I met her when I was five. The first thing I noticed was her smile. It was as wide and bright as a rainbow, and inside it held a little golden tooth. I immediately loved her.
My parents had just divorced and she was mommy’s new roommate. She was beautiful, and her smile, well, it was impossible to not reciprocate her smile. I remember purple Mary Kay eye shadow, rosy cheeks, high heels, a kitten sleeping in her underwear drawer, hot rollers. I remember that she told me secrets.
I don’t know how long she lived with us, but when she moved out, I missed her. Then one Saturday, at my Dad’s apartment she was introduced as ‘Daddy’s girlfriend’. I remember they french kissed a lot, and we always hung out at the apartment’s pool. She had a blue parakeet. I remember that my Dad was always photographing her.
I remember being happy.
They were married in the basement of her parent’s church. I remember a punch bowl, and wedding mints, and old ladies making small talk. I remember that she was beautiful in burgundy satin and lace. I remember my dad’s suit, his tinted eye-glasses, his grease-stained nails.
I remember driving around in the red Honda Prelude, blasting Whitney Houston on the stereo, scream-singing the lyrics as the sunroof winds tangled our hair. She loved that car. More often than not, we’d end up at the mall, at the make-up counter — It seemed she was always out of lip gloss.
Once, on the way home, she pointed toward a kudzu-covered trailer, marked with the cross. “Those people speak to God through snakes.” she told me.
Sometimes, she’d smile so wide, so sparkling-wide, that tears would seep from her eyes. Like that huge beautiful smile, with the golden tooth, wasn’t quite big enough to cover her well of sadness.
I remember the way my dad looked at her; the two of them pressed up against the car door, kissing. I remember how her Mother emphasized the step in step-grandchildren, just to be clear. I remember thin white cigarettes, and plastic tablecloths.
I remember her long, polished fingernails, and sitting by the bathtub while she shaved. I remember playing Uno at the kitchen table with her friend who was covered in freckles, and surrounded by owls.
I knew that her demons came calling from time to time. She chased them away with God, and alcohol and pot and cocaine and alcohol and God and pills and shopping and alcohol and God. But still, they called for her.
I remember trips to the beach. Waterskiing at the lake. I remember her blowdrying her hair, and applying waterproof makeup in the campground bathroom. I remember more secrets. “Ssh, don’t tell your dad,” she’d say as she wrote a check, handing it to the lady behind the Esteè Lauder counter. I remember the diet pills, and the sadness I sometimes glimpsed when she smiled.
One day as I sat enthralled, watching her put on makeup — a ritual that could take her hours — she pulled a diamond engagement ring from her jewelry box. “This is from my first husband,” she said. “I’ll never be able to have my own daughter, and I want you to have it.” I knew I was too young for a diamond ring, but I didn’t say so.
I remember driving through covered bridges, her curly hair, her cousin’s swimming pool where I learned to do a back dive. I remember hearing her crying in the bathroom. I worried about her. I wondered if her demons had come calling again.
I heard the angry whispers about returned checks, and I saw the rolled up dollar bill, accidentally left on the coffee table at her brother’s house. I smelled the solo-cups full of Bacardi, heard the muffled arguments coming from behind the locked bedroom door. I remember the pinkish color of her wine.
After the divorce, she called me on the phone. She told me she loved me, and that she loved my dad. She told me she was sorry. I mostly just nodded to the phone. Then she told me I was going to hell because I didn’t believe Jesus was my savior. Even then, as a teenager, I didn’t believe in hell. Even then, I knew - God is the Love that we carry in our hearts. “I’ll miss you.” I said. “I’ll pray for you,” she replied.
Later, I would wonder if it was she who stole the diamond ring out of my bedroom during my sister’s wedding reception.
Three or four years pass before I see her again. My sister and I drove out to the Italian restaurant where she was hostessing. She told us about her new husband, with the same first name as her first two husbands. “He’s good to me,” she said with a smile. I’d hoped it was true.
More years pass. I hear only fragments about her life through the grapevine. Her husband was abusive, she was divorced and drinking, living with her brother, living at home with her parents. It sounded too sad to witness.
Almost two decades pass. Then one day, a red message light indicating a friend request on Facebook. She is smiling at me through my computer screen, her golden tooth as sparkly as ever. She was full of apologies that I didn’t need to hear. “You were good to me,” I tell her. I can read the tears of relief in her replies. “I love you,” she says. “You’re beautiful. You’re an angel.”
She said she was in recovery. She was going to church. “I’m not the person I was years ago. Thank God!” She was mourning her brother’s suicide.
She found love. A high school reunion rekindled a teenage crush. They looked happy, living there by the ocean. He was diagnosed with cancer just before they married, and died a few months later. Sometimes I worried about her.
A few days ago, she posted a picture of herself enjoying an ice cream cone by the sea. I smiled back at the screen, at her beautiful radiant smile. Yesterday, I woke to the news of her death. My second Facebook death notice this month. As soon as I saw the RIP posts, I knew. I knew she’d decided she was done.
I knew she’d made the decision to fly away.
She updated her Facebook cover photo recently with a picture of her husband's tombstone, their shared grave marker. His name, birthday, and date of death on the left. Her name, and birthdate on the right, with the date of death left blank; an empty space, waiting to be filled. A bouquet of flowers and a little balloon with I Miss You spelled out in a fancy font. Her most recent posts were upbeat, positive. She was always doting on her nieces and nephews, and the littlest babies in her family. Just last week she told me she loved me, and missed me. She was proud of me. I believed her.
People say suicide is selfish. They say it’s ugly, it’s curable, it’s wrong. They say it’s a sure path to hell.
I think about the young woman with terminal cancer who made headlines recently. She moved to Oregon so she could legally, gracefully, willingly end her life before the pain of her disease became too great. America fell in love with her. She graced the cover of magazines. We listened to her stories, and collectively, we prayed for her gentle passing. We tried to imagine the sacrifice her family made in letting her go.
We understood there was no cure for her disease. We called her brave. And quietly, we were thankful it wasn’t us.
What if instead of terminal cancer, she'd been diagnosed with a terminally broken heart? Would she have still appeared on talk shows to discuss her end of life plans? Would we have force fed her prescriptions and locked her away in a resident home? Telling her that there, locked away, she'd be safe from the pain.
Maybe we’d be able listen to her story. Listen as she tried to describe the pain, the anguish of living with a broken heart. The fear of the demons that have chased her for six decades. Maybe we’d understand that there was no cure, no remedy, no medication, no treatment for her illness. Maybe we’d understand that her disease — her broken heart — was going to slowly, painfully kill her.
Maybe we’d honor her decision to willingly end her life just before her sixtieth birthday, understanding that the pain and torture of her disease would chase her, scared and afraid and alone, into old age. Maybe we’d have the courage to call her brave even.
Maybe we’d have the strength to hold her in light, and sing to her… you are loved, you are loved, you are loved…
You are free.
And maybe, just before she took flight, she’d hear it. And she'd know.