To Those Who Have Loved and Have Borne the Consequences
The paradox that lies beyond the threshold of unbearable pain
You know that death is an everyday occurrence like the sounds of your feet, every morning without fail, contacting the floor as you leave your bed. Somehow, however, you in your lofty space in your corner of the globe (and by you, I mean me) never for one ant’s breathe think that he could — and inevitably will — visit your front door, enter the house and take something away that transcends possessions.
It was in the last hour of Sunday, June 24, 2018, when death came for my mama. One month later, my two sisters, niece and I flew coach to Cameroon for her funeral. My mama flew cargo.
On that flight, I had never more fervently wished that I had been born American, that I was a real African American instead of simply African. The reasoning was simple: African funerals are anything but the quiet, somber affairs I have seen in America where people cry with restraint; silent, regal, sniffles, respectful tears afraid to mar porcelain perfection where I could remain anonymous in in a sea of solemnity.
I am aware of the stereotypical distinction between African American funerals and Caucasian funerals in the United States — that the former are often loud and emotive, while the latter are more mannered. But in Africa, our displays of grief transcend even those of the more dramatic African American funerals.
We cry loud; we cry ugly; we cry for a long time.
In most African cultures, a funeral is designed to procure the basin of tears the dead person is owed and people from my tribe, Metta in the grasslands of Cameroon, are known for voluminous tears. It seems to me that while others waited in line for genetic gifts like poet or painter, Metta women opted for professional mourner. This ability folded deep in DNA strands that only death has the power to resurrect, this high-pitched rhythmic cry, often far beyond the human acoustic range, has a gravitas and power that surely must originate from our not-too-distant animal past, a yell so primal that it reverberates like a sonic boom and strikes anyone within a three-mile radius.
To hear this howl — sometimes accompanied with vocals — is to be violently dispensed of any semblance of psychological armor and stripped bare to the soul, and I so feared this animal song, this song the female puma knows so well that would make light work of the glass encasement I had built in preparation for this day. I feared this song would bring forth some unknown thing lurking within which I dared not surrender to.
I now know, with three years of perspective and hindsight, that crying will not kill a person; it is the pain of isolation, coldness from others, existential loneliness that will put holes in your hull. It is the silent sympathy spilling, the fatal flushes of embarrassment and revulsion when you crumble in public. It is this alienation and fear that will cause you to sink and not resurface.
After a year trying to understand the peculiar phenomenon that had entered into the geography of my relationships, this perplexing disappearance of friendships I had thought would outlive the persimmon tree’s sixty-year life span, Becker’s Terror Management Theory produced some answers.
Apparently, humans are all afflicted with what he calls “death anxiety” that casts an uncouth and borderline callous light on people who I believed were permanent fixtures in my life. But really, any judgements on their Houdini stunts would be rather unfair given that this phobia of death had been written long ago into our DNA, this fear of mortality that starts with the individual and ripples out into social structures: and, indeed, I found that the ways in which African and American cultures deal with death are nearly diametrically opposed.
American culture represses this reality; it helps people put death in the closet and maintain a veneer of order, creating a systemic intolerance of those of us who have received that visit from death and now find ourselves on the same side of terror.
For us, this new reality remains to haunt us as we fumble and flirt with the void, ambushed by this grief on crowded subways and supermarkets, walking the streets like fugitives expecting the darkness to seek us, too, and to destroy us.
No longer tethered to propriety, no longer able to hang as ornaments that adorn streets or fancy dinners. No longer able to cry within the lines now that our once happy memories of the past have been tainted, and without warning, hijack neural pathways and summon the grief that lies in wait for us in everyday things: a song lyric, the color purple, a shock of auburn curls, all accumulating to create the great gale rushing to push us over the precipice, to spill our burrowed, precariously balanced teaspoon of peace.
That evening, three months after the funeral, all it took this time was a chargrilled slice of green pepper for me to disintegrate like unset Jell-O. And the location of this disintegration with zero degrees of dignity was a Mexican restaurant on the corner of Malcom X and 119th in Harlem, NY.
Since moving to the block in October 2018, I used this place to cut through the monotony of countless quarter-hearted days. And on this day, in front of me was a pineapple-laced margarita and a bartender with too many words to spend. And it must have been all the tequila that made me order the damn fajitas. And as I sat there enjoying the volume increase in hedonic hotspots in my brain, the sizzle and greenness of the peppers pulled me into a flashback.
