Seven days ago my daughter called me with the news that messages of R.I.P. were appearing on Hemayel’s Facebook page. “No way,” I said. “He’s in Curacao. Or he’s flying back to South Africa. ‘R.I.P.,’ what do you mean?” I couldn’t fathom it, couldn’t understand. But it was true. He had died in a car accident in Curacao, back on his island for his uncle’s funeral and his mother’s birthday, due to return to South Africa where he had begun a six-month internship, supposed to fly back that same evening. And now gone.
I cut short a holiday in the sun and flew home to The Netherlands Tuesday to attend a memorial service at Webster on Wednesday. The Minister Plenipotentiary of Curacao, Sheldry Osepa, attended and spoke of Hemayel’s book, Ansestro Preokupá (Worried Ancestors), how Hemayel had now become one of the ancestors inspiring us and he quoted Hemayel’s poem that tells the ancestor not to worry, we will now carry on his work. (This same poem appears at the end of the video below.)
It was a privilege to speak at this event. Below is the text of my talk. Friends and colleagues filled the room, as well as family members due to go to his funeral in Willemstad.
Today he is buried there.
I find I can’t sleep at night. The memorial service helped–to be with others who mourn, others who knew him–we drank whiskey and toasted him and told stories, and the next morning I thought, It’s over. But how could I think such a thing when I know full well that grief sneaks up on me, sideswipes me from dark corners, knocks me over and I am left gasping.
Now I am back in Scotland. Listening to the waves. My heart is so sore.
Hemayel Memorial talk at Webster University, Leiden, 2 February 2011
Bon dia. Hello in Hemayel’s Papiamento. This year I have been on study leave in Scotland and I never dreamed I would come back and see all of you again—for this reason.
The questions . . . I’m not even going there. Too much pain. Instead I want to thank all of you for all you have done to honor Hemayel, creating this great tribute to him, and coming here today.
I had the honor of teaching the writing class Hemayel was in for one entire year. Terms at Webster last 8 weeks, so this was unusual. For one year I learned from an exceptional class: Cesia, Rasheed, Jose Antonio, Catrina, Alex, and Hemayel. In January Anik, Eric and Taban joined us. They wrote essays about everything under the sun: past fears and future hopes. And in this way then, through his writing, I first came to know Hemayel.
Last February he asked me if I would go to Curacao in October for the launch of his poetry book. I said, uh, ok, and then used up all my husband’s airmiles. By October I was already studying in Scotland, so I left from there and flew to Curacao. It was an amazing trip. I met his family and friends. A talented musician, Levi Silvanie had hooked up with Hemayel and together they were singing his poetry in clubs. Curacao had just become a new nation and I listened as these two men sang their country into being. These clubs—look at me, I’m the wrong color and the wrong age—but I went clubbing at night and became a sort-of Hemayel groupie. We visited groups of children where he and Levi listened and pulled creativity out of them. We visited a music group where Hemayel used to play the tjembe, and he spoke to the kids there, many of whom were being kept off the streets because of their involvement in music. I went with Hemayel and Levi to television and radio interviews. Throughout it all, Hemayel remained humble and a little overwhelmed. The launch of his book was a big event, with many of the founding families of Curacao, about whom Hemayel had written, present that evening. The children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who began slave rebellions and people who had put Papiamento on the map as a language all attended. Rosabelle came from Webster and recited poetry. Somehow I became the keynote speaker.
In my talk there I spoke about the importance of creating a space for listening to our young people, how Levi and Hemayel were singing this new country into being, and how Curacao may come from corazón, which means heart—and how Hemayel’s poetry was about listening to the heartbeat of this new country. I also expressed gratitude to everyone there for raising Hemayel into the kind, respectful, loving and intelligent man he had become. Today I express that same gratitude to you, here at Webster, for shaping him with your laughter and love and learning.
So last year he asked me to help him edit the English version of his poetry book. We met in the Paagman bookstore in The Hague several times. He wrote everything in Papiamento first, then translated it into English. Then we edited the English. By the end of the process he was writing in English.
I last met with Hemayel December 22, three days before he left for South Africa. It was one of those days when nothing was working in Holland because of the snow—few trains were running and the roads were a mess. Somehow he caught a train from Leiden to The Hague and I managed to drive in from Hoek van Holland and we met at Hollands Spoor. We had lunch at the Donor and talked for two hours about so much. About yoga and meditation and prayer. About my own experiences in Kwa-Zulu Natal, how important it is to touch and hold people with Aids because often they are outcast. We talked about his and my passion for all things having to do with young people in International Relations. We talked about Sierra Leone and Rwanda and Scotland. He told me of his hopes to get a masters in International Relations. He asked about all the members of my family. I told him I knew South Africa would resonate deep in his heart . . . I gave him four more notebooks so he’d have a place to put his emotions.
There are a few things I want to offer you today as means of comfort:
–Write out your grief. Those of us acquainted with grief know it hits like a knot of emotion. Anger and denial all tied up tight. A Zen master said that one death feels like 10,000. Give it a place and write it out, this way the emotions unravel and we may heal.
–And this: today we have heard how special Hemayel was, but you, each and every one, we are special for the knowing of him. In honor of his life, live your lives to the fullest, do all he hoped for: grab education and squeeze as much learning out of it as you can, resolve to end corruption, become politicians and advisers and teachers and poets, live and love and laugh and learn—for Hemayel. And know this, each one of you has as much potential and passion and promise as Hemayel. Reach deep, as he did, and become all you are meant to. Yes, he was exceptional, but so are each and every one of you. Honor his memory by facing your own fears, and do it—whatever it is—anyway. That we would do all to the best of our ability, that we would go for it and realize our full potential, that is how we honor Hemayel.
–Another thing: tell Hemayel stories. My favorite is during one of the crazy student barbecues at my house. It was 2 a.m. and they were jamming in my home. It was a typical Webster moment with a Pole, a Canadian, an Iranian and Hemayel, as he turned my coffee table into a tjembe and they composed a song in . . . wait for it . . . Farsi.
–Choose the one thing you loved most about him, and determine to keep that alive. Maybe it was playing pool badly, maybe it was his way of calling people up to stay in contact, maybe it was his urge to write out his heart. Maybe it was his smile.
–Lastly, create a space for listening, to others, to our young people, but most of all, listen to your own heart. He lives on in our hearts—if we listen there . . . we hear him still.
You can click on hemayelmartina.com to learn more about this extraordinary young man and leave a message of sympathy.