Notes from a sea journey
Notes from my cruise, August 24th
There’s a sadness to mom that I can’t manage to shatter. I can penetrate it. I can take her out of it for a short while, make her laugh while we talk and eat and gamble and play in the pool, but it comes rushing back. When we’re marveling at the ocean, how it stretches and ripples, how the water shines off of it, diamonds sparkling on a blue blanket like the night sky, a universe here on earth. When we talk about the unknown world that lives in the depths, what we humans know nothing about; she marvels at God’s creations and her eyes go far, a frown pulls at the edges of her lips and she whispers, sometimes inaudibly but I read her lips, “Bendito, mi hijo.”
Yesterday she asked me to walk with her. She wanted to stand at the front of the ship, watch the point of the ship break into the ocean, but we couldn’t, so we stood on the left side instead and watched the ocean. She talked. About my brother. About how he came to this world. Said my brother never accepted how he’d come to this life. How he was told by Millie when he was just 14. It was one day after my grandmother left our house. She and mom had argued again, like they always did. I imagine Millie, the scheming look on her face. “Es por ti que viven peleando.” My brother doesn’t understand. What does he have to do with it? “Haven’t you ever wondered why you and your uncle look so much alike?” My brother’s confused. There’s an earthquake in his chest.
Mom says, “yo me recuerdo esa etapa en la vida de Carlos.” She remembers how sad he was. “Se aferrába a mi.” He’d watch her. Hug her randomly. “Que te pasa hijo?, she’d ask,” but he wouldn’t talk. It wasn’t until much later that he told her that he knew. And it wasn’t until my brother was an adult, already a drug addict, that they talked about it all. The rape. The silence.
Mom confessed as we were watching the ocean that she never got over what happened to her. How could she? Especially since her mother blamed her. Has blamed her for forty years. “I became someone I didn’t know,” she confesses, tears sit on her cheeks. They don’t roll. They just sit there. Like boulders. Immovable. That’s how heavy they are. “Me puse rebelde. Tu pagastes mucho por eso.”
I watch her. I watch her sadness. I try to help. To relieve her of it, but how can I? “Es un vacío que siento,” she says. “I know I have you and Dee, but I had three kids.” The tears start to rush down now.
I think about how long it’s taken for us to get here. To talk. To have a mother-daughter relationship. Me, the one who looks so much like her. Me, who she says reminds her of her younger self, the long hair and high cheek bones, sassy and no nonsense. “Pero ese cuerpo nunca lo tuve. Ese cuerpo es Boricua.”
“Sometimes I want to give up,” she confesses. “That’s what losing a child does to you. It tests your faith. I asked God, Why? It’s not fair, Vanessa. I need my son.”
I want to reach over the chasm between us. It’s smaller now, not so deep. I can stare at it now. Look into it. Sometimes I even think I can cross it but I’m still scared. So scared she’ll reject me…again.
“Don’t give up, mami,” I dare. Because I have to. Because I’ve spent so long not telling her. “I need you, ma.” She pulls me to her, we cry, holding eachother. “I know you’re trying to change with me, Vanessa. Thank you.”
She admits she’s still hurt that I walked away from my brother. It doesn’t matter why. She’s built a narrative in her head about it that would be impossible to unweave. Not now. Not in the throes of her grief. But she knows I’m here. That I’m making an effort. We both are. And for now, it’s enough.
I wrote this days into an 8 day cruise with my mom and aunt and her kids and grandma and a family friend. A total of 14 of us. We were still on the high seas heading to Puerto Rico and St. Thomas and Grand Turk island.
Mom and I watched the full moon on the water that first night. We watched the sun rise and set. We stared at the ocean. We jogged on the upper deck. And we talked. We talked so much. And I took notes. Tons of them. In my journal. In my tablet. In the mornings and the evenings while sitting on the Lido deck sipping tea or coffee, still wet from swimming in the pool. At dinner, I listened to the conversations and jotted notes in my journal. I used all the pages before the cruise docked back in NY.
On the last day, as we were packing before our last dinner on the ship, she asked, “Porque estas escriendo ese libro?” She wanted to know what I’m writing and why. I was waiting for this moment. Mom’s never asked me for detail.
