Joy Notoma | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,746 words)
I didn’t want a goodbye party. They always make me lonely because I can never connect with people as deeply as I want. I didn’t feel I needed one. I was happy with one-on-one time with friends during the last months before I left Brooklyn to move to Benin.
These were the days when the busyness we habitually shield ourselves with melted away. The excuses we usually find to not get together suddenly weren’t good enough; we attended to those last moments religiously, knowing that coffee dates and weekend hangs would soon dwindle to once-a-year affairs, and those even only if we were lucky. We had already seen enough life changes among us to know the fragility of our bonds — many of them were already mostly memories steeped in nostalgia for days bygone, coated with the sweetness of stories told and re-told, but brittle beneath the weight of our everyday realities. We could look at each other, our eyes shrouded in shame with the knowledge that we weren’t present for the other’s most recent tragedy, but nonetheless carrying the trust of friendship’s creed: I love you though I am not always there and if you really really really need me, I’ll do my damndest to hold you up however I can— present or not. Through this creed, we forgave each other’s absences through divorces, first years of motherhood, and even a suicide attempt. Somehow, that creed meant something even if in reality, we had not been there for each other when we were really really really needed. And then when it was decided that I was moving, all the hurts of previous absences were less important than the one that was pending.
But during my final days before I moved to West Africa, to a country that many of our friends will likely never visit, we stopped time to shore up the bonds, to declare love, and to lavishly heap that coveted resource, time, upon each other. There was no other way. We sat and laughed and celebrated and mourned the time we spent and did not spend together. I was sure that these moments with each of them were enough for me. I knew that a party would sully it.
A party would force our conversations into five-minute segments while we shifted every few seconds because we aren’t sure when, if, how we would be interrupted. A party would make it strange if eyes spontaneously filled with tears…because who can handle all that emotion when there are other people to manage and attend to? A party would make me conscious of anyone who had the need to grab and hold me tight because of my obsessive worry over anyone feeling left out. Please, I would pray for the duration of a party, let me be all things to all people.
But then during my final week in New York, something began to change. I began to crave the uncanny thrill of a crossover episode — that rare intermingling when characters from the disparate corners of my life meet on neutral ground. Against my better judgement, I decided to have a party. I sent out non-committal sounding texts: “Are you free? Thinking of a little goodbye shindig.” The replies poured in. Everyone was free. A party was happening. And then in response to the anxiety of what I had done, I lost track of the texts and replies and began to forget who I invited and who I had left off the list. In the days approaching, I kept myself busy packing my apartment, getting rid of things, and contemplating the reality of my move.
My husband and I moved to Benin after two years of visiting for weeks and months at a time, dividing our time between Brooklyn and a small town where we can see cattle wandering the streets at any time of the day. We did not move for work. We moved to build a sustainable house with traditional building materials in a neighborhood where we are the only foreigners. I am black and he is white. Gone are the days of unexceptionally blending into the many interracial couples of central Brooklyn — my medium-length afro indistinguishable from the other natural-haired black women walking next to their cool-free-spirit woke white men, our conversations about race completely centered on the context of American racism. The conversations started early. I could speak to him not as a black person explaining race to a white person who has spent his life imagining that he has no stake in racism, but as equals; I rarely had to assume the position of educator while he sat in relative comfort learning about the plight of my people. He defied my skepticism about exactly to which degree he fetishized black women. With stacks of vinyl records by Miles Davis, The Four Tops, James Brown, and Sly and The Family Stone in a collection that looked like a museum of black American music, there was no way I would believe he did not in some way fetishize my culture; but I needed to be comfortable with the degree, I needed to be comfortable with his particular balance of appreciation and objectification. He proved himself sufficiently, and I married him two years after we met.
Goodbye parties always make me lonely because I can never connect with people as deeply as I want.
