*This is a work of fiction, inspired by real events
He was a beautiful man, with profound eyes filled with pools of copper and a jawline so sharp it stung to look at. I met him through mutual friends – we were at one of those free music festivals Atlanta loves to throw during the spring. “Bijan,” he answered, unsmiling, when I asked for his name.
I had to ask again to hear him over the off-tune indie band playing nearby and the surrounding cliques’ overlapping conversations. I grinned. “Does that mean you’re my hero?” I teased, playing on the Farsi meaning of the name, trying to help him relax. I know what anxiety is like. He merely grimaced and replied, “Yeah.”
My girlfriend smiled sheepishly at our exchange. “Bijan comes from Persian parents as well. I thought I’d introduce you, because Middle Easterners can only date each other, right?” That was a joke, I learned later that evening – Bijan was gay.
We went out for dinner after the festival ended. I ordered spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, while he opted for mozzarella cheese sticks and a dirty martini. “Yeah,” he said, between licking the salt off an olive, “I used to have a boyfriend. Handsome, tall fellow. A godsend in the gay community – to find a guy who wanted to be exclusive AND was ‘manly’ enough for me to take home without having to come out? Bless. Things didn’t work out, though. It is what it is.”
Bijan wasn’t actually from Atlanta. His parents lived in Nashville; he was here doing his Master’s in Public Health at Emory. He wanted to help impoverished men and women of color in urban communities with commonplace STI’s receive necessary treatment and prevention. Bijan was an intelligent student, but didn’t receive enough funding for his studies. Fortunately, his parents were wealthy enough to fund his degree, housing, and other needs while he built the foundation for his life.
I was fond of Bijan. We didn’t hang out much after that night, but we made time to get cappuccinos or go to shows a handful of times over the next few months. Those few times, we talked (argued) about religion, local occurrences, and epidemiology. I admired him for his pure intentions – he truly believed he could “make the world a better place” through his research, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles world health organizations often faced, like lack of funding or permission to send aid into certain areas. He had faith that goodness would prevail. But that faith appeared to be nonexistent when it pertained to his own life.
“Yeah, my parents have a list of women for me to meet in the occasion I don’t bring one home before I turn 27,” he’d lament. “Muslim, or Coptic Christian. They really expect me to carry the family name, because I am the ‘man of the family.’ Pardis, my only sister, is older than me, but she eloped with a guitar player a few years ago. Extraordinarily cliché, but aren’t we all? I don’t know where she is now. Anyway, they’ve cut her off and now it’s just me and Parsa, who is still in the 7th grade.”
Bijan spoke quickly, like he wanted to get a confession with a sheikh or priest over with, like I was about to assign him a punishment for simply existing. “They can’t get over the fact that they came here from Iran to have a better life, that they managed to literally go from rags to riches with their business, and they still managed to have a ‘fuck-up’ for a daughter. It puts so much pressure on me and Parsa to be great, to be venerable characters in the narrative they’ve imagined and ingrained in their heads. It’s why, despite the legalization, I will never be able to marry the man I love.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You know, I haven’t made many friends I like here. It’s hard for me to trust people. I feel like everyone lets me down. But I guess telling you all this doesn’t really make a difference.” Bijan confused me sometimes, as well, but when I prompted him for an explanation, he rarely conceded. I chose to enjoy his company, nonetheless, and take what he would give me.
I never got the sense that Bijan was a particularly happy individual, despite his aspirations and fertile inner life. Then again, very few are. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the letter I received early this year from – of all people- Bijan’s mother, stating that he had killed himself and left me a note. She didn’t write anything else, except that she hoped that Bijan hadn’t portrayed her and her husband as ‘bad people’ to me, and that they had tried their hardest to do everything they could for their beloved son.
I hope this letter reaches you well, given the circumstances. If you’re reading this, I am gone. There is nothing you could have done. I want to thank you for being a wonderful friend during the short time we knew each other. In a different life, with different neurobiology, I might have loved you more than a friend. Alas, it was not meant to be.
I write this, because I want you to know. I need to validate to myself that my act is not entirely selfish.
When I was 23, I contracted HIV from a hookup. At least, I want to think it was from a hookup. Unless my ex cheated on me, then I got it from him. It doesn’t really matter though.
Yeah, yeah, I know: HIV is incredibly treatable, to the point where it doesn’t even have to shorten your life expectancy, you just have to take antivirals and enzyme replacement therapy, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because HIV is the last straw for me. It’s the last straw on top of being atheist, on top of being gay, on top of an unforgiving world. I’ve been ready for this for years – the universe just told me it was time.
My father once said that he would rather me have cancer than an STI. I took that as indication that he would, façade and obligatory consolations aside, honestly prefer me dead than shameful. Everything about me is shrouded in shame. This, my death, is my gift to my parents: they can tell their family I died of a broken heart, of mental illness, of anything else, rather than the ugly truth. And maybe it’s true: maybe I am a product of my own relentless self-destruction, a product of gin, sex, and blasphemy.
I am not blaming anyone. Some people weren’t just meant for this world, not human enough, too human. I truly believe I will find peace after this. I’m going to sleep – for eternity.