I stopped and looked at her. I felt my heart shake and fidgeted with my hair, avoiding her stare. I started clearing off the dresser. “I’m writing about my childhood, ma. About what happened. I’m writing about you and Carlos and his addiction. I’m writing about everything.” I dare to look at her. She’s quiet. She keeps folding and unfolding the same blouse. “I’m writing about everything I’ve been carrying. I can’t carry it anymore. I don’t want to. It’s too much.” She nods and finally puts the blouse in her suitcase. “You know how you’ve been sharing all these stories with me?” She nods and gives me a small smile. The kind of smile that takes effort. I flash to the evening before.
Mom, her family friend (we’ll call her B) and I were having lunch. Mom and B have known one another since they were just girls in Barrio Alvarado in La Ceiba, Honduras. B’s mom was grandma’s best friend before she passed from an aneurysm 25 years ago. B’s mom had warned grandma about her husband, how he stared at mom with dirty eyes. Mom alludes to “lo que me paso” and how my brother came to this world, the rape and the silence that spanned decades. B tells her to stop talking about it. “Eso ya esta en el pasado.” She waves her hand as if to push the memory away. Mom says, “Hablando es lo que me esta ayudando.” I chime in, “Mom’s never talked about her past. It’s about time she did. Porque uno no lo hablo no quieres decir que no lo sufre.” (Just because we don’t talk about something doesn’t mean we don’t suffer it.) Mom leans over and squeezes my hand, but she doesn’t look at me. She’s crying quietly. She did that most of the trip.
Mom is folding her clothes more quickly now. Like she wants to be done with it already. I watch her. “I feel like you sharing your stories is helping you, don’t you think?” “Si, hija, pero it’s so hard.” She starts tearing up again. She wipes her face with the back of her hand and keeps folding. Her hands are shaking.
“It is hard, ma.” I choke up. Mom mom looks at me. I look away. She has enough to carry. “I’m a writer ma. The only way I know how to heal is to write.” We’re quiet for a while. “Carlos knew what I was writing. I told him everything, ma.” “Y que te dijo?” “He told me to write it.” She nods. “I was scared you wouldn’t…” She doesn’t let me finish. “Y porque?” “Because…” I shrug. I don’t need to say anymore. She gives me an I-understand look and goes to take a shower. We don’t talk about it again.
I have pages and pages of notes from this trip. I know somehow they will appear in my memoir. I’m not trying to figure it out yet. I’ll let the mystery of process run its course. Right now I’m just sitting with it all. Mom’s sadness. Her silence. Her sudden willingness to tell me so much. How I’ve become the keeper of our stories, mom’s and my brother’s and my own. How heavy they’ve been weighing on me over these past few days. And, I’ve been sitting with a reality that I can no longer run from: how alike me and mom are.
I’ve struggled for so many years to not be like her, but these days it’s the little ways that really stick out to me. The big ways, like our rabid tempers and fierce independence, I can explain away, but the habits we have and the mannerisms, those I can’t ignore. Those stare back at me with knowing, I-told-you-so-look-at-you eyes. Like the fact that she sleeps with a light on, even in our cabin on the cruise. And she checks the stove before she leaves the house, all four pilots and the oven, and she’ll turn around even if she’s blocks away if she forgets. Mom hums when she cooks and she loses things regularly, the key card to our room that she just had in her hand seconds before, her glasses, her cellphone. (I shared with her how I cope with my lose-everything-ways: “Create a checklist of your things in your head, ma—keys, phone, wallet.”) Mom carries a book with her in her purse, which is full of random things, a stick of gum with crumbs stuck to it, receipts from months ago, mail she plans to open but never does. And she sleeps like me too, in spurts, not long drawn out sleep. I am my mother’s daughter.
Since my brother passed two months ago, I’ve been playing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” every day, a few times a day. I just put it to play on repeat on my Spotify so I can listen to it while I type. So I can remember. He introduced me to Chapman when I was just a kid and it’s only now, almost 30 years later, that I get why these lyrics really spoke to him. He wanted his own fast car “to get him outta here.” I hope he’s found peace.
