My eighteen-year-old cousin shot himself in the head in a game of Russian Roulette late one morning amidst getting high. I gather he was trying to impress some girls, but made the fatal mistake of taking it too far. His two fellow accomplices who helped him sell steroids and steal gym equipment around town were also present.
A somewhat dubious mystery remains to this day if he was shot by these two guys or just actually played Russian Roulette. However, the two men were never seen again after that day. And the police closed the case concluding leaving foul play at bay and leaned towards his death being a game of Russian Roulette.
Chris was taken to the Pomona Hospital and placed on life support. When my brother and I arrived, we visited him separately. He was our dearest loved one and he was mortally injured. Then, our estranged mother showed up and instantly an awful situation became worst.
Earlier that year, my Grandma Anne had died of liver failure and in her will, she left all of her belongings to my brother, two younger cousins, and myself. Anticipating a fight over money, Grandma made it contingent; if the sisters chose to contest the will, Aunt Nancy and my mother would only get $1. My mother, who left my family when I was ten, demanded I give her my share of the money after the probate finally ended.
It was only $24k but it felt like $24 million at the time. I was only nineteen. Her wicked tongue, full of scorn, created a pivotal moment in our lives that would change the trajectory of our relationship forever. Frightened, I finally took a stand and said “no” to her. I knew at that point, I could never ever ask anything from her again. And that remains true to this day.
Chris died forty days after his fatal stunt and I did not even know how to begin to process his death. He had just had a baby, Little Chris. And I had spent so much of my childhood playing with him and going on vacations with the family, I found myself sinking into a surreal world made of my own devices.
To say I went crazy is an understatement. “Seize the Day” became my mantra. Although, my real modus operandi was to run as far away as possible. That year, I moved from Santa Barbara to San Jose, to Berkely to Westlake Village, and back to Santa Barbara in less than four months.
The Impact of Death
Death affects everyone differently at different stages of their life. My stage was denial. I absolutely cut off all contact from my Aunt Nancy, younger cousin Mandy, and Uncle Eddie. I did not know what to say. Many nights I cried with guilt and shame that I was such a coward. But I still did not call. I could not find the words to explain my sorrow.
I held onto the death of my cousin like mortar to a stone. My feelings were deeply ground into the setting of his death and I could not let go. Every day and every night, I thought of him. He was so young. I was so young. This tragedy did not mix well with my idealistic beliefs, which left me with a chronic feeling of cognitive dissonance that I could never truly shake; even when I was high.
And I got high! All-day long, I was altered. It was my preference of being. It was more than escape, it was a way of life. This perpetual state of numbness followed me to work, to the movies, on walks, and while I enjoyed my time with my friends. I cannot remember a moment where I took a sober breath for over a decade.
Something happens to a person when they are on drugs all the time. They check out. They disassociate. To function I needed to be high. Therefore, while I became academically smarter and street smarter, my emotional maturity was much lower than I pretended. I knew how to walk the walk. I knew how to tap to someone else’s tune before they even knew they had one. But no one knew me.
I was funny, charming, witty, impulsive, and hard working. But inside I was tortured by existence itself. I wanted to die most of the time. I would curl up in bed and sleep for days. In fact, most days I slept 12 to 16 hours. Sleep was a time of mental repair and it was also a time of escape. The biggest issue was that I was not prepared in any way for the future reverberations of pain that awaited me.
It was July 19, 1999, when my brother called to say my dad was pooping his pants. I rushed down to California from Oregon on the next plane. My dad had a hollow look in his eyes and I felt he was bound for a mental institution. His moods had always been erratic and he, too, succumbed to drug addiction for relief on a daily basis.
However, after eight hours in the Tarzana Emergency Room, my dad finally walked out and told me nothing was wrong. He was angry that I insisted he wear adult diapers and he demanded to leave. There was no way I was going anywhere until I spoke to a doctor. So, as he sat outside in the parking lot to smoke, a habit he vehemently denied, I confronted the doctor.
“He has a huge mass in his lung,” the doctor gently explained.” He will need to go to inpatient and be examined.” I had no idea what the doctor was implying. But I sent my father away in an ambulance to another hospital two hours away that his insurance would accept. When the workup was complete, we learned that dad had seven brain tumors and kidney cancer too.
Jason and I played “Father of Mine, “ by Everclear on repeat for several hours that night while drinking microbrews and taking pills. Dad was extremely sick and he hid it from us until he could no longer hide it from anyone.
In my Portland home, I cared for him for 11 weeks. I washed his butt, and made him food and begged him not to fall. I called him by his first name because with brain damage, patients respond to their own names versus dad or whatnot. He was not about to give up smoking so I placed him in hospice and sat with him every day, stealing some of his drugs as he wasted away.
After he died, the decimation of my soul was complete. Whoever I once was no longer existed. And, I lost everything. My car, my house, my first husband, friends, my health. and all my money.
By the mercy of God, I was granted admittance to a halfway house near Compton where I shared a home with 19 other women: all from prison, many prostitutes. I was the only white girl. But my charm and ability to fit in catapulted me into being accepted and actually liked by many of the women. In retrospect, It was actually a wonderful but uncertain time.