With utmost love,
I did cry. Sobbed, in fact. And I was furious, absolutely enraged, at his casual tone in the letter. Did he not understand the depth of his actions? Did he not understand the implications for his family? His poor brother, now all alone in a cruel world?
His mother didn’t leave any contact information in her note, which is just as well. I had no desire to speak about Bijan ever again. I could only imagine how he completed the act- was it here in Atlanta? Did he blow his brains out, leaving his roommate a grotesque final image of him? I shuddered, and prayed to forget Bijan’s beautiful face.
Bijan was an astounding man that touched my life, and broke my heart with his demise. I wish his tale was a unique one, but I know it’s not, because suicide is the leading cause of death among young adults in the developed world, and I know that a high percentage of suicidal individuals never seek help, and I know that many people of color believe suicide, death, is the honorable way to go when they’ve disrespected the culture they come from.
And I wish for the next generation of humans on this planet to be more merciful to the gays, to the different, to each other, and I wish for the next generation of humans on this planet to cater to those who don’t know how to be alive in their communities, or anywhere else. I wish for a more forgiving world, one Bijan could have lived in, flaws and all.
Do you know why people hug when they are in pain? To place a boundary on the suffering. To draw a line where the pain can extend to. Without such a line, one’s agony will push out and is inherently less controllable. I have only experienced this type of embrace once in my life.
As a high schooler, I arrived to school each day before any student and most teachers. This was so I could spend time with one instructor in particular. Every morning, without ever formally communicating with one another, we knew we would both be there. Before even the sun. After having multiple classes with this teacher throughout my high school career, he became a mentor as well as instructor. A friend.
Shortly after the holidays of my senior year, I receive word. The sort of word one does not wish to receive. The sort of word I never heard before. A panic ensued within me, spread from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. It’s the same panic I feel in my hands as I type now, years later.
Immediately following my panic came my guilt. This was a kind of a guilt that was previously unknown to my body. Standing in the middle of a Chick-Fil-A, just after hearing the news, my guilt buckled me over and I grabbed my gut. It was at this point that I could feel my discomfort and pain reaching out in all directions, uncontrollable.
Rushing home, I told my mother the news. It was then that she held me. Held me together in one piece. She drew the line for my pain. I listened intently as she explained to me that there is devastation in the world that is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.
She advised me to not be angry, because there is no sense in focusing on the past or placing blame. Guilt is useless in some scenarios.
After a while, the conversation came to an end. Her words were of comfort. And what remains with me years later is simply the feel of her arms holding me. Not allowing me to crumble. Placing a limit to how much sadness I could feel in those moments.
However, my mother was only able to help me back up. She did not do it single-handedly nor unilaterally. This is where one’s own independence and sentience is the final step to picking oneself up, because people cannot help those who do not wish to help themselves.
It was the combination of my own acceptance and strength working in tandem with my mother’s love that allowed me to move on and limit the guilt I feel on this 3rd anniversary of one of my closest friend’s suicide.
The sky hung heavy in the pines. The dark of night was so dense that even the moon struggled to poke through the branches to illuminate our bodies glistening beneath the frail moonlight.
The whirring of the midnight creatures gave the night a pulse that was felt, and it reverberated through the woods and collected in the air over the expanse of the lake. My grandparents own a small house on Lake Sinclair, and I convinced Giselle to go skinny dipping one night.
I didn’t have ulterior motives, but Giselle floating on the surface of the water gave her an air of infinite peace and made her desirable beyond compare. Her skin was so fair that she seemed to glow, easily outshining the moon.
Even though she was indecent, she emanated a sense of stoic class with the way she turned up her face to the sky to exhale the smoke from her clove cigarette. The smoke clouds couldn’t swim fluidly through the thick air and loomed over her shoulders, giving her the appeal of a black magic witchy woman who casted spells on her subjects for a laugh and put men she desired in trances.
Women like Giselle belong to the night because their beauty is too intense for the light of day, and only they can pierce the black night when the moon is feeling shy.
As the smoke dispersed, her seaweed green eyes gazed out over the lake as if her underwater kingdom bowed before her. Her jaw flexed, concentration broken, and she said, “I wish I could stay here longer.”
“Why can’t you,” I asked.
“Because when that sun comes up, it’s back to reality.”
She scoffed. “This is far from reality. This is the other side. Darkness is always used in comparisons with death, but no one ever considers all that comes alive at night,” she said with eyes reflecting the green of pine needles.
With that, she stood up and walked to the far end of the dock closest to the shore. When she reached the end, she twirled around like a fashion model about to take her first walk down the runway, and then she lunged forward into a full on sprint toward the lake.
Her strides were long with perfect form, landing on the balls of her feet with each step. The snakes on her head were in frenzy and hissed as she picked up speed. As her feet left the edge of the dock, her body lost its mechanical form.
Her head of snakes submerged, and the atmosphere felt calm and fell to a whisper. She floated to the surface and let the water carry her weight for a little while.
It was so late into the night that even the night crawlers were beginning to simmer to a soft pulse. The branches sashayed in the light breeze, and the owls hooted back and forth to each other. Giselle was almost right—this was the other side, but only real for those who listen.
