Coping mechanisms at play
“I wanted him to know that he was worthy of love. I really tried to get him to see that.” My brother’s case manager told me that on Friday, 9/6, after the memorial for my brother, Juan Carlos Moncada, at the Prince George Building where he lived on 28th Street in Chelsea. “He told me everything,” she said, searching my face, I think she wondered how much I knew about him. About his life. The guilt and sadness he carried.
My mind ricocheted to close up of my brother’s face that I posted recently on my Facebook wall. I was missing him something fierce that day. I miss him every day but some days the grief digs in and doesn’t let go. It’s like talons. Like a vise grip. And all I can do is write and love and live through it. A new friend who’s been following my writing as I cope with his loss saw the picture and commented: “Man seeing his face up close just does something… First though was hoping that he had allowed himself to be loved.”
He didn’t and that reality has been fucking with me lately, as I’m starting to piece together the stories that my mom has shared and I remember the long talks me and my bro had in the hospital those last few months. “He didn’t think himself worth of love.” I’ve known that for some time. I’ve faced it while writing this memoir but even more so since he confirmed it a few months before he went into the hospital. He admitted it in a way that was undeniable. In a way that made me understand his addiction in a whole new way.
We were sitting on the staircase in the hallway of my aunt’s building, pulling hard on a cigarette, he said, “I’m a sin, sis. The Bible says I’m a sin.” And I knew that no matter how much I told him or tried to convince him, he would never consider himself worthy of love. That was his cuco. What haunted him. What sent him running for his next hit, to those dealers who knew him by name. The ones who knew he’d always come back. No matter how long he stayed away.
The chaplain, a tiny white woman with a warm smile and soft voice, started the memorial by having us read a portion of the chorus of the Honduran national anthem, “because Honduras was such a big part of who he was,” she said.
Tu bandera, tu bandera es un lampo de cielo
Por un bloque, por un bloque de nieve cruzado;
Y se ven en su fondo sagrado
Cinco estrellas de pálido azul…
Your flag is a splendor of sky
Crossed with a band of snow;
And there can be seen, in its sacred depths.
Five pale blue stars.
She talked about my brother and what she knew about him, how much he loved his family and how funny he was. Then she opened up the floor to us to speak about him. My family looked at me. There were ten of us there and they all looked at me. It was like they were all holding their breaths, waiting. My mom, who was sitting next to me, said, “No puedo. You say something.” I don’t know when or how that happened. When I became the speaker for my family. The one who represents us, who speaks for us, who tells our stories. I choked up, tears streaming down my face, and began, “I will remember his heart…” My mom held my hand tight and cried while I spoke. Then my aunt spoke. “We can’t lie about who he was because he’s gone. He hurt us. All of us. And sometimes I was so angry with him that I forgot that what he had was a disease. Addiction is a disease. But you could never stay mad at him for long, because, like my niece said, he had such a beautiful heart.” And then she started sobbing, shaking and sobbing. My aunt who is like a surrogate mother to me, who I’ve seen cry only a handful of times, cried loud and hard. Then my sister spoke, blubbering as she confessed, “I feel so guilty. I didn’t have that relationship with him that my sister did. I held a grudge. I tried to let it go but I couldn’t. I couldn’t forgive him and now I wish I had.” And she talked about how just two days before he died, the last day she saw him, he made her promise to work on her relationship with mom. My brother was so set on restoring our family.
I’ve been thinking so much about them. My family. About the fact that my nephew, my brother’s son, didn’t go to the memorial because “it’s so early in the morning, titi,” he told me the night before when I called him. I wanted to lunge through the phone and shake him up. He didn’t go see his father before he died. The last time my brother saw him was on Christmas. I won’t make excuses for my brother. I told my nephew this when I called him and told him his father was dying and he’d regret it forever if he didn’t see him. “You’ll have to live with that for the rest of your life.” He came up with all sorts of excuses for why he hadn’t gone—he didn’t have money, he was sick, he didn’t have time. All bullshit reasons and I told him that. He never went to the hospital. My brother died without seeing his son. So when the chaplain and my brother’s case worker talked about how much my brother loved his son, I felt a stab in my heart and I got so angry. I thought about the pages of writing my brother left and all the prayers he wrote for his son. How he wished that he wouldn’t end up like him. He prayed that God keep him out of jail, keep him healthy and away from drugs. I’m still angry.
I know it’s not mine to carry. I know it’s something my nephew will have to come to terms with on his own but I can’t help but be angry. And then I think, now I know how Carlos must have felt. How caught he must have felt between me and mom. How we fought. How he defended me to her and her to me.
“I know she’s hard, Vanessa, but she’s our mom.”
And that time ma swung on me when I was 33, he flipped out on her, screamed, “What’s wrong with you?” Mom didn’t know what to say. She spoke about it on the cruise. Said something came over her and she couldn’t stop herself, and she still feels terrible over it. It’s mom’s way of apologizing.
And now, now I’m the one navigating this precarious space between my family members. Between mom and my sister, who are so much alike it’s scary. How they hold grudges. How quick they are to snap at each other and cut each other off. How impatient they are with one another, and I wonder when I became different. I who was (and still am in so many way and scenarios) terribly impatient and quick to go off, am now the one telling them both to stop. I hush my mother. I raise my eyebrows when she whispers some shady shit to me about my sister, and tell her, “Mami, stop.” But, yes, I confess, though I try to be diplomatic and remain neutral, I lean to my mother’s side because, carajo, I’ve wanted a relationship with her for so long, I want to keep it. And I know I have to handle her with kid gloves sometimes. I know she’s angry with my sister for not forgiving my brother before he died. For not being around. For so many things. And I know that mom is leaning on me in a way she never has. And she’s sharing her life. Her stories…and maybe I’m being selfish. And maybe I’m being unfair, but what else am I supposed to do. How can I carry the weight of my family? How can I carry their pains? I know I’m not supposed to, but that’s what it feels like sometimes now that I’m the carrier of our stories. And so I hope to help the healing process by telling them and I’m figuring out what that means and what it requires as I go along. Poco a poco. Dia a dia. It’s the only thing I can do.
The memorial closed with the final stanza of the Honduran anthem:
En tu emblema, que un mar rumoroso
Con sus ondas bravias escuda,
De un volcán tras la cima desnuda
Hay un astr hay un astro de nítida luz.
In your emblem, which a rough sea
With its wild waves shields,
Behind the bare summit of a volcano,
There is a star of clean light.
These lines are so appropriate for all my brother endured and put himself through because he was in so much pain, because he didn’t feel worthy of love, because he felt so guilty and didn’t want to hurt us, his family, or burden us with his disease. His addiction. I thought about how I’d walked away from him. How angry I was at him for doing what he did, to us and to himself. How I didn’t want to enable him. How often I forgot that what he had was a disease and a disease needs to be treated. And I thought about how no matter how wrapped up he got in his drugs, he always found a way out, at least for a little while, he sought out love, he sought out his family, to remind him of his light, even when he couldn’t see it for himself.