Michael Ortiz Hill
Though I am no Christian, I saw Christ in him -- that light we serve, said Mother Teresa, in all its "distressing disguises." Though Charles did not speak except to rave, from the beginning, it seemed we were gathered towards a "knowing" beneath words and most certainly beneath the absurd personae of "patient" and "nurse."
He had no face, or rather his face, like much of his body, was a mass of scabs given to bleeding, and bleeding profusely. Sometimes we tied his hands down because in his confusion he tore at himself, once actually tearing off part of his nose. Yet from the moment I met him, I saw beauty, possibly because I was fortunate enough to first catch his image in his daughter's loving gaze -- she a slip of a child just thirteen.
African-American, younger than myself, end stage AIDS with a rare form of skin cancer. Many of the staff were frightened of him or felt helpless when he bled or couldn't bear the manifest presence of tragedy. Understandable. Who can judge? But I felt compelled to a meeting, a rendezvous, a quality of light behind the veil of appearances.
Shortly before Charles died, I took my 3:00 a.m. break to spend an hour at his bedside meditating: my eyes wide open, breathing in his suffering, breathing out lovingkindness. While he slept, I saw light spread from his body to fill the room -- he and I in it, not it in us. "Charles," I said, "you can let go.
You really can. You are well loved, and you will be received on the other side." One eye opened (the other pasted shut with blood) -- mute, hearing, inscrutable. A presence already in another world.
A couple of days later, he was silent at last, his wife and daughter with him. Heart rate and breathing irregular and sinking down and down. After letting his family know what to expect, I kept vigil at a distance until they approached the nurses' station and told me they thought he'd passed.
When I entered the room, he took a long gasp, and that was it: our rendezvous which was a leavetaking. The drama which is the end of drama -- a door open, a moving through but to where?
His daughter wailed, "Daddy! Daddy!" How could I not think of my own daughter at my bedside that terrible, holy moment of parting. In Africa they say keening belongs to the circle of women. How can the dead find their way to the village of the ancestors if the women don't cry out. Alongside lament, inconsolability, I whispered, "Go well, Charles."
As I slept off the long night, Charles visited me in a dream, his face bright and intact. He cheerfully showed me his new house full of African artifacts -- Yoruba, if I'm not mistaken. When I awoke, I called his wife, and she laughed. In his last weeks of confusion, he kept talking about refurnishing the house and adding a new room. "That's all he seemed to think about," she said. He was very concerned that he wouldn't finish it in time."
Beauty and the Beast: While Charles challenged everyone who came near with the horror of his face, his fate, Joyce was always stunning even as she wasted to skin and bones. An Ndebele tribeswoman of exquisite bearing, sister of my African sister Simakuhle, AIDS drew her from us one flake at a time until it seemed there was little left. I was always shy around Joyce as a man can be around so lovely a women, lovely with whom he shared but a few words of a common language. Still I like to think about when she was so ill she could hardly walk and I made her laugh when I coaxed a dog into dancing with me.
Joyce's brother-in-law, Augustine, and I were asleep in a little cement dare', or spirit house, when we were awakened by a scream like I'd never heard before. We clothed up, Augustine tying a leopard tail around his waist, and went into the dark to find Joyce scarcely visible, sitting in the dirt, weeping. I held her feet gently, singing an Ndebele song while Augustine practiced his craft, methodically taking into his own body the intense pains in Joyce's gut. When she stopped crying out, I carried her to a blue Peugeot and wrapped her in blankets. Augustine drove us far into the countryside to her mother's land near the Botswana border.
Pavement turning to dirt, dirt to dust, cow trails to thin grass until at last under a slivered moon, we came to a clutch of round mud houses. Augustine and I under each of Joyce's arms, she collapsed at her mother's doorway.
Again wailing, but this time something different happened, something unearthly, something even as I witnessed it, I knew I'd scarcely ever understand.
Mother came with a dozen kinswomen and their tired silent children. They tended to Joyce by the light of a torch, but it was not Joyce they tended. It was clear to all but my non-African self that grandmother had arrived, Joyce bearing her; so mother placed her own mother's shawl over Joyce's thin shoulders. Everyone clapped their hands and ululated the way women do when they greet an ancestor. "This one will soon be gone," said the grandmother spirit. "We cannot save her. It is time to say goodbye."
And so it was Joyce died a few days later. In Africa it is said there is an invisible world parallel to this one. One passes into that world when one dreams or when one dies. In initiation one goes there and returns with gifts for the living, like Augustine's gift of healing or Joyce's capacity to yield to her grandmother's voice in a time of trouble.
The Kikongo word for the threshold between worlds is kalunga, and for the coastal people of South Central Africa, so many of whom ended up in the slave ports of Charleston and New Orleans, the kalunga line was specifically the Atlantic Ocean. The soul after death follows the arc of the sun as it crosses the sky to set in the west. Those enslaved believed they were being taken to the land of the dead, never to return.
Conversely, slaves in the Americas often believed when they died, they would return to Africa. For African people of the Motherland and the Diaspora, the concern of ancestors is never simply a matter of biological lineage. Engaging the world of the ancestors is what completes us, makes us whole, brings together the visible and the invisible, makes wisdom possible.
Ritually, the kalunga line is sometimes understood to be the glass of the mirror that separates us of flesh from those "over there." The image of the mirror is apt because in Bantu metaphysics, it is not inaccurate to say that Africans and African-Americans bear each others' image, one completing the other. When Charles invited me into his spirit house so full of Africa and when I was honored to meet Joyce's grandmother that bleak night in the Zimbabwe desert, I was delivered to a world entirely outside of the violence of history. In Africa it is understood that without a connection to the world of spirit, you will be trapped in appearances, and your life will only superficially make sense.
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