“We have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
Nothing makes me laugh harder than a classic Kelly moment. Our family had a giant station wagon growing up. You know the type, with the front seat, the middle, and of course, the coveted “way back.” In my family, you didn’t half step. You sat in the front or the way back, because the middle was for babies. Two giant car seats took up the middle, belonging to “the babies,” Kelly and Chloe, which left space for one of us to be in the front, and one of us in the way back, daydreaming. That’s how Kelly was able to escape without anyone noticing.
Our family friend Terrance had been begging mama for a play date for months, being brushed off each time. So one day, while our mothers turned a quick visit into a conversation about everything and nothing, he plucked Kelly out of her car seat for an impromptu play date. We made it all the way home (seven minutes, to be fair) before we realized Kelly wasn’t in the car. Mama was going inside to call the police, but first had to answer the ringing phone. Terrence’s sister Tammelle between cackles told my mother, “Count your children.” Terrance earned his play date, and Kelly stayed for another hour.
I remember the quiet. My sisters and I played but there was something missing. “It’s just weird when Kelly’s not around,” I said and mama chuckled and sang, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” We all had our own strong individual personalities and friendship groups, but we were four. Something about one of us being gone unexpectedly cast a shadow. The Case of the Missing Kelly is one that my family still laughs about. Kelly was the party. Everything about her made you want to hug her. She was tiny with a huge smile that came with Olympic pool-deep dimples. She was athletic, even at a very small age, and could pick up on games easily. The world’s best loose cannon.
Kelly was my baby, so when I moved out, so did she — right into my house. Wherever I went, there was always room for Kelly: New Orleans, Shreveport, Rockville. That meant I was in charge of giving her cooking lessons. Like everything else she was a part of, they were hilarious. First we had to come to the agreement that pouring something out of a bag and putting it in a microwave, wasn’t exactly cooking (“Oh but bitch ya ate it and it was rollin’, ha?”) I put her in charge of baking a chicken one night. The house smelled like she followed my instructions. When I opened the roasting pan, the chicken looked strange. It didn’t smell bad, so that couldn’t be it, but it looked altogether wrong.
Me: “Uh…what did it look like when you opened it? Kelly…is…wait is this chicken…is it breast side down?”
Kelly: “Huh? What? Yeah. Why? *blink*
The only person who comes close to making me laugh the way Kelly does is my BB.
Next Tuesday marks a year since Kelly transitioned. I’ve fought the urge to obsessively comb through what I could have done differently. I remember a picture of her that just didn’t look “right,” but I attributed it to her pregnancy. Kelly had just had her youngest girl roughly four months before she realized something was wrong. Her abdomen was distended and she looked pregnant again. When Kelly was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, we knew what that meant. She knew what that meant. The stories of sisters holding hands ten years down the line lovingly gazing at their sister and calling her a survivor was unlikely for us. She was 32 and the cancer had already spread to her liver. Every moment was borrowed.
I worried about what this would do to my sister who, given my mother’s health problems and death when Kelly was only 11, was more daughter than sister to me. Our first conversation after someone cut her off and cussed at her in traffic set the tone.
This bitch is lucky I’m not terminal, because I’d be beating her ass right now. I got shit to do now though, so I’m just gonna pray.
She was…the same. Remarkably so. She wasn’t in denial. She was just dealing with cancer with her regular Kelly-ness: humor, fire, and maybe slight threats of assault. I can still hear her cheerful “Good morningggggg” on her instagram videos. She wasn’t a voice for women with breast cancer. She was my Kelly. I heard the voice of a millennial, a mother, and a lifelong clown. When we talked about her illness, there was an openness that defined her new normal. Breakfast. Coffee. Oncology visit. The frankness that I’d always known was still there. Kelly made me reexamine how we categorize “beating cancer.”
When someone dies of cancer, we often equate death (even if only subconsciously) to losing the battle. In doing that, we forget the most important thing about ourselves: none of us makes it out alive. Someone with a clean bill of health telling their story is an obvious “winner.” For many who have not been touched by cancer, that is the only face of victory. But having been closer to cancer than I ever want to be again, the real life behind the catch phrases and the ribbons (and ALL. THAT. PINK.) is where the victory lies.
I remember all the things Kelly accomplished in an average day, even when she was exhausted. We force fed help down her throat at times, because she would have run her little body down to the nub. I remember the dance we performed when brain tumors and radiation affected her cognitive skills; being helpful, without taking over her life and treating her like a child.
I was the one who could get her to do what needed to be done. When it was time for her to stop driving, I was the one who had that conversation. Once, when she wouldn’t cooperate with my sister Shaun, she asked Kelz, “would you be giving Melanie such a hard time.” According to Shaun, “That sucka looked me dead in my eye and said, ‘No.’”
Shortly before the end, she went to New Orleans. She hadn’t been home since her diagnosis. Legend has it that everywhere she went, she had a bag of crawfish with her and a snowball. She ate, visited, and laughed until her little heart was content. Kelly always got to where she wanted and needed to be. Everyone in the know says the same thing: Kelly lived on her terms.
The same can be said about how she left us. Kelly’s independence was the only thing that mattered almost as much as her babies. Toward the end, we tried to get her to do something that would be a trial for anyone with a strong since of dignity and independence. Even as I asked her to do it, for presumably her own good, my mind said “That dog ain’t gon’ hunt.” She said, in a stronger voice than we had heard in days, “No. I’m not going to do that.” I knew the moment was coming, where this battle was going to take her miles past where she was willing to go. Expecting a feeling akin a gut punch, I was surprised when my mind accepted it as another bit of normal — a finger on a map saying “you are here.” It hurt, but I knew.
In the coming days, her room was a haven of activity. That didn’t change when they moved her to hospice care. Her last days were spent out of time, reliving old times and conversations with friends, until she drifted off into a half sleep. When I knew I wasn’t going to make it to see her, I called her and told her I loved her, and saw her mouth “I love you.” That was our last conversation.
The next morning was a rarity. No one was in the room, so my baby decided that would be the perfect time to take her leave, with a smile on her face. She didn’t lose. That’s just where she got off. My sisters and I all knew that would be the day. When Shaunie called me, her words were so expected, I didn’t even cry at first. Even though there was nothing left unsaid when she died, the quiet filled with everything I can’t tell her engulfs me. Now we are three, and ain’t no sunshine…
When I arrived back in Pittsburgh following her memorial service, I was bone weary and spent the whole day sleeping. Finally, I had BB pick up a rotisserie chicken from the store so that we’d have dinner. I opened up the chicken and stared for a moment. The chicken looked altogether wrong. When I realized what was happening, I screamed and laughed until I felt the laughing tears that only came from a classic Kelly moment.