There’s a garden in South East London that held a special place in my heart, until it didn’t. As a child, Joy took me there. I was prepubescent, with little comprehension of loss, but a growing sensibility to it. The family – which started out as Mum, Dad, and my oldest brother and ended with Mum, Dad, five older brothers, and me, the youngest and “seemingly” the only girl – was freshly torn apart. A year or so after my birth, a meteor hit our family unit, blasting Dad out our home and dropping Auntie from Jamaica into it.
When life hurts you, quiet, safe havens are something to grab onto. Though I wouldn’t come to this realization until later, for Joy and me, our safe haven was the park.
The Rookery: flower garden; sanctuary. The cobbled paths led to ivied wood panels and fir trees sitting apart in the grass. We walked the grounds, stopped to greet Joy’s then- favorite, lavender. She would explore her mind, a place I could not enter. I roamed, I marveled, I wondered at the sundial, waiting for time to move, waiting to be older, to do the kind of exploring I thought she was doing. There was a pond with a water fountain filled with fish and frogs - tadpoles born with life in their swimming tails. I would run round and round this pond. I longed to pick the pennies out and would look up at the statue at its center. I made my own memories without Joy.
The Rookery was a place of solace, a chance for reconnection between selves. Any one of those selves could return if just for a moment, to be reminded of time passed. I observed Joy, the way she let the earth fall from her tender, resilient hands, how she greeted each plant with equal amounts of gratitude for its life. We would sit on the green grass delighting in mint chocolate and vanilla ice cream; one of the sweeter things she gave me. There were trees to climb, trees that gave us something to focus on other than ourselves. A foundation to test our individual strengths and agility and a place to climb towards and away from one another.
“Death and nature go hand in hand, both part of the cycle of life. The way one door closes and another opens or hangs ajar. The way dirt gives way to wonders and how trouble can open into growth. Now I wish I had shared this loss with her. Maybe we would have gone hand in hand to the places of revival.”
Much later on Joy’s birthday, I took her back to The Rookery. Material gifts had lost their charm, and my card making days were tucked neatly in the notebooks and pencil cases I hardly touched anymore. I decided to rotate, to go back to a place I thought brought us happiness. I wanted to guide her to a place of remembrance. The exact time and date is blurry, I can’t put my finger on it. It was sometime between her mum passing away and my miscarriage. We threw conkers – horse chestnuts – ran around the field, and caressed the trees. We laughed and frolicked, moved in whatever ways our bodies could while holding past, present, and future anguish all at once. I learned you can return but you cannot go back in time.
Nature is a revolving door of healing and revival and I entered its door mid-spin, in need of repair. Thinking back, my motives were selfish. I was afraid of Joy’s grief. I was too scared to look it in the face with her. Because to see her grief, to acknowledge it, would be to see my own. And I was not ready for that.
They say death comes in threes. When the news came that three hearts had stopped in succession, Joy seemed to fall down even though she stayed standing. Regret was the loudest note. The time spent in London raising six children, meant she missed the aging of her first home. Her first teacher. Her first delight. Her mother, then her sister, then her auntie. In my second year at University, I struggled to find the time to tell Joy about my miscarriage. I couldn’t tell her now, I thought. I cannot add another loss to her pile.
Looking back on that time, I reflect on how Joy returns to nature time and again. Always walking, her legs and feet yet to give up, moving her with streaming blood, getting her to the flowers that provide unique understanding. Death and nature go hand in hand, both part of the cycle of life. The way one door closes and another opens or hangs ajar. The way dirt gives way to wonders and how trouble can open into growth. Now I wish I had shared this loss with her. Maybe we would have gone hand in hand to the places of revival. Instead, I doubted what she could do for me in the wake of her losses.
Ms. Verna – her mum, my mamma – died when I was seventeen. On the Island of the Sun, Jamaica. I never met her, never formed the word mamma on my lips enough times to get used to it. When I think of Ms. Verna, I think of the stories of her: making chocolate from scratch; working hard alongside her husband; birthing and raising her thirteen children; and going to market to sell what her hands had actualized. I wonder what tickled her, what made her cry, what birthing thirteen children does to your mind, your body, your soul. I feel her determination to live and do meaningful work in my spirit. I think of what she would have thought of me, her biracial grandchild, trans and queer, different and the same, bearing her name and treasuring borrowed memories of her.
In the park: life had weathered Joy’s relationship with the world and she didn’t move in it as she had before. I fancied myself her anchor, the one to show her where her magnetic field was. But did we stay long enough for her to find more? For me to see myself? No, we didn’t. I ended our trip abruptly, to go and do something banal, and her disappointment was palpable, her eyes couldn’t hide the hurt. I regret that.
As a teenager, I struggled to break out of shells within shells, feeling like some displaced sea creature stuck on land, stuck in the construction of a world I wasn’t made for. Joy, displaced also, from the Sun -- her birth passage into this world. She left Jamaica at eighteen, a vernal young woman, wanting of life. She said she wanted her life back after the birth of six children; I would have too. Our differences were never as stark as our similarities. We loved to sing; dance; draw; paint; read; write and that was always where we met one another.
Pain does not discriminate. It doesn’t build borders and doesn’t need money to operate. Pain moves freely like an uninhibited traveler, backpacking across the globe, sweeping its paintbrush of sorrow on the hearts of anyone that enters its path. We had entered its path. At some point, I began to see differently; unnatural, like HD television playing your favorite old school sitcoms. I fell out of step with life like badly dubbed knock-off movies that we got from car-boot sales, knowing they had just come off the back of some van. I would come to know this feeling as Major Depression and PTSD. I would come to understand that I didn’t choose to be closed off and cold. I didn’t choose to be vacant and despondent. I smoked to get by; addiction covering the person I thought I was.
This visit to The Rookery signaled an end for me. I came through the gate and was struck by the wilting of everything organic around me. The pond was almost dried up, the flowers hadn’t bloomed, the sky was overcast, and the sundial held no anticipation of time for me anymore. I tried to feign happiness for her, to behave like this was the most normal thing in the world. That this place still held joy and excitement for me. The truth is, it didn’t. It could have been the season, it could have been the malaise, it could have been my body gearing up for more loss. Whatever it was, there was no safe haven there for me anymore.
Charlie VJ Bartlett is a Jamaican/British writer, bookseller, and student, currently enrolled in SFSU’s MFA program.
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