How we grieve
I haven’t been able to write since finding out my boy, Will Alicea, died two days ago. Well, no, that’s not entirely true. When I found out, I was sitting in the library in Brooklyn, the same library I went to as a kid, where I learned to love books and all things literature. I was in the middle of writing a blog when I heard. My heart caved. I felt invisible hands grip my throat. I feel the cold clamp right now.
I slammed my computer shut and ran to the train. The usual pang of nostalgia I get walking up the block I grew up on, passed the building I grew up in, where mom still lives, the building my first love lived in, the hallway where I got my first kiss, I didn’t feel or think of any of that. All that kept going through my mind, on repeat, like a record skipping back, relentlessly, was: “Will, oh my God, Will.”
I took the long way home. I can’t tell you why. I can say that when I saw the cemetery appear as the L train came above ground on Wilson Avenue, the tears finally squeezed out of my left eye. Two to be exact. And I thought of Will, in the ground. I thought of his smile. I thought of his lion heart. I thought of the many times he and I argued, both being fierce fire signs that didn’t know when to shut up. I thought of the last time I saw him, hobbling down 218th Street towards the café. I knew then something was wrong. The cancer was back. Fuck!
I wrote about him, the memories we shared, the entire train ride home. I didn’t look up until the train pulled into my stop. I’d been writing for more than an hour. I haven’t been able to write until now. It’s 48 hours later.
Anyone who knew Will before the cancer struck knows how it changed him. He was so raw and beautiful and vulnerable. It was shattering in an empowering way. Will held up the mirror and held you while you stared. This was a new Will. A this-is-what-I-learned-from-cancer-Will. But this was also always Will. He always wore his heart not just on his sleeve, but in the middle of his chest, like Superman’s huge S.
What can I say about Will? What can I write so anyone who didn’t know him can see, feel his throbbing, bleeding heart? Feel it in their palms.
I can tell you that Will was a fighter. A hustler. A dreamer.
I’m sitting in the café. I walked out a moment ago to breathe. To stare at the memorial built for him. And I heard him. I heard him tell me, “Yes, go ahead, ‘manita, write about me.” I looked into the park, the same one we spent so much time in, talking and drinking and laughing and being familia. I saw a shadow slide over the top of a tree and I knew that was him. I felt it. I looked up the block and felt the sadness seep in. I’ll never see him walking down the block again. With his full beard, looking like a lumberjack, Paul Bunyan without the flannel top. “Don’t be sad,” he said. “Remember me.” How could I forget?
Will and I had a very interesting friendship. Fiery. Both fire signs, him a Leo, me a Sag, we knocked heads so many times. Him roaring and snarling, me with my bow and arrow, rearing on my hind legs, ready. Neither one of us knew how to back down. What started as a conversation, sometimes, often, ended as a full on debate on just about everything, love, the universe, astrology. See, according to Will, the stars dictated our every move. Our decisions. How we love and move in the world. I insisted that we still have free will.
Will was steadfast in his convictions and he was eloquent. He was well read and made sure he knew what he was talking about when he said something. He thought through his theories on life. He believed in fate and predestination and all those notions that make me cringe because to me they mean that my life is out of hands, and, well, fuck that, no. So, usually these conversations ended with one of us walking away, shaking our heads, thinking, “he/she just doesn’t get it.”
When alcohol was involved, the encounters were even more fiery. There was a lot of eye rolling and huffing and screaming. And even more hugging and I love yous between us. And no matter what, even when we pissed each other off, we were family.
Will didn’t necessarily want you to think like him, but he wanted you to understand, and he was definitely going to try to sway you. And he didn’t budge. And neither did I. It made for a beautiful brother-sister dynamic that few people can understand if they haven’t been blessed to experience it. It was and still is–LOVE. Mad love. Leon-Loba love.
Will didn’t cringe from a confrontation. That was just his personality, who he was. And no matter what, it came from a deep seated love and undying, un-swaying belief in humanity. That love, that conviction shined through even brighter after the cancer diagnosis.
I only saw Will cry once before the cancer. It was just two summers ago when we were picnicking in Inwood Park. We were talking about my memoir and I shared how scared I was of repeating the cycles of abuse I learned from my mother. I was (still am) terrified of failing my daughter. Of not being loving and tender. Of not showing her how to be a strong woman with the capacity for vulnerability and love. We talked for hours while sipping wine and nibbling on cheese and crackers. And he cried about how he feared he failed his daughter, who was now off in college, making her way in the world in California. “I think I fucked up, V,” he sniffled. “And I don’t know how to make it right.”
The first time he saw me swollen with Vasialys in my womb, I was seven months pregnant. I ran into him while walking in Inwood Park, the only exercise I could do because I was high risk. He walked with me, made fun of my feet, which had grown two sizes and looked like two perniles. We talked about my fears of motherhood. He was one of the first people I confessed to that I knew I was going to raise my nena alone. She wasn’t out in the world yet and I already knew. He rubbed my belly and reminded me, “She chose you to be her mom. Trust her. Trust yourself, V.” He shared the ups & downs of single fatherhood, offered advice & solace. When we parted, he bought me water & fruit, hugged me tight & whispered, “You’re gonna be a great mom, V.”