The memory was as fleeting as her death was slow. Mama and I, adrift in those lazy afternoons on the verandah in Limbe. She burped as she ate boiled peanuts — one of the banes to her stomach and a catalyst to her gastric attacks — but my mama was stubborn this way, always in constant argument with her belly about what it wanted and green peppers were definitely at the top of the do-not-eat list.
Back in the Mexican restaurant and wrenched from memory, I could feel sorrow begin to develop, cheekbones rising upwards, a tightening sensation in my throat, and I struggled, honest to God I tried, to adjust my facial features, morph them into a shape that was socially anonymous, even eligible.
And it must have been the sob that did it — no cute whimper accompanied by Hollywood hiccups, but instead porcine snots thrown in the direction of the bartender who just ten minutes before had been looking at me like his planned vacation to Bora Bora. By now lacrimal glands were hurtling fat salty tears past dilated pupils. I imagine my face was contorting to grotesque shapes that would put any Dali painting to shame. Through the blur of tears, I saw his eyeballs widen with terror, as he took two steps back. His charming composure quickly decomposed into a disgusted grimace.
By American standards, this display was extravagant, melodramatic, confusing, but it was nothing compared to what African women are capable of in the face of death: rolling in the dust, beating chests, gathering loose breasts and pressing them against their bodies. Pacing east to west, talking to the ground, to the sky, to ancestors, then sighing, then screaming with head scarfs askew, snot stringing with no sense of shame, only compounded sorrow. And only three years later, I accepted, mortified, that I was mistaken to think the African display was barbaric.
Africans live within spiritual and communal paradigms where death is not seen as an end to life, but rather as a transition into another form of life, a shedding of skin that no longer fits and every stage of the funeral rites is choreographed to support the dead in continuing their journey and the bereaved to cross the threshold during this initiation.
And perhaps if I had followed the Cameroonian mourning rituals — perhaps if my hair was shaved like the bald eagle and I had swapped my jeans with a black caba (a traditional flowing gown that disguises rolling hills and flatlands alike); perhaps if I had worn my mother’s funeral badge pinned to my right breast — her face smiling above the words — sunrise 1957, sunset 2018; perhaps then I would have received a glass of compassion from the bartender.
Perhaps the women at the next table in conversation with tacos would have come to me at the bar, sat on either side of me, cupped my elbows and murmured “wehh mami, take it easy na” translating to I am sorry for what you are going through. Perhaps the strangers in the bar might have transformed to grandmothers, uncles, brothers, sisters, because everyone would have known intuitively that I was straddling two worlds.
I was asking too much. I was in Harlem, after all. I was in a culture, and I say this with compassion, that has taken cover in the belly of the pleasure principle, a culture that fears death and pushes at it with the force of gravity such that understanding cannot be reached, and empathy remains perfunctory, transient even, like a summer downpour.
We humans have an innate need to impose meaning on our life experiences and have the uncanny ability of creating and maintaining epic stories about who we think we are. And construction starts early — from childhood, we begin to collect notions of identity and self-concepts like Legos. If Sigmund Freud’s conscious mind was a city with different landmarks and buildings represented by identities, roles and primary figures by the time I reached adulthood, my city sparkled with luminous landmarks, identities like the sulfuric trio of African, black, and woman which all came readymade with ideologies like primitive, inferior, less than — the variables by which I was expected to define myself.
And what is a city without a downtown — those collections of buildings that anchor the city, that give it character, value, like the Empire State Building is to New York?
For me, my mama was Gaudi’s La Sacrada Familia — never finished, still in construction 150 years later, as human ability was incapable of reproducing the perfection of the vision.
This is not to say my mama was perfect; because she was not, but she was mine. Body rolls and all. Those six ridges on her back, three on each side soothed me in childhood so much that, if there had been psychiatrists in Cameroon back when I grew up, surely, they would have diagnosed me with Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), as to be separated from her was for me a kind of torture.
I was chronically obsessed with her comings and goings, and I had memorized the whirring sound of her 1986 cream-colored Peugeot as it puffed up the hill to our home; if she was one minute late, my imagination was ready with narratives; blue, black, green lorries had crushed her to death on her twenty-kilometer drive from her journalist job at the radio station to our home.
