Cascading Grief

For James Robinson, 1987-2022. For millions of Black people across history.

I learned of James’ death on an elevated portion of I-35 near downtown Austin. Up to that point, being suspended from the ground matched the mood of the evening. A new band named Minivan Dad summoned folks to an incredible backyard set. It was a lovely spring day in central Texas.

I called Desireé, then Brenda. Understandably, answering machines greeted me. I offered condolences and then let the stream of consciousness flow. I’m here for you, call me if you need anything, is he really gone?

I stepped out of my Uber, compartmentalizing the bad news as I did so. The night still called, even as my heart seemingly paused.

***

It’s tough enough to process an unexpected passing, and then an ongoing pandemic joins the equation. As of this piece’s publication, the seven-figure marker of COVID-19 casualties in the U.S. quickly approaches. One million people.

I find myself, likely as others do, drifting between some state of normalcy and disbelief. I pull into the parking lot of my neighborhood HEB; I dig into my pockets and realize my mask is at home. It’s April 2022, a far cry from March 2020. I think of the practices that have shifted in 25 months. Sanitizing wipes are no longer used to scrub down every surface of one’s home after a trip outside. I’m both a survivor of COVID-19 and have a booster shot in my arm. Yet, the initial apprehension of early 2020 still governs it all.

Do I go in the store or return home? Why did I forget the damn mask in the first place? I sit still for a minute.

***

I’ve written about death publicly pretty much only once before. Almost seven years to the day, this essay idea jumps from my mind onto the laptop screen. With the unbelievable devastation of the pandemic, it calls me back with both a gentle tug and a forceful mandate.

I remember Donald, I remember Aunt Sara, I remember Cassius, I remember Meonne, I remember Uncle Greg, I remember Tiauna, I remember my grandparents. Now, I remember James. These Black folks — who I knew & conversed with & loved — were no longer with us physically. The years pass, but sometimes that reality slips from me.

***

Where am I?

I drive east on I-20 through heavy rain, with Grandma Jackson in the passenger seat. I sit on her porch, tracing my fingers over her handwriting & awaiting her memorial service. I speak with Donald for nearly an hour near the elevators in the East Towers. I weep in the pews of the Rankin Chapel, watching his stately parents on the stage. I inch closer to Aunt Sara, her umbrella providing protection from the Mississippi sun at an Alcorn football game. I stare at her picture while in Louisiana for Thanksgiving nearly a decade after her passing.

I throw my fists up with James at the base of Table Mountain in Cape Town. I open Instagram to find a post from his fraternity, memorializing him.

2011 somehow seems like it was yesterday, yet it was eleven years ago.

***

My experiences with grief, especially from 2012 onward, prove how non-linear it is. Over two years into the pandemic, deep grief is now an indelible, collective understanding. I cry frequently these days – on the couch, on solo road trips, on a seat in the airport. Depending on the day, the mask collects the tears. I embrace the catharsis of it as I did when I was a young child. I shed the shame I felt about it as a teenager and a twenty-something.

What is the cause of this weeping and its steady flow? Perhaps it’s the substance of work? The realization that this country’s deep commitments to white supremacy & capitalism eviscerated Roe as hundreds of millions of people suffer? There’s a recognition that supporting racial justice initiatives is my life’s work, and I may never achieve a balance between that work and rest. That reality is both empowering and sad.

Maybe it’s the individual deaths in my life over the past decade? News of passings conveyed over phone calls & social media posts can bring back vivid memories. Some days, I could close my eyes and picture the brilliant smiles of these wonderful Black people in front of me. Other days, the times I shared with these folks & the grief blur together as I push them to the back of my mind.

The older I get, the more I seemingly comprehend the nature of grief. It ebbs & flows. It exists across time. It reaches inflection points during a pandemic. It is necessary to experience the fullness of the human condition. It may confer a wide smile one day, and then bring forth a heavy sob the next. It demonstrates the transcendent power of love.

It forces one to remember. For that, despite the pain, I am grateful.

With James Robinson in Cape Town, South Africa in 2011

About andrewrhairston

Andrew Reginald Hairston is a civil rights attorney, writer, proud bisexual man, and doting uncle who divides his time almost equally between Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He loves, fights for, and writes about Black people.
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