When we are together in Benin, it takes a while before people realize that I, too, am a foreigner (not Beninese) and that we are a couple, as so few white people and even fewer interracial couples live there. The fact that we do not live in the upscale neighborhoods of immigrants from France, Germany, and other European countries sets us even further apart. What are we doing there so far away from the white neighborhoods in the city? Why are we building a house? But these are the concerns of strangers. Within myself, I deal with the more complicated knowledge that I, a black woman married to a white man, have moved to a land rich with the history of slavery and colonization. I measure my moves with a precision I have never known before to make sure I always communicate that my husband is not to be treated as if he is superior just because he is white. I wonder in new ways what loving a white man among so many black people says about my love of myself and my respect for the truth of my history. I move and love him in faith that I can, with my life, create something new, but still some days, when I am tired of all the questions my life demands, I wonder if it is enough. We speak late into the night on the ways that our actions communicate our complicity in global white supremacy. This takes all of our energy, but there is no other way — these are the nuts and bolts of our improbable move.
Moves are like beliefs. They require leaps of imagination, swaths of optimism that stretch far into the future; and sometimes, girded by the staunch conviction that one is taking the best course of action, they require leaving people behind.
In my Jehovah’s Witness family, emotions are treated like inconveniences that get in the way of religious service. My mother, I know, is an emotional person, but she is adept, by virtue of religious devotion, at keeping emotions at bay. When a friend dies, instead of allowing the depth of grief, she squelches it by telling herself that death is sleep and that she will see her friend again when she is resurrected from the dead after God destroys the wicked nonbelievers. When she hugs me her soft, large arms do not wrap around my body; she gently drapes them over my shoulders and touches her cheek lightly to mine. If I listen close enough I hear her whisper: “I love you, my daughter.” And that is how I know that if she were to allow her voice to rise or to take me in her arms, that her tears would flow; and that she is afraid above all, more than any phantom fear of my not knowing that she loves me, that those tears will drown her.
When I visit her in South Carolina, I ask her to show me the graves of her parents and grandparents. I ask her where she would like to be buried, and she tells me that she wants to be cremated. I know I will honor her wishes and defend them, if they are ever resisted. Then she tells me that she wants her body burned to ash after death because she doesn’t want us, her children, to see her in a coffin because it will make us too sad to see her lifeless body in a box. I tell her without flinching that, burned or buried whole, we will grieve her regardless.
“Yes, but maybe not seeing me there like that will make it less hard.”
I say again that it will be hard regardless.
“Yes, but I don’t want you to grieve for too long,” she continues. “You know those people who are still sad for so long after the fact…” her voice trails off. She is afraid.
I tell her in as few words as possible that grief takes time, that it may come in waves for periods, which may be surprising. I know it’s best to leave it alone; there’s not much I can say to alleviate her fear or, rather, make her understand that this particular fear is not to be alleviated, only faced.
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I, too, am afraid, but there is no way to say that inside of her car that day as we drive through the grassy field of the graveyard making our way through the tire-made paths. If I weren’t afraid, I would have told her that five years ago, the last time I saw my siblings and our entire family together (except for my especially devout brother who still refused to see me), I wept in public a few days before the visit because I realized, through all of my excitement, that seeing them again would mean saying goodbye again. It had already been 11 years since I’d been invited to a family function and I didn’t know when the next time would come.
It was a special occasion. My aunt and uncle from Nigeria, the default matriarch and patriarch of my father’s side of the family, were coming to the U.S. for the first time and my parents wanted to make sure all of us were home in South Carolina to meet them. By this point, my husband and I had already been to Nigeria and stayed in their home multiple times, but my husband had never met any of my siblings, even though they all lived in the states. We’d already been together for four years, but he knew my aunt and uncle and their children in Nigeria better than he knew my parents and siblings. The strangeness of this could only be alleviated by genuine love, which through all circumstances, bizarre and banal, remains constant. By basking in the possibility of that constance, we could collectively ignore our strange family, conditioned by even stranger religious beliefs, and enjoy each other in a strange peace for 48 hours.
During my final week in New York, something began to change. I began to crave the uncanny thrill of a crossover episode — that rare intermingling when characters from the disparate corners of my life meet on neutral ground.
