Remembering John Hilary
By Earl D. Burrowes, Sr.
And with each death - of each relative, of each friend, of each friend of a relative, of each relative of a friend - it reminds us that it’s not going to get any easier.
Each one/time reminds me of my version of that 1960s (black & white) TV series “Ben Casey”. Each series opened (or ended, can’t remember which now) with a old-school blackboard with hand drawn symbols. Though that board ALWAYS showed the same symbols, I preferred the ones I’d developed, stealing a couple of theirs, and have kept them in mind ever since.
Mine were the symbols of:
“Birth” “Life” “Death” and “Infinity”
These (or “this”, whichever is correct - or just pick one) have kinda kept me grounded and balanced. And those two (“grounded” and “balanced”) are NOT the same and they’re NOT “interchangeable”!
I’ve got a lot of friends who’d tell you in a minute that they’re “well grounded” but - truth be told - they’re really only “tethered”. Think about it ... I’ll wait ..... and if you can’t think of one, YOU may be that one.
And, I’ve got friends who think they’re “balanced” - but watching them deal with the realities of “life” while walking that narrow line of fairness, honesty, compassion, integrity, etc., it’s like watching a tethered balloon blowing in the wind.
In life, we ALL have that line ahead of us - and in life you either walk it or remain a spectator watching those who dare.
For far too many, that “narrow line” becomes a very thin “trapeze artist’s rope” strung high above a mass of spectators watching, waiting to see which side we’ll eventually fall on. Think about that for a minute ...
Yes, life “slowly but surely” teaches us that life is HARD, so we all try to prepare for those hard times. But none of life’s lessons can prepare anyone for that text from a (constant - and at times consistent) friend (since you were 7 years old) that literally translated reads: “Your friend’s tribute better be in tomorrow - GMT closing time!”
After a “cheeky” exchange of texts and my first cup of coffee, I stared at that blinking (no, that’s NOT that!) cursor on the blank and, like osmosis, my mind went blank.
All the most recent deaths of relatives and friends (and yes, “friends of relatives, and relatives of friends”) - and there’ve been a LOT - came flooding back. There’d been Edna, Hawa-Ellen, Sam, Lenora, Marcia, William, Margaret, Mustapha, Ms. Roseline, John Hilary, Ijoma, Armah, Bill and Charlie. Yes, Charlie!!!
Again. Life’s snapshots of faces, places, times long ago and most recent, conversations (light and/or deep and heavy) and with them those ever nagging questions; what did I learn watching them walk that/their narrow line and, most importantly, did they learn anything at all watching me walk mine.
It was overwhelming - and to make sure I wasn’t the only one suffering mental anguish I agonized over my anguish in our text thread. Like we used to say as kids, I thought; “My putae leave on YOU!” and walked away from my laptop.
On my second cup of coffee, and iPhone in hand, I sat down and wrote this as a Journal entry. I’ve always found that writing to my self was much easier - and talking to myself, though some say is a sign of craziness, a whole lot better.
Out of all the virtual faces now flashing across my screen of lives gone memories I tried focusing in on that of JHT - and like a lake that had just found weak spot in a dam, they all came flowing like a powerful waterfall bathed in beautiful rainbows on either sides.
It’s that very first deep-memory flashback one have when they think of a now gone relative/friend and that, for me, is the point in time when I’d properly had the most impactful “life’s lesson” seeing that person “walk their line” and in that time.
That “flashback” moment in time of me watching JHT walking his line, goes back to that particular day down at PHP.
- Suggestion: If you’re too young to know what/where PHP was, then ask that old person you’re reading this to to tell you.
- Also, to you old friends still able to read (and want to critique this); this, “to the best of my recollection” is my recall of walking my narrow line, at one particular moment in time, and looking over at JHT walking his ... and using that pivotal moment to measure and a lifetime of walking our individual lines as friends.
And, if you saw something different from what I recall of my walking my line, PLEASE - I beg you, point them out in writing YOUR memories of walking your line. It’s only through these documented stories will our grand, and great-grand, kids be able to DNA them to “number-nonsense” to find out which one of us in our generation had the worst memory - so they can tell their great, and great-grand, kids.