This death had been thirty-two years in the making and had gone through countless iterations, as my love for her was in proportion to the myriad morbid narratives I created about her untimely demises that fell like storms through my imagination.
And so, at precisely 4:00 am on June 25, 2018, when I read the text message with bad grammar “mama is death” — an earthquake of an as-of-yet unrecorded magnitude shook the city of my mind, razed its strongest foundations. That morning, I slumped on the tiled floor at the front entrance of a friend’s apartment in Washington Heights, dawn still hiding in the shadows, strangely cold and distant.
Just the sharp silence after calamity.
From that moment on, my hypothalamus declared a state of emergency initiating flight-fight-freeze, adrenal glands shooting adrenaline into bloodstream to sound the alarm. Hands and feet frozen as veins shunted blood and oxygen to heart and the large muscles of skinny legs preparing me for flight or fight, as if I could outrun death or fight him for that matter. I had tried both, as many humans before me.
I had failed.
I sat in stunned silence, surrounded by invisible smoke and rubble; I can almost imagine my other body, the other self shackled in the hippocampus, scrambling through debris, looking for an identity to hang the memory of this moment, to integrate into my story, and something — call it God, call it the universe, whatever — realizing that to integrate this memory would be akin to releasing the force of a nuclear warhead on an already destroyed city, it exiled them to subconscious limbo, condemned to be stored as visceral flight or fight reactions in the body, flashbacks, nightmares only resurrected to consciousness through things like green peppers and then withdrawing right back into exile.
In the next months, I floated around New York, disembodied, unable to laugh or cry. Had I known that the funeral with its centuries-old elaborate rituals held my salvation, I might have approached it like people approach a rescue team in the aftermath of an earthquake. I might have dived into the wave of mourning that that greeted my family at the Douala airport when we landed in Cameroon.
After driving the three-hour journey to my fishing town on the Atlantic from the airport, it became clear to me that I would not know what to do with myself; the circumstances left me in complete disarray. As my siblings, father, and I approached the morgue around 1:00 am to drop my mama off for the night, our headlights fell upon a sea of sorrow, around twenty to thirty grief-stricken and unfamiliar faces who severed the silence of the night with wailing as soon as they saw us.
Unbeknownst to my arrogant, Westernized mind, this “melodramatic” display of emotions that would continue for the next three days, the volume increasing each day until reaching a crescendo on the final day, was designed — in a manner of speaking — to break the seal on our grief, to create a safe space to allow my sisters, father and I to openly grieve, to release the valve of pain — that first wave like a tsunami, wild, crazed grief that without the right container, the right support, could destroy a person.
To cry so vigorously and violently, was to shake the body loose of repressed memories, and bring them up into awareness to find expression in an environment without judgement and fear of measurements of excess or “drama.”
The next four days of funeral rites was a kind of rehearsal ground to experiment, explore those big emotions, to take stock of their size, shapes, sounds, desensitizing and releasing that initial kick like the role of salt after a shot of tequila — so that by the time my mother’s body was in the warm soil, the emotions would have shrunken down in size; the grief would be manageable as we continued to grieve privately in the company of relatives, friends, neighbors who would continue to drop in with pots of food and favors for months.
But I did not stay in Cameroon for months. I was back in the United States only five days after I’d left. Here people tried in the beginning; really, they did, but most of them were bound to disappear. After a week, after the funeral and floral arrangements, the casseroles and the cards, the first wave vanished.
From what I gathered, what was happening was that the death of my mother brought too close to consciousness this truth we all know but have chosen to forget or at least put in abeyance, this reality that death happens and will happen to all of us. Such awareness creates anxiety to the extent of terror, and most, understandably, simply cut themselves from the source of that existential angst. And it makes sense: Americans are desensitized to death, witnessing it all the time in the news and, in fictional contexts, on TV and the Internet.
But real death, or personal death, is another matter altogether. I had seen it: my mother’s best friend dead at thirty-five when I was eight years old. I would later witness many more: grandma, grandpa, cousins and other family.
After a month, others disappeared like the media outlets who flock to the scene to cover the devastation of an earthquake and then in a few days, pack up for new stories not realizing that it can sometimes takes years if not decades for cleanup and rebuilding.
