One year. It seems like such a long time. And it feels like yesterday. 365 days, and the blink of an eye. We lost Rivena on this day one year ago. And I remain at a loss for words as to why our oldest child took her own life on January 28, 2018.
There are so many things I’ve learned about grieving during this past year. Not because I’ve wanted to, but because there hasn’t been any choice. Among the more important lessons learned is that it feels good to be able to talk about Rivena. So, on this day, the first anniversary of the worst day of my life, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter Rivena.
If you’re here with me, reading this, I thank you. Just like the hundreds who showed up at Rivena’s memorial service last year, the outpouring of support from so many people continues to leave our family humbled. But the ironic thing about the support from so many is that very few people actually knew Rivena. There were a small few who really did know her, more who knew Rivena by her former name, and most knew enough to know that Rivena was a transgender woman who had only come out publicly about a year before her death.
Being a transgender woman was just part of who she was, though. Rivena never would have wanted to be defined by it. My goal today is to convey a sense of the person Rivena was.
She gave me purpose in life
Rivena came along at a time in my life when I was, to say the least, not quite ready to be a parent. She was born the first week of my final semester in college. Kim and I had no income other than my part time job in a bank, no benefits, and no experience as adults, let alone any parenting skills. And yet, Rivena’s arrival completely changed the direction of my life for the better. She gave me purpose. She gave me the drive to succeed, not for me, but for my family. And she absolutely is who I can thank for teaching me how to be a good parent. She forced me to grow up, take responsibility, and she gave me my family without even realizing it. And it’s safe to say that Kim, Madison, and I all benefitted from her existence in this world.
She loved to read
As a young child, Rivena was a voracious reader, and she started reading much earlier than most kids. Without any real pushing from us, she began to recognize the scribbles on pages as things that represented certain sounds, and then started stringing those sounds together to form words. We realized it when she was just two; we were touring a model home looking to buy our first house, when she blurted out “National Builder of the Year.” We hadn’t said anything to her – instead, she just pointed to the wall where a banner said those very words. I have no doubt the nightly bedtime stories read by Kim were the cause of the early uptake, and in fact Rivena wrote in one of her journals during her last months, “One of my favorite memories was reading books with Mom.”
Her teachers in school consistently realized the same early talent for reading. In her preschool class, while the other kids were learning basic phonetics, Rivena was assigned Charlotte’s Web. And her first-grade teacher, when dismissing all the kids for the summer, told each one as they left, “Read a book, read a book, read a book…” and to Rivena, “go outside and play!”
Even all the way to the end, Rivena devoured books. In what turned out to be our final conversation, Rivena told Kim and me about an outing she had organized for her treatment group that she was particularly proud of. She had found an independent used book store with a funky, vegan friendly coffee shop next door, where she had introduced her group to her love of interesting, old books. She was gone the next day.
Value of constantly learning
We are fortunate to have so much of Rivena’s voice left behind in the form of her writing. She kept journals during her time in treatment that have become both priceless for their window into her thinking and painful for their haunting view of her constant struggle to find real happiness. In one of her entries, she describes what she refers to as her core values. Near the top of that list is her self-described value of constantly learning.
While she really didn’t care much for what her grades were, (she was the kid in school who never turned in homework – she didn’t see the point – but aced every test) Rivena had a curiosity about the world that ran deep. She read and re-read The Elegant Universe by John Green and tried in vein to explain string theory to the rest of us. She tried almost every sport you can imagine, from soccer to hockey to rugby. Whether she was good or not wasn’t the point… she thrived on learning new things along the way. She taught herself how to play the guitar, she learned how to build computers, and she is the one who, when the traditional college just path didn’t work, decided to put herself through an intensive coding school.
Ironically, Rivena’s younger sister Madison is the person Rivena aspired to be. Rivena had watched as Maddie battled her own depression and anxiety for years, not allowing it to deter her own dream of going to study acting in New York. In a letter Rivena wrote to Maddie three or four months before her death, she referred to Maddie as the example of what a strong, self-confident woman should be. During that final year, Rivena looked up to her younger sister as an example of how to be her true self, constantly seeking newfound strength.
Humor and Wit
For those lucky enough to truly know Rivena, you know she had a deep, dry, deadpan sense of humor that tended to come out when you least expected it. One of her grandfather’s favorite memories of this was one of her high school jazz band concerts. She played the upright bass and typically stood right near the center of the band on stage. On this night, she came out on stage wearing a huge fake mustache – think Mario Brothers – and didn’t so much as crack a smile as she just played away. We were all rolling in the audience, and she simply played her set.
