I woke up this morning and realized you were gone. I saw the Facebook posts and Instagram memorials, and as I read each one in bed, I felt myself beginning to shake. Yesterday was real. It was real when my friend Luz called me around 8 in the morning to deliver the news. It was real when I called each member of our La Mesa, the tight little family that had emerged from Tuesday nights spent cloistered together in your Bronx apartment, sharing the ups and downs of our lives, alternately watching your kids as they climbed every imaginable surface, playing whatever new black-themed board game or Atari game system you had bought recently.
And it was real when your wife finally made the news official on Facebook, and the small, fragile time window I had left of denial was dragged down and closed.
But I still can’t believe it. How is it possible you are gone? Why? Why now? Why YOU? How can you not be here anymore when I just saw your face a few weeks ago on Good Friday, your beaming smile filling the box on Zoom (you were never apologetic about taking space), your laughing voice rallying people to share their thoughts if they were being too quiet. “We haven’t heard from…Christina and Joanna and Yesi–go!”
You were alive and well when you Facetimed me on April 17th and told me you missed me and apologized for not responding to my texts. You said you would try to be a better friend, and that we would talk more next time since you had an appointment in a few minutes. We waved each other goodbye. On April 20th you texted me your latest “#BearBars Freestyle” rap. 6 days later, I found out you were committed to the hospital. On May 6th, you entered heaven before the rest of us.
These dates matter because I’ve been learning lately to number my days–not out of anxiety but gratitude. I want to surrender all my days to God and be grateful for each one I’m given, especially during this COVID crisis. God is also teaching me to number the days I have with the people He’s placed in my life, challenging me to be fully present in each moment with them because there are so many distractions competing for our attention in this life.
I number my days with you, and this is what I want to remember:
You always made time to tell people you loved them and appreciated them. This took me aback at first, only because I was unused to men in my life explicitly telling me “I love you” and making it a point to say it as frequently as possible. Not only that, but you affirmed me whenever you could. When I was leading our kids ministry team for the first time and doubted myself constantly as a leader, you always shook your head like that was the craziest thing because you thought I was doing a great job. You told me the same thing when I preached for the first time two months ago. You always wanted people to know how valuable and amazing they are, and you spoke it into their lives. You also made sure to pause and tell me what our friendship meant to you. I can’t even count the times you told me that. My dad told me yesterday what a gift that is because so many people leave this world without their loved ones really knowing how cared for they were. Because of you, I will never doubt how you loved me and all your family and friends. I hope to follow your example.
You showed people you loved them through your generosity and hospitality. Your love for people was grounded in making yourself family to them. Whether it was welcoming a friend to stay at your place when they were in need or inviting neighbors and strangers-made-neighbors to a BBQ right on the sidewalk outside your apartment complex, you wanted to bring people together and remind them that they belonged. “Clinton, do you even know those kids?” I asked you as some kids ran off home with the package of hot dogs you gave them. You turned and tilted your head to give me the quintessential Clinton LOOK of amusement. “Nope.” You went back to grilling under my broken umbrella as it continued to drizzle.
You taught me and others so much about love, family, and marriage. There are so many examples of your huge, booming heart. But for myself, I will always treasure how you and Joanlie included me into your ever-expanding family and invited me along for adventures like going to the community pool with your (then) baby boy Buhba or attending an Afrobeat event at the Schomburg (my first visit). Being a single person in NYC can be lonely sometimes, but whenever you told me “just come over here!” to your place and hang out with you, I felt home. I remember sitting with you and Joanlie at your previous apartment over pizza, and you both shared with me your stories about dating and marriage. Any remaining romanticism I had from college about marriage was scrubbed away by your words–but that was the best thing for me. You opened up and unpacked with refreshing candor what it’s like to choose somebody to commit to, take all the baggage that comes with them, and figure out how to be your best selves together, knowing that it’s going to shine a light on your imperfections and challenge you to grow. Witnessing how you both lived out your marriage openly before your community and all the struggles and arguments and reconciliations and laughter gave me a picture of what partnership-in-progress looks like. You also always wanted the best for the single women in your life, and all of us experienced the “Clinton Loves You, Thinks You’re Beautiful and Amazing and Doesn’t Want You to Settle” talk more than once. I’m thankful for those even more now.
You loved justice and advocated for others. You loved black people and grieved over the wrongs being done to your black brothers and sisters. As someone working to help incarcerated men make bail, you understood the broken systems at work against these men and valued their dignity. You always got riled up when you perceived that you or someone else was being treated unfairly, and you spoke unapologetically to that, calling the wrong out. Your Facebook feed was crowded with articles about systemic oppression, the latest way our government had screwed up…but also with pictures of your “bears,” your little boys whom you hoped would grow up being proud to be black. We went to the Black Panther premiere together, and I remember that Buhba brought his T’challa action figure and was bouncing in the theater aisle with a popcorn bucket on his head because he was so excited. You wanted him to know that black people could be and are heroes, but I think what I’ll remind him in the days to come is that YOU are one of those heroes too, Clinton.
