I had forgotten how to dress. My go-to outfit while languishing for umpteen pandemic months in our cramped apartment was a T-shirt that said, “There is no planet B” and a pair of grayish hand-me-down pants gone baggy in the seat. The events of my fall included: Hurricane Ida, when 11 New Yorkers drowned in their basement apartments; the funeral of my beloved father; and Halloween, when one of my kids came down with the Delta variant while trick-or-treating.

Next, I fell ill with the virus. To keep from infecting the rest of our family, I checked my sick son and myself into a city-run Covid hotel near JFK airport. In that purgatory, our bags were ransacked for guns and drugs. The doors didn’t lock. The nursing staff had to check our vitals at regular intervals to be sure we weren’t dead. I was too exhausted by the stack of calamities to recognize I was grieving.

Before my father’s decline, he was a preeminent scholar of Black religious history. As brilliant as he’d been, I wasn’t sure, at the end of his life, that he recognized me. He had died of dementia. Now here I was in quarantine, missing him while also working online and trying to get my picky kid to eat the wet fish sticks delivered to our room. I missed the smell of my dad’s pipe, the soft texture of his voice, and his handwriting on the index cards it was his habit to use for note-taking. The idea that the contents of his mind had vanished devastated me.

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Keep it together, I told myself. My feverish brain rearranged itself in some way that had me quietly repeating the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales. Maybe I reached for Chaucer because my father had memorized this passage, too, long before I did, and the poetry made me feel closer to him. Instead of praying to him directly for protection, I sweated out the fever while coughing violently, fearing bedbugs and burglary, pretending equilibrium for my son’s sake.

Then, on Thanksgiving, I tripped and broke my right foot. The podiatrist who dressed my injury in a cast was named, appropriately enough, Dr. Greif. The only accessory I wore that season was in the shower—if I showered: a plastic bag to protect the cast. I was a literal and figurative mess.

In early December, an invitation arrived. My friend Ayana and her wife were planning a Christmas party. Directions to their house upstate were included. Children were discouraged. Vaccine boosters were requested. Festive attire was required.

After so much isolation, the thought of a party felt almost illicit. I welcomed the invitation but doubted I’d make a charming guest. This would be my first Christmas without my dad.

“What are you going to wear?” asked my neighbor Angie, who was also invited.

Ayana was our epicurean friend, a gifted hostess who threw glittering dinner parties in the salad days before the shutdown sent us off the rails and out of each other’s company. On one of her birthdays, we dined at the Breslin in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, where she’d special ordered a whole roasted suckling pig. How long had it been since we’d gone to a party indoors? In my case, a year and eight months. Angie, who thrived on social gatherings and suffered their loss, was so giddy to attend, she seemed manic.

“I have no idea what to wear,” I told her. I understood the assignment as a Black woman. I was to come correct, as my grandmother might have said. Here was an opportunity to indicate with our adornment, comportment, and style that we had overcome. We couldn’t show up at Ayana’s looking slovenly. My closet was full of fancy things. So was my jewelry box.

Yet, in my lingering brain fog, I couldn’t tell what went with what. A once favorite belted brown coat hung too loosely on my frame. The dresses I had previously tailored to my body and delighted in wearing to readings, weddings, and conferences now looked strangely youthful, as if they belonged to a more colorful self. Nor, despite Ayana’s directions, could I easily understand how to get to the party. I’d been to the house before, but as a non-driver. The journey seemed farther now, more arduous to traverse with multiple limping steps by subway or cab to train or bus, requiring decisions about schedules I struggled to read. What’s more, I wasn’t sure I remembered how to be fun. Maybe I shouldn’t go, I thought.

Angie was undaunted by my anomie. She lent me a low-cut red silk blouse and a sparkly hair clip. God bless her. She made me lower my face mask to apply lipstick and, in a boss move, called us an Uber Black to drive us the two hours up the Hudson River Valley in luxury. “I’m 50,” she reasoned. “And you are my date.”

Ayana and her wife, Christina, were still cooking when we arrived, dressed in aprons and oven mitts, stirring gravy and toasting pecans in pans. The kitchen smelled of roast chicken and potatoes. Their dog wore a bowtie. So much bounty crowded the counter, I didn’t know where to put the sweet potato pie and bottle of rich, creamy coquito I’d brought. In the living room, the other guests sat in their finery listening to Luther Vandross before a roaring fire, swapping stories about real estate, dogs, the plots of books. Their talk was lubricated by wine.

