From the Executive Director - Gardening and Grief in Syndemic Times

Shari Miles-Cohen
May 10, 2022

Every spring, as I prepare my garden for planting, I reflect on Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones' allegory about a gardener who has two flower boxes, one filled with rocky, sandy soil, and one filled with nutrient-rich soil (See “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale”). The gardener plants red flowers, her favorites, in the nutrient-rich soil, and pink flowers in the sandy soil. She doesn't care for pink flowers. When the red flowers grow tall and lush, and the pink flowers wither, she feels validated in her preference for the red flowers, never considering the impact of the soil quality on the flowers’ growth. 

Despite having been born into the rocky, sandy soil that was Indianapolis, IN, in the 1960s, my older brother, Ron Miles, developed himself into a world-renowned master jazz and classical cornetist. He replenished the depleted soil that the United States reserved for Generation X Black folks through the music and art of our ancestors. This nourishment helped him better understand the racial trauma he experienced over his lifetime (All About Jazz Interview, 2020). On March 8, 2022, I sat with Ron as he transitioned from his earthly physical existence to his eternal spiritual life. Grief has debilitated, infuriated, and exhausted me in the weeks since Ron's death. 

Fourteen months older than I am, Ron was our parents' favorite child, which my sisters and younger brother readily acknowledged. We never thought much about it because he was our favorite sibling, too. A beloved and respected college professor who composed and recorded his music and performed worldwide, Ron was excited about my move to NCA. I had hoped he would join me at the Annual Convention in New Orleans. He fully understood music's power to communicate feelings, imagery, and history. A few weeks before he died, Ron wrote a short piece for the MilesWest Group on the power of music to communicate Black history. He focused on Scott Joplin's opera, Treemonisha, as an example of using music to convey messages about "evil conjurers, education, equality, and gender equity." I so wish the NCA community had had the opportunity to hear Ron share his love for jazz and American music, particularly Black American music. 

Our soil can either nurture or impede our growth and development and as it changes throughout our lives, affects how our ancestors' experiences reside in our collective DNA. Marveling at Ron's life, I've been thinking about my soil. For the last two and a half years, I struggled to move forward in the face of uncertainty and chaos, all magnified by the syndemic of racism and COVID-19 (Prideaux, 2021). As the mother of a Black boy, Xavier, I was practiced at mourning the loss of his innocence by his 14th birthday, having delivered “The Talk" on multiple occasions. But I was not prepared to confront his mortality from an invisible assailant. 

In late December 2020, after months of wearing our masks, my only child developed a high fever that would not break. Of course, Xavier; my husband, Earl; and I got tested for COVID-19. A few days later, when we learned that Xavier had tested positive for the virus, he asked me, “Mom, am I going to die?” I knew that the mortality rate for those who contracted COVID-19 was less than two percent. However, Xavier had no sense of the millions of Americans who had COVID before December 2020 and had already recovered or were recovering. Instead, he knew six people, Andre, Anna, Aunt Charlene, Aunt Shirley, Gene, and Jean, who had contracted COVID-19, and he knew that four of them had died. So, when my child asked me if he was going to die, I wrapped my arms around him tighter than I had ever done before, and I told him that I loved him and that he would be safe. Earl tested positive for COVID-19 a few days later. We isolated ourselves as directed, and I kept them hydrated and full of chicken soup. Thankfully, both have recovered, but we remain hypervigilant.

COVID’s trauma will linger with us for ages, and while depleted, generational resilience will be its companion. We can nurture our generational resilience through acting and reflecting on the lessons of persistence and resistance passed down from our ancestors, both familial and disciplinary. I hope that NCA will foster your growth and development as a Communication scholar and community member. I also hope that when you have the energy to spare and lessons to share, you will contribute your time and expertise to NCA through service to the association, submitting a journal article, or participating in the Annual Convention. 

I am still in the midst of grief's messy, achy, enveloping stage. I have a support network of family and friends and a cache of memories of Ron that, even in my deepest valley, bring me comfort. While different in magnitude, grief can accompany organizational change, and such mourning is not always appreciated. I want to acknowledge that some of you may experience grief as NCA undergoes a rebirth this year. Together, over the next six months, we will create a new vision and mission for the organization and a new strategic plan to guide our work. We will learn from and inspire one another. I hope that the newly reinvigorated NCA will be your nutrient-rich garden, filled with tangible resources, experiences, and connections that can help you accomplish your goals and aspirations. But I know that you didn't choose Communication just to improve your soil. You chose Communication to be part of a discipline that changes the soil for everyone. Together, we can do that.