Saturday, July 15, which was my abusive father’s 64th birthday and the 10th anniversary of my mom’s suicide, I walked three miles home from a library and grocery store in mid-day heat and humidity to find two bracelets that an ex left hanging from my doorknob in a gift bag. Having discovered some upsetting-yet-not-surprising information about him less than 24 hours earlier, I was still seething as I planned how and when I was going to package and take them to a post office before I walked to work on Monday.
“I don’t wear junk,” I muttered as I looked for a manila envelope. “Nice to know that’s what he thinks of me though.” This is partly my fault for not setting him straight when he bought me a bracelet from the patchouli-scented shop that sits across the street from his employer the first month we dated, but he’s read my memoir chapter about being forced to wear Kmart clothes from fifth grade through high school, and he’s seen the Calvin Klein and Adrianna Papell dresses I wear now. He knows I pair them with sparkly Swarovski or one-of-a-kind, local artist-made jewelry that I’ve bought during my travels. To wit, I am the sum of my experiences both internally and externally.
But much like Christmas, when I couldn’t afford food but saved enough money to buy him a mini fireplace because he’d expressed interest in buying one during our Thanksgiving retreat in Amish Country and a wall mural depicting Big Sur because he misses California and wants to return, and he, in turn, bought me “practical” baking pans and utensils that remain unopened seven months later, the words, “It’s the thought that counts,” kept surfacing, especially after I noticed one bracelet had purple (my favorite color) beads, and the other had aqua (my calming color) beads.
Any empathetic, he-meant-well thoughts dissolved like Kool-Aid crystals in water when I saw that both said, “Believe.”
“Believe what?” I scoffed. “Him? Won’t make that mistake again.”
About an hour later, manila envelope addressed and lying next to the chair that used to be his chair, I started reading “Jump,” a motivational Steve Harvey book I’d rented from the library. The word “believe” appeared twice (one appearance per bracelet, if you’re keeping score) in the second paragraph. One instance was even italicized in case I missed it.
The book title had caught my eye because on walks home from the retail job I’ve had since May and enjoy but resent having to work at this stage of my life, the devil often tells me to jump from an overpass I cross. Not aloud, of course. I’m not crazy or mentally ill. In fact, I’m not even depressed. I’ve been depressed. I know what depression feels like. I’m just, as I explained, the sum of my experiences—and DNA. According to Bishop Walter Thomas, your genes determine 50 percent of your happiness, your decisions account for 40 percent, and circumstances, such as a new car, new house, or new job, comprise 10 percent. I don’t know where he got those statistics, but they sound about right.
“It doesn’t look high enough,” I think, wondering if I could balance on top of the chain-link fence—even for just a second—to add distance to the fall.
“If you jump at just the right time, a semi would hit you,” the devil says.
Considering the fact I graduated from college as an English and communication double major in 2009, determined to become a magazine editor as the economy was tanking and magazines were folding, it’s fair to say timing isn’t my strong suit. Besides, I remind him, I told my father, who’d predicted that I would kill myself like Karen Carpenter when I was a kid, that I was never going to commit suicide like his sister and my maternal grandmother. Being the stubborn person I am, I still refuse to give him that satisfaction. I also refuse to ruin some unsuspecting truck driver’s life.
“Life is never going to get better for you,” the devil says. “It only got worse for your mother.”
This is true. After my father beat her so badly that he went to jail for a weekend in 1999, and she and my diabetic, epileptic, and mentally handicapped brother moved into a domestic abuse shelter for a month, the bowhunting redneck got the house and sold it for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It later became a Target.) My mom and brother, on the other hand, moved in with my mom’s coworker who took advantage of my mom’s niceness and her predicament and forced her to do a lot of renovation work on the house and barn. Occasionally, the woman’s ex-husband visited, making my mom squeamish because, like her father, he’d done sexually inappropriate things to his daughters.
After a couple of years, my mom and brother moved into a mobile home in a peaceful, fountain-flanked park that looked more like a Floridian retirement community than what you see on “Cops,” but it was infested with ants and bees that made crunching sounds between the interior and exterior walls. Worse, the two previous owners had died there. When my mom told me this while showing me the shed that one of the women had hung a creepy picture of Jesus in, I knew she would die there, too.
In 2003, my brother tripped at his vocational workshop and broke his hip. While in the hospital, a nurse left him alone—after assuring my mom that she wouldn’t while my mom ran home to shower after days without one—and my brother fell in the bathroom, bending the rod in his leg, making that leg inches shorter than the other. People from a nearby church my mom had never attended built a wheelchair ramp, but getting my brother in and out of the house was the least of her worries considering she now had to sanitize his catheter on top of giving him insulin and anti-seizure medication at regular intervals.
Over time, my brother, who’d always been a happy, hyper, and somehow-oblivious-to-his-misery kid who not only cheered for game show contestants but seemed genuinely overjoyed when they won, lost the spark that made him him. When he and I were kids, my father had always told my mom that if she divorced him and he got visitation rights, my brother wouldn’t return to her in the same condition he left. From the notes, including blood sugar numbers, my mom wrote, he followed through on that threat by giving my brother unnecessary shots. In 2005, he went to the hospital and only left a few times between the day he went in and the day he died, attached to a trach tube, six weeks after my mom in 2007.
At his funeral, my father, who’d been taking theology classes for years and seemed chummy with the pastor officiating the event, stood before my brother’s casket and told everyone in attendance, “I feel fine,” at which point my then-boyfriend and an ex, who stood on either side of me, each grabbed a wrist, concerned that I might run to the front of the tent and tackle him.
Losing my mom and brother in rapid succession while dealing with the then-boyfriend, i.e., the most selfish man I’d ever dated, and his drama-queen daughters sapped me of the little passion I had left after a violent childhood, a nervous breakdown, back-to-back cervical cancer surgeries, a series of unhealthy relationships, a layoff, and everything else I’d dealt with by age 32. After I graduated from college, applied for magazine editing job after magazine editing job, and heard nothing in response, I gave up my goals, broke up with my nemesis, and moved 11 miles away from the apartment complex we shared, content to remain single for the rest of my life and travel. As he and his offspring continued to cause unnecessary drama, I developed lumps in my breasts, had another cervical cancer scare, woke up with a lump the size of a golf ball on my forehead, and lost two jobs while the wicked prospered in every way imaginable.
The thought of jumping—whether it be the way the devil wants me to jump or the way God has been urging me to jump via T.D. Jakes and John Jenkins sermons—doesn’t appeal to me. Both are risky. But God gave me the ability to write—and, more importantly, to engage people on an emotional level—for a reason. So I will finish reading the Steve Harvey book I know he led me to, take notes, set the divinely delivered bracelets somewhere I can see them, and:
a) make sure that my mom didn’t endure 15 years of abuse to keep a roof over my head only for me to kill myself as she and her mom did; and
b) ensure that my latter days are greater than my former days.
After all, although the Bible doesn’t say, “God helps those who help themselves,” as people mistakenly think it does, T.D. Jakes has quoted Ecclesiastes 9:10 and said, “God does not anoint laziness. He blesses what you do.” There’s no reason for me to be poor, carless, hungry, and discouraged when God has given me the intelligence, creativity, tenacity, and Biblical principles to overcome the give-up spirit coursing through my veins courtesy of my genes. I just hope that the friends and former coworkers I see following in my footsteps, pouring themselves into one-sided relationships that aren’t worthy of their time, will recognize the error of their ways long before they reach my age.
That being said, happy birthday to me. Here’s to the next 42 years.