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When Hearts Break (Open): Losing (and finding) My Brother

ikennaIkenna Uwakah

On December 1st 2013, my youngest brother on my father’s side was murdered in broad daylight in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunter’s Point district.  He was trying to sell a Playstation 4 game console to a buyer he met online. He was trying to make some extra money for the holidays. He was trying. Ikenna was 22 years old.

All month, I have been trying to write about my brother, but the words just wouldn’t come through my frozen fingers and numbed out brain. I want to write about how the conditions of advanced consumer capitalism killed my brother by making his life less valuable than the piece of plastic in his hands.

I want to write about how my heart broke when I saw my own father’s face on TV and watched him holding back tears as he lamented the senseless death of his baby boy, and the anger I felt when the news station cut to endless commercials for low low prices and holiday deals.  “Shop here!” “Buy this!” “Deal ends Sunday!” “Run, don’t walk!” “You need this stuff!”

I want to write about how we have all been conditioned to show our love through material things, but since there are more guns than jobs and time in dispossessed Black neighborhoods, the holidays can become a violent race to the finish line.

I want to write about premature Black death, and the façade of justice in this country, and how even as I mourn the loss of my brother’s life I also mourn for the 21 year old Black man who shot him, as he will now become part of a Prison Industrial Complex that eats Black bodies and souls.

I want to write about the unimaginable trauma Ikenna’s girlfriend must be suffering after witnessing his murder. I want to tell her that everything she did or tried to do was enough, and thank her for being there with him at all.

Instead, because I am trying to remember how to write to save my own life, I’ve decided to write about what the loss of my brother has meant for me.  Especially since I know Ikenna better in death than I ever did in life.

I am my father’s eldest child. I wasn’t part of his plan, and yet I am here.  I’ve seen him twice in 30 years. When I was 6 he told me that he had three other children, and since then I’ve wondered about my siblings; daydreaming about how I would someday come to meet them. In my most popular fantasy, I would show up at their house, dramatically announcing myself like a soap opera character. Then we would all hug and cry, and I would fill in the missing pieces of my story while gently caressing old photographs of faces that looked like my own.

But unlike my fantasy self, I’m not really a soap opera dramatic person. I play the background. Out of respect for my father’s choices and internalized rejection, I stayed away. For 30 years.

I call my father twice a year –on his birthday and on Father’s Day, and every time we speak I ask about his children. I even planned to try to meet them, through him, next time I was home. In the weeks leading up to Ikenna’s murder my siblings had been so heavy on my heart. I knew it was time to do what fear had prevented for so long. I told my origin story to my friends.  I could feel my big moment on the horizon, with no way of knowing that it would come through such a piercing tragedy.

On the morning of Monday December 2nd, 2013, after a long and intense night of nightmares, I saw my brother’s face in my Facebook feed. A friend had posted his picture under the ominous bold letters R.I.P.  I recognized him. Saw my face in his. Struggled to wake up enough to figure out what was going on. This can’t be right… “no, no, no, no…” my fingers scrambled to google his name, to verify what had to be a cruel joke. He couldn’t be dead. I never even got my chance…

I spent the next week in shock and pain and so much regret. I called my father. He never called back. I wrote a letter to Ikenna and lit candles for him. I accepted people’s hugs and calls, and let them hold space for me –not an easy thing, but so immensely healing. I even dreamed with Ikenna, and in my dreams we painted love messages to each other on smooth rocks by the seashore.  He was glad to finally know me.  One week after his death, I wrote a letter to my two surviving siblings, and I sent it.

