I recently had the opportunity to work with my good friend and brother Nosa Eguae on his Memoir Collective entitled Memento Mori. I first heard the term Memento Mori from Nosa who got the term from his digital mentor, Wes Moore’s book The Work: Searching for A Life That Matters; in the book Wes says:
“Memento Mori were meant to remind their owners not of death, but of life. They were constant silent reminders to make our time here on earth matter. We all collect Memento Mori without even realizing it. Not necessarily as art; but in the form of experiences that reminds us that life is fleeting and valuable, but as we go through our days—as our routines resume we forget the lessons that seem so life changing at the time they occurred to us. In the least morbid way possible this book is intended as a kind of Memento Mori; a reminder that at every stage of our lives we must make our time here on earth matter.”
The opportunity to share our stories; to shine a light on the life changing, and at times the life ending; in order for us all to fully live is the ethos behind this article, we know that the goodness of life is often found in its dichotomy. So before I proceed; I say to each person that reads these words may we live, may we not wait until tomorrow; may we leverage our gift today. There’s a world that awaits our gift!
Yet I Survive
I’ve stared death squarely in the eye, more than once in my lifetime and yet I survived. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was eleven-years-old and a sixth-grader at Ervin Middle School in South Kansas City, Missouri. The cheers of adolescent youth filled the gymnasium during one of our monthly pep rallies. The feeling of three hundred plus middle school students screaming, jubilantly at the top of their lungs, a true embrace of the moment filled the atmosphere. Little did I know; the moment of jubilance would be short-lived and the course of my life in a matter of seconds would change forever.
Unconsciously, my attention shifted toward the entrance of the gym. Standing in the doorway, I saw my uncle, waiting for me; cautiously. In a crowd of children, naive to the realities of this world and what cards life would eventually deal with them; I knew as I walked out of that gym, things were about to change forever. As we drove to my childhood home, only minutes away from the school, time was suspended in eternity. I sensed the weight of the world was beating through my uncle’s chest as he was dealt with the responsibility of having to tell his eleven year-old nephew that his father had just passed.
When a boy’s father is absent from his life, a huge void is created in the maturation process of becoming a man. A father’s presence provides approval and acceptance, putting a battery in his son’s back and giving him the confidence to tackle all of life’s challenges in stride. When I lost my dad, a big part of my identity was lost; I lost my shadow, and truth is; I didn’t realize the weight that it carried, until I became a man myself. I yearned for my father’s voice as I started to make life decisions such as career, dating, and finding myself in the world.
My relatives often tell me that my father and I have the same walk, but the things about my father that consume my thoughts: are intrinsic. Do we have the same demons and fears? How about the same dreams? Are we drawn to the same things? All I have left of him are the mere memories and stories shared by those relatives and friends close to him, along with a myriad of questions left unanswered.
“When God gives you favor, it’s never about you. Our blessings should always be used to impact the collective.”
After my father’s passing, I found strength in knowing that I needed to be there for my mother and my older sisters. I tried filling my father's shoes as being the man of the house, by looking after my mother and sister, but that was damn near impossible because my mother’s strength wouldn’t allow it. See, Hyacinth Lewis was cut from a different cloth— she was a warrior! A remarkable journey filled with stories of how she survived the tough conditions of growing up in the rural countryside of Westmoreland, Jamaica. My mother didn’t own her first pair of shoes until she was thirteen-years-old. Being the oldest daughter of eleven children; she was a natural-born leader and nurturer, fostering community wherever she went. In 1972 my mother was the first of her siblings to receive a working visa in the United States.
Working for a wealthy family in Kansas City as a housekeeper. As soon as she got on her feet, she leveraged her new position in a foreign country with limited resources to become a bridge to her siblings in Jamaica. One by one, she selflessly, helped her brothers and sisters transition from Jamaica to the United States. With our home acting as the basecamp our doors would be open to relatives until they gained their start in America and stood on their own. Observing this as a child taught me a valuable lesson. When God gives you favor, it’s never about you. Our blessings should always be used to impact the collective. This was a code my mother understood well and stewarded faithfully.
Three years before my father passed, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and beat it. Seeing her flirt with death gave me an intimate look at where my mother drew her strength. To this day; she was the strongest person I’ve ever met. Strength sourced from an unwavering, relentless, and constant dialogue with God. I remember nights waking up at 2 in the morning to the sound of my mother crying out and worshiping God. Her faith was firmly planted and her relationship with God took precedence over everything—even at times, her rest.
I couldn't conceive the thought of losing my mother after my father passed. She was my everything and all that I had left. However, after the passing of my father, I was no longer naive about the fragility of life. The following summer, I remember running in the house after a game of touch football with the neighborhood youth. My mother and oldest sister Charmaine greeted me as I opened the screen door and walked into the living room. The day I remember vividly; with the sun beaming through the bay style windows of my childhood home and mom sitting on the sofa with her glowing smile. She asked me to take a seat on the white plastic-covered sofa and proceed to ask me the question, “If anything were to happen to her, where would I want to live?” My response came in seconds. “C’mon ma, nothing is going to happen to you,” as if warriors were immortal. Unfortunately, what I wasn’t aware of was that my mother’s cancer was back and more aggressive than the first time around; attacking other parts of her resilient body.
For months, my mother and family hid the secret of her cancer returning. I was too young to realize that once Hospice shows up to your home, they are there to help transition your loved one into the afterlife. It wasn’t even a year to the date of my father’s passing, three days before the anniversary, when death came knocking once again. This time it was for the person I treasured the most. My mom.
