Shonda Bowman Wright’s story could be summed up as one of the heart and mind, and the driving, eternal cacophony that exists when the two fail to find balance. It’s described often as “demons,” and to many it is. To others, it’s chemicals. Realistically, it’s a bit of both.
But it'a a summary — and a bad one. Like many of you, I saw more than a story in Shonda. Hers is a legacy, and others will use it powerfully for years to come.
Shonda was one of my favorite people on the planet, and I had only known her for four months. The outward visibility of her struggle, to me, was always powerfully masked by the pleasure of her company. She moved fast and spoke faster. She asked the kind of questions I loved to answer — tough, fun questions that could lead to debate. I know I wasn’t the only one she connected with like that; she had more friends out there than she probably ever realized, simply because you really had to work at it if you didn’t want to like her.
The first time I met Shonda — not in passing but really had the chance to sit and talk with her — she opened with a line I’ll never forget: “People are going to tell you things about me. I want you to hear it from me first.” She went on to give me the faintest glimpse into her head. It was an easy conversation because she was an easy person to talk to, but she was right. She wasn’t the only one I heard it from. It never mattered, but I had already told her it wouldn’t after her opening line.
After that conversation, I admired Shonda, and I offered it to her in the form of praise and encouragement. I told her often that I found her to be an incredible writer with a mountain of talent, and I was willing to give her all the attention necessary to help her in the pursuit of her goal. She wanted to write professionally, she told me. I already knew how to do that. When I could pin her down for more than a few minutes at a time, I think we made great progress developing that skill.
Our conversations were about comma placement, use of the dash over the semi-colon, how to construct an engaging lead. Periodically, we’d discuss her computer problems or her family. She sent me a photo from the hospital the night her grandchild was born. I told her it made my day. Really, it just made me happy for her.
Even more infrequently, she’d ask me about mental illness. I’m not an expert in the field. I think I was just on the phone at the time. It never bothered me.
In our last conversation, she told me she'd be stopping her column after May to focus on school. She said she didn't want me to feel like she was going away, as she'd always be willing to track down a source or provide some much-needed background for a newcomer to the community. She was vibrant and excited. I was excited for her.
Never in my life have I wanted someone to win so badly. I told her I was in her corner.
It’s a mangled thing we trespass on. Life. A territory without proper signs and definitions but still bearing an oppressing, constant reminder that we’re in the wrong. Our heads attempt to gain understanding of the situation – urge us to turn back, even – as our hearts often seem apt to push deeper.
It wasn’t just Shonda who saw it this way. It’s where we all collide, as a people, the rift where our brain meets our body. It looks like a room of funhouse mirrors with a cooking demonstration in every pane. Part of us tries to learn the impossible recipe. The other part just wants to eat.
We all distance ourselves externally from these collisions. The head and the heart can come together to agree that the show must go on. Both our suffering and our salvation are ours and ours alone in most cases.
We, as a people, feel the need to not only perfect this process but also shape this into meaning. Some are champions. Others miss the mark. Sometimes they miss it more than once. Sometimes they miss it so many times, they forget what it feels like to balance — to succeed.
But Shonda’s legacy is a success story — not a page in a textbook. It was a riveting dance with triumph and tragedy with an ending she didn’t get the chance to write. For the hundreds, if not thousands out there who know this to be true, I urge you to write it for her. For some that will mean telling tales of the times she impressed you, showed you comfort or made you smile. For others, it will mean telling someone right now how much you love them, and that no matter the circumstance you’ll be there if they need you.
Over the past couple days, I’ve done a little bit of both.
Shonda Bowman Wright was the first person I thought to call a friend in Pell City. She will be deeply, fondly and inextricably missed.