I left the halfway house with $7 in my back pocket. And I worked, and worked, and worked, and worked. I cleaned toilets, cared for other people’s children, and was exploited as well as demoralized in situations under the authority of extremely wealthy employers; none who knew anything of my past.
Furthermore, the rules of sober living limited my ability to work late and I despised having to check-in and out on a piece of paper every time I left or came home.
After meeting my husband, my life stabilized, and things were becoming better. I called my Aunt and apologized that I had not spoken to her, and she did not seem to notice. It is funny how a person can waste so much time worrying about another person’s reaction to only find out that no one really cared but you the whole time!
It Begins Again
My cousin Mandy called me in 2010 to ask for money for a gambling debt. I said “no.” And that was the last time I ever spoke to her again. At 35, she died in 2013, from liver failure. I quickly noticed my Aunt Nancy was also withering away due to alcoholism as I attended Mandy’s funeral which put me in a panic.
It took Nancy one year to die from liver failure. She died on the 4th of July: it was just like her to go out with a bang. I was deeply saddened but I still had Uncle Eddie.
I made sure to call that man as much as I could. I visited him and I checked on him and I grew to love him as an adult more than I ever did as a child. He made me laugh. He told me stories and in every sentence, he ended it with “and shit,” And that made me laugh.
“I went to the store and shit and I got potatoes and shit and I went to the bank and shit.” I can hear him say it now. The last time we talked he aforementioned a looming pain I truly wanted to avoid. He said to me, “ I am not going to be around forever and shit, you need to visit me.” We agreed that I would visit after the COVID pandemic died down.
Well, there was no “after COVID” visit. Uncle Eddie contracted the disease and died two weeks later. Actually, it was four days ago, on the 4th of July: out with a bang. Aunt Nancy had come for him, finally. And Shit!
I never sobbed so hard than with the death of Uncle Eddie. All my family members meant something to me but I was older now and I was in touch with my emotions. I cried and yelled and utterly fell apart. And it has only been four days.
I told my mom but she did not respond and I became angry frozen in respite.
My father’s mother died as well in 2005 as well, but I was able to make amends to her on her death bed. The last time I visited her I got so drunk, I made a fool of her in front of her sisters and I flew across the country to apologize in person.
Now, she was moaning, traveling in and out of two worlds. I said to her “Grandma, it is me.” She paid no mind. “Isabel, Isabel, it is Chelsea.” And for one very brief bit of time, she acknowledged me.” You are the best thing I could ever see right now, “ she said in a semi-coherent voice and then drifted back to where she was originally headed: heaven.
A septuplet configuration of death summoned me to drift towards my starkest edges. What transpired that was beyond my control. And, they, my family, were all gone now.
Feeling Sad: Hope
However, something different happened to me this time. I am not sad, I feel sad. This is a concept I learned from Laurie Anderson’s YouTube video How to Feel Sad Without Being Sad. From Anderson, I learned there is a huge difference between the two concepts. Being sad engulfs all of one’s being. Feeling sad is less relentless and allows for a reprieve. Feeling sad does not define me. It is fleeting, wistful, and temporary. And although, I lost my idea to seize the day many years ago. It has returned.
The way to seize the day is not to climb tall mountains every day and declare victory as if each day is your last. To live like that would surely end in failure. However, to seize the day, I listen, show love, engage in gratitude, look for the good (JS), welcome my dark side, interact with others, and do not pretend to be okay all the time. Most of all, this old codependent woman is taking care of herself.
I have been diagnosed with PTSD and I have to say that I am shocked. I did not realize how severely affected I was by trauma but through therapy, I am healing. I notice it in the little things. For instance, I sleep less, cry less, and laugh more. I am pursuing my future in education, while currently working as a writing specialist and as a freelance writer.
I remember years ago, I asked my father why he never acknowledged my writing. He told me I lacked life experience. I was twenty.
Guess what Dad? I do not lack for anything any longer and I am accountable for all of it. Therefore, I am going to go on each day with my eyes wide open, looking into the abyss: fear replaced with wonder, expectations replaced with truth.
I, too, will see the end of the tunnel one day. But I know I have truly lived. I have extensively traveled, earned two degrees, lived abroad as a Diplomat, and became an elected official as a School Board Member, as well as been given the opportunity to teach.
I have witnessed death and the last dying breath of two loved ones. I have seen life grow into my now eleven-year-old son. I have undergone 10 major surgeries, as well as grew fat and began my journey to shrinking in size again.
I have endured the medical system, the welfare system, and instituted my rights for freedom of expression under some of the most chilling circumstances. I have played with kittens, avoided zoos, and climbed volcanoes in Chile.
Most importantly, I have loved many people; some have stayed, some have gone. But what I do know is that I do not have regret. I have only love, And no one can ever take that from me: I feel sad but I am beautiful.
Anderson, Laurie. “How to Feel Sad Without Being Sad.” How To Feel Sad Without Being Sad, YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwqZOrA2DbM.