best of these gifts and fortify them; make them, in my life, as common as air– to know that the love I have inherited can be as tangible as blood, as visceral as touch, as much a relief as hearing my mother’s voice and laughter in the centre of a crisis and lifting it into my ear.
Grandad, sit me down.
Tell me where you’ve been–
all the work that broached half moons of sweat
in the green pits of your work uniform–
how your fingers, ribboned in white sunlight, looked,
in Barbados, like the upturned spokes of a crown
as your fingertips met the ripe blush of a mango
high, high in its tree
Manhood, you teach me
is to know what I cannot hold
But grandad, last month I heard you laugh
in a video of you and grandma dancing in your living room,
your fingers gentle as wind along her waist, quiet as buds of water
on her shoulder blades.
When I dance, grandad, it is in the backyard
where the fence gapes like a mouth missing teeth.
The moon is high and white as a mango seed;
there is no music and I am not too much a man
to touch the night with my naked hands. My eyes are closed, Grandad.
Grandma watches with a pear greening in her palm.
My neck is soft and daubed in lemongrass. I dance, grandad
I dance, and nobody laughs.