The following composition represents the culmination of around three years of reflections and writings. In 2012, I faced a tragedy that took a great emotional toll on my heart, leaving a scar that would take many months to heal. This article is the story of that tragedy and of the woman that helped me get through it. I have always wanted to thank her for the role she played in my life, and thanks to the encouragement from the Wish Dish program, I am finally seizing the opportunity to put my gratitude into words.
“Now,” Mrs. Taylor said, sliding her copy of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, onto her cluttered podium, “I want all of you to take out your purses and wallets and empty them onto the table in front of you. That’s right – everything: cards, receipts, licenses, everything! Now it’s time to take a look at the things you carry.” Scattering the contents of my authentic Ecuadorian-leather wallet onto my group’s table, I began to examine all of my possessions.
The exercise was intended to help us identify ourselves from merely our current pocket fillings; little did I know that this woman would soon become an integral piece of my identity herself.
Jo Taylor is the ringleader of the circus known as George Walton Academy’s English department. This prestigious menagerie produces an eclectic collaboration of (arguably) the finest writers, poets, and performers that the Atlanta area has to offer. Mrs. Taylor’s proficiency lies with the instruction of Advanced Placement English courses and the production of professional writers and enthusiastic lovers of the drafted arts.
I had been summoned to the front of the gymnasium that evening to receive a certificate for an accomplishment acknowledged by the English department. As I walked across the stage to accept my paper prize, Mrs. Taylor extended a hand in congratulations. Behind a wide smile, she whispered, “I look forward to teaching you next year.” The chill from her cold hands crept over my skin, driving fear into my entire being. For reasons I could not pinpoint, this woman paralyzed me with intimidation.
This dread lingered into Mrs. Taylor’s classroom when I began attending her Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course the next scholastic year. My first impression of Mrs. Taylor as a teacher struck another chord of horror on the first day of class. Most of my teachers from over the years should attest to the claim that I am often quiet during class discussion, as I prefer to listen and find the value in both sides of a debate rather than contribute to the bickering or pick a side.
Naturally, Mrs. Taylor stepped off the wrong foot when she announced that, on the seemingly simple “syllabus day,” our class would immediately play host to a group discussion with a single rule: “If you do not talk, then you fail.”
Thus I survived. The first few months of eleventh grade proved an effective albeit brief period of growth and development, both in and out of the classroom. Yet my true transformation was still underway. “Well,” Mrs. Taylor conceded, peering at us over the rims of her leopard-print glasses, “The first round of descriptive essays was a relative success. Now, let’s move on to describing people.”
In late November, 2012, my fellow AP Language students and I had just completed a descriptive assignment in which we were to describe a location that held sentimental value for us. I had scarcely stapled the pages of my “Savannah Sunrise” essay when Mrs. Taylor had issued the order for a new descriptive assignment, this time calling for the characterization of an influential person in each of our lives.
At first, I considered a revision of a recently submitted narrative in which I would nominate an esteemed track coach as my honorable idol. However, I then recalled a recent visit to Great Oaks Assisted Living Home and my decision came clear.
In my youth, I had often found visiting Grandma Towler more of a dull obligation rather than an exciting opportunity. My brother and cousins would sooner run around the tall grass outside the home, playing Power Rangers or Jedi Knights and leaving the adults to their boring conversations.
But, as I grew into my teenage years, I found myself finding every excuse to swing by Great Oaks, popping in on holidays to trick-or-treat with all of the residents or sneaking into polka concerts in the dining hall (which my grandmother described as “turr-a-bull,” but she was always too polite and social to miss such a function).
As my visits grew more frequent, I began to realize just how fascinating and inspirational Grandma Towler was. We would often settle on the patio behind Great Oaks, relax in the refreshing sun on a chilly autumn afternoon, and watch the koi fish in the small pond. We shared stories about our lives, mine taking place over the previous weeks, hers spanning decades.
One of her favorite tales was of her teaching career a Pleasant Valley School. She taught for thirteen years in the small schoolhouse and she loved her job. The school requested that she teach Algebra, but she knew little to nothing of the subject. So, instead of giving up or forcing her students to teach themselves, she stayed up late every night before class and taught herself the necessary materials for conducting a reasonable class. Studying with her students, she was a remarkable teacher as well as a lifelong learner.
She would listen to all of my stories with the same excitement with which she told her own.
She always wanted to know where I traveled that summer or what race I had run in cross country. She would brag about all of my accomplishments to all of her friends and soon enough, she had built a bit of a reputation for me within the halls of Great Oaks (as one of the most popular residents, she certainly possessed that authority). She was truly interested in my life and all I had to say.
When Mrs. Taylor presented me the opportunity to immortalize my great grandmother, I was more than eager to commence construction on my penned portrait. Mrs. Towler was the woman in my family with whom I held in the utmost regard. She was undoubtedly the kindest, wisest, most selfless, and most influential person I could imagine (not to mention the prettiest – having just celebrated her 99th birthday the previous September, she did not look a day over 80).
The matriarch of my paternal grandmother’s family, she was my oldest living relative, and I could not imagine a better subject for my descriptive assignment.
My paper seemed to write itself; poetic portrayals flowed from my racing mind and onto the page like paint to a canvas, molding a near tangible image of Mrs. Towler behind lines of letters. In a jovial tone, I recreated my ever-optimistic grandmother’s attitude with my words, pouring not only my memories but also my emotions into my work.