According to these friends our sand glasses had expired; whereas for most of us who have lost a loved one, time morphed as soon as we heard of the death: Time no longer ran linear but shot out radially from that center point like light hitting wax paper — spreading out into alternate futures where our loved ones were at our weddings, graduations, and the births of our children.
And we forgot that in all this time, while we were zig zagging through Madame Blavatsky’s dimensions, skating alternate timelines, that our peers, friends, foes were moving forward in their lives, along the linear spear of time, climbing gilded ladders, having real babies, exploring countries in three dimensions, floating in their oases of oblivion.
In my own case, for those friends brave enough to remain, there was an awkwardness, not knowing what to say, in many cases avoiding the conversation entirely, wanting to talk about things that now seemed trivial, wanting to pick up where we had left off as if nothing had happened. Many faded away after I had disappeared one too many times in the middle of conversations because my amygdala — chief of emergency — hijacked my prefrontal cortex to start her mental rituals — meticulously creating an endless series of if-only scenarios.
Late in the fall of 2018, Earth began to reflect my inner climate, and I swapped mourning for grieving, removed myself from the flogging glances of passersby’s and went private with my pain. I restricted those florid protein-loaded tears to the perimeter of my 9–5 bedroom just big enough for a twin blow up mattress, and a cardboard alter attended by the likes of Mother Mary, The black Madonna, Ganesh, and Yemanja. Finally, conceding to the advice from my spiritual healing teacher who had pulled me aside one evening after meditation and said “Ning, you have to allow yourself to be sad. Lock yourself in your room for three months and just be sad. You don’t do this, and you’re gonna have a midlife crisis when you’re fifty.”
Being that my Harlem apartment was not a “die house” as we call the house of the bereaved in Cameroon, given that it was not bursting with seventy people — relatives, friends, strangers, and the tag-along guests — hysteria and chaos — as it had that first night when I went to Cameroon. Given that people were not coming to visit me on a daily basis months after with casseroles, consolation, and psalms, that grief was still on tap, 4:00 pm on the nose every day, I had an appointment with my pillow and playlist for what I constructed as my “Dance with Grief,” a ritual that made me an apprentice to Grief.
And who knew she was a shapeshifter: one minute she was lava exploding in my chest, the next a prowling panther, then a fish flopping pathetically from side to side.
The year 2019 will always live in my mind as the year of tears, of big bulky tears. This was also the year that I realized that the adage “time heals all wounds,” is at best a cliché, as it is akin to sitting around after an earthquake and expecting time to rebuild all the ruined structures. And the irrefutable proof of this is that lingering ache in your chest, the constant interjection of homeless memories continuously spilling out like an invasive species.
And we who are living this reality of grief ambushes have the choice of merely living within a five-by-five corner of our crumbled cities in the company of tequila, ice cream, and Benadryl or facing the barren landscape, laced with landmines of loneliness, the feeling of being alien in a human world.
I chose to face the grief head on in my grieving rituals until the day came when I reached an anguish that pushed me past the threshold of bearable pain. This crying ritual started like any other with the circular breathing pattern I had learned in my 200-hour conscious breathing facilitator training in Thailand two winters prior. As cells began to saturate with oxygen, my blood chemical composition altered expanding consciousness into a trance state. My fingers started tingling; fireworks exploding in my spine and a memory unfolded into awareness.
It was late Fall 2017, after two months in an ICU in NY, no one knew what was wrong with my mother’s legs. Instead of black skin, her knees to toes were wrapped in white flesh like paper: dead cells. How could they be third degree burns when she had never been burned? Her heart was also closing up shop and I was at a breaking point after months of sleeping in patient waiting rooms, eating hospital cafeteria food and arguing with residents who thought they could schedule amputation without consent.
That day, I had stepped out from the room to take some air and, when I walked in two minutes later, I stood frozen in speechless terror: there was my mama struggling to stand on legs that had been scraped during multiple surgeries to the skeleton. She was naked as the day she was born. Her belly protruded like a heavily pregnant woman, the angry keloid scar running from left to right across her chest where breast formerly resided smeared in blood from the PICC line to her heart she had ripped. There was also blood mixed with feces on her arms and a crazed look flailing in her yellow iris.
