Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Remembering Courtney Astley Bailey...


In this photo: Duncan, Courtney, Roland, Seymour (Brothers & Cousins in Orlando, Florida. June 2007)

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name”. “Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits”

When we were boys, my mother, Courtney’s aunt, used to sing that song when she was working. It is based on Psalm 103, and the same passage goes on to say:
“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.”
The translation from the World English Bible says: “And the place thereof shall remember it no more.” But I think there is enough evidence that Courtney, has not made his life very easy to forget.

Back in the day, Courtney was not just our cousin. He was one of our best friends. All of us, his aunt, my brothers, people from Washington Gardens Seventh Day Adventist Church and especially our crew, our group of nine singing friends, have memories of Courtney as Jamaican people say “fe stone dog”. But we love animals.

We remember Courtney from those days when our ages were still in the single digits…the low single digits. When we became early teens, Courtney, who had gone to live in the country came back to us…and he was six feet tall. That’s the first memory.

After that he was extraordinary, so we couldn’t call him just any ordinary name, so we fast forwarded his last name ‘Bailey’ and called him “Belleh”. Everybody say “Belleh”.
Belleh will be remembered for many things. This is the guy who was so tall people forgot his age from time to time. This is the guy who could make you laugh at the worst situation. This is the guy who, when we went to visit him in December, was bed ridden with supports in his back. And he ignored his pain to give us jokes about life.
He said: “This life is like one a dem stubborn boah hog weh me did affi deal wid, when me a boy a country. No matter how it ruff, you haffi mek it know say yuh serious and yuh naah back dung from it”.

And no matter how rough it was, Courtney wasn’t the one to complain. If you spoke to him on the phone, no matter what his situation, his concern would mostly be about you.
He would easily making light of a dim situation and when it came to telling jokes he was a champion. And he was even better at the quick, one-line comeback. You couldn’t say something to put him down and not expect an intelligent, witty, sharp and immediate one-line comeback. When we were boys, he was a genius at getting back at you for saying something stupid. We felt safe from people who would say bad things because Belleh would get them with a response in 2 seconds. After a while people left us alone.

Belleh wouldn’t spare anybody who tried to talk tough to us. Security guards, bus conductors even the policeman who pulled us over we were 18 and 19 and Howard rented a car.

We had stopped at the supermarket and were joyriding around when the police pulled us over. Howard couldn’t find the papers for the car so the policeman looked up at Belleh because he was the tallest and declared: “Hmph, look like you a sleep a jail tonight!”
In response Courtney, lifted a bag of groceries Auntie Pat had told him to get on his way home and said to the policeman: “Offica, you see this? This a my mother grocery. Me haffi carry this home tonight. Cause it look like you no know my modda!”

Like all boys we got into trouble, but we always got out because we stuck together. Most of the trouble we got into was because we used to walk home from church or choir practice and use the bus fare money to buy bread and cheese to eat on the way. What we would do was buy a whole hardough bread, dig a hole through the middle and stuff it with cheese. It was like communion every Sunday evening because we used to break bread on the journey home. One man would hold the bread and turn to everybody else and let them break a piece. But under this system there was a problem.

You see, Belleh had begun to play basketball and his hands were big enough to hold the basketball with one hand like Shaquille Oneal.

So you can imagine what happened when it was Belleh’s time to break his part of the bread. (gesture: this is the size of the bread. This is the size of belleh’s hands) It wasn’t his fault. That was just how his hands were. I mean, we could let him break his part of the bread last but that would be discrimination and he wouldn’t like that. So I think it was after that we that we started having individual bulla cakes and cheese, so everybody could get the same share. Kind of equal-opportunity bread breaking.
On one of those many long walks home, something happened that defines how Courtney lived his life. We were walking home one Sunday evening, and as usual we stopped at Brother Mitchell’s house on our way. Brother Mitchell was a deacon at our church and had about four mango trees in his yard. It was the end of mango season so only the last few mangoes were on the tree. You had to go far up in the tree to get good mangoes.

