Year of Our (Audre) Lorde: May’s Burst of Light

Year of Our (Audre) Lorde is a monthly analysis of works by queen mother Audre Lorde as they apply to our current political moment. In the spirit of relying on ancestral wisdom, centering QTPOC voices, wellness, and just generally leveling up, we believe that the Lorde has already gifted us with the tools we need for our survival.


My Auntie Jean died. My aunt died of cancer and I wasn’t there. No one was, because she died alone in a hospital not even two weeks ago, one day after my uncle and my cousin met with people about moving her to hospice. Two months after she shared her diagnosis with the family, two months and two weeks after the country began sheltering in place.

In some ways it’s surreal to note how little time has passed. I thought I would have more time with her, passed time by bargaining with every higher power I could think of for this storm to pass so I could get home, have time to hold her hand, time to hug her and tell her how much I love her. She was the youngest of three, my grandmother’s baby sister. Now they’re both gone, taken within a five year span that feels simultaneously like an eternity and like each second has eked by, excruciating and slow.

I know I’m far from the only one to mourn from a distance, pre or mid Covid-19. In the midst of trying to wrap our minds around the global pandemic, personal tragedies compete for our presence of mind —both insisting on our full attention, complete with their warring interests. The thing is, cancer is a beast I know. My father faced his first bout of cancer when I was 10, and his second battle continues on today; both grandmothers died of it, too. But to face my aunt’s mortality with the reality of my own, with the risks of what my traveling to her might do — on multiple planes and via multiple airports to be with someone whose immune system was compromised — there’s no clear path to the “right” decision under these conditions.

Audre Lorde in a café on Winterfeldtmarkt while living with cancer, 1992 / Free University Berlin, University Archives

Out of duty and necessity, I turned to Audre Lorde because, if nothing else, she’s someone who has been teaching me how to face those most painful and raw feelings from which I might otherwise turn away. In writing about her own struggle with metastasized breast cancer in the essay compilation A Burst of Light, she stated she was “Coming to terms with the sadness and the fury. And the curiosity.” I keep returning to that part about curiosity. Probably because I’m a Scorpio, but also because I think curiosity has something to offer us about the fear with which we normally confront death. There’s something otherworldly and ethereal in her ability to always find the light. She writes, “Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.”

The essay is a compilation of journal entries, beginning with the discovery of a mass on her liver and ending with the damning confirmation that the breast cancer she thought was in remission had returned and metastasized throughout her body. Yet even in the midst of a death that was most certainly coming, the only variable was when, Lorde forged a path of her own making. True to form, she acknowledges her ever-present fears and concerns, yet faces them head on.

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“There is a persistent and pernicious despair hovering over me constantly that feels physiological, even when my basic mood is quite happy. I don’t understand it, but I do not want to slip or fall into any kind of resignation. I am not going to go gently into anybody’s damn good night!”

My aunt was a doctor, an endocrinologist. A history maker as one of the first Black women physicians to launch a career in our southern, still-segregated hometown. Through it all, even in her last months as she rapidly lost weight and faced symptoms she knew all too well signaled something pernicious and invasive, she kept on with her work. Each time I called or FaceTimed with her I would see piles of charts stacked in the background, a testament to her dedication to her patients, especially as one of the few private doctors to still accept public insurance in Memphis. Even until those last few days before she took her medical leave, she spent over an hour with each patient, making sure she knew each patient’s story so she could best serve them. In many ways it felt like she, too, lived out Lorde’s sentiments:

“[H]ow do I want to live the rest of my life and what am I going to do to insure that I get to do it exactly or as close as possible to how I want that living to be? I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!”

My aunt’s own meteoric impact on my life means that I feel her loss on every plane — psychic, emotional, and physical. This, on top of the losses we are all experiencing as we continue to tread through our new quicksand reality, has left me fighting every impulse to close in on myself. There’s just so much to feel that even trying to parse through individual emotions is labor. But even when I’m ready and willing to stay mired in my fog, Lorde’s work arrives with a timing that is as prescient as ever. She writes:

“How do I hold faith with sun in a sunless place? It is so hard not to counter this despair with a refusal to see. But I have to stay open and filtering no matter what’s coming at me, because that arms me in a particularly Black woman’s way. When I’m open, I’m also less despairing. The more clearly I see what I’m up against, the more able I am to fight this process going on in my body that they’re calling liver cancer. And I am determined to fight it even when I am not sure of the terms of the battle nor the face of victory.”

In the end I chose not to fly home for the funeral. I watched the service and smiled through tears of grief and fear as I saw my family members gathered for the homegoing of one of our own. Tennessee is one of the states beginning to slowly re-open businesses, meaning the funeral home could host up to 100 people for the service. As painful as it was not to be there, the potential exposure my travels could bring to such a large crowd was a risk I just simply couldn’t take. In reading A Burst of Light in the days before and after the funeral, my resolve was strengthened by the following:

“It is the bread of art and the water of my spiritual life that remind me always to reach for what is highest within my capacities and in my demands of myself and others. Not for what is perfect but for what is the best possible. And I orchestrate my daily anticancer campaign with an intensity intrinsic to who I am, the intensity of making a poem. It is the same intensity with which I experience poetry, a student’s first breakthrough, the loving energy of women I do not even know, the posted photograph of a sunrise taken from my winter dawn window, the intensity of loving.”

