Daily Affirmation: “I have gratitude for every experience I have encountered.”
Two years ago, I woke up in the hospital…
The lights above seared my eyes. My body felt heavy and I didn’t have the strength to lift my arms or my legs. Muffled voices surrounded me. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, or who they even were. It felt as if I was underwater, weighed down by a sandbag.
Then a shadow fell over me, blocking the blinding lights. I blinked to clear my vision, but it was too blurry to see anything. I forced my body to move, attempting to sit up, but everything spun and my stomach roiled. Then a deep, throbbing pain surged through my left forearm, and that’s when I remembered.
I remembered it all.
My mother’s unmistakable shrill voice cut through the fog. “Phoenix, are you awake? Can you hear me?”
“Stop shouting, Mom. You’re going to scare her.”
My heart ached at the soothing sound of my brother’s voice.
I lifted my hand, reaching out for him. Hot tears stung my eyes as I croaked out his name.
“I’m here,” he said. Warmth engulfed my hand. “She’s cold. Get her another blanket.”
I swallowed past the dry lump in my throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Shh. Everything’s going to be okay.”
As my vision came into focus, I noted the firm line of Mom’s mouth. The clench of her jaw, the crease between her brows. It’s an expression I’d seen countless times—an expression I’d induced.
She was mad.
Deep down, I knew she would be. Mad at what I did, or mad that she couldn’t fix me. Or maybe she was just mad that I’d survived. Like she was disappointed that I couldn’t even successfully kill myself.
It was too much—the harshness of waking up, the pain, the guilt, and the tidal wave of grief. So, I closed my eyes and pretended to fall back asleep despite the questions swirling through my head.
I hadn’t planned for it. I don’t think anyone does. You’re not supposed to witness the aftermath of your suicide.
I snuck a peek at my brother as he guided my mom to a nearby chair. He showed her his phone. “Look. This place looks nice.”
“Do you really think a place like that is going to help? She’s lived in a wonderful house with a wonderful family all her life, and none of that mattered.”
She wasn’t wrong. With a normal life like mine, why would anyone want to die? I’ve never been able to understand it. Depression is a crazy, traitorous disease. It tricks you into thinking things that aren’t true.
Tyler pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’re not psychiatric professionals. We couldn’t give her the kind of help she needed, despite how wonderful her life was. These people can help her.”
Mom’s voice got louder as she stabbed the air with her index finger. “I’m not sending her to some mental institution. She’s not crazy. She’s just ungrateful. She doesn’t know how good she has it. Do they have a pill to fix that?”
Tyler’s eyes widened. “Do you hear yourself right now? Your daughter tried to take her own life, and you’re not going to try to help her get better?”
“If your sister is hell-bent on dying, then nothing and no one is going to stop her.”
That was Mom. If she couldn’t control something, then she discarded it like trash. It had no place in her world.
Tyler’s head jerked back. “Well, we have to try.”
“There’s no we, Ty. Your father’s gone, and you live a hundred miles away.”
“Oh, so this is my fault? I’m not allowed to have a life of my own?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” She waved a dismissive hand. “But when you leave, I’m the one who’s left here to deal with her. And I won’t let her ruin my life the way she’s choosing to ruin hers.”
“She didn’t choose this, Mom. Didn’t you hear what the doctor said?”
I wanted to tell Tyler it was hopeless. Talking to Mom about depression is like telling her there are aliens on Mars. If she doesn’t believe in it, then there’s no possibility for it to exist.
“I’ve been through enough with that girl. Your sister can’t be saved, and you need to accept that.”
“Look, I know you’re upset right now, but—”
“No.” Mom shook her head. “If Phoenix wants to be dead, then she will be. She’ll be dead to me.”
But today, waking up in the hospital again after two years? It’s much different.
Same sterile smell. Same sound of beeping machines. Same pain in the same arm.
Though instead of feeling scared and alone, I feel safe and loved.
James, Leo, and Jim sit around my bed in their respective chairs.
Leo’s reading a romance novel.
Jim is asleep with Wilbur on his lap—perks of being in the hospital with a police officer.
And James is watching me from under heavy, tired lids, gripping my hand like he’ll float away if he isn’t tethered to me. Those beautiful eyes pierce my heart and see into my soul.
A smile creeps onto my face. “Hi, handsome.”
“Hi, beautiful. How do you feel?”
“I’ve been through worse.”
He stands and nudges my leg. “Scoot over.”
“You’re too big. You can’t fit in here.”
He smirks. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before, but we made it work.”
Leo makes a gagging sound, and Jim plugs his ears with his index fingers.
I laugh and Wilbur’s ears perk up. He dives from Jim’s lap onto the bed, but James intercepts him.
