See, stay alive
in the meantime, laugh
a little harder. Go on
and gnaw that bone clean.
— Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, “The Gospel of Barbecue”
(RNS) — When I was younger there was an old black, dusty grand piano that sat on the blue carpet of my grandparents’ living room. There were keys missing that your right hand would touch out of muscle memory. Sometimes, if you hit it in the right place, your left hand could play two keys at one time. Of course, the sound was not pleasant. It was terrible, actually. Sort of like the screeching sound we heard when the neighborhood cats would run for their many lives from the neighborhood dogs.
I remember hearing my grandaddy pat his foot to the tune of the blues, playing chords and smiling as he stopped to clap. It was the first instrument I taught myself. Now, I settle for drums and sermons and words on blank pages, but you couldn’t tell me when I sat on the left hip of my granddaddy that my destiny wasn’t to become Beethoven or, in our world, Cory Henry. A funk apostle.
I wanted to start 2022 off by writing thank you and that it’s good to be here and that we all made it through. But then I went back to my grandparents’ house four days ago. I walked into the smell of pigs feet and rice and fried chicken and my momma’s chocolate chip cookies. I walked into a house that used to be filled with familiar furniture and art and old china. I walked into a house that used to be filled with so much laughter and so many songs and so many reminders my Pentecostal baptism still carried with it a fire. But now, the house that sits at 268, on Sugar Hill, is all but empty.
In place of the old piano, my grandmother, Margaret Elizabeth Albert, sits in a folding chair as “The Price Is Right” plays on the large television atop the mantle. As she sits, I can’t help but wonder: What does it mean to live in a house that used to be filled with people and memories but now is filled with emptiness? What does it mean to enter a new year with the same problems but feel like you’re forced to bury them or conjure up ways to make them less believable?
To be completely honest, I thought this year would begin not with questions but with resolutions. And to be completely honest, I don’t think another year is enough to deal with the death and the disease and the disappointments of the last few years. And to be completely honest, I’m thinking a lot about how many of us — and I’m meaning how many of the elders who have become ancestors — helped us get to where we are today. To this new year.
New years and new dreams are interesting. They feel something like that old piano: You know it doesn’t work but you play it, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes making music and sometimes making chaos, sometimes fumbling your way into something beautiful. But you also know some things just ain’t working like they used to. That’s just life: We learn how to live with broken things.
I am reminded that, for many of those ancestors, they never received their healing or their flowers before they crossed over.
“What are you bringing with you,” my professor recently asked us at the beginning of class.
Danté, what are you bringing with you?
That’s a question I think I’ve wondered about for a long time now. I’ve wondered what it means to carry weights in your hands as you write, in your eyes as you cry, in your feet as you run and in your chest as you breathe.
But then, that’s too distant, isn’t it?
So here we go.
A few days before the new year, as I was making my daughter’s lunch, my 3-year-old son, Asa, had a febrile seizure. I can’t get the images out of my mind — or the sounds or the way he stared into nothingness as my wife, Jasamine, and I called his name. I have never been so scared or felt so helpless in my life. I knew each human being carried weights but the crushing pain of the thought “damn, my son is about to die in my arms” was as personal as the breath I just took. Breathe, Danté, breathe. That’s what I told myself when the dispatcher asked me to count how often Asa’s stomach went in and out and back in and back out again.
And the crazy part about all of this: As my son traveled to the hospital by ambulance, his little body holding a temperature of 104, I am expected to complete a paper and then an interview and then another conversation about a book that already took so much from me.
Breathe, Danté, breathe.
Hours went by, Asa slept in the big white bed in the emergency department, with my wife at his side. His temperature went down, he started laughing again, we were able to take him home. But my hands still shiver and my stomach still hurts, and my eyes still fill with tears at the thought that such a grief could have been forever ours.
Is this the resolution? Is this what it means to be alive and afraid?
“Aye, Jay,” I told my friend Jason in a conversation a few days later, “people think this is the dream.” We both laughed. He shook his head from side to side three times, his locs touching his ears and his shoulders. “It ain’t the dream, bruh,” I said. “It ain’t the dream.”
“Listen, champ,” he said, squinching his eyes a little bit, “the dream is this.”
And when he said the word this, I knew he meant the dream was about being together, being alive, being thankful and even being afraid. I was reminded of us sitting on a rooftop on a warm D.C. afternoon, him talking about the memories of his dying father, me remembering my dying uncle. How much death we are surrounded by! How painful it is to experience and how sacred being together actually is. Death is real but so are our memories. So is love.
I wish people knew how much we carried when we show up in the world — that the things that bring us so much joy are also where you’ll find our deepest insecurities.
Jay told me to look up the word enthusiasm. And I did. I learned it does not simply mean passion but it means to be filled with God, and to be caught up and inspired and overtaken by what could only be described as sacred and divine.
I imagine that is what should occupy our attention, our prayers, our politics, our religion, our moving, and breathing, and living. Hopefully not just for a moment but for a life. Hopefully we fall so in love with the idea of our healing and our being whole and free that what seems unremarkable —something like holding a child’s hand, a lover’s attention, an audience’s heart, a dreamer’s imagination, a student’s grief, a grandparent’s sadness — would become a miracle that is less like magic and more like falling in love again and again.
I think we owe that to ourselves.
I think we owe that to our children. I think we owe that to our ancestors. I think we owe ourselves something of honesty and goodness and mercy each day.
“Daddy,” Asa says to me a few days before the new year, “can you come play?” I have just hung up the phone. He is looking more like himself. I still feel sad when I see him, but I also feel a little bit more courageous. “Of course, I can.” I put down my phone, run into his room, grab him again and hold him tight and close to my chest.
That’s the dream. That’s the melody.
Some keys don’t work right, I know, but we’ve found a way to be here together and making something of living. Some furniture is missing, yes. Some rooms are empty. But the house and the memories and the hugs and the body and the witness remain.
“Trouble don’t last always,” the preacher says. Is that true? No one really knows. But that desire does keep me grounded and growing. That’s enough of a resolution. That’s a gospel. For me. For us.
Go on now. Laugh a little harder. Stay alive, baby. Stay alive.
(Danté Stewart is the author of “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle.” He is a student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Connect with him at dantecstewart.com and @stewartdantec. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)