Mental Health Matters: Suppression

My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.

Journey to the Center of My Heart: Trusting My Inner Voice

The year after my mother died, my father packed up all of my belongings in trash bags and sent me to live with my maternal grandmother. I was seventeen. One day after I’d gotten settled, I confided a feeling I’d had.

“I’m going to write a book,” I said with a smile.

“Oh yeah?” She asked. “About what?”

“About my mother’s death.”

“You think you’re the only whose mother’s died?” She replied.

feedback_opinionI want to share this with you, not to bash my grandmother. Twenty-seven years later, I know that people’s conversations and comments have little to do with me. I’m sharing this with you because I never wrote about my mother. Her response led me to believe that not only was my topic one in a million, but that no one else would want to read it.

So I didn’t write it. In fact, I didn’t write much of anything for the next 25 years.

I became a high-school English teacher, got two more degrees, and became an education professor.

The urge to write crept back around 2014. I asked my little sister friend to create this very WordPress site for me. She did. I took it from there and learned the ins and outs of blogging. I continued to follow my intuition. Blogging gave me more writing confidence. Blogging 101 and 201 gave me more tools and knowledge. Following people like Janice Wald gave me more tips.

2015 rolled around. My dad died. I felt a flurry of emotions and another urge of intuition: Write about it. This time I didn’t tell anyone, not one soul. I sat in my stepmother’s guest bedroom and wrote the entire story of our failed relationship from 1989 to his death in 2015. I included all of the murky, emotional details that people rarely want to discuss or feel. By the last keystroke, I felt satisfied. But it was too long for a blog post (that’s something Janice Wald taught me).

I broke it up into five separate posts and called it a series; that’s something I learned in Blogging 101 or 201. The response was positive and endearing. Once again, this validated a choice I’d made to follow my heart.

A few months later, I had another stroke of intuition: Find a local writers group. I sought out the Florida Writers Association and considered entering their annual writing contest. Mek, a blogging friend I’d written with had been taking writing courses. She read The Transition and offered genuine suggestions.

I entered the contest and won first place for Creative Nonfiction of an unpublished piece. Did I need to win to prove I should follow my heart? Not really. I’d already felt good by simply writing it. But there’s no doubt my choice to write was again validated.

Now I had an “award-winning” piece of literature. It came in handy when the Still I Rise Grant required three writing samples. And although I didn’t win, as some of you remember, Alternating Current/The Coil published that piece during Father’s Day weekend.

Furthermore, Alternating Current then nominated The Transition for Best of the Net.

meditating_1This is just one example of why I’m adamant about listening to your inner voice and tuning others’ out. This is why I almost beg people to follow their hearts. Those feelings, voices, visions, or whatever come to you, they’re not accidental. They are specific nuances sent to guide you towards what you and only you should be doing.

Furthermore, I finally realize my grandmother was right. I’m not the only person whose mother (and father) have died. However, I’ve also recognized my ability to string words together that convey relatable feelings for people who’ve been through similar experiences. Today, I’m glad sharing about my life through writing has not only helped others, but also shaped a clear path for me as I continue to follow my heart.

Rascal (RIP 3/23/16)

Denial – I knew he was sick. But I didn’t think he was that sick. Sure, cataracts blinded him, but that didn’t mean death. In fact, I was working on an inspirational post to show how pets don’t let illness ruin them. Rascal ran up and down the stairs just like normal; he didn’t mope about because of his visual impairment. However, about three months ago, he’d started vomiting. It wasn’t a lot, but throwing up is a sign. The vet had switched him to a prescription dog food. He refused the dry. He loved the wet. Still, he threw up. By the time I’d taken him back for a wellness visit, he was six pounds and his skeletal structure poked through his apricot fur. Dr. B. guessed that it was lymphoma of the intestines. But I still didn’t think the vet would suggest euthanizing him.

Bargaining – I should’ve taken him to the vet sooner. I should’ve been a better pet owner and friend. I wished I could’ve done more for Rascal. I snapped out of these thoughts. I cared for Rascal close to twelve years and I wasn’t going to let the last three months dictate my dedication. None of us holds the fate of another being in our hands, no matter how intertwined we become.

Anger – No, I didn’t want a “replacement dog,” as my best friend suggested. No, I wasn’t going to get a fish tank, as the mail lady recommended. Fish and dogs are not remotely similar. No, I didn’t want to talk about it and re-live trauma over and over again. And no, I didn’t want to be cheered up. Unlike many, I’m comfortable being sad and angry because I know it won’t last forever. No emotion does.

Depression – I take that back. I’d never felt so much pain for so long in all my life. Uncontrollable sadness ruled me for a few days. My mother died 27 years prior. My father died less than a year ago. I’ve attended a barrage of funerals in between. But I never could’ve predicted the heartache associated with losing Rascal. I thought I would sit in the car and quietly weep. You know, poetic-like? I didn’t. I wailed. I made noises I didn’t know existed. The person who always has it together, who analyzes death as a part of life, who writes about attachment and detachment as natural occurrences could not stop crying. It continued throughout the day when I felt compelled to walk a deceased Raz that evening. It persisted the next morning when I opened the blinds and porch door for an absent Rascal to sit outside. I held myself together long enough to teach, and then when the last student left, tears streamed down my face. Surely, this would end. I just didn’t know when.