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove…
You got a fast car
But is is fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way.
See I remember we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arms felt nice wrapped ‘round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone…
Mom shared more of his writings with me. She told me about them during the cruise. She talked about his desperation. How he’d cry, say he wanted to quit, to clean up his act. He tried, but he couldn’t. The devil had a hold on him my brother couldn’t shake. Heroin.
I’ve cause so much pain to myself and family because of my addiction…I’ve lied, cheated, stole from those who love me most just to get my fix. Junk isn’t the only drug that I’ve abused, but at times, I fool myself into believing that as long as I don’t do heroin, I’m clean. How fucking stupid can I be? It always leads back to it, sooner or later…
I tear up when I read his words, in his neat handwriting that floats just about the lines, never directly on. There are two journals. Both barely written in. One has a Basquiat self-portrait on the cover. Other self-portraits strewn throughout the pages.
There are entries about staying positive and being mindful. He was so hopeful, my brother. He wrote about his plans to go back to school to study fashion buying and merchandising, and about getting a job in Desigual or Armani. My brother always lived for fashion, from the time he got his first job at The Gap when he was sixteen and would buy me an outfit every check he got. He lived for Vivienne Westwood and Chanel and SoHo and Fifth Avenue. (A friend of his described him to me as “always dressed bad ass. His labels well-perfumed.”) The writing chronicles his life in the winter of 2010. He’d just moved out of mom’s house and into his own studio apartment in Chelsea.
My ‘life’ has changed drastically. Living alone in the heart of the city gives me a sense of independence and responsibility that I haven’t felt in a while. I no longer feel like a mama’s boy. At my age, it was about time.
There are lists of instructions on how to do spiritual cleansings. The lists include ingredients like holy water and flowers, white candles and alcanfor. And prayer. Pages and pages of prayers.
Then, in the other journal, black leather bound and hard, the energy shifts. It’s the spring of 2012. My brother had just turned 40. He had relapsed.
I have to be real with myself and admit that I do have regrets. For the past 14 years, I’ve been dealing with drug addiction that has destroyed my life. My negative decisions have not only affected me, but also the ones that I love the most, my family. It’s like I fell into the abyss, into a dark bottomless pit and I’m struggling to find some light and finally find a way out. Honesty will help me beat this major step back, because I haven’t been able to progress. I pray and ask my Higher Power for guidance and will-power to give me the tools/instructions on how to manage disease…I’ve partied, carried, etc.,etc. for three lifetimes, when will I say enough?
In the same journal, he saved the card my daughter gave him for his last Father’s Day, just a few weeks before he passed on June 24th. We bought him a dozen mini-cupcakes and a pineapple-carrot-spinach juice. We weren’t supposed to go to the hospital that day. I was sick but Vasia insisted. She cried and begged. He was so happy when he saw us. He teared up when he read my daughter’s card. I never knew why because she didn’t let me read it. Now I know.
On the envelope she drew a picture of him and her, and wrote, “To my favorite Tio Tio, Love: Vasia.” The inside reads:
Dear Tio Tio,
You are a great uncle, father and brother. There is no earth without you. Nothing is impossible for you. My hero!
P.S. Happy Father’s day. Today is your day!
Notes from my cruise: August 28th
I’m sitting on the deck of the cruise ship, the Carnival Splendor. It’s the last day and I’m just taking it all in. What’s happened. What hasn’t. What I’ve learned. What I’ve written. It’s terribly windy and slightly overcast, the sun peaks out of the grey-white clouds in short stretches. The Atlantic is roiling, white crested waves that dance and soothe, as if to say, “Goodbye, Vanessa. Hasta la proxima.”
I started reading a book yesterday that I brought along for no particular reason. It’s one of those memoirs I bought simply because I liked the title, the feel of the book, the first page. I usually read the first page of a memoir before buying it. This one, Faery Tale by Signe Pike, I can’t remember buying. I know something about its sub-title “One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World” drew me in. I understand now why it was meant to come along with me on this trip. It’s helping me piece these days together in ways only books can, when they come to you at just the right time, when you’re trying to put into words what you’ve just experienced, what’s tugging inside of you. The last line of the foreward reads: “I am going to heal your heartbreak, because I have no idea how to heal my own.”
