How do you process it when your worst fears for a friend come true?
…When you have to watch those fears play out in a long process of suffering that goes on for years?
…When there isn’t a damn thing you can do to help, because your advice falls on deaf ears?
…When your place in your friend’s life is too insignificant for you to make an impact, but too meaningful for you to back away?
I have a friend named Sabrina A. Jones. To our crew, the “A” is for Alize, but we all know full well her mama named her Sabrina ANNE. One of us thought she should have a name better suited to her spunky personality, and the rest of us agreed. It’s one of our many inside jokes.
Sabrina passed away Saturday, July 11, 2020—weeks before her 39th birthday. She died after a decades-long struggle with several ailments, including heart trouble and overwhelming stress from which she just couldn’t seem to break free.
I cannot celebrate the tremendous light that she was in this world without acknowledging the pain that she endured and the battles she fought.
So I’m gonna go there, because I am tired of watching us die of broken hearts, unnecessarily, far before our time.
I am sick of using our lives as cautionary tales, as examples of what not to do and how not to live. I’m tired of grieving our lives as much as our deaths.
Twenty years ago, our gang of friends and acquaintances sat around a table at a Friendly’s restaurant laughing, joking, and having the best of times, like we always did. It was normal for us to roll twenty-deep into a restaurant and find a reason to celebrate. Graduations, birthdays, weddings, weekends, a good time at church—if there was an occasion, food was at the center of it. We were college students. We couldn’t afford much, but a meal with friends was always doable.
I vividly remember looking around at the plates on the table that day and realizing that I saw almost nothing green. Nearly every plate was a sea of tan and brown, fried, unhealthy “food”. This was a long-standing habit, a way of life. I saw it and got scared, because I knew the clock was already ticking on us, and we hardly had a clue.
Shortly after the outing, about four of us got on a phone call and talked about where we hoped our friendship would be in the years to come. I had already had a couple of health scares due to hormonal and nutritional deficiencies, and I couldn’t imagine living out the coming years in and out of emergency rooms. I didn’t want that for any of us. It was desperation that led me to blurt out,
“I don’t want to be standing next to somebody’s hospital bed because one of us has had a heart attack at 40.”
In fact, Sabrina’s first cardiac event was well before 40. She would ultimately have several.
We hear so much about self-care these days, and the message is sorely needed. Too many of us die for the lack of it. Too many of us desperately need to understand that our worth is not in our work, that we don’t have to earn love in score-keeping battles with selfish mates, that we don’t have to feel guilty for relaxing or leaving wiggle room in our schedules for doing nothing at all.
We don’t have to beg to live well, to be treated well, or apologize for wanting to.
Too many of us need a daily reminder that we were not created to be anyone’s beasts of burden. However, we also need to understand that the riches that we will find in good health must be cultivated. We have to develop a habit of making small, regular deposits into the bank of health if we are going to reap the rewards down the line. If we don’t, we won’t just be uncomfortable, or have a few extra doctor bills, or not be able to fit into our favorite bathing suits. We will experience severe deficits.
I grew up surrounded by women who had servants’ hearts—nurses, cleaning women, teachers, counselors—women who often cared for others more than they cared for themselves. That’s what good Christian women do back home in Virginia where I’m from, and where I met these friends who became my chosen siblings.
One vital thing Sabrina and I had in common was that both our fathers were addicts. I was fortunate enough to see my dad achieve recovery to some degree, and to even witness him make a sincere apology for the mistakes he made years ago.
I can’t pretend to know the conversations Sabrina had with her father, a man who she worked tirelessly to shelter and support through his addiction. I can’t help thinking that if he made different choices, she might have finally understood that it was not her place to parent her parent, and that enabling an addict is ultimately detrimental to everyone involved, no matter how close the relationship.
Sabrina followed in her mother’s footsteps. From what we knew, Mrs. Jones was a hard working and devout woman who refused to turn her back on her husband, no matter how many times he turned his back on them. She died when we were all in college.
Then, in my naïveté, I hoped my friend would somehow find a way to use her mother’s memory as a catalyst for creating a better life. But instead, she embarked on a twenty-year journey of working frantically, eating poorly, failing to follow doctors’ orders, and refusing to obtain treatment for crippling depression that kept her in suspended animation.
I will not be the friend who sugarcoats or ignores that. She knows me better than that, and I’ve already asked her to forgive me for my anger and unwillingness to shut up about it. In my mind, all of her suffering is in vain if I sweep it under the rug and simply regurgitate the standard pleasantries that people say when a loved one passes.
A lot of women like us wanted to make our ancestors proud.
We understand that we rose up on their shoulders and, in their honor, we strive to achieve what they could not. We think we’re further along than the generations of women who came before us, because we accumulate accomplishments that our grandmothers didn’t have access to.