The assignment’s due date arrived, and I sauntered cheerily into Mrs. Taylor’s classroom, requesting to read my creation aloud to share with my classmates. After conjuring chuckles and grins from my peers with my amusing article, Mrs. Taylor rose. “Well done,” she smiled, “Clean it up a little, put a pretty bow on it, and you’ve got yourself a perfect Christmas gift for your great grandmother!”
While I did not necessarily roll the essay up into a scroll as my English teacher had explicitly suggested, I took Mrs. Taylor’s advice and prepared a revised draft of the paper to present to my beloved great grandmother on Christmas morning. I typed up a refurbished essay, slipped each page into a clear sheet-protector, and organized the article in a purple folder with Mrs. Towler’s name on the cover.
When Aunt Susan pulled into the driveway with Mrs. Towler riding shotgun, a handful of uncles and I stepped outside to assist with our grandmother’s final stages of transportation. Facing her toward the driveway, we lifted her wheelchair and carried her down the small set of wide stone steps leading to the front door. No matter how many times we engaged in this well-rehearsed maneuver, I always feared a slip of a grip or a tilt too far backwards.
Quite contrarily, Mrs. Towler seemed to enjoy each ride as she exhibited a small fit of giggles, as giddy as the schoolgirls she had taught in the schoolhouse so many decades ago. Turning her wheelchair to face me, she greeted me with her catchphrase in the classic southern drawl, slow and sweet as molasses. “Lord, have mercy! Look who I see.”
I gave Mrs. Towler a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas, all the while eagerly awaiting the gift exchange and thus the revelation of my praiseful essay. However, before we could get down to business with the presents, the congregation had to uphold the sacred tradition of a honey-baked feast.
As my grandfather prepared a plate for Mrs. Towler, my great grandmother attempted to excuse herself from the kitchen so as not to serve as an obstacle for the rest of the family. A plate shattered. I heard a tumbling commotion coming from the large flight of hardwood steps leading to the basement. A shout, “Mrs. Towler!” A collective gasp. The room grew silent as we all shifted our gaze to the top of the stairwell.
My father was the first to react, already finding himself halfway down the stairs before I had even processed exactly what had occurred. In her attempt to evacuate the crowded kitchen, Mrs. Towler had neglected to check over her shoulder. In a horrifying matter of seconds, she had fallen down the entire flight of wooden stairs, onto the tile floor several meters below, her wheelchair crashing down on top of her.
Call 911! Grab ice from the freezer! Here, take this towel! My mind stood still as my body raced into action. I was trying to prevent myself from perceiving what my eyes were sensing. A shallow pool of blood began to fill the spaces between the tiles on the landing. I heard a weak groan; my great grandmother had remained conscious during the entire fall. My father propped her upright against the wall, and I could feel myself trembling as I laid eyes upon her battered face, a stream of crimson streaking from her nose.
The ambulance arrived in a prolonged matter of minutes, and the paramedics immediately jumped into action. As the respondents lifted her swollen hand, Mrs. Towler refused to let them remove her wedding ring. Together, the two EMTs lifted her onto a stretcher. As they carted her into the ambulance, she held onto my father’s hand.
Thelma Lawrence Towler died on December 28 at 99 years old. Holding my great uncle Ralph’s hand from her hospital bed, she stirred from a restless sleep late on the night of December 27. She looked into her son’s eyes and whispered faintly, “Why are you prolonging this?” The next morning, following a frantic call from my grandfather, I raced to hospital with my brother and cousin, but we arrived moments too late.
Rushing through the doors to the ICU, I came across a scene in which my grandmother was passing an inquisitive nurse. “My mother died today.” When our family crowded together in the small hospital room for one last look at our beloved matriarch, Uncle Ralph turned to my grandmother – his sister and the oldest of Mrs. Towler’s children – and said, “Well, here’s to the dawning of a new era; a new matriarch.”
The purple folder under the tree was picked up one last time. Mrs. Towler was never permitted the opportunity to read the essay I had written for her. Instead, I read the paper aloud as a contribution to her eulogy at her funeral service.
But I am not writing this piece to mourn the loss of my beloved great grandmother. I have said what I have needed to say, again and again. I have learned to cope with the loss largely though my writings about the woman and the event. Rather, this is the story of how I learned to cope with this loss, and how help came from where I did not expect it.
When classes resumed in January, 2013, I tried to mask the feelings of anguish towards my loss by donning a façade of feigned happiness. A week passed and the pain was still fresh on my mind. I was out at dinner with some friends at a local Japanese restaurant when I ran into Mrs. Taylor on my way out of the eatery. I greeted her with a weak smile.
She pulled me aside, concerned: “Why didn’t you tell me? I had no idea… If there’s anything you ever need, let me know. I’m always here for you.” My eyes filled with tears as I looked into my English teacher’s eyes, and she pulled me in for a much needed embrace. At that moment, I felt as if a hole in my heart had become somewhat filled.
While my great grandmother Towler could never be replaced, I wholeheartedly believe that Mrs. Taylor managed to take over Mrs. Towler’s role. After she took a personal interest my life, I knew that Mrs. Taylor had become so much more than a teacher to me. Perhaps she would even become my very own Mama Jo.