“This was not the way I planned to contact you, and these were definitely not the circumstances I imagined as I played this moment over and over in my mind. I’ve been waiting my whole life for the right time to come out of the shadows and make myself known to you… I’ve waited too long already.  I’ve been afraid, plagued by indecision and hesitation, but now that Ikenna is gone and I’ll never get to hold his hands or see his smile, I don’t want to miss my chance to know you two. Life is too short. I have to step out on faith…”

After reading my letter at least 50 times, and with India Arie’s “Strength, Courage and Wisdom” on repeat in the background, I hit send. And the profound lightness that came over me in that moment is almost indescribable.  It was like my broken heart had broken open even further and golden light was pouring out of it. Through all of the fear, I had stepped out on faith and showed my face, and all there was left to do was wait. The divine timing of the universe had finally kicked me off the edge of the cliff I had been teetering on for three decades, and I flew.  Had Ikenna not passed, I may have second-guessed and procrastinated for another hundred years. After all, there’s always something else to do, a dissertation to write…

Sending that letter was one of the most liberating moments of my life. Whether they responded or not, my siblings now knew that I am here, and I am here for them.  I told them that I loved them, had always loved them, and that I was sorry for waiting so long. I hoped that in this time of grief their hearts had broken open enough to make room for me. I heard from my little sister the next day. She said she had a clairvoyant sense that someone was out there, somewhere.  Since then I’ve been in touch with her, sending her love and strength as she supports her family through this unbearably difficult time. When she texted me on December 25th “Merry Christmas sis”, all my old fears seemed silly.  My only regret is waiting as long as I did.

My brother was buried on Monday, December 23rd, the same day that the 49ers played their last game at Candlestick Park. It was an epic day to be a San Franciscan.  A bittersweet celebration of what once was, but is no more. I wasn’t there. True to my non-soap opera self, I wanted to let my father mourn his son in peace, knowing that circumventing him and reaching out to my siblings was enough for this moment. But both Ikenna and I were there in spirit that day, smiling at the city’s outpouring of love as we sang and danced him home to the beat of African drums.

In my nightmares the night Ikenna was killed, I was trying to get free.  I was with lots of loved ones on a vacation in a place that had gone from a safe refuge to a veritable hell. We realized too late that we were in grave danger, and we were all being held hostage.  There were shootings and poisonings and rapes and rebellions. I jumped out of tall windows, scaled down high walls, and dodged surveillance cameras to get free from our gun wielding sociopathic captors. I even carjacked a woman (without hurting her) and drove her car up the banks of a muddy river with the goons on my heels. But I kept coming back. What good was my freedom if everyone I loved was still in captivity? At one point I even woke up, thanked the universe emphatically that it was only a dream, and fell right back asleep into the chaos and terror. I was helping someone to get free that night: someone who I loved very much, and who was very, very afraid. May there be no more fear where you are now, Ikenna. Only joy and ease.

The main thing that brings me peace and thaws the cold numbness of my grieving heart is the budding new relationship I am beginning to have with the other half of my family for the first time in my life.  I took a chance and threw a wrench into the lives of my siblings, hoping for the best and changing all of us forever.

Octavia Butler writes,

“All that you touch

You Change. 

All that you Change

Changes you. 

The only lasting truth is Change.  

God is Change.”

I embrace change, and I trust the divine timing of the universe. My brother transmuted from his mortal coil into a force that I can now feel all around me, all day everyday.  Even the most painful tragedy can be composted into new possibility. As the sun sets on 2013, I have a reinvigorated excitement and enthusiasm about what is to come, and a new acceptance of all the unknown forms it will take. I can feel a new life chapter opening, and I am still blessed beyond belief to be the protagonist in this book.


For 2013 and Beyond…


Deer Park Valley, 12/31/2012

If good intentions pave the road to hell, then what paves the gilded road to heaven? Perhaps the bricks in that road are cemented with discipline, and a mindful practice. 

On this first day of the fresh new year, as many of us call forth our aspirations and name our goals, I also reflect on 2012 and the powerful transformations and liberations that it brought me. I journal to curate the touchstones of my own life—and not just the sweet, beautiful moments either. The sad, scary, embarrassing stuff is part of the story too, and I think those are the elements that actually make me fully human.  Looking back through the archives of my life, it’s clear that 2012 broke me. Broke me down, open and through in so many ways.  The self I thought I knew shattered into a million pieces, and the dust resettled in such a way that things couldn’t go back to how they were before, because those old grooves and spaces no longer existed. The only option was newness: new fits, new ways to be. I was forced to put myself back together differently, and in so doing I was transformed, emerging with a heightened knowledge of self.  

