What bravery looks like
I sent mom a message yesterday. I had just read these words in someone’s status: “Maybe raindrops are the bravest thing created by God, they are never afraid of falling.” I thought of mom. I thought of the essay I’m working on for spoonwiz.com about mom and our family. I thought about my memoir and the excerpts I’ve been kneading and molding for submission. I thought about how much I resented mom as a kid and how I’ve made myself stare at that resentment for these past few months. How I’ve made myself face the shambles that was our relationship (I’m visualizing piles of rubble for blocks, what the neighborhood I grew up in, Bushwick, looked like in the 80s). I’m slowly working on changing that image of our relationship. Picking up the pieces to make something more whole(some) and true and nurturing, for both of us. I thought about how mom saved my life when I was just a year old by feeding me yucca water and mashed aguacate. I thought about how I’ve been dissecting my mother’s life in writing this memoir. The life that I know. The life that we shared together when I was kid. I thought about everything she’s been through and how somehow, she’s endured and survived, and thrived. And I realized mom’s is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known. I had to tell her. I sent her a text.
“I’m writing about you and thinking that you are one of the bravest women I’ve known. I love you mom.”
Mom responded almost three hours later. She wrote me a poem:
Didn’t answer because I was busy. Desde niña mi abuelita con su amor y ternura no enseño a afrentar el hambre, la desnudez, pero sabes cuando la vi desfallecer? Cuando se le murio su hijo Carlos, jamas volvio a ser la misma, la veia derramar lagrimas sin razo, la oia en las madrugadas sollosar y su dolor se completo cuando su otro hijo desaparecio. De niña no entendi su dolor. Ahora ese mismo dolor me ha atrapado, es como un laberinto sin salida. Le pido a Dios me a vivir con este dolor. Yo quiero y necesito ser esa mujer que tu dices que soy y asi no fallarte a ti, a tu hija, a Carlitos, a mi Hermana y sus hijos.
(Since I was a little girl, my grandmother with her love and tenderness showed us to deal with hunger, nudity, but you know when I saw her falter? When her son Carlos died, she was never the same. I would see her cry for no reason. I would hear her sob in the morning and her pain became thorough when her other son disappeared. As a little girl I didn’t understand her pain. Now that pain has trapped me, it’s like a labyrinth without exit. I ask god to help me live with this pain. I want to and need to be the woman you say I am so I won’t fail you or your daughter or Carlitos or my sister and her kids.)
I choked up when I read it. Shit, I’m choking up now typing it up and translating it. It took me a while to process it. To take in what she shared. Finally, in bed last night, I wrote her:
I keep reading your message. It’s poetry, mami. Painful land beautiful. It’s made me cry twice today.
Mom and I spoke this week about why I hadn’t called her for a few days. I had to be honest. I was feeling so sad, I didn’t want to put it on her. She’s in enough pain over the death of her. He was my brother, yes. My Superman. But he was her son. And she went through so much to have him, that to lose him the way she did, shit, that could break anybody.
Mom responded: Esa es la manera de espresar mi dolor. Si vieras lo demas que he escrito.
I teared up again when I read that mom is writing. She’s finding relief, solace, in writing. I’m so much like my mother, the woman who I struggled for thirty years to not be like. She’s woven into me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bravery and what it means to be brave. We often don’t think we’re being brave when we’re in the thick of our bravest acts. I remember when I first revealed the secret that’s had my family in a chokehold for more than forty years: that my brother was a result of a rape. That my mother was raped by her stepfather and she was blamed. That my brother tried to protect us from that devastating act and the trauma it caused by being silent. But that silence never protected anyone, least of all us.
I endured the most vicious case of vulnerability hangover after releasing that. I couldn’t handle the messages people were sending me. I couldn’t handle the stories they shared. I couldn’t hear that I was fiercely brave and that my writing would save lives. All I could do was sit with my heart and cry and mourn the little girl I was. I was facing the ugliness that was the resentment I carried for my mother and nurtured and fed like it was a newborn baby. I’d held onto it for so long, I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t know how. And, having to do so was terrifying because it meant I had to create a new image of this woman who had hurt me so bad when I was a child. I resented her for not protecting me. How could I? How could I write the stories I was writing and not see her pain, not see her beyond her pain, not see her as a woman, a terribly distraught, traumatized woman. She is, after all, a woman and not just my mother. So I’ve been working on this new image since then. And, let me tell you what it’s done: it’s opened a door. It’s opened a mansion of doors. It’s opened us both up to having a relationship. But first, I had to let go and see her. I had to see my mother.
By the time mom was 21, she had three children, all about a year and a half apart. She hadn’t been in this country five years, didn’t know the language, and was navigating it by herself, having left my father and been abandoned by much of her family. She’d endured the kind of poverty we only see in Save the Children commercials, and came to the U.S. at the age of 15. Within two days of arriving, her stepfather started molesting her. He eventually raped and impregnated her with my brother. She was just a girl. Still had Honduran soil under her fingernails. And she was blamed for it. Her mother kicked her out on the street numerous times. My mother told me she slept in the trains more than once. Then she met my father, who left her pregnant with my sister. It wasn’t until mom was 35 that mom confessed that she too was to blame for how they fell apart. “No pude tener relaciones, Vanessa. Lloraba.” She was so broken by that rape, that she couldn’t have sex without crying. Papi didn’t know she was pregnant until Tia Virginia, his brother’s wife, saw her in the street, on Knickerbocker Ave, in Brooklyn, with her swollen belly. He came back looking for her and grandma took him to her house, though mom told her never to tell him where she lived. He moved right in, sin invitacion o pregunta. My sister Dee was born and mom went on birth control. She took the pill until she found out she was four months pregnant with me. My sister was just a year old. When dad found out mom was pregnant, he chased her into the street and tried to beat me out of her. Mom says my father had changed by then. She says he’d gotten a job in NJ where he started selling and doing drugs. She found something in his pants one day when she was doing laundry. She says she thinks it was marijuana but mom was so nena, so naïve, she couldn’t really tell. When she confronted him, he snatched it out of her hands and left. He didn’t come back for days.