That year, my life seemed to take an unexpected turn. With Mrs. Taylor’s now evident attention, I subconsciously redirected my own attention. I began to take AP Language more seriously as I significantly developed my skills as a writer. For years, I had thought myself determined to pursue a career in medicine, but I took on a completely new interest in the field of writing, turning to narratives and descriptions of my own life and experiences as a creative outlet.
Mrs. Taylor’s concern for my personal life inspired me to take my friends’ lives into greater consideration. I developed a proclivity to become emotionally invested in my peers as I grew closer to my current friends than ever before, cherishing each memory with a good pal and taking no moment for granted.
With arms stretched wider, I began reaching out to new friends more openly and warmly, eager to seek out new ;relationships to treasure. My relationships with teachers were affected as well; I have found new respect and appreciation for the quasi-parental figures of my life.
Most of all, I attribute my maturation in eleventh grade to Mrs. Taylor’s intervention. I had now experienced the real world, and I have prepared myself to tackle whatever life throws my way. Because of my year with Mrs. Taylor as my mentor, my personality had transformed in ways that were once unimaginable. I owe that transformation, along with my utmost gratitude, to Jo Taylor.
Without her, there is no telling how I would have coped with my great grandmother’s passing, how I would have grown academically, or how I would function socially. My Mother Jo has taken an everlasting stand as a cornerstone of my identity, and I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire me through the progression of my college career and adult life. Furthermore, I am certain that I will be able to count on Mama Jo for anything and everything. I know she will always be there for me.
So, finally, I offer to my audience this parting advice: never for one moment let yourself believe that you are alone in this world. There is and always will be somebody to look after you, to talk with you, to make sure that you are happy. In addition, always try to be that person for somebody else. Show them kindness and compassion, and they will come back to return the favor.
Lastly, do not take a single life for granted; you never know where you will find your Mama Jo.
The most earth-rattling, indescribable word.
How is it possible that it only takes a matter of seconds to never see someone again? Never talk to them again. Never see their life-changing smile again.
You try to come up with any and every possible reason why they were taken away from you, but you never find one that can heal the pain.
Everyone experiences all types of pain, from physical ache to heartbreak, but this type of pain is unbearable.
Sure, you learn how to suppress it on occasion, but that pain becomes a part of you.
It is a giant hole in your being, because the person you lost helped shape you.
I envy those who can find overwhelming peace by turning to the Lord in this unbearable time.
I wish I had that kind of relationship with God, to not have a doubt in my mind that everything was going to be okay. That the person I lost was the happiest they’ve ever been in the gates of heaven.
But the sad truth is that I do not know. I do doubt.
At only 21 years old, how have I already experienced so much loss?
How was my best friend’s boyfriend so unhappy at the naïve age of 16 that he took his own life?
How could the most uplifting coach, mentor, and teacher be killed so suddenly, leaving behind his two little children without a dad?
How could three boys that were just about to embark on the best four years of their life encounter such a tragic incident, leaving one mentally handicapped and one gathering the community for a funeral?
How could everyone’s favorite Auburn Tiger, with the most God fearing family, no longer walk this earth?
And how could five beautiful college girls, that have made such a remarkable impact, have their futures cut short?
I have to believe everything happens for a reason.
I have to believe that heaven is one hell of a party.
I have to believe that these beautiful people served their purpose on earth, even in such a short time frame.
And I have to believe that eventually… we will all be okay.
I am a mental health advocate. A stigma fighter. I am the mental health community administrator for the Wish Dish Platform. President of the Loyola University MD chapter of Active Minds. Yet, I struggle with my own mental health. It’s not that I expect others to believe that I don’t struggle with my anxiety and depression from time to time, but I certainly don’t think people know how incredibly much I have been struggling since the loss of my uncle.
I don’t know what the typical relationship of a girl and her uncle usually is, but I can tell you that my relationship with my uncle was anything but typical. I grew up in a very large, close, Italian family. The holidays were always my favorite because I got to spend the day with my 50+ family members on my dad’s side of the family. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I knew that I could call any of my relatives at any time, and they would be by my side in minutes.
I also had the privilege to live next door to my Uncle Mike and Aunt Lona since I was 8 years old. I would walk next door when I was bored, or when I needed someone to talk to. I spent more time with my aunt and uncle than most kids spend with their parents. I grew up with not only one set of parents, but two.
Uncle Mike and Aunt Lona have been two of my biggest role models since before I could remember. My dad’s parents and siblings immigrated here from Italy when they were young. My grandfather spent five years working in America and building a life for his wife and four kids back in Italy. My aunts and uncles had been through a lot in their young lives. They lost one of their siblings to cancer on the journey to America. Once they got to America, they had to build a life for themselves, learn English, go to school, and work to help support their family. Yet, none of this hinders my dad or his siblings in any way.
My Uncle Mike took these ideals to heart when he met the love of his life in ninth grade. At age 14, my Uncle Mike met his wife, and my Aunt Lona. They were perfect for each other. They always knew what the other needed, kept each other in line, and helped each other and rhea ones around them grow. I aspire to find a love as deep and as right as theirs was. I looked up to them both in every possible way. They weren’t simply my aunt and uncle; they were my godparents, my next-door neighbors, my role models, and my second parents. It was hard when they moved to South Carolina when I was a senior in high school. They were the first in the family to move outside of Maryland, and I took it pretty hard. But, I did have a sweet new vacation spot.
