How You Get There

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Dear Yolande,

I'm at home, and I have just finished lighting the white candle at the shrine. I have sat down now to write to you from a place you don't think you will ever find. I want you to know that I was there with you that day, even though you felt like you were the only one listening to the pastor say, "There is a time for everything."

It was February 21, 2002. I was watching you hold yourself together. You were wearing all white because you did not want to wear black to your child's funeral. You wore make-up and felt guilty about wearing make-up. You dressed Harmony in a lace white dress with a satin sash that tied behind her back so at six she could feel beautiful, even if it was to attend her little sister's funeral.

Someone else was holding True for you. His small body would fit comfortably in your lap. But, neither your heart nor your hands could hold him. I can't see your husband Rodney. You can't see him either, but you know he is sitting somewhere in white. Maybe he is holding your son. You don't know. Your brain has no room to keep account. Your eyes are wet and you are just trying to listen. Will the pastor say something that you can hold on to? Will he find the magic words your head can hold other than the thought that kept racing through your mind.

"I don't want to do this." That is what you told your father in the car on the way there. You thought of Omi, the Yoruba priestess. She had magic words to speak to the next world. You remember this. You remember the first time she taught you how to set up your first ancestral shrine.

In the pew, you had your hands in your lap. You were rocking back and forth to calm and steady yourself. Your uterus was contracting, and you didn't know grief could do this, that grief could impregnate you. That day you buried your child and gave birth to a new life with grief.

You glanced over and saw one of your sixth-grade students looking at the little closed casket and crying. She was hunched over crying. And, her grief pushed you out of your pain for a second. Her face is the only crying face you will remember from the room full of people.

In front of the casket on an easel was a poster-size picture of Divine at 3, right before her fourth birthday. She looked like a little golden version of Betty Boop. Her hair had just grown back a little finer and straighter than what it had been before the radiation burned it away. In the picture you see her right in the midst of a wave. At the time she was waving hello, but on this day, the wave means goodbye. She had gone home. But, no one said, "She had gone home to glory" like they said at church when older people died. There was an unspoken understanding that those words did not apply to children. Children belonged at home with their family and maybe with a little dog too.

After the funeral, people come to you to offer their condolences. You only remember one woman. It's the woman you hugged and told her, "I want to die." She looked at you and with a smile and said, "No, you don't." You watched her walk away. She doesn't turn back to look at you, but you hold onto her words. I was there. You didn't really want to die, you just didn't think you were strong enough to go on.

Now, I'm going to tell you what everyone wants to know. How? How do you get to the other side? But, no matter what I tell you, you will have to travel a long winding road until you get here. You will need to believe in something beyond. You will need to hold onto your mind, what is left of your heart, and you will have to be brave. But, I promise; you have what you need to get here.

***

I want to remind you of the time you watched Diana Ross play Dorothy for the first time in The Wiz. You were eleven, and it played on Channel 7 in Boston. You sat in the small den off to the left of the kitchen. The room with the green wallpaper. You sat on the floor with your legs folded with two of your five older siblings who talked too loudly behind you. You listened as Dorothy tells everyone she meets that she wants to get back home.

You wanted Dorothy and her friends to make it to Oz. You watched Michael Jackson, playing a scarecrow with yellow, bent Mickey Mouse shoes, quote from philosophers, but wish for a brain. You thought the rusting tin man's cries for oil were hilarious and wondered if what he really needed was more love. His heart had been broken, so he forgot he had one. And, the lion discovered he had more courage than he thought. You loved this movie. You loved the music and the dancing. You loved all the beauty and magic in Emerald City. And, you loved that Dorothy was so loyal to her friends. She refused to go to see The Wiz without her companions. She refused to leave them behind.

In the second to the last scene of The Wiz, Dorothy is in the same pale lavender flowy dress she was wearing in the first scene of the movie, but this time, she is standing in space. Glinda, the good witch, is floating and sparkling. She has just told Dorothy that she has had what she needed to go home the whole time. Dorothy affirms the word "Home" aloud. Then she begins in a soft whispering voice and tear-filled eyes, the first lyrics of the song: "When I think of home, I think of a place where there is...love overflowing." She wants to get back there.

At the end of the song, Dorothy dramatically drops her head and clicks her shiny silver heels three times, and she is back to the world she remembers. All her family members are in the home she runs towards. Toto runs too. Dorothy knows all the people she loves will be as she left them.

This is a happy ending. Your sister concludes, "That was a good movie."

