by valerie morales
After my own tragic grief, I had a ritual. Early in the morning as the sun was rising and I was feeling chaotic and out of order because I couldn’t sleep, I grabbed the first thing before me, a thin sweater my mother gifted me. Then, I sat all covered up on the back patio peering at the sky as if the answer was hidden somewhere deep within. Sometimes bloody orange slashes crashed the clouds as if on accident. Other times, it was a vanilla blue on purpose. It didn’t speak to my internalized grief as much as it quieted all the jagged thoughts running a hundred miles in my brain. Like, why? God, why?
Years earlier, in a religion class I remembered a short film about a very loving family experiencing a sudden death. Everyone was wounded, eyes fantastically sunken and grotesque. In the midst of frozen shock, they made a point of getting the house ready. Everything was covered in black gauze, beginning with the mirrors. The mourners sat on the floor or they turned sofas over and sat there. The point of sitting shiva was to focus on God, family, anything but the self.
I am not Jewish but my early morning forays outside was a version of the Judaic ritual. Sit and be quiet and contemplate who I had lost and what God had in plan for me now.
I loved a woman who was murdered. She had two funerals in two different states. After the second funeral, during the repast, one of the guests who I did not know pulled me aside as I was carrying dishes in and out of the kitchen. She said to me quite brazenly, “I’m not surprised someone killed her.” I was too numb at that point to render any kind of response, like perhaps a slap across her face. I just walked away. But later that night I thought about the selfish bitchiness of what she was saying. The person I loved deserved to be murdered. That kind of repressed anger had no place in my house. It was sacred ground after Martha’s funeral; how dare her.
Grief is sacred ground. Six years later I remembered that woman and her comment particularly when Matthew Shepherd died on a fence line, beaten, tortured, humiliated, and when his funeral was defiled by members of the Westboro Baptist Church who chanted anti-gay slogans at funeral goers, I felt sick. It’s a similar sentient each time I hear some annoyed white woman’s hatred insist upon calling Kobe Bryant a rapist. Families are in utter despair. Friends are weeping. A global community grieves for 9 people, 3 of which were teenage girls. It is a sacred ground.
The but Kobe is a rapist, stop all this weeping is not provocative in its sensationalism. It can’t extricate us from our grief like a knife extricates the peel from an apple. Grief is an emotional exercise born out of attachment. Just like that vile woman who was in my house saying bad things about Martha, death is poetry and prose for someone who is admired and loved. No amount of white anger can separate us from the social expression that grief validates.
Because there are a lot of people who want black men to wear a scarlet letter even after death, and because the unforgiving sermonize worse than a preacher in a two dollar suit, the prosecution of Bryant post death takes on a different kind of life force, pushed into existence by the phobic. They want mourners of all colors to know that a person has only one chance to be perfect. They think we need education. Or, that we are stupid and banal and enabling of violent black men. And so they bring up a laundry list of behaviors in a closing argument that ignores the vulnerable in front of them. But grief isn’t about behavior or arguments. It is about horrible, horrible sadness and cruel fate.
Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003 and wrote an apology in 2004 as part of the settlement. In the coverage of his life and death, that he was accused of raping a hotel clerk is a point of interest to sift through but so are his two gold medals, his 5 championships, his Academy Award, his business investments, his love of children- his and others, his advocacy for the homeless, foster kids and throwaways living on the street, his commitment to women sports and girl athletes, and his work in global communities, particularly China and Italy. In a short life, there was so much.
Recently there was a story about Hailey Van Lith, a basketball player in tiny Cashmere Washington, population 3,100. Somehow Kobe Bryant heard about her work ethic, how she laborered harder than just about everyone else. He began mentoring her via text and two weeks before he died he went to see Hailey play (Hailey will suit up for Louisville next fall). Afterwards, Bryant spoke to her team and posed for pictures and signed autographs.
The Kobe Bryant the global world knows is the person who would want to fly into East Wenatchee Airport to see a small town high school team play because its star sacrifices, fights through adversity, and hungers for greatness. Bryant told her to write down 20 names of girls better than she is and then one by one check each name off as she becomes the player she is destined to be. If anything has attached the world to Kobe Bryant, it is his acceptance of those dark hours when no one is paying attention to the process. Do what you love. Sacrifice for it. Don’t cheat your talent.
Grieving requires emotional isolation as much as it requires painful intimacy. It is annihilating and it is complex. You can’t focus on the width of things, just the length of your sadness. My friend Susan lost her son when he was 16 years old. It was an unbearable tragedy. A couple of years later, she was eating in a restaurant and shared her loss with the waitress, how her son died from cardiomyopathy which was undiagnosed. The waitress then said, “at least he didn’t die of cancer. That’s a horrible way to die.”
Why is it so hard for people to express empathy and exhibit kindness when they see suffering people in front of them? The anti-Kobesters want us to shift our attention away from him, someone who earned our devotion in some cases, and respect in many others, to their politicization of him. However. It’s illogical during the infancy of such tragic sadness to try to push people to disavow someone they clearly admire and love, regardless of his past.
The villainization of Bryant should have, for these select group of white women, begun long ago. Where have they been the past 17 years? Tragic death is a little too late to suddenly became the moral arbiter of decency, preaching who we have the right to mourn publicly.
Rape is disgusting cruelty and I was introduced to it as a child, twice. When I was ten or so, my mother’s godchild was raped. She was two years old, a revenge rape. She lost her uterus and a good section of her intestines and other organs because of rage and retribution. Years later, as a teenager, a woman my mother worked with was raped by her boss. She became pregnant, got an illegal abortion and died.
At the age of 16, I understood the consequences of rape. I don’t condone it nor do I make excuses for it. But here’s the thing. The anti-Kobesters don’t want to draw attention to rape or survivors or even sexual assault. Their outrage is Pavlovian, triggered by us the grieving who have settled our Kobe conflict: many imperfect humans also do good in the world.
Five good things don’t erase one bad thing is what the anti-Kobesters frequently vomit out. But here’s the ironic hypocrisy about bringing up past transgressions because you need to say the truth. You then can’t pretend ignorance about your own shady/violent history.
Whenever the dialogue switches to black women’s diasporic trauma, particularly rape by white men over and over and over, white women do an about face and are suddenly disinterested, or worse they say but that’s not my family. The subject changes in a hurry because they care less about gender justice and more about black punishment. They cherry pick which rape victims are indeed victims based on skin color . They minimize the community healing that is so desperately needed because a helicopter crashed into a hillside. Gianni Bryant, aged 13 died. Alyssa Altobelli, aged 13 died. Payton Chester, aged 13 died. Girls like our daughters and nieces perished. The girls we used to be will forever remain young. Kobe Bryant and Sarah Chester and Christina Mauser are in the spirit world now, as are Ara Zobayan and John and Keri Altobelli. The family and friends of the fallen are humbled into sacred grief.
The heartbrokenness, the memorials, the tattoos, the wall art, the sobbing, the sadness in quiet places, at the heart of this global mourning that can’t be pierced with reminders of the Bryant sexual assault trial is that Kobe Bryant was never supposed to stop. He was supposed to be immortal. But he fell out the sky.
Our tears are falling with him. Absent the sobbing, the rest is white noise.