I thought that them moving to South Carolina meant that they would miss out on a lot if important moments in the lives of my sisters and I, but I was wrong. They flew up for every family party, prom, graduation, and most birthdays. They visited often, and we would always pick up right where we left off.
That is what made it even more difficult when my Uncle Mike suddenly passed away over a month ago. What made it even worse, was that it was extremely unexpected. Coming home for that weekend and seeing everyone in my driveway, I instantly knew something was wrong, but I never thought to expect what I heard next. I sat on my deck surrounded by family, and felt nothing. I cried as my aunt and uncle, first and second cousins, and other showed up at my house to share in the grief that we all felt. But I couldn’t feel it. Not until days later, or even when I saw my uncle laying in his casket.
I have been through a lot in my young life. I have watched my mom go through breast cancer and brain surgery, saw the emptiness in my sister when she lost her first baby, lost a close friend to suicide, and have been without grandparents since high school. Yet, this loss cut deep. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I either couldn’t feel anything at all, or felt so much that I thought I would explode. As this was all happening, two of my best friends were having the time of their lives abroad. It felt like my world stopped, and everyone else was doing great. I was drowning.
I was comforting everyone else and staying strong. But I also fell behind in school, drank to numb the pain, isolated myself from others, and was altogether miserable. My depression was at an all-time high, as was my anxiety. I had lost one of the best individuals in my life, and I couldn’t stand to be a part of my own reality.
I talked about the good times I had with him, the lessons he had taught me, and how I would give anything to hear him say “hello dear” one more time as he hopped out of his chair to greet me. I was ungrateful. I knew how much he meant to me, but I had always thought he would be there, like he always had been. The last time I saw him, I rushed my time with him to go be with someone who didn’t truly love me. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I was expecting him to be at my house waiting for me that day when I arrived home. He would tell me about the beers he drank the night before, the conversations he had with some of the people he loved the most in this world. What I got instead was the look of grief and terror on my dad’s face, and the knowledge that my life would never again be the same. But though it still to this day hurts more than I thought anything ever could, I prevail. I live my life in honor of my uncle. I do what I can to make myself and the world around me a better and more loving place, because after all, that’s what he was most proud of me for doing.
Every family has their issues. Every family fights. But as I begin the holiday season without the greatest man I had ever known, I ask that you forget the past. Forget all the bad times, and work for the good ones. I ask that you hug everyone in your life, tell them just how much they mean to you, and appreciate every second you have by their side. I loved my uncle with all my heart and spent most of my life with him, but still wish I could have just five more minutes with him. One more hug. So, this holiday season, love your friends and your family with all you have. Because unfortunately, you truly never know when it could be the last chance you’ll ever get.
What’s your vision for next week? The next semester? The next year? For your life? All of these questions were posed to me while in attendance at the LeaderShape Institute retreat in the 2013 summer with 64 other Auburn University students. These were difficult questions for me to answer at the time, but now I have a vision for my life.
Originally from Roswell, Georgia, I attended a small Catholic high school called Blessed Trinity. Being a private school kid almost my whole life, I had the wonderful blessing of going from 1st grade to high school knowing about 80% of the same people.
Naturally a tight knit community, you know everyone’s story, what their weekend plans are, and all too much about their entire family. In hindsight, I think it is what made my childhood and teenager years unique in a good way. Despite knowing too much sometimes, we all had each other’s backs.
I bought into the concept of “The Auburn Family” and what it means to look at your classmate on your left and on your right and give a simple look, smile, or nod that meant you had their back because we all believe in this university and what it stands for. Many argue it’s a marketing ploy, and I will argue against that until the day I die. It’s real and it’s so difficult to explain without experiencing it for yourself.
Moving onward, freshman year was overwhelming. New place, new people, and new culture. Being on campus and finding my niche within my new home was exhausting. Perseverance is what kept me in the game.
Perseverance to work hard at everything I do and push myself to be a better man in Christ and a better man in society. My practice of this “attitude” has helped me be who I am today. I had the vision to work hard and be a better man. However, that vision I had for myself at Auburn took a bit of a turn at the conclusion of my freshman year.
Eluding to my earlier reference of a tight community at home, it was always (and still is) very common practice for me to get together with my high school friends every time I went back home. Whether it be a long break or just a weekend, we became our little family all over again.
Questions swirled in the air and the solutions weren’t obvious. It was an unexpected blow after a difficult freshman year. Our little family back home moved on after awhile, but I was still confused and lost for answers. Towards the end of sophomore year I begin to do some research on student-led mental health organizations at college campuses.
An organization catches my eye: Active Minds Inc. For those who do not know, Active Minds Inc. is an international non-profit organization that works to “utilize the student voice to change the conversation about mental health on college campuses.”
A light bulb went off in my head, Auburn needed this…heck, every campus needed something like this! How difficult would this be to get set up? *cue LeaderShape Institute logo*
LeaderShape is a one-week leadership development retreat that gives young leaders the opportunity to learn more about themselves and other leaders at their respective universities. LeaderShape changed my perspective leadership and the students that make up Auburn.
After attending the retreat and personally reflecting I knew what I had to focus on.