We applauded when our hosts called us to the dining room. The table was worthy of a magazine spread, dressed with fir boughs, a floral centerpiece, and fine china, the napkins folded into origami shapes. On the menu was slow-roasted pernil, garlic string beans, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, rolls, and a big salad with roasted acorn squash. At every setting lay a maroon-colored place card with a name written in silver script. We were 11 at a table meant for 10. I was surprised to find my seat at the head, squeezed right next to Ayana’s.

She clinked her glass with her fork, and the room fell silent. She stood up to give a toast expressing gratitude for the vaccine, the food, and the gift of our company, ending by turning her attention toward me. “The reason Emily is seated here in a place of honor,” she announced, “is that her father has recently died.”

I focused on a flickering candle and found myself shaking, with a flush of adrenaline, like the flame. I felt stunned and slightly embarrassed. But more than that, I felt seen. I hadn’t understood I needed it said. A pause followed, so concentrated with pity, I thought I might cry. Ayana sat beside me and took my hand. I stopped shaking at her touch.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” offered a guest at our end whom I’d only just met. Bev was one half of a couple from South Africa, by way of Durham, where they ran an African diasporic bookshop. “Why aren’t you dressed in mourning clothes?”

“Yes,” added Bev’s partner, Naledi, seated opposite. “How are we supposed to orient ourselves to your suffering if we don’t know you’re in mourning?” She placed her napkin in her lap.

Orient themselves to my suffering? I wasn’t sophisticated enough to answer. Obviously, this couple had something to teach me. “Tell me,” I said in a voice that sounded almost like begging, “how you mourn.”

Though Bev and Naledi came from different tribes with different rites around death, they shared their customs around grief. There was cloth worn by the bereaved to signify they were not in their right mind, they were to be treated differently, with more tenderness, and to a degree, to be let off the hook. In some cases, as with the loss of a significant other, the aggrieved might even shave their head. This showed their loss in the baldest way possible.

By the time their hair grew back in, the mourner was in a new phase of mourning, ready to celebrate the rebirth of the person they’d lost into their role as an ancestor. It was often said that when a person died, a seed had fallen. In a ceremony that might occur one year after burial, that ancestor could be asked for protection and guidance. In this way, the dead were not exactly dead. There were certain rituals to perform as the dead made this passage into spirit. For example, the ghost of that ancestor might be presented with a blanket because they would be cold upon reawakening. Or the dead may be buried with a blanket, for a similar reason.

It came as a great comfort to learn this. My father’s death was nested among so many other losses, I hadn’t yet grasped its particular hold. He didn’t die of Covid. He died in devastating increments, swiftened by social distancing. He forgot how to drive. How to read. To climb stairs. He forgot the names of his children and the names of the ancestors in the framed photos on his wall. Eventually, he forgot to eat. And I had to say goodbye through a mask, spooning his diminished frame in the rented hospital bed at his home.

When he died, we dressed him under a quilt. We laid it over his body in the funeral casket. Somehow we remembered that we should keep him warm. During my eulogy, I held up the photos of the ancestors, naming them each, because he had made me to know them, and so that his grandchildren would understand that he was become an ancestor, too. We made meaning out of scraps, connected to something deeper.

Here was Ayana, doing the same. She understood how to make space at her table for grief, to let me find a ritual in the sweetness of community. Another word for that knowledge is grace. Only after that could we—I—make space for hope.

Someone passed the gravy. Someone else opened another bottle of wine. From the far end of the table, I caught flashes of wit. I took a bite of beans. Above us, the chandelier hung like a crown. Angie asked what everyone looked forward to in the New Year. We took turns, going around. One guest looked forward to climbing a mountain. Another, to learning how to live alone after a bad breakup. Christina looked forward to the possibility of fostering a child. Ayana looked forward to resuming classes in person at seminary school. I looked forward to seeing what would bloom in my garden come spring. Bev and Naledi looked forward to growing their bookshop, which they’d named Rofhiwa. I asked what that meant, though in retrospect I might have guessed.

“It means,” said Bev, gently, “‘You have been given.’”