It was one of those days when regular classes were suspended so we could “practice” for some upcoming event - national (like Independence Day) or school related (like St. Patrick’s Day).
- Side note: etched in my psyche is mini-me holding a blue ribbon prancing around a pole singing “Here we go round the Mulberry Bush...” with a group of other male classmates while an equal number of same aged girls - with pink ribbons - prancing in the opposite direction as we 3rd graders from “the Convent” and St. Patrick’s prepared for Independence Day (c1953).
This day’s practice, or whatever it was, took place at an open field where a stadium was later built - the Mary Antoinette Tubman Stadium. In those days (and at that time) getting to and from the practice field was twice as enjoyable as (and 10x the fun of) getting at least half the day off from school since it meant walking (ie playing, chatting, horsing, etc) “to and fro” our particular school.
Because of the field’s proximity to PHP and the juicy (gossip) we’d all heard of someone “drowning at PHP”, every friend I knew then and there had been warned - under threat of their life - NEVER to go NEAR PHP!
So ... after “practice” a bunch of us, including JHT and myself, cut out of the line and snuck “cross the road” to PHP. Till today I still try to figure out why we would do that - this was PHP, “Public Health Pond”, as only old people would be able to translate meaningfully. If I could only figure that out I’d definitely understand why we/I do things we/I shouldn’t do - and possibly end up finding a cure - and rich with a much wider road to walk.
But we did, and somehow with all the horsing around JHT lost a foot of shoe. This adventure was beginning to go south. Here we were planning on sneaking off “to go see PHP” then running back to catch up with out schoolmates like nothing untoward had happened; now we had to spend time looking “one foot of shoe”!
We never did fine it, and by the time we gave up looking and left the site - JHT walking barefooted hugging one foot of shoe - we realized we were all now in deep dodo! But more so JHT, because in addition to ignoring our parents warnings like the rest of us, HE had also lost a foot of his shoe! There was no talking your way around, or out of - in case you start off by talking yourself deeper into - this one.
We all fretted about the punishments we’d all get when our parents found out. My Jamaican parents would refer to ours as “the backsiding of your life’”. Then, as we were wont to do - even as those “young, young kids” - the blame-game started: who’s idea it was to go to PHP in the first place and who took/hid JHT’s foot of shoe causing our original plan to fall apart.
- Another Side Note: I’ve often wondered about the origin of this blame-game trait; did it just “come” with us as a part of life/living. And, how much was this trait a cause of our life’s line shrinking as we gave in to it - turning it into an ever narrowing rope. Or, on thé other hand, how much did overcoming that “trait” widen our line into an ever increasing - and smoother road to walk.
But back to JHT and our PHP walk ... By now “stuff” had already started happening up the road. My recall is that a “mansion driver” had gone to the school to pick JHT. Told that JHT was “on the field” he was driving over there when he caught up to the rest of our chaperones and schoolmates - but NO JHT!!
So he drove on till he caught up with us - in the mist of our “who struck John” agonizing. Leaning across the front seat, he wound down the front passenger window and, in a stern voice barked, “Get in!!!”.
JHT, still clutching his one foot of shoe, protested saying he wanted to walk with his “friends”. The driver this time opened his (driver) door and standing looking over the top of the car down at these cowering 9-12 year olds “Dennis the Menaces” said again, this time with much more authority, “ I said, GET IN THE CAR”!
Oh yes, this was a sign, to me at least, that JHT was in serious trouble.
Like a screenshot of time, I can still see JHT walking - head bowed - away towards the car and turning saying to all of us, “It was me, let’s say it was me”.
And that, my remaining friends, was my first look-over at JHT walking that fine and narrow line that was his - and that only he could walk. But WALK he did.
And in these past 70 years that we’ve walked our individual lines, every time I’ve looked up from mine to see him on his, he’s been true to those values of comradeship, caring, honest in his beliefs and with a laugh that began (and at times sounded like) from deep within before breaking free into that infectious expression of his selflessness - and his love of life.
Birth, Life, Death, and now there is Infinity!!
Rest in Power, Bro.