Dealing with loss far from home.
In the early 90s, I was living outside what was then the relatively small village of Makokou, Gabon. I was working on my dissertation a handful of kilometers from the village center. Once every week or so I would go into Makokou for supplies, a change of scenery that included other people, entertainment, and mail.
Mail, to me, had become almost magical. There was a roughhewn wooden box with POSTE painted just under the slot. I could drop a letter in that box and it would arrive back in the States within a week. Letters from the States would arrive at Makokou in a week. I always found that amazing especially given the 500 kilometers of rainforest separating Makokou and Libreville, the capital city and port of entry to Gabon.
That one day I had hitched a ride into the village with my friend N’Goy. He had a small truck to carry supplies of bread, beer, and groceries back to my place in the forest. As was usual for trips to the village, we swung by the post office to ask for my mail.
I jumped from the cab and walked across the dusty, sunbaked macadam. There was always a bustle at the Makokou post office. Surrounding villages depended on Makokou for the service. The crowd of women in colorful boubous and men in careworn pants and shirts milled about the area, children chased each other ducking between the legs of socializing adults. I waded toward the postmaster, waved to people I knew, and avoided the children rushing about, until I made it to the desk.
There was a letter for me, one well beaten up in transit. Folded, crumpled, reflattened, and stained: the letter had taken over three months to finally get to me from my mother in the United States. I could have waited and read the letter with coffee back at my place. But there was no zen in me, not after so many days alone. I noted the letter had taken three months to get to me but gave it little thought, until I opened it and read the contents.
My grandfather had died.
Harry, my grandfather, had been ill for some time before I’d left for Gabon. I’d watched him fade over a period of time after he fell ill. At one point he told me not to come anymore, he didn’t want me to see him that way, weakened in a hospital bed. But we stayed in as close touch as we could, by phone before I left, and then letters between Nashua and Africa.
I sent him letters as often as I could, with visions of the rainforest or copies from my journal pages. I had been to Africa with him twice and wanted to help him see what I was seeing as best I could. His missives to me showed his struggle in every letter. The notes I had received spoke of failing health more than his words let on. Even though I knew he was declining, I had hoped to go for Christmas.
But he had died.
N’Goy could see that I had gotten bad news. He asked me a few times what had happened, but it took a minute to collect myself. I told him and we sat quietly for a few moments in his truck. Etienne, a mutual acquaintance, wandered up and asked N’Goy through the truck’s window to go get a beer. N’Goy told him what was in my letter and Etienne shrugged. Instead of a beer, N’Goy drove me back to my place, almost a two-hour round trip for him. He helped me unload my supplies, shook my hand, and left.
I was alone, me and my crumpled letter.
It gets dark fast and early on the equator. By six pm the sun was gone. I sat outside with a Ragab lager under a moonless sky. The Milky Way blazed, punctuated by thousands of burning stars. I gazed up for a long time surrounded by the ruckus of the rainforest at night. Regrets and memories and plans unfulfillable whirled through my thoughts until I felt a need to sleep. Strangely enough despite the honking hammerhead bats and crescendo of the insect chorus, I did sleep.
I found myself in a cabin high on a mountainside, with a wall of windows overlooking a long verdant valley filled with trees. An azure sky of drifting clouds arched across the valley. Inside the windows was a log-built great room, a loft and bannister at one end. There were two overstuffed chairs facing the window overlooking the endless trees below. And my grandfather was there.
There was no shock, no questioning. I was just happy to see him. He told me this was his new house and invited me to sit in one of the two chairs. Gone was the ravages of age, he was his old self, funny, welcoming. We talked all night, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. When the night was over and the dream had ended, I awoke to the rainforest again.
In the morning I didn’t tell anyone about it. Who could I talk to? The few people that I might have seen would not have understood. Although I felt better, I still missed him terribly, but yes I felt better.
The next night I found myself there again. In Harry’s cabin, perched high on the side of a mountain with that view I will never forget. We happily greeted each other and spent that second night sunk into those comfortable chairs, talking through until morning.
I wish I could remember even a minor detail of what we spoke about. I don’t. I have tried over the years to recover even shards of it. Something, anything with which to rebuild those conversations. All I can pull up was a deep calm and sense of “It’s okay.” And maybe that was the extent of it after all.
I did feel better, much better than I might have. I still thought about him, of course, but less as a loss and more as the role he’d played in my life. He’d been my model, my father figure. He more than anyone had molded me to be me. So, throughout the day I carried more gratitude than regret.
The third night I anticipated seeing him again. There seemed no reason to expect that to change. And in fact, I found myself once more in his well-lit great room overlooking the valley full of trees. We greeted each other and took the chairs. Like previous nights, we laughed and talked and enjoyed ourselves as we always had.
Then came the only part of our extended conversations that I clearly recall. I looked at my grandfather and I said, “Harry, you’re dead, and this is starting to scare me.” He smiled and reassured me. “That’s okay. I understand.” He told me he was very happy that we had had this time to talk. The next I remember I was awake.
I still don’t understand why anything that had to do with my grandfather should have frightened me. And the following night I believed, hoped, that I would find myself once again in that cabin perched high over the valley. I didn’t. I never have again.
I’ve tried to recapture the chemistry that opened whatever door I’d walked through. But it has proven elusive. Even after these decades have flown by, I still think about recapturing whatever magic took place for me to have seen him then.
Please do not mistake this for a ghost story. It was just a better goodbye. There were no harsh hospital lights, no antiseptics in the air, no machines counting down like metronomes or the bouncing balls of a sing-a-long. Last I saw him, he had all the vigor and composure I remembered and treasured, the humor and ease I had always loved and admired him for. In the end, my final memories are as pristine as his valley and just the way he wanted them to be.
It was a better goodbye.