When the Writing Is the Grieving

Letters and postcards lying with the text facing up, overlapping one another. They have been tinged an orange and some of the postmarks are purple-ish. The image has been blurred so the words are not visible.

In March 2022, my husband, Marshall “Eddie” Conway, was suddenly stricken with encephalitis, a disease that would disable him, ultimately leading to his death in a veteran’s hospital in Long Beach, California, February 13, 2023, coda to a life spent in struggle.

I don’t feel the need to make sense of Eddie’s life, or find purpose—both were clear in the way he lived. As a member of the Black Panther Party, he had struggled for self-determination for the Black community. He served nearly four and half decades as a political prisoner, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—the jury duped by the state into convicting him on the testimony of a known jailhouse snitch in whom he had never confided. For many, the story would end there, but for Eddie, prison is where the plot thickened. He began to organize, first an unofficial chapter of the Black Panther Party called the Maryland Inter-communal Prison Collective, and later any number of programs to engage the population. It is in prison that our story began.

Instead, I struggle to make sense of Eddie’s death, because he had cheated that henchman so many times as to seem immortal. My words here serve as an exorcism of sorts, as I’ve long been possessed of the sort of silence that comes from contentment. Like the quiet exhale of smoke from a post-sex cigarette, I was sated by my life with Eddie.

So then, how does one write about grief?

This question has been a persistent echo in my head since Eddie’s death. I struggle with it because Eddie is still very much alive in spirit, and discussing my grief makes his passing seem so final. While I’m keenly aware of his absence, at every turn there is a reminder of him—the two dogs, Chunky, a border collie, and Diego, a Golden Doodle whom he indulged with treats so frequently that family and friends took up the habit. We now do as Eddie would’ve done. Prior to selling our house in Baltimore, I noted the presence of the squirrels Eddie rescued during the pandemic. They were babies then. Now they have grown, and will likely have babies of their own. There are also the droves of people he inspired, so many signs that he still lives among us.   

I am the writer who is forever turning words over in my head, questioning their credibility. I seek out the dictionary and thesaurus to vet them, often unsatisfied with a word’s ability to capture my feelings and thoughts. It’s a Black thing. Words; the very language that I have been given to express myself has often betrayed me and those I descend from. My husband, for most of his life, was described as a “cop-killer.” Despite a sham of a trial, in 1970 he was convicted of the murder of a Baltimore City police officer. He was denied an attorney of his choice, railroaded, on a train that makes frequent stops in Black communities across this country. Eddie was shuttled off to serve a lifetime in prison. 

“The English language is a language for liars,” Eddie had stated very matter of factly during one of my many gripe sessions about the limits of language. The sentence itself contained a lifetime of ruin—four-plus decades in prison, relationships severed, futures thwarted. The misdeeds of the police and the courts concealed by words like “conviction” and “guilt” and yes, “cop killer.”  

So, how do I trust my grief to a language that so readily libels and slanders?  My relationship to writing goes back to childhood. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it has always been a desire filled with contradictions. As a child, I found language to be a weapon poised to cut me down like the white woman who hurled the word “nigger” at me and my cousins from the safe distance of a porch, the aim reminiscent of the white men in a pick-up truck waving a handgun at us, a group of children. But then there were the people around me, aunts and uncles who drank and played cards slurring the word “nigga.” They disarmed it with tongues refusing to turn the hard “r,” taking the edge off, making it feel like an exclusive club. The language that Black people speak in the United States is nothing if not double-speak. We inherited this way of speaking from our African ancestors. Forced to hold their tongues, they took the language of the enslaver and created a sort of unwritten cipher that expanded the English language beyond its rigid dimensions. 

But, the language of death is limited. Words get stuck like so much peanut butter on tongues we have bitten because of our difficulty navigating the experience itself. We hush those who broach the subject of their demise while living, so the words lay dormant, dying on our tongues among the things we don’t like to talk about. This discomfort with death limits what we say in the face of it, and no amount of simple condolences  like, “Sorry for your loss,” matter to those who are grieving. They are empty words shared by people who can offer nothing else. Underneath the utterances is a sense of relief, consolation that death has passed by their house when he made his rounds. Eventually, he comes for us all, though most of us avoid thoughts of his visit until it is imminent. Having been the unwilling host, I am smug in this knowledge. 

I’ve always known that there are not words enough to relieve the pain of losing a spouse, a child, a parent. It’s an ache that courses through the body, inhabiting the blood, settling in the bones, burrowing in deep, creating an urge to scream that lies dormant at the back of my throat, threatening to shatter my vocal cords. It is a howl that I cannot write, and neither will it emerge to form sound. Though I still find myself searching my soul like a thesaurus because I want desperately to declare this pain, pull it up from the depths through my fingertips onto the keyboard. 

What voice do I use to capture the anguish? Do I reach deep into the past and channel the howls of ancestors snatched abruptly from one another’s arms? Are there words adequate enough to explain the loss, so profound that it feels as if someone has ripped my heart out, torn my fingers loose from my hands, preventing me from scanning the keyboard, emptying my grief onto the page? How do I tamp down my eagerness to capture the look of him? The smell of him? The things that are left to memory, but have been altered by his leaving. How do I assemble these losses to tell the story of my sorrow? 

