I never liked Sunday mornings as a kid. My mother would wake me up around seven so we’d be ready for church, which started at nine. We were never on time. I’d always put up a fight. My mother would wake me with a gentle shake, and I’d begin to cry because I was still tired and in the midst of some silly dream. She’d cradle me in one arm and use the hand of the other to wash my face with a cool towel. All the while, I’d squirm and whine, begging her to stop. She soothed me by explaining that she needed to wash the crusty boogers out of the crevices of my eye. I’d calm down and let her clean me, afraid a booger would drop in my eye and blind me.
Being late was never much of an issue for us, because Papa Ordy was the preacher at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Sunday was his favorite day of the week. He loved standing at the pulpit and preaching to his family—his congregation. I felt a great amount of pride watching him, as he bellowed the words on the sacred pages as though they were his last. My dad wasn’t around much when I was a child, so Papa, my grandfather, became his surrogate; he bought me clothing, toys, and books; babysat me while my mother was at work; taught me right from wrong, how to spit, ride a bike, and throw a punch. He did the same for my older siblings.
Papa was well aware of the ways of us demon seeds and how difficult it was for our mother to make sure we were all calmed and presentable before bringing us to church. At the time, there were five of us, out of a total of nine, living with my mom. All Sunday mornings were practically the same. My siblings could dress themselves, but I had to be forced into the tub, bathed, dried, and straightjacketed into a puffy dress before having my hair tightly braided. This was the most painful of these procedures, as the comb would always get caught in the kinks, and the barrettes clipped to the end of each braid attacked me whenever I turned my little head.
One Sunday morning, we were running even later than usual. Sometime between having my hair combed and being sat down for breakfast, the phone rang. I’m still not sure who it was, but our mother informed us she had to leave and would be back soon. Upon her return, we’d go to church, just as we did every Sunday morning. My siblings and I didn’t mind. We took this time to get a little of our evilness out by roughhousing, cursing, and watching MTV before being shuttled off to the house of the Lord.
One hour turned to two, and my mother still hadn’t returned. I was practically attached at the hip to my mother and whenever she left, I’d feel a bit anxious. With a shaky voice, I let my siblings know I was concerned about her detour, hoping to be reassured of her well being. Instead, I was met with silence, cut every now and then with the sound of someone sucking their teeth. I felt like I was living a nightmare. When I wasn’t being visited by horror film monsters in dreamland, I was plagued by horrific visions of my mother being taken away from me. Sometimes, it was by car accident or mugging; other times, it was by dinosaur or giant tarantula. After my siblings grew tired of my whining, I was sent upstairs. Once there, I crept into the bathroom and began praying. I felt something terrible had happened.
“God, please don’t let Mommy be dead,” I whispered behind the closed bathroom door.
I was crying and didn’t want my siblings to see me. They would be sure to mock me and tell me to stop being such a baby. I sat down on the edge of the bathtub and tried to imagine life without my mother. I couldn’t fathom it. I just cried more and more. In every prayer I said before bed, I’d ask God to take me before my mother, dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles—any and all family members I could recall. I just didn’t want anyone to die. I was awoken from my stupor of despair by the sound of the screen door slamming. Mommy! I thought. She’s okay. But she wasn’t.
“Y’all come down here,” my mother called upstairs to my siblings and me.
I wiped my tears away and burst through the bathroom door, ready to run downstairs and into her arms. Instead, I stopped in my tracks at the top of the staircase. In the foyer below, I saw my mother with her head held down. My siblings had the same reaction. The three of them gathered beside me. My mother let out a small hiccup. The type you let out when you’re overcome with sadness. Then she spoke.
Not Papa. Not the grandfather we’d grown up admiring as a father. God wouldn’t kill him. Oh God, why? On Sunday, the day that he’d dedicated practically all his life to praising your glory? I was immobilized and momentarily deaf. Everything was still, as if someone hit pause.
“No, he’s not!”
We’re back in motion, and my oldest sister is hysterical, crying and screaming. My mother makes her way up the stairs and touches my sister on the shoulder.
“Yes, he is.” She sobs, too.
I think this was the first time I ever saw my mother cry, and it was scary. This wasn’t my mother. This was some defeated version. How dare she cry? She was supposed to be strong, for all of us. Why wasn’t she comforting us? I wanted my old mother back. I wanted Papa back.
“This is all a bad dream, and I’m going to wake up soon!” my sister said, still crying.
