There is only one way to say it: 2016 was a helluva year. And until this moment, I didn’t mean that in a good way.
Sometimes it snows in April, and it was a cold, hellish day when we got the news on April 21 that Prince had died. I didn’t feel the way I felt when Michael Jackson died seven years before. That day, I was sad but I was a journalist. I was standing at an airport gate, ready to board a plane, nearly missing a flight as I composed a column.
Last April, I was numb. Prince’s seeming immortality was neither Peter Pan-ish nor grounded in the belief that he would always be around. My mind and heart just couldn’t imagine a world without him in it. It was like I’d lost a family member.
Even as the accolades poured in from the rich and famous and talented, I recalled being at Paisley Park during the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Minneapolis the summer before. He had invited us out to party, and we did. And 10 journalists got a private audience with him. I wasn’t among them, but Kelley L. Carter put me there in her Buzzfeed story after the fact:
CHANHASSEN, Minnesota — The room was a bit too dark. Prince turned to a member of his staff and said, “Turn up the lights so the doves can see.”
By spring, we had no idea how much 2016 would kick our butts. Six weeks after Prince’s death, we lost The Greatest. It is impossible to fully explain the global impact that a young boxer who became so much more had on the world. I won’t try now. He was the subject of my first column. He will be the subject of my last. But when I write it, I’ll tell you about when I first meet him in 1994, and the time I visited his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan before all the media came to call. His death rocked me to my core – until two days later when my mother, the most courageous woman I’ve ever known, joined him on another plane.She finally said goodbye after a life-long battle with multiple sclerosis. The disease won many battles, but she won the war.
I put most of my tears and heartbreak into a tribute that I hope she knew I would write, that I hope she felt through the years.
“TARBORO, N.C. — There are no words to describe the pain of hearing your mother’s name and “end of life” in the same sentence.
As I sat in a tiny conference room last week, signing document after document confirming all the things medical officials would not do for my mother, the ink became tears and the pen a knife stabbing at my heart.
Do not resuscitate.
Do not transfer to hospital for life-sustaining treatment.
The piece was not about her last day, but about the decision to place her in hospice weeks weeks before. The word hurt like it had barbs. But there are barbs on roses, too, like the ones I sent her on birthdays and holidays.
Some thorns are necessary. During those last days, she didn’t speak. But suddenly, one day, she did. Her last words to me were brief, quiet, too quick:
Suddenly, I leaned over my mother’s face, leaned in close, like a 3-year-old would to a young mom, and said,
“Mommy, I love you!”
Her eyes popped open. She looked right at me. And she said: “I love you, too.”
I don’t know whether she was saying I love you to . . .
… a little girl in pigtails so eager to head to kindergarten to show off her reading prowess
… or a tomboy on her way to college to study journalism
… or to a young woman preparing to drive halfway across the country to take a super newspaper job.
… or to a young mother adopting a girl of her own.
… or to the face of a stranger who looked like someone she would love.
It doesn’t matter. She said she loves me back.
You’ll have to read the rest on your own. I’m still trying to move on. Death has stood in the way time and again.
Four months after my mother, a beautiful guy whose day job was sports columnist, but off-duty job was great guy, was suddenly not there anymore. I was on a plane to Dallas. When I landed and the messages flooded in, they were all about Drew Sharp dying. I didn’t believe them. I called. “It’s true,” a friend said. I didn’t believe it. I called the newspaper.
It was true.
What Drew said about sports columnists was true about life columnists. I learned so much from him.
Journalism isn’t easy. It can take a toll. The great ones are on the job season after season. A season wasn’t a season with out Drew.
And these seasons now aren’t the same.
I had barely begun to feel my skin again when I got the call in November about Gwen.
Except for my mother, the pain of losing her was greater than any I’d felt since my grandparents died 16 years ago – just months before I moved to Detroit.
A snow that began falling last April when doves cried turned into a blizzard and enveloped me. Gwen Ifill was my best friend. She wasn’t my closest friend. She had friends in Washington, in her life, in her world, that were closer and who got to see her every day.
But she was the best person I’d called friend for nearly three decades. To say that she lifted me, gave me constant hope and made me feel I could do anything just doesn’t cover how great a friend she was. She did that for many others too, part of her role as nurturer-in-chief. I wrote about her, too. When Ebony asked me to write that appreciation, I didn’t do it right away. I couldn’t see the keyboard through the tears.
I’ll also share a story I offered at an evening tribute the night before her memorial.
When she came to Detroit to moderate a vice-presidential debate, we had dinner. She then headed to her quarters at the best hotel in town. Later, the phone rang. It was Gwen.
“Girl. Get over here.”
She and I ran all over that Presidential Suite.
She was one of the best and greatest journalism has ever had. But she was always Gwen. And she was never too big to not be my friend after I left Washington and became telling the stories of people in one of the flyover states, choosing neither coast, working in the heartland.
Quite simply, I loved her. She was my third sister. You’ll hear about her often, the same way I bring up my grandparents now and then. They raised me. She nurtured me.
By December, I figured the emotional snow was over, making way for real snow and days with no degrees outside. But last week, we were sitting in a staff meeting when word came that Sylvia Rector had died. She was the longtime restaurant critic and food expert at the Free Press. No one in America did the job better.
But she was so much more. She was a Southern woman and fantastic cook who never dismissed me because I was the only woman she knew from North Carolina who doesn’t really cook – because she knew I could. She and I had our early days at the Dallas Times Herald, which doesn’t exist anymore.
She was genteel, charming, funny and the hardest working person in the newsroom. She made it clear that food was as important as any other beat. She retired a year ago, and the newsroom has not been the same. Now, the state is not the same.
As if all of that loss wasn’t enough, 2016’s relentlessness continued with the deaths of George Michael and Debbie Reynolds, whom I adored, a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.
Debbie taught me recovery from loss and how to be unsinkable; Carrie taught me power and that you can be your own woman – and be a princess.
With just days left in the year, everyone I know was counting down the days until the New Year could begin with new hope of less loss.
So to say 2016 stank would be an understatement, except this: It taught me to remember what each of these people I’ve mentioned taught me: There is too much joy and positivity in life to dwell in a negative space.
In every memory I have of these folks I lost, we lost, this year, they are smiling.
So get thee behind me, 2016. I’ll try to carry the best of what they taught me, the best of them, into a new year that I know will be better than you.
Rochelleriley.com is home to Rochelle’s personal reflections about her pursuit of life, liberty and whatever else she wants. You can read her newspaper columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley. You can follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.