A miracle happened in Trinidad.
There was nothing that science or faith could do to save my grandfather from the cruelty of degenerative old age. That February in 2000, on my first trip to my father’s Caribbean homeland, my younger sister and I observed through pre-teen eyes as the old man slipped further away from the world of the living, confined to his bedroom, squirreled away behind an almost-closed door in our grandparents’ apartment. We learned that he liked the sound of my sister playing the piano in the living room, but little else.
The following year, after he’d gone, I lay on my bed back home in England, wondering why I couldn’t cry over the loss. My grandfather was a man that I had been separated from by a number of years and an entire ocean; perhaps it could be expected that, at 11 years old, I wouldn’t feel his death more profoundly.
Instead, it was my sister who found herself in need of an intervention during our trip to the island.
Carnival season was imminent; the feverish vibrancy was tangible everywhere you went, not least in the pan yards, which we frequented most nights. As the bands practised for the Panorama competition, under the cover of the night, their floats rose and fell, pulsating with the sound of the pan. That particular year, Len “Boogsie” was conducting an arrangement of Maxi Priest’s Close To You, performed by Phase II. It was at their rehearsals where we spent most of our time—my parents drinking Caribs, my sister and I dancing to the twang of the sticks on steel. I soon learned the piece by heart.
One of those nights, as we made our way home, the sound of the band still raging behind us, my sister fell into a ditch at the side of the road.
Tall for her nine years, the depth of the trench—masqueraded by darkness, with no barriers around it to protect from such a drop—wasn’t far off her height. In a moment in which panic and lucidity united, we ran to the side of the ditch and looked down. We found my sister stood upright, arms ever so slightly outstretched, not a single scratch to tell of any struggle or injury.
My father proclaimed the escape as an act of the divine.
She had defied logic in falling headfirst but landing upright. How, in the short space of time it would have taken to hit the ground, had she managed to twist her limbs around, with feline agility, to fall on her feet? My father spoke of guardian angels rearranging her body mid-air. It was a nice thought, indeed, but I leaned my thinking towards coincidence, luck, and the forever inexplicable.
Rather than casting a shadow, the accident shone a light over the trip, which was otherwise fraught with a tension that was not immediately perceptible to a 10-year old girl. My sister and I, tentatively discovering half of our heritage in Port of Spain, were perhaps not fully conscious of the impact our light skin had. The local children who tailed our aunt’s car, throwing stones in its wake, deepened our awareness only slightly. What we experienced in cultural unease was reflected in the increasingly strained atmosphere in the family-owned apartment building, which housed our grandparents, aunts and uncles. As arguments took place behind closed doors, we helped our cousin Jason pick mangoes in the garden, and tried to endear ourselves to his grumpy parrot, Pablo, to little avail.
Our journey to the Caribbean gave us many things. Hill tops blanketed in low-hanging cloud. Tropical downpours, the smell of rain filtering through the balcony doors. A Titanic marathon at Granny’s, one fizzy drink a day, chicken and basmati rice for dinner. Memories of muffled shouting and balmy evenings in our aunt’s room, picking bracelets to take back home from her jewelry box.
So much of memory is imagery. How can I be sure that what I remember is real, and not just a sequence of embellished vignettes, rendered near indecipherable by the hands of time? My mind, like my grandfather’s did, has warped and bent pictures of the past, almost beyond recognition.
Today, I ask my sister what happened in the ditch, and she refuses to tell. It’s her story to keep for another time.
Nadia Henderson is a London-based writer, mostly daydreaming about adventures in faraway lands and unfamiliar cities. When she's not at work, she spends her time with a coffee in one hand and a good book in the other.