In my Caribbean culture, it is the women who tend to the dying. For us, it is a duty of care, a grooming to provide emotional support that exists nearly exclusively in the realm of girl children. When a loved one is faced with their mortality, we enter the home and start cleaning. A clean space leads to a clear mind which leads to hope. We answer the phone at inconvenient times because “what if?” We remind the sick that they are worthy, remind the community that the terminally ill are worth grieving, and remind ourselves that our work is worth it. I term this role the mourner.
I stepped into the role of a mourner when a long-time neighbor called with news of his recently diagnosed stage 4 cancer. His condition was the worst kind. For years he had maintained regular doctor visits complete with screening tests, discovering later that the screening his insurance covered only caught 70% of prostate cancer cases. Unluckily, his prostate cancer would fall into the minority of cases.
“It’s not your fault,” I offer. “This is another way that the American dream fails us. And who knows if you’d have treatment if you had stayed in Barbados.” His head nods in response, more an appreciation for my presence than proof that the consolation sufficed. I have become his cheerleader in that way, not the best but still visible and enthusiastic. I try to remind him that things could always be worse: “At least it’s not death by COVID with two weeks of notice.” He seems grateful for that.
I cannot recall exactly whether I volunteered for the role or whether it was asked of me in subtle tones of can-you-imagine. Either way I felt compelled to be there for him. My family encouraged it. He had no children, he always asked about me, was proud of my achievements. He has brothers and nephews and childhood friends—men who have walked through life alongside him but now only offer him a phone call, while I do the rest. The skill of advocacy is one they have never learned. They cannot call the insurance company and have his medication transferred to a pharmacy nearby; cannot stick to the rotating schedule of hospital visits that up his mood; nor can they be trusted with his laundry when he is too weak to descend the stairs. And yet, we all sense the stakes are too high now for improper care. It may be the first time I envy another’s inadequacy.
Nonetheless, the hardest thing about serving as a mourner isn’t that I must do it alone. I see the difference my insistence makes – how the insurance company acquiesces to providing better benefits, how we escape the hospital’s oversights, how much more energy he has after eating. The hardest thing isn’t even witnessing death overtake another. I hear the drowsiness in his voice, monitor for shortness of breath, and truly believe he will be able to walk again. My role cannot conceivably be to prevent his death; I can only focus on the how of his passing. The goal is to make him more him comfortable, to make him feel not alone.
The most challenging duty of the mourner is to listen to old stories. When my neighbor starts telling one, I make sure to busy myself with another task, lest his sadness seep into the whole of my day. His stories tell of exodus from poverty, from police violence, and from the joys he denied himself. I imagine him a small boy in Barbados roaming the streets barefoot because callouses actually do serve a purpose. He heads down to the racetrack, big eyes watching the big men who quickly exchange cash. When he moves to the United States with no horses and no yard space, he learns that he is capable of more than what he expected of himself. He becomes fully literate in his 20s, finishes school, gets a medical trade. He doesn’t live beyond his means, never finds the right partner, and didn’t want to have a child he couldn’t give the world to just to call himself a father. Cancer has made him regret the latter few.
I listen attentively, despite my efforts to distract myself. There is a certain tone of voice, I’ve realized, that only manifests when we know death is imminent. I am listening to the reflections of a man reviewing his life as if through telescope, an intricate and delicate telescope that we know will soon shatter into a million prism pieces. Long after he is gone, his stories will remain with me not because they are similar to my own but rather because I am his last audience.
In these final months, I am not merely helping another prepare for his death. I am both walking ledger and surrogate child. I am reminding another of both their mortality and their immortality. To be mortal, for Caribbean people, is to never be left alone. This is where the mourner comes in. To be immortal is when, even after you have chosen loneliness or after death has chosen you, the community unites to provide a future in which something belonging to you keeps living. These are my neighbor’s stories. The duty may be tiresome and unfairly gendered – these days I feel a new kind of exhaustion – yet ultimately reducing another’s burden upon death may be the last great gift one can offer.
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