The Singing Tree
When you left, you wrote that no one would mourn your loss. That it wouldn't make an impact. That you'd pass out of the world as anonymously as you'd entered it. You were wrong.
You and I went on the best first date I've ever had. After traipsing around the museum on its monthly free day, we rode our bikes to BART, crossed the Bay to San Francisco, then made our way to the beach, where it was cold and beautiful. You took off your shoes. I climbed a rock. We sat and watched the ocean, until it started to get dark. On the bus ride home, we held each other as the sun went down, and kissed the whole way.
You were so beautiful. You were tall and thin, with deep brown skin and long, colorful dreadlocks that you'd mixed with yarn to make two-strand twists. Sometimes you wore a crown of flowers that you'd made from recycled plastic junk, and it was glamorous. Sometimes you combed your locs out and had a lion’s mane to match your lion’s heart.
You were entirely unique in the world, and I think that caused you pain. You slept in the nude with a machete by your bed in case of intruders, and decorated your room with driftwood and hundreds of salvaged dumpster flowers. You sang Portuguese love songs and recorded them for me while you were drunk, and never stayed in one state for more than a year. You didn't wear underwear if you could help it, and never shaved your body hair. You only ever wore eye makeup, but damn, did you wear it! You always added a bit of gold leaf to the edges of your eyes. You did sex work politically. You brought me to the hospital to visit one of your co-workers, and she was twice our age, and you were so close, and she loved you so dearly.
You wrote heartbreaking poetry about isolation and loss, and painted bizarre, beautiful images of nude women with animal skulls for heads. You gave them as gifts to loved ones. You'd lived in Madagascar, across the United States in a van, in squats and in mansions, among goats, and in my bed. We didn't have sex the first few times we slept together, but just lay in the nude. We listened to Joanna Newsom on vinyl and complained about how your roommate treated his dogs, and how he treated you, and talked about toxic masculinity, and the nature of beauty, and of God.
You honored my femininity. You helped me with makeup and went shopping with me, and gave me the confidence to go to my friend’s wedding reception with you in a beautiful cream dress that you picked out, the first time I'd ever done so without the guise of wearing a “costume.” You made a flower crown for me to wear, and when we entered the venue, everyone’s head turned. You made me the most beautiful gift I’d ever received for my birthday: a huge illustrated poem by Khalil Gibran, and you biked it over to my place, and I wept upon its receipt.
You hated men. The constant harassment and disrespect you experienced at men’s hands made your blood boil until it bubbled up into a quiet, magnificent lightning that spilled out of your huge, dark brown eyes. You told me about how you wanted to murder rapists and abusers, and I truly believed that one day you'd go through with it and kill someone. Or yourself.
You told me about how freedom was your greatest, most passionate desire, how life on Earth, as a human, wasn't enough for you, how you wanted to be a ghost, a spirit, a bird. But most of all you wished you were a thousand year-old tree. As I sit under one and write this, I wonder if it's got a part of you in it.
The only thing you never told me was how sad you were. When you broke up with me, I mourned the absence of you in my life, because you taught me that I could be free, too. I didn't realize you were probably, even at that point, cutting ties in preparation for your final exit. I didn't know how to love you, but I doubt my love could have saved you if I had.
One of the first e-mails you sent me was a piece by Assata Shakur, and it begins like this:
i believe in living.
i believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
i believe in sunshine.
in windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs;
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
i believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
i believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
i believe in life...
One of the last e-mails you sent me was a piece by Ijeoma Umebinyuo, and it begins like this:
It hasn’t been easy, has it? The ways you keep falling down. The days you thought that this would be the end. It hasn’t been easy, has it? The ways you called out hateful words to the one soul, one spirit and one being that is you. It just got harder for you to keep faith when the lovers left, when the friends ripped your heart apart. You thought, “surely, i cannot go on” and you felt yourself drowning. It has been hell...
When you wrote your note, and cursed the world, and decided to leave, I was, to my shame, surprised. When I’d gotten the initial texts from two friends, who saw your note and let me know, I was so surprised I immediately ran out of my classroom and told the assistant principal it needed to be covered. I drove as fast as I could - I thought you might be still be alive. I was surprised when the police chaplain drove up to where we were waiting for news, and we knew it was over because of the awkward look on his face. And somehow I was still surprised when he told us they had found your body, and then, surprised, we exploded into tears.
I wonder if, when you marched through that dreary night to spend your final moments with the tree that, assisted by gravity and rope, would take your life, you ever imagined that you were wrong. If you ever imagined that we were going to be there hours later, praying our queer atheist prayers that somehow you'd failed, that somehow you were still alive, that somehow we could still save you. I wonder if you for even the briefest moment knew that despite the world’s cold and boundless cruelty, you weren’t worthless, pathetic, or unloveable. I wonder if you know now that we still look at your pictures, that I still remember how you smelled, that I miss you almost every day. That I and everyone I knew considered you a beacon of inspiration and freedom, a clarion call to radical originality, a lover nonpareil.
When you finally left for good, when you finally freed yourself from the hell of being a queer black woman in America, I almost left with you. But I'm not as brave as you were. I halfheartedly tried to follow you but was saved from the brink by a friend, who drove me to the ER and helped me get checked into a psych ward. I later learned that depression is a liar, and that as corny as it sounds, the feelings won’t last forever, and it does get better. Slowly. And in waves. But it does. I wish I'd had more time to convince you of that.
I rest my back against this magnificent, towering, thousand year-old being and imagine it's you, and wish that instead of bark there was skin and instead of silence there was, once more, your beautiful voice.
And then, the wind picks up. And I hear it.
An artist has decorated this tree with a variety of wind chimes, and when the wind blows, it sings. It's not like the songs you would sing to me and record, drunk in a bar bathroom, to comfort me when we were apart. It's also not a hopeful song; in fact it sounds like a dirge. One of the wind chimes is at least six feet tall and, swinging in the wind, resembles a hanging body. You never had a funeral that I was made aware of, but this feels like one.
You always lived on the edge of this life and the next, always pushed the boundaries of what was possible for a human being, always yearned to experience the freedom of transcendence. I hear you in this oak tree’s song, and I see you in its branches, and I feel you in the trunk as I place my hand on its gnarls and twists. Its song reaches a crescendo as the wind swells, and its roots absorb my tears. And, comforted by your song, I can finally say goodbye.
In memory of
Adoette Janay Graves
November 25, 1990 - September 8, 2016