When I ran into him last spring, in that same park, Will did not look well. His face was all sharp angles and hollow of bones. Skeletor with a thin layer of skin over the skull. He said he’d been feeling sick for weeks but he was fighting it. But he didn’t get better. He deteriorated. Then the cancer diagnosis happened. Acute Myeloid Leukemia. He spent the summer and early fall fighting, getting chemotherapy. I never went to the hospital to see him. I couldn’t.
I didn’t see Will until he was out of the hospital. I was sitting in the café writing like I am now. “What’s up, V?” He hugged me tight. His once sinewy muscle frame was now bone and soft flesh. I searched his face for anger, resentment. There was neither. We talked about how it was for him in the hospital. How it changed him, forever.
He spoke of the epiphanies he had. We talked about everything— love and God and sex and all things raunchy because that was our relationship, no holds barred. We laughed, we laughed hard. And he cried. He cried hard when he talked about his helplessness. This proud Leo man confessed that while in the hospital he shat on himself and had to sit in it until his mother came. “I had to tell her to help me. To clean my ass, V.” The tears were streaming by then. “I can’t die, V.” Then, “Fuck that, I’m gonna live,” he roared in that Leo power we all loved about him.
Every time he saw me, whether it was at the café or at the farmer’s market, we talked. “You writing, V?” he’d ask. He’d ask about my memoir, how it was going, what I was feeling. Then one day I told him he should write his story, what he learned, how he survived. I shared a few cancer survivor memoirs I thought he should read. His eyes watered. “I get so tired, V, sometimes I can’t even hold a pen.” I hugged him. He was shaking. I suggested a tape recorder. “Yo, I never thought of that.” “Yeah, just talk and we’ll figure out how to transcribe later.” I don’t know if he ever started recording his story, but I hope so.
That same day, in the park, in late fall, crying with him and not knowing how to say it, I apologized for not going to see him in the hospital. “I wasn’t there, bro. I’m sorry.” He leaned in and hugged me tight. He was gaining flesh again. “It’s all good mamita. I get it. You got baby girl. I know how it is.” I could have let it go. I could have let him think that it was because of that, that I didn’t have time, that I had no one to take care of la nena, but that would have been a lie. I couldn’t lie to him. Not when he wore his pulsing, bleeding heart in his mouth for me to see and feel and love.
“Nah, bro, it wasn’t Vasia. I just couldn’t handle it.”
He cocked his head to one side and pressed his lips together like he did when he was taking something in. “Talk to me about it.”
I confessed the many times I’d tried to go to Mt. Sinai. I even biked there once but I couldn’t walk through the doors. I got anxiety attacks just thinking about walking through the corridors. The smell. The framed pastel paintings on the walls of the waiting room. It brought me back to my Millie. Visiting her every day in the hospice before she died. Walking the two miles to Calvary, every day, in the dead of winter, with my just months old nena in tow.
I’d realized in the writing that I never grieved losing my mother Millie. I’m still grieving.
Will’s eyes got wide. “She died like six years ago, right?” He put his arms around me and let me cry.
“I’m sorry, Will. I’m so sorry.”
“Nah, mamita. Thank you for sharing that. That’s real right there.”
He was battling cancer and he was comforting me. That’s the kind of man Will Alicea was. He held me through my shame, in my grief.
A few weeks ago he asked me if I could help him write his story. I said yes, of course. I’m sorry I never got the chance.
Will’s death has been rattling to so many of us who loved him. In his open letter on uptowncollective.com, he wrote: “I have a secret for you, we are all going to die and love shouldn’t have to wait until then.” He’s so right. During these past two days, while I’ve sat with my mortality in my hands, I’ve sent messages to people I love & shared space with because it would be crushing if something happened & I didn’t say: I love you & I’m sorry. Will had the best kept secret in town: Love and forgiveness shouldn’t have to wait until death and distance to be shared and offered.
When I saw Will just a few days into the new year, just a week or so ago, he told me the doctors said he needed a bone marrow transplant. He’d relapsed the day after Thanksgiving. He started getting outpatient chemo but refused the transplant. “I was in the hospital for long enough, V. I wanna live.” See, to Will, life in a hospital wasn’t living. He may not have lasted long after the second diagnosis, but he lived on his own terms. That, to him, was living.
When I think of Will, I’ll always think of two animals: the lion, because he was so ferociously Leo(n), and the hummingbird.
“Hummingbirds have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death…It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.” Joyas Volardores
Will lived to be forty—the longest living hummingbird known to humankind.
Mi hermano, thank you for your light, your heart. I love you. Siempre.