When she noticed me at the door, she pointed towards the East river and said “Ning, they are trying to poison us,” as she struggled to get up.
“The food they are giving us is not from this world.
We have to go” she finished, trembling fingers reaching for an invisible bridge outside the window where we were to meet Jesus.
It was at this point in the flashback, that all the horror of her sickness came tumbling through, one after the other, flashing images, horror after horror.
In that moment of absolute surrender, it was as if I was forcefully pushed, or perhaps swooped out of a body that had become a torture chamber. When I came to, I was floating free, in outer space or maybe the spaces between atoms. I don’t know.
I felt a weightlessness, a timelessness and as my vision cleared, awareness sharpening as if coming to after a hit on the head, I saw that I was surrounded by a sea of people engulfed in their own horror stories: a woman hysterical after learning about the murder of her child, a soldier with no legs from a grenade explosion, women burning on stakes, people getting skinned. It began to dawn on me: It was as if I had landed in this place, a quantum field maybe, where all human horror stories from time immemorial existed, and as scene after scene rapidly passed through awareness, my terror began to feel less personal, less significant, swallowed as it was in the impersonal universality of all this terror.
Rather than being horrified as expected, a bliss state began to unfold. Not the well-known ecstasy of extreme joy, but a mostly unchartered ecstasy found at the nadir of suffering. It was the most achingly beautiful, the softest fluttering of the hummingbird’s wings, the deepest caress by a rainbow at the same time the heaviness of a hundred suns.
I felt a sense of wonder at this oneness, this unity of life itself that gently cradled in its arms death and all human suffering inherent in life. My anguish was transported here, to this cosmic womb, where it seemed all human tears had already been cried, all longing satisfied by milk from cosmic breasts, and I don’t know if I floated there for an eon or an hour, in this place out of time and space.
And even one moment’s glimpse of this vastness, this exquisite belonging to life itself, completely changes the context of your grief, your fear of death.
I learned what must be the biggest paradox: that the deepest source of comfort for your pain is there at the center of it.
And it is only by opening in complete surrender to the most personally agonizing content of your life that you hit escape velocity, that you are pushed out of the orbit of your pain into to an ocean of our pain. I realized that the Metta tribe’s final funeral ritual — the Akati dance — is designed to pull this from us, to bring us to this threshold.
This is the part of a Metta funeral that will usually inspire hundreds of people to travel miles from other villages to attend a funeral. A large crowd that consisted of chiefs, my mother’s uncles from the Palace, old women, village boys, young children had gathered around the village house, sitting on the grass, in the middle of the road and under trees. Her body now cradled in the earth, and visitors’ bellies full of roasted pigs, goats and chicken, thirst quenched with beer and matango (palm wine), it was time for Akati — the dance for my mother.
In the middle of the compound, the musical instruments were lined up — xylophones, drums and rattles, the masqueraders in full regalia: animal masks, loincloths made of straw, arms and ankles wrapped in cowries shells, white paint on chest and legs. As the drums began to play, people started forming a circle around them and they began to stamp their feet in pattern, sway in fluid, pelvic pulsations, body grounded towards the earth. The energy began to morph, became electrifying.
The drums and rattles turned wild, fast. People joined in, bodies moving spontaneously, energetically, lively and unpredictable stirred by the sound. The rhythm from the drums flowed into my veins reaching down to an inner world of instinct and I felt an irresistible pull that spilled across the bodies jumping, gyrating. Intoxicating.
I was unabashedly primitive. I was covered in red dust and sweat, and I smelled. The atmosphere was wild and hot and boisterous. The air heavy with the story of the cycles of life. As the time came for my own special dance for my mother, I joined the single-file line of masqueraders as they started the dance.
As we made our way towards the mound of red earth fifty meters away that was my mother’s final resting place, I started to dance in earnest, got lost in the rhythm as we circled the grave. I danced for the woman who grew me in her womb; I danced for the woman who had anchored my sense of worth and elevated me to the status of a monarch; I was doused in the scent of grief, pain dripping from the pores of my skin, my armpits, my forehead and I melded into this atmosphere, one half celebration of a life well lived, the other half the chaos of death, turbulence, savage and cathartic.
