Erin is a village in the south of Trinidad. From the coast, which is eroding more quickly these days, you can see Venezuela. Pirogues skip along the waves like stones that battle in vain with the tide, interrupting the horizon. Turning inland, the exposed rock rusts, and frigate birds fly above the bickering corbeaux, all of them failing to think better of themselves as this or that scrap of fish comes loose from the beak and claws of another. Further inland, past the balata and mapipire, past the misspelled signs, the gutted quarry, the water tank standing butchered on the side of the road, past the old rum shop that wore an older rum shop to disguise itself, there lives a man.
Lived. There lived a man.
I’m not yet used to referring to my grandfather in the past tense. The proof of his death is here, his remains recalling something like dignity. I know he is dead, but I’m just not used to it yet. (I think you can forgive that. I hope you can.) It will take some practice for me. I might have done better to realize my tense if I had begun with “Once upon a time.” Maybe then, I would have grounded and situated myself, locating myself in time—knowing that for my grandfather, time is no longer a concern. Where “concern” itself no longer matters. But these are lessons no one can teach.
There lived a man. A giant.
I confess that I was afraid of my grandfather. And in awe of him—in awe of his hands. They are massive things, and I thought he could crush me if he wanted to. He never did. Even when we shook hands—the two of us in quiet duel to gauge each other’s strength. Mine and his, passing like strangers on the road. (I sometimes think that my hands are small for a Browne, but these are the luxuries of a mind that has never had to wonder where it belonged. I have always been a Browne, just with smaller hands. Not as small as my mother’s but smaller than my father’s. Smaller, still, than my grandfather’s.)
This matters, you see, because as a child, I thought my grandfather was a giant. See how we behave? How we laugh like there is thunder breaking in our throats, how our fears and loves are no less massive than the massive hands that held us all in place? But what does a child who runs barefoot in the yard know of giants? What does a child, lost and found in the safety of aunts who were more like sisters, uncles who were more than brothers know? What does a child know? What does a child know of giants? What does he know of the world around him growing as he grows, becoming a harsher place, a place coming apart at its seams, too big and rich and poor and dirty and callous and afraid, a place where people (even in the midst of this stinging heat) manage to be so cold to each other—and with such crippling ease? What does he know of letdowns and betrayals, of old and cobwebbed hurts, of laughter and rum? What does he know of heartbreak? What does he know of loss? Who can say?
What do I know now of a giant who grew into a man, and whose perfected flaws made him all the more beautiful, the darkened strings of wrinkles and failing muscles making him stronger? Stronger, as he inched nearer to his death and the grave.
I confess, too, that I have tried, in vain, to remember things I could share, but they have lost their shape, blending one into the other, swirling into a mass of things that linger but do not stay, things that trouble the mind and quicken the heart, but keep the spirit steady, half-forgotten things and half-remembered things, such that if I were to share something—anything at all—it would feel as if I were making something up that never happened. It would feel a bit like magic, pouring out of my mouth as if it were someone else’s memory that I had memorized over time, perfecting its tones and pauses, its rising and falling, pouring out as if I had crafted a myth. But, for a child who does not—who cannot—know the measure of the man whose words were few, and whose massive hands shielded him from the world in ways he could never see, for such a child, only a myth would do. It is only with myth that I can pay tribute to a man who can no longer hear me. Only with a story. Only with a story shaken from the constraints of history can I hope to remember a man I can never hope to forget. But alas, I have no story, only fragments of stories. Only beginnings—origins—and morals:
“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a man. A grandfather.” Mine. Ours. He became what I think we all hope to become in the end: Old, a giant growing gradually smaller in the eyes of his grandson and growing greater still. Growing smaller in the eyes of the world, but growing greater still. Grander, in a way.
By the time I was strong enough to go in search of my grandfather for the stories that have made me, making the pilgrimage to the land far away, I could barely hear his voice. I had to decode the tremor of his lips and the curve of his fingers. I had to touch his brow for the nuances of miniature moles, reading his skin like braille, reading his eyes like some silent, wordless book to learn for myself that love can look like heartbreak, but only because there are tears. I want to believe that it was a blessing. Like being “first.”
Being “first” has its privileges: people boast about you (sometimes); they (sometimes) look with pride at your accomplishments; they are quick to forgive your missteps; willing to overlook your mistakes. They love you in ways they’ve never known; they beat you; and they build you up, giving you strength they could easily have kept for themselves. They make leaders of you. So when the burden of “being first” seems too much to bear, it is on them we learn to rely. It is in their collective imperfections that I come to find and perfect my purpose: Not the first, but one of many. Not apart, but a part of. It is to know this, too:
I am because he was.
I have failed because he failed, stumbled because he stumbled, stood because he stood, succeeded because he succeeded.
I know better than to make a fetish of the soul or an icon of the spirit. But some things are harder than others. So, on behalf of all the grandchildren—to them, as well—I say take courage. Breathe slowly. Dance badly. Remember carefully. Judge wisely. Weep openly. Love honestly. And know that there are lessons no one can teach. No one dares. Know that there are lessons not even a giant can teach. Those we will have to figure out for ourselves—and they are the ones that will define us all in the end.
Radcliffe Randolph Arnold Browne
April 7, 1930 – April 6, 2018