My father died peacefully at home on November 27, 2018 and was buried on December 11, 2018. His funeral was a lovely event at Mandeville Parish Church.
I wrote the Remembrance for him, which was delivered by one of my cousins.
For most of his life, my father’s birthday was celebrated on April 13, but a few years ago I learned that he’d been born on March 24, 1929. This mixup is not uncommon in Jamaica, as I’ve noted before. His grandmother mixed up his date of birth with that of another child she was registering. So it was that my father could celebrate two birthdays later in life. Though he was officially 89 at his death, I now wonder if he imagined that he was perhaps 99.
An aunt who knows the date of birth story intimately, said to me as soon as she greeted me at the graveyard “You know your Daddy’s birthday was in March, right?” I assured her I did but had to respect the official records lest he drop into another bureaucratic abyss. She smiled.
We know that deaths and their related events are often the time when skeletons, aptly, come out of closets. As the days passed, I joked about meeting at the funeral siblings I’d never heard of: “Guess you don’t know me; I’m your older brother, Falcao.” So far, those surprises haven’t surfaced. My father’s will is simple, so let’s hope that nothing awkward surfaces before it goes to probate.
Of course, dealing with the death necessitates unearthing things of historical relevance. As I tried to piece together recollections of my father, I knew that memories of those who’d known him as a boy and before I could recall were either fading or gone for good. I am blessed, however, that the live-in caregiver, who’d been with him and my mother for about 17 years, had tapped my father’s memories often, partly as a means of keeping him engaged after his stroke in 2006, but also because she enjoyed the telling and retelling of the stories. Over that time, she’d found and kept at my request some essential memorabilia, most importantly for me, the boarding and other travel documents from when my father and I migrated from Jamaica in 1961. But, latterly, she’d located the certificate showing my father qualifying as a mental nurse, in 1955, the year I was born. We looked over them again this past weekend, when we had the ‘set-up’ or ‘9 night‘ for the funeral.
Funerals are also great times to reconnect and it was pleasing to see many of my father’s longtime friends in Mandeville, remembering that he only went to live there after returning to Jamaica in the mid-1980s. A lot of his generation have already died. I was also glad to meet again, after a longtime, relatives I’d not seen for a few years, especially my St. Elizabeth cousins. Sadly, those few relatives who live abroad but couldn’t travel missed out on that.
But, such gatherings also throw up some surprising connections.
Never in my wildest imagination would I think that a man whom I’ve befriended since coming back to Jamaica would turn out to be a former colleague of one of my father’s sisters, and they’d worked together at Cornwall Regional Hospital. Now, this man and I have found many parallels in our lives already: we both lived and worked in England for a long time, though he’d migrated as an adult; we’d both taken early retirement; were both golfers, though he’s much better than me; we both speak Russian, and he shares a birthday with my wife. I’m a firm believer that there are no coincidences and that you meet people for a reason.
Jamaica being what it is, I was less surprised that a Mobay cousin found a former school alumna who’s now my good friend, but was more surprised that they’d grown up in the same area. That my aunt, her mother, was featured in the preceding story was a bit mind boggling.
One of the unexpected people at the funeral was the mother of a Jamaican man I’d first met in Barbados when we lived there about a decade ago. We’d discovered later that she and my father knew each other and often sat close to each other during services at the parish church! Then, there was the Mandeville friend who discovered that, after knowing me for a decade, my father’s house was two streets away from where she’d grown up.
Honestly, I’ve never relished the prospect of having to deal with my parents’ funeral arrangements, having no siblings and understanding the social code that places this on the shoulders of the children. Thankfully, I had an uncle who seemed to love doing this and did it well. He’d taken care of things for my mother, his sister, while I was living in west Africa and just on my way back across the Atlantic. But, he died unexpectedly earlier this year.
I am motivated to write something extensive about those professionals who help steer those close to the bereaved through the necessary processes after death, but I think I’ll leave that a while. There were things that happened along the way that could have been handled better, but for a first time round, I don’t think I’m scarred by the experience.