Unfortunately there were no mangoes in the top of the tree so we all came down but Belleh spotted one or two large juicy ones all the way out on a sturdy looking branch that hung over the other backyard beside Brother Mitchell’s yard. He was a good-enough climber so he climbed across and carefully started to make his way towards the mango at the end of the limb. The backyard was a bit dark so we navigated him from the ground. “A likkle more….just a likkle more, you soon reach…”

And then… there was a snap and a crack and the whole branch came crashing down over the neighbour’s backyard. The problem wasn’t that the whole branch with all those ripe mangoes had broken and fallen off the tree. The problem was, Belleh was still on the branch.

And then there was silence. And between the darkness and the thick bushes in the neighbour’s backyard we couldn’t see the branch or Belleh for a good seven seconds. So everybody stood still. And kept quiet, wondering where he disappeared to. Then the neighbour’s two mongrel dogs (Americans call them mutts) ran into the backyard yapping and hollering.

Suddenly Belleh got up out of the bush, straightened up to his full six foot height and it took him just two steps walking, to get back over the fence. One step was from the pop down branch to the fence and the other step was what he actually took over the fence. To this day, the only man I ever saw outwalk two running dogs was my cousin.
And we all stood there looking at the broken branch, the yapping dogs and the lost mangoes, and Belleh, the man who went out on a limb. It was only when we were sure that he was safe and not hurt, that we started laughing and teasing him:
“Den Belleh, you mean you go so far over people yard and nuh bring back not even one mango fe we? and so on...to which he handed out quick one line insults to each of us. After a while we teased him just to see what smart response he would come up with.

And that is how I remember Courtney Astley ‘Belleh’ Bailey living his life. Going out on a limb. Pushing the limits to go for what he knew was good. Determined to achieve what he set his mind to, even when the odds were against him. He believed that it’s better to try and fail, than fail to try.

And he didn’t listen to the voices that told him he shouldn’t try…even the ones in his own mind. In the eighties, Courtney was one of the first people in Jamaica to try to breakdance. In the nineties he was still trying. Courtney joined a singing group when singing wasn’t his greatest talent. And he became famous for it. Once he walked up to the podium at church, took the microphone and led the church in singing a song. And in the middle of the singing he realized he didn’t really know the song the church was singing.

Courtney taught himself how to ride a high powered motorcycle. The first time I rode on the back of a high-powered motorcycle it was with my cousin. After a few weeks he looked like he was so good at it that I trusted him, so I got on.

And that was last time I rode on the back of a motorcycle. He was definitely so good at it, that he went too fast for me. So I got off. And I haven’t been back on one since.

And that’s how through his life Courtney kept going, learning, getting back up and dusting himself off, starting over again, never stopping, but like a trucker, he kept changing gears, pushing past the boundaries, mile after mile, place after place, even though the load was heavy and the road was long. He kept going…. He kept going. Sometimes my big cousin would call me out of the blue just to describe the desert or tell me about the bright lights in a brand new city that he just drove through. Or to brag about his kids and ask me what am I waiting for to have some. And before he ended any conversation, he would ask about Jamaica…and the family.

And today, right here, right now, we are his family. All of us. And his bravery lives on in us. Auntie Pat, your son was a brave man. Moya, Courtney Jr., your father was a strong man. He was a strong man who kept going and his strength continues in you. Denise, your husband was a champion. He was Jamaican gold, silver, titanium and stainless steel. And all his aunts and uncles and family and friends that had something positive to do with his life...be assured, you did good. You did good.

And something tells me that if he hadn’t slept away in peace and instead had one last thing to say to everybody here…it may have been. “Keep going. Go out on a limb. Fulfill the dreams you know you can fulfill and try for the ones that people say you can’t. Cry right now if you feel like because love is stronger than pride, cry some more tomorrow, cry some more the day after that-- but just keep going. And then dry your eyes because you can’t see the road ahead through all those tears. Keep going. Take care of the ones you love and let them know you love them, today. Because there is never enough time. There might never be another day. All you have is now.

So go out on a limb. And if the branch breaks, it wont be easy. But chances are, you could land on your feet. And if you don’t, then get back up…dust yourself off, hold your head up. Let them laugh, but keep going.

Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name.

Remembrance, written By Roland Watson-Grant

RIP Courtney "Belleh" Bailey
September 10, 1972 - February 20,2009


Sharifa said...

My condolences to you & the fam

Errol said...

Thanks Cuz it was sad by it made me laughed out loud because that is exactly who he was.Only God knows how much I miss this giant of a man I stand 6ft 4in and still had to look up to him as he was taller.