I don’t remember how Mass came into my life, exactly. I know that we were in Jambanjelly, The Gambia, to build a library. Of course, I know that Mass’ family’s compound was directly across from our library work site. I remember when I met Mass’ big brother, Modou. I can clearly see and feel the moment when I met Modou, but that is to be expected. During that summer, I managed to fall completely in love with him.
But, Mass. I can’t remember when I met him. The only thing I can say is that I can’t fathom a time in my life before I loved him. He was the chat of the family. A child born as a big surprise to his mother. The indisputable baby of the family and, boy, did he know it. He had the biggest light inside of him. A perpetual ray of sunshine the entire village couldn’t help but adore. I fell hard for him. He was my trusty sidekick for the two years I lived in The Gambia. When his brother and I would return to the village on the weekends, he would be there waiting. From Friday to Sunday evening, Mass and I were inseparable. Buying tapalapa from the market with a heavy smear of mayo, beef bullion and boiled egg. Hanging out in the compound, washing clothes by hand. Sitting late into the night listening to Reggae music from an old car battery by candlelight. He’d sit on my lap, struggling not to fall asleep. Every so often, he would pinch himself to keep himself awake.
God, I loved him so much.
When his brother and I eventually separated, I gave up Mass. I let him go, thinking it would be easier if I cut ties completely with the family to properly escape my dangerous love for his big brother. I thought of Mass often. I was back in the U.S. by then, rebuilding my life in California. I pictured him growing into his grade school self. I sent all of my love to the family from afar, hoping that they were surviving okay. I missed him so much, but it helped to picture him growing up strong and happy even if I wouldn’t be able to witness it.
I held that fantasy so close for so long that it knocked me completely on my ass when I got a Facebook message late one night telling me that Mass had passed away. He was playing in a puddle during a thunderstorm with his friends in the village and drowned. Just like that, he was gone. I kept saying no, no, no over and over. He had no chance to grow up. No opportunity to fall in love or learn to read or go to college or drive a car. It’s so trite to say, but I balked at the unfairness of it all. I missed work. I eventually pulled myself together, but sometimes my grief would bowl me over when I least expected it. A song on the radio, a smell, a picture could bring a wave of sadness I would struggle under for days.
That was more than three years ago now. The pain isn’t as visceral any more. It’s more like a dull ache most of the time, but God do I miss him. Losing him made it hard for me to open my heart and love my new boyfriend Keith’s children. I couldn’t imagine feeling pain like that again. How is it possible to feel like you can’t breathe, like you want to punch something, like you want to scream and like you want to sleep forever, all at the same time?
Slowly, I’ve realized that loving Mass was one of the best, most beautiful things to happen to me. I am forever grateful that our lives connected when they did. I’m honored that I was able to love him from the deepest part of myself and that I was able to feel the pure joy that comes along with the unrestrained love of a child. He was a beautiful ray of sunshine and I’m so glad I was witness to his light.
I’ll always keep him in my heart and I’ll always miss him. Yesterday, I got a tattoo in his honor. My first tattoo, I had the words ‘nfamatela bakee’ etched into my right side ribcage. It’s Mandinka for ‘I miss you so much’.
Mass, I do miss you so much. Nfamatela bakee bakee.