So right there the work and the vision began. The chapter officially launched in September 2013. The vision had finally become a reality. The sense of confidence and pride I had knowing my hard work and determination had turned into something tangible was incredible.
I am proud to say that our Active Minds chapter is now two years strong. We’ve made name for ourselves on campus through fundraisers, walks, outreach events, information meetings, and working with university officials to help others and even save lives by providing hope to those who may not know where to find it.
Starting an organization was not something my freshman-self thought I could do, but it gave me an insight into what I could do in the future. As Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
Make that reality one of hope, happiness, and kindness. I’ve been more conscious of trying to do this every day and I believe the quality of my life has improved because of it. Wake up and set your vision for the day and ask how can I make this vision a reality.
I’ve been blessed with many opportunities in my life and I’ve had my fair share of failures too. Active Minds was an opportunity and a vision for me and I am forever grateful to have been able to serve the university through it.
Now it’s about time for me to start focusing on my vision for post-grad life. I’m not sure what it may hold just yet, but I’m ready to take on life’s challenges to the best of my ability and I hope you do the same. So ask yourself, what is your vision for tomorrow?
“It is a curious thing the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited and that eventually all of us end up under some sheet never to wake up. And yet, it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls through the air and there is a sickly dark moment of surprise as you try to readjust the way you thought of things.” – Lemony Snicket
Lemony Snicket brilliantly puts into words how I felt the moment my brother took his last breath. He was diagnosed a little over a year before he died. Acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that quickly and aggressively attacks the bone marrow.
‘Death’, as defined by Merriam Webster, is the ending of a particular person’s life. By that definition, my brother died the day he was diagnosed. His life was over. He could no longer plan for anything in his life. Simple tasks began to grow harder and his cognitive ability lowered.
I think the cancer treatment played an equal part in my brother’s demise. The medicine and procedures my brother received killed his mentality way before the cancer physically ended his life.
For this reason, my brother chose death. He could no longer endure the endless amount of chemotherapy being pumped into his body. The poking and prodding of needles day after day. The endless amounts of biopsies, ranging from orbital to spinal! I had never seen someone endure so much, only to have no promise of getting better.
He couldn’t bear to live his life that way anymore and so he told my family he wanted to stop treatment. My parents were devastated. I know that the only reason my brother pulled through for as long as he did was for us. He was always more concerned about how my parents, my siblings, and I were feeling.
I think I am the only one who fully supported his decision to end his life. I began to think it was selfish of me to make him put up this fight that we all, unfortunately, knew he was not going to win. I feel like we all feared his death way more than he did. He wanted nothing more than to be at peace. After all, as Albus Dumbledore says, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” My brother was ready to begin his.
It should not be looked at as an end but a new beginning. Once you stop fearing death, there is a lot less to fear in life. I can’t be sure what happens after death but I do believe it has to be a peaceful place. I find comfort in it, seeing my brother ready for that part of his journey made me not fear mine. Death is not scary. Death is warm. Death is a promise that this life isn’t forever, and I love that.
If death ceased to exist nobody would care for people the way they do. Nobody would cherish memories the way they do. Nobody would love the way they do. All aspects of our humanity could not be the same. People live so passionately because life is not promised. Imagine a world without death and it’s an apathetic one. Death is essential for us to live life intensely, for us to truly live it to the fullest.
Life is crazy. Life is weird. Life is unexpected. “Life” is all about how you choose to live it. As you get older, you start to ponder about your life and your future more often. You get scared, you get sad, you get worried, and you get anxious. In the midst of all these emotions, you are living your life, never stopping to think about the ending to it. But what if one day your life suddenly ended? What if an unexpected tragedy occurred and you lost someone? Even worse, someone close to you. Your world is all of a sudden shattered and you question why it happened and what you could’ve done to stop it.
UGA lost four beautiful souls on the night of April 27th. What happened was completely unexpected and completely devastating. How is it that they are they alive and laughing and physically there one second, and in the next, just gone forever? It doesn’t make sense to me, and doesn’t make sense to most people.
However, I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe God needed them up in heaven and they had fulfilled their duties here on Earth. Maybe it was their time to go and be with Him. We don’t know; we will never know. No one saw it coming; no one could stop what happened.
But what about the families and the best friends of the victims? How do they possibly lessen the pain of their loss? How do they wake up everyday and not remember over and over again that their loved one isn’t there? My heart is aching for the families of Christina, Halle, Kayla, and Brittany. Knowing that all four of those best friends are in Heaven hand in hand is putting me at peace, and I hope everyone else mourning can think of that too.
I’ve lost very few people throughout my life and for that I’m thankful, because I don’t know how I would handle it. I am so incredibly blown away by the strength of humans, especially in the time of mourning a loved one. I’ve watched one of my good friends go through the loss of his little sister in this horrible car accident, and I am constantly amazed. How does he have the strength to even see people? Talk to people? Answer his texts and post on Facebook? But then I soon realized, life does go on.
They want us to be happy. All your loved one wanted when they were here was for you to be happy, and nothing’s changed even though they’re in a different place.
They aren’t suffering or in pain, they’re in a place full of happiness, love, and good people, and what makes them happier than anything is looking down knowing that you are happy.
