Ne Me Quitte Pas

Issue No. 4: Black Maternal Health
Words - Johane Celestin
Illustration - Leia Kaprov

Ne Me Quitte Pas. These words echoed throughout my childhood, before I understood the depth of the artist who uttered them and what they would come to mean to me at different stages of life. I heard them first with my little 3 year old ears, keenly interested in music. I loved the piano riffs, the repetitiveness, and the simplicity of the chords that accompanied the lyrics.

Haiti in the 1990’s was beautiful to me, at least my immediate little world seemed so. My aunty was a huge part of my life; outside of my mother she was my main caretaker. I remember her brushing my teeth so rigorously that sometimes my gums would bleed, while Les Chansons Françaises played in the background. Artists like Celine Dion, Michel Sardou, Edith Piaf, and Jacques Brel became part of my daily routine. Brushing my teeth became my favorite part of the day. I am obsessive about brushing my teeth to this day because of those early years with my aunty. Those years shaped my love for music. She would play different cassettes in an old radio with a long antenna that needed to be fiddled with often, but the music that came from that radio was perfect to me. The summer my aunty fell in love, she played Ne Me Quitte Pas so much I learned all the words. I was 5 years old.

That summer was spent outdoors. We walked to my grandpa’s farm almost every day. She let me climb trees to pick avocados and mangoes, she let me run around in open fields barefoot, she jumped in muddy roads with me, she chased me and the chickens until I’d fall face first into the mud from the giggles. I would go home filthy, but happy. She’d bathe me in our little makeshift bathroom in the backyard before going inside the house. Her boyfriend would spend the afternoons with us and she’d cook him extravagant meals of fried pork, plantains, black rice, and pikliz. They would let me sit with them in the living room as they’d talk for hours, smiling at each other while nuzzling my head absentmindedly. Eventually, I would fall asleep from the soothing voice of Jacques Brel and being out in the sun all day, and sometimes I would wake up and hear Ne Me Quitte Pas through sleepy ears. I’d eventually fall back asleep smiling, excited for the next day.

My world changed drastically when I turned 7. My mom, aunt, and the rest of my immediate family moved to the States and left me under the care of an appointed guardian, a friend of my mom’s from the neighborhood. I was crushed. I remember not speaking or eating for weeks, until food was forced down my throat. The beautiful French music stopped; the only music I heard were the hymns sung in church. I would silently mumble along, but I never felt what I felt when I first heard Jacques Brel, that transcendental feeling of being understood by an artist even though I didn’t quite know yet who I was or who I would become. I’d often sing Ne Me Quitte Pas to myself, as I’d fall asleep. I remember falling asleep to the sound of crickets, no more of Jacques Brel’s haunting yet beautiful voice. Music had left me, or maybe I left it because it reminded me too much of what once was and could no longer be.

The years without French music were painful. I stayed silent; I didn’t have words to describe the emptiness I felt, not until I moved to the States in junior high school and discovered the internet. I came across a video of Jacques Brel by Googling Ne Me Quitte Pas. I didn’t remember his name at the time, I just remembered the melody to the song. I was randomly humming it to myself from a faraway memory, and the words started to come back to me.

Ne Me Quitte Pas, Oublier ces heures, Qui tuaient parfois, a coups de pourquoi.

The video of Jacques Brel is jarring; shot in black and white, the camera is focused tightly on his face so I couldn’t even make out the band in the background. His forehead is damp as sweat drips down his chin. His voice starts as a quiet echo of sadness and regret as he repeatedly sings Ne Me Quitte Pas in a manic sense, almost rushed yet controlled. He appears to be smiling but it’s only a grimace around his mouth. His eyes are low with watered lines, his eyebrows furrow as he continues to lull the words, Ne Me Quitte Pas. There’s a slight muffled sniffle after each line he sings; he’s fighting back tears. The quiet echo becomes a full cry as he gets to the middle, his voice becomes piercing.

I’ve romanticized the song for years, but watching that video felt just like the depression and anxiety I’ve felt since the age of 8 but never had words to describe. He embodied my fears and vulnerabilities perfectly. Those words have played in my head often when I’m feeling lonely, or when I feel the distance forming between a lover, or when a friendship is nearing its end. It’s a prayer in a sense; I chant it like one would hum ommmm in a yoga class. It was never about love. Maybe my aunt also used it as a prayer because she married that boyfriend she fell in love with that one summer. Ne me Quitte Pas: Don’t Leave Me.