I believe in God. Not the judgmental God featured in many versions of the Bible, who condemns everyone who isn’t a cisgender straight white man. Not the God that’s attached to any religion, nor the God whose love isn’t big enough to understand human error. I believe in the God who provides strength and faith when people need it, and who loves everyone — even those who don’t believe. I discovered this during one of the hardest summers of my life.
It’s June 16, 2014, one of those rare, breezy summer days in Chicago. The sun is shining through my blinds and, even though it’s a Saturday, I wake up early. I want to ride my bike by Lake Michigan before it gets too hot and I lose my motivation. I’m stressed — I have a physics final on Monday, and am barely passing the class — but I don’t want that to ruin this perfect day, so I skip a shower, eat a bowl of Raisin Bran, and change into my favorite bright-orange running outfit.
The doorbell rings. It’s my uncle. I roll my eyes: I can tell he’s been out all night and know that as soon as I open the door he’ll reek of alcohol (among other things).
“Hey,” I say, my voice dripping with attitude. I try to get past him. He’s not going to ruin this perfect day for me either.
“Hey, Rah,” he says, using my nickname. “Is it true what happened to your dad last night?”
I stop in my tracks and turn around, confused. My reaction should be his cue to stop talking, but the previous evening had clearly gotten the better of his senses.
“Is it true that your daddy got killed last night?” he asks.
“What?” I say.
“Oh, you didn’t know?” he responds. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”
I am frozen for a moment, but it feels like much longer. My whole body seizes and I can’t breathe.
“Yeah, maybe,” I say. I slowly walk my bike out on the front porch. I can only hear the wheels of the bike turning and my own heart beating. Then I drop the bike, run back inside to get my phone, sit on my bed, and dial my father’s number.
Ringing ... ringing ... ringing ... voice mail.
OK, it’s early, I think. I’ll try again.
Redial. Ringing ... ringing ... ringing ... voice mail.
“You really picked the worst fucking time to not answer your phone,” I say out loud.
Ringing ... ringing ... fuck this. I throw my phone down and run downstairs to my mother’s room. I bang on the door, which is usually a major no-no, but this is urgent. It’s cold. I’m cold. Her door is locked, which means her boyfriend is here.
“What?” he says. I ask, “Is my mama in there?” It’s the first time I hear my own voice, and it’s shaky. So are my hands. My shirt is wet. I didn’t even know I was crying. I hear indistinct whispering, and bang on the door again — harder this time, so they know it’s urgent. My mother comes to the door and opens it. Her eyes are bloodshot. I just fall to the ground, wailing. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to.
Before she can pick me up off the floor, I sprint to my room, crying. I immediately call a friend — no answer. I close my door and sit on the floor, crying and screaming about all of the life events my father will never get to see me achieve.
Then my younger brother walks into my room, crying. We have never been an emotional or affectionate family — especially not my brother, who is named after my father. But now he grabs me in a fierce hug. At first I’m shocked, but then I hug him back as tight as I can. We cry in each other’s arms for what feels like years.
I just leave. I walk out of the house, get on my bike, and ride it as fast as I can, for as long and as far as I can go. The cold wind feels good against my tear-soaked face. It’s quiet and I can hear the waves of the lake splashing against the concrete. It calms me.
Finally I stop. My legs are throbbing and I’m completely out of breath. I notice a man sitting about 200 feet away from me, fishing quietly and peacefully. We are the only people there. I start crying again and take comfort in the fact that this stranger is far enough away to seem unbothered by my sobs, but close enough that I’m not alone.
Suddenly, the feeling returns to my numbed body — my phone is vibrating. My mom is calling me for the 14th time and I finally answer. I tell her where I am and ask her to come pick me and my bike up. My body is too tired to ride back. I hang up and the man who was fishing, an elderly black man, hands me a bottle of water and gives me a look so kind that it stays with me from that moment on. He doesn’t say anything.
The next few weeks go by and I don’t cry in front of my family and friends. I let them cry on my shoulder, but at night I pretend I'm going to sleep early. Later, I check everyone’s rooms to make sure they’re sleeping, then go into my closet, pile all of my coats and things on top of me, and sob until I can’t produce tears anymore. I sob until my whole body hurts, then then I get angry and kick and muffle my screams. I usually start crying again before I fall asleep in there.
For weeks, my life feels like the opening sequence of BoJack Horseman, where the main character goes through the motions of his life without feeling anything. But one night, I get down on my knees and pray, which I hadn’t done since the 7th grade, when I had decided that religion was stupid and I wouldn’t be a part of it anymore.
“Um, hi,” I begin. “I know we haven’t talked in a while and that’s my fault. And I know I’ve said some bad things about you and your followers — again, my bad. I know I shouldn’t only come to you when things are bad, but here’s the thing: I don’t feel anything these days. Food doesn’t have a taste. I have no purpose. I don’t laugh anymore. I love to laugh — you know, the kind of laughter that comes from deep within you, the kind that you feel in your soul. Look, I don’t know if you’re real, but I have nowhere else to turn. So if you are out there, please send me a sign that I’ll be OK. Please make me laugh again.”
A few more weeks go by and I’m downtown when I find a newspaper bearing the headline, “The Bloodiest Weekend In Chicago History.” The story reports: “Todd Wood Sr., 40, was shot and killed in a bar. He was one of many shot, but the only fatality.”
They spelled his name wrong. They spelled his fucking name wrong. It’s Todd Woods Sr. Suddenly I’m sobbing again and walking without paying attention. I know I’m lost because when I look up, I’m surrounded by white people and designer boutiques.
Then something happens: I watch an elderly white man slip on what appears to be a banana peel. He’s fine — he recovers and walks away — but I’m almost instantly filled with joy. I laugh until my body cannot produce air. I laugh deeply, with every part of myself. I can’t stop laughing. It’s such a simple, almost movie-like act, a stark contrast to all of the heaviness that weighed me down for so long. It feels good to be able to see the world in color again.
Weeks later, while telling my friends about this, I very quietly realize that this was the sign. I’m going to be OK.
Death happens to everyone, and it’s impossible to control the visceral reactions of your body and mind when it happens to someone you love. If you’re like me, when a loved one dies, your life will seem like it’s in black and white while everyone else’s is still in color. You may become anxious, depressed, and afraid of the finality of death, as I did. But you may also learn that finding and believing in something bigger than yourself can help give it color again.
Honestly, even though I found something bigger, it’s hardly been easy. Even while writing this — three long years after I lost my father — I felt like I was reliving that pain. I don’t know if it’ll get better in 10, 15, or even 20 years, but I feel lucky that I found something bigger than myself that helps me live my life as fully as I can. I found my color in my God, and it saved me.
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