So, for all of those out there suffering from the loss of a loved one, live your life not only for you, but for them. Finish out what they started, and live with them inside you every single day. Think about how they would have wanted you to live and carry out their lives. Let their beautiful souls shine through you. We only have one life, so choose to live it wisely. However that is you choose, just know that your loved ones are never actually gone. They’re woven throughout you and everything that you do. They radiate off of you and your strength. Take this life and make it the best it can be, for you, for your loved ones, and for the man upstairs that’s always there for you.
I’ve often had people tell me that as you lose more and more people to death, Heaven just starts to seem that much sweeter.
February 8 was the day that Allen Nasworthy died after losing a battle with depression. That Monday is engraved in my mind as a day I will never forget. I’ll never forget sitting in chapel that morning when I got a text saying, “Emergency, please call me!” followed by another message saying, “please call me ASAP.”
As I processed these words in my mind, I began to feel sick because I knew exactly what I was about to hear. I knew what I was about to hear, but I didn’t want it to be confirmed. I’ll never forget hearing those words, “he’s dead.”
At that point I felt like my world came to a screeching halt. Everyone’s world around me continued on as they hustled to class, but all I could do was sink to the ground on that sidewalk and cry like I’ve never cried before. All I wanted to do was jump in my car and drive from my school in South Carolina down to camp.
I sat there on the back steps of the library as memories of Allen flew through my mind. I felt like I was in a nightmare and just couldn’t wake up. As I called my family and close friends I could barely get out “Allen is dead” simply because it didn’t seem like it was really happening. I’ve never lost anyone really close to me before, so this feeling was completely new to me.
After the initial grief subsided for the moment, I went into immediate denial. In my mind, there was no way that Allen was dead. He was simply out restocking on Red Bull, and at any moment, his headlights would crest that hill pulling into Fortson. Everyone would realize that they were wrong.
After denial, my next reaction was anger and bitterness, anger that Allen had done this to his family and to his friends. Didn’t he know how many people out there loved him and cared about him? How could he do this to them? Allen was the life of the party in whatever setting he was in, but he didn’t tell many people about his inner struggle with depression.
I returned home from college that Wednesday and immediately drove down to camp. As I turned onto Fortson road, it finally hit me that this was really happening. As I walked around the center that night it was eerily quiet. The animals stood there quietly, the pond didn’t stir, and the trees didn’t blow. Fortson didn’t feel like Fortson. It felt like it knew that its keeper was gone and wasn’t coming back.
That Thursday was hard for so many people as we all traveled to the little church in South Georgia and said goodbye to our dear friend. The world and especially Fortson 4-H center would never be the same without him.
My connection with Allen Nasworthy isn’t like most others. I met him in March of 2015. I went to Camp Fortson with my teen group while I was in high school and fell in love with the place. When I first contacted UGA about working there over the summer, I met Allen who was the Center Director. Allen was so helpful with the whole process of getting hired and starting work there.
When I met Allen in person at the beginning of the summer, I never dreamed of the friendship that would begin. When I started my summer helping out around the center, he was just my boss, but by the middle of the summer, he was so much more than just my boss.
He was my friend that I could laugh with, joke with, or have serious conversations about life with. Allen was awesome. As many know, it didn’t take long to get to know Allen. His smile was so contagious, and no one was a stranger to him.
As my summer working at camp drew to an end, I was disappointed to leave but enjoyed getting updates from Allen all the time on how things were going. I enjoyed getting crazy snapchats from him and reading his random hilarious texts.
Almost every break and weekend that I was home from school I always made it a point to stop by camp, walk around the pond, see the animals at the farm, and sit in the office and talk with Allen as he worked tirelessly. A week before Allen died, I was home from college for the weekend, and he told me to stop by and say hey.
I would’ve stayed and told him how many people genuinely cared for him and loved him. I was worried about Allen as I knew he was struggling and knew that he was starting to distance himself from those around him, but I never dreamed it would lead to what it did.
Before I pulled out of Fortson that day, Allen shook my hand, looked me in the eyes, did that mischievous smile that only he could do, and said, “Hey, I’ll see ya later”. This stuck in my mind for some reason because he had never done it before.
Every day Allen pops into my mind at some point, and when he does, I thank the Lord for the opportunity I had to know him. Even though I only knew him for a short time, he impacted my life greatly. He taught me so much, and I will always remember it. Thank you Allen for the impact you had on my life in those short summer months.
I am so excited to be going back to Fortson this summer. It is going to be hard passing his house and office everyday, but I think Allen would want it. We, the camp staff and counselors, are going to work together to put on a summer program that would make Allen look down and smile.
This phrase is short, but it is something that I will cherish forever. On April 24, 2016, I will be joining many of Allen’s family and friends as we walk in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Walk in Memory of Allen Nasworthy (you can check out my fundraising page here).
Casting Crowns once sang in one of their songs, “So when you’re on your knees and answers seem so far away, you’re not alone, stop holding on and just be held. Your world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place. I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.”
This text has been so helpful to me. Even if we feel like our world is falling apart, we know that God is holding us and that He’s going to get us through. If you’re fighting depression, DON’T GIVE UP! Talk to someone and get help, because you are loved whether you believe it or not.
Psalm 34:17-19 “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”