Kenya - 'Bird at My Window'

by Kenya Napper Bello

On May 28, 1994, I married my soul mate and the man of my dreams. Less than six months later, I was left a widow by my 27 year old husband's suicide. He took his life by jumping from the 32nd floor of a downtown hotel.

Educated at Morehouse College, groomed by Coca-Cola International, and named a fellow at Johns Hopkins University, this proud black man was on his way to success. There was only one obstacle—a quickly engulfing depression. Oddly enough, the most important thing I learned from this man was the power of believing, but it wasn't just me. All who knew him became a believer because in his eyes, everyone, every life form was deserving of greatness and spiritual freedom. Unfortunately, his illness tainted his view and prevented him from having what he loved most...life.

In 1993, Razak was diagnosed with Manic Depressive Disorder (a mental illness characterized by extreme mood swings). Like many with his condition, he thought he didn't need to take medication. Instead, he believed with an intelligent mind, healthy eating, and regular exercise, he could control this biochemical brain disease. He was highly ambitious, competitive, a perfectionist and simply wanted it all—the power, the money, the material reward, and the pride of overcoming racial barriers. For a moment, he did have it all.  He even made the Wall Street Journal after successfully engineering a complex deal between Germany and Coca-Cola International. But whether it was the effect of this disease, or a one track mind to being successful, his world slowly fell apart.  He would now enter his second manic episode.

This period was characterized by excessive spending, foolish business investments, insomnia, inflated self-esteem, and racing speech. After forgetting where he parked his car one morning, he frantically reported it stolen. His performance at Coca Cola also suffered as he became severely disorganized and paranoid. Finally, he was admitted into Charter Peachford Hospital where he was placed on lithium, a mood stabilizer.  He was also given a thought clarifier called stelazine. After two weeks of hospitalization, and a good prognosis, he returned home to Coca-Cola's letter of termination. While a devastating blow to his ego, he fortunately had been accepted into Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. With characteristic pride, he attempted to put Coca Cola behind him and prepare for school, but, by the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., the depressive phase of his condition had taken affect. Six weeks later, after struggling to concentrate and keep up with his classes, he withdrew and returned to Atlanta.

He now saw himself as a failure—terminated from his job, withdrawing from the school of his dreams, with bills to pay, the stigma of his disease, and an inability to support his family.  To further complicate matters, he was not taking the medication. Consequently, his weight dropped, he wasn't eating, and his nights were sleepless. Constantly he stated there was "no way out."

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Educated at Morehouse College, groomed by Coca-Cola International, and named a fellow at Johns Hopkins University, this proud black man was on his way to success. There was only one obstacle—a quickly engulfing depression.

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Unaware of the depth of his depression, I suggested that he read Andy Young's book, A Way Out of No Way, but it was too late. "I did my best but know wherever I am, Kenya, I will always love you." 

Although concerned by his words, I believed with a loving wife and supportive family and friends, a man of his strong character would get through this period. This thinking inevitably proved naive and fatal. Razak needed more than a strong will and a loving hand. He needed medical treatment. Since his death, many have implied that Razak must have been a "weak man."  "Couldn't he have just snapped out of it?" Acute depression is a disease no a character flaw. That it was a mental disease makes his death no different than death from terminal cancer or diabetes.

The following is excerpted from Bird At My Window, an unpublished memoir of the love story between Kenya Napper Bello and her husband, Razak:

He had such a pull on me. My soul opened so naturally to his needs, so wanting to love him. But, somehow I couldn't find the way to reach him. Perhaps there were moments of connection but I was never able to sustain those moments into natural ways of intimacy. His awareness of the human necessity to connect was almost void. It was hurtful to love this man so much without having the anchor of connection. But, I learned to live with it always hoping  that somewhere in his soul, he would eventually extend his hand and mine would be there waiting.

As my family and I prepared the memorial service, I knew that I would have to do the eulogy, although, no one expected me to. But, I didn't think anyone knew him better than me and felt that I was responsible for putting his death into proper context.  There were a lifetime of thoughts in my head, many lessons learned, many moments—and I wanted that beauty, and not Razak's final act, to be remembered. It's amazing because I never concentrated on the suicide. It was too simple and at the same time far too complex.

I  stood before hundreds of family and friends on a brisk November day, dressed in a summer white Yoruba gown, holding a twig of baby's breath. As I delivered his eulogy, I felt like I held the truth of life:

"I come here before you today as the wife of Razak Adewale Bello. 

The depth of his mind and soul traveled places that few are capable of experiencing.  He saw more than just the obvious and worked to translate thisinsight into ways to relieve man of his suffering, of his ignorance, of his self-imposed limitations.  Because in his eyes, everyone, every life form was deserving of greatness and spiritual freedom. 

We each are here for more than what we own, who we know or how we look.  We are here to develop our potential as servants to life and each other to completely honor the true spirit and goodness of  our souls..."

As I walked back to my seat, I knew I had not given them the answers to their questions. I had not talked about why he took his life. I had not spoken with anger or sorrow. I had not stood in shame. At that moment, I felt no responsibility to explain the unexplainable...only a soul-wrenching need to preserve what he left behind.

Over the next eleven days, my family and I was awoken by a bird which seemingly slammed its body against the living room window. Although I had no inclination toward humor, I thought that surely even the most mindless bird could see this was a home in mourning.  It was so loud in a home that was struggling for peace and healing. For about four days, no one said anything. We had far too many things on our hearts. Anyway, birds flying into windows was not odd during this time of year. However, after almost a week, it dawned on me how perfectly regularly the bird appeared. Even more strange, it appeared at every window of the room I was in. It banged on the window of the laundry room as I was washing clothes. It banged on my bedroom window as I was resting. It banged on the kitchen window as I was eating breakfast. My family and I grew puzzled but beyond that, we wished it would go away. Finally, after almost two weeks of being awakened by this bird, I hysterically screamed "O.K., Razak, we get it. You're free." But from everywhere in the house, I heard "It's not just about Razak's freedom. It's also about your freedom. Live on, Kenya...live on!" That morning, I boarded a plane to Martinique where I would begin my spiritual journey to healing. Several days after I arrived, I called my mother. She said that since the day I left, the bird has not returned.    

I now understood that in order to get through this period, I would have to do more than just survive. I would have to live in ways that I had never lived before. Something curious happens when your soul is threatened. You either retreat into irreversible darkness, carefully manage, or shatter every vestige of self-doubt and reconstruct the meaning of life.