As if it happened yesterday, I remember the exact moment I learned you died. In June 1997, on a late Sunday afternoon around 7:00 pm in the evening, the phone rang at our apartment in Los Angeles. I shared a small two-bedroom apartment with four other interns also in the Xerox summer program. I answered: “Hello?” On the other end, I heard my brother Timothy’s voice: “Can I speak to Karli?” Karli, a fellow classmate at Spelman College, and I shared a room in the Los Angeles Apartment. I remember laughing, wondering why he was calling and asking for Karli. “Tim, its Jacqueline. Are you playing some joke?” I had barely spoken to my recently married brother all summer and now he was calling to speak with my roommate. For a second, it made no sense. Almost immediately, Timothy started sobbing uncontrollably. Through his emotions, I could only understand the word “dead.” I still feel guilty because I immediately thought he was talking about Daddy. Our father has diabetes, high blood pressure and a history of other health problem and I thought something had happened to him. I choked out, “Daddy died?” He paused. Some pauses last a moment and some can flash an entire lifetime. He said: “No, mom.” In shock, with tears streaming down my face, I dropped the phone and started screaming. How could this be? You were a gentle giant: tough as nails, strong as an ox but quick to cry and quick to love. You were full of life, the center of the party but absolutely a no-nonsense type of woman. Timothy didn’t provide the details during the short conversation. And the true significance of the moment would take hours to really hit. But my body ran into a brick wall at a 100 mph, and I shattered into a million pieces.
Within the hour, Dawn, our boss at the summer internship, rushed over to the apartment. Years later, Dawn shared with me her guilt for a conversation we had a few weeks before you passed away. At an early June welcome lunch in Santa Monica with the other summer interns, I mentioned to Dawn our close relationship and how we spoke several times a day. With the time difference between Chicago and Los Angeles and us both working full-time jobs, we were having trouble getting in touch that summer and speaking as often as we did during the school year. Dawn then said, “Well maybe that’s a good thing because one day I was going have to be more independent and live without you.” Of course, she had no idea that you would die suddenly just a few weeks later. And I know she was providing words of wisdom and suggesting I use this summer away from home as a chance to mature and grow. Little did anyone know the summer of 1997 would officially end my childhood and start my adulthood. I remember during a subsequent phone conversation telling you about the conversation with Dawn and just like the creole spitfire that you were, you said something like, “Dawn should mind her own business.”
Following Timothy’s phone call, my California roommates, people I barely knew, tried to console me. We were 20 and 21-year old college students. Strangers on an adventure together experiencing our first summer away from home. We had scored one of the choice college summer internships with a chance to work at a Fortune 100 company and live in the heart of sunny Los Angeles. Even with all that, we were really just kids playing adult in a grown up world. None of us had contemplated our own mortality or even our parents’ for that matter. But your sudden passing made all five of us look death in the face. Yet none of us, especially me, were emotionally or physically able to see the reflection.
Four hours after Timothy delivered the news, Karli and I arrived at the Los Angeles International airport boarding a plane to Chicago. At some point, I came to the realization that I was going home to bury you and would now face a new life, a life that would no longer include you. A life I had never ever contemplated before and certainly not that morning when I woke up. Karli joined me because Dawn knew I should not take this trip alone. As I sobbed the entire four-hour plane ride, Karli held my hand, rubbed my back and kept a steady supply of tissues. I vaguely remember her apologizing to nearby passengers as they looked at me with empathy and wretched sadness. I remember landing in Chicago at O’Hare and getting off the plane red-faced with swollen eyes. I remember walking down the jet-way and thinking that, “this was a dream or a practical joke.” My beautiful mother with the quick smile and infectious laugh couldn’t be dead. Surely, when I reached the end of that corridor, my imperfect family and you would be waiting for me in the terminal. This was pre-911 so non-flying individuals could enter security and wait for passengers at the gate. I can still see that walk. It looks like slow motion because my head and heart kept telling me this is a dream. When I finally arrived in the terminal and saw the faces of your friends and the minister who would eventually eulogize your short life a week later, I lost all feeling in my legs because, in that moment, I understood it was true. They were closer to the age I am now so even though they were telling me it would be okay and that I will survive this, they must have thought: “How will she go on?” “How will she make it through college without her mom while also caring for a depressed dad and a distant brother?” “Who will help her find and furnish her first apartment?” Maybe the idea of shopping for a wedding dress without you was just too painful for any of us to visualize.