You wanted to be happy for Dorothy. But, you didn't like that she had left her friends behind. You wondered what became of her companions back in Oz. What you didn't know then, was that the story was metaphysical. Dorothy's companions represented different parts of her. There was only Dorothy and the manifestations of her fears. She was the tin man looking for a heart. She was the lion looking for her courage, and she was the scarecrow looking to know and trust her own mind.

You also didn't know that you would become like the character Dorothy. Not the Dorothy that runs home at the end, but the Dorothy that runs out after Toto in the storm and gets herself caught in a tornado, only to land in a place she doesn't recognize. Just like Dorothy, it took you some time to find the feeling of home. You didn't feel you could walk in the shoes that were put on your feet or move forward on the path that stretched before you. You couldn't find a whole heart, the courage, or the mind you needed to get there.

***

I remember the day you were driving on what felt like autopilot and didn't realize how close you were to arriving at your house until you had driven 17 miles south of Miami. It had been a good day; you felt almost happy for a full moment. Then you heard, "You're not normal." And the familiar sadness returned. The closer you got to home, the more you felt the weight of what was still real. That fleeting feeling of happiness was a momentary escape—a fantasy.

It was like a fresh wound that was just starting to heal had just gotten snagged on a fence. Something caught on the skin around your heart just as you started to move on beyond the grief. Early grief is like this. You start to wake with a new first thought, but the other thought stands waiting backstage for its cue. It is there to remind you that you still have a long way to go. "Divine is gone," it will say with a clear and projected voice. This voice will sound like a cruel, taunting echo. You will then hear an evil whisper: "You will open the door, and one less child will be there. This is not normal, and your house will never feel like home again." This voice is a trickster. It tells you the truth and a hurtful lie. And, it implies other lies that you will believe. It tells you that you are weak and alone. It tells you that you are not loved and that you are not smart or brave enough to keep going. You didn't know how to exist with a heart divided.

***

Your first shrine was divided in two. It was created with the help of a Yoruba priestess who practiced the West African tradition. It was 1999 and you were pregnant with your son True then. Harmony was four and Divine was two. The left side was reserved for Rodney's ancestors and the right was reserved for the ancestors from your bloodline. When Divine transitioned and became a common ancestor, you placed her picture in the middle with a tall white candle placed beside a shot glass full of honey for a sweet road during her celestial travels.

"They can do more for you in the spiritual world than they could ever do in the physical world," she said then. The priestess was wearing a white headwrap, a white blouse. and a white cotton skirt. She dipped her two fingers in the cool water four times. After each time, she flicked the water from her fingers before each phrase: "Omi tutu," "Ona tutu," "Ile tutu," "Tutu laroye."

A shrine is like a magic door to Oz. But, you can never open it from the outside. You can knock. You can leave things in front of it, listen to what you hear behind it, but you can't open the door and walk straight inside. Not until you are called home.

"Heaven is home, and earth is the marketplace." This is what you read once in a book about Yoruba culture. The belief is that people reincarnate through their family bloodline to get the things their soul needs. Each time a soul forgets something, there must be a return to the marketplace. And there is a place reserved for the ancestors or egun. They become the link between what is seen and not seen on earth. Once you create a shrine for them in your home, you create a space for their energy to stay in your life. But, it takes longer for it to feel natural when you do not want to stay in your life. Some parts of you leave.

With time and help from this ritual, you will slowly find yourself moving closer to the middle. Somewhere between lost and home. But, before that, you stay on autopilot.

Because you have heard home is where the heart is, and you feel your heart divided between two worlds. You click into survival mode and try to find a marketplace to get what you need to be okay. You want to make your two other children feel like nothing is missing. You will find comfort in your classroom nineteen miles away; it is a safe space to land. A space you can control. You do this for your children too. You take them to school with you. You ride together in the car in the mornings and back just in time to have dinner and get ready for bed. You fill the days and the years with activity. Home becomes a place of preparation for the next day, the next showcase, recital, soccer game, or fundraiser. You all move forward one year at a time, wobbly at first until you all learn to walk differently in your own designated rows down a winding road.

Then you begin to laugh together, watch movies, hug, play dominos, attend parties, eat out at Thai restaurants, pray together, and eat home-cooked meals at the table in a wooden breakfast nook. Divine's face watches you all from inside a picture frame at the shrine across the room.

