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jamilla vandyke-bailey

candles in the wind‌

Woman with a Candle by Gulacsy Lajos

you’re unsure why he suddenly came to mind; he’s always existed to you, but he never had mass. growing up he was a character, an outline of a person you would’ve known better if your father and he knew better.

you must’ve said: hey dad, how’s uncle andrew doing? you’ve asked it before, and had always heard random white noise buzzing in response.

you expected it now, but instead your father inhaled sharp and quick. um. well. he’s not good. and with the exhale he added: he has ALS.

your face went hot with fear, and your tongue rattled off questions your father struggled to keep up with. you don’t know if he didn’t have the answers, or couldn’t remember what nana told him; but the information halted in some bits and flowed in other parts.

could your father hear the resentment in your tongue? why didn’t anyone tell me he was sick? as if you knew his middle name, or grew up with his kids, or bothered to invite him to any of your childhood birthday parties. no cards, no balloons, no: hurry up and make a wish blow out the candles, baby girl. as if you had the cure; like your knowledge could slow a disease meticulous enough to eat the body alive and let the soul watch.

.                                                                           

at the beginning of last december, you read tuesdays with morrie. marie had mentioned that it was her favorite book once or twice; she had to read it for one of her college courses and it took hold of her. she had read the book at a vulnerable time in her life; things were senseless and pulsating with confusion. she said: nothing was making sense and i needed to understand the point of what was happening and why. she said the book never told her why, but it showed her how to relate to and love on the people she chose to share scattered moments of her life with. and even though you’ve never had any true desire to read tuesdays with morrie, and took pride in falling out of step with the fictional elitist kids you imagined loving it, you decided to try it; you cared about marie and marie loved it so you walked into the heartbreak deliberately.

when you finished the audiobook, you gave it three out of five stars on goodreads and wrote: reflective, loving & not much else. and for you, the book was just that. back then, in that december, tuesdays with morrie was just a story about a self-important young man who chooses to slowly watch his favorite college professor, and mentor die from ALS.

it wasn’t about you finding out dr. duncan nelson was sick from a cancer that came back after all these years away, and trying to be a more active part of his existence towards the end. you told people he was like your fictional grandfather. he taught you so much about books and healing and being in love. he taught you about the conditions of rape, and the way in which we dismiss what we do not understand. he taught you to love your hyphenated name for its length, clunks and imperfections. you picture him now, the old tweed jacket, and button up shirt holding onto the sweat in the armpit. and you hear his slight stutter and hesitation, but the way he said your name with pride that was infectious and honest. he had meant so much to you and then you graduated and forgot and forgot and forgot. it wasn’t malicious. it wasn’t purposeful. like uncle andrew he was out of sight and out of mind and you kept on forgetting and forgetting and forgetting until it was too late.

you were on campus for grad school and stopped by his office. the small room was buried alive by books that stank with age, and papers on tables tall enough to measure the shadow of a man. of that man. dr. duncan morse nelson.

you said hi and asked him how he’s been. he spoke from his slight stutter and with delicate breath, as if he was afraid of blowing out a candle that keeps the endlessness of silence away. he said: i-i haven’t been on campus much lately. i’m sick. years-s ago i was diagnosed with cancer but i beat it. you smiled. but it’s back and well i-i am an old man so i’m taking time off to get healthier.

you could’ve taken that moment to do what mitch albom did, what you wanted to do, what you hate yourself for not doing. but instead you mumbled and muttered useless sounds as tears made your eyes began to ache and blur out of focus. and what did you do when he told you the cancer was bad? when you had time off for long breaks? when you thought about him and the poem he wrote for his daughter who died young? you didn’t do anything. you let him leave without your adoration, and now it sits inside of your chest oscillating between weight and weightlessness.

and it’s hard to read a book that reminds you of your own selfishness without, at the very least, taking away two stars.

.                                                                           

‌it turns out marie was right (you have good friends so they usually are), tuesdays with morrie didn’t tell you why, but it told you a little piece of what and how and that’s something you can grab hold on to. and you always find yourself needing something to hold on to.

so when your father mentions ALS your heart hesitates for. one. beat. too. long and you’d swear your lungs were taking on water, not air. he says: it took them a while to figure out what was wrong with him. you know, black people don’t really get ALS so by the time they finally put it together you know..

and because of mitch albom’s showboating of his own sainthood, you don’t tell your father but you do know. you know too much. so much it makes you wish you were dead instead, because you don’t like stress and are always dramatic.

of the disease eating his friend, mitch writes: ALS is like a lit candle: it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax.. you cannot support yourself standing.. you cannot sit up straight. By the end, if you are still alive.. your soul, perfectly awake, is imprisoned inside a limp husk.. like something from a science fiction movie, the man frozen inside his own flesh (albom).

you didn’t know morrie schwartz and cancer stole dr. nelson before you realized it; and now here you are, grieving for your uncle while he is still alive. you are mourning a man without knowing him, and loving him the way you were supposed to, and you don’t know who to hate or blame or believe in. all you know is this pain of waiting helplessly and shamefully patient for an answer, or for some to blow the candles out so he can finally wish for the why.

About the writer:
jamilla vandyke-bailey (@alli.maj) is a pro-black feminist poet and essayist. Her poetry chapbook than we have been (Weasel Press 2022) and her full-length book of poetry the womxn (Finishing Line Press 2023) are currently available for purchase.

Image: Woman with a Candle by Gulacsy Lajos (1882-1932). No medium specified. No size specified. By 1932. Public domain.

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