Sometimes I think my mother and father are parenting me from the grave. A few weeks ago, I dreamt that I was pushing a mini-hatchback up a steep hill, with my mom and dad on either side of me, helping. In the dream, both my parents are the ages they were when they died: my father sixty-nine and my mother eighty-four years old. After Sisyphean effort was exerted toward getting the car to the top of the hill, the three of us celebrated by contemplating the magnificent view of a beautiful green meadow below.
It was close to the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death and I often found myself grieving for her in my dreams. The Sisyphean twist, though, was new. Though Sisyphus, the dishonorable king of Corinth, twice cheated death, it turned out that he couldn’t cheat life. The punishment for all his murdering and angering the gods was being condemned, day after day, to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it constantly roll down again.
The day after I had this dream, my seventy-eight-year-old uncle, my father’s younger brother, wandered out of his house in the early morning hours, alone and bewildered. A neighbor spotted him and alerted my cousin, his daughter. Suddenly – perhaps not so suddenly – he was living, it seemed, the same day over and over again. My uncle’s past and present seemed to have merged. The future was blurred, or had possibly faded altogether. An entire segment of our family history, of which only he had been the caretaker, was no longer available, to us or to him.
Growing up in a multigenerational Haitian family, I never thought of it as “nuclear.” For all the term’s other meanings, either relating to atoms or energy generation, or even war, when applied to families it seemed limiting. My parents and uncle agreed. Families, they believed, expand like ripples in a pond. Besides, migration forces you to remake your family as well as yourself. Family is not only made up of your living relatives either. It is elders long buried and generations yet unborn, with stories as bridges, and dreams as potential portals.
The idea of my parents communicating from a great distance is not new to me. When my mother and father moved to the United States from Haiti in the 1970s, both to escape a brutal dictatorship and to look for work, they left me and my younger brother behind, in the care of another uncle and his wife. From the time I was four till I was twelve, my parents and I communicated via letters, a weekly phone call, and cassette tapes carried by friends and acquaintances between Brooklyn and Port-au-Prince. I was one of half a dozen children whom my aunt and uncle cared for while our parents were working in other countries. This is what family was supposed to do, to help with things you couldn’t always do on your own, including raising your children. This is what many families are still doing: while mothers and fathers are incarcerated, or held in immigration detention centers, or fighting opioid or other addictions, family members fill the gap.
Family, as my now-silenced uncle used to say, is whoever is left when everyone else is gone. It is whoever is cleaning up at the end of the party or the funeral repast. It is that person whose one nod might comfort you more than hundreds of words from someone else. Family members share and carry your memories with you.
I feel an immeasurable sense of loss when I think of how family members are disappearing from my uncle’s mind. Day by day he has fewer and fewer faces left on which to project his lifetime of memories. I keep wondering if he dreams, and what he might be dreaming about. His own dead parents and siblings? His childhood home in the mountains of southern Haiti? His years spent as a factory worker, cab driver, and car-service owner in New York City? His five sons and daughters? The Bible verses he has recited throughout his life? The final years he’d imagined as a proud grandfather embraced by a large brood of grandchildren, possibly even great-grandchildren?
Perhaps his dreams are vivid, like movies of his own making, but he’s probably also experienced hallucinations and night terrors. Like a lot of dementia patients, he might also be suffering from sundowning, evening agitation and restlessness, when familiar shadows grow mysterious. Could he be confused at sunrising, too, driven by dreams into the street, at dawn? To speak of “sundowning” and “sunrising,” though, assigns him much more agency than he appears to have, as if he were Phaethon, dragging the sun behind him across the sky.
When my parents were dying – my father of pulmonary fibrosis and my mother of ovarian cancer – it was their bodies that failed them. During their final days, they were both able to communicate and get plenty off their chests, as they liked to say. My mother might call a loved one and settle a dispute, explain, or apologize. My father would reminisce or advise, telling long stories from which he hoped my brothers and I would learn important lessons, to pass on to our children and they to theirs.