People that don't know you think there were always just the four of you. This bothers you. You want to show them the picture of the five of you at Disney in the summer of 2001. Divine is wearing a white t-shirt with princess written across the front in pink, white jean shorts, and pink and white sneakers. She is also wearing a pink Minnie Mouse hat with black ears on top of her head. Her name is on the back. You and Harmony are wearing these hats in black. Rodney and True are wearing smiles, but not hats. And, you are all held together in the frame.

That summer you stood in the Castle of Miracles at the Give Kids the World Village and wished upon all the stars on the sparkling ceiling. They tell you that Divine's gold star will stay there—forever.

***

You have only one picture with all three of your children before the tumor. For years you will take out this one picture and think, "this is what home feels like." It was taken the summer of 2000 by your friend Mary. She captures the four of you poolside at the hotel she was staying at that weekend. Divine is in the curve of your right arm in a yellow bathing suit with white daisies across the top. She is wrapped in a towel, shivering and giggling as "Auntie Mary" coos, "Say Cheeeese." Harmony is in the curve of your left arm wearing a bathing suit with three rainbow seahorses. Harmony's skin is the cocoa to Divine's butterscotch. They both have little afros framing their smiling faces. Harmony's head is tilted toward you and her left hand is holding onto one of the handles of the umbrella stroller where chubby little True sits in his blue short set staring straight at the camera.

When you look at this picture, you see a linked chain of happiness. You see a complete chain with no missing links and see love—overflowing. You see True Divine Harmony and all our names on the back of Disney hats in Magic Kingdom.

Love feels fixed in this moment until you learn that love extends beyond space and time and overflows into the next world.

***

For many years you will dip two fingers in the water four times and fling droplets north, south, east, and west and repeat the words: "Omi tutu, ona tutu, ile tutu, tutu laroye."

Memories of Divine are everywhere. She is at the table eating "rack-a-roni". She is singing "Who Let the Dogs Out" or saying "Scooby, Scooby Doo" over and over again. She is rocking herself in the black chair in the living room, and sitting in the swing next to Harmony in the backyard. She is softly patting True on the head and calling him "True Boy", the nickname she has given him, or she is laying her head on her father's chest. She is also smiling at you and emanating more love than you think possible for a little person.

You see her like the many faces from Oz that float parallel on both sides behind Dorothy as she sings about home. You wonder if she is now in a place like Oz, and if you will get there.

"She didn't have to come." This is what the Yoruba priestess had told you on the day of Divine's birth reading in January of 1997 when she was 3 months old. "She comes from a very high place in heaven."

You imagine Divine dancing in an emerald city. You imagine her next to Glinda floating in the air. And, you imagine your beautiful golden brown girl perched high in a bedazzled chair.

Putting a picture of Divine at the shrine with pictures of your great grandparents felt inappropriate. How could a child become an ancestor? How could she feel like a ghost and a winged angel at the same time? There needed to be a way for the world she was in to be as real to you as Dorothy's Oz had been real to her.

***

Divine was home. That is what you begin to repeat to yourself. She had returned to her glory and her high place in heaven. She had gotten what she needed from the marketplace. She had loved and changed and made love more real to you in a way you could only understand with time. And, she was also home within you, Rodney, Harmony, and True. How you get there is through facing the truth that love is eternal and omnipresent. You arrive at a love that comfortably lives beyond grief, time, and space.

In The Wiz, Diana Ross as Dorothy doesn't say, "there is no place like home" before she clicks her heels like Judy Garland as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz. In The Wiz the song, "Home" becomes the equivalent to the chant. But, I think chanting and singing can go together when you are working to create magic. This is what the priestess did at the shrine that first time. She chanted and sang in Yoruba to reach the ancestors on the other side.

You will come to maintain Divine's shrine in the mornings. It sits on a small white table where there is a framed photo of her wearing her pink t-shirt and a smiling face. You will refresh the tall glass with the emerald green trim by filling it with fresh cool water. You will keep one tall white candle burning, and water the lucky bamboo plant that has three sets of braided branches. Some days you will leave a fresh orange and a shot glass filled with honey. Some days you will add a vase with fresh white flowers. Other days you will burn incense or leave a small plate of food. You dip your fingers in the water, stand outside her magic door, and imagine her smiling on the other side. She is home.

Glinda tells Dorothy that home is not a just physical place but a place of knowing. "Knowing your heart, knowing your mind, knowing your courage." You get there, Yolande. You get to the knowing. You get to the feeling of home and wholeness—where you no longer feel like the one leaving or the one being left behind.