Unlearning the Dead

Tiffany Patterson

(USA/Caribbean)


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I tossed in bed, my physical discomfort compounded by the humid heat. My skin was covered in swollen mosquito bites like an unusual form of pox. Rolling onto my back led to an eruption of heartburn from the “fast comfort dining” my grandmother had craved earlier that day from Chefette. I come from a line of Bajans with a preference for healthy eating; gorging on mounds of fast food is how we distract ourselves from debilitating emotions. To our detriment, we mourned with a mouthful. 

I turned to lie on my side, curling into a fetal position to coddle myself to sleep. But as I drifted into an unpromising slumber, my grandmother—the family’s chronically busy body—shuffled about the house. With every light on in the house, her added movement made it impossible to retrace my efforts back to sleep. 

I sat up, steupsing, or, as I frequently corrected myself in front of my friends in America, “sucked my teeth.” I thought if my grandmother had company shortly after my grandfather’s death, it would do her good. I had arranged to stay with her when I touched down in my beloved Bim, as we islanders lovingly call our small, almost heart-shaped island, rejecting the Portuguese ‘Barbados’ (bearded ones) to keep the Igbo ‘ebe m’ (my place) close. Although everyone in the family applauded my commitment, no one else offered to stay with Ma. I knew no one wanted to put up with her, but I needed her to know that although she preferred to be alone, she was not lonely. 

Even my mother and siblings kept a healthy distance as my grandmother boasted to everyone that from the moment my grandfather had died, she had been “skinnin’ up de place, flippin’ bed n’ ting.” The usual busyness she often used to avoid confronting her pain had escalated into a violent impulse to tear everything apart for the sake of keeping herself occupied with new household tasks. 

She’s a stoic old woman whose pain consumed her, caking like wet soil in the hot sun until it hardened in the cool evenings, rendering her incapable of feeling anything outside her mud fortress. Ma hadn’t cried since my grandfather’s death, and no one could tell if she ever would. 

My grandmother is a figment of our imagination, someone we speculated existed beneath the messiness and wondered if she’d emerge for us to see the hidden human. 

***** 

Footsteps paced in the bedroom next to me—with a side entrance separated by thick white drapes and stacked luggage, clothing, and random household items forming a makeshift, cluttered partition. A frantic fidgeting of metal and hollow thuds began. 

“Wuh de rass dis woman fussing ’bout now?” I thought to myself before the sound of her wrestling with paper forced me to get up and walk around to the room’s front entrance. 

Annoyed and dragging my feet on the tile floor, I approached the room, opened the cracked door further, and leaned against it with my head on my hand in exhaustion. “Ma, you good?” I asked with my eyes closed. 

Rested on her side, propped up by her right elbow on the bed, this deceptively frail old woman with wrinkled golden skin was surprisingly strong. My grandmother paused before answering as she fiddled with a stack of small gold foil-covered diaries. “I guh leh you in on uh secret. Yuh wan learn it?” 

Secrets, especially family secrets, keep us encumbered by an unresolved past. I paused before answering, weighing my options. “It depends, Ma.” 

“Ah-right, I duh see yuh pause so, I guh tell you dis ting, n’ youse uh smart girl, yuh guh know. Yuh undastan?” 

“Yes, Ma,” I replied with a heavy sigh. 

Sitting up and sliding toward the edge of the bed, Ma contemplated one of the diaries she picked from the pile. She bent over slightly, one hand fondling her headwrap and the same reliable right elbow supporting her weight on her knee. Without turning, she threw the diary back onto the pile.

Slouched over with both elbows on her knees, she began rubbing her hands together. “I been studying dis ting here,” she explained, pointing to a large walnut wardrobe towering before her. 

As she stopped mid-sentence to bow her head, I stuck my head out and peered at the open wardrobe. It had a key stuck in a heavy silver lock that dangled from its latch. 

Ma resumed with hesitation, “I couldn’t get dis ting figured out when yar gran-father was alive. So I leave it n’ nuh stress myself wid it no mar. Yuh follow?” 

