Epistle for my Millie on the Eighth Anniversary of her Death
This day used to creep up on me. I’d be reading a book, writing, feeding Vasia, and the memory would slap me like a gust of wind. The gale kind that’s strewn with dust and dead leaves and plastic bags. The kind that blows dirt into your eyes and makes you swear and rub your eyes with your fist and stomp your feet. It’s not so much like that anymore.
Now I feel the day creeping up and in on me. I watch the calendar. I count down. I light candles. I sit and write. I remember you.
It was March 15th, 2005, in the early morning that you died. Alone. You always said you wanted to go alone. That you didn’t want anyone to watch you suffer your last breaths.
When I got the call I was getting ready to go see you. I’d just finished getting la nena ready. Had packed her bag. I was getting dressed. Carlos was there. He’d arrived early in the morning. We were going to walk the 2 miles to the hospice together. The one I walked to every single day. Until that last week.
I went to see you every day for nearly two months. I walked there. Every single day. Con la nena. During the dead of winter. Even if it was snowing or raining. I went. Eventually, Vasia got sick. Really sick. Fever. Cough. Congestion. So I couldn’t see you for a week, though we talked every day. One day, I felt something off. When I called, no one answered. Finally, on my fifth or sixth try, the nurse answered. “She’s sleeping. She’s been sleeping all day.”
A mi se me metió algo. I had to see you. So when my Vasia’s father got home, I insisted he take me. I screamed and yelled, wouldn’t let him change his clothes. Stood over him yelling while he ate the dinner I’d prepared. I flipped until he finally agreed, though he argued the entire ride there. He screeched off when I got out of the car.
You opened your eyes when I walked in. For the first time all day, Mom said. You were propped up on the pillow, resting your head on your arm. You had an oxygen mask on. The cancer had invaded your lungs by then. You pushed the mask down and patted the pillow. “Ponmela aqui.” I placed the baby next to you. Tears dripped down onto the pillow. “Cuidamela.” You played with Vasia’s fingers and smiled while Vasia kicked and stared. You looked at me. “I love you, negra.” It was the last thing you said.” (excerpt from Millie’s Girl)
The hospice called me because they couldn’t get in contact with mom. She was underground in the train, making her way from Brooklyn to the Bronx, where Calvary is. I was the second one on the list.
“Maria Milagros Rodriguez went into cardiac arrest this morning and passed away.” I screamed and fell onto the couch. The one with the painting you loved above it, of the man making a boat, his tools strewn around him and on the shelves behind him, nails, hammer, awl. You said you loved the blues of the print. You loved that the man “es Moreno.” You said he reminded you of home.
“Vanessa, mommy.” Carlos picked me up by my arm. “We have to get to mom.”
I’ve relived that day so many times over the past eight years. I still hear the words—“cardiac arrest,” “passed away.” “Maria Milagros Rodriguez,” the name your mother gave you. You were never Maria or Milagros to me. You were, still are, my Millie.
Some days I still feel my chest crush under the weight of losing you. My Millie. I often wonder how different my life would be had you not died. Today, around this time of year, I think about it more. How would you be with Vasia? Would you call me and tell me, “Traeme la nena,” like you did those times when Vasia was just weeks old. Would you be a grandmother to her the way mom isn’t? Would you take her on trips to your querida isla, show her la casita en el monte de Lares that you left us that mom is trying to sell. Would you take her to the río and show her how to swim? Would you take her into the yard and show her how to jab like you did me when I was six? She has my manos de madera, Millie.
Today I cradle the absence that is you. I hold your memory close to my chest like I did Vasia when she was just a baby, the way I still hold her now when she cries, though she’s so long now, so grown in her eight years, she still climbs onto me when she’s “sad-lonely,” the term she came up with to describe her heart when it aches and she can’t explain why. I’ve given my nena language, Millie. Your granddaughter who called you “uma” when she was just five months old and you would chant “grandma” to her over and over. You so wanted to be called “grandma.”
I’m writing a memoir, Millie. A Dim Capacity for Wings. It tells the story of what I learned from my two moms, you and mommy. You who were tender hands on cheek, mom was slaps on face. You were soft words of encouragement, mom was rapid fire venom spit at body parts.
I’ve often wondered how you’d feel about what I’m writing. When I came to you de mujer, crying about mom, how she treated (and still treats) me, you defended her. Said, “tu mama ha sufrido tanto, Vanessa. Si tu supieras.” I get that. It’s why I’m writing this memoir. To understand. To redeem her because in her redemption I find my own.
I heard mom’s story in fragments and out of sequence, like most terrible secrets are revealed. In arguments, when accusations are hurled like bullets, meant to cut jugular and make blood spew. Hot like magma, burning everything it touches.
I see myself, six, eight years old, playing with dolls behind couches. I smell the crisp boil of white rice and the heavy with cilantro habichuelas stewing on the stovetop. The chicken is baking in the oven, seasoned the night before so you can taste the sofrito even on the bones. Millie always closed her eyes when she ate mom’s chicken. When she was done, her plate looked like a graveyard of splintered bones.
In another scene, I have the Atari control in my hand, the TV volume is on low, Pacman is running across the screen. The ghosts are close behind. Chasing.
I hear the dominos clanking and the ting of Budweiser latitas against teeth. And, I hear the conversaciones traveling to my ears.
The laughter becomes screams. Choked yells dripping with vergüenza. People can be so vile when they’re angry.