God played a cruel joke on all of us that Sunday. We thought Papa was indestructible, our mother, unshakeable. It was all just an illusion. God took Papa’s heart, the loveliest part of him, the loveliest part of the world, in our gullible eyes, and destroyed it. The punchline, delivered later and with great timing, was that Papa had the heart attack that would kill him while he was preaching. I wonder, what was the day’s sermon? I know it included the lie my Papa told week after week:
“God is good, all the time.”
To this day, members of the congregation who were present claim he died in the church. While this makes for a nice story, he held on for a little while longer before being pronounced dead at the hospital. After my sister’s outburst and our tears, we put on our coats and boots in preparation to face the cold world beyond our four walls. We were going to meet our broken family at Papa’s place of death. Once downstairs and alone, I walked beside the dining room table and fell to my knees. With outstretched arms, I looked toward the heavens and shouted one word: Why? I begged God to take me instead. When no answer was provided and I didn’t drop dead, I realized that I was shouting at the ceiling.
We piled into my mother’s two-door Pontiac Sunfire. After the roar of the car’s ignition, a song began to play:
I wanna be your lake
Or your bay
And any problems that you have I wanna wash them away
I wanna be your sky so blue and high
And every time you think of me I wanna blow your mind…
I haven’t heard that song since that day, over fifteen years ago, yet I still remember these lyrics. In that moment, Justin Timberlake, former leader of boy-band *NSYNC turned solo superstar, sounded like a shaman. As strange as it may seem, I felt like somehow, Papa was communicating with us from beyond through a teenybopper-beloved pop star of all people. Then, the chorus:
When all the love feels gone
And you can’t carry on
Don’t worry, girl
I’m gonna take it from here.
This moment, as silly as it may seem, solidified my faith in the presence of some sort of afterlife. I believe a person who has left this Earth can communicate with loved ones they’ve left behind through everyday objects and, sometimes, nature. You’re reminiscing about someone who you’ve lost and suddenly the lights flicker, as if to say, I’m still here, or you’re feeling blue after a rough day and suddenly the song they used to always sing comes on the radio. These moments may seem purely coincidental, but I’ve experienced them too many times to think they are anything less than communications from beyond.
A week later, another Sunday, and it was time for Reverend “Papa” Oraid to be laid to rest. This time, we weren’t late to Mount Zion; there was no one to excuse us. I sat in the front pew, not too far from the band and choir, dumbfounded. It still didn’t seem real. At six, this was the first time I’d experienced a real loss. Not a goldfish, or an imaginary friend, but the man who I admired as a father figure. The man who always put others before himself and practiced what he preached. I sat there in deep thought: Who’s gonna pull my loose teeth now? Who’s gonna buy me a strawberry shake and hamburger from McDonald’s? Who’s gonna rescue me from getting my hair combed by grandma Ree?
I was selfish, like all children are, but even today when I begin to miss Papa, it’s not because I’m bemoaning the life he could be living, but the guidance and support he could be giving me. I’m probably not alone in this way of thinking. We all remember our loved ones the way we want to remember them, which may not be who they really were. Our views of them are tainted by selfishness; we think, who was he or she to me, rather than, who was he or she. It also doesn’t help matters that we are defectively programmed to create a mental highlight reel. The lows we do remember are annoying commercial breaks. No one remembers what it felt like to have their first tooth erupt, which is why incoming wisdom teeth hurt so badly. Maybe, if we’d held on to the feeling of that first pain, the latter pain would be almost non-existent.
Come to think of it, I didn’t really know Papa. I knew of the things he did for his family, friends, and strangers, the gifts of money to satisfy debts. He loaned his car so others didn’t have to walk, and provided shelter, food, and comfort to those without. I can’t tell you what town he was born in, or what mischief he got into as a young man, because I don’t have a clue. I just knew him as a grandfather, a preacher, a diabetic, and a good man, which feels terrible. No one is that perfect. Sometimes, I wish I knew of something that would taint his perfection. The man lived for seventy years; he had to have shown some proof of life along the way.
After the songs were sung and the speeches given, the pallbearers carried my Papa to the burial site across the street, followed by the adults who attended the service. I had to stay behind in the nearly empty church with the rest of the children. I stared blankly at the lighted cross on the wall behind the pulpit. I couldn’t speak or move, only stare. I felt like my spirit had been stolen from me. Meanwhile, the others around me continued living. Some wiped away the drying tears crisping their cheeks; others chatted, some even did cartwheels. One of my cousins said hello to me. Although she was standing beside me, it sounded as though she was speaking from somewhere outside. My sister nudged me, giving me a cue to speak. I turned my head and looked up at the girl awaiting a response. I really wanted to speak, but nothing came out. Instead, I slowly raised my right hand and mechanically waved.
