For nearly three decades, I recalled my past with a very matter-of-fact chronology. I was a teen mom. I lived through multiple periods of homelessness. I survived two violent romantic relationships. And then one day, I said, “no more drama,” and got my life on track to become an attorney. While all of this is true, my narrative I retold to myself and others was disengaged from the entire truth. Somehow, I learned that to survive my traumatic past, I had to disassociate from the raw emotions that brought me to tears. In fact, it was my (step) father, the late Aaron Quinn, Sr, who drilled into my subconscious year after year, “crying is weakness” and “how are you going to be a lawyer with all of that crying?”
What I did not know was that the person sitting in the driver’s seat of my success was my “unhealed self.” She was angry. She was determined to prove everyone wrong–everyone who had given up on her. She went after her college and law school education with a ferocity that was unmatched. And as everything that should have made me happy fell predictably into place, I was still afflicted. Fits of uncontrollable rage threatened the peace of everyone in my home. It even came very close to jeopardizing my career. The only explanation for my misery was that my husband was a bad fit for me. And my children were ungrateful. And my job was extremely demanding. And that I was terribly misunderstood–all of the time. . .
I poured myself deeper into my work, sacrificing my time, energy and passion to achieve more for the broken souls of Gwinnett County, Georgia who could not afford legal representation in their essential civil matters. I dived relentlessly into eviction matters to keep families off of the streets. I excelled as an in-house expert on consumer matters, going after used car dealers who would rip off single moms using their tax returns to buy a trash car that broke down as soon as it left the dealer’s lot. I swooped into divorces to defend women who had been physically and emotionally battered or abandoned. In my mind, I was made for this work. It fits so perfectly because of my ability to empathize with the pain of others.
But I was broken. My marriage was on the ropes, and I did not even care anymore. My mom, Mary, was dying and I was too busy running from my own pain to see the signs. And 9 months after my baby brother died, my baby brother, Aaron Jr., died suddenly from cancer. My strength had finally come to an end. What in the world just happened to me? Why? And how am I supposed to make the adjustment to all of this misery? This never-ending misery called life?
Even more, I was disgusted when one of my colleagues referred to me as “the strongest woman I’ve ever seen.” She thought it was a compliment. And perhaps in her mind it was. But for me, it was a scarlet letter. The infamous branding, “the strong black woman,” that had robbed me of my mother at the age of 57. I was tired of being “strong.” I wanted to be “happy,” at peace with my life. But how?
I embarked upon a journey that had no clear, beaten path. I had nothing to lose. My heart was broken beyond repair. I was living my life on automatic, with all of the boxes checked:
Complete your studies and secure your dream job…check.
Find a spouse and “sanctify” your sex life …check.
Join a Bible-based church…check.
Faithfully tithe to your local church…check.
Faithfully serve in your local church…check.
Take care of your children’s financial needs…check.
Pray for your children. . . check.
Be emotionally available for your children. . check.
Don’t say “no” to your husband when he wants sex … check.
Don’t have sex with another man outside of your marriage . . . check.
Keep off the extra weight so you can remain attractive to your husband…check.
Work harder than everyone else at work and excel in your practice…check.
And for all other areas not specifically enumerated above, make sure you are living as a good Christian woman…check.
And so, when the bottom dropped out and I was left as the last survivor of my childhood home, remaining after the loss of my biological dad, stepdad, mother, and now my beloved brother, I had to carefully analyze the evidence of my life. I had to serve as the judge, jury, and executioner to finally face the truth. And when I did this, the verdict I rendered was that none of the things on my checklist worked. At all. In fact, the checklist put me more at odds with myself most of the time. And since my checklist was a false witness, it only produced false evidence. To cover up the false evidence, I continued showing up in the world with a smile on my face, and a broken, empty heart. And finally, the day came when I decided “I’m not doing this anymore.” This was the decision where everything changed for real.
I’m not Doing this Anymore
I was working on one of the most insane cases of my career when my brother died. I hated this case. I accepted it because all of the other attorneys “felt for” the client. It was a ridiculous case. A custody dispute. Although I wasn’t really feeling the client, I felt bad for the child. Children are a guidepost for my decisions. I did so much damage bringing children into the world while still only being a child myself, I sought redemption through my work to at least make another child’s life better. That was my belief system: “pay for your wrongs.” Well, this narrative was completely disrupted when Aaron Jr. died. We were only 18 months apart. He was my childhood best friend and the funniest guy on earth. Everyone who knew Aaron loved him because of his infectious sense of humor. He was a riot. And now he is gone.
Aaron and I were still grieving the loss of our mother when he was suffering silently with cancer. I knew he wasn’t feeling his best. But often, he would shrug it off with a silly joke. No big deal. I knew things were serious when I finally got a call from his wife. She insisted he go and see a doctor. Fine. And when the diagnosis came back–cancer–the world stood still. He would begin chemotherapy the next day. I flew to Fort Lauderdale because I needed to be there with him. After about three days, things were going in the right direction. The last night I stayed in Florida to be with him, I slept on two chairs in his room in the ICU. I will always remember how he woke me up to cover myself with the blanket because it was cold, and he didn’t like that I appeared to be uncomfortable. This was one of the rare moments in our life that he would not allow me to be his big sister, but would be my “daddy brother,” and feel like he needed to take care of me instead. Aaron’s numbers were doing well while I was there. Perhaps I could go back to Atlanta while he continued to pull through. They would be moving him out of the ICU the next day. He’s going to make it. I know he will, I thought. For the first time ever in our lives, I told my brother “I love you” and he told me the same. This was serious, and I had no living memory without him in my life.
I set up an app on his phone to monitor his mood and to check in on him regularly. My closest cousin, Tonya, and my (step) sister, Ruquaiah, were sentinels at his bedside on alternating shifts while his wife pushed through work and managed their home and three daughters. I spoke to him over the phone the day before he died. Our sister was there with him. She prepared his favorite food for him–a Goober Grape brand peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When I called to check in, he was fussing at my sister for not putting enough Goober on the bread. I was delighted to hear him awake, and up to his normal shenanigans. Then he said to me, “Sherl, I need you to do me a favor.”
“What is it,” I asked.
“I need you to type me up an affidavit letter and tell this hospital to bring me some milk.”
I roared to hear my brother being ridiculous at that moment. “You stupid!” I responded, cheering him on with his favorite affirmation. He always tested his skills on me, and I loved laughing at my brother’s antics. And like that, he and I exchanged our last laugh together. And in a moment…one day…Aaron was gone.
I know the entire city of Atlanta could hear my wailing when I got the phone call from my Auntie Janice. “He’s gone, Sherl. Aaron didn’t make it.” My life had come to an end. My brother was gone. Only 9 months after mama. This is not happening right now. Oh my God!
I went to work the next day. My coping mechanism was “I am so thankful I got the chance to be with him to say goodbye.” This was the only condolence I could offer myself. At least I had no regrets. At least I made the effort when I had the opportunity. At least I told him “I love you” . . .
I worked most of the day before I shared with my managing attorney that my brother had passed away. I did not want sympathy and the sad faces walking into my office and making me want to cry. I was bigger than that. Bigger than all of this. And if I could survive hell before, then certainly this would not stop me from doing what I have to do.
I poured myself into my workday after day, numbing the throbbing pain of my broken heart. Time heals all wounds, right? So, if I could simply make it through the time it takes, then this won’t be so excruciating. In time, I will feel better. Life will go on, won’t it?
And for the first time in my life, none of the coping mechanisms really worked anymore. I was slipping into depression. I could not articulate it, but I knew I was off, foggy. For the first time, I could care less about what my clients felt or needed. I was doing the daily bare minimum to prove that I could still “show up.” During this time, I had employed my mother’s baby sister, Auntie Ramona, to help me with administrative tasks for my new business concept. Ramona was eager to step up to mother and nurture me, although she was also drowning in grief. I asked her to find a therapist for me, close to the job. She got an appointment for me on a Wednesday…I needed to get there. I needed help. Right away.
The therapist was a woman in her early sixties. A Jamaican woman. This comforted me slightly because my biological father was, and my paternal family are Jamaican. And the singsong patwa of the island is a familiar connection to my soul, my childhood. We began to talk about what brought me there. I can’t even remember what I said. But within 30 minutes, the therapist completely glitched my narrative with these words: “I am placing you on an immediate 60 day leave of absence.”
“But wait,” I protested, “can it begin on Friday? ” I need to finish up some work.”
“I cannot promise you that unless I know you are not going to cuss out your clients,” she pushed back with that stern Jamaican mom tone.
I was deflated. This looked weak. What would everyone else think? It was a late afternoon appointment. I had just enough time to leave her office and pick up my son from the private Christian school he attended. I was stunned. Did this lady just put the brakes on me? What did she mean by calling me angry? I’m simply grieving, not angry . . .
When I got home that evening, I hopped on the phone with Barbara, my good friend who is also a lawyer. I told her about the therapist’s recommendation. I still wanted to “clean up” my work, to go in until the end of the day on Friday. This was all happening too quickly.
“Char,” Barbara interrupted. “I have never ever had a time when you say something I don’t connect with. And right now, if you don’t get off this phone, and tell your managing attorney you are not coming in to work tomorrow, I’m coming over to your house, and you and I are going to fight.”
Dang. This was a TKO. I thought I was just on the ropes, just stunned for a moment. Just needed to make it to the next bell. But here was the second (strong) woman on the same day refusing to buy my foolishness.
You need to stop Char.
And when I perceived that my friend was not playing with me, and was not willing to budge, I reluctantly agreed. And I sent a text to my managing attorney to tell her that I was placed on a 60 day leave of absence. End of narrative. I don’t want to talk about it. Thank you for understanding.
That day was the beginning of “I’m not doing this anymore.” I’m not pretending to be okay anymore. I’m not insisting on being strong anymore. I’m not hiding my suffering anymore. I’m not sacrificing my life to rescue everyone else anymore.
That day was the day I broke a traumatic contract with my past. What I had inherited was a slave coping mechanism, “do what you have to do,” “don’t show weakness,” “keep it moving.” And what had it brought to my life? To my children? A dangerous self-reliance and pride that were at the root of why my mother and brother died alone–too strong to ask for help, or to honestly disclose the severity–the truth–that their lives were slipping away.
That day, I decided I’m not going out like mama and Aaron Jr. went out. No. That day, I set my determination to unlock the truth, so that my children would not ever have to say goodbye to me as a consequence of suffering silently, alone and too strong to admit my vulnerability.
I’m not doing that anymore.
Wow’ What an incredible journey! This should be part of the #GoodReads
Continue to look forward!
Marcia L Callicoat
Thanks for sharing your story in such a vulnerable way.