I nodded and looked down at my feet, anticipating a cryptic message that might be too easy to decipher. 

“Now he guh dead, n’ I skinnin’ up de place, I fyn dah ting deer,” my grandmother continued as she lifted her head and pointed at the key in the lock. 

I desperately wanted to close the wardrobe doors, rip the key held hostage in the gripping lock, and toss it someplace where no one else would find it. I wanted to preserve the thought of my grandfather because I knew there was a possibility the reality of who he was could be far worse. 

I wished my mother and her side of the family would let old demons lie. But these Bajans were unlike my optimistic Trinidadian side, who claimed, “Some people say God iza Trini.” Whatever gossip went around once someone died, it wouldn’t take. They knew the soul that rested was once as fallible as the rest of us and was just as deserving of grace and forgiveness, whether we decided to forget or not. 

In Barbados, they would not forget. My grandmother would not forget. Studying the lock further, my grandmother continued but with calculated narration. “I does tell you; uh man alive does really disappoint. N’ when he guh dead, he disappoint you mar.” 

Distracted by the sweat dripping down my back and the discomfort of my thighs sticking together as I stood through Ma’s gruelling rumination, I couldn’t understand how, from what had bothered my grandmother so profoundly, she remained dry and without physical discomfort. 

“Mek no mistake in givin’ allyuh self to uh man. He guh tek, tek, tek, n’ drag yuh tuh de groun’ far de Devil heself,” Ma warned. She looked up at me, and I was surprised to see the glasses that rested far below the bridge of her nose magnify a pair of drowning eyeballs. Trapped behind her eyelids, I prayed those swelling tears would release themselves, for no one alive had ever known this woman to cry. 

The room grew quiet, and the smell of fresh concrete the neighbours laid in their driveway that morning filled it, giving away the rainfall before it occurred. If she wouldn’t cry, the sky would cry for her. 

A downpour commenced, lashing the banana tree leaves in the yard. Ma returned to her previous position of deep thought to continue, “The one you does sorrow far…” pausing briefly and pointing at the wardrobe, she accentuated her words, “Is. Not. Uh. Real. Person. I suppose, alluh we must unlearn the dead.” 

***** 

On our way to the funeral home to view the body, slowly driving through the busy streets of St. Michael’s Parish, I reflected on the previous evening. Maybe the late night was the reason we were late to the viewing. Maybe it was because of my grandmother’s dissociation from this moment. The sadness I swallowed and felt weighing in my belly was more for my living grandmother than for my dead grandfather. 

Ma avoided intimacy, just as her mother (my Gran-Gran), my tanties, and my mother did. Both physical touch and emotional closeness to others were as terrifying to them as a malevolent duppy. They feared unmet expectations, disappointment, and being left alone to pick up shattered pieces of themselves. They didn’t fear losing others; this lineage of Bajan women feared losing themselves. 

We had parked at the funeral home before I realised we were there. I couldn’t help but wonder—as I built up a resistance to crying to not disappoint my grandmother with my weakness—how do we learn to be vulnerable without the fear of losing ourselves? How do we learn to love unconditionally so that the inevitable pain we feel from a loss is more about the joyous times we’ll miss than our suspicions brought to light? 

Shooing the monkeys in our path, Ma abruptly stopped. Nearly crashing into her, I reached out to hold onto her. Jumping out of my embrace, she looked down and placed her crooked index finger on her pouting lips. “Stay close behyn me, but doh touch. I duh need people tuh brek meh down. I just need someone strong tuh mek me strong. Yuh undastan?” 

She looked at me over the rim of her glasses for confirmation. 

“Yes, Ma. Yes, I hear yuh.”

Tiffany Patterson

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

A first-generation Caribbean American, Tiffany is passionate about sharing her experiences of “the in-between,” growing up in America and spending time with family in the Caribbean. As she unravels issues related to displacement, culture, language, and self-discovery, she aims for reflection, not perfection—unapologetically. Until Tiffany finds a place to call home, she travels the world while balancing a career in tech and shares her reflections via a number of platforms.

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