“Easy, boy. Easy. Mommy is hurt.” He puts him gently in my lap, shielding my wounded arm as Wilbur stands on his hind legs to lick my face.
“You were such a good guard dog,” I tell him. “Wilbur knew someone was in the house before the Ring alert went off on my phone.” I glance at the Russo men sitting around me. “What happened to Cory?”
Jim jerks his thumb toward the door. “They just got done patching him up in the ER.”
“Now, he’ll serve time for possession of an unlicensed weapon and attempted murder.”
I cover my mouth with my good hand. “He needs help. He’s just a lost soul.”
James’s jaw tics. “He almost killed you.”
“But he didn’t, so now he’s getting a chance to make things right.”
Jim’s eyebrows rise. “Are you saying you don’t want to press charges?”
“I just want him to get the help he needs. If he gets clean and goes to a mental health facility, maybe he can still have a bright future.”
James strokes my cheek with the back of his hand. “We’ll talk about it another time. Right now, he needs to pay for what he did—on drugs or not.”
I glance over at Leo, who’s unusually quiet. “Hey, little bro. Whatcha reading over there?”
“This reverse harem you gave me has me all kinds of messed up. How can they share her and not get jealous of one another?”
I see through his joke and reach my hand out for him. “You okay?”
He gestures to his shirt as he comes to stand by my bed. “I never want to wear this much of your blood ever again, Nixie.”
“Thank you for being there with me. I know I was in and out of consciousness, and I know you were scared, but I knew you had me, and I knew I was safe.”
His dark eyes glisten. “I thought I was going to lose you.”
I shake my head. “Never.”
He lifts my hand to his lips and presses a kiss to my knuckles. “Love you, sis.”
“Love you more.”
Jim rises and his sons back away from the bed as he leans down and drops a kiss to the top of my head. “Thank you for what you did. I’ll never forget it.”
My bottom lip trembles and emotion clogs my throat, making it impossible to say anything in return.
Jim and Leo take Wilbur home, and James wedges his big body onto the hospital bed with me. I rest my head on his chest, inhaling a lungful of his familiar scent as we lie together in the quiet room.
His voice is low and deep when he speaks. “You jumped in front of me and literally took a bullet for me. I never want you to do that again.”
“I’d do it a hundred times over if it meant you were okay.”
He lets out a slow exhale. “I’m supposed to protect you.”
“You protect everyone else. I’ve got your six, remember?”
He grunts. “Still, you can’t go doing that. I can’t lose you.”
“You saved me right back. You got me to the hospital in time.” I press my lips to his neck. “Ripping off your shirt and making a tourniquet out of it, all sexy and shit.”
He barks out a laugh. “You were half-conscious. What do you know about me ripping off my shirt?”
“When you’re this sexy, a woman would rise from the grave to witness something like that.” I lift my head. “Oh, maybe we got it on camera. Check the Ring for the video.”
James’s eyes squeeze shut as he laughs. “What am I going to do with you?”
I snuggle into him, careful not to put pressure on my arm. “Just love me. Because I love you with my whole heart, and I will always take a bullet for you.”
“Okay, well, let’s hope that never happens again.” He tips my chin and presses his lips to mine. “I love you, beautiful. More than anything in this world, with all of my heart and soul, I love you.”
“You realize this was the third break-in in the past year. I think I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records.”
“Save your twisted humor for Leo.”
“Definitely too soon.”
I stare up at the beige siding along the front of my house.
Home, sweet home.
After needing surgery on my arm to repair the damage from the bullet and spending the last few days in the hospital, I’m ready to get back to my normal life. I blow out a contented sigh and lean my head back against the headrest in James’s car.
“Dad, Leo, and I cleaned up the mess in the living room.” James squeezes my hand. “Are you nervous about going inside after what happened?”
I shake my head. “I just want to take a minute to appreciate everything. This house. My father for leaving it to me. You and your wonderful family.”
“There’s a lot to be grateful for when you stop and think about it.”
“I want to keep doing that—stopping to be in the moment and appreciate everything I have. I never used to do that before.”
James hums as we stare up at our houses.
Just a few months ago, I was scared to walk into this house. Now, it’s the only place I want to be.
“All right. I’m ready.”
James helps me out of the car, and I adjust my sling as I walk toward the house. Wilbur barks from inside the second my feet hit the porch, and he bounds out the door when James unlocks it.
I pat his head as I step inside. “I know, I know. I missed you too, bud.”
James takes my hand and leads me down the hallway.
“Hey, what’s the rush? What are you—”
“Welcome home!” Jim, Leo, Phil, and Sadie clap as my eyes bounce to each familiar face. A Welcome Home, Phoenix banner hangs over the mantel.
