Perspectives: Mental Wellness
Remember to Remember to Breathe

September 9, 2006 Print version       Other articles by this author

A Lesson Rickey taught me.

It's been a little more than a month to the day since I received the news that my dear friend Rickey Williams committed suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. There...I said it. No softening what happened with elusive synonyms like "he took his life" that beg the question. There is no poetry when the crude reality of this loss still bites at me. No "first flight" to beautify what was such a horribly traumatic event. Why did he do it? People still ask; as if I actually know... Rickey's pain with whatever he was dealing with became so acute that he forgot that I needed him. I suppose it's selfish to say that. I suppose it's selfish that he jumped. But I live with the remnants of whatever we shared that give our relationship meaning: love for the outdoors, being moved to poetry, our romance with black people (even when they'd failed us), and a certain idealism that a better world awaits. Rickey became impatient with this "world to be" that we romanced during meals or walks near water. I've been suicidal myself, though I struggle to float as a way of soaking up tomorrow's promise.

A month later I am still at a loss to understand the whys. I remember getting the call from Marvin White while in Chicago. The news of Rickey's death was one thing. That he committed suicide seemed to suspend the pain. Deep down I wanted to know how. Something about the method would make it more tangible. I'd walked across the Golden Gate with Rickey before. It's a very amazing structure-- much more magnificent than I expected. It's no wonder that people who have lost sight that there's any reason to continue living, take to the air beneath. They must all believe they are displaced angels. The bridge isn't gold though, it's red. I find that interesting given that it's also the #1 suicide spot in the nation. The city would erect a preventative barrier on the bridge but would lose too much money due to tourism of this Great Wonder. A wonder our Capitalism is.

Rickey came to Oakland straight outta New Mexico. I remember him wearing sandals in winter and thinking.... what a white boy hippie?!? It was probably a very fucked up thing to think and I never spoke it, though I'm sure he read my eyes well enough. It wasn't so much that I was one-upping his blackness... but blackness was so ever-present in my life that I often took it for granted. Excitement about blackness kinda rubbed me the wrong way, because I feel that I've seen the very best and worse of my people. I hold no romance of "we were once kings and queens". The kings and queens had slaves.

Rickey seemed to desire the seemingly effortless manner of my black maleness. Still, blackness was something I'd often felt trapped by. I had been betrayed too often by brothas and sistas (on the basis of my sexuality, alone) to hold any notion of a revolutionary unified front smashing global white supremacy. My blackness seemed unquestionable, my naptitude as radiant as my Negritude, I carried the trace of Mandingo in my baritone and swagger. But I, as often, felt burdened by it. Rickey's off-center blackness was a middle finger to the anxious afrocentrists trying to serve as blackness or masculinity police. I'm not sure if he truly realized the sheer power and beauty of it. He was shameless about his love for black men. He loved us perhaps better than he loved himself.

I remember laughing at how excited Rickey was to be living in Oakland with its black bohemian aesthetic. I hadn't considered that the New Mexico or Colorado offered nothing remotely "black-mecca" in the way that Oakland does. Rickey quickly got involved in several of the BayArea black arts- activist scenes-- from East Bay church, which we both attended regularly, to BGLAM (Black Gay Letters and Arts Movement). Rickey did what many of us activist minded people do-- save everyone but ourselves. It's easier to offer the solutions to others-- harder to face the reality that despite the knowledge and information you have at your disposal... that you still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, lack of self-worth, and utter dejection. There's blood memory that we carry with us that is the unresolved pain of silent and silenced generations. I suppose we should be proud that we are a strong (black) people. We suffer so much and are still here. But some of us grow impatient and irresponsive to that pep talk. We need a big black proverbial couch and to be reminded by that shrink God that we are loved unconditionally. Here on Earth, we are more often than not reminded of how conditional love is.

Some of us desire every reminder of love and goodness in the world with a sense of urgency. We want life to be easier. We get tired of struggling and carrying the weight of so many who seem apathetic to the way things are. Certain aspects of the world can make us physically sick. And we can love with the intensity of a Phoenix-- focusing on our heart's desire so intently that our living becomes inextricable to our living for someone or something. Some who read this will say they've never loved anyone or anything that much. For all of the pain loving this way can create-- the extremes of which can manifest as suicidal feelings-- I'm glad I was made this way. I think it makes me special. Rickey was special too.

Rickey and I were drawn to each other instantly. He was the rock climbing, mountain hiking, granola eating, backpacking and recycling lightskindid allure who I believed was a true free spirit. I suppose he saw me as the black gay revolutionary dredlocked banjeeboy jock rapper with fire in my eyes; leading some tribe to Elsewhere. I think he once said that he admired and wanted to be like me. I think I wanted to be a little like him. I resent that he gave up on life. We operated as pillars for each other. I had a few despondent moments myself and Rickey held my hand through it. We'd helped each other survive a few lows before. When you're an activist and speaking on behalf of people who haven't yet gained courage to speak for themselves, you take on a lot of pain. It's wise to check self sometimes and ensure that you can note the ways YOU are being take care of.

Rickey and I both recognized the frailty guised by our strong statures, when others failed to see anything but strong black men. And perhaps real strong black men would have done a little more to uncover that frailty. Sometimes our projections of strength don't match our reality. I cried like a baby when I got the news about Rickey, so much that I had to be held together by among the dearest people I have on the planet, my friend Christopher. I think that he will forever see me differently than many people do, having seen me at my weakest. I am freer to be free with him as a result. I need more people in my life around whom I'm not afraid to cry. I'm getting there.

I remember reaching out to Rickey once before. We went on play-dates with each other as a way of reminding one another how we really should be treated. Both hopeless romantics, all seemed right in the world when love was right. I'm not sure this way of being in the world is especially uncommon, though some would never admit it. I just hope to remember that "love in my life" has a far greater scope than any one person can fill. I hope to honor the reminders I so freely give others when I tell them to "remember to remember to breathe". It's not the breathing that we do naturally, but the deliberate breath-- the intentional honoring of the life force and it's continuation despite the thickness of bigotry and inequality in the world.

Is it any wonder that so many black gay boys have considered suicide, when our very existence is doubly negated by institutionalized racism and homophobia? Is there any wonder that those of us who survive it are among the most strong and resilient beings on the planet? We must find ways to honor this-- to encourage compliments to one another on our achievements and efforts-- even when we fall short. Rickey organized these retreats for brothas in the Bay where they'd go on hiking trips and talk about their lives and living with HIV (or not). These were affirming spaces where brothas left the hike feeling better about themselves than when they came. When the retreats were over, I wonder if Rickey felt better. Such selflessness can take an eventual toll on the strongest of us. While I never had the privilege of attending one of Rickey's outdoor retreats, I'm all the more rededicated to ensure these kinds of events go on, in memory of his legacy. But at the end of the day, when this warrior I've become has put down the shield and sword from the day's battle, I'm also rededicating myself to my own self-care, to learning how to relax, to saying no to "work" guised as "opportunity". I've gotta learn how to say I'm tired or need rest. I am best for us all, if I can learn to be better to me. This is perhaps the most difficult lesson I learned from Rickey. Every day since his passing, I've remembered him. Each day I plan to make good on the lesson I gave to him, but that was, as much, meant for me: "remember to remember to breathe!"