I don’t handle grief well. I’m not sure anyone does, but I am particularly bad at it. I alternate between wallowing in sadness for a few minutes, then I forget all about it for days, blocking it out completely. It’s not conscious, I think, I suspect it’s how I process loss, putting it off until I’m finally ready to deal with it. Problem is, I’m never ready to deal with it, and I don’t think I ever will be.
Mama, take this badge off of me,
I can’t use it any more,
It’s getting dark, too dark to see,
I feel I’m knocking on Heaven’s door…
I’ve been working like a dog for the past couple of months. Long days, working weekends, working nights, the works. I haven’t had too much time to sit and think too much about everything that’s been going on, and while part of me was happy for the distraction, part of me knew it was temporary. Eventually, Francis was going to catch up with me. That’s his name. Francis. An old friend, brother almost. Our relationship was one of crass humour, brutal honesty and more alcohol than is considered wise by saner (read, sober) people. He was my brother’s friend, which would make him my brother by extension, except Francis wasn’t, how do I say this, very brotherly. He was that smooth pal your brother has, the one who you were always warned to stay well away from, because he was a bit of a ladies’ man (read, man whore). Stop pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about. Listen here, every woman has that friend of her brother’s she crushed on hopelessly when she was a teenager, the hot one who had loads of girls. Usually said friend didn’t know you existed, being that he was older and unconcerned with the little girl making doe eyes at him, but as you got older, young adult rather than teenager, these boys/men started to eye you back, but only eye, because the bro code and such barred them from making moves on baby sisters. Didn’t stop them from flirting, that alleged code, but it almost never became more than that, did it? Wait, did it? Maybe it’s just that my brother’s friends that were restrained that way. Or maybe they weren’t really flirting? Oh my…
I’m laughing and crying right now, picturing him laughing at my nonsense. He got my nonsense, Francis, he understood me. Yes, I am mocking myself, and he would too, if he was reading this shit.
Francis was my brother’s sexy pal, the one I crushed on as an awkward 18 year old, then got to know better, properly, as a 30 something year old. He become that friend I could talk to, really talk to. He was family, but not family, close enough that I didn’t have to pretend to be anything more than I was, but removed enough that I could talk about the more intimate bits without blushing. We could talk about our personal drama in a way you simply can’t with family, or even close friends; family don’t need to know about the sex you had last night, no? He did. He knew about my errant escapades and my deep, dark secrets, some of them anyhow (no one knows it all, not even me). And it the same for him, he’d talk to me about the shit going on with him, things he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about with those closest to him. Like I said, he was family, but not family.
And now he’s gone.
I’m getting to that part of life where we start to bury our friends, our parents, our siblings. In the past five months I’ve been to four funerals, three in one month. Thing is, before Francis’, his was the last, the other deaths were somewhat removed from me. I was sad, but I wasn’t grieving, the people close to me were. I moved on, life continuing with barely any change apart from the occasional woiyee in my head, when I remembered someone else’s loss. The arrogance with which we think life happens to everyone else but us. After Francis, I continued as before, the occasional woiyee to myself, brief failed attempts at talking about it with friends who didn’t, couldn’t, understand my ramblings. I was rambling, struggling to put this strange, vague feeling into language someone else could understand, something I could label neatly and file away, a picture I could frame to look at later on when life wasn’t quite so hectic and the wound wasn’t quite so fresh. That’s how I process, I file shit away, neatly.
As it turns out, grief has its own rules.
And it is seldom neat.
Fast forward a couple of months.
OGAO and my big sister have me hooked on The Voice, an American TV talent show with amateur singers and whatnot (like Idol, but without the irritating British dude in a tight t-shirt). These two evil women have slowly but surely managed to turn me into a country music…I was going to say fan, but that would be too strong…admirer. Stop judging me, country music has its charms. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly they are, but at least now I know they’re there, so, progress. One afternoon a couple of weeks back, I went off in search of Blake Shelton’s music (he’s one of the judges on the show), this after OGAO sent me in search of his version of ‘Footloose’, a cover that is possibly the happiest song I’ve heard this year (watch it and tell me you weren’t tapping your foot and grinning. I did ‘The Carlton’, that’s how happy it made me…). Being quite impressionable and suitably smitten by Mr Shelton, and calling OGAO bad names in the process, I found a playlist of his older albums and set it on loop in the background as I pottered around the house, picking up clutter and randomly cleaning dusty surfaces, until a song came on that stopped me dead in my tracks.
You know when you hear something that cuts through all the noise in your head? It’s like someone suddenly muted everything but this one noise, a voice, a melody, an instrument… I don’t have moments like this very often these days, a lot of the ‘new’ music I’ve been listening to is quite old, or a remake of something old, or something deliberately made to sound old and thus not new to my ears, not really. These days I tend to get that ‘Fuck me sideways!’ feeling only when I listen to unfamiliar musicians in genres that are alien to me, like metal, or rap, sometimes pop, or, as was the case that afternoon, country.