Autumn of 2012 was filled with hard lessons and many blessings. It was a season of “yoga moments”, where deep breaths and the courage to cry, sleep, eat, sing, dance and laugh when I needed to was all that kept me from the potential depths of my lows.  It was also a season of major milestones, achievements, and a new level of discipline that I didn’t even realize I was capable of. I’ve been grinding to get to this place, and I’m still grinding, so who knows where I’ll end up—but I’m certain that I’ll still be blessed. In the last couple of months I have created my own ceremonies and rituals.  I have called upon community when I needed to, cherishing genuine laughter and new friendships, but also rejoicing in my solitude, feeling loved and held even when I was alone.

Today I’m back in LA after spending the last 5 days at the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, where I breathed deeply, ate slowly, listened with an open heart to myself and to those around me, and smiled to my joy and to my suffering alike.  Celebrating the arrival of the New Year in this way/ in this place was so powerful. My dreams were filled with clear messages and ancestral transmissions, and each mindful moment affirmed that I am right where I need to be—right on time, imperfect yet perfectly aligned. And on the last night of the old year, just when I began to think she may not appear at all, the moon came soaring fast and strong and bright from behind the mountain peaks, ascending to her place in the sky and eclipsing every constellation with the largest halo crown I’ve ever seen her wear.

I have so much gratitude for 2012. I surprised myself last year with my own capacity to forgive, to evolve and to surrender.  In 2013 I aspire to embody what I wish the year would bring to me –compassion, acceptance, vulnerability, honesty, authenticity, kindness, love without fear and affection without assumption.  I recognize how far I’ve come, how far yet there is to go, and how much joy is to be had in every step of this journey.  There are decisions to be made, but more importantly, there are intuitions to trust and listen to.  I’ll practice being still, breathing slow and deep, reaching out to the people on my heart, and smiling when I feel the sun on my face (and even when I don’t).

Each new moment is a new chance to get present and get free. In 2013 and beyond, I hope you all find balance, and the necessary courage and discipline to actualize the life you want to live.  May you all learn from your suffering, and release that which does not serve you to make space for joy and new blessings.

Happy New Year!

Can I Live?

I’m honored to be part of The Feminist Wire‘s brilliant forum on Black academic women’s health. While this essay is specifically concerned with the health of Black women in the academy, I hope that the principles of self-care and healing resonate with people of various races, genders, academic affiliations or lack thereof.  Here is my essay on wellness: Can I Live?

thanks for reading!

Sunset Therapy

I struggled my way into 2012 feeling deflated and weary, and I decided that if I was actually going to sustain the people and projects that I am accountable to in this life, I had to implement a self-care regime.  Like really implement it… not just talk about it like I love to do.  So, on my list of new year’s resolutions, in addition to things like “listen to new music” (which I’ve done, and loved), and “write something, anything, everyday” (which I’ve also done… if emails and texts count), was to make sure to “catch a sunset” –at least three times a week. Whether I watch it in its entirety from my favorite spot: the shore of the Pacific Ocean, or simply catch slivers of it in my rearview mirror while driving (with caution), I let the colors and once-in-a-lifetime patterns remind me to breathe deeply, to be present in that moment and to be thankful for it.  I practice Sunset Therapy to remind myself that moments are fleeting and we never get them back, so we’d better make the most of them.  Even if I don’t blink, the moment still passes before my eyes… just like each day, whether good or bad, will eventually end.  There is something about the way that the sun burns its last traces across a darkening sky that always brings my own life back into focus, revealing my all-at-once importance and insignificance in the world.  And I just can’t think of a better to seal in the day, accomplishments, blunders and everything else, than to watch the live art show that the universe offers nightly, free of charge.