I’ve woken up to a lot of sounds. Crying has never been one of them.
It’s a New York spring morning: hazy, dim, quiet. From the bottom of the staircase I hear these new sounds: wailing, then choked silence, then gasping for breath. It is 6 in the morning and my mother is in tears.
My step-dad looks up at me, “You awake?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Your grandmother died in her sleep this morning.”
You know in the movies, when the world is about to end, there’s a few minutes of stillness, slow panning, and a classical piece with a slow string section? That was my life in that moment.
“We’ll call the school in a minute,” he says.
That’s right. It’s a school day. I have a test this morning. “No, I have to go.”
I am. Absolutely sure. I want nothing more than to get away from home. I have a test today, and I don’t want to retake it. But it’s more than that.
I walk out the door, and fumble through Spotify in search of an escape. During tough times, I recommend all humans listen to Jay-Z.
I’m fine. I’m fine.
I get to school before the bell, allowing me to partake in the routine morning fraternizing. I sit at my normal table, with my normal friends, making normal jokes and getting normal laughs. I go to my first class and fall asleep like normal. From the outside, everything is normal. On the inside, I’m as empty as a church in Sodom.
The final bell rings and I begin the trek home. For the first time today, I feel like telling someone what is going on. I turn to Devon, my brother in spirit, “Remember, when we got home yesterday, my mom was on the phone with grandma? Telling her how to bake weed cookies because of that problem she was having?”
“Yeah, man, that was hilarious.”
“Yeah… she’s not going to be able to make those cookies.”
Nothing else had to be said. The barrage of questions begin. Are you okay? Why didn’t you stay home? What can I do to help?
I’m fine. I’m fine.
Home is no better. Mom is still crying, step-dad struggles to find something to do. My aunt chokes back tears, trying to stay strong. Relatives I haven’t seen in years cry into their coffee. They ask the same questions: Are you okay? Do you need anything? Why did you go to school?
Same answers: I’m fine. I’m fine.
They ask again, repeating the questions over and over, expecting me to be broken. I keep assuring them. I’m fine, swear to God. But it doesn’t satisfy them. So they get creative: Do you want to cry?
From the outside, everything is normal. On the inside, I’m as empty as a church in Sodom.
Yes. Yes, I do. With every fiber of my being I want to break down, to show that I am not inhuman. That this feeling had been building up inside of me since 6 a.m., and is pushing against my tear ducts. But I feel hollow; I’m trying to push out the tears that just won’t come. I want nothing more than to cry. Instead, I make coffee and bring tissues to the ones who actually can express their grief.
From 3 pm to 10 pm, this is my life.
Then everything dissipates; tears dry up and people go home. Catharsis was achieved. Where I’m from, death is followed by a celebration of life and celebrating is best paired with a feast. So we sit down to feast.
Then the doorbell rings: it’s my uncle, who drove up from DC unexpectedly, sobbing through his four-hour drive. Here he stands, a 6’2” FBI agent, with a full beard, a ziploc bag full of last night’s kill, his MacBook, and tears in his eyes. His shaking hand shakes mine and pokes a hole through the imaginary wall between us. There was something about his old-school, macho man ways I had never quite connected with. But here is a point of entry: our arms touching in the doorway, his wet eyes meeting mine. I invite him in. I brew a pot of coffee. The night just got another seven hours longer.
At midnight I’m two floors away from my room, at a kitchen table with my uncle and mother. At 1 am, they are crying and reminiscing. By 3, I’m going down memory lane too. I tell the stories. The remember-whens. And I inch that emptiness forward. But still, nothing comes. At 4 am, the stories stop and there’s a moment of silence. With a slight choke and a worn out throat my uncle says, “You know, Linda always had a record on in the house. That was one thing I always loved.”
I didn’t need to be asked twice. I grabbed a crate of records and turn on the player. What to play? Maybe Hendrix? My grandmother loved Neil Young, maybe that. Some Harry Chapin? Something my mom loved. Let’s see: Appetite For Destruction, maybe. Pearl might be good. Abbey Road could be nice. Definitely not The Blueprint.
“Is that Blueprint?”
What? Did my stern, FBI uncle just recognize The Blueprint? The Jay-Z album?
“Yeah man, I love Jay-Z,” I say.
“Me, too! That album was my shit back in the day! Put it on!”
The needle drops and the stories start. The time he met Talib Kweli: his then-girlfriend had introduced the two in Hawaii. Reportedly, Talib was unhappy she was with a white man. He asked how I knew about Tribe. We talked about our favorite Kanye beats. We had nine tracks of what therapists call quality time. Then it happened.
“I can’t see ‘em comin down my eyes. So I gotta make the song cry.”
Those drums, that sample, the Just Blaze beat. Those first few seconds: “Picture all the possibilities/Picture all the possibilities/Sounds like a love song/Sounds like a love song.” And then Jay-Z’s smooth, somber flow, “I can’t see ‘em comin down my eyes. So I gotta make the song cry. I can’t see ‘em…”
That had been my day, Jay-Z. I couldn’t see them coming down my eyes either. But we hadn’t even gotten to the first verse when I felt the dam break.
All at once, my empty soul flooded and poured out. And I cried like I never had before.
Five minutes later, I was fine. My grandmother had died, and I was fine.