I already knew the man has a gorgeous voice, I’d been listening to him for close to an hour, but something about the lyrics slapped me still. Something about the longing, the loneliness…the sadness is almost tangible. It took me back to a conversation I had with Francis, towards the end of last year. We were in the bar up the road from my house, a ka nyama choma joint with old men watching news at the counter, and he was trying to convince me to get into country music. He absolutely loved the stuff, as does any self respecting Meru man, and to make matters worse, he lived in Texas for 10 or so years. “Country,” he drunkenly declared, “is in my blood.” He then insisted I YouTube a Kenny Chesney (or someone such like) song, proceeding to narrate the song to me, using the video, explaining the ‘great emotion’ (his words) in country music. We were in a bar, remember, at around midnight (it may have been closer to 2:00 am, but that’s beside the point). We argued about country until he wrote me off as a useless philistine, making me promise to go learn more the following day. I never bothered, for the record, I was content to hang on to my proud (read, ignorant) anti-country stance, partly to spite him. I don’t know what exactly it is about this song that took me back to that particular conversation, but in those three minutes all the things I’d been carefully filing away started popping out of their neat little boxes. I thought I was done grieving for Francis. I thought, for some absurd and likely arrogant reason, that I had come to terms with the fact that he was no longer here. But standing in my living room, listening to a song that eerily mimicked one of the last conversations I had with him, in said living room, well…
And I feel just like I’m living someone else’s life,
Its like I just stepped outside,
When everything was going right,
And I know just why you could not come along with me,
This was not your dream,
But you always believed in me…
Last year we were both in transition, coming to terms with this age that sneaked up on us. Our individual issues were completely different, but the underlying sentiment was almost identical. The thing with getting older, in as much as you’re proud of what you’ve achieved, most of us seem unable to shake off that picture we had of ourselves when we were young and idealistic, dreaming of a shiny happy life where our hair would never turn grey, our backs would never ache and we would never have to take jobs we detested to pay bills, hell, we would never have to pay bills period. In your 20’s the world is your oyster. In your 30’s the world could still be your oyster, if only (insert your choice excuse here…). In your 40’s the world is an oyster, but it’s definitely not yours, and it never will be. I’m not sure what the 50’s bring, but from the wazees at the counter in the aforementioned bar, I suspect it has something to do with telling the oysters to go fuck themselves. I can barely wait. I’m swiftly headed out of my 30’s and into my 40’s and Francis was in his early 40’s. We were suitably morose at our prospects, which is to say we were fond of drowning our (real and perceived) sorrows with Jack and Freddie Jackson.
Slight detour. This idiot pal of mine loved to taunt me with the fact that my Freddie is not a tall man. Useless bugger. Francis, not Freddie, Freddie is a small god in my eyes, quite literally now thanks to Francis, evil little shit. Francis, not Freddie. Ah! Do you see what he havoc he wreaked? Bloody nkt! The moral of this story, don’t fuck with my small gods, yes? Yes. Detour over.
And I’m surrounded by a million people, I still feel alone and I wanna go home,
Oh, I miss you, you know…
I was growing old with Francis. Those of you of a certain age will understand that vague statement. Friends are harder to make and keep as you get older, friends who know who you used to be, and who you are, and who you want to be. Who you’ve always wanted to be. Those friends are damn near impossible to find later on in life. He was one of too few friends who was willing to see all sides of me, especially the fragile, sometimes broken, always mending side of myself, the side I try my damnedest not to show. And he was one of too few friends comfortable showing me that side of himself, making me feel better about my stumbles, if only because I no longer felt alone. I miss him terribly. More than I realised. More than I can explain, despite my best efforts.
Mama, put my guns in the ground,
I can’t shoot them any more,
That long black cloud is coming down,
I feel I’m knocking on Heaven’s door…
Today’s soundtrack, and the title of this post, is Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. This is what got me talking about Blake Shelton. A couple of his contestants did a duet of the song on The Voice, a stunning rendition of a classic I thought I knew so well. Now I’m a bit of a weepy bastard when it comes to watching things on the TV (don’t laugh, its a genetic trait. I get it from my pa, the old man cries at the drop of a hat. For real…), but even I was surprised at my reaction to this particular performance. It was like they were singing to me, specifically. At the time I didn’t think much of it, blaming my tears (yes, I cried, and no, I am not ashamed) on my father’s dodgy influence and the brilliance of the two voices I was listening to. It wasn’t until later that I realised this was the song that cracked the dam, put me in a grief frame of mind, so to speak.
Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door…
Francis is possibly the least likely candidate for heaven I have ever known, but I figure if any misguided deviant has the balls to knock on that particular door, knowing full well he has no business up in all of that (points heaven-ward), it would be him, bless his irreverent ass.