Then, I stood up and ran. I had to vomit. I could feel my mouth heat up and water. It tasted as though salt had been poured in my mouth, giving way to a familiar burning sensation that crept up my throat. I ran out of the nave and down into the basement where there was a bathroom. My sister ran after me. I was baffled by my bravery, as usually I was afraid to go into the basement alone. Luckily, I made it to the restroom stall without making a mess. Vomiting made me think of the story of an exorcism my mother used to tell me. Apparently, a good little boy turned wicked and had to have a demon cast out of him before it could consume his soul. After the preacher and congregation prayed, shouted, and splashed holy water on him, the boy vomited, expelling the demon. All the windows in the church were opened so the demon couldn’t enter the body of any other person in the room.
Papa always said the devil had a special vendetta against those who preached the word of God. Demons who possessed a preacher or one of their family members—especially a child—earned special favor of the Dark One. I thought that was the reason I was vomiting. I had to be wicked. I didn’t know what shock was at that age. My youngest sister was in the stall with me, holding my braids back and rubbing my back to comfort me. Once the vomiting ceased, I stood up and looked at her. Through bleary eyes, I saw her concerned face, and wondered if she was possessed. There were no windows in the bathroom. My fears subsided when she asked how I was doing, smiled, and gave me a hug. I melted into her embrace. As we walked back to the nave, I began to wonder how my sister hadn’t “caught” the demon. There could only be one explanation—it was still in me—and Papa wasn’t there to cast it out.
God truly is the greatest comedian. When the adults returned to the church from the graveyard, they informed us Papa couldn’t be buried that day because the ground was frozen. The caretakers had no way to dig the grave. Poor Papa. Where would he go in the meantime? Maybe we’ll take him home, I thought. He can sleep in my room. Luckily, that did not happen. If it had, I don’t think I’d be able to relay this story. Waking up beside your dead grandfather is a surefire way to go mad, especially when you’re six and afraid of the dark. Papa did look like he was sleeping in his coffin. He’d finally been able to catch some rest.
Before we left the church to have dinner at a relative’s house, I walked behind the pulpit where Papa stood on Sundays. I tried to remember how normal Sundays were. My grandfather used to pace back and forth while communicating what lay in his soul, hoping he could save others. His voice would reverberate off the thin wooden walls of the church, causing the entire room to quake. Each message he delivered was met with shouts of Yes! and other declarations of approval. I sat beside my mother, bored, kicking my feet back and forth, not understanding a word. Admittedly, his sermons were the part of the service I least enjoyed. I preferred when the choir sang and the band played. Then, I could jump to my feet and stomp and yell, just act a fool. I would shout at the top of my lungs, because I knew no one could hear me over the music.
I stood at the top of the few stairs before the pulpit, trying to see it all through his eyes. I thought that this is what killed him, the pressure and toil of Sunday, the day of rest. He was obliged not only to his family, but to a congregation of at least one hundred people, plus the non-members who would attend. They relied on him, a man, to deliver the message of the omnipresent and solidify His existence. They asked for his counsel during dark times and for prayers to improve their circumstances. When the prayers went unanswered, he had to provide an excuse. Believers say preachers and others who are said to be in the service of God are chosen. Well, Papa, I wish you would’ve never answered that call. Then again, you couldn’t foresee the toll it would take, or maybe you did, and you were just too kind to care. Duty and kindness can be a deadly combination. If you knew it would kill you, would you do it all again?
I believe he would.
Reverend Oraid Blackshear was born February 29, 1932, so he was seventeen years old when he passed in January of 2003. (In reality, he was seventy, but he loved to joke about being much younger because he was a leap-year baby.) He was born in Georgia. While still in his teens, he married another teenager named Marie. Together, they had five children, three girls and two boys. He was the grandfather of I don’t even know how many. He had to have sugar in his orange juice and take insulin shots on account of his diabetes. He owned a shotgun. Besides preaching, he’d been a truck driver and a factory worker. He helped to establish Mount Zion Baptist Church in Batavia, New York. He loved God, his family and friends, his congregation, and his community. A voice like no other, one that will never be heard live again. He loved Sundays. That’s all I know.
Zarira Love is a junior creative writing major at Purchase College.