He left soon after he beat her up and sent her to the hospital. I held on. Mom was in and out of the hospital for much of the pregnancy. The doctors told her she should abort me because I would probably be born with severe health problems. Mom refused. When I was born, the doctors said I wasn’t going to make it. One day, she went to see me at the NICU at St. John’s Hospital. She went every day, after work and after checking on her other two kids. She saw me laid out, like I hadn’t been touched tenderly all day. My chest and head were covered with nodes. They had to put the IV in my head because my veins were too weak in my legs and arms to hold the needle. I had bruises on where they’d tried to stab the needle in. Mom got on her knees and prayed, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir, llevatela.” Something came over her. She knew if she left me there, I would die. She started ripping the nodes off of me. The doctors thought she’d gone crazy. They made her sign a paper releasing them from liability, because they thought I would die. Then, they created a makeshift cradle out of a board because my bones were so weak, I couldn’t be held to my mother’s chest. That’s how my mother brought me to Columbia Presbyterian Baby Hospital, on that same board that she carried stretched out in front of her, her arms bent at the elbow. There, a visiting enzyme specialist from Boston, examined me and found the cause of my sickness: the birth control pill had eaten at my liver so I was born without enzymes to break down my food and I was diabetic, to boot. He put me on a special diet that mom had to follow to the letter. She woke up before the sun rose to grind yucca in water. When the yucca settled, she fed me that water. Later, when I started putting on weight and getting stronger, the doctor told her to give me mashed avocado. Mom would hunt the city looking for aguacate when they were out of season. Every few weeks, mom was given a different concoction to feed me. Fruits and vegetables that were rich in enzymes and amino acids. In the midst of this, mom had quit her job en la factoría to take care of me. “She needs round the clock care,” the doctor said. So mom did what she had to do to bring me back to life.
Mom had to go on public assistance and only for a few years, because mami es trabajadora and never liked to depend on anyone for anything. She went back to school and eventually got a job in the NYC public school system where she’s been a paraprofessional for over 20 years.
You want to know what bravery looks like? It looks like my mother. The woman who took care of her son, el que ella quizo por pena because of how he came into the world, because she had to love him more to defy the horror that brought him here. The one who couldn’t grapple with his pain, because he drowned in it, because it suffocated him, so he turned to drugs for numbing. The one who blamed himself for mom’s rape. “I’m a sin, sis. The bible says I’m a sin.” And no matter what he did, what he stole, how he nodded out in front of her, mami peleo por el, she stood by him, flipping out and telling him he needed to clean himself up, but she stood by his side, mi querido hermano, Juan Carlos Moncada.
Mom was in a gay relationship for 20+ years. In the late 70s and 80s, just a few years after homosexuality was taken off the list of mental disorders in 1973 and decades before Heather Has Two Mommies hit the mainstream in the 90s.
Mom raised us kids, silent about her pain, her PTSD, her psychotic breaks. She raised us con silencio because it was all she had to protect us from what she’d been through. From the horror of that rape. The silence that never saved anyone. This silence killed my brother. This silence is what I have to expose and break.
My mother is the bravest woman I’ve ever known. She raised with an iron fist. She didn’t have the time nor the experience to put a velvet glove on that fist, to ease the pain of such a hard upbringing. All she knew was that she had to be hard with me to protect me. So I could learn how to defenderme. She was fuerte and I hated her for it. I wanted her to be soft and gentle and tender. I wanted her to love me. But mom loved me with everything she had, as much as she could. I see that now. I see that I wouldn’t be the woman I am today had she not been so strong, so firm, so unforgiving sometimes.
I learned feminism from my mother. From her don’t fuck with me air. From her hands that cradled me on that make-shift board. The doctors swore I would die, pero mami didn’t give up. It was Mami who got up before dawn every morning to ground the yucca before she went to work. She’d get us ready. Then she’d scoop up the cloudy water that was left when the yucca settled and she’d feed me that. And when I was put on a diet of fruits and vegetable, mom would scour the city to get what I needed. And when the neighbor’s food processor broke while mom was mixing my special elixirs, mom paid for it and saved up for another one because abuela wouldn’t lend her hers. That’s bravery. And I could only wish to one day be as brave as my mother.
Bravery has my mother’s tear-streaked face as she tells me these stories and stops now and then to look at me and say, “But you can’t blame your grandmother. You can’t resent her. Tu abuela a sufrido.” And she reminds me that grandma has been working since she was five, just a baby herself. That three of her children died to diseases in Honduras that in this country would have been cured with a shot or a week’s worth of penicillin. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here,” mom says. “Ella sacrifico por nosotros. Remember that.” If that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is.