Death is never an easy element of life. I’ve always loathed it. The first death to shake my core was my dad’s, who I lost in 2012. As a 17-year-old about to enter college, there was a lot I realized I had yet to learn, and now the man I relied on to teach me things that my mother opted out of was gone. However, I coped with death through music, the one unifier that kept me connected to the love I’d lost. “I Feel Good” by Beres Hammond has always been our song. We danced to it at my Sweet 16 and it was the only song that intertwined love and our culture. I never really connected to my Caribbean background. My dad tried his best to conjoin my New York upbringing to his native land in St. Thomas, USVI, making for some amusing memories. He mostly saw me on weekends when he wasn’t buried in work, and that was his chance to take me out of my hip-hop/R&B element. On our Sunday drives to whatever adventure he had planned for the day, his signature repertoire included Rupee’s “Jump,” Soca Boys’ “Follow The Leader,” Colin Lucas’ “Dollar Wine” and Atlantik’s “All Aboard.” Emotions swash over me when I hear any one of these songs.
Other family members have died over the years, but nothing hit me quite as hard as my dad’s passing until May 6, 2016.
I was riding passenger-side with my mom around 8 p.m., while heading home from a Target run, when she received a call from an unsaved number. Normally, she wouldn’t have answered, but since she recognized the area code, she reluctantly did. She pulled over. I could tell by her tone that something was wrong. My heart fell to my stomach. After she hung up, she sat in silence. “What’s wrong?” I demanded. She looked at me and told me my neighbor Nick*, who was a second father to me, was in a fatal car accident. I was inconsolable. I cried uncontrollably, had an anxiety attack and couldn’t speak. His wife, Val*, had her sister call my mom because she didn’t want me to find out through social media. In the midst of losing her husband of 15 years, her best friend and the father of their children, the thought of my own devastation crossed her mind. I was speechless.
I’d met Nick and Val over 10 years ago. Nick’s aunt initially lived next to me. When she passed, Nick and Val renovated the entire house and moved in while Val was pregnant with their first child. The neighbors on my block are all very close, so while they were renovating, my mom and I introduced ourselves. The rest is a blur. I became their babysitter in high school and, eventually, their unofficial older child. If it were a sitcom, I would’ve been Roger from Sister, Sister or Maxine from Living Single—the quirky, lovable neighbor who preferred a neighbor’s home to their own. They never seemed to mind, though. They were one of the few couples I actually considered relationship goals. Hearing stories of how he courted her, how their friendship blossomed into this beautiful relationship, witnessing them building their house from scratch, having children and everything in between, I wanted to have a love story like theirs. I went to them for advice: relationship, career, life—pretty much anything. I remember when I stayed with them during the summer of 2015 and would babysit their two children, they would stay up and talk to me. We laughed, ate, cooked and made countless memories.
Val is a journalist/writer like myself and Nick was a traveling salesman, but outside the office hours, he was a DJ and the life of any party. So much so that when he died, a friend of his made “the soundtrack of [Nick’s] life” to celebrate his memory. The soundtrack helped me cope; it featured timeless hits like Frankie Beverly & Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” Ashford & Simpson’s “Solid As A Rock” and Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” During our neighborhood barbecues, their family dinners or moments when he would drive me to the train, those songs would play and he always had a funny story to tell. Whether they were college memories of a house party or relationship flashbacks of him and Val, he and music had a special relationship all their own.
Witnessing and assisting Val and their children through this year of firsts has been quite the journey. Anytime I would visit them or babysit, I would have to remind myself that he wasn’t coming back through that door. Sometimes, I still find myself in disbelief. I’ve never lost a husband, but I’ve lost a father twice over. Both Nick and my dad were music aficionados and there are still songs I can’t get through without crying. In fact, the only time my two fathers ever met was at my Sweet 16, where Nick was my DJ and my dad did a little of everything.
I’m lucky to have shared that precious time with them. Bearing witness to their love for me and the ones around them is something I will cherish forever. I may have not found my own love yet, but through them, I learned what love is and should be.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.