“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” ~ Albert Einstein.
My father-in-law was a special man. He was famous in his district for being a straight shooter, he called things as he saw them. If you knew you had done something wrong, or foolish, you avoided him, for he didn’t joke to point it out. He had survived the death of a child, and then the death of his wife in childbirth, and he had raised his surviving children (and some grandchildren too) on his own, in the good old-fashioned, Bible fearing way of sparing no rod. I didn’t meet him until much later in his life, after he had been bent (but not broken) by a stroke.
He was a commanding story-teller. He would command his grandchildren to sit in front of him and ‘look me inna mi eye’ as he told them family stories. Oh how I wish we had had cell phones with video cameras and recorders handy back then, to capture his wisdom, his logic, his philosophies. Some of his stories were crude, he could make you blush with his honesty, but he had a clear understanding of right and wrong. But his energy dwindled, and he became more dependent on others, a hard thing for any man to cope with. Earlier, when recovering from the stroke, he had stayed with his nephew, but soon became impatient, and managed to find his way back to his own home. ‘People must live with man, man mustn’t live with people’ he declared. He was the King of his castle, even though at the time his new home was still only partially built.
He let it be known that he wanted a ‘Family get-together’, not a reunion. I have no idea why he had an aversion to the term, but like most Jamaicans he loved a play on words, so perhaps he heard ruin in reunion? So, a get-together was planned. Now the other lovely thing about Jamaican words is that their pronunciation is not necessarily correct. A hysterical video going around on social media some months ago declared that someone had been ‘dagger-nosed’ with Corona (diagnosed was the intended word, but picture the swab going up into the nether regions of the nose, and doesn’t the term capture the deed?). But the word together is deliciously pronounced like two separate words: to gather. Which is far more appropriate. A gathering of far-flung family members, what could be better? Mass Adrian had one condition: he didn’t want anyone to come who did not want to be there. He wanted no long faces, no resentment, no bitterness, no fighting. Come because you love me, or don’t come at all.
Some feared that the fruition of his long-desired plan would hasten his demise. What more did he have to live for after that? And perhaps it did. But (thought the planners), better he have his get-to-gather and then die, than not to have it at all. And so it came to pass. With children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered round him in his finished home, there was laughter and nuff good food, and photo opportunities and togetherness.
I am often touched and humbled by the wisdom of those who don’t appear to have the advantages of secondary and tertiary education. There are many such characters to be found in the family trees of people of African descent wherever you find them. People who had to focus on keeping families fed and clothed, rather than pursuing academic ideals. And yet they drew lessons from the earth, from relationships, from their Bible, and set shining examples for whole communities to aspire to.
This year, this 2020, has stolen some of the brightest and dearest from us in an ugly way, forcing them to fight their last battle surrounded by masked and gowned strangers. Even though I was not able to be with my own parents for their last days, I knew that my siblings were there, listening to their breath, holding their hands, giving them one last kiss, one farewell hug. This latest hell we find ourselves in (globally) is far different. This has broken all of our norms.
Last week, the voice of a Jamaican icon was silenced. Like my father-in-law, Toots Hibberts did not have the benefit of years of education, and yet his music which spanned seven decades was pure hope and positivity from the get-go. One of my friends paid him a tribute by stringing together his song titles – Never you change, never grow old, his lyrics declared him to be a man who would ‘fight for the right not for the wrong’. He is credited with coining the name ‘reggae’ which of course is known universally now. It is thanks to him that I can recite in correct order, at least a partial list of the books of the Old Testament. His music still gets you up on your feet, arms swinging, blood pumping, circulating pure energy and joy.
As an entertainer he easily moved between genres (Take me home, country road) and audiences. You could as easily find him on a stage in Jamaica during Festival season as playing in Nashville, Tennessee . He was loved internationally, and sang along side musical icons like Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and more. This simple, humble, wise giant was comfortable in any crowd, and always positive. I was lucky to see him perform live some years ago, and was so proud to be able to say I knew him when his music could only be heard on juke boxes and at parties. In fact, his song celebrating his arrest and imprisonment for possession of marijuana (54-46) was considered to be ‘gangster music’ and if played at a school social would guarantee that the party would be shut down instantly.
In this year of all years, when so many of our treasured practices and rituals have been virtually transformed; when so many of our beloved family members, friends, and icons have been prematurely taken from us, it is important to pause and give thanks for the many years of joy we have had. This year we are learning more lessons than can be crammed into an accelerated degree program. We are finding things out about ourselves and what is truly important that we may otherwise not have known. So even as we mourn we must celebrate the wisdom that the universe is forcing upon us. And even though ‘time tough’ we can withstand the ‘pressure drop’ and we will ‘never grow old’!
Have a dancing weekend, Family! May we remember those we have lost with laughter and love, and may we hold each other closer, even as we stay apart.