And then the goodbyes came. We did not know when we would see each other again or if we would. When my younger sister, the baby of the family, said goodbye, she wept into the top of my shoulder, all the same tears I’d shed in public a few days prior, miles away in Brooklyn. No one else cried.
Emotions in this particular religion are a bland, one-flavor wash; one only tastes them briefly before explaining them away with scripture. Gospel is the constant panacea; troubles are no match for my mother’s belief that “all tears and imperfection will be washed away” when God turns the whole world into a paradise, where she will live in eternity with her fellow faithful.
It is this suspicious regard of emotion that allows them to shun former members like me, who left the religion of their own volition, and those who, according to doctrine, have sinned unrepentantly. It is also this stifling of emotion that allows them to suddenly change their tune and speak to shunned people again when higher ups loosen the embargo on contact in response to negative press, as if the years of no contact and ostracism have not already wrought enough emotional havoc on the shunned. And it is this stifling of emotion that allows them to imagine that their changed rules can expunge the pain. When I visit my parents in South Carolina five years after my aunt and uncle from Nigeria visit, almost a year after we moved to Benin, it is this stifling of emotion that causes my father to hand me the phone when my brother — the one who chose not to come to the gathering with auntie and uncle, who has refused to see me for almost ten years — calls.
I take the phone from my father, wondering why he has handed it to me so cavalierly, as if we what we are doing is completely normal, the action of any cohesive family. I hear my brother’s voice, not sounding too different from that of the boy I grew up with and the young man I used to know. His voice is strained under the pretense: he tries to sound upbeat and cheery, as if our speaking is not unusual, as if his young son has not made it completely through early childhood without knowing my name or my face. This, too, is the stifling of emotion. It is this stifling of emotion that allows my father to call each of my siblings in succession, after my brother and I say goodbye, and hand the phone to me so that they may continue the charade of pretending that they have not shunned me for all of my adult life.
When I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was 19 years old, I spoke to each of my family members (parents and five siblings) to discuss my choice. They had already been made aware that I wasn’t attending the meetings, that I was, in religious parlance, spiritually weak. My spiritual weakness had been treated like a family problem to solve — they would show up to my dorm room two hours from my hometown on weekends to take me to meetings at the local Kingdom Hall. I was determined to be transparent about my doubts. I had carried them in shame my whole life, and I looked at the breaking away as the moment to finally come clean, to be liberated from the weight of my sinful thoughts just by speaking them aloud. So I posed my questions to anyone I could. I sat in meetings with elders, firing away my questions, and telling them why their justifications no longer made sense to me. I told my parents that I was “searching” to make it seem as if I would someday return to the fold and thereby soften the blow, but I knew I would never return. I knew I no longer believed. The spell of living and worshipping with a group that believes they are the only true religion (their words) and that they will one day be earth’s sole inhabitants after God destroys the non-believers and transforms the whole world into a paradise had been broken. Everything I had been taught suddenly revealed itself as a complete farce.
When I told my siblings and parents I was leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, what had once been a strong family bond with regular phone calls and family vacations, came to an abrupt end. Where I had once spoken to at least one of my siblings every week, there was now silence. My calls went unanswered. I wasn’t invited to family functions. It has been 15 years since I left the group. I can count the number of times since then that I have seen or spoken to my siblings, all five of them, on one hand. In these years, I have learned to grieve people who are still alive.
This is why I fear goodbye parties. I’ve said too many premature goodbyes in short succession. It’s much more manageable for me to say goodbyes individually, where I can maintain perspective. When I am with one friend, it is easy for me to understand that this goodbye may not be final. It is fathomable that we will text, call, and even possibly visit. But when it is a room full of my most beloveds, I am reminded of the pain of wholesale absence. I can look at the mass of their smiling faces and imagine them vanishing all at once. In the face of such terror, one cannot experience the full breadth of emotion; the tides would be too strong. But I am my mother’s daughter, so I must resist the temptation to keep everyone at arm’s length, and stare at my fear that if I hold them too close they will weaken me, weaken my resolve to be strong and make this move which seems quixotic but which is more real than any belief I’ve ever held.
