Authors: Jacqueline Woodson
For Bushwick (1970â1990)
Keep straight down this block,
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming.
For a long time, my mother wasn't dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselvesâor worse, in the care of New York City Children's Services, where, my father said, there was seldom a happy ending. But this didn't happen. I know now that what is tragic isn't the moment. It is the memory.
If we had had jazz, would we have survived differently? If we had known our story was a blues
with a refrain running through it, would we have lifted our heads, said to each other,
This is memory
again and again until the living made sense? Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness? Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, and I came together like a jazz improvâhalf notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing and the music felt like it had always been playingâwe didn't have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.
The summer I turned fifteen, my father sent me to a woman he had found through his fellow Nation of Islam brothers. An educated sister, he said, who I could talk to. By then, I was barely speaking. Where words had once flowed easily, I was sud
denly silent, breath snatched from me, replaced by a melancholy my family couldn't understand.
Sister Sonja was a thin woman, her brown face all angles beneath a black hijab. So this is who the therapist became to meâthe woman with the hijab, fingers tapered, dark eyes questioning. By then, maybe it was too late.
Who hasn't walked through a life of small tragedies?
Sister Sonja often asked me, as though to understand the depth and breadth of human suffering would be enough to pull me outside of my own.
Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up
in Brooklyn, as though
it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying,
Here. Help me carry this.
Twenty years have passed since my childhood. This morning, we buried my father. My brother and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the gravesite, willows weeping down around us, nearly bare-branched against the snow. The brothers and sisters from mosque surrounding us. In the silver light of the morning, my brother reached for and found my gloved hand.
Afterward, at a diner in Linden, New Jersey, my brother pulled off his black coat. Beneath it, he wore a black turtleneck and black wool pants. The black kufi his wife had knitted for him stopped just above his brow.
The diner smelled of coffee and bread and bleach. A neon sign flickered
EAT HERE NOW
green, dusty silver tinsel draping below it. I had spent Christmas Day at the hospital, my father moaning for pain medication, the nurses too slow in responding.
A waitress brought my brother more hot water for his mint tea. I picked at my eggs and lukewarm home fries, having eaten the bacon slowly to tease my brother.
You hanging in, Big Sis?
he asked, his deep voice breaking up a bit.
Still eating pork and all the other Devil's food, I see.
Everything but the grunt.
We laughed, the joke an old one from the afternoons I had snuck off with my girls to the bodega around the corner for the foods I was forbidden to eat at home and the bits of bacon still on my plate.
You still could come stay with me and Alafia you know. Bedrest isn't contagious.
I'm good at the apartment,
Lots to be done there. All his stuff to go through . . . Alafia doing okay?
She'll be all right. Doctors talk like if she stands up, the baby's gonna just drop right out of her. It's all good. Baby'll be fine.
I started my way into the world two days before July ended but didn't arrive until August. When my mother, crazed from her long labor, asked what day it was, my father said,
It's August now.
Shhh, Honey Baby,
August is here.
I asked my brother, reaching across the table to touch his hand, remembering suddenly
a photo we had back in SweetGrove, him a new baby on my lap, me a small girl, smiling proudly into the camera.
A little. But I know with Allah all things are possible.
We were quiet. Old white couples surrounded us, sipping coffee and staring off. In the back somewhere, I could hear men speaking Spanish and laughing.
I'm too young to be someone's auntie.
You're gonna be too old to be somebody's mama if you don't get busy.
My brother grinned.
No judgment is a lie.
Just saying it's time to stop studying the dead and hook up with a living brother. I know a guy.
I tried not to think about the return to my father's apartment alone, the deep relief and fear that came with death. There were clothes to be donated, old food to throw out, pictures to pack away. For what? For whom?
In India, the Hindu people burn the dead and spread the ashes on the Ganges. The CaviteÃ±o people near Bali bury their dead in tree trunks. Our father had asked to be buried. Beside his lowered casket, a hill of dark and light brown dirt waited. We had not stayed to watch it get shoveled on top of him. It was hard not to think of him suddenly waking against the soft, invisible satin like the hundreds of people who had been buried in deep comas only to wake beneath the earth in terror.
You gonna stay in the States for a minute?
I'll be back for the baby though. You know I wouldn't miss that.
As a child, I had not known the word
or that there was a thing called Ivy League. I had not known that you could spend your days on planes, moving through the world, studying death, your whole life before this life an unanswered question . . . finally answered. I had seen death in Indonesia and Korea. Death in Mauritania and Mongolia. I had watched the people of Madagascar exhume the muslin-wrapped bones of their ancestors, spray them with perfume, and ask those who had already passed to the next place for their stories, prayers, blessings. I had been home a month watching my father die. Death didn't frighten me. Not now. Not anymore. But Brooklyn felt like a stone in my throat.
You should come out to Astoria for a meal soon, a clean meal.
Alafia can sit at the table, just not allowed to stand at the stove and cook. But I got us. It's all good.
A minute passed.
I miss him,
I miss you.
In my father's long, bitter last days of liver cancer, we had taken turns at his bedside, my brother coming into the hospital room so I could leave, then me waking him so he could go home for a quick shower and prayer before work.
Now my brother looked as though he was seven again, not thirty-one, his thick brow dipping down, his skin too clear and smooth for a man.
I wanted to comfort him.
It's good that he . . .
but the words wouldn't come.
Allah is good,
my brother said.
All praise to Allah for calling him home.
All praise to Allah,