The day after Uncle Junior died, I realized New York would always be home. I received the call about his turn for the worse 6:30 in the morning. Because I have never been good with grief, I spent the morning watching bad talk shows with families more imperfect than my own. I sauntered into Dunkin Donuts. I desperately clutched coffee as the train hurtled through tunnels.
My relatives and I convened in the hospital. We sat and waited for death. After a long day of prayer, tears and laughter, we said goodbye to one of the most elusive figures in our family. I kissed my Dad, uncles and aunt and headed back to the subway.
What song should your ipod play after you watch your uncle die? I couldn’t get it right. I stood on the subway platform listening to a book, to Rupee, to a hymn.
How do you spend time with others without letting your grief spill over and infect them? I spent the evening cracking jokes to cover my sadness. I clutched a glass of wine and watched Scandal with new friends.
But the morning after Uncle Junior died, I sat in the window of a popular restaurant and, to my surprise and embarrassment, started sobbing uncontrollably. I was the worst advertisement in the world: I was rocking an unruly afro, a headcovering, weeping over my coffee. The waitress stopped for a routine check and was alarmed to see my tears. I couldn’t breathe or speak.
“My uncle died yesterday,” I wailed.
They politely placed napkins at the corner of the restaurant table and left me alone. My mascara and eyeliner were running. I wish that I possessed that rare talent of elegant crying. But I don’t. At all. In fact, I looked a fright, and I felt terrible for destroying the atmosphere of the restaurant. My grief swallowed me whole and ruined the breakfast of the poor man who was sitting at another table, facing me.
I only stopped crying when I bit into a delicious crepe. I never knew that goat cheese could be such a tonic.
I was relieved when the gentleman sitting across from me left the restaurant. I hate crying in front of anyone, especially men. I felt guilty for the destructive, consuming nature of my grief. The waitresses approached. “That gentleman just paid for your breakfast. You’re all taken care of.” When I offered them a tip, they turned me down. “He took care of everything.” I was humbled, and stared out at the street. By this point, he was too far down the street for me to thank him. I prayed that God would bless him.
From that point forward, the city opened itself up to me, protecting me from the sharp edges of my feelings. On my way into Brooklyn, I met a man who rocked a gold tooth and advocated for black liberation. Later, D. and I drank the afternoon away and talked about everything but death: his job, my dissertation, and what our thirties would bring for us. Roxana and I had Indian food and watched more bad television. In random pockets of the afternoon, I talked to strangers, or I withdrew for my restoration.
I spent the past 12 years of my life traveling. As a New Yorker, I always wondered if small towns in America would be friendlier spaces, where it would be easy for me to fall in love, get married, have children, shoot, live my life. Other places remained closed to me. With the exception of Detroit, everywhere I’ve travelled in the United States has greeted me with a polite grin and eyes like closed shutters. Even Western Mass, my home for the past 8 years, is not receptive to the range of my emotion. When I cried in a restaurant in Amherst, the waitress looked at me and talked to me as though nothing strange was going on. She did not offer me extra napkins.
In his death, Uncle Junior offered me a gift. I know that New York is home in a way that nowhere else can ever be. I am not one who makes a habit of sharing my emotions with others. But when I needed to share, I was surrounded by family members, friends, and strangers who let me grieve or let me be. I don’t need to continue looking for home: I found it in the stranger who paid for my breakfast, the woman who greeted me at the deli with a smile, the taciturn, uncomfortable silence of being smushed on the subway next to strangers. I found it in the pleasure of daytime drinking with D., one of the most standup guys I know, and laughing with R. about dating and daytime television. I found it in a hospital room full of love, and in a funeral where church folk and loud Trinis grieved through laughter and big plates of good food. I found it with my family on Long Island, where we crammed into the smallest room in a large house and laughed about trifling family members. No matter where I live, New York will always be the place I turn to when I need to feel loved, embraced, and accepted. It’s home.