I didn’t really understand what I was hearing. I can’t even say when “then” was, but I knew. I knew something terrible happened to mom and she never got over it. When she beat me until I was a shivering ball on the floor. When she raged and cried until the doñas came to pray over her and rub her with alcolado while she sat naked and rocking herself like a supplicant in the tub, the beads of the rosary clinking to the rhythm of the prayers. Santa Maria, Madre de Dio, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.
It’s taken me more than three decades to piece it together. How I imagine it. (excerpt from A Dim Capacity for Wings, Chapter 3: How I Imagine It)
I met with my mentor, Chris Abani, last weekend while I was at AWP in Boston. (Yes, Millie, I’m an official writer now, doing writerly things like going to conferences and doing readings and being on panels. I’m doing what I told you on your death bed I wanted to do.) Chris asked why I’m writing the memoir. “In finding my mother’s redemption, I find my own.” He shook his head in that way he does that makes me brace myself because I know he’s about to say some Jedi shit that’s going to rattle my heart like a maraca. “Redemption is easy, Vanessa. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.”
I know now that this memoir is so much about pushing back against those homophobes that argue so fiercely that same sex couples can’t raise functional children. That a family like ours is missing something that’s innate, exclusive to heterosexual couples. I’m still fighting that girl who I punched in the face when I was 12 because she said, “You’re dirty like your lesbian mothers.”
Today I read an article that made me clench my fists. This Tea Party guy, who says he’s gay and still opposes gay marriage, made some blanket statements that I know can’t be true. I know because you loved me. Because you showed me tender, unconditional, I believe in you love.
“…denying children parents of both genders at home is an objective evil. Kids need and yearn for both”
“To be fully formed, children need to generously receive from and express affection to parents of both genders. Genderless marriages deny this fullness.”
“To give kids two moms or two dads is to withhold from them someone whom they desperately need and deserve in order to be whole and happy. It is to permanently etch deprivation on their hearts.”
Of course I was livid when I read this article. Especially today, on the eighth anniversary of your death. I felt like it dishonored you, how fiercely you loved me, what you taught me.
I wasn’t denied anything being raised by you. In fact, I think you’re the only reason I’m sane. I can’t fathom not having had you there. You may not have always been able to protect me from mom, but you did what you could in your way. Like when she called me retardada and ordinaria, you’d whisper in my ear, “You’re gonna be somebody someday.” “You’re smart y bella.” When I told you I wanted to write a book, when your insides were being eaten away by that mothafucking disease, you propped yourself up on that arm that was perpetually swollen after the mastectomy so your hand looked like a blown up latex glove, and said, “Pero negra, you’ve always been a writer,” in that thick Boricua accent that to this day makes my knees buckle.
Yes, I yearned for my father. Shit, what human being doesn’t? But that wasn’t because something was missing at home. It was because, well, I wanted my father to love me. But when I found out that he didn’t want me, that he tried to beat me out of mommy when she told him she was pregnant, that he refused to give me his last name and wouldn’t go to the hospital to get the blood tests done when I was dying and the doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with me, it was you who held me and let me cry into your chest. As much as I loved and missed my dad, you were both father and mother to me, and it’s your loss I’ve felt the most in my life. The greatest loss of my life has been losing you Millie.
According to this fool’s contentions, I am not a fully formed person because I didn’t receive the love from two parents of the opposite sex. If only he knew I’m tender with Vasia because of the tenderness you showed me and in resistance to the iron fist kind of love mom gave most of the time. I tell my nena I love her several times a day. I remind her of her greatness daily. I am the woman and mother I am because you loved me and believed in me.
If it hadn’t have been for you, mom never would have let me go to boarding school, one of the defining decisions of my life. She wouldn’t have let me climb the plum tree in the backyard, an integral part of my becoming a writer because that’s where I started telling myself stories.
What deprivation is etched in my heart? You, the self-proclaimed butch, taught me to take on life “con puños,” to go for what I want and do what I have to do to get it. To claim that being raised in a same sex household guarantees deprivation is to deny that deprivation can happen in a household where mother and father are present. Some of the most broken people I’ve met were raised by their mother and father. Nothing in life is guaranteed. You can end up fucked up no matter who raises you. What I know is that I am a better woman, better mother, more whole and true to myself and my beliefs because you raised me. Because you were there. Because you stayed.
So, on this day, I remember. I remember your chipped tooth smile. Your Boricua accent. Your love for all things of and from your querida isla. I remember our visits to Puerto Rico and how when you paid the toll, we children sang, “Lares” as we crossed the bridge and Lares came into view. I remember sitting on your lap and digging my nose into your neck. To this day, Old Spice sends me hurtling back to childhood, to memories of you. I remember you arguing with mom when she accused me of doing something, throwing the food I didn’t want behind the stove, pulling the tape measure all the way out until it got stuck and wouldn’t work anymore. “Eso no pudo haber sido la nena.” You asked me once why I didn’t defend myself. “She won’t believe me anyway,” I said. I still remember that look of resignation on your face. You knew I was right. “Esa tiene el diablo por dentro,” you said about my sister, knowing I was blamed for her mischief. It wasn’t until adulthood that Dee confessed she was the one that did all those things. Mom said, “Yo no lo hubiera creido. Ella era mi Dayanara.” I remember watching you in the passenger seat of your brother Sergio’s blue church van as it pulled off after dropping me off at boarding school. You let the tears fall freely and smiled. I remember you showing up a few weeks later. You woke mom up in the middle of the night and said, “Vamos a ver la nena.” I woke up with you and mom smiling over me. “I had to come see you, negra.” And, I remember your last words, “I love you, negra.” I love you too, Millie. Always.