They drove me from the airport to Pat and Charles’ house, two of you and Dad’s closest friends. During high school, I had spent days running through the two floors of their house playing hide and go seek with their son Chris and goddaughter Ankhe while the adults watched Michael Jordan and the Bulls bring yet another Championship to our windy City. Pat’s house was indeed a comfortable place for me but it wasn’t home. I think everyone was afraid to take me to our home. Naturally, I was inconsolable and no one thought I could handle my childhood home and all those memories. Maybe they were right but something was pulling me there. I demanded to go; I wanted to go home! I wanted to be near your jewelry, clothing and scent because somehow I felt like those memories would comfort me. Give me something real and tangible to hold onto because everything right then seemed to be snatched away from me, everything felt so surreal.
Reluctantly, they finally drove me home. To your “aspirational” house we moved into the summer before I entered the 5th grade, the house that I had my first kiss, the house where you and Daddy hosted my high school graduation party on the same day I backed out of the driveway and hit the city trustee’s old car, the house everyone would return to after your burial, the house that would never again quite feel like the home you left. Memory is a funny thing. I vividly remember the walk off the plane but I don’t quite remember the drive from Pat & Charles’ house to our house located in a cookie cutter Chicago suburban community. The type of neighborhood where every other house looks the same and neighbors know each other by name. The first levels are mostly brick with 2 car garages and open floor plans including a kitchen overlooking the family room with a big television, a formal living room no one ever used, a dining room and one powder room. There is a center staircase leading you to the second level where the bedrooms are located. My bedroom is above the garage and faces the street. Growing up as a latchkey kid, the rumbling in my room as the garage door went up was my signal to turn off the television, put away anything I didn’t want you and Dad to see and finish any chores I needed to do before you parked the car and made it inside. While I can’t remember exactly, but because I know how you and daddy kept a house, I’m most assured on that warm June day, the grass was green as a new carpet, the trees were perfectly pruned and there were terracotta plants of colorful mums leading to the front door and around the perimeter of the garage.
Walking through that solid brown wood door felt safe and familiar. We all have a routine when we go home, especially if it’s a place you have laid your head most of your life. No matter what happens, you go through that routine. Turn off the alarm system. Check the mail. Drop your keys in the same dish by the garage door. For my family, it was then to check the answering machine. In 1997, answering machines were prehistoric boxes plugged directly into the phone jack. When someone left a message, a red light exhibited angry rapid blinks to indicate messages. You press play to hear the message through a speaker. No secret voice mails in those days. Everyone knew your business. Ironically, on that answering machine was a message from me in California to you and dad. I was asking where you were. I hadn’t spoken to you in a few days. I had forgotten that you had taken a trip to the Bahamas with friends. Later, dad told me that you said something so odd the day before you died. While laying at the pool, he looked over at you and said, “You haven’t spoke to Jacqueline in days.” We had a family joke about how much we talked. You looked over at him and said, “This would be good for her. She is going to have to learn not to depend on me so much.” I don’t think you had any idea you would die less then twenty-four hours later but maybe something or someone was preparing us both for that summer. When I listened to my message to you on our family answering machine, Daddy had not shared this pool conversation with me yet as he was still in the Bahamas dealing with the autopsy report, death certificate and how to get your body back into the United States with the looming July 4th holiday quickly approaching. It is an unsettling experience to listen to a message left for someone who died. Although you never actually heard it, my sentiment to you remains the same: “Hey mom and dad. I haven’t talked to you in days. Where are you? Call me back.” 19 years later, there are still days where I’m waiting for you to call me back.