Acceptance – You never think about your own dog actually dying. I didn’t, anyway. The day he was euthanized, I washed all of his belongings and donated them to the Humane Society. I knew it was an important step in my grieving process. I thought about how grateful I was to be able to have a dog that fit our family. I’d chosen a Toy Poodle due to Dwight’s allergies. He was little and smart, just like the rest of us. He cuddled with Desi when she rested, and when Kesi allowed him to, he slept in his favorite place, a blanket next to her bed. He traveled many states because if I could bring Raz with me, then I did. I suppose that’s why there was an outpouring of love when I announced it on Facebook. If you know me, then you knew Rascal. I’m grateful that I experienced pet-owner love. People say pets are like family, but I disagree, if you welcome a pet into your home, then s/he probably is family. I know Rascal was.

img_0629RIP Rascal (April 15, 2004-March 23, 2016)

Death of a Tree

Do you know what this is?

It’s what’s left of this. IMG_3263

I started to wait until April 29th. But my broken heart wouldn’t allow room for a gimmicky Arbor Day post.

This tree and I fell in love last autumn. It was Inspiring Image #16. That’s where my empathy stems from. My camera and I had connected with its barrenness. All of its leaves had fallen, as is customary for trees during this time of year. It looked beautiful, not battered. And it certainly didn’t look like it should be destroyed. Branch by branch.

I looked forward to seeing its spring blossoms during our Sunday walks. I looked forward to the bright leaves that would fill its arms. I looked forward to sharing a glimpse of its showering green and newfound beauty. We were going to re-connect, this tree and I. It would show off its regeneration and I would stand under it, awed by the natural recurrence of rebirth. Our energies renewed by one another.

But no.

It was February 23rd. One man leaned lazily against its trunk. Another stood on the sidewalk, sizing tree up. Still, another sat atop a yellow machine. Its neck rose higher and higher. Orange cones and yellow tape surrounded the scene. Maybe they’re just removing the lone damaged branch, I thought. Hope against hope. I’ve always loathed that phrase. Wouldn’t the two cancel each other out, leaving no hope at all?

Upon my return, I’d ask them what they were doing. An hour and a half later, and like a stage-play, the setting had changed. All that remained was a stump.

“Did you take a picture?” Dwight asked.

“I didn’t. I couldn’t.”

Eventually, I could. And I did. The stump saddened me. Remaining scattered woodchips seemed irreverent. Couldn’t they have cleaned up better? A lopsided hew appeared haphazard. All of that machinery couldn’t produce a clean cut? Who has time for discriminate chops when there’s more of nature to disassemble? Who has time for anything when one’s job is to destroy trees that are minding their own business, waiting for spring, like you and me?

February 26th, the tree guy was back.

“Hey,” I yelled out of my car’s window. “There was a big tree down there, remember? You guys just tore it down.”

“Oh yeah,” the left corner of his mouth crept half a smile. “It was dead.”


“Yeah. Really dead.”

Shows what I know. I guess tree’s time on this earth had ended long ago and I had been marveling at its carcass. Hmmmph.

*Fall and Death

Royalty Free Image
Royalty Free Image
Why can’t we welcome death the way that we welcome fall? Each is a transition of sorts.

Autumn is more beautiful and less hurtful. Remnants of reds, oranges and yellows are comforting, even if leaves are dying. Fall symbolizes cooler weather and special spiced lattes. It represents pumpkins and caramel apples.

While a person’s life may be celebrated as magnificent, rarely is his or her death.

We can anticipate fall. This year it began on September 23rd at 4:21 A.M. The almanac predicted and told us when to prepare for our weather’s shift. We can arrange a convenient time to pack our shorts and sandals and replace empty drawer space with sweaters.

But we can’t do the same with loved ones. After all, no one knows for whom the bell tolls. Plus, friends and family hold a special place in our hearts. People are irreplaceable. Summer yields a different emotional connection. Sure you can love June and July and what those months bring, but not like your favorite aunt. So although fall is a sort of onset of death, it will always receive a warmer welcome.

Should we stop comparing nature to life’s events? Or should we begin seeing life’s transitions as we do other natural events? The answer isn’t clear. The answer rarely is.

*This is inspired by a few memes I saw comparing fall to humans’ physical death. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about because a lot of celebrity preachers use nature comparisons to inspire. I’m still trying to figure out if comparing these two is really appropriate. Feel free to comment as I work it out.

Seven Lessons Reiterated in Seven Days

Re-blogging this in honor of my dad’s birthday, which is today. He’d be thrilled to know he was the subject of something so public.

On July 18, 2015, we laid my daddy’s physical body to rest. He had battled cancer for the previous three years. His death became more than imminent seven days prior. As a result, I was more involved with him and my family in ways that I hadn’t been in the past. Consequently, this list developed.