It’s about a woman who goes in such of faeries (I’ll ignore your eye rolling, thank you) to recapture the innocence she lost in adulthood. It’s a story about her coming to terms with her life, her pain, the death of her father. I was enthralled as soon as I started reading. Isn’t that the journey I’m on? A coming to terms with so many losses, my brother, the image of what my life was supposed to be like now, at this age, 37, a single mother, trying to understand the how and why and get over the what ifs…
“I don’t know about you, but this was not the Happily Ever After I was hoping for…”
Like Signe Pike who didn’t have a plan when she went on journey to find faeries, I didn’t have a plan when I made the decision to come on this cruise with my family. I just knew that I had to come. All signs pointed to it, from getting the fellowship money to fund the trip the day before the money was due to getting hired by two organizations to write and teach just days after I’d left myself broke again by buying the tickets for me, my daughter and mom. I have no doubt I’m supposed to be on this cruise.
Like Pike, I too have come to a horrible realization since losing my brother (for Pike it was the death of her father that brought on the devastating reality):
We are here for however long our lives turn out to be. In one lifetime, you will lose every single person you love. You will watch every single person you love die. It is the saddest realization of life…The incredible ache of it doesn’t cease—not until you’re gone, too. And maybe not then, either. Sometimes I wonder how we can have any happiness, with this huge elephant of loss lurking in the corner of the room.
Am I the only person haunted by this? If other people recognize it, how can they bear to go on? How can they just walk down the street to buy breakfast or catch a movie? Maybe those people can say, you’ve only got this one chance, so forget about tomorrow and live life to the fullest!
Most of the time, I think that, too. I try to sign a truce with the reality of it. I try to push it away, and think, “Mmmm…what should we have for breakfast?” And luckily, there are so any phenomenal distractions: the beauty of nature, good food, friends, family, great architecture, music, art, entertainment, animals and twinkling white Christmas lights.
And maybe that was a part of the reason I came here—to remember the truce. To remember the beauty of nature, of this beautiful earth, the waves crashing, the sunset on the water last night and the sunrise this morning with its myriad shades of blues and reds and pinks and oranges; the flying fish skidding across the water, watching my mother laugh and hug my daughter, snorkeling in St. Thomas, having a fish the size of my arm snatch a Milkbone right out of my hand. There’s just so much beauty in it all. So much…
I was so sick and tired of living in fear. I vowed that this trip would be a new beginning for me. No more would fear cripple me.
As soon as I read these lines I thought of my book and the mission I’ve been on in writing it…the journey of this memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings. The journey of this cruise. The journey of watching my brother die over the last three months of his life. And I thought of this incredible feeling of rootlessness that I’ve made my lover, my mate. This feeling of not belonging, of abandonment. This crippling longing to be loved that I’ve walked with for so long and how tired I am of walking with it. Of being paralyzed by it. Of having it be the motivation behind so many of my decisions…and how, really, this book, this journey, is about reconnecting with my roots so that I can feel whole again. It’s been about reconnecting with my brother and mother, and finding redemption and solace, and, yes, restoration, carajo, restoration.
“So in a roundabout way, if I can discover what else there is out there, maybe it will somehow make losing my father…” I trailed off, not really knowing how to finish.
She looked at me for a moment as if we were playing a game of chess and she was about to sweep in with one simple move that would change the game entirely.
“Well really,” she said simply, “It’s entirely about trust.” I waited for her to continue. “You’re here searching, for what? I don’t think you’re really sure But you’re here, and I think that right now, you’re having to teach yourself how to trust again. That’s where the real magic lies. To find what you’re looking for, you’ve got to learn to trust.”
This journey isn’t about learning to trust my mother or anyone else, really. But learning to trust myself. Learning to trust trust.
Why am I compelled to write?… Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger… To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit… Finally I write because I’m scared of writing, but I’m more scared of not writing…
I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails… ~Gloria Anzaldúa