We celebrate the woman who works two jobs, runs a side hustle, and gets her doctorate while raising 3 kids. Yet we downright denigrate the domestic women, who tends fully to her home and to the children she chose to bring into this world. We ignore the woman who expresses zero interest in burning the candle at both ends in business or the corporate world.
We worship at the altar of overwork while our children sit at home alone or with dubious caregivers, as our bodies degenerate from stress.
Have we really come that much further, or did we just move to a different plantation? Have we really made progress, or did we just trade the whip for the surgeon’s scalpel?
Please forgive my candor, because trust me, I got the degree. I am the mom with the 9-5 and the business, and the packed out schedule. I, of all people, know what’s up, so I have to ask. What is the cost?
What does it profit a woman to gain the world and lose her heart and soul?
How good is it, really, to feed and clothe men who wave the banner of our independence as they hide behind it to shirk their own responsibilities? What is the long term benefit of breeding a generation of men who prefer to live like kept women to the detriment of their mothers, sisters, lovers, and children? Is throwing on the Magical Black Superwoman cape for every single battle actually helping us?
Too many of us are still putting ourselves into physical and mental chains.
What the hell is all this working, accomplishing, and driving ourselves into the ground for?
I lost count of the many times that we pleaded with Sabrina to take better care of herself. We would often call her, reminding her to stop working long enough to eat or to take her medicine. When she finally ate, oftentimes the food she chose was not the kind that would actually help to heal her body or sustain her energy.
And I know that lack of motivation to care for oneself is often an uncontrollable symptom of depression. I know what that does. I have an aunt who died of heart complications on April 13th who I suspect also struggled with depression.
I cannot be sure, because she also suffered from other forms of untreated mental illness for decades. She was a recluse, and I never had the chance to get to know her. When she collapsed while shopping, the doctors had to hunt down a cause, because she hadn’t had a checkup in nearly 30 years.
I currently have a friend who is battling breast cancer, and I can’t tell if her extreme isolation is cautious, physical distancing or deep depression. I can only check in and hope she answers the phone.
Sabrina went into a coma the same week that my state’s first lockdown went into effect. I was still planning to drive down to see her after work that Friday evening when I called the hospital she was in and realized that they would not be allowing visitors.
I sat in a weird state of limbo wondering what would happen for weeks, and then months, knowing that the last time that I would ever see Sabrina’s authentic smile in person was long gone. That time had passed years ago.
Sabrina’s birthday is a week after mine. We are Leos, lionesses of the same pride, and I definitely felt a unique connection with her. Years after I moved away from home to study in Philadelphia and later settle down with a family, she could still feel my spirit as if I was sitting next to her.
So many times, when I was feeling down or having a hard time, she called me out of nowhere, completely unprovoked, to ask, “What’s going on wit you’ girly. Something don’t feel right. I was thinking about you.”
Sabrina always made the rounds checking on friends, family, and strangers alike. We could be at the movies, a music festival, the mall, the grocery store, the mailbox, the gas station, in a public bathroom, and she would make conversation asking people their names, how they were, if they were having a good day, and on and on!
A quintessential Sun Child, she struck up conversations with complete strangers of all kinds wherever we went. She had studied Human Services Counseling in college, and she lived to encourage others. She could hardly go anywhere without running into someone she knew and who didn’t seem happy to see her.
We knew a party had started whenever she came bouncing into a room singing some song and making up half the lyrics. And the childlike glee in her voice whenever she was truly happy or surprised or excited is something I’ll never forget.
When I sit outside and observe the trees, work in my garden, or light the green candles on my altar, I remember her telling me how much she liked that color. I remember that green is the color of life, abundance, and renewal, and I convince myself that she did not suffer for nothing.
I know what loyalty is because of Sabrina. I know what uninhibited love, which is not afraid to express itself and is not diluted by superficial bullshit and ulterior motives, feels like, because of Sabrina. I know what it is to be cherished, seen, and celebrated because of her. Love was something that she was never willing to put on hold, and that alone took courage.
As much as I wanted to see her live a long and full life, I have to accept that maybe she was just rewarded with an early graduation. I know she deserved that.
Earth is a place where the good-hearted, who hardly consider themselves worthy of life, suffer and die young, while savages live well beyond their golden years, destroying nearly everything they touch.
But earth is also a place where we can take the bad hands that life deals us and learn to play a more clever game. We can take the lessons, the good memories, and the inspiration that our loved ones gave us, and use it all as fuel for living unapologetically joyful lives. I think that is the least we can do.
Peace, joy, and balance are things that we have to choose to develop, but they aren’t really optional. They’re like essential nutrients that preserve our mental health. Sure we can choose to leave them off the plate, but we’ll suffer when we do.
For a black woman, maintaining stasis, learning to rest in carefree quietude, and not allowing her mental, physical, or spiritual health to be shaken, is in itself, a revolutionary act. And, as anyone with two good eyes should see, the time for revolution is now.