Nikki, the tenacious and inquisitive local culture reporter who was one of my closest friends, had been killed.
A year later, writing that paragraph still makes my stomach sink and my breathing quicken. Spelling out what happened in cold, clinical terms feels disrespectful to her life. But I don’t know how else to explain what happened.
After hearing the news, things became foggy. I needed to carve out time to write Nikki’s obituary, a piece of writing I carefully labored over. It felt like one of the last things I could do for her.
Describing who Nikki was could never fit into that column, or this one. She was a vivid storyteller and personable interviewer who cared deeply about her writing. She loved Cleveland, and was committed to highlighting the people who make it vibrant.
She was a generous friend who had a light, melodic laugh. Her musical tastes were eclectic, running the gamut from alt-country and classic rock to hip-hop. She adored cats (all cute animals, really) and was deeply proud of her burgeoning photography skills.
And her moral compass was strong: You knew that if she commented on a hot-button issue, her words were carefully chosen.
I had previously dealt with losing friends and acquaintances. My last grandparent, my beloved grandmother, had passed away in February 2018.
But nothing could have prepared me for the lingering impact of Nikki’s death: the sheer magnitude of grief I felt, and how my emotions shape-shifted with little rhyme or reason.
My grief didn’t just look like sadness, at least not all of the time. It didn’t follow any linear, step-by-step evolution. I felt off-balance and unsteady. It wasn’t a physical sensation, not exactly. It was an equilibrium imbalance that I still find difficult to put into words.
Nikki and I were texting, like normal, one day. Then she was gone. If anything, my grief was sneaky and transformative, a Scooby-Doo villain lurking behind a mask. As the months passed, I had no attention span. My mind felt mired in quicksand, thick and sluggish. Work projects I used to polish off quickly took twice as long; sending an email or making a phone call felt insurmountable. I logged off social media. I lost touch with friends. By the end of a given day, I was exhausted.
I recognize these reactions are normal. Mourning periods don’t have an expiration date. But it’s still not easy or comfortable to admit you’re carrying stubborn grief, the kind that endures and affects you deeply, even when a tragedy is months past.
Rationally, I know I wasn’t alone with this burden.
Nikki’s mom, partner, cat and other close friends were shattered. Judging by the public outpouring of support and generosity from the community, Cleveland itself was reeling too.
At February’s Brite Winter Festival — where the phrase “Nikki Forever” and a silhouette of her trademark glasses were projected on a concrete post — I stood by as a man I didn’t know sobbed.
It’s a cliche, but trying to turn that overwhelming sadness into something good and positive has kept me going in the past year.
That’s a reason I was heartened to get involved with Lake Erie Ink, a nonprofit with which Nikki volunteered and loved dearly. I’m now on the board. Lake Erie Ink has partnered with Nikki’s employer, Cleveland.com (where I have also freelanced), for a teen-geared journalism training program called Write About Now.
I was thrilled to see this initiative launch. It combines two things Nikki cherished — journalism and elevating youth voices. It is a tangible manifestation of her impact. For 19-year-old Ayelet Travis, who graduated from Cleveland Heights High School this spring, participating in Lake Erie Ink programs for three years was invaluable. Her focus was slam poetry. “It was a very good place to discover who I was,” Travis says. “Before I started Lake Erie Ink, I was super-shy and anxious.
“I grew to be more confident in myself,” she continues. “I didn’t know how to express myself well, and I learned how to do that. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Nikki would be so happy to hear that from Travis, but embarrassed at all the fuss over her own life. She disliked the spotlight.
Writing this very piece was excruciatingly difficult, and I’ve been dreading the first anniversary of Nikki’s death like it was a root canal appointment. But now, I can laugh with friends when I think about funny things Nikki did, and Facebook memories of her being silly provoke both twinges of sadness and a smile.
She made the lives of everyone better simply by being herself. And she always showed up — for her friends, for the community.
Keeping her work and spirit alive doesn’t need to be a big gesture. When you promote a cool event, support a local business or coo over a cat, that’s honoring her memory.
Those small, continual things are Nikki’s legacy. We can all do those things. And by doing them, we’re passing on Nikki’s curiosity and kindness.
9:30 AM EST
November 12, 2019