Michael: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood
Culture

Michael: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal

Love leaves a memory no none can steal

 

Momentous events happen in your life when you least expect them.

It was a hot sunny afternoon and my two-door blue volkswagon did not have air-conditioning.  My two children and I were on our way home from Kingston to Garveymeade in Portmore. We were hot and thirsty and looking forward to my stop at the T-Junction  to buy watermelon from the man who had set up his stall there and was doing a brisk business selling the sweet, juicy fruit from St. Elizabeth.

I was in the process of collecting my change and my watermelon when a small white sports car drove up and  a tall barefoot man uncurled himself from behind the steering wheel,  seemingly on his way to purchase  some of the cool thirst-quenching melon also. My passing thought was why would such a tall man drive such a small car?   We nodded our hellos and I went on my way. A few days later I saw him at my neighbour’s house and he came over to say hello. Then I noticed that he jogged with a young man in the mornings and always seemed to be looking over my high  wooden back fence. Veronica my indispensable helper commented on his constant ‘peeping over de fence like im a look fi somet’ing.’

At the time I was beating the books for my end-of-year  undergraduate exams and gave the ‘Peeping Tom’ no further thought. Examinations always began on the day after Labour Day, May 23. a public holiday, so I was using the holiday to do my  last-lap revision. I was lying on the floor in my bedroom, flat on my back when I saw Naala coming up the stairs, followed by ‘Peeping Tom.’ I had instructed my children never to speak to strangers and certainly never to bring anyone into the house. And here was this man,  led by a smiling Naala, who was telling me that his  name was Michael Davis and he wished to speak with me.  I decided to delay my scolding of the young lady until later. I was cooly polite and explained that I was busy studying for an exam and therefore had no time to be sociable.

He departed and I figured he had got the message. Then he started popping up on my morning walks. Apparently he had not. He subsequently inquired how the exams were going and invited me for a drink as soon as the exams were over.  ‘Yea, right;’ I said to myself. ‘I’ll not be going out with you.’ My reluctance was obvious. I was still smarting from my unfortunate experience with marriage.   Michael was not daunted.  The next time he came he had a small child in tow, apparently deciding that the child would break the ice and he would be more favourably considered. Years later he confessed to employing this strategy.

After much persuasion, I did go for a drink and we struck up a platonic relationship. From the very beginning Naala had Michael in her pocket and it seemed ths state of affairs was reciprocated. Chris was cautious at first, the four year old ‘man’ in the house did not take too kindly to a rank stranger trying to ‘usurp’ his position. Eventually he relented and was won over.  Michael was extremely good to my children.  He was kind, gentle and considerate and they were hungry for a male figure in their lives.  They were socialized into addressing my  adult friends as either ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’. So Michael became  a favourite ‘Uncle.’

In retrospect, it was Michael’s relationship with my children, even more than my feelings for him, that led to the deepening of our relationship and subsequent marriage.  I did not wish to get married again, yet although he was also a divorcee, unlike me, he did not  fear another commitment and marriage. After a particularly intense discussion on the subject of marriage vis-à-vis living together,  growing old and death. Michael was adamant that at his age he could not have a ‘girl friend’ It was undignified, neither did he wish his death notice, whenever that occurred, to read ‘leaving dear friend.’

Michael did not propose in the usual, expected way.  He told me that he loved me and he wanted us to get married. Simple and straight to the point. Still vacillating I  told Michael I would think about it.  Weeks passed and I said nothing. One day he confronted me with the forms that are to be completed for the banns of marriage to be held at the  Portmore United Church.  He had simply decided that he would railroad me into marriage.

My friends who had met him liked him. My mother who had met him liked him. My dearest friend Artley who had met him liked him. My uncle-in-law and close friend Kharl who had met him liked him. My children loved him. His two children Marlene and Pete liked me. I weighed all the scenarios, all the options, all the possibilities and decided to take the plunge, a second time. I rationalized that a second divorce would be  easier than the first. The pessimist in me did not even  consider the  popular adage: ’Love is better the second time around.’

