Memories and their relentless haunting
I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about the stories that haunt us. Because I’ve been thinking so much about my mother and how she’s coping and isn’t. Because those ghosts have come back to haunt her. Not that they ever left, but now she can’t run away. Now she can’t put all her energy into taking care of my brother. Now she has to sit with and confront the memory of him and the violence that brought him here to this world.
I told a friend the other day, finally confessed it to someone’s face, that I think I’m depressed. We were sitting in the café, by the window. It was chilly and had been raining but the sun was pushing through the clouds. Digging.
It was the day after I had rushed to see mom, after getting a call that she’d had an anxiety attack at work. Another one. It was the day after mom made me cry.
My friend had a loss of her own earlier this year. We’re both grieving. We let ourselves lean on one another that day. We’re both the same in that we don’t lean on people too often. We talked about grief. “Grief isn’t linear,” she said. She was angry. It’s been seven months since her partner died and some people don’t understand how and why it is she’s still mourning so deeply. “That whole idea that there’s stages to grief is bullshit. There are no stages.”
Grief is so very personal. So different for everyone. We try so hard to understand it. To give it some order. Or give it “stages” like the Kübler-Ross model which vainly says that the stages of mourning are universal and orderly: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
We try to make grief tolerable, understandable, niched so that we can wrap our minds around it. So it feels like something we can tackle. We can manage. But grief just doesn’t work like that. Grief is all over the place and it’s unique to the individual.
I stared at my friend, who is a therapist so she isn’t new to psycho-babble, but is just as irritated by its broad claims. I confessed, “I think I’m depressed.” I’m saying it more to people, to my friends, that I think I’m depressed. That while I’m maintaining, somehow still writing and teaching and prepping for the school year, writing syllabi and having meetings and such, a large part of me is sad, so very sad. And there are days I miss my brother so much, any memory of him, of his smile, his laugh, his sayings, makes me want to curl up and cry. Cry nonstop. And I don’t want anyone to hold me or feel sorry for me or try to console me. I just want to feel it. And, of course, that’s when I don’t let myself. That’s when I run away. I run away fast.
She told me that her therapist told her just the day before that depression is suppression, or covering up something you don’t want to deal with.
“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, its aliveness. Being alive is to experience the whole spectrum of being alive, including feeling joy and sadness and grief.”
I told her about how hard it was to come back to NY after being at VONA for nine days (that’s where I was when I found out my brother passed). How I tried to hide my grief from my daughter. How I would wait until she fell asleep to fall apart. It was like holding my breath, it was so hard. How one day, I couldn’t hold it though I tried, but hearing a U2 song, “One Love,” sent me into hysterics. I was crying so hard, I was shaking. That’s when my daughter put her arms around me and started rocking me. Then she started singing a song I’ve been singing to her since she was in my belly, the song that puts her to sleep, dries her tears, makes her stop and listen and calm down. “You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you. You be like heaven to touch. And I wanna hold you so much…” She sang the entire song while she rocked me. She didn’t stop until I was calm. When I looked at her, there were tears streaking down her face.
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Just so you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, ‘cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” ~Toni Cade Barbara, Salteaters
My nephew, who is now living with my mom, told me he went for a long walk with mom the other day. They were in the apartment where she was flipping out over everything—a dirty dish he left in the sink, his keys left on the table, everything set her off. “Let’s go for a walk, tata,” he offered. “Vamos,” she responded.
They walked for hours while she talked. She talked about everything. She told him about the rape. My twenty-one-year-old nephew already knew but this was the first she was telling him the story. Mom denies loving him the most of all her grandchildren. “You just have a special bond with your first grandchild,” she’s said. Just like she said that a mother has a special bond with her first child. “Una madre quiere a su primer hijo diferente que los demas.”
I never thought she’d tell my nephew about the rape but she did that day. And she told him in detail. She told him about how it was only her second day in this country that her stepfather touched her for the first time. She couldn’t put up the zipper on the back of her shirt. Grandma didn’t even look up when mom asked for help, she just sent her to him. Before raising the zipper, he slipped his hand in her shirt and cupped her breast.
These stories that have haunted my mother are coming back with a vengeance and she doesn’t know how to cope. She says she’s okay but the she lashes out and I know better. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.