After my mother’s passing, I hit rock bottom. I struggled for years as I was living the thing I feared the most. Even though I had a tremendous net of support from family and friends, I felt like I now lived in a world that I didn’t belong. I resorted to what I saw my mother do in times of distress, I ran to God. As the years passed on, I wouldn't say things got easier, I just learned to cope with the pain. By God’s grace, I was living the dream set by my parents. I was on my way to become the first person in my family to graduate from high school and go on to college.
The thought of being the first came with pride; pride that was warranted—I was going to be the first person in my family to go to college. When the admissions letter came back; I got the news— I was admitted to my dream school. The opportunity that I dreamed of was at my fingertips, and my bags were packed, but the joy was short lived. Like a thief in the night my opportunity… my dream was snatched away. Due to unforeseen financial setbacks in my family I wasn’t going to be able to attend Hampton University. Devastated...without question!
As I reflect; the hope of a dream come true gave me such clarity; then like previous moments in my life I was blinded by reality. Days passed; circumstances hadn't changed, but I did in that moment all that I’ve ever truly known—I responded. Determined to make the best of the situation, I enrolled in a local college. While not my first choice, it was still progression, and advancement educationally that was trailblazing for my family. l learned one of my most important lessons during this season. Attitude is everything. Even though I didn't feel like I was where I wanted to be, I was faithful in my season at the local college. What I didn’t know was my mother’s former employee, Mrs. Smith was working plays in the background on my behalf.
Mrs. Smith and I kept a consistent cadence after my parents passed, meeting up occasionally for lunch and during the holidays. She was aware of the current situation that I was in and decided to take matters into her own hands. She personally called Hampton University and spoke with the dean of admissions on my behalf. I got a call from her right after taking a midterm exam. She said “Tristan, I just spoke with Angela Boyd, the Dean of Admissions at Hampton University. Can you get yourself there in January? By the way, I’m taking care of your tuition in full, no matter how long it takes for you to finish.” Mrs Smith was an angel sent to redirect the course of my life and the trajectory path of my family. As I reflect on the weight of the generosity—as I think about a woman that didn’t owe me anything, but gave me the opportunity to live out my dream and experience everything. I stand boldly in gratitude.
I Sought Out Help
I wish I could end my portion of the memoir collective here, and tell you that my journey at Hampton University and beyond was full of roses, but fortunately for me it wasn’t. My sophomore year at Hampton anxiety found its way into the inner crevices of my being; for the first time in my life I was dealing with the emotions of losing both of my parents. Sleepless nights and rapid heart palpitations beckoned daily, and as I examined the world around me, it was hard to pinpoint what was causing my personal distress. As the tears mounted, I tried everything to shake the darkness that I fell into, but nothing seemed to help. Close friends in my circle like, Joseph Hinton and Evan Nave, would always pick up the phone and pray for me whenever I was going through an anxiety attack on any given night. However, prayer wasn’t enough to resolve the pain. I remember sharing the experience that I was living through with a good friend, Matthew Washington. Although I was two years his senior, he assured me that my experience wasn’t unfamiliar and he too could relate. He suggested that I visit the on-campus counselor center to talk about what I was going through. After weeks of reluctance, I finally gave in. I sought out help.
Adopting the practice of counseling into my life was a game-changer. It was through my initial experience where I came to better understand why I was going through that difficult season. I had no idea that I was moving through life, taking various blows head-on. I was tucking away trauma and not being honest with emotional pain that was rooted in loss. I didn’t realize until then that if you don’t deal with grief and your emotions head-on, they will haunt you, paralyzing other areas of your life. My weekly talks with my campus counselor brought about healing, reconciling with my past and discovering a new part of me. To this day I see a counselor twice a month to take a personal inventory on how I am doing and to reinforce a healthy perspective on how to approach some of life’s challenges.
As I examine the loses that I’ve encountered I’ve made a commitment to myself to live full and die empty.
I’ve accepted the reality that as long as we live, we will have loss. We will lose loved ones, friends, dreams and goals. However, the thing that’s most important is how we respond during these experiences. Being honest with self and dealing with the emotional residue of any loss is critical for healing. Also, as hard as it may be, seeking understanding is just as important. I believe nothing in life happens to us, but instead it’s what happens for us and the greater good of the people in our lives. We can learn from our life experiences as they present opportunities to help us connect to a larger part of humanity. As I examine the loses that I’ve encountered I’ve made a commitment to myself to live full and die empty.
Before I close, and pass it back to my dear friend Nosa I’d like to leave you all with this quote from author and christian historian Dr. Jerry Sittser:
“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery. It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same. There is no going back to the past…. It is not therefore true that we become less through loss — unless we allow the loss to make us less, grinding our soul down until there is nothing left… Loss can also make us more.... I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it…. One learns the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul…. The soul is elastic like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering…. The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”
I think about my parents who left behind a legacy based on the sacrifice they made for the people they loved. They gave everything they had before they were called home. As long as I can wake up and breathe, I challenge myself daily to find purpose. I believe that we are all given an assignment that can be something as simple as acts of kindness and love. These small gestures we make, change lives. Looking back at these experiences, I realized that even after going through hardship, death, and loss—hope still exists in the trenches of those dark spaces. Time heals the hurt and wounded; you just have to be determined to keep going. I saw first hand; the spirit of generosity and service that my mother sewed into her family, into her work, a spirit so strong it manifested into the spirit of giving in Mrs. Smith. A spirit of generosity that inspires me daily to pay it forward, and to inspire others to do the same.
The most important thing that you can find in life is your purpose. Those who fulfill that purpose leave behind a legacy. Legacy isn't defined by how much money you make and what kind of house you live in, but it’s defined by how you use the unknown time we have on this earth to impact the lives of people around us.
This piece was gathered from the memoir collective : Momento Mori written in partnership with Nosa Eguae. Here's the link for the entire story.