Flowers for the Dead

It’s not exactly a secret that in the nonprofit world, grants ends and positions dissolve and people move on. After five years, this was the fate of the urban youth development program I worked at.

Grieve and mourn are heavy words and I feared them, staved them off as long as I could. Then I let them take me under for a summer.

But the whole time, I’ve been germinating.

Eventually I remembered I put so much time into a city where families picnic in old cemeteries once a year for reasons like honor and remember and celebrate. They do so on their own, and through religious and cultural institutions. And public ones, like the one I used to work at. I learned how to cut papel picado and cempazuchitl out of tissue paper: for the job, for children, from children.

I did not invent these traditions (not even close) so I know they continue without me. Learning them was a gift. It was my honor to learn this and more for six years.

I was born in New Brunswick. It’s the city where my eyes first opened and where I learned how to breathe, though I can’t remember my first breath. It’s the place where my parents held me for the first time, which I also don’t remember, it’s just a given.

I watched miracles in New Brunswick. I love to recall the Two Best Things I Saw On Remsen Ave.: Once, I had too many program supplies in my arms while crossing the street. My arms couldn’t bear it but I was stubborn. I wanted to make it happen in one trip. Predictably, at a No Walking sign, my arms failed and supplies spilled into the intersection. A man pulled to the side of the road, got out of his car and picked up some of my boxes. I tried to protest, to say I didn’t need help. He only said, “Relax,” and got me across the road. And I did relax, once I took the help.

At that same crosswalk I once stopped to let two boys pass along the crosswalk. The younger one had a deflated basketball on his head. He held it in place like a helmet while he ran like the wind, pretending to signal an incoming cavalry to CHARGE! The older boy behind him walked at a normal pace, looked at me, and shrugged with the patience of someone much older. I laughed.

In that job I had, I secured and promoted spaces for children to dance and build and write poetry and stitch zines. I watched children peel the petals off honeysuckle and drink the nectar in New Brunswick. (I did not teach them that.) I watched sprouts become crops that bore fruit in New Brunswick.

I learned how to compost and nurture beautiful soil in New Brunswick. The garden cycle, in particular, reminds me that death never lasts. Given enough time and healthy soil can yield life again.

What I learned shaped me, changed me. I take it with me and it’s mine, it is me. I agonize over keeping these sprouts alive in January because I sowed them during my last week of the job. But they’re annuals, dammit, and even if they do flower they will fade as well.

But that’s life, that’s the cycle. I keep less tangible things alive, in me.

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