Michael and I were married on  June 16, 1984. There were five of us at the ceremony, Michael and I, two witnesses and the Minister. After the ceremony, we went to the Terra Nova Hotel for brunch.  I did not purchase a new dress for the wedding. I was married in one I had worn to a friend’s wedding.  There were no wedding photographs.  Such was the inauspicious beginning of a union that brought tremendous happiness, peace of mind and innumerable blessings in my life and the lives of my children. Love was indeed better, much better, the second time around.

Michael supported me in my studies by taking the responsibility of transporting the children to and from school and their extracurricular activities, He was my helpmate, my friend, in every sense of the word. When, as part of my studies I was sent to Barbados on a work-study assignment, I had no hesitation in leaving, because I knew the children would be in excellent hands.  On the last day of final undergraduate exams, we took off for a week-end of shopping and celebration in Miami. We were so excited and there were two Air Jamaica flights on the tarmac, we found ourselves on the New York flight and just made it to the Miami-bound plane.

In 1988 my mother successfully sponsored us for permanent residency in the USA.  We had a family pow-pow and it was decided that Chris who was still attending high school and I would remain in Jamaica – I hated the idea of living anywhere else and certainly not in a white-dominated country. Michael would migrate with Naala to see her through university. Chris would go up after high school. When both children had completed their tertiary education, he would return. For the intervening period, we would have a ‘long-distance marriage.’ But before this I had a health crisis that necessitated surgery and more than a week in hospital.  My mother came from New York to support me but could only remain until I left hospital.  Michael took over the role of caregiver and for a first–time nurse did an impeccable job. We left for the USA on the  night of the UDC’s Christmas party.  Michael danced non-stop – he was a fabulous dancer – until it was time for us to collect the children at a friend’s house and catch Air Jamaica’s early bird flight that left at midnight.

For twelve  years, we commuted between New York and Jamaica. Because we were committed to each other, the marriage was never under strain. In fact, each visit, either mine or his, was like a renewal of our vows and consequently the marriage was constantly being refreshed.  At home, my workload at the UDC and later the JIS, coupled with my academic studies and supervising Chris kept me busy. I missed my husband but my life was full and we were working towards a mutually-agreed goal which had a definitive time frame.

Michael and my mother returned to Jamaica in 1999 and they  fitted in as if they had never left. My mother had lived in the USA for thirty-three years and Michael for twelve. Here I was living with my mother and my husband in the same house. I knew my husband more than I knew my mother. We had last lived together in 1960 when I was  young and single. Michael was more fortunate. He had lived with her in New York. He guided me through potentially disastrous waters when two women perceive themselves to be in charge of a household.  He understood my mother perfectly and knew precisely how to deal with her. His calm manner and wry humour diffused many a potentially explosive situation.

He  settled into active early retirement. Always an exercise nut, we left home at 5:00 a.m. every morning  on a three-mile trek followed by a climb up an unbelievably steep hill which I refused to climb and which Michael climbed with so much ease he became the envy of the younger men, who nicknamed him ‘Champion.’  He would dare them to keep up with him and when a few  managed to keep up, but with much huffing and puffing, he would give a wry smile and simply climb the hill again to demonstrate his physical superiority and agility over men half his age. Born on the first of January and a Capricorn, I used to tell him that his astrological sign was most apt. He was indeed like a mountain goat, capable of manoeuvring  the steepest   and rockiest inclines with consummate ease.

We took trips around the island, accompanied by my mother and his grandson Marlon. We had movie matinee dates.  He would meet me at the office and we would forward to the Carib Cineplex at Cross Roads , gorge on popcorn for me and chocolates for Michael who had a formidable sweet tooth and never put on an ounce.  He could demolish a large bar of chocolate in no time flat.  Usually a very generous man, he was positively  Scrooge-like with anything sweet, and if you ever begged him, he would pinch off the smallest possible piece of a red-top grater cake or a single square of chocolate and grudgingly give it to you. Or better still, if he reluctantly offered you and you said yes, thank you, he would unashamedly ask if : “You couldn’t say no man?”  Whenever our neighbor  Merle went to Brown’s Town to visit her family, should come back with red top grater cakes  for him. Michael would put them in the freezer and surreptitiously take them out and munch away when he thought you were not looking. My mother would set for him and demand a piece, even when she did not particularly want it. She said she was “teaching him to be kind.”