Every woman I know has a story. You had one and so do I. On August 6, 1947, just seven years after the start of the second great migration, you were the last child born to a carpenter and a maid in an acutely segregated Alexandria, Louisiana. You were born the same year Jackie Robinson played his inaugural game for the Brooklyn Dodgers becoming the first black professional baseball player in 60 years. And the same year that President Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the armed forces. You were just 7 years old the year white men killed Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman and the year Rosa Parks infamously refused to give up her seat on a bus.
In 1964, at 17 years old, you migrated North from small town Louisiana to midwestern Chicago with my grandparents. Growing up, I remember you refused to watch shows like Roots or documentaries about the civil rights movement because they stirred up memories of growing up in a segregated south. Daddy would tease you about being so sensitive. You would snap back that you didn’t find lynching and “for colored only” stories interesting because you grew up with that fear and humiliation. Despite your emotional feelings about the segregated South, you had no desire to leave Louisiana for Michigan. You begged and pleaded with your parents to leave you behind with your oldest sibling to finish high school. Even though you despised that the South stood for hatred, death and racism, you maintained and passed down to me a love for creole culture and food.
After migrating North, in 1965, you would go on to graduate Dowagiac High School (DHS), a mostly white school located in southwestern Michigan. Despite being the new kid and one of the only blacks, you entered some type of all-female beauty contest during that one year at DHS. Daddy remembers that you came in 2nd or 3rd place. Although you obviously were a beautiful woman, the fact that you even entered this contest during a time in our nation’s history where race relations were so divided demonstrates your courage and conviction. My dad always says you believed, “Anything anybody else can do, you can do.” I am most assured this attitude got you into some trouble, but I am also sure it brought you the greatest joys and triumphs.
In 1967, three years after you left Louisiana and when you were 20 years old, you met my father in Vandalia, Michigan at Loretta and Lionel’s house on Paradise Lake. While no one has ever told me the full details, I can only imagine that your pretty smile, easy laugh, full hips and sassy attitude caught his attention immediately. Over the next thirty years, you and daddy would marry, blend families, raise three children together and become successful entrepreneurs. Notably, in July 1979, when I was just 2 and you were only 32 years old, you and daddy purchased our family’s lake house on Paradise Lake, only about a quarter of mile from where you and he met 12 years earlier. To describe it as a 3 story lake front home with 5 bedrooms, 2 kitchens, a full bar and 4 car garage on a double lot makes it sound far grander than I remember. It will always be a country home where you and daddy escaped the hustle and bustle of city life for casual living and good times with friends and family. “Michigan,” as our family fondly calls the lake house with its open door policy, would become the cornerstone of so many of my childhood memories. I learned to swim, water-ski, fish and skip rocks in the lake. Michigan was where you taught me the cut-throat rules of Bid Whist during an all-nighter at one of your famous summer parties. You were a consummate hostess. My love of entertaining and filling a home with family and friends stems from watching you and daddy graciously host raucous parties in Michigan weekend after weekend. If only those walls could talk, the stories they would tell!
Sadly, on that June 1997 day, your story ends and mine begins. At a young 49 years old with so much life left to live and so many parties left to throw, you suffered an accidental and tragic death. While on vacation with my dad in the Bahamas, you choked to death on the floor of your hotel room. As I have heard the story told so many times, you laid in bed that evening and started coughing which usually meant your asthma was bothering you. You got up and took a couple puffs of your prescription inhaler and then a few sips of coke to clear your throat. A short time later, you lost consciousness and ended up on the hotel floor. Dad frantically called the hotel management and friends traveling with you. Because everyone thought you were having an extreme asthma attack, they were giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Little did they know, you had coughed up a small piece of undigested food from your earlier lunch and it was lodged in your throat closing off air to your lungs. It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. By the time the emergency medical team showed up, you were already gone. You were one-month shy of your 50th Birthday and I was 20 years old. On that day, you transitioned to heaven as an angel and I transitioned from a child to an adult.
