This story originally appeared as in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in July 2022.
I remember looking at the television as the anchor man delivered the news that Memphis, TN, would be going under quarantine for COVID-19. At the time, no one knew exactly what that meant. Collectively, we just knew that things weren’t alright. The hospital numbers were climbing, emergency rooms were at capacity, and people were dying.
As a spoken word artist, the open mics had started to become unplugged. DJs had long left the dance floors, and the music had begun to spin its way from an idea and dope moves to just faint memories of how close we used to dance. The lights on Beale were cut off.
At first, to an artist, rest is awesome; and then it is crippling. The rooms became increasingly more confining. Your process is damaged, and before you know it, depression has become both your best friend and archnemesis. I remember sitting on the couch, numb and struggling with not being able to create art, to see students, or to hear the audience respond.
“Tim. Tim? Tim?! Is everything ok?! You are just staring into space. Are you ok?”
“No, Andrea. Darrius Mohn, Sr., just passed away. COVID-19 and complications. We were just talking in the middle of a project for his football kids. He’s gone.”
Excerpt from “WHEN THE PANDEMIC CAME” The silence made whisper of car honks. Folded the “Hey, how are you’s?” into origami masks that hid our answers. It came. The not knowing. The isolation. The quiet of one’s own worries came. The losses mounted into the hundreds Then thousands until, Over half a million stars gathered in the sky as new constellations . For the first time, I watched a friend die from afar. In the same city, In a hospital, down the street from my home, Behind a glass that became his new apartment. Across a distance that was less that an arm reach, Yet, a continent away, in hazmat suits Where all we could do was exchange glances. Through the windows, When he died, He died, alone. Buried, alone. No funeral was held that week. We all sat in the silence wherever we were or are.
I’ve started to write, again. I think. My family is worried. The quarantine is lifted and I still haven’t come out of my house. On Day 36, I decided to leave my house and go talk to my therapist. I almost made it before the grief caused me to pull over at a gas station; everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The tears make some days feel better than others.
I went back home and painted a scene of balloons drifting across a sky. People think it is a beautiful painting. I beg to differ. Balloons with helium are let go and they are instantly lost. They just drift. I feel like I am drifting with no home.
In the last few weeks, COVID-19 has taken: my Uncle Big Moe (a 7’2 giant of a man with a huge heart for people), Darrius Mohn, Sr. (business partner and a man who taught and specialized in restorative justice and behavior, like me), Mike Stewart (my friend of 15 years, and a man who could make anyone smile), and Constance Hill (my ex-girlfriend/friend/ business partner). I tell people, “I’m doing pretty good.” The truth is that I am crumbling. I have cried myself to sleep each night for 12 nights straight. I muffle the tears so my daughters do not worry.
In the morning Jackie calls. She asks, “Can you write a poem? You know Cherri loved your poems.”
Excerpt from “Angela’s Way” as written and read by Tim at the funeral Ironic, How we are all gathered here? Wyld Cherri be lucky they say! And we didn’t even have to go to a casino To strike three in a row to be rich enough to understand the blessing in her smile, Or better the millionaire jackpot in her hugs, Or how on the right day one could catch a 5-star Michelin plate from her kitchen. Sassy, classy and don’t you dare argue about her star. God bless America’s team. On Sundays, you could find her somewhere between God and the 50-yard line.
My friend of 20 years, Angela “Wyld Cherri” Mablin- Milligan (the literal lottery of hug givers). She loved her three kids. I think to myself, “I have three kids. Will they bury me soon, too?”
Facebook has started to give me PTSD; I scroll with a reluctance these days. Once this month, I scrolled too fast and found out that my friend Jack had posted that his sister had won her fight with Cancer. I refuse to say lost; that woman fought hard and I’m pretty sure that the illness just got tired of fighting her and asked for a draw.
Excerpt from “For Little Red Girls Who Still Got Work To Do: Or Kenya’s Poem” as written for Jack Fant to read at the funeral for his sister Y'all didn’t notice how for three days the Earth cried in her absence? Rain fell from the Heavens until her laughter echoed across Memphis again. Bluff, shook with the sound of her voice Announcing to God her arrival. Shades and all, strutted right up to Jesus, in her custom white robe like long lost friends With a “Hey, boo,” Hugging Jesus like she hugged all of us.
