By: Michael Kellerman, Transformations alumnus
There she laid… her strawberry blonde hair crusty and tinged with a dark red, like the chain of a bicycle that has rusted from being left out in the rain. Jaimee is her name. Beautiful, intelligent, athletic, inspiring: these are just a few descriptive words people would use to characterize her. Jaimee’s face was swollen – her beautiful bronze skin was losing its color; and I was losing my oldest sister. The image of her lifeless demeanor continues to haunt me to this day. Bailey – she is the middle child – sat with me; we were squeezing each others’ hands, reciting any and every prayer we knew. Our pastor was there, too. He assured Bailey and me that everything was going to be okay. “I have always known that Jaimee was special. If God needs her now, you will know why later on. All of God’s doings are part of His plan. You are not supposed to understand it, nobody is. You just need to have faith,” he said. I wanted to trust him, so I did. I had believed in God my entire life; why should I stop then? “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird,” I heard my mom softly singing to Jaimee aside the hospital bed. I watched a tear trickle down Jaimee’s swollen cheeks while trying to wipe away the abundant tears of my own. My father appeared to be strong; I admired him for it. If everything seems okay for my daddy, I can pretend everything is okay for me, too. When I woke up in the hotel room the next morning, December 5th, 2004, I learned that my parents’ first child, my oldest sister, Jaimee, was dead.
My family was living in Raleigh at the time. Copious amounts of gifts were appearing on our doorstep. I remember getting letters from my teachers and classmates expressing their condolences. I knew some of the concerned; others I had never spoken to before. Mom and Dad worried that peers would treat Bailey and me differently, that people would pity us: teachers would give us undeserving grades, or coaches would allow us to have higher-tiered positions even if we were not as talented as our teammates. Normal lives – that is all my parents wanted for their children. We have always celebrated Jaimee’s life on both her birthday and the anniversary of her death. Apart from those times, though, nobody in the family spoke about our dreadful loss. I mean, fuck therapy, right? Shrinks are for the mentally ill… for the weak, the abnormal. My mother, father, and sister did not seem to need any help to “be strong.” I did not need help, either. Strong, I was, and strong I would be. Period. My parents decided to move us, hoping to provide us with the opportunity to achieve a sense of normalcy.
Eight months after Jaimee departed from this earth, I was in a new town starting at a new school, playing on a new football team attempting to befriend new people… all of this “new” could not have possibly accommodated for the “old” – my old life, the one in which I could tell people I had two sisters without having to explain that one of them was no longer physically around. The one in which I was genuinely happy. Mommy and Dad were in pain; I would hear Mommy’s nightly whimpers from across the house, and Dad would comfort her. Regardless of the turmoil Mommy and Dad were enduring, they both managed to attend all of my football games, all of Bailey’s cheer competitions. They took us to Atlantis annually and spoiled us rotten each holiday. Bailey became the most popular girl in school and was nominated MVP of her cheerleading team every year. I was at the top of my class, making straight A’s while playing football and running track. This continued for years. Anything to get me out of myself, anything, and I would be just fine.
As I embarked upon my teenage years, I began to notice that I differed from others my age. In seventh grade, I had developed an obsession with my body. I would run at least seven miles a day, do an intense combination of abdominal exercises, and I was eating minimally. My parents were concerned that I was “manorexic.” My interest in football had started to diminish. I had better things to do with my time. Practicing for a sport was far less important than perfecting my appearance. Bailey was known as the prettiest girl in school, and she seemed joyous. If being attractive makes Bailey happy, then I will become more attractive, too. I managed to continue playing football while strenuously studying. I was even chosen to deliver a speech at my middle school graduation.
High school arrived, and by this time I had discovered that engaging in extreme and/or devious behavior produced an unbeatable euphoric feeling. Although I remained an impeccable student, an acclaimed athlete, and an all-around respected individual, I drank alcohol every weekend. I knew I was not a superhuman; I could not study efficiently, party as much as I wanted, and play football. Easy decision: I quit the game. Partying enabled me to forget all the emotions I had suppressed for so many years. Football did not accomplish that. No longer was I concerned with my appearance. When I was drinking, I might as well have been James Dean. I clothed myself in liquor. Without it, I was naked. There was a devil inside of me. I was slowly waking it up with each and every sip I took, drowning out all of my purity. Strong, I was, and strong I would be.
There it was again: the fluorescent white hospital bed, the wincing beeps from the heart monitor. My parents were hovering over the half-alive body belonging to another child of theirs, a body in which that child had felt trapped. He had barely escaped the realm of death. I had barely escaped the realm of death. Years of yearning for that achievement of getting out of myself led me to no success. As I opened my eyes to see my mommy and dad, I made a promise to myself that I would never pretend to be okay again.