This is one of my favorite stories: On Saturday mornings, my father would bring a flask of tea to the market with him. Aware that many of the vendors arrived at 4 or 5 to begin setting up to sell their produce without having eaten breakfast, he would offer a cup of tea to those whose stalls he routinely visited.
I never knew this about my dad, but I can picture him walking through the ambrosial and colorful din, that charming grin of his dimpling his cheeks, as he called out a hale “comrade” or “darling” to friends and acquaintances also doing their weekly shopping and bantered with the vendors in local patois, sharing a joke or two along with his offering of tea.
My aunt tells me this anecdote in the days after his death, as we busy ourselves with preparations for his funeral in St. Lucia, where he lived and spent his last decade plagued by unfathomable suffering. And I carry the image with me, serrated even in its sweetness, as I begin gathering other moments, other stories, clasping them to me with a sorrowing hunger and gratitude.
When my aunt takes me to visit the shop where he loved buying his roti so we can tell the owner, a warm and lovely woman named Rada, of his passing, I want to weep at the kindness with which she recalls him: how she’d taken to praying with him to try to get him to focus on the good and beautiful in his life and the way his last visit in mid-summer had spoken to her of the end. Unsteady on his feet and obviously in pain, he’d driven all the way to her shop to get his sister, who was visiting from England, his favorite curried stew wrapped in a traditional Indian bread.
His gesture, says Rada, was that of a man willing to sacrifice what he must to bring a moment of joy to a loved one because he knew he danced with the fleeting fingers of time.
Before we leave, she touches my hand, tells me my dad was a good man and is in a good place — the same one now home to her son who died suddenly the year before — and donates a tray of rotis for us to have at the house after the funeral service.
Everywhere, his character towers before us. As his sisters and brother walk through town in the busy, surreal days since he took his last breath in a hospital room not long after I flew to his bedside, they are wrapped in condolences and reminiscences: Your brother was such a charming man. He was so flamboyant. He had such charisma. … The news of his death shocks everyone because, only three weeks earlier, he was seen out and about, the vibrancy of his personality apparently dwarfing the bony thinness of his frame, the anguish of his decline.
This is how he is remembered and how he comes back to me, as an engaging, gregarious presence, always ready with a quick smile, a warm greeting, a witty, playful remark.
Yet this is the father I lost, not with the peaceful slipping away that followed days of intense pain in the hospital, but with the accumulation of affliction and hardship over the years that had him turn a different face to those he loved the most. Others got his sparkling personality; we were often buffeted by his frustration and fear, his resignation and isolation and all the contortions of mind and spirit that arose from his struggles to comprehend his fate and his determination to fight for a life inexorably diminishing.
Despite our own moments of genuine connection over the years, when tenderness and hope supplanted too many bungled attempts to nurture such a weighted relationship, it wasn’t until his passing that I realized how many of my happy memories had been pillaged by the ravages of his journey.
When one of my aunts suggests she’d like to collect some of our memories for the eulogy she will deliver, I agree to help her edit them but balk when she asks for my own. As tears fill my eyes, she apologizes for upsetting me, not realizing, she says, such a task would make me emotional. But the truth, the one I don’t admit, is I cannot find any to share.
Yes, there are moments I’ve savored from my visits, the quiet companionship of strolling the beach with him at sunset, the communion of mealtimes, even the simple gesture of slipping my hand into his as we navigated the sweltering bustle of a day in town. But the stories that would vitally bring him to life, rebuild him from the wreckage of loneliness and lassitude, those seem to have vanished.
And so I tuck close the sketches of others, like alms for my withered mind’s eye.
In her eulogy, my aunt speaks of a bright and mischievous boy who even as a youth showed signs of the headstrong, persevering man my father would become, launching fireworks for the family at New Year’s despite the risk of setting fire to the breadfruit trees and biking the long, mountainous ride from the southern town of Vieux Fort to Castries all in one day. She recalls how in his early days as a commercial pilot, friends would stop her on the street to say how much they’d enjoyed flying with him, given his cheerful observations from the cockpit, and revels in the Christmases we all spent together in the states, where my dad would combine the best of traditions, playing jovial host with his Lucian carols even as he roasted chestnuts on our wood-burning stove.
And this is how I begin to piece together a different life, a different man, a man so familiar and dear: when my cousin remembers how he used to get such joy out of giving the best gifts, presenting her with her first Cabbage Patch Kid and tea set and a cool stuffed bear named Sammy Skates; when a longtime college friend celebrates the enthusiasm with which he always visited Lehigh, making a great effort to get to know all of my friends; and when another, who vacationed in St. Lucia with her family, recalls his bubbling personality and the graciousness with which he showed them around.
My father was an amazing man, she says, reminding me he would want to be remembered for his exuberance.
For now, the more immediate past pins me, but I take comfort in the memories of those who knew him at his brightest, certain he burns even more brilliantly now — and grateful that even in his last moments, his body weak and wracked with pain, it was that light which stunned me, his true and perfect essence flickering till the end.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times