A Test of Faith

Emmy-nominated actor Kelly Jenrette on death, loss and the strength one can gain from coming through difficult times.

Twenty-eighteen was a year of extremely high highs and painfully low lows. In between unexplainable loss and grief were moments of profound bliss. My personal life seemed riddled with inextricable sadness, while my professional life unfolded like the prettiest Stargazer you ever saw. The in-between is where life seemed imbalanced. Just when I was ready to hop off the seesaw, life threw another obstacle on the other side propelling me off my feet. The thrill of the up-and-down that once brought so much joy in my life was replaced by fear, uncertainty and anxiety.

Kelly Jenrette’s uncle Ronnie and aunt Denise at an Atlanta Braves game. (Photo courtesy Kelly Jenrette.)

While I don’t remember the exact day, I do remember standing in the shower with my hands covering my face as the tears poured from my eyes with an intensity and recklessness that could only be likened to an Annapurna avalanche. My mouth refused to let go of any words that wanted to slip out. Through shallow breaths and inaudible moans, I stood in that shower, praying that the water would wash away the pain that had seeped into the deepest crevices of my heart. It didn’t. Thoughts began to race through my mind with the speed of Usain Bolt. They were too fast for my mouth to spit out. WHY? HOW? I DON’T … UNDERSTAND?

My breaths got deeper, but my body tensed up, betraying the air that was attempting to fill my lungs. The ringing in my ears forced my knees to buckle ever so slightly. I placed my hand on the shower wall in an attempt to find my balance. “Talk to me,” He whispered. “I can handle it.” Through the rectangular-shaped shower window, I looked toward the sky and said, “I’m disappointed in You!” Before the lightning bolt could strike me down, I continued on. “You could’ve saved him. But you didn’t. You know everything my auntie has gone through this past year. Losing her mom. And then her dad. And now you’ve taken her husband! Why? Just why would you do that?!

Kelly Jenrette with her best friend, Shannon Sylvain (left). (Photo courtesy Kelly Jenrette.)

Before He could respond, His archenemy jumped in: “You’re absolutely right! You were so sure that he would make it. There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in you. But he didn’t make it. He died. He’s dead. And your faith in The One that could have saved him should be too!” But as I felt the darkness trying to consume me, I knew He was there. Patiently waiting for me to decide whose voice I would surrender to. His voice was comforting even though the pain that pulsated through my veins yearned for the right to be angry at Him. The One who could have changed it all … but didn’t.

Through my own personal Niagara Falls of sweaty palms and tear-swollen eyes, my balance decided to play a game of hide-and-seek with my body. I didn’t dare turn my head for fear of giving way to the imbalance that I felt. My knees wouldn’t stop shaking and the tears kept flowing. As we passed through onlookers who were there to grieve my uncle Ronnie, my heart felt like it wanted to jump out of my chest. My daddy sat between my sister and me, his arms stretched out around our shoulders, doing their best impersonation of my sister’s favorite childhood blanky. His hands caressed us as tears dropped from our eyes, but that did little to relieve the pain. My three-year-old niece was sitting on my lap, looking up at me, trying to understand why I was crying. Her TT had no words for her. It was as if she understood, because she slowly reached her little hand up to my face and wiped my tears. Then she laid her head on my chest. I wondered if that’s what I was supposed to do with Him. Look to Him and be OK with the silence. But it was in the silence that the other voices tried to consume me. “It’s just not fair!” “He could have taken somebody else.” “Your uncle was a good man.” It was far too tempting to succumb to those voices. They validated everything in me that hurt … that throbbing pain of losing someone was comforted every time one of those thoughts popped into my head.

Shannon and Kelly’s last photo together, at the 2018 Emmy Awards. (Photo courtesy Kelly Jenrette.)

As the casket was lowered into the ground, I silently prayed that the voices would be buried too. I prayed the dirt would overwhelm them, choking the very life out of every thought until they all disappeared. As the days moved on, so did my thoughts. Laughter found its way back into my heart, seeped through my skin and poured over me like fresh dew. I had finally won that game of hide-and-seek and my feet felt like they were planted firmly on solid ground. I felt balanced again.

