It was a few nights into the New Year when I passed along the box packed with rice, chow mein, and macaroni to a man nearby. These plastic to-go boxes were essentials at wakes in my new home of Guyana, and I scanned the yard to see that the friends and neighbors of the deceased had been served and were comfortable. Guests slammed down dominoes on little white tables and conversed with one another from plastic lawn chairs. The whole neighborhood crammed into the yard of this house on the corner. Gospel tracks and Caribbean Oldies crooned from the speaker boxes, a soundtrack for nostalgic conversations. This was my neighborhood.
Our elderly neighbor, Frenchie, had died in his sleep a few days before. A staple in the community, I could always count on him being settled in his folding chair on the corner, the daily paper and his dog, Guava, his faithful companions. He would stop every neighbor who passed by just to chat, taxi drivers honked their hellos to him, and old friends dropped off groceries for him and food scraps for Guava. So it seemed the whole city knew when he died. Bus drivers asked me where the uncle on the corner was. School children wondered about his absence. Every time I left my house, my eyes would flick over to his corner, expecting to see the sentinel posted in his chair. But now only Guava was there.
Frenchie was one of my first friends when I moved to the vibrant Caribbean country 16 months earlier. He was a constant in my morning commute. Many stifling, humid mornings I would sit next to him on his stoop, rest my bag on an old cable spool he’d turned into a table, and chat as I waited for my ride to work. And several hours later, on my way home, I would see him on his corner again, sitting, one knee crossed on top of the other, observing the road, waiting for someone to talk with. Maybe he would quote Macbeth verbatim, recount his drug-fueled twenties traveling abroad, or ask me to walk him to the shop for a lotto ticket or haircut. And every evening, in the Caribbean dusk, he waited up until he saw the first star come out so he could say a prayer when he saw it. Frenchie would tell me which of my roommates had already come home before me, who was still out, where they had gone, and whether they’d be back by sundown. He was the neighborhood watchdog and gossip. And he was the one who made this unfamiliar culture and new lifestyle feel like home.
And now, sharing out packages of food at his wake, I saw the entire neighborhood gathered in his honor. The men who played cards every night outside the tire shop, his landlady and house-mates, the man who weed-whacked the trench out front, the quirky locals who had known him for decades—these old friends, a few estranged family members, and neighbors gathered at the house on the corner to swap stories about the legend. I was fascinated by his friends’ stories of Frenchie as a young man, but I could feel the weight of it all beginning to build up. Guyanese wakes can last for several nights, and I could sense my social energy draining on this, the third or fourth night.
Another Christmas away from my family had just passed, and adding the death of a friend to the already somber tone of the holidays was making the humid nighttime air feel even heavier. It was comforting to witness the gathering of neighbors in celebration of Frenchie’s life, but I was physically and emotionally exhausted, letting myself indulge in some level of self-pity. I knew Guyana could never fully be my home, that I could never completely integrate into a culture that was not my own. However, I knew with equal certainty that the cities where my friends and family lived State-side could never fully be home again either. Building a cross-cultural home brings its share of excitement and joy, but it also carries stretches of loneliness and isolation. I don’t really get homesick, but building a new community for myself every year or two can take its toll on your spirit. And now I had lost part of my home, my new community—someone who held his own community together.
And, standing in the yard of so many past conversations, seeing the room where they had found him, the stoop where we had waited for the stars, and flicking my eyes to his corner, I knew I needed to leave the death behind. My roommate always swore that after you leave a funeral or a wake, you can’t go straight home. You can’t let the death follow you back. You must leave it somewhere else. There were plenty of things I needed to leave behind, and I knew just the place to go.
Thirty minutes later, I could hear the muted booming of the salsa and reggaeton tracks as I climbed the steep stairs into the Latin club. A haven. People of all skin colors and nationalities twirled and swirled and salsa-ed around the floor to Marc Anthony and Shakira. Cubans, Guyanese, and Trinidadians blended and jived together with North Americans sprinkled in. I generally balked at places that drew ex-pats and Westerners, but I knew that tonight this was where I needed to be.
In this new home, dance had become a tool for me—an invaluable instrument of expression and self-care. It became a way to deal with the stress of a new season of life, a new job, and new expectations. And tonight I knew I wasn’t just there to leave behind the death; I was going to need to dance with it. I needed to face this loss, hold it close to me, and understand how it moved. So under twinkling Christmas lights strung up around this bar in the Caribbean, this place I had made a home, I danced with the death-scent. I stomped and spun and salsa-stepped. Ice cubes in nearby drinks vibrated to the rhythms of song and dance. I was dancing to understand—to know I lost a part of my home but not all. That night I wasn’t dancing to push away Frenchie’s death or to pretend it hadn’t happened. I danced to grieve the loss of him. The loss of all the many homes and communities I had known before. And I danced to celebrate. To celebrate him, the home I had found, and the homes that are to come. I swung my hips in gratitude, rocked back and forth with loss, and flicked my eyes to the corner.