But my tears don’t well until I spot one more person standing in the corner.
“Tyler. What are you doing here?”
My brother smiles and comes to stand in front of me. “I got a phone call from James, and he said you were hurt and needed surgery. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it sooner.”
I squeeze him with my good arm as tight as I can. “Ow. This hurts, but I don’t care because I’m so happy to see you.”
Tyler chuckles as he wraps his arms around me. “Gabby sends her love. We’ll bring Jenna over the summer when she’s a little older.”
I pull back and look up at him. “How long are you in for?”
“The weekend. Just enough time to get to know your new boyfriend.”
I flick my eyes over to James, who’s watching us with those intense eyes of his. “He’s pretty fantastic.” I wave Leo over. “And so is this one.”
Leo presses a kiss to the top of my head. “Welcome home, sis.”
Tyler tilts his head in question, and I bite back a smile.
We all spend the afternoon together. Sadie tells us about the updates she’s made at the shelter since my donation. Tyler shows us adorable videos of Jenna. And Phil cracks us up with his funniest police stories.
While we’re all together, happy and healthy, my mind wanders to Cory. I can’t help but wonder how he’s doing right now and if he’ll be okay.
Later on, after everyone says good night and Tyler is settled in his old room down the hall, I lie on James’s chest. In the dim light of the moon streaking through the window, I listen to the rhythm of his heartbeat, strong and steady.
“You know how people say their lives flash before their eyes when they’re about to die?”
He hums and turns to face me.
“I didn’t see my dad, or my mom, or Tyler. No familiar memories from my childhood. No bright light.” I touch my fingers to James’s cheek, sliding along his cheekbone, tracing the edge of his jaw, and outlining his lips. “I saw you.”
I smile at the surprise in his voice. “I saw you and our future. I saw all the things I want for us. And I thought what a shame it would be if we didn’t get to have it. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to give up. I felt regret, like there were all these things I haven’t had a chance to experience yet, and I wasn’t ready to leave.” I inhale a shaky breath. “I held on to you through the darkness, and you brought me back, just like you said you would.”
“That was all you. Your strength and the fight inside you. It’s been in there all along.” He wraps his strong arms around me. “You were a phoenix long before you were my phoenix.”
“Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we can’t become all we’re meant to be until we meet the person who brings it out in us.”
“And we can’t meet those people if we’re not here.” James cradles my face as his words pierce my heart. “Look at the people you were surrounded by today. Look at who you’ve affected just by knowing them. My brother might not be here if it weren’t for your friendship, helping him and pushing him—pushing me to support him in ways I didn’t know how. Look at the things Sadie was able to do with the shelter because of your generosity, not to mention all the people’s lives you brightened by hosting that adoption event. You took a bullet for me and spared my father from burying his son. You’re the reason your brother is dealing with his childhood trauma from your mother, which will make him become a better father for Jenna. Look at how happy you’ve made me. Look at it all, Phoenix.” A tear slides down his cheek and drops onto the pillow. “You couldn’t have done any of those things if you weren’t here, on this earth.”
I see it now, but I know I couldn’t have seen it then. I was too sick. My perception was too skewed. And that’s all it comes down to—perception.
My mind won’t settle, thoughts racing long after James falls asleep. Around midnight, I slip out of bed and tiptoe into the spare bedroom where my journal sits atop a folding table. I’ll be turning this room into my writing space come spring.
My pen moves across the paper as I write as fast as I can:
You look at things the way your brain presents them to you, and it’s not the way life actually is. That’s the reason so many of us don’t make it. It’s impossible to overcome when you don’t have the proper help.
Life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows and cuddly puppies. Those things do exist, but in a dark tunnel when all you can see are dark clouds, pain, and despair, it makes life seem hopeless. We need to hold on to hope, hold on to the possibility that things can get better. We need to take hold of the power we possess and take control of the demons wreaking havoc in our brains.
Talk to someone.
Stop making ourselves the victims in our own lives, and start being the warriors we are.
Depression will always be there, lurking and waiting for the right moment to rear its ugly head. Instead of hating myself for it and trying to hide it, I’ve made the darkness a part of me. It’s not a flaw or something I need to be ashamed of. It just is, the way my hair is brown and my laugh is loud. It’s who I am and what makes me the person I am today.
But it no longer consumes me.
I lose track of time as I write until James creeps into the room and watches me from the doorway.
“I love watching you when you’re inspired.”
I smile and close the book with the pen inside. “I had to get that out before I fell asleep.”
“You ready to come back to bed?”
“I’m ready.” I walk over to him and drape my arms around his neck as he swoops me into his arms. “Bring me back, James.”
“I always will.”
Leave a Reply