It’s been nearly ten years since I placed the last phone call to the detective searching for you in Reno. Ten years since I waited by the phone to hear the news, from someone. Somewhere. Ten years since I asked you to come to Chicago. Just come, Ma, we will figure out the rest once you are here. Ten years since I received the phone call from the detective. It was 2:00 am. I wasn’t getting much sleep, debating whether it made sense to just go to Reno, to find you. To see you. Hear your voice. But when the phone call finally came. I was asleep for about 30 minutes and missed it. I was exhausted.
When I woke the following morning and saw that Reno area code, I knew. My body knew before my mind did. My stomach was in knots before I could process what might be. What had to be. I couldn’t eat all morning. My sister and I spoke on and off. “Have you heard anything since that short letter she sent you 3 weeks ago from the hospital with the record of her visit for heat stroke?” I asked. “Nope,” she said. “Nothing yet.” You sent a carbonized copy of a record that you were in the hospital with a brief note letting her know you were okay and out of the hospital. Heat stroke. You had heat stroke. Of course, it was Nevada in August. But this time it was different. You left a clue that would later tell the tale of the final curtain.
Then while sitting at my desk at work, another call came. Same number, different voice. “Is this Deidra Somerville?” “Yes, this is she.” “Ms. Somerville, I’m calling from the Las Vegas Police Department. I’m calling to let you know we found your mother.” He didn’t have to say anymore, I knew what it meant. I knew instantly. I took a couple of deep breaths. I was in my cubicle, surrounded by others going about their day. I tried to stay calm, not bring attention to myself, but my co-worker read the dread on my face. Anyone could.
“We found your mother in her car in a Walmart parking lot,” he continued. “She had put herself in the trunk, ma’am. We don’t know how long she was in there just yet, but we think it’s been a couple of weeks. There is camera footage of her getting in the back of her trunk through the back seat. She went in and never came back out. I’m so sorry ma’am.”
As the words swirled in the pit of my stomach, adding to the deep angst I felt all night and morning, I sat there, unable to move, speak, barely breathing. My mind was racing. I had to call people. I had to call my sister. My godparents, your friends, my supervisor. Yes, I told myself, I have to make calls, book a plane to Reno, get your remains, get your things out of the place you last stayed, call your landlord, call your social worker, call the folks from our church, make arrangements for a memorial…
My mind was racing although I couldn’t form a coherent word or sentence. I thought to myself, how am I going to tell my supervisor when I can barely speak? My sister, I have to call her first. I called her. Like me, she didn’t explode into a million pieces. No yelling. No screaming. No shock or awe in her voice. We are your girls, after all. We are Gwen’s girls. You wouldn’t have any of that from us. That was not who you raised, even in the face of your suicide. She spoke, very little numbs her to silence. “Yep, I’m not surprised, Dee.” She began to put everything together, like a sleuth detective. She added up the clues and neatly tied them to the final conclusion. The final chapter of your book. Your final hand to play. I had the same thoughts but couldn’t sit in them. I had to let them go for now. Looking back would deter me from the present. Who to call, who to tell. It was all work to be done. The perfect distraction from the painful reality that you were finally gone. You had finally done it. After years of plastic tubes running from your exhaust into your car window, it has finally happened. You were in your car for weeks in sweltering 102 degree desert heat.
My sister and I went through the process to bring closure to your physical existence, and you were honored. We spread your ashes – your daughters, fellow church folk, longtime friends, and former lovers – with fragrant flowers in the marina bay, and it was beautiful. We came together and lifted you up in spirit as one community. We felt that you were with us. We have remained connected since then, and our lives are richer for it. We have you to thank for that.
It’s been ten years. Ten years to learn to love you and learn to let you go. Ten years to name how you died, by suicide , without personal shame or personal pain. Ten years to define your legacy beyond that fateful day. Ten years to get back to loving the you that lived, worked, laughed, created, healed, sang like a bird, prayed and played. I know you are more than your death circumstances. I know this intellectually. It has taken ten years to grow this belief in my heart.
These ten years have been a journey for both of us. I have felt it in the dreams you bring to me. You have shown me where you see yourself in spirit, and that has made for honest work on my part. Lifting you in spirit is my honor and privilege. Each time I feel your spirit lifted, our family earns your place as a venerated and highly evolved spirit and ancestor.
I’ve maintained an ancestor shrine with your Bible present at its center. I always ask you for a word, and the word is always good and worth learning. Today you reminded me that I should remember to speak with your paternal grandmother, ancestor Mama Scott, about the goals I have for this year. This came after our first celebration on your birthday with your favorite fast food (Church’s Chicken), homemade chocolate cake and ice cream, with James Brown’s Doing It To Death as our soundtrack as we ate dinner together as a family. I served you your plate first, and it felt good.
Happy birthday, Ma, and thank you. I am proud to be one of Gwen’s girls.