The Signs, The Symptoms, The Sinking Ship
My aunt had recently commemorated her fiftieth birthday by getting a tattoo, something contrary to her prudish and inhibited nature. It was to symbolize her belated rebellion against what was deemed normal and appropriate. She called me, excited to share the news, and I thought for a moment I was speaking with one of my adolescent students. Her voice was full of vigor and exuberance. She was ready, she said, to really begin living and to release herself from the bondage of fear and restrictions. I was elated to hear this zeal and life in her voice. Our conversations usually consisted of her expressing feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and disgust with herself and me trying to share the beautiful image of her that I saw, that I’ve always seen. It often felt awkward and uncomfortable to be the cheerleader and encourager for someone who’d had much more experience in living. But, the further I stretched into adulthood and its archetypal matriculations, the more I played this role of niece, confidante, and counselor.
Some time later, after a few missed calls, failed attempts to reach her, and random exchanges of text messages, she called me to tell me she was on the way to Tampa, and wanted to see me and meet her first and only (at the time) great-niece. It was a sporadic trip with some of our distant cousins to go to an amusement park. She was simply tagging along for the sole purpose of seeing my father, her older brother, and her nieces and nephew. They would only be there for the day apparently and would be driving back to Atlanta very early the following morning.
In this same conversation, she reminded me that she was engaged again (this would be her third marriage), and that she wanted to talk to me about the wedding when we met. These type of offhand plans were common, so I was neither surprised or expectant. Something usually happened to deter the scheduled program. I informed her that I was attending an event, and even invited her to come along, and that I would call her as soon as it was over to meet if she chose not to attend.
She never came or answered my call, and I had missed several of hers during the event. I kept calling that evening and well into the morning, but there was never a response. Months went by without an exchange until news of my brother’s graduation from Morehouse became all the buzz. Despite any inconsistencies, she was extremely supportive of my siblings and I, and had traveled near and far to attend most of our major life events, excluding my wedding. I know now that her absence there was an indication of far greater problems than financial. I fully expected her to join us as we watched my brother cross the stage and join the ranks as “Morehouse Man.” We’d connect as though a day hadn’t passed between conversations as usual I thought.
We spoke a few weeks before I traveled to Atlanta and once again, she was rhapsodic. But, as the date neared, she became less and less so and infrequently accessible. Conversations had always been full of highs and lows. This was a season of lows. She had lost her job, her car had been repossessed, her mother (my Big Mama) had fallen ill and she had no way of visiting her regularly. All she had was this fiancé that I hadn’t met. I thought that by seeing us, she would feel and be better, like every other time.
She didn’t make it to graduation. I constantly looked over my shoulder and called and sent text messages to no avail. I was worried, but I put the absence in the file of inconsistencies, as did everyone else. We chose to be happily distracted by the occasion.
It was about a month later when I got the call. She had been rushed to the hospital and placed on a respirator, where she stayed for about a week, while my father pleaded with God and physicians to prevent the eminent. The next time I saw her, her face had been colored with cosmetics, which she never wore. After a vicious battle with depression that used alcohol as a weapon, she succumbed. Her fiancé, whom I finally met at her funeral, admitted to supplying her with a full bottle of whatever she requested every single day for months. “I couldn’t tell her ‘no’,” he mumbled, “I loved her.”
I stared idly at her bloated, lifeless body that failed to look like the woman I knew and loved, and more like a mannequin used in crime dramas. I looked for a semblance of the woman, who’d equally been my confidante as I’d been hers, in her face but was only greeted with a placid smile that had been forced and sculpted by a stranger’s hands.
I kept trying to remember the last time I saw her. A question still left unanswered. I can only remember the last time I should have, when I chose a meaningless activity over making my way to her. I didn’t fully understand depression then or when I first experienced the devastation of it myself. I can’t say I fully understand it now. But I do know, it’s not a demon to face alone; even though it tries to convince you otherwise. We are all carriers of light and darkness and can be overtaken by either one at any time. Our obligation is to care for our spirits and each other’s. We are to bask in that light as often as possible, share it with others whether we think they need it or not, and find the courage to SPEAK when our light becomes dim.