Your story ended to soon and I still needed you. But you raised a tough cookie and I’m figuring it out. The day after I returned to Chicago to bury you, I realized that in my hurry to pack in California that I didn’t bring any underwear or bras. Ankhe and her mom, Aunt Selma, drove me around the corner to the mall to pick up a few underthings. When we walked into Victoria Secret, the sales lady asked me my bra size. Realizing I had no idea, I briefly paused and immediately started sobbing. I’m sure that Selma and Ankhe thought I was just still in shock as it had only been about 24 hours since Timothy called me in California. But really, I sobbed not for your death, but rather for how much I had lost. How much I would have to learn. I didn’t know my bra size because I had never bought myself bras. You took care of that detail in my life like you took care of pretty much every other detail. I remember Ankhe turning to her mom and whispering, “How will she do this?” I know the answer now, “Day by Day.” This “blogazine” is a testimony and diary of that learning process. Here, I rip down the walls and document everything from home décor to food, from fitness to my sincere commitment to give back. My hope is that I will motivate another person trying to “figure it out” and live a life well lived.
When people ask about where I am in the stage of grief, I respond with the answer that I’m coping. I have not healed. I often discuss these feeling with my sister-friend Lauren who also lost her mom very young. We both agree that this type of loss creates a wound that’s so deep and painful that it never fully heals. It scabs over at times, for days, months, maybe even a year. But the strangest interaction will pull that scab completely off where I feel like the loss just happened. I am instantly 20 years old again and back in the summer of 1997. Maybe it’s a hurtful email from someone who disappoints me, maybe it’s watching my friend dance with her mother at her wedding or maybe it’s hearing that another young woman just lost her mom. And it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Maybe the scab isn’t yanked off where I find myself in a dribbling mess. Maybe something seemingly insignificant happens like a memory or a smell which sprinkles a little lemon juice over the wound reminding me the pain still lives inside me, “so don’t get comfortable.”
Your untimely death defines my life. It shapes who I am, both good and bad. Once upon a time, I thought I might not survive the grief, that I might not ever know love or have real friendships. My unspoken fear was that the sadness and loneliness would so consume me where I would never know true joy. But the reality is that your death gives me life. It provides perspective and has taught me courage. My sincere hope is that by sharing our story, maybe it will help others who need courage to heal. I strip my façade and lay myself naked here, sharing the lessons learned in hope that our story will spark this same courage in someone else. Courage to continue the fight against cancer. Courage to get through a tough divorce with dignity. Courage to the parent standing over their child’s casket looking for the strength to leave their baby in the cemetery. Courage to the young person who must put distance between his or her unhealthy home life to accomplish the dreams no one understands. I stand here as bare and naked as the day you birthed me into this world in an effort to inspire the single truth I have learned in the last 19 years. Humanity is not determined by what we do when life is sweet. Absolutely not. The true test happens when life gives you that blow. Do you have the courage to keep going? The courage to make hard choices? The courage to love yourself first and fight for joy, peace and understanding?
I share my story, which is not one of pain and loss but rather hope and survival, with every individual who finds themselves in the eye of the storm. On some days, the sadness and loneliness overwhelms me and other days it feels like a distant memory. Either way, I always strive to tell my truth honestly and authentically. I never sugar coat it for anyone. Because of that, your untimely death is not my Achilles heel but rather my biggest strength. I manage this story; it does not manage me. I remind myself everyday that I deserve love. I deserve understanding. I am resilient. I am a survivor. Your sudden death definitively changed who I was and what you and I both thought I would become. It is a moment in time where everything stopped and I was literally brought to my knees. It is the moment where the universe forced me to start really living. As I said recently at my 39th Birthday Party, “My daily prayer is that I have grown into a woman and am living a life where you can rest in heaven and be proud to call me daughter.”
Until next time and always with love,