Chris’ two daughters, Chrstin and Cayla used to spend summer holidays with us.  Cayla’s first visit was as a toddler and  Mike undertook to be her nursemaid. He carried her everywhere, watched over her at night, fed her, dressed her. She became so attached to him she followed him everywhere and he reveled in it, even when she strategically threw temper tantrums to get her own way.  The mere sight of them drew laughter – the tall, grey-haired  six footer and the little toddler walking and  holding hands, seated beside him on the settee watching television, or  Mike fast asleep, Cayla tucked under his arm. They were inseparable.     This love affair continued  for years until Cayla became a ‘young lady’ at the ripe old age of seven.

Christin was a more self-contained child, as Chris was. But it did not prevent Michael  from connecting with her, as he had done for her father. It was Michael who taught Christin to swim. It was Michael who succeeded in encouraging her to swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Cove, one of the attractions at Ocho Rios on the north coast.    He ensured that his grandchildren had great summers and they looked forward to them. They boasted to their mother that they knew more places in Jamaica than she did.

He volunteered his time at  Food For The Poor, a charitable organization headquartered in Spanish Town and devoted to bringing relief to poverty-stricken communities. When a neighbour, a  retired teacher who lived alone and took ill, Michael prepared and took breakfast to her and sat with her  for weeks until she had fully recuperated.  He transported seniors  the to the post office to collect their pension payments.

In 2007 Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement, muscle control and balance, as well as numerous other functions. It is part of a group of conditions known as motor systems disorders. His doctor reassured him that he could still pursue his usual activities, including driving and that he would know when he no longer could.   We thought it was a misdiagnosis and Chris set up a series of appointments for him in Florida. The diagnosis was confirmed, but here again we were reassured that he was in such superb physical condition for his age that he would be long dead before the extreme manifestations of the disease would have affected him.  At first the deterioration was so slow it was imperceptible.  Collectively, we continued to be in denial. I read everything about Parkinson’s Disease I could lay my hands on, including Michael J. Fox’s Always Looking Up.

And then with two incidents reality struck home, harshly.  Michael drove me to the airport  for a short week-end trip to Florida and on the way home he was hit by a truck that did not stop.  He insisted the truck driver was wrong. I believed for the mere fact that the driver did not stop.  About a fortnight after that incident, Michael was walking our dog Prince  on the chain when the dog was killed. This truck driver did not stop either.  We were shaken and devastated. He could easily have been killed. My mother, in true Jamaican  fashion, declared that Prince had taken Michael’s death. Quietly, he  told me he no longer felt confident around the wheel. Shortly after he became a member of the  Seventh Day Adventist Church and subsequently a devout Christian.

Even in his pain and personal agony of coming to grips with his debilitating illness, Michael was determined to play his part in the smooth running of the household and insisted on paying the monthly bills. He would accompany me to the plaza and when I went to the supermarket he would go to Paymaster where all the utility bills could be paid. Then he would discuss cricket with the taxi drivers while waiting for me.  More than a year after his death, I went to the supermarket and was about to drive off when two men approached me. I wondered what they wanted and nearly did not stop. They came up to the car and asked me what had happened to their friend as they had not seen him for quite a while. When I told them Michael had passed almost  a year ago,  they were  simultaneously embarrassed and sympathetic. Once again, unexpectedly, I was reduced to tears. Such is the nature of grieving.

In the throes of his illness, I read about a Canadian masseuse who specialized in persons with Parkinson’s and took Mike for weekly massages until he said he no longer wished to attend because he felt no difference.  His monthly visits to his specialist at the University Hospital of the West Indies was therapeutic. His doctor is a Barbadian so as two cricket lovers, they spend most of the time discussing cricket more than his illness.