You knew how to have fun. My friends know your name because they have danced with you, laughed with you, or attended one of many social gatherings you organized. Whether it was a spontaneous karaoke night with you rapping 90s hits and riffing off them or dancing at bOb bar until 3 in the morning 2 weekends in a row (did we get ANY sleep last September?!), you didn’t want to miss out on any opportunity to be with people and have a good time. You chewed me out for watching movies in theaters without you because you wanted to watch them together. You complained loudly about the sluggish service at the Buffalo Wild Wings above the Magic Johnson theater…and yet we still ended up going there every time we did see a movie. I remember when a group of us went to see Get Out, and you gave running commentary throughout the movie like it was a comedy sketch (“Why doesn’t he just LEAVE that white girl’s house?!”), and the guy sitting behind us found it so entertaining that he stood up and shook your hand when the movie ended and told you that you had made his movie experience. Only you, Clinton. You brought kinetic energy and joy and laughter whenever you were with people, and that drew them to you.
You loved your wife and kids. You always told us how lucky you were to be married to Joanlie. You recounted how into her you were when you first met her and how you came to see her as one of the best things in your life–that you were better for being married to her. You wanted to have 7+ kids with her (though we all were on #TeamJoanlie that maybe that wasn’t the BEST idea…)! But when Buhba came into the world, you fell in love again, and watching you cradle your son in your strong arms was just one of those simple, precious, beautiful things life gifts you to witness. You were eager to take Buhba on adventures (the last one I remember being a scooter ride to church–yes you proved to us that would actually use that scooter you bought). You loved watching his vibrant personality unfold. He shares your comedic bent and rhythm and stubbornness, which made it rough when you had to send him to his room, him stomping all the way. You sighed for the tenth time and said that being a father was hard. You wanted so much to be a better father and husband, and when Bars was born, these boys were your pride and joy. I remember stopping by one evening to see Bars fast asleep on your chest, your breaths rising and falling together. Bars felt safe with his father close to him, and I hope that safety follows him all the days of his life.
You lived out your life for God. Your life was never easy, but again and again you kept leaning on God as you navigated the hard times. You preached to me, you preached to coworkers and friends, and you preached to yourself when you needed to be reminded of the truth of who you are and who God is. You shared this truth with the children in our church who will always know you as the Mister Clinton who reenacted Bible stories with snake puppets (though your snake voice was more hilariously suave than scary) and encouraged them to dance freely in the aisles to the worship music. You loved teaching kids about God, and all your seminary training and gifts as a speaker shone best when you were with them. You were also quick to give counsel, to mentor, and to listen to people in your space when they shared about their journeys, and you journeyed with them for the long haul. God’s compassion and love worked through your words, and many lives are changed because of your commitment.
In the weeks before quarantine, you were recovering from surgery, and I ended up spending a lot of time with you and your family, for which I am grateful beyond words. While Joanlie and the kids napped one evening, we had our last long conversation together. You wanted to check-in on how I was doing, and we talked about our recent struggles, about life and love and hearing God’s voice in midst of it all. “Okay, this may sound weird…” you started, and I turned to you, readying myself for any manner of words to come next because this was Clinton and Clinton was always unpredictable. “…but I kinda see you like a daughter–like I know you’re my sister and all, but I’m old enough to be your father and that’s why I get so protective. I just want the best for you.”
I wish I had enough words to thank you for saying that. You’re one of the few friends I’ve ever felt safe to cry in front of, and this was one of those times because I knew your words carried all the love and sincerity in you. When you loved, you loved with your whole self.
Part of me wants to laugh because you kept apologizing for never getting the chance to read my blog posts, and so maybe it’s fitting that you get one all to yourself. I just needed to write and remember you. I just needed to share what you have meant to me, and even now there just aren’t enough words.
You’ve been like an older brother to me, a man I respect and appreciate and love. I have so many stories of you: the packing party with the ill-advised watermelon jello-shot bowl (yeah thanks for that); the time you taught me how to play pool and then grumbled when I beat you; the 15-minute long debate about whether cats have emotions; the PhotoBooth Fella Christmas session you and Joanlie did for a charity event where you invited me to tag along and be one of Santa’s Elves (life ambition achieved); spontaneous freestyling (I could only ever do that with you) with liberal and increasingly-ridiculous uses of Bible allusions; Bars’ dedication at church where you lifted him up like Simba and we all laughed.
We all have so many stories of you, and we promise to share them generously with your little bears (maybe with slight abridging) so they will know the incredible person their dad is. I say is because I know we will meet again, hard and long as the time between will be.
I don’t want to stop writing because stopping feels like another goodbye, and it hurts. I don’t want to face “the new normal”–a world without you. As I was writing this, Joanlie texted me to let me know that the Baby Yoda Funko Pop you ordered for me had arrived. Dang it Clinton! Unpredictable in timing and predictable in love as always. Thank you….