On the day of the goodbye party, cold air ripped through my body. I was so scattered that I left my apartment on the coldest day of October without a coat. With my mental energy devoured by moving, I forgot exactly who said they were coming. Who had said yes, who had said no, who I had neglected to invite…all of it eluded me. Embarrassingly, almost every guest who walked through the door of the restaurant surprised me, and I was constantly lighting up like I’d been chosen from the audience of “The Price is Right.” I stood by the bar nervously shifting my weight from side to side, picking my nails, feeling lonely among my favorite people.
Moving comes with the most alienating of paradoxes. The connections to places, objects, and people consume you while you let them go. You are surrounded by friends and love, yet the storm of emotions isolates you. It’s hard for anyone to understand how, despite the privilege that moving represents, you are hurting; that though you are moving, you confront paralysis everyday. Still, everyone knows something about moving. It is peculiar, but not foreign.
We left Benin after a five-month visit, returning briefly to Brooklyn for the last stretch before our official move. On the flight back to New York, I sat next to a five-year-old boy who was traveling completely alone. His seat was, in fact, across the aisle from mine but when the flight attendants realized I had an empty seat next to me, they decided I looked maternal enough to move the boy into the empty seat next to me. We became travel partners. At first, he didn’t answer any of the questions that I asked in French. Then I tried in English and recognition flashed across his face.
This is why I fear goodbye parties. I’ve said too many premature goodbyes in short succession.
“I’m going to America to meet my daddy,” he said in a Nigerian accent, without excitement. I smiled broadly, our first barrier overcome. It was a multi-stop flight and he likely boarded in Lagos. (It will always be one of the great cultural thefts of colonialism that people in neighboring countries often have no common language. Imagine if you lived in a country the size of New York and couldn’t speak to people who lived in New Jersey). He was terrified. It was his first flight and he didn’t know a soul.
My little friend swung his head into the aisle with curious bewilderment to take in every detail of activity on the plane. I helped him open his food, but he didn’t touch it until he saw me eat first. There was something about his fear that told me his trip was more permanent than temporary. He carried the sadness and distrust of a person newly wounded, maybe grieving a loss, certainly stunned by the magnitude of his journey.
We passed the hours doing pages in his activity book and completing a jigsaw puzzle with giant pieces, which was our biggest accomplishment. When we experienced turbulence he grabbed my hand and I squeezed back, saying “Whooaah!” with a silly surprised expression on my face to calm him. During the rough landing, I cradled the frame of his small body and counted the seconds in a sing-song voice while he buried his face in my lap. After we touched down, I tried not to let his eyes rupture my heart when he realized that we would not continue on together because we had different connecting flights. We hugged goodbye in the aisle.
I saw him later being escorted to his gate by flight attendants, his small body overtaken by the size of his backpack, which I knew contained only the activity book, the cardboard jigsaw puzzle, and some crayons — remnants of our little party for two. I couldn’t stop thinking of his utter aloneness — a small boy alone in an airport, the only people responsible for him airline employees. I realized later that because our time together was so brief, our time together had been a goodbye party of sorts. I could only hope that it helped him feel a bit less alone than his circumstances suggested.
Amid my loneliness at the goodbye party, something kept returning: moments when the frenetic shuffling of all the moving pieces slowed down and I felt total peace. In those moments, I accepted that I couldn’t fully devote time and attention to each guest with the depth that I’d have preferred, or that it wouldn’t have been appropriate to cry and beg my friends to come with me to Benin, even though it crossed my mind more than once. As the moments of acceptance multiplied, the malaise of moving slowly but surely loosened its grip. The party ended up being a great time.
For our final night in Brooklyn, I envisioned packing and plopping down on the couch to watch Netflix when we were too tired to move, but other plans were in store. First there came one knock on the door. Then, two. Then, three. Friends came. The night was full of storytelling, the honoring of risk, and blessings of more life to come. It was a party.
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Joy Notoma is an essayist and journalist. Her work has appeared in CNN, Al Jazeera, the Huffington Post, and other publications. The Moving Chronicles is her biweekly missive about her adventures in moving to Benin.
Editor: Sari Botton