Crossroads with Renée Cheréz: Dancing with grief across place

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  • Published on December 2, 2022
  • Last Updated December 22, 2022

Renée describes her experience coping with grief after the loss of her beloved Jamaican grandfather in 2020.

I was putting the final touches of a red lip on before dinner while the Lakers played in the background. In the midst of yelling at fouls and game plays that made no sense, a phone call from my mom came through. “Heyllo,” she said. Her voice was splintered and her breathing uneven. I could tell she was crying. Panic filled my chest and belly and turned my knees into mush as I fearfully pressed her to tell me what was wrong. It was just day three in Tulum, where I was visiting with friends in late 2020. Up until that moment, being there was a reprieve for my spirit — a space absent of immediate urgency. I started feeling like I could stop holding my breath after months of protesting and living through our first pandemic year.

But now I’m here, sitting on the bedroom floor of my Airbnb in México feeling breathless and in primal agony. I don’t remember my mom’s exact words, except for a phrase that mentioned something about grandpa’s breathing slowing down. I realized that it was happening: He was dying. A few months prior, I had spent a month with him and grandma at their house in Jamaica. It was the longest piece of time I’d spent in the parish that welcomed me to Earth outside of the time my mom left me and my brother there for the entire summer before fifth grade — an experience for which my suburban nervous system was not prepared. But this time was wrapped in the desire to support grandma in her caregiving role while being present for the harsh winds of anticipatory grief and finality that I knew were coming.

Lush mountains are the backdrop to Renée’s grandparents home in Saint Thomas, Jamaica. October 2020. Courtesy of Renée Cheréz

My grandpa was a riot, the ultimate charmer and trickster. Though his mobility was limited and early onset Alzhiemers caused him mood swings and erratic behavior, he seemed to thoroughly relish in the rare occasions people assumed he was incoherent. He feigned tiredness when it was time for his medication and suddenly his head was too heavy to hold up long enough for sips of water. The exact opposite was true whenever I let him know I was heading out. “Grandpa, I’ll be back; I’m going to the shop,” I said. And just like that, superhero alertness emerged and I became the victim of his smooth probing as he requested ice cream or bulla cake, or both. Six days after mom called, grandpa moved on to his next form. The same veranda where he sat guard and ate meals and indulged me in silly selfies was hollow.

Renée in Valladolid, México a few days before her grandpa’s funeral. October 2020. . Photo courtesy of Renée Cheréz

Two years later and I long to hear his voice in real time. Sometimes, though, I still hear him in quiet moments telling me to “stap di bawlin,’‘ which always inspires laughter because he himself was a cry baby. I’m learning through life that my grief is always present. Sometimes it’s off to the side, observing all the other experiences of being human. But then there are times, like now, where it holds me close and dances, demanding an intimacy I don’t always feel prepared to give or receive. And yet, I have no choice but to surrender and ease into its rhythm.

Renée’s love of motorcycles comes from riding over this bridge with her grandpa and cousins during childhood visits in Jamaica. October 2020.. Courtesy of Renée Cheréz

My relationship with this grief has invited me to consider how travel and movement across places act as invitations to surrender to personal and collective grief. As I write this, scenes of the ocean appear in my mind’s eye, perhaps affirming that grief and the sea have a relationship beyond cognitive understanding. To truly move across place with our entire body is to surrender into the experiences that find us in place, whether that’s losing our passport or falling in love with a stranger. To attempt to predict or control what a journey will reveal is fruitless and absent of trust. Maybe that tendril of trust is what connects travel and grief: Both wanting to know us in different ways and asking us to sit down and stay for a while. And if we’re feeling particularly brave, we’ll reach out a hand and request a dance.

This story was originally published December 02, 2022 12:22 PM.


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