Her Christmas gifts tended to be more than a little unique… the gifts themselves were always very thoughtful, but how she chose to give them to each of us was something that had to be seen to be believed. On what would be her final Christmas, the gift from her and her sister to me was adorned with regular Christmas paper with a huge “Dad” written in large black sharpie, a duct tape ribbon, and happened to include a full-size grapefruit tied with a bow. That was her. One of a kind.
Sense of adventure
From an early age, Rivena had a tremendous sense of adventure. Our family tended to value experiences much more than things, and Rivena was no exception. When each of our kids turned sixteen, we told them they could choose anywhere in the world they wanted to go, and either Kim or I would take them for a one-on-one experience. Of all the places Rivena could have picked, she chose Africa. So, she and I ended up spending about ten days in Kenya – in Nairobi and three different safari camps in three different regions. We saw all the wildlife you can imagine… lions, cheetahs, leopards, hippos, and even managed to catch a river crossing during the great wildebeest migration. And yet, her favorite part of that trip had nothing to do with seeing the animals.
At one of the camps, we asked our guides if we could take some time to go to a local primary school out of the game preserve. We had packed a few soccer balls and some basic school supplies and wanted to deliver them ourselves. Rivena, in her own quiet, shy way hit it off with a couple of the young kids we met there, and for her that was the most memorable part of our entire adventure.
That experience in Kenya was just one of what became many examples of another one of Rivena’s self-proclaimed core values: always putting others before herself. As her dad, this sometimes drove me nuts, as she insisted on letting everybody else go ahead of her in line, and she never wanted to make others go out of their way for her.
She became a vegetarian, not based on any nutritional preference, but because of her compassion for living creatures.
And it’s safe to say Rivena didn’t follow the most typical path out of high school. She did manage to start college at Colorado School of Mines, but when her depression caused her to leave after only one semester, she leaned on her sense of adventure and kindness toward others to find her way forward. She ended up volunteering for a thirteen-month position with FEMA Corps, traveling the country and providing much-needed assistance to others following natural disasters like superstorm Sandy. Then, with her eyes open to what was possible, Rivena went on to take another volunteer position, teaching English to children at three different schools in Suzhou, China.
That compassion for others was constant. Once she was back from China, she lived and worked in downtown Denver. Rivena being Rivena, she refused to have a car and so she walked everywhere, often interacting with the many homeless people along one of her normal routes. It was not uncommon for her to purchase a box of day-old donuts and give them away as she made her way home.
Even money was never a motivator for Rivena, unless she could give it away. After graduating from coding school in early 2017, she was hired by a local media firm as a web developer. And when she realized she would be making real money, she immediately figured out how to give away a quarter of that income to a few charities she believed in. Her motivation for working hard was to be measured in terms of how many mosquito nets she could give away or how many people would get clean water. Again, one of a kind.
The Dark Side
Unfortunately, the kindness and empathy Rivena so generously endowed toward others had a dark side; you see, for as kind as she was toward other people, she was equally hard on herself. She had difficulty seeing herself through the same lens though which she viewed the world and tended to see herself as a burden on those around her. For those of us in her immediate family, it meant being torn between what we saw on the outside and what we knew she felt on the inside. It was heartbreaking to watch as she struggled between darkness and light, and her journals today give us a window into the true depth of those battles.
Near the end of her life, Rivena shared in a family therapy session her thoughts on being pulled toward death, saying she honestly thought it would be easier for everybody if she killed herself. In her mind, we as her family would only have to grieve once versus her having to fight a battle every single day. Obviously, we saw the flaw in her logic then, and we are now living in our grief every day.
The lesson to take out of Rivena’s experience is to be compassionate in life – both toward others, and very importantly toward yourself. Allow yourself the same grace, the same kindness that we easily give those around us and know the people we love will extend those same caring feelings back to you.
So hard to say goodbye
I find it impossible to convey exactly who Rivena was. She was kind-hearted, she was brilliant, she was compassionate, and she was incredibly complex. As her dad, I couldn’t be prouder of her fight to find happiness in being her true self. I only wish she hadn’t succumbed to the darkness of her depression.
In her own words, Rivena wrote, “If I can look at someone and see that my presence is benefitting them, I feel fulfilled and good.” Well, kiddo, I think you should feel good, wherever you are.
I was just finishing this piece when I paused to run out and get today’s mail. In the mailbox was the magazine pictured here. On the cover: a room called The Cathedral at The Baths on the island of Virgin Gorda in the BVIs. Our family has vacationed on Virgin Gorda many times through the years. And just 4 weeks ago, Kim and I spent a day there during an extended quest to run away from the holidays. At the very spot pictured on the cover of this magazine that arrived today, the one-year anniversary of Rivena’s death, we left some of Rivena’s ashes. The universe truly works in mysterious ways…