The masqueraders took me up on their shoulders as people cheered and sang. I was drenched in belonging, solidarity, connection to a wider dimension of life, and that night my family and I, in our three-bedroom house in the village, went to sleep spent with probably twenty-five to thirty other people scattered around the house like rice.
And for those of us grievers who have glimpsed this place that is no place in time or space, we enter into a deep process of reorganization; we start clearing away the rubble of outdated identities that no longer fit. Rather than trying to only rebuild our old cities, we begin to put more weight on expanding the boundaries, pioneering new belief systems that would allow us to integrate this loss into our life stories.
And through this initiation into wholeness, we now see a landscape littered with old treasures peeking through rubble left from past earthquakes, and from here onwards, the months, the years go by in an almost breathless fervor as if trying to empty the marrow of a bone — to suck out all the possibilities from our pain, unveiling new identities so that when we are done, there is nothing left but chaff. Knowing that this landscape of darkness and devastation, is our legacy — in my case the last thing my mama gave me.
And I imagine through this process, many of our predecessors who faced their grief, began to create new neural pathways as exiled memories were brought back home. Some might have taken meaning-making to the next level, revising their stories, adding methyl tags to DNA strands, turning on switches that had been waiting to express previously dormant genius; overnight artists, environmentalists, human rights activists, in my own case a grief advocate and activist through reconnection with my African roots and a sloughing off the skin of modernity, and the notion of “being civilized.”
After years of digging and rebuilding, I have realized that over the centuries, while the West was plumbing the outer world for structure and order — making technological advancements, Africans have taken another path. We have been plumbing inner space and further developed our ancient spiritual technologies. While the West built rockets to explore outer space, we delved into energetic bodies to explore the subtler dimensions of life.
Africa has always been called the Dark Continent and those who coined this term meant it to be derogatory and, in the past, I always took the bait. But today, I can agree that indeed we are. We have mastered darkness and chaos. We have rituals and rites artfully engineered to help the dead move on and to help the living not only go on living, but understand that the aftermath is a balance, shifting between human connection and deep pain.
Part of this is evidenced in one aspect of the Metta mourning rites: the sharing of clothes and the agrarian rites to honor the memory of those passed away. After the funeral, my father stayed behind to complete these rites.
To my mother’s maternal uncles, he gave her blankets so that when covered they would remember their sister.
They would also plant the corn seedlings received, and each year when the crops bore, they would eat with their families.
My aunts would go on to wear my mother’s clothes as a means to collectively mourn for their sister.
When we are called to bear the unbearable, when death comes to our door, there are two roads one can take — a culture where we fear and hide death in a closet leads to alienation, anxiety, and in most cases post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where the person grieving is further traumatized by a culture that shuns and isolates them.
If we cultivate another type of culture in which death is viewed as part of the circumference of life, as a transition, an invitation to expand into larger selves like a Matryoshka doll unfolding inversely, then there is the possibility of post traumatic growth (PTG) — a realization of innate genius.
It is through this container of community that one gains the courage to plunge into the darkness, to enter into conversations with sorrow, where we teach our bodies that instead of the three ways evolution has taught us — fight, flight, freeze — there is a fourth way — to free fall, to take a leap of faith and be caught in the arms of belonging, inducted into the halls of wholeness.
Two weeks after my mother died, she visited me in a lucid dream.
When I asked her why she had died, with the countenance of a professor of philosophy, she said “it was part of the plan and the plan was perfect.”
I was livid and promptly ended the visit.
With the years between then and now and a different vantage point, I cannot help but say maybe death never took my mama.
Maybe she gave him to me — to produce, in a manner of speaking — an upgraded me that has somehow managed to collect and construct a shiny new identity using the best parts of my African heritage and American freedom.
With the barrel of bravado reaped from three years of tears and terror, I can afford to say that perhaps we who death has visited and has dispensed upon us an excess of anguish that it seems the martyrs through the ages have secretly craved, are now firmly planted on the side of life. Initiated into a wholeness that grants us a universal citizenship that far exceeds the scope of being for example simply American, African, or even an animal.
In the final analysis, I don’t know why death has come to your front door, but I do know that together, we can face death and perhaps even use him as leverage to jump into much more inclusive and expansive versions of ourselves where we can toss back our hard earned pennies into the collective evolutionary bank.