  1. Everyone has his or her own story about you. Each narrative offers the truth based on a different perspective.

My daddy was great for me until the age of 16. For the next 23 years, he and I didn’t have a close relationship. However, the multitude of phone conversations from his other grandkids implied that he was a wonderful father figure to his stepchildren and their children. For 21 years, he nurtured them and built relationships. Neither of these stories is “wrong.” Each one is just different.

  1. Accept someone’s apology before they apologize.

Three years ago, my daddy sat me down and apologized for not doing something simple for over 20 years: calling and making time for me. In my mind, I never thought he’d come to an understanding about our relationship, so I had created and accepted a mental apology from him years ago (something I saw Iyanla do). By the time we sat down, I was able to actually listen to him with my whole heart, instead of offering “my side” of things.

  1. If someone has decided to make an effort, then those current actions should matter.

For a large part of my life, my father always told me and everyone else he knew that he loved me, but his actions never matched. According to him, the “threat of mortality” made him call, text and Skype me as much as possible over the course of his final three years. Communication increased for that short time and these are the actions by which I choose to remember him.

  1. When you get to the end of your life, you don’t get to add more time.

I kept overhearing my stepmother describe how daddy just wanted a little more time. I imagine that no matter what we do in life, if we’re close to death, we’re going to want to barter for more time. But the reality is that none of us can. There is no 25th hour. The best we can do is plan for tomorrow, but live for today.

  1. You don’t have the right to tell someone how to live his or her life and you certainly don’t have the right to dictate how someone dies.

While in the hospital, my dad decided to stop eating. My stepmother honored his wishes by not offering an IV. Ultimately, this accelerated the rate of his cancer, and ultimately, his death. There were many who felt this an inconvenience and wanted her to do otherwise. We don’t have the right to suggest, tell or judge one’s life or death choices. Ever.

  1. There’s a difference between not being able to do something and not wanting to do something. Be honest about which you’re professing.

The past few days, I’ve observed quite a few people state what they can’t do. The reality is many of us should change the word “can’t” to “I don’t want to.” A lot of times it’s inaccurate to say “I can’t do fill-in-the-blank,” when most of the time, my friends, we can do whatever we set our minds to.

  1. Be compassionate. Be considerate.

Many people I associate with have the ability to see themselves in others. These people felt empathy at this time and attempted to understand what losing two parents might feel like. I’m grateful for them and how they communicated with me over the past seven days. They were considerate, and as a result made my life a little easier. In every situation, be compassionate; be considerate. It goes a long way.


Releasing the Fear of Death

I used to fear death. But not anymore. Today, I fear nothing.

I used to fear death because there was an unknown. I’m a planner. And there’s nothing worse for an agenda carrying, iPhone calendar-syncing girl than the unknown.

Death is about as unknown as you can get. Think about it. Who can really tell us what will happen after death? Sure, if you’re religious, then you’ll re-tell stories based upon what’s written in holy books. But you cannot say, unequivocally what will happen when you die. And it was because of this lack of information that I was afraid.

I used to frequent mediums quite a bit. They claimed they could speak to my spirit mother. I believed them. Not just because I wanted to believe them, but rather, because they would often re-tell information one could only know if they lived with me or in my head. I trusted one in particular, so I decided to ask her opinion.

“So what happens when you die?”
“Well, you float around and visit your loved ones.”

That seemed a bit strange to me. If I were to die tomorrow, the last thing I would want to do is hang around my living family members all day. I think I’d rather go visit places that I didn’t get to when I was alive. Like the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal would be a nice place to visit in spirit form. My great aunt sitting on her couch watching The Price is Right? Not so much.

I feared death so much that I made my husband promise to come back and haunt me should he die first. To be fair, I told him I’d do the same (on my way to the Taj Mahal).

He was confused, yet willing. “What do you want me to do when I come back?”
“Just let me know what’s going on over there. You know…warn me. Do I need to go to church, or is what we did okay? It’s the least you can do, since I’ll be alive and all” I said.

He agreed.

One of my good friends is from South Carolina. When I told her that I was planning to be cremated, she shook her head violently.

“Girlll, that’s against our culture,” she warned.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“We believe we might need our bodies later. So we have to bury them. We believe that when we’re raised from the dead, then we’ll need our bodies to travel.”
“Well, which body do you get?” I asked.
“Do you get the one you died in or do you get to choose? Cause I would want my 23 year-old body,” I joked.
She nodded in agreement and we shared a laugh.

I used to fear death. But not anymore.

I slowly began to release any fear after I heard an Einstein quote. He said that “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” That’s true, right? Water can freeze, but it’s not destroyed. Even a caterpillar eats milkweed in order to be nourished and complete a metamorphosis; the milkweed isn’t destroyed though. It becomes a part of the caterpillar.

This is what comforts me. Believing that each of us are just energy completing our own life’s cycle. And if this is true, then there’s no need to fear completion because it’s just changing from one form to another.

And if by chance I get to see the Taj Mahal, then that’ll be cool too.