The Year of Solitude by Opal N. Gayle

Opal Gayle: I am the recipient of the 2019 St Botolph’s Club Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. I am a member of Valley Society, Gallery of Readers, Straw Dog Writers and Boston Writers of Color. I live in New England where I am a world language teacher.  

The Year of Solitude

I have been thinking a lot about ghosts lately.

Death is now a big part of our lives. I think of all the things that this pandemic has robbed us of – our ability to fully celebrate milestones, our trust for each other, our identity as we go through the world virtually faceless. Still, it is the loneliness that haunts me.

My cousins lost their father recently. With large gatherings prohibited, the rituals of traditional Jamaican funerals could not be observed. They contended with a party of five – masked faces that acknowledged each other with silent nods, each going their separate way after the solemn ceremony; no decadent repast awaiting them.

COVID has been characterized as “demonic.” I thought it a bit much but as I reflect, I question ‘what if it does indeed have a keen sense of knowing, and has moved to actively prey on that which frightens us the most: dying alone?’ We spend much time alone, behind masks and screens. But I suspect one wants to see more than a bare wall when they take their final breath.

In Japanese there is a word kodokushi: lonely death. This refers to people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a long period of time. But I am willing to attribute it to our current state of affairs as something about how this virus indiscriminately steals us away undermines our importance.

In Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” after Melquiades the gypsy dies, he returns with a “dazzling glow of joy,” because he could not “bear the loneliness of death.” So, long after his subsequent deaths, his ghost continues to shuffle through the Buendias’s house.

My culture honors the dead but implicitly acknowledges that they should keep their distance. They say that dogs and babies can see ghosts or duppies. For the dogs, it is a lifelong gift but as the babies gets older, they lose this special ‘sight’ except for the select souls who are uniquely gifted. The thought of seeing a ghost was terrifying, but many of my peers flirted with the rumors that washing your face with rice water or rubbing matter from a dog’s eyes into their own to enable one to see ghosts.

I spent last week with my Aunty Judith, and I watch her daily, half-amused as she cleans incessantly, fussing at insects and birds. She is convinced they are the ghost of her ex-husband.

“Get out of my house, Denton!” she shouts at a beetle.

“Aunty Judy, that is NOT Denton.”

“It is him!” she fires back. “I told him that if he wants to visit, he shouldn’t return like this because I don’t want any bugs in my house. But these men, they never listen to you in life, so why would he listen to me in death?”

I cannot tell Aunty Judith what to believe about death. They say it is a gift to be able to communicate with the dead. I continue to be cagey about this phenomenon, not necessarily because I fear ghosts will harm us but because of what the dead teach us about life.