We lost her yesterday. We don’t know how. Her life and her health were complicated enough we might never have clear answers. It doesn’t matter. Answers won’t make her not dead. My friend, colleague, co-conspirator, and a host of other, more complicated relationships, Niki Massey, died early yesterday afternoon.
There are good reminiscences out there already. I don’t know how Olivia managed to write this amid the shock and the sorrow, but she did, and I love her for it. Alex wrote this, I think, because it needed to be written, and I love him for that as well. And yes, PZ, so vivid. There are others, but I’m having a hard time reading any by people I don’t know fairly well. Facebook is a wave of every emotion grief can possibly raise in no orderly, “staged” progression.
Yet I still feel like I need to say something here. I still want–need–to tell you about the bits of Niki that this much love and grief will try to file off. I need to keep her from being “sanitized” in the name of being worthy of it all. So this is who Niki Massey was.
Niki was black. “No shit”, you say (so would she), but it’s worth putting front and center. Niki was a loc-wearing, side-eyeing, tea-sipping, dark-skinned, thick-lipped black woman, and she wasn’t going to pretend to be anything else for your comfort or convenience. Her memes were black. Her gifs were black. She listened to This Week in Blackness and was proud as hell that her contributions on the hashtag sometimes made it onto the show, even if they had no idea how to pronounce her Twitter handle. She knew and reminded us all that, no matter her health problems, if we called 911 for her, we put her in more danger.
Niki was ambivalently black. She was a nerd, a geek. She spent too much of her young life not fitting in among the other black kids because she “talked white”. She was never comfortable with the names her family gave her, because they were too blatantly black not to leave her marked when she used them. “Niki” is a short version of her middle name. Most of her meatspace friends were white, because she settled in a city with a shortage of black geeks. But she never rejected her blackness that I know of, just worried that it would reject her.
Niki was angry. She was flip and dismissive and sarcastic. She swore with a creativity sailors could only dream of. She carried grudges. If you didn’t earn her respect, you didn’t have her respect. She wasn’t going to coax you along the path to knowledge, and she wasn’t going to help you at all if you hadn’t demonstrated a willingness to help her. She didn’t mistake any of that for persuading you of anything. If you found yourself on the receiving end of it, she probably didn’t think you were capable of changing your mind.
Niki was physically disabled. She had fibromyalgia, so poorly understood as to often be considered imaginary. She lived with constant but fluctuating pain and fatigue. She walked with a cane, because her feet sometimes failed her when she was exhausted and because people needed a visual cue to what she was capable of. Washing her dishes and cleaning the cat boxes required a nap. Something like a conference appearance meant Vicodin and days of recovery time.
Niki was mentally ill. Primarily she had an anxiety disorder. People are calling her fearless, but she wasn’t. She was afraid of so many things. She did many of them anyway, being brave as hell, but she was developing agoraphobia over the last few months. She couldn’t manage to hold onto a clear sense of her own worth, making her needlessly apologetic and occasionally suicidal. She checked herself into inpatient psychiatric care for suicidal ideation last summer, and she was experiencing ugly side-effects of new medication in the couple of weeks before she died.
Niki was poor. Food stamps poor. Appealing being turned down for disability poor. Living off gifts poor. Asking for help getting toys for her cat poor. That Niki had any kind of steady life over the last couple of years is due largely to her partner, Don. She had dentures because years of neglect of her health left her with so many teeth that needed attention, and crowns and implants were far out of reach.
Niki was a proponent of abortion. It wasn’t something to be grudgingly condoned but a positive good for the people who needed it. She raised money to help people afford abortions. She raised a stink when abortion rights were threatened or even treated dismissively. She put her own body between patients and protesters who targeted her with sexist, racist bullshit as the one black woman in an escort vest. She tried to study to be an abortion doula, to make the process easier and more comfortable, but her own disabilities got in the way. She regretted that like she regretted few things in her life.
Niki was a sex worker. She did some fetish modeling around college, but mostly she was a phone sex operator. She didn’t end up liking it much, but from the stories she told, that had more to do with policies that encouraged her to draw out calls for more money than anything else. She ran across squicky fetishes and people trying to cross boundaries, but as she noted herself, she ran into those when she wasn’t getting paid too. Once she stopped doing phone sex, she continued by writing erotica for many years. She was still doing that when she died.
Niki was asexual and biromantic. She found her own body’s sexuality squicky, which is why she wrote male/male(/male) erotica. She’d had a lot of sex with a lot of people in her life, but she was very clear that she’d done it for reasons other than feeling any drive to pursue sex itself. Sexuality was a fine thing. It was just a thing for other people.
Niki was all these things (and more, which I may add as inspiration hits). She wasn’t our friend despite them. She didn’t triumph over them to become the person we loved. This is who she was. This was the person who generated all that insight, humor, righteousness, and generosity. This was the person whose death left a gaping hole in our lives. All these things that we’re told make a person worthless? They made someone incredibly precious and irreplaceable. That’s who Niki Massey was.