Ultimately, though I coordinated many things, it was truly a family affair, with hands, minds and hearts working together well to keep things running smoothly.
On the day of the funeral, I got very concerned that my father’s sister who lives in St. Mary wasn’t present at the start of the service and I’d heard she and her church friends had set off in plenty of time to take the cross-country route via Brown’s Town. My relief at seeing her at the churchyard gravesite was immense. But, things like a timely journey are some of the imponderables that you just have to hope work out well. She told me in a long phone call yesterday about the saga of the journey, involving hiring a bus, then deciding to use cars, but finding that the cars had one less seat than needed. In Jamaica, where overloading vehicles is a sport? No, sah! So, back to getting a bus. Oh, boy! They made it, though, in time to hear the Remembrance.
My biggest fear was that, as we took the casket from the church to the grave, we would drop the body. Jamaicans know all too well duppy stories, including bodies rolling out of coffins. I didn’t want to be associated with any such stories. As we were directed to manoeuver the cast in the church, I got nervous. I’d placed myself at the head end, at the front, then we were told to rotate the coffin so we could wheel it forward, so I was still at the head end, but now at the back of the six pall bearers. I thought I should lead, but what I good thing I was at the back. The passage to the grave yard is narrow and a coffin is astonishingly heavy, so the six sometimes could all get a good grip and the weight shifted awkwardly. “Lord, please don’t let us drop him!” I thought as we negotiated graves and headstones down steps and a slope to my parents’ plot. Then, we were directed to set the coffin over the grave, stepping carefully onto planks on the side. “Lord, please don’t let any of us slip into the grave!” I now thought. But, we set the casket correctly on the runners and I, at least, breathed a huge sigh of relief. I imagine no one wants a dress rehearsal for a funeral, but maybe, there’s a way to learn these moments earlier in life. Much like having a primer on funerals much earlier in life. But, I guess, we learn by doing and through the sharing of traditions.
As I grew up, I learned that parents are supposed to be strong support for their children. Funerals are times when those roles can shift, though. My eldest had already shed many tears when I told her about her grandfather’s death: she’d spent many happy moments with my parents soon after they came back to Jamaica and she was, first a toddler and then able to walk and run. She’d been with him to pick oranges from his trees for her breakfast and I remember her surprise that, even in the heat of Jamaica, the insides of the oranges were cold. She’d spent many a mealtime on his knee and seen him in his element farming his garden or on trips up to yam hills. She’d managed to see him often as she grew up in the US, either there or here, including since I came back to Jamaica, up through this year. I tried to keep her comforted by sharing lots of memories, especially this past week after she arrived last Saturday.
My younger daughter didn’t have as close or long a relationship, though also spent many happy hours with her paternal grandfather, including when he visited us in The Bahamas, soon after my mother’s death in 2004, and again in Guinea in 2006, before he had a stroke, then in Barbados when he was in a wheelchair. Sadly, most of her memories are when my father was much less active. Since she’s had the benefit of living in Jamaica, though, she’s absorbed differently being ‘around’ her relatives, seeing and hearing feeling families more closely. She especially absorbed Jamaicans’ fascination with death and has a healthy fear of duppies. She may feel the loss more when she sees or thinks about the chickens and dogs at Daddy’s house. The girls have their separate journeys.
I haven’t yet dissolved into tears. I thought I would at the funeral, but thought my father looked so good in his casket that all I felt was joy. I know that certain hymns have my number and when the refrain of I am the bread of life is sung I’m usually swimming in tears by the second ‘And I will raise them up’. This time, I felt a little lump in my throat but my voice didn’t crack. Five full verses and I was ready to start my new career as an opera singer. When the moment comes that I feel tears ready to flow, they will fall, or if my throat becomes exceedingly dry I’ll search for a glass of water. This may happen at such an unexpected moment that no one will understand. Hopefully, he will.