Losing My Two-Cent
The day I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree should have been one of the happiest moments of my life. After getting pregnant during my first year, no one believed I would finish except me. Despite all the obstacles, delays, a transfer, and changing my major during junior year, I completed my degree while working full-time. A primary reason I was able to accomplish this feat was that my aunt provided childcare for my son for the five years it took me to finish. She died suddenly two weeks before classes ended. A month later, my family was still reeling from the disbelief and monumental changes we were undergoing. While her three other sisters showed up for me, I never imagined one of my biggest supporters not being there on that day.
On the evening of April 22,2002, my mother’s younger sister was at home with her three daughters and granddaughter, taking out her braids. She suddenly went into a seizure and became unresponsive. When I got the call that they were rushing her to the hospital, I was bouncing my infant godson on my lap. I remember saying, “Okay.” I hung up and continued bouncing him while thoughts flooded my head. The first one was, “She’s dead.” My stomach began to twist into knots. As I drove to the hospital, I battled back and forth with, “What’s going to happen to her girls?” and “Stop thinking like that, be positive.”
When I arrived at the ER, my other aunts and cousins were there. We nervously made jokes while we waited to hear an update from the doctor. In those moments, I thought, “See, it’s going to be okay.” My inner panic subsided slightly. The doctor suspected an allergic reaction to a blood pressure patch may have caused the seizure. When he arrived, they asked all of us to follow him to a back room where a priest was waiting (I knew what that meant). They told us that she was gone. I sat stoically while others around me burst into tears. Cold chills shot through my arms and legs. We were told we could see her and say our goodbyes.
I was nervous, but I knew it wouldn’t be real to me unless I saw her for myself. I followed the doctor down a corridor and behind a curtain. There she was with a tube in her mouth, the front half of her hair out, the back half still in braids. I don’t know why I paid so much attention to it. It may have symbolized an unfinished life. She was only thirty-six, and she had already suffered so much in the last decade. She had been battling kidney disease and undergoing dialysis three times a week. Although one of her daughters was twenty, she had two more she was raising practically on her own. They were twelve and eight, and her granddaughter was just one year old. She would never know her. As she lay before me, she looked like she had fallen into a deep sleep. I held her hand for a moment. It was still warm. I glanced at the raised scars on her wrists that resulted from her weekly treatments. When the tears began to settle in the corner of my eyes, I left.
Gwen, affectionately called Two-Cent for her petite size as a child, was more than just the person who taught my son how to read. She was the second youngest of eight children, an aunt to eight nieces and nephews. At times, she was my roommate in my grandmother’s house. Before her illness forced her out of being in preschool classrooms, she had dreams of having her own daycare center one day. She was the cool aunt who kept my teenage secrets. She was who I read my poetry to and someone who shared her poetry with me, despite not being confident in her dopeness. Two-Cent wore gold bracelets and anklets with African symbols; she had a nose ring and multiple ear piercings. She let me wear her stylish clothes and borrow her E. Lynn Harris, Omar Tyree, and Jerome Dickey books. She introduced me to burning incense, slow jams, reggae music, and joints rolled with E-Z Wider paper. She was the Neo-Soul before Neo Soul became a thing. She was my Erykah Badu before I ever heard Baduism; cosmic, artistic, original, mystic. Now she was gone.
If she could be here one minute and gone the next, what did it mean for me? My fellow graduates were dreaming of a hopeful future. I was questioning my mortality, riddled with thoughts of doom, simultaneously grieving in silence. My family had already suffered the loss of my mother when I was four, then my grandmother when I was twelve. We were familiar with death, but the kind that comes with cancer and suffering…preparation. I saw how my mother’s seven siblings responded by keep on keepin’ on. We didn’t talk about our pain; we pushed through and made sure everyone’s physical needs were met, a coping practice I imagine developed from generations of slavery and being Black in America. Joy was displayed with exuberance, but the pain was the quiet parasite slowly eating away at each of us. We didn’t talk about it for fear of making the others around us sad.
On graduation day, I smiled in pictures even though I was coming down with a cold, and my heart was broken that Two-Cent was not there. Hiding my pain wasn’t the only trauma-related behavior I developed from losing my aunt. I became obsessed with making sure everything was in order should I die suddenly. My house needed to be clean; I needed to be clean and neat. I picked up my dress and wrote out my funeral plans at twenty-four years old. All goals needed to be completed expeditiously, just in case. I was running out of time, so I went full speed ahead until I turned thirty-seven and “outlived” her. If I’m honest, I still struggle with this anxiety-based trauma response. Along the way, I also became more in tune with my spirituality and found ways to keep her with me. I still have her books where she signed her name and address in the front cover of each one. When I self-published my first book of poetry, I included a chapter of her poems. I had her poetry signature, T¢ (Two cent), tattooed on my left shoulder because I know, even in spirit, she’s got my back.
This year it will be 20 years since Two-Cent transitioned. For some reason, this year, I miss her physical presence more than ever. I think of her daily. I feel her everywhere. She is still drawing me in with her warm, magnetic energy. I love you, Two-Cent.