I know it’s a common aphorism to say that grief is love with no place to go, but I do think there’s truth to that. In the midst of my personal grief, this moment and Lorde’s words are teaching me that what so many of us are grieving is the loss of a life that we knew how to live. What’s replaced that life for so many is a way of existing, not necessarily living. These last few days without my aunt feel almost identical to the first few days without my grandmother — I didn’t know how to live in a world where she wasn’t present. Lorde, of course, offers a remedy for these feelings:

“I make, demand, translate satisfactions out of every ray of sunlight, scrap of bright cloth, beautiful sound, delicious smell that comes my way, out of every sincere smile and good wish. They are discreet bits of ammunition in my arsenal against despair.”

So often I get swept up in the beauty of her writing that I become frustrated when it comes to trying to enact her words. There’s a cleanness I’m craving that I know isn’t possible, but I still want it. I can’t think of a way to make it okay that she’s dead. Nor is it okay that there is no end in sight for our current circumstances, no neat and easy way through this unprecedented time. Any sort of resolution won’t happen this year or maybe even the next, and the implications of that are indeed those of life and death. But Lorde, in this unflinching look at the disease she knows will take her life, offers a window into her learning not only how to cope, but how to make the absolute most of all she still has. She says:

“How has everyday living changed for me with the advent of a second cancer? I move through a terrible and invigorating savor of now — a visceral awareness of the passage of time, with its nightmare and its energy. No more long-term loans, extended payments, twenty-year plans. Pay my debts. Call the tickets in, the charges, the emotional IOU’s. Now is the time, if ever, once and for all, to alter the patterns of isolation. […] I am not ashamed to let my friends know I need their collective spirit—not to make me live forever, but rather to help me move through the life I have. But I refuse to spend the rest of that life mourning what I do not have. If living as a poet — living on the front lines — has ever had meaning, it has meaning now. Living a self-conscious life, vulnerability as armor.”

How are you finding ways to cope with any feelings of loss or despair? Please drop some wisdom, encouragement, and love in the comments.

Jehan is a writer, artist, and editor basking in all things Black and queer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, VICE, Public Books, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory where she is an editor. She currently lives in Harlem but remains in a committed LDR with Brooklyn.

Jehan has written 12 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. I wish I had some wisdom to share but all I can think to say is thank you for sharing this, Jehan. Being forced to sit in grief has been a lot of people’s experience in the last few weeks (including my own). May we all find the refuge you’ve found in Audre Lord’s words.

  2. Jehan, I have been loving this series because I’m not as familiar with Audre Lorde’s work as I’d like to be, and your analysis and the pieces you draw out give me a framework into who she was. I can’t thank you enough for this post in particular. I’m so sorry for your loss – I don’t have any wisdom to share on coping with loss and grief, but I feel for you and your family and send you all my best wishes during this incredibly difficult time.

  3. I have loved each edition of this series, but this one in particular is incredibly moving. I am so sorry for your loss and for the difficult decision you had to make to grieve from afar in order to protect your family. I cannot think of any words more powerful than those you have written and those you have chosen. Reading this post has been the most effective remedy for despair that I have found in the past few months. Thank you and I hope that you are gentle with yourself and calling in your emotional IOUs as you need them.

  4. Jehan, my heart is heavy reading of your loss, and the circumstances that are causing you to have to carry your burden of grief in isolation. I hope you feel surrounded by love and support in sentiment if not in person. Your aunt sounds like a remarkable person, and I am thankful to you for sharing her name and her story with us.

    Something that helped me through grief was being told that whatever I was feeling in the moment was ok, that I could allow myself to feel whatever I was feeling – numbness, moments of levity, rage, resentment, need for distraction – and that even the most difficult feelings were not permanent. Sending you love and wishes for healing. 💚

  5. Jehan, thank you so much for this. I lost my younger brother (and best friend) to suicide in October, only a month after I’d moved out of the US to a country where I knew no one and spoke the language at an intermediate level. So although I was able to return home for a week for the funeral, coming back and continuing that process of grief alone in a new place wasn’t easy. Your words about “existing, not necessarily living” and “There’s a cleanness I’m craving that I know isn’t possible” are really resonating with me.
    I found myself in the immediate aftermath (and still find myself sometimes) shutting down emotionally. It’s like a switch would just flip off inside automatically because I couldn’t process it and some part of me knew that being alone meant I had to take care of myself–feed myself, get to work so I could at least be around others and doing something. A friend told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty for that numbness, or feel like I was not being sad in the right way. I loved my brother and I have the rest of my life to grieve his premature absence. I hope that you are able to trust yourself and how you need to mourn. Your Aunt Jean sounds wonderful, and I’m so sorry you lost her, and sorry that you weren’t able to mourn that loss in person with your loved ones.
    Thank you again for this remarkable series.

    • Thank you so much for this, Serena. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I can only imagine the pain of losing a sibling, especially when he’s your best friend. I hope that you’re being kind to yourself and taking the time to feel all you need to feel in order to move through this. I so appreciate what you said about trusting myself and how I need to mourn, and I wish the same for you too. <3

  6. The only wisdom I got fit to share is keep eating.
    Even if food tastes like nothing, even if effort to bring it to your mouth feels digging a hole without a spade.
    Eat.
    Doesn’t matter if all you can manage is a box of Cheerios while propped up into a sitting position.
    Eat.

    • Food is medicine! Thank you for this. I’m starting to come out of autopilot now and seeing your comment makes me want to treat myself to a really good, soulful meal. My aunt was an excellent cook, so this feels like a good way to honor her, too <3

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