Before certain storms invade our garden, they send faint messages which, out of laziness, we ignore. ~Paulo Coehlo
I felt it that morning. Thursday morning of last week, when I woke up and woke Vasia. When I saw that the morning mantra meditation was entitled “New Beginnings”, the title of my writing ritual folder on my desktop. When during the meditation, I heard the soft voice of the facilitator say that “gum” is the Sanskrit word for unity and unity lies at the base of the spine, where my Ohm tattoo is. When I got to the park to work out and a large black with gold and orange speckled butterfly flew right at me. It came out of nowhere, and I felt my brother’s spirit, like he was right next to me. And when I finished my work out, after going in harder than I thought I could because of a middle-of-my-workout energy boost, I saw a large web glistening in the morning sunlight and a dime size spider in the center, navigating the web he’d so carefully built. When the breeze lifted off the water, he pulled in his eight legs and let the wind pull and push him while he held on tight. I thought: ain’t this a beautiful metaphor for life, this healing and this grief. Then I saw two shrieking blue jays on my way home. And on my way to do laundry, I heard her before I saw her, a hawk soaring over my street. Then I saw another and another. Multiple hawk sightings in a matter of minutes always heralds something. I got the call a few hours later. My nephew’s voice was trembling. “Tata can’t stop crying. She’s at work. I’m on my way now.” I called mom but couldn’t make out what she was saying, she was crying so hard. The Assistant Principal took the phone and told me mom hadn’t been feeling well all day, then during dismissal her heart started palpitating and she couldn’t stop crying. Mom got on the phone, told me not to worry, that she would be fine. “No vengas pa’ca.” I rushed to finish folding my clothes, my hands shaking, and ran home. But first I noticed the horse on the bicep of the self-described Alabama cowboy that Vasialys and I met while finishing our laundry. And, as I turned the corner with my laundry cart, a huge bag of freshly washed and neatly folded clothes teetering on top, I almost ran into a man. I don’t remember his face but I remember the picture on his t-shirt of a howling wolf with the full moon as the backdrop. There were geometric shapes below the wolf. The shirt was black with varying shades of gray. It was so much. I was feeling over-stimulated and scared, but I kept paying attention because my senses were at alert and I knew the universe was sending me signs. Signs everywhere.
On the train there was the Latino man, Mexican I think, whose face was red from crying. I could tell he was still fighting the tears, his forehead was wrinkled with worry, his eyes were blood shot and he was mumbling something inaudibly. I think he was praying. Begging. He was leaning on the train door, looking ahead, like at some horizon only he could see. And he never made eye contact. I said a prayer for him, asked God que le ponga la mano.
There was the woman on the L train with “love is my religion” tattoed in script on her wrist. And the woman reading “The Price of Whiteness” just a few steps from me. Her red toenails matched her red cardigan.
When I got off the train in Brooklyn, the sky was dark and menacing. The clouds were roiling and I could hear the thunder in the distance.
We walked to the doctor’s office where mom was. She gave me a cold kiss. “I don’t know why you came. No creas que vas a entrar conmigo.” I just sat and waited and stared at her, my mother. When we left, she confessed the EKG and stress test results were bad. She was going to have to return the next day to get an apparatus installed to monitor her heart for 24 hours followed by a more invasive test to check for blocked arteries.
My mind flashed to the conversation we had with my brother’s team of doctors just a few days before he died. His cardiologist said there was nothing they could do. “His heart will continue to fail until it stops.” He was given just a few weeks to a few months to live. He died four days later.
Mom was walking with that hard, deliberate step she adopts when she’s angry or frustrated. “I don’t care if I die.” She looks at me. “Don’t take it the wrong way but it’s your brother I worried about. Tú sabes la vida que el vivía.” She’s talking about the drugs. “You have your life. Your sister ‘ta pa’lla con la d’ella.”
I swallow hard. I want to grab her and shake her and yell at her. I want to slap her. I’m scared. “That doesn’t mean I don’t need you.” I stumble over my words. Mom rolls her eyes but says nothing.
The lightning flashes across the dark sky. The thunder shakes the ground. The storm is coming fast.
We speed up. She sends my nephew ahead to the pharmacy to get her medicines, an anti-depressant and a sleeping pill.
“Do you need me to come tomorrow to go to the doctor with you?”
Her face changes. She watches my daughter skipping ahead. Vasia’s counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. “One Mississippi. Two Mississippi.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, Vanessa, but I don’t need you now. Maybe if you had been there when I did.” She squeezes her eyes shut. The rain starts to fall.
I raise my face so my tears mix with the rain. Hours later when I get home, my heart is still in my throat.
“You don’t know how I suffered. I know your brother hurt you. Like your aunt said, la traición destruye las familias. But you didn’t call to check on me. Al menos para preguntarme como yo estaba.”
Mom doesn’t understand that her cruelty pushed me away just as much as my brother’s addiction. I stayed away for a year and three months. I came back to my brother’s bedside three months before he died.
At that moment I wanted to run like I’ve done so many times in the past. Like I did when I was thirteen and ran away to boarding school because it was the only thing I could do to save myself from her. I’ve run away from her so many times.
“This is how ghosts inhabit you; haunt you until you respond to them. There is not deep fiction without ghosts. Without deep haunting, duende is nothing more than Britney Spears dancing to another asinine song.” ~Chris Abani: Abigail and My Becoming
I’ve been thinking about these ghosts since. Because I’m writing them. Because it’s the only way I know how to take care of myself through this mourning. Because it helps me try to understand my mother and our relationship, though it’s taking an increasing amount of energy and patience to deal with her. I have to remind myself that she’s in pain, that she’s grieving, but, shit, so am I. And though I so want a relationship with her, at what point do I put myself and my emotional health first? And at what point do I stop beating myself up for being human, for being soft and sensitive and just wanting to be loved tenderly. At what point do I stop wanting her to give me what she never really has?
Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside us in the absence of an empathetic witness. ~Peter Levine, The Unspoken Voice
Perhaps this blog, this memoir, are my search for that empathetic witness. For me. For my mother. For my brother. For these stories that haunt.