A few months after my uncle’s funeral, I found out that I would be in a film playing opposite one of my favorite actors, Jeffrey Wright! Could life get any sweeter? Yes, yes it could! The following week, my husband and I found out we were both nominated for Emmys. We were on a high. I thought, “OK, God! I see what You’re doing!” Although no movie role or Emmy nomination could ever replace the pain of losing my uncle, I definitely gave God two thumbs up. Over the next two months, I traveled between Los Angeles, for all things Emmy-related, and Oakland, to film the movie.

This was the life!

Kelly Jenrette in a chemo center while shooting the movie Uncorked, one month after Shannon’s passing from colon cancer. (Photo courtesy Kelly Jenrette.)

While in Oakland, my best friend, Shannon, who had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2016, sent me a video message and told me the doctor said she was going into liver failure and only had a few months left to live. She said she didn’t want to talk about it, she just wanted to enjoy this victory with me. With the naivete of a six-year-old girl, I responded, “Sister, we don’t have to talk about it. You’re going to be fine!” You see, in my mind, there was no way God would take another person away from me in the same year. The memory of what my auntie had just gone through got buried with each camera flash, red carpet and early call time. Shannon and I talked about going to the Emmys together and she promised she would go with me. She did. It was a night I will never forget. We took a picture together before we parted ways. That picture currently sits on my dresser. One month and four days later, I knelt by her side, holding her hand and telling her it was OK to go. But it wasn’t OK! And right on cue, the voices came back. “You are 0 and 2! First your uncle and six months later, your best friend.”

His voice came back, too. In fact, it never left. I guess I just didn’t have the ears to hear.

It was difficult trying to navigate such immense grief while balancing work. And yet, the world kept moving. The calls to audition or be part of a project kept coming in. I wanted to work. I needed to work. I needed to find a way to not be swallowed up by the greed of death. I felt like their lives were snatched away from me, and what I wanted didn’t matter. His voice softly reminded me, “Their lives didn’t belong to you any more than they belonged to them.”

Kelly Jenrette in All American: Homecoming. (Photo courtesy the CW.)

I knew I had a choice to make. So, I did. I decided to keep going. One month after saying goodbye to my best friend, I landed a role where my character’s mother would eventually die from cancer. We shot in a chemo center that mirrored the one I sat in with my best friend. I texted her husband and said, “I can’t do this.” “Yes, you can,” he responded. “You have to.” And I did. I prayed and asked God to overwhelm all the pain, hurt, confusion, and everything else that overwhelmed me with His love and comfort. It wasn’t an easy task. Bitterness and depression were to my left and hatred and rage were to my right, waiting for the opportunity to pounce like a hungry lion. They carried a weight I was not equipped to bear. Yet I knew I had to persist and keep my eyes fixed on Him. And when I did, He gave me a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:3). Loss is inevitable and it rarely leaves behind its companion of pain. But there is hope. There is light. There is peace. Perhaps the only thing to do is … choose it.

Kelly Jenrette, a native of Atlanta, now resides in Los Angeles with her husband, Melvin Jackson Jr. In 2018, she and her husband became the first African American married couple to be nominated for Emmy’s® in the same year. Kelly’s Emmy® nomination was for her portrayal of Annie in Season 2, Episode 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale. She currently stars on All American: Homecoming, the spinoff show for the CW’s hit show All American. Her two latest films can be found on Netflix: Uncorked and All Day and a Night; in the latter, Kelly stars alongside Jeffrey Wright and Ashton Sanders. Kelly is also in the second season of the hit anthology show Manhunt: Deadly Games, currently available on Netflix and as Winona on the Facebook Watch Original LIMETOWN. Kelly has also been a series regular on the Fox comedy Grandfathered, starring John Stamos and had recurring guest star roles on mixed•ish, Here and Now, Pitch and Graves. You may also remember her from her 12 Kmart commercials as Kmart Kelly! (Photo by Diana Ragland.)