By the Rev. Otis Moss III, D. Min.
Her finger kept twitching as if tapping an unknown Morse code. Her eyes were three-quarter closed with the white portion creating a moonlike crescent shape. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead flashed across my mind. The film was filled with [zombies] showing the whites of their eyes, giving the living and grieving characters the sense their affected loved one was alive, but only in a trance.
My strange mental picture was interrupted as the emergency room doctors buzzed around my sister. The sounds of squeaking wheels, heavy equipment and shuffling feet, walking and running, kicked around in my head like an out-of-tune symphony. Then, silence. [It was followed by] the twitching again; her hand sending a signal to unknown receivers.
I watched Death stand over her body. He entered as a quiet, respectful gentleman, calmly carrying out his assignment. He was not cruel or fearsome, just an apparition doing his duty for the day. He grabbed her twitching hand, which stopped, and the energy among the doctors increased as they attempted to revoke Death’s invitation. Daphne walked off with the quiet man that day. My father placed his hand on my shoulder as I felt the wake of their departure.
Daphne was dead at the age of 33. Cause of death: suicide brought on by paranoid schizophrenia. Death is a strange gent. He greets all the same way. Death visits all with a unique democratic character, yet the wake of his visit disrupts our spiritual equilibrium in different ways. We do not realize we are off course until years later. My sister’s death was profound upon my life because I had lived with the shadow of her [illness] since I was 8 years old. My room was adjacent to hers, and at night, I heard her talking to herself. Whispers through the walls, the sounds of sadness, anger and pain leaked into my bedroom. She fought at night with invisible demons and tricksters. One night, laughter; the next, cries of desperation. I became withdrawn, angry and very emotional. Mom and Dad thought I was in need of help. [During] my first trip to a counselor, I was asked to draw a picture of my feelings. I drew a picture of my sister struggling with dark colors. I indicated to my parents that Daphne needed to be in the counseling session with us. We had a follow-up session with Daphne present. I reiterated my fears and concern for my sister. This was the beginning of her treatment and a journey to wholeness, then madness and back to wholeness again for the entire family.
Daphne, 9 years my senior, was in [my] eyes, perfect. Her adolescent stage did not diminish her deep care for her little brother: Baskin-Robbins on Friday with her brother and friend; movies on Saturday night; and, of course, church on Sunday morning. She lovingly volunteered to babysit and introduced me as her little date when we bumped into her classmates. I was never an annoyance or pain to her. Many nights as Mom and Dad traveled to church-related functions, Daphne opened a world of literature and stories to me by and about people with funny names—Zora [Neale] Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer. She would read the words of these literary masters whom I was too young to comprehend, but the residue of their work never left my soul.
When I was 23, Daphne was taken from us by the brutal act of suicide. Suicide is death turned inside out. Accidental death is comprehended and accepted by the brain and consoled by the soul. Suicide is the cruelty of living with questions, frustration and shame. How do you explain that your sister leaped from a building, shattering the majority of the bones in her body causing internal bleeding and her organs to work overtime to the point of failure? How do you speak about paranoid schizophrenia to a world ignorant of mental illness? How do you deal with the ignorance and theological [remnants] of untrained ministers who claim there is a place in hell for all who take their own lives? Every question imaginable rushed into my mind, and to add fuel to the fire, her suicide occurred only days before my marriage to my wife, Monica. I was forced to sing the blues before I heard the chords of gospel on my wedding day.
The death of my only sister forced me to confront Sunday school religion and weigh it against a grown man’s faith, built on lament and laughter, hope and hurt, anger and anointing. I was forced to cast off childhood spirituality and drink from a deeper well. Mental illness, which led to my sister’s suicide, was a disease, like cancer, HIV/AIDS, sickle cell or heart disease. God has not set aside a special place in the underworld for people tormented by this devastating ailment. The depth of God’s love cannot be broken by angels or demons, kidney disease or cancer, HIV/AIDS, schizophrenia or suicide. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.