At this point, I have stopped waxing my dress shoes. It feels like ash and dust are just a part of life now. Feels fruitless to fight the inevitable. The walls are so tight. I am tired of this silence. I am tired of this quiet. I am tired of losing my friends. I am tired of all these funerals. My therapist says that I have a right to be tired, angry, and that it is a righteous anger. I ask my therapist, has she ever been to 6 funerals in 6 weeks? She says, “No.” She scribbles something on a small yellow notepad. The couch reminds me of an open casket. I sit up.
The mind will play terrible tricks on you. You will begin to question your mortality. I went through a few weeks of survivor’s guilt. It is a particularly cruel depression brought on by the idea of wondering why you are worthy of surviving. You feel guilty that you survived or are here while others have departed. I have long thought, since my best friend Willie Brown, Jr. passed of a suicide when I was 17, that I was chasing a ghost. It is a trauma that I still struggle with – the idea that the people that I love and that love me will die before me. It’s irrational to think that one may outlive all that they love; but when so many that you love do die, so quickly, you start to question. “Is it me? Am I a death bearer? Or am I just doomed to be the unworthy survivor?”
Watching so many people struggle with their losses on Facebook became overwhelming. People mean well. They ask questions with good intentions. Each one becomes a dagger though, ripping the wound open over and over again as soon as you think you have healed from the sorrow. It all became too much, so I took a work hiatus. I shut down a bit. I needed time to heal. I decided to deactivate Facebook during my work hiatus. It didn’t help. Death still called.
The next call came in late at night, a shooting. My friend Derrius Dewayne “Jump” Davis was murdered in a horrific night of passion, and to this day, uncertainty. No one will ever know what really happened that night. All we know is that he is gone and no charges will be filed. All we know is that the world lost a great person who was loved by a lot of people. At the funeral, so many spoke about his great deeds. The last image of him that I hold in my head is of him in my classroom, so proud to be a law officer, telling the kids to be good and how fragile life is. It is scary. Too often, Black boys and men in Memphis aren’t able to grow old. At the casket, his smile was there, but no dimples; that’s when I knew he was gone.
The next day, I stayed in bed as long as possible before going to the Shelby County Commission in my mask, to confront elected officials about sending us teachers back into a space without hazard pay or supplies, putting us and our kids at risk in the name of economics. I gave it to them real and righteous. My mentor, Barbara Scott, would have been proud. I used this chance to tell her family, “thank you.” Thank you for all those years of letting us borrow her. God, that woman loved Black people, Memphis, education, children, church, her sorors of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, and all humans with good hearts. The family stood firm, accepting some declarations for her lifelong service as an educator. They said that I spoke well; I am not so sure. It seems that I am more of a ghost these days than actually in my body. I spend most of my days trying to just feel something.
They buried her two weeks ago. I couldn’t attend due to my daughters having COVID. They all battled it off quick. Yani had it the worst and scared me, but she came out strong and determined. My sister called to check on us then. She told me to check on my god brother, June, that he wasn’t doing well.
I sent him a text: “Bro, I love you. Get out the hospital, we have things to do.” He had been in there for many moons. I was tired of not being able to see him. I was tired of the glass. I was tired of the doctors saying nothing but “wait.” I was tired of people saying “just pray.” I was tired of him lying to me about being okay. The next morning at the age of 45, he was gone. My brother was gone.
STARDUST (For Rev. Ulysses “June” Jones III) as written and read by Tim at the funeral When we were little, we would stare at the sun. At night, we would capture fireflies and pretend that we were catching stars. As we grew, we learned their names, Triangulum Astrale, Sirius, and Vega. In College, we learned their purpose and what they are made of. Wolf Rayets are the brightest of stars. They can outshine entire galaxies. Most are capable of blinding the sun. Some are 330,000 times the size of Earth. When they smile, you can feel their love over eternities away. As older men, we learned how humans become carbon: Become stardust. Become angels - if they loved right here on Earth. I am sure you were a Wolf-Rayet! June- all massive and strong and big and hugs and love. Sure, you be cousin to Scorpius or Polaris. These special types of stars are rare. When exhausted, they create a gravity disturbance. Once they leave, their absence sends shockwaves through the universe. The old ones would say Angels are crying, When they would see the white streaks race across the sky. Say Jesus be lighting Fireworks, giving us a show. Astronomers say when a Wolf-Rayet passes away that it becomes Supernova. In one final burst, love brightens universes The hood says that the brightest of stars burn the quickest. Say be the good ones that go.
I lost 10 close people, all genuinely loved. None hit as hard as my brother June. He literally was the best of us. He taught me so much about being a man. He loved me with a passion and enthusiasm that reminded me that we were brothers every single day. To this day, there is a sorrow that lingers. I have learned how to switch it to memories of joy. I remember his big, salt and pepper beard and long locs. I remember his love of music and poetry. I remember his lead foot on the highway and his incredible knowledge of the Marvel vs DC universes. Above all, his love of religion and God kept him faithful to the end.
I check on Momma every week. She says she is okay. I know better. There is a pain in her voice hidden in the smiles and forced chuckles that I know all too well. There is a hidden desperation of just wanting someone to see you when you are broken, and that is okay. It is okay to be broken. Broken can be repaired. In my broken, there was a lot of pain, and a lot of tears. I miss them. Each one affected my life in a beautiful way. So much of me is possible because of the relationships that we built over time and the years.
In the darkness, I found a small light; a phoenix. It came to me in my dreams and I painted it. The flames grew around me, wrapping me in a warmth that felt like the warmest of hugs. I laid there, embraced in love, and when I woke up for the first time in over 10 weeks, I was calm. It was silent; but this was a different silence, a calm silence. As I finished painting the wings, my heart broke. I crashed to the floor, sobbing. Ten poems memorialized so much. My soul crumpled. My spirit became ash. There was nothing left that day. There was nothing left to give, to have, or to understand. The only solace was that the day was over. I lay there in the silence that night.
The next morning, my phone pinged with an email alert.
Mr. Moore, Aye Mo, I know you are going through a lot. I just wanted you to know that I am thankful for you. A lot of us in the class are. The poetry is cool but your talks about life, even though we act like we don’t: we miss those. I hope you are doing ok. Make sure you are honest. Let us know something. Your fave student, Jaquan
It was in that moment that I realized that this pandemic took so much – but we are still here. We are still fighting to be okay. That is what this life is about.
Hey Jaquan, Thanks, I needed this note today. Honestly, I am not okay but I will be. I will see you and everyone Monday. We have work to do to achieve the writing scores that we want. I love y'all and there is absolutely NOTHING that y'all can do about it. #Onward Best Regards, Mr. Moore
This pandemic has taken so much from us. Each day takes a toll. For lifetimes to come, we will weigh the cost. We will never truly know the value lost. In all of this, we owe our lives to the living. We owe our breath as a reminder of those that have poured their lives into us. Their combined energy courses forward through our actions as our memories take root in our decisions. Tomorrow isn’t promised. Today is all we have to determine whether we will move onward.
Today, I am looking at the television as the anchor man delivers the news that Memphis, TN, may face another quarantine due to new variants of COVID-19. The hospital numbers are climbing, emergency rooms are struggling at capacity, and people are still passing away. The pandemic is still here. The silence is still here. The only difference is that I have been blessed with Angels to help me get through the darkness. Light is on the way. This storm cannot last forever. This sorrow cannot stay. This is what I tell myself. This is what I tell myself while I create. This is how I get through to move onward.
My therapist asked, “How are you doing?”
As I sat on the couch to lay down, I replied, “I am not okay, but I am learning how to be.”
She smiled, scribbled, “Progress.”
We begin, again.
In Remembrance of my 2021 Angels: Barbara Joyce Tabor Scott, Mike Stewart, Reverend Ulysses Jones III, Darrius Mohn Sr., Derrius Dewayne “Jump” Davis II, Aleanor Faye London, Angela “Wyld Cherri” Mablin-Milligan, Constance Hill, Uncle Big Moe, Kenya Fant
Funding for this project made possible by the Tennessee Arts Commission’s COVID-19 Arts Resilience Grants.
Timothy “Urban Thoughts” Moore is a heavily awarded spoken word artist and published writer who loves to educate and inspire. One of the most brilliant minds in the Mid-South, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a Project Based Learning Summer Colloquium XQ cohort which led to his new outlook on incorporating writing as therapy to create solutions to social justice issues. Urban Thoughts is a Watering Hole Graduate Fellow from the Cave Canem of the South Writing Fellowship and holds both a Master of Arts in Teaching: Instruction of Curriculum Design and a BA in English: Concentration/Creative Writing from The University of Memphis. He is a proud recipient of The United States of America Congressional Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for Outstanding Service in Education and Community Service.