To summon the words, I must recall his last breath, a gasp for the air that eluded him. Air is something we take for granted, though I don’t think I can ever look at it so cavalierly again. Eddie’s gasp was not desperate, rather it was the reflexive act of a man for whom oxygen had become critical, but whose body was working against him. There was no time for him to form words, we had said our goodbyes, and I knew my words would come later when my fingertips yielded to the keyboard and once my tears had become more intermittent than constant. But grief is like a wall I cannot scale, separating me from Eddie, and sorrow is the shroud covering everything, including my thinking. Language is too restrictive, words not numerous enough for me to articulate this loss. I am haunted by the fact that Eddie, someone for whom language was so critical, was left speechless in the end. 

I walk through days ghost-like, here but not here. The loss of Eddie has weakened me in ways that I have yet to identify. Scientists say that grief is a form of learning. If that is fact, I wonder why we can’t cram, get ahead of it. Why doesn’t our schooling begin early? Clinical psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor says grief teaches us how to be in the world without our loved ones. But history has taught Black folks that lesson, and because that history has been repeated so often, becoming the norm, there is for many of us, the expectation of abandonment and loss. 

As a writer, more accurately, as a human, I’ve always struggled with structure, but now with Eddie gone, it’s as if there is no beginning and no end. They blur together like a dog rapidly chasing his own tail. Eddie was my proofreader, the one person I trusted to read my most intimate thoughts and feelings, though I often accused him of bias when he gave favorable feedback. I couldn’t imagine him not enjoying my words because they were an extension of me. But, he had a good eye for structure and syntax. After all, Eddie was an organizer, always arranging things. 

Our relationship began with storytelling, his imprisonment necessitated this. Over the years, in hundreds of phone calls and letters, we shared our lives through stories and vignettes, until finally, like chapters, they merged to form one story. We sometimes wrote in a secret language, coded so that the eyes of his captors would not know what we were talking about, and I always used a sobriquet. One week it might be Cherie. The next, Leah (the name we used in Marshall Law), then Lucinda, later, Marguerite, and at some point probably every name that rolled off DMX’s tongue in What These Bitches Want. I signed every letter “Love, Me,” and he did

Many of the missives we shared were sexy, some were flooded with emotion, others spoke of the occasional beefs we had. I read them now and I’m taken back to the disputes—he needed more than I could give, he talked politics too much. And there were also those letters that were deliberately cryptic because they referred to our work, his case, or comrades. Now I struggle to decode these, the references on paper are like some archaic tongue long-forgotten. His letters mostly spoke to his desire for love, for me. Underneath this yearning was an urge to be seen, not as Marshall “Eddie” Conway, but as a man. He used the phone to talk about work, and those conversations were even more coded than our letters. 

Even when we didn’t intend it to be, all of our communication was political because we were people struggling to love each other in a system that was not only intent on breaking relationships up, but engaged in the actual breaking of people. So, for Eddie, the letters in particular were a firm grasp of his humanity, a return to the ”norm.” For me, it was a challenge to the conditions that force even family members of prisoners into institutionalization. Yet, after he died, I couldn’t help but think that what those letters held was a dying language. It’s a language threatened by policies that limit prisoner mail with an eye toward ending the exchange of letters between those inside and their loved ones. Love was the one aspect that didn’t need to be shielded by us. There was freedom in Eddie’s ability to share his feelings, and a level of vulnerability that he couldn’t convey any other time.

Eddie became my muse, encouraging me to write, coaxing words from me. But now, his death has struck like an abrupt ending, a twist in the plot that was not anticipated. Anti-climatic, it feels like an ill-used literary device. His voice, a constant in my life for so long, silenced by a tube in his throat, and him unable to form words before death whisked his breath away. Me unable to find the right words, feeling as if my voice was silenced along with his. At the same time realizing that his voice has been captured forever in the many interviews and segments of radio and television shows he did, but unable to listen because the sound of his voice brings thoughts of the voicelessness of his last days. Both of us struck silent by his illness.   

We are separated once again, only this time there will be no letters expressing our love, no cryptic phone calls, only the occasional breeze that blows my hair ever so gently, reminding me of his caress. Just my pleas that he stay close, that once again he wait for me. In our separation we are alone again. Me with my grief, and he, on the other side, among the ancestors. Friends don’t call. It’s as if I died with him, as if I am an apparition. They can see me but are spooked by my anguish. Perhaps they don’t want to retrace the tracks of their own sorrowful walks through the valley of despair. Loss is synonymous with Blackness. Deprivation is the thread binding us to our ancestors, their losses, too numerous to tally, linger in our hearts. 

My grief is compounded by Eddie’s losses. Though I know he would not want this, because, like our enslaved ancestors, he was not defined by the deficits he incurred during those forty-four years of captivity. Still, someone needs to grieve that loss. But where do I begin? My tongue is tied, fingers stilled by the depth of Eddie’s losses. 

Words keep us alive after death, the invocation of our names, a summons to our spirit. 

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