I watched Michael’s zest for life slowly seep away. His brisk walk slowed to the point where you could hear the slight drag on his left side as he walked, from  earlier surgery for a herniated disc.  I watched as he could no longer use his knife and fork with his usual dexterity. I watched as he had to keep a towel handy for the excess saliva his mucous membranes produced. I became his chauffeur, taking him to Church on Saturday mornings, to visit his friends, to go on short family outings. Chris’ surprise visits buoyed his spirits immensely, bringing back the light to his eyes.  Life plays some cruel tricks. Why was it that a man who had been so athletic, so physically fit and mental active had to be struck down with such a  debilitating disease.? One never has the answers.  As a friend of mine used to say when faced with crises, or  what could not be rationally explained: “It is what it is.”

In December 2009, we went to Morgan’s Harbour  for Christmas  dinner with a neighbor who lived abroad and was visiting for the season.   I had to cut up Mike’s food and ask for a spoon for him.  Another milestone in his slow slide into Parkinson’s.  We never went back to a restaurant. I watched as my once-active husband started to spend his days in his chair in the patio, and the increasing effort it took him to try to read the newspaper or watch television. We used to still go for our morning walk. I had to put on his sneakers and our walks got slower and slower, the sound of his right foot louder and louder.  Another  milestone.

The  final year of my husband’s life was a demonstration in patience and grace for him – his religion gave him fortitude and peace – and for me indescribable psychological pain and fear of the future.    I thank my mother, my children, my friend Veronica, Marlon, Michael’s grandson  in particular and my neighbours for their support, for their treatment of Michael as if he were still the whole, hearty man of old.  I am especially grateful to my helper   Lorna whose thoughtfulness to Michael was boundless and to Kelly, with whom I worked at Jamaica Information Service and who maintained contact with the family.

On Sunday  May 30, 2010, I baked Michael a chocolate cake, one of his favourites.  While washing the dishes, I glanced out at the patio and saw him standing, with a huge slice of the cake to his mouth. Smilingly, I shook my head and continued washing the dishes, saying to myself :’Mike is really enjoying the cake.’ I even commented on the size and vigour with which he had attacked the cake as a testament to his love for all things chocolate. He walked our dog Max that evening and stopped by our neighbours for a chat.

On the morning of Monday May 31  I awoke at my usual time, 5:30 a.m. I dressed for my morning walk and went to wake up Michael.  I called him as I usually did and got no response. I was not surprised as he was a deep sleeper and sometimes had to be shaken awake. I called again. No answer. I cracked the window so rays of the early morning sunlight could come in as I did not want to turn on the roof or bedside lamp and startle him. Still no response. I shook him and his body   bounced back into its original position. Still no response. Careful to hold myself together and not awaken my mother, I managed to tell my neighbour and walking partner.  She called another neighbour and nurse, who  conformed that  Michael had died. I do not remember anything else for that day.

For the next week I walked around in a stupor.  My children, my sisters, my friends took over.  Michael had died of a heart attack.  He was laid to rest at the Meadowrest Memorial Park on Monday June 06,  after a beautiful and fitting service at the Mona Chapel.  I am eternally grateful to my family, friends and acquaintances for the love and support  they gave us during our period of mourning.

Life had to go on. The children had to go back to work overseas. My mother and I were left alone in a home that was without Michael, his loud and spontaneous laughter, his wry humour, his gentleness. Michael’s death was the first of a dearly loved one I was experiencing after my father’s death in 1963, forty seven years earlier, after my grandmother’s death fifty years earlier.

I miss my husband, my friend, my helpmate, my soul mate. I miss him every day.  I visit him regularly. Some of my friends say I must not do this, as I am prolonging my grief. But my visits give me comfort. And I need this comfort. I have wept copious tears and just when I think I am beginning to heal, something unexpected happens, a joke someone tells, a movie I am watching, remembering how he used to wait for me at nights when I was working late in my study and I had to wake him when I was finished because he had fallen asleep watching television, or as we used say jokingly, the television was watching him.  I am told that grieving for a loved takes at least seven years. For some yes. For others no. I can now speak about him, or laughingly repeat some of his corny jokes . But there are times when the very thought of him brings sharp tears, and even as I write this, my eyes are filled with tears. I still  have a long way to go.  In the meantime, whenever I cry, I am reminded of the anonymous  quotation I once found on the internet.  Tears are the silent language of grief.

 

About the author

Gloria Royale-Davis