One of my father’s stories was about knowing when to leave. When my father was a young man in Haiti, he worked in a shoe store often frequented by the henchmen of the dictatorship. These paramilitary men, the tonton macoutes, would walk into the store, grab the best shoes off the shelf, and walk away, and there was nothing either my father or his boss could do about it. My father got a knot in his stomach whenever one of these men walked in, fearing that one day he might feel compelled to resist and get shot. That’s when he decided he not only had to leave his job at the shoe store, but leave Haiti in order for his family to have a more stable and peaceful life.
One of my mother’s stories was about regrets. After my mother left my younger brother and me in Haiti, she constantly felt like a terrible mother who had abandoned her children. Eventually though, she felt she was mothering us from afar. Whenever she was eating, she told me, she wondered whether we were eating. Whenever she was about to go to sleep, she asked herself where and how we were going to sleep. She marked her days by our imagined routines, syncing them as much as possible with hers. The only thing that sustained her throughout our eight years apart was her dream of being reunited with us some day. This was one of the reasons both she and my father worked two jobs each, at times, to make our lives and the lives of our two US-born brothers a lot easier than theirs had ever been.
My uncle might no longer recall his early struggle days. He might no longer remember his fear of snow, or his many slips and falls on black ice. He might not fully remember the births of his children or the death of his wife.
Family legacies, my father used to say, are not only about traditions and values passed on from generation to generation. They are also about the actions we take or choose not to take. In the mountain village where my uncle and father were born, a single deed could mark or stain your family’s reputation for generations, placing you in a hierarchy that, if only enforced by gossip or shame, might still decide the fate of your progeny. I am not sure that’s still true, but my father held on to that notion until his death, in part because it was taught to him by his father, who had learned it from his father. This is why they had to leave the ancestral village and move to the capital, my father would say. Though neither he nor his siblings had committed shameful acts, they longed to start over in a new place where the generational burden was less weighty. Their new beginning was meant to be a reboot, though, not an erasure.
In the midst of all types of losses, our family has come to experience our most painful moments as opportunities to celebrate as well as to mourn. One of my most gut-wrenching memories with my uncle is of seeing him soon after his wife died giving birth to his youngest daughter. Though he was heartbroken, he also looked relieved that out of that terrible tragedy had emerged a beautiful little girl.
When he was finally allowed to bring his daughter home, my parents and I went to visit them. My tiny infant cousin was curled up in her crib, sucking her index and middle finger intently as though she were nursing. My parents and I looked down at her in amazement. She looked so fragile that we were afraid to pick her up.
“Go ahead,” my uncle told me, as if reading my thoughts. “She’s not going to break. She has life in her.”
In Haitian Creole, he said, “Li gen la vi nan li,” which he also meant in a spiritual sense. There is life in her, not something we were necessarily taking for granted. My uncle might also have said, “She has come a long way to be here. She has traveled very far to reach us.”
I picked up my baby cousin and held her close. Her eyes kept fluttering as she half giggled and smiled. My uncle was right. There was plenty of life, and spirit, in her. She had been at that intangible crossroads where she entered this world as her mother abruptly exited. She was filled with both joy and pain.
Family legacies, my father used to say, are about the actions we take or choose not to take. Family legacies are not only about traditions passed on from generation to generation.
In Aztec mythology, women who die during childbirth are considered fallen warriors. These women are also believed to travel with the sun throughout the latter part of the day, settling into sundown. My baby cousin’s sunrise was filled with stories of battles and triumph. Though her presence was also an absence, she represented as much what we had gained as lost. And my uncle had been there to witness it all.
That night, holding his daughter, my uncle told us he felt as though he had gone into the jaws of hell and yanked her out. It was something that he was also willing to do over and over again if needed, he said.
Perhaps this is what my parents were trying to tell me in that dream the night before my uncle left his house that morning, at dawn. Maybe my parents were reminding me that they too, like my uncle, will always be with me, even when bodies and minds are beyond reach. These days, I have no choice but to hold on to all of them with all my might. That is, after all, what families do.