I have a healthy respect for death, as a marker of absences and a gauge of time.
Since 2015 knocked me to my literal knees, then on my ass for what looks like the long haul, I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with death but keenly aware and unafraid of it.
I am ready to go.
My living has been made easier; more soulful and simple.
I was precociously aware of my mortality and physical self in the world as far back as 4 or 5 years old. Stands to reason I’ve been living comfortably in death as an adult.
All this makes the average person so squeamish.
People usually transfer their disquiet for death onto the other — like death is a thing blithely observed from way far outside it; as though death’s occurrence can be held at bay the more we think it’s for the old, the sick, the weird or the evil.
There is even a myth that has been around all my 50 years that says death “comes in threes,” meaning that when one person dies — usually a notable or celebrity type — two more will follow in succession. This has sometimes historically held true, but, like horoscopes, it is largely coincidental and not a fail-safe, blanket truism.
A few years ago I gave into my hypergraphia compulsions and started writing on all the walls of my apartment. I do this to keep my brain as empty as possible and to satiate my needs to fill negative spaces that are not already filled with art.
So there are quotes from writers I love (Franz Kafka between the bedroom and living room, Toni Morrison in the bathroom beneath a small wall mirror, Mark Twain on the bedroom closet door); snatches of song lyrics; ridiculous utterances my father said while wearing a hernia belt; secretive language shared between confidants; startling statistics gleaned from PBS documentaries (of the 9 million people living in the American South at the start of the Civil War, 4 million were Negro slaves); haiku, mash-ups of rap lyrics from Chance the Rapper and me; lists of desert island albums; top-five lists of the greatest rappers living and dead; love notes between my partner and I.
I think this freaks out virgin visitors to our place who are already overwhelmed by the explosive mélange of mammies and other renderings of blackness.
Otherwise, folks who know me are neither surprised nor frightened.
But the masterpiece is a messy thing I call my Death Jamb — a running list scrawled on the door jamb between the kitchen and bathroom naming all the dead people and their death dates from year to year. The catch is this list does not contain every dead person claimed within a given year, only folks who hold some significance or relevance to my life.
For example, Gerry Goffin, the ex-husband and songwriting partner of Carole King is listed one year because I have a fascination with the Brill Building songwriters, and Goffin and King wrote beautiful music together.
I started the Death Jamb list in 2011 on a whim and because that earlier mythological thing I said about people “dying in threes” was actually true. In rapid order, Senator and dashed presidential hopeful John Edwards’ wife earned instant martyrdom when she succumbed to cancer at the height of his philandering and bastard-making woes. Shortly thereafter, my friend Torie lost her beloved grandmother, then my friend J.J. lost her mother.
Back then I was not making note of exact dates, but I did write above their names: “in 3’s.”
Elizabeth Edwards struck a chord with me because she, like my own mother, reminded me of dignified women who give their lives in service to the men they love only to be abandoned and made vulnerable to disease by their broken hearts.
Under the heading on the Death Jamb of “Tres Mas,” also in 2011, are Phoebe Snow, who died April 26, also my birthday; Gil-Scott Heron, who died on May 27; and on that same day Karen Carter, a longtime friend-from-a-distance, lost to a marathon battle with cancer.
Phoebe Snow was a surprise, a spectacular talent and one of the few soulful white people I grew up listening to, lost sight of but returned to in the mid-1980s during one of the many eras in which I was “finding myself,” meaning I was living in Denver, trying again to make a go of college and listening to everything I could get my hands on.
Gil-Scott Heron was no surprise.
I recall thinking: What took him so long?
I had just read the unsettling New Yorker profile and I squirmed reading the part where, unable to no longer control himself, Heron smokes crack right in front of the writer.
Of course, Karen Carter brought into sharper focus how delicate life is, and her death and celebration of her life brought together lesbians of all stripes, colors and corners of her life. Her death deputized me and made me consider who would show up in the aftermath of my death.
Skipping ahead to 2015, I lost some greats.
I say “I” because some cultural giants died who marked specific chapters of change and growth along my way to myself.
Again, it is not every dead person, only the ones who mattered in some way large or small to me:
January 8: Gospel singer/composer Andrae Crouch, whom my mother took me to see perform and meet at a white church in the hinterlands of Butler County when I was a young girl. Crouch also had a seminal influence on my mother’s music, and she taught her own Gospel group a batch of his catalogue. I still have his sheet music, which my mother learned from.
May 14: B.B. King: Legend. Period.
May 23: Actress/comedienne Anne Meara, because she and Jerry Stiller remain one of the most gifted, largely unheralded comedic couples.
June 11: Ornette Coleman: This Jazz giant challenged my listening and understanding of already complicated and obtuse music.
July 20: Jazz saxophonist Jack Walker who schlepped and traveled with IsWhat!? blowing spiral madness on Free Jazz/Rap collabos who day-labored at GE. Damn.
July 26: Bobbi Kristina Brown: A fittingly tragic end to a tumultuous, confusing young life.
Aug. 15: Civil Rights legend Julian Bond; Akil, my sister’s uncle and a supportive friend, died of cancer Aug. 31. His brother, Michael, dropped dead Sept. 2. Alvin Toussaint died Nov. 10. NOLA in the house.
Going forward I cannot wait to see who leaves me as I count the days left for my own self.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]