Posted by: nedlnthred | July 3, 2015

Light a Candle

20150701_203726-2The other day I posted about a death across the street from my home in Orange, NJ.  I am humbled by what happened next.

Monday was a gorgeous day weatherwise. Cool and breezy, warm but not muggy. Having had enough of reality, though, I retreated early to someone else’s stories, indoors, as dark fell.

An hour later, I went upstairs to get something, and noticed out my front window that the street was full of cars. Across the street, on the lawn near where the victim had fallen, were a long narrow group of candles and a giant bunch of white balloons, anchored to a spot.

There were people, gathered in small groups, talking. The murmurs were sad and watchful. Others drifted up to the group of candles and stood for a while.

It was a wake.

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Early dark, from my bedroom window.  The gathering grew beyond this to encompass this entire section of the block.

I went back to my own numbness. When I looked again, around 11pm, the street was filled. Cars were parked, both sides of the street, all the way from two doors east to two doors west of my house. Most of them were playing music. Unlike the average evening’s cruising, though, the music was soft enough that the murmur of voices could be heard. And the music was reverent.  Still R&B/Hip Hop, but strains of organ, and songs baring their gospel roots.  There must have been 50-60 people around, standing, telling stories, paying their respects. The simplicity, spontaneity, and solemnity of the gathering were majestic.

I went to bed about 11:15pm, my bedroom right above this event. I lay there, humbled, listening to the threads of music and the hum of voices. There was laughter in the retelling of stories, but it lacked the raucous joy of the usual summer coveys. So many people. Yet I knew nothing of this person, who had died about 60 feet from my doorstep. I got up, found a large candle, lit it. Put it on my front step.

Back in bed, I tried to read. But the noise was pervasive, even if gentle, and the day had been harrowing. I had no concentration left, so I drifted, listening and thinking. Then, around 11:40 or so, the noise began to lessen. Cars began to drive away. By midnight, there were only two or three cars left and the block was quiet.  Like more formal viewings, this one apparently had a closing time. I hadn’t expected that, but it made the whole thing even more ceremonial. And the man’s death more human, more real.

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The second evening. Two of the candles this time are mine.  Again, this picture doesn’t do the gathering justice.

The second night I had worked during the day, then met a friend for dinner and many drinks. I wobbled down the center of my street, as one does (there aren’t sidewalks for a portion), into the second night of this gathering. It was a gentler, warmer version of the occasional block party. I nodded to the few who acknowledged me (the standard hello here = “How you doin’.”) I’m a known quantity on the block though, so my return occasioned no other response.

Last night the cops had driven through the gathering regularly. This evening, an Orange Police SUV was parked in front of the candle grouping. The cop wasn’t in it, though.  She was mingling with the other visitors, neighboring, part of the community. I was the stranger. Conspicuous, but accepted, even ignored.

I was raised in a tradition of faith, though. I believe loss should never remain unacknowledged, regardless of violence and incongruity (in my life, if not the community’s). I went indoors and found two pillar candles and a pack of matches. I walked over to the group of candles (which had been moved during the day to be closer to where the man had actually fallen.) I tried to light them, but my matches fizzled twice. The person next to me, scrawny and ragged, had already lit a taper and offered his help. He lit my candles and I placed them, then asked the man’s name.  “Jamar” he said. Then he asked me where I stayed. As I began to point, the man on his right said, “She stay here.” Their crazy white lady, indeed. I blessed myself, said a prayer, and went home.

I had this awful, odd feeling of being the White Lady in the Big House, stepping down as Lady Bountiful to greet the…  I am disturbingly aware of how much larger my world is than many of the people there. How much better the food I’ve had access to, how much more versatile the education and broader the opportunities. I am both better clothed and fed than the man who helped me light my candles, and have been for our whole lives. I try to thank God every day for these blessings, among which I include every one of you reading this. In this situation, however, the only thing that mattered was our humanity.

berwyn tribute

Rest in Peace, Jamar.


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