Finding my way
During a conversation with my aunt on Thanksgiving, I compared my mother to a soldier in battle. “She’s like those soldiers in war. They don’t have time to feel anything, to respond or react to bombs blowing up around them, or when another soldier dies. They have to stay alert and aware. Their lives depend on it. That was my ma over the last few years of Carlos’s life.”
When we were on the cruise in August, mom told me she caught my brother shooting up in her bathroom. He had been in there a long time. She was worried that something happened to him. When she knocked, he didn’t answer. She opened the door to find him leaning on the laundry basket, a needle sticking out of his arm. He came to when he heard her screaming. “Tu crees que yo nunca le pelee.” She wanted me to know that though she stood by him, she fought with him constantly about his addiction. She just couldn’t turn her back on him. Ever. That day she kicked him out, but then she thought about the condition he was in. He was tripping over himself while he was getting dressed. “No se podia ni parar.” She takes a deep breath when she says this and I imagine she’s visualizing the scene in her mind. He’s so high he can’t get his leg into his pants, he keeps nodding out, his body hangs from the waist, arms dangling, but he never falls. It’s amazing that he never falls. When he leaves, mom follows close behind. She watches him from just steps away. He slumps over in the train, