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Stories of Reflection

Open the Door

James Warren December 03, 2022
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Maya was born on March 11, 1971 in Nashville, TN. (I was born exactly 15 months later in the same city.) Based on my birth certificate, I think we were both born at then-named Hubbard Hospital, which was part of the historically Black Meharry Medical College, where my father was attending medical school at the time. 

Picture of Hubbard Hospital at Meharry Medical College.

Caption: Hubbard Hospital, part of Meharry Medical College. Source: HBCU Library Alliance Digital Collection

I have only a handful of photographs – literally just two or three – from our time as small children. Some of that is because of all of the disruption we experienced growing up, largely due to my father’s alcoholism and everything that accompanied that. Despite that, I have a profound sense of Maya always being by my side; even when she wasn’t physically there, I could feel her presence and her protection.

The author and sister as young children

Growing up, our mother always managed to keep our core, our nucleus, intact. Through lots and lots of moves – Tennessee, Mississippi, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Virginia, Rhode Island, New York again, and Virginia again – the main constant was the three of us. And within that, my sister and I maintained an exceptionally close bond as close friends, confidants, co-conspirators, and one another’s best advocates.

The author and sister as young adults

Caption: Maya and me at my off-campus apartment in Princeton, NJ, when she and Mom visited me and our long-time family friends who lived upstairs. Maya and I were adopted grandchildren of sorts to “Grandma Johnnie” and “Grandma Bea” who lived in Princeton as far back as when my grandfather pastored a church there, Mt. Pisgah AME Church, about five blocks away. My maternal grandparents died when my mother was in college and so Maya and I never met them. However Maya’ s middle name is in honor of my maternal grandmother, Anna. And Bea and Johnnie served as a connection to family that we never met, always regaling us with stories of what our grandparents were like when they lived in Princeton, and what my mother was like as a youngster.

We took very different pathways to and through college. Because of all of the disruptions in our family lives, we homeschooled for a period of time. I loved the freedom it afforded me. Maya? Not so much. I eventually returned to traditional school in New York, graduated from The Dwight School and then attended Princeton University for two years. Later, I resumed my studies at Creative Writing at Columbia University and I left school without my degree. 

Maya valued education deeply and worked extremely hard to pursue it. She got her G.E.D., then attended the Borough of Manhattan Community College before transferring to New York University where she earned her undergraduate degree. She later earned her law degree from Fordham Law School and her master’s from Regent University.

The author and sister as young adults.

Caption: Maya and me at her NYU graduation party in New York, I believe; I think this was in the multipurpose room of the church where my mother served as minister of music. I am struck by Maya’s beauty. Even when she wasn’t smiling a huge smile, her mouth was almost always in a state of subtle grin.

It was during this time, in the mid to late nineties, that I began to sense a change in Maya, a difference I could not fully relate to at the time. Her smile seemed a little dimmer whenever we would reconnect during holiday breaks and visits home. 

The author and sister as young adults.

Caption: Maya and me during Christmas in 1993 or ‘94, in our home in midtown Manhattan. I always found it funny that people said we looked so much alike. I never saw it until looking at this picture. Now.

In the summer of 1996, I got married, and in the spring of 1997, my first child was born. Maya threw herself into the role of doting aunt. And even after I separated from Danielle, my older sons’ mother, in early 2000, Maya maintained a healthy relationship with Danielle. I moved back home to my mother’s during this time, where my sister also lived. I was living a very selfish life at that time, and we didn’t spend a lot of time together. I spent most weekends in Princeton with my sons, and occasionally brought them to my mother’s house for weekends there. Now these were delightful times for all of us, as my mother, Maya, the boys and I would spend time together as a family. Maya would light up at the sight of her nephews. They were so much her joy, and through these interactions, she continued to be a steady influence in my life and in my children’s lives. 

This was true even after I moved from New York to Richmond in the summer of 2003. This was hard on the boys and on me, as I would only see them one weekend a month, spring break, summer break, and part of the holidays. When I was angry and struggling to communicate with my ex-wife, Maya often listened to me, took time to offer a gentle word or two, and helped me see things from a broader perspective. She visited often and spent time with my boys and me during the occasional extended weekends or summer breaks.

The author and sister as adults

Caption: Maya and me during one of her visits to Richmond, probably in early 2004. She attended church with the boys and me that day.

Throughout this time, I could tell things were deteriorating for my sister. Some of this was manifesting in her relationship with my mother. I saw them as codependent and every now and then I’d get a call from one or the other of them, desperate to explain to me how awful things were. Zooming out, I could tell Maya was struggling with the lack of personal companionship and with uncertainty about her career. 

I began dating my wife, Darcy, during this time and she soon moved from Scottsdale, AZ to Richmond, VA so we could be together. My sister encouraged me even when my mother questioned my decision to get into a new relationship with Darcy, so soon (in her estimation) after the breakup of my marriage to Danielle. She was initially critical of the interfaith aspect of our relationship, she questioned how the boys would be affected, she even worried about what it meant for Danielle (!). Through it all, Maya was supportive of me, and as Darcy and I proved that we had what it took to make it as a couple and build a blended family, Maya was always there, in my corner. She and Darcy became very close, and I am confident that her ability to show love to both Darcy and Danielle (and also gently coach her little brother along the way) had much to do with our family not falling apart. 

She was doing this despite her own considerable pain, as I learned after Maya died. She kept everything she could, even little datebooks and journals from 2001, 2002, 2003 and so on, leaving these for me to discover after she was gone. 

A collection of colorful datebooks.

Caption: Some of Maya’s many brightly colored pocket datebooks, journals and address books.

Even in the margins of a calendar, she would write about her loneliness, her wish for a partner, her wish to have a different body, her wish for so much in life to be different than it was. At the time, I did not know the depth of her despair, I just thought she was “going through things.” 

Darcy and I got engaged in the fall of 2006, and got married at the end of the year. When my mother and sister got to town, I could tell things were bad. Maya was in law school at this time, and also taking care of my mother who was beginning to experience a number of significant, long-term health issues, including needing extensive wound care. They argued practically the entire visit. Now it was Darcy’s turn to step in, and be the bridge. I remember Darcy helping me stay calm, and also giving Maya a respite by bandaging my mother’s leg wounds, the same way Maya had done for my mother, countless times before. 

At the rehearsal dinner, my sister came over to me. I could tell she was emotionally drained. She hugged me hard. She said, “I am so proud of you.” I asked why. She replied, “You just always seem to know what you want. And you go out and make it happen.” She was talking about Darcy and me. She was talking about my career. She was talking about how I seemed able to let my mother’s “stuff” slide off my back. I didn’t know how to process that. It was the way I was. And it was not her way. And this, I would soon learn, was a deep source of pain for her. 

I believe some of this pain stemmed from the way she saw herself, physically, and the amount of criticism – spoken and unspoken – she endured from people because of her body. At the wedding, that was probably one of the times when Maya struggled with her self-image the most. Her anger and hurt at struggling to find an outfit she wanted made me wince, and yet I was ill-equipped to provide any relief.

Picture of a family at a wedding

Caption: A family photo from my side of the family, when Darcy and I got married. As many of us do when we don’t want to be photographed, Maya stood in the background.

Also around this time, Maya also started questioning life choices. Almost as soon as she graduated law school, she wondered aloud if she had made the wrong decision. She asked me often, “Do you think I made a mistake?” I didn’t think so, but it seemed like she did. She felt she was destined to be a doctor, like our father. A pediatrician is what she always wanted to be. 

In the spring and summer of 2008, the wheels started to come off. This was the first real break. 

My mother was in and out of the hospital, things were getting bad between the two of them. My mother was nearing a permanent state of physical challenge, and my sister was already in an emotional one that few people saw. One day, my mother called in a panic. She said Maya wasn’t answering her calls. I figured this was just because she didn’t want to talk to her. I promised to call myself. I did so, and still, no response. We tried for the next day and by this point, I myself started to assume something bad had happened. So I asked my cousin’s husband Emir, and a couple of my friends, Steph and Monique, to go see about Maya. I had my mother and my cousin Denise on standby in case we had to deliver bad news. They went to the house and eventually, they got Maya to answer. Through the door she said she didn’t want to talk to them. So, we knew she was alive, but that was about it.

The next day, Darcy and I dropped everything and drove to New York. This was my first intervention and I didn’t know what to expect. I finally got Maya to answer the door, and she let me in. The place was a disaster. Maya didn’t seem like herself. She was in a very bad place. She wasn’t working. 

So we got out of there. We left the house and went to the beach. We talked. And we made a plan. She seemed like she wanted to live, but she and my mother needed a break from another – and Maya needed a fresh start.

Within a few weeks, we managed to get my mother and sister moved out of that place. We moved my mother into an assisted living home in Richmond in the spring of 2008, and Maya moved to Richmond a few months later.

Maya came to live with us, and slowly, she rebuilt her life in Richmond. Darcy and I worked hard to support Maya, as Maya had supported me (and eventually us). Maya started working part-time at Barnes and Noble (there’s another story there, too). Within a year, my sons came to live in Richmond with Darcy and me full-time where they would complete elementary, middle and high school. Maya gradually created her own social circle, she restarted her career in law, and she moved into her own apartment. For a while, it seemed like everything was back on track. Our family would survive.

And then, my mother became very ill. She had a stroke and despite partial recovery, things were never the same. One medical issue after another battered her, until her body couldn’t handle any more. And in the spring of 2013, Mom passed away.

Image of a funeral program

Caption: This is from the program from our mother’s funeral. Maya’s love for Mom is perfectly captured in this expression. I don’t believe Maya ever fully recovered from Mom’s death.

This was the second major break for Maya. 

She blamed herself. She anguished over never having children. She told me she had failed our mother when it came to her health. I knew this was not true, but it did not matter. After Mom died, Maya never really recovered. 

When Darcy and I announced that she was pregnant with our first child together in Summer 2013, I could see the pain on Maya’s face, even as she wished us well. She broke down in my car when I told her. I don’t know how she carried it.

She would often tell me that her grief over Mom’s death just kept getting worse. She couldn’t find any escape. She moved apartments every couple of years. 

The sadness was marked with brief moments of relief. We would get away to visit family and friends, and sometimes Maya would go on her own. The beach was often a place of refuge for her, and this was true after Mom died.

The author and sister as adults.

Caption: Maya and me (and Darcy behind the camera) in Virginia Beach, not long after our mother passed away in 2013. Although her smiles were always beautiful and almost effortless, they were never quite as bright as they used to be, before things started changing for her in 2008.

Over the next few years, there were episodes where Maya would unburden her pain with me, but they were few and far in between. She always felt like her pain was too much to share with me. (Some of her friends have shared similar thoughts with me.) Still, despite her own challenges, Maya remained a steadfast force in our family, ironically helping us through the very things she thought came easy to me: marital troubles, the loss of a job, and the significant challenges my oldest son and I were having in our relationship at the time. 

All along, Maya was there for us. 

I thought I detected a new stability in Maya, a new love for life, in 2018 and 2019. She was traveling, visiting friends. Still, her writings would later prove to me that she was trying, but the pain was still unbearable. The pain of a life she felt was unfulfilled and unfulfilling, barren, unloved, hurt and abandoned.

Photo of a woman in a coffee shop.

Caption: Maya and me having one of our heart-to-hearts about life and the future. I thought she was finding a way through the darkness, as evidenced by one of her brightest smiles in a decade. But alas, it was short-lived.

Covid was ultimately the thing that accelerated the end of Maya’s life. I say accelerated, because looking back, I think I always expected it would end this way. This was the third act in a nearly 15-year-long tragedy stretching back to 2008, but arguably almost her whole life in the making.

During the first year of Covid, we more or less made it through unscathed. Maya and I had different views of Covid, but for the first year, it didn’t matter. All that changed in summer 2021. Our different views turned into division that we both bear responsibility for, and we didn’t spend any time together for the next six months. The holidays were a disaster and the heartbreak was felt all around. For Christmas, we met in the parking lot outside her apartment. I won’t go into why that’s how it went, but suffice it to say it was depressing for everyone. I missed my sister dearly during the holidays last year. 

We were always together for my mother’s birthday, my sister’s and my birthday’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. That was the first time we had missed that kind of gathering since 2008. So, headed into early 2022, I made up my mind that we weren’t going to do that again, and Covid or no Covid, we were going to figure out how to set our views aside and be together as a family. And we did that, throughout the spring of 2022, this year.

It felt good to be reconnected. And then in May, just before Mother’s Day and a few days before my son’s college graduation, everyone in the house got Covid. So we had to skip Mother’s Day. This was logical to me. Heartbreaking to Maya. This was the first year since my mother died that we had not been together on Mother’s Day, and I would later learn from one of her dear friends, it was the final breaking point.

The next month, from Mother’s Day through my birthday on June 11, turned out to be a case study in someone’s life falling apart. And I had no idea. None of us had the whole picture. A relatively minor medical illness led her to see multiple doctors, most of whom told her there wasn’t really anything major wrong with her. She checked herself into the hospital. They told her she was fine, so she checked out — but she didn’t stay in her apartment. She wasn’t able to go to work. She checked in and out of hotels around Richmond. She stayed at friend’s houses, not telling them what was fully wrong. She did all of this by herself, hidden from view. 

We made plans to spend my 50th birthday together on Saturday, June 11. I had no idea that by that point, Maya had already made her plans and arrangements to die. She had already sent her goodbyes. When we took a family photo, she didn’t want to be in front of the camera. So she took the picture. She gave me a very odd hug and left early.

Family photo

Caption: This photo is my last gift from Maya; I love this photo of my family, and we don’t have a lot of the whole family. Darcy made a point of getting one together on my birthday. It has extra-special significance now since Maya took it for us just a few days before she died. We asked to get a picture with her in it, but she declined.

She and I last texted on June 13th I think. And on Friday the 17th, I noticed that a person was trying to reach me through my various social media channels – LinkedIn, Facebook, you name it. She was Maya’s coworker. She said Maya hadn’t shown up for work earlier in the week like she was supposed to, after her leave of absence had ended (which I didn’t even know about). They had tried to call her multiple times, no answer. She was worried. 

I took a few deep breaths. I knew. I knew. I left my meeting; the kids were home that day, so Darcy made arrangements for a neighbor to watch them for us so she could go with me. She said there was no way I was going to Maya’s by myself. 

We got in the car and drove over to Maya’s apartment. This was only my second time there. She lived in that place for four years, and I had only been there once before, for Christmas, standing in the parking lot to exchange gifts.

View of apartments

Caption: This is the parking lot in front of Maya’s apartment (which is a few doors in, using the sidewalk. This is where we stood on Christmas Day 2021. This is where Darcy and I came when no one could reach Maya.

When we got there, we banged on the door. We asked neighbors if they’d seen her. Finally, I got the apartment manager and she came with a key. 

We took a deep breath, and I unlocked the door.

Picture of a front porch and door.

Caption: This is Maya’s front porch. This is where we stood when we discovered that Maya had died.

It wouldn’t budge. There was something wedging it shut. My immediate thought was that it must be Maya unconscious on the floor, behind the door. I put my shoulder into it a bit more and managed to get some space. I could see Maya in the distance, lying on the floor. I screamed out, “She’s down! She’s on the ground.” I don’t know why I said that.

The apartment manager said, “Break it down if you have to!” So I put all my weight into and popped what was holding the door free. It was one of those security bars that people who are afraid of being burglarized place on their doors. That, or afraid of being discovered and interrupted in the middle of dying.

I busted into the apartment. It looked exactly like my mother’s house did back in 2018 when Darcy and I went to New York to rescue Maya.

I saw Maya. This was a small apartment, so she was no more than 10 feet away. A light was on and the air conditioner was running.

An apartment interior

Caption: After Maya died, Darcy and I, a couple of Maya’s friends, and one of my sons cleaned out her apartment. Darcy did the most of this. It looks much better in this photo than it did when we found Maya.

I crept forward, shaking. And then I saw her fully. She had prepared herself and arranged herself with dignity. And I was fairly certain she was dead. I ran back out and just started crying and shaking. 

Everything from that point on was a blur. It still feels like scenes in a movie with strobe lights flashing. I was in multiple planes of consciousness, immediately. Processing Maya being gone, thinking about the kids, wondering how she died. Darcy was on the phone with 911, and they asked us to verify that Maya was not breathing. I couldn’t go back inside, so Darcy did. She came out, crying and in shock. I heard her tell the dispatcher that she wasn’t breathing.

Maya was gone.

Over the next few minutes, hours and days, I struggled to process this. I mean, we knew it was suicide. The manner of death was evident. Still, I had so many questions and so much confusion in my mind. 

I learned that in cases like this, the official date of death is the day we found her. I get it, and it makes me sad, because I don’t know if she died on Monday the 13th, Tuesday the 14th, Wednesday the 15th, Thursday the 16th or Friday the 17th. It does seem like it was closer to the 17th than not, but that is scant comfort. 

Over the next couple of weeks, we got through the funeral, and I gave her eulogy. There was never any doubt about that. Eventually, it was time to stop procrastinating and start the process of cleaning out the apartment, so we could vacate it by the end of July. We couldn’t afford to keep it on our own beyond that, nor did we think we should. It was time to pack things up and move on, right?

A door

Caption: This is the door to Maya’s apartment. I closed it for the last time on Sunday, July 31st, 2022.

I’ll never forget the way it felt to touch that doorknob for the last time. To close the door shut. The place I had entered for the first time six weeks prior was now empty. Devoid of all presence. And yet, the place still smelled familiar, which I found very disconcerting.

A sidewalk

Caption: This was the sidewalk at the end of the day, moving the last of Maya’s belongings out of the apartment. It was raining this day, just as it had been on the day we came to find her.

August and September continued the beginning of the processing. We took a family vacation to Cape Charles, Virginia, our first vacation with all four of the children together. And we brought some of Maya’s ashes with us. A couple of days before the end, we took a boat ride out towards the middle of the Bay, far from shore. Dolphins swam with us. Each of us put a small seashell-shaped, water soluble urn containing some of Maya’s ashes into the water. And we laid Maya to rest in one of the only places she ever felt whole.

Beach at Cape Charles

Caption: This is a beach at Cape Charles, at sunset on the day we laid Maya to rest in the sea. I felt a small measure of peace there, and we cannot wait to go back. We know where she is now.

I find myself often stuck in a gaze. Time pauses, and my thoughts drift to wondering where Maya is, really. I know that some of her ashes are now dissolved into an ocean.

But where is she? All I want to know now is what happens next. To her. To us. There is so much we do not understand about God, about the universe, about how energy exists in other forms, about consciousness and where it comes from and goes to. Is she in another form? Is she in heaven? What is heaven? Does it have the physical attributes of space and time? Is it a different kind of consciousness? Where is she?  

I gaze into the heavens, especially at night. I know where Maya’s physical being rests. But I am intently, almost insanely and insatiably curious, about where her spiritual being exists. I have to know.

Picture of space with a door in the middle

Background photo credit: Arthouse Studio on Pexels

One thing I am absolutely certain about is this: Maya’s life, as difficult as it was, was actually a life of service. She cared for our mother. She protected me. She guided her nephews and her niece. She treated Darcy and Danielle as her family. She supported us. She was loyal to her friends. Truly, she gave us herself – perhaps too much – an angel among us. And then, on June 17th, 2022, she left to go to the next place. 

Which brings me back to the question that will stay with me for a while, as I stare at the stars, and I wonder at the marvels of the universe, and I ask her: “Is that where you are, Maya? Are you out there, both ashes in the sea and dust in the sky?”

I long to know what lies beyond the Door. I long to see my sister again, one day. 

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