Four years ago I got on a plane to go home. Home, another word for wanting, and I had no idea what I was doing. Real brother number 2 told me to go with no expectations because home is another word for letdown. He said to take Liberia as it unfolds to you, to be open. I had at that point already put the car accident which had occurred 4 days prior out of my mind. It was done, my neck was fine and my fiancé could form new memories. Like all survivors of a flood, I broke through the water gasping for air… there was nothing to do but swim.
I landed on a quiet Wednesday evening, the equatorial sky a blue blanket shrouded in possibility. My real sister number 1 stood in her regal suite, waiting for a reunion I had only speculated in the late hours of my not-quite-sure of a young adulthood in the company of other miscreant immigrant toys. Liberia was a place we’d call on Sundays after church with “All Africa” scratch-off phone cards. Peeling the metal with a quarter, before dialing the 18 digit phone number, and the 22 digit pin. The voice of the nondescript English speaking woman would then say “You have 25 minutes on this card” before the dial tone and the sounds of traffic in the background. The too loud responses from a sister I had seen once in 20 years… a tether on opaque waters… But there she was all of a sudden in front of me a stoic, terra-cotta beauty in navy- a mirror of my mothers’ already judgmental disappointment at my appearance- too thin, too umber, tattoos, an earring in my nose, and long dreadlocks cascading against the subtle wind of a dry day.
Two days after my arrival, my brother-in-law drove me to the capital to see where my internship would be. And then he packed me in his car and we set off to find my estranged siblings. He was gung-ho about it, I mean, it’s like a rite of passage to drive around like a lost puppy going to people and saying “are you my sibling?” As we drove from one Dunbar Law office to another, I could feel the knot of anticipation growing to a growl, to a roar, to a dull ache that dissipated as I stood in front of the carbon copy of the Hunter S Thompson picture of my father. Bill was Dedeh reimagined, just as caramel colored and calculated… the way I always imagined my father. He made plans to have lunch with me as often estranged siblings do. Promised to get me a phone, which his assistant provided me days later, which I keep in my underwear drawer, along with a lock and key, and 150 Liberian dollars. And in the after, I spoke to my brother-in-law about family, and failure and he told me that family is worth fighting for. I scoffed- who has to fight for something that slips through your fingers like sand, or water, or what you imagine certainty feels like.
But after Ebola, and as I stood in line with a coconut stuffed in my suitcase shoving articles of clothing into an overstuffed backpack, trying to get to 50 kilos I imagined only that home would be that lone droplet of sweat that ran down my back as I fought the tears… Because expectations are bound to let you fall into a pit, dissipating later into thin air.
What came next, the cell phone debacle of 2015, was a series of cold war moves by Real brother number 1 who had removed himself from the fold, created a crease in our timeline ventured off into the wild of a post-America immigrant standoff. This was home. Liberia was a faraway- “one time I went home” speel- the gentle laps of the beach in July floating in the front of my eyelids before I drifted off to dreamless sleep and a constricting anger… family, like home, was just another word for failure, for fraud.
The winter of my return Real Brother number 2 and I went to bars in Lowell, where I’d see strangers who I’d called “friend”, or “foe”, or “lover” or whatever we call each other when what we really mean is temporary. We would drink Henny and he would tell me things. “I’m a bad person,” he said once and I too nodded. Like knows like, and I had oscillated between wanting to be a good person or a person that does good things; there’s a subtle distinction that my family has perfected. All broken people do in some ways. Real brother number 2, would speak in his high lithe about Liberia with a glossy-eyed wonder, and I would remember… The smell of a freshly fallen rain in the summer; the honk of pehn-pehn across SKD Boulevard; sneaking Lone Star beers on the porch while Real sister number 1 was at worship, or devotion, or some church-related function; and the men who treated me like their daughter or future mistress with a flick of the tongue.
Four years of punctuated silence spread across oceans, into our blood, into our ears and eyes and we’d made peace with the silence… until the faint ding of an incoming message set the course to reset. Up to this point, I’d relegated all messages from family members to two categories- reveries for the Lord or requests for assistance. But this message, vaguely titled Family Smiles reminded me of those candy crush requests we’d get from desperate family members who’d need your help. The verdant high of clearing your board or cash or something I heard people say once (maybe I’m lying). The message sat in my inbox, a red one (1) glaring at me to be opened. [As a neurotic freak that has to have an empty inbox, I check all my messages. Yes, even yours, even if I didn’t respond… I’m not sorry about that.]
When I opened the long exasperating message, I read a plea to come together as a family. To make amends, to seek and claim peace. First, I laughed! Because Family Smiles is the name of a dentist office where your former dentist tries to hook you up with their kind but obviously immature son (I may be speaking from personal experience). However, over the course of a week Family Smiles transformed from long-winded serenades to a full-on conversation.
In the real world, Real Brother number 1 had found some religious experience at a rosary shop in Lawrence, Massachusetts where some benevolent spiritual guide of a woman laid his burdens down in at an alter… The iconography too ironic for humor, too on the nose for a family that sits between “witches are real” and “God is good, all the time”. His literal come to Jesus moment required him to make amends, calling our mother to say he forgave her, and in true West African mother fashion she retorted- I forgive you too… (G has no chill) Later G and I would laugh about how they were now pissing in the same chamber pot, old chums. This time through, Real Brother number 1 didn’t have to gather phone cards, dial 18 plus 22 numbers to reach our terra-cotta disciplinarian, he had to just press that blue send and poof- amends.
And like the first bite of Jollof rice after the waiting we all bite in- though awkward pauses, some pictures of their (not mine) brother getting married, someone sending a “pass this along for blessings” posts, we endured.
So on the cusp of a four-year return to see my siblings on the same side of the Atlantic in a post-industrial Mill city, I think about home. I think about the places between Lowell and Liberia that run rampant in my veins. The arrhythmia of an irregular occurrence, that forces me to bite at my lower lip waiting for the tension headache to dissipate and the ecstasy to set in. And just like the first time I went home, I’m good with no expectations. Because sometimes home is another word for hopeful.