Author: Amber Kelley
Trigger Warning: This piece contains mentions of suicide and self-harm
My subconscious alerts me that there’s a tap on my shoulder, so it unwillingly resurfaces. My eyelids flutter, and I look around. 5:15 AM. My dad is standing in front of the light in the hallway, partially illuminating my room. His face holds an expression I have never seen before—one that I wasn’t exactly able to place.
“Dad… I don’t think I have to be up for another couple hours—”
“No, no. It actually sounds like your aunt Sam killed herself this morning,” he replied.
As expected, panic rose in my mind. The very first thought that came to me was, “Why?” I came out of my mouth before I could realize how stupid it sounded. It was a very strange feeling, that realization sinking into my skin and bones. I felt like there were butterflies in my stomach, but these were different. They were withered and dead.
“That’s something that we’ll probably never know,” he said. Of course we wouldn’t. She was gone and couldn’t tell us why.
I think I always knew my aunt was a lesbian. I don’t actually remember anyone telling me, “Amber, your aunt is a lesbian, don’t you know?” I think I just knew. And I never really put much thought into it. I remember Kim, Marni, Stacey, Tina, Sharon etc. These relationships didn’t last as long as other hetero couples did in my limited experience. Love was a poison my aunt often drank—a drug she couldn’t live without. Kim Hengy was my favorite of the girlfriends. She had a beautiful husky with two different colored eyes. She was of medium height and weight, had thick, short, blonde hair and brown eyes that crinkled at the corners when she smiled. She complimented Sam’s darker complexion and hair, and brighter eyes. I think Sam thought Kim was the love of her life—a person who made her realize that true love does exist. Eventually she didn’t come over anymore, and I never knew why. Sometimes true love happens but fairytales don’t.
It was early in my life when I experience my aunt’s first suicidal episode. I opened my eyes in the middle of the night, but I wasn’t supposed to be awake. Sam was living with us then, after she moved out of Kim’s house when their relationship ended. I heard my aunt and mom shouting in the living room. I thought they were goofing around and playing without me. My sister and I left our rooms at the same time, because they woke her up too. My aunt was laying on the carpet of our living room with my mother and father sitting around her, looking down at her. I remember seeing that she had blood in her eyes. The whites were covered in red, and the blue shown more brightly. She was crying, screaming, groaning for help, or anguish, or pain. I didn’t have any idea what happened.
That’s a visual I was never able to shake. She was in a kind pain that I cannot imagine. Then there was blue and red lights, then I was in bed. Sam was kicked out the next morning and sent to live with my grandparents again to heal. My mother told me not to tell anyone what happened. “Sam’s just a little sick,” she had said.
I didn’t find out until much later in my life that she had seen Kim at a bar with another girl and decided to drive home drunk and carve her face with her keys. She was so inebriated she stopped breathing multiple times and tried to fight the EMTs that took her. I remember wondering what kind of self-hatred could possibly push someone to leave a permanent scar on her forehead—one that would be there until the day she was shoveled into an urn. But this wasn’t the first—or last—time my aunt showed that she wanted to die because of who she was. It happened over and over until a gun made it permanent.
My aunt taught me everything I know about gay people. More than just a statistic thrown around a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classroom—the real quality of life in a world where they’re not accepted or understood. Feared, in fact.
I remember her face, pudgier than the years before, imploring me, while her blue eyes were downturned, washing dishes. I sat on a stool with a counter between us. I had witnessed a friend being ridiculed at a football game because he was suspected to be gay. My aunt was babysitting my sister and I at the time, so I told her how bad I felt about it. The boy’s face was streaked with tears, shining on his cheeks among the Friday night lights. This is how he was outed in front of everyone. My aunt explained to me that being gay wasn’t a choice.
“I wouldn’t wish this life on my worst enemy. You’re never accepted. You’re always different. It’s not a choice.”
This conversation with my aunt is one that I remember most clearly. It changed my perspective of the gay community from a passive, slight knowledge, to an opinionated advocate. Whenever gay people came up in a conversation around me from then on, I defended this community—despite its unpopularity—because I sympathize with the pain my aunt went through, even amongst her own family. Even my grandfather thought she was going to go to Hell for her choices. I oftentimes wonder if Sam thought that too. Even in high school she was always alone because she felt so different. I have no doubt her happiest times were with her family when she was accepted and shrouded in a cloak of love and peace. She felt deep pain, but she also felt deep love.
My sister, mom, and I now participate in as much suicide awareness events as we can. We attended a walk in Grand Rapids last Spring that honored those who had committed suicide, and looked at all the pictures of smiling faces along the sidewalk. These people smiling up at us did not seem capable of destroying their families—but there they were. It has been four years since my aunt committed suicide, and she still smiles at my family and I from the pictures on the walls. She was there when my sister got married, when my family celebrated my twenty-first birthday, and when my mom cries into her pillow.
And despite that Kim Hengy lived on the other side of the state during her life, there her picture was, too. Her brown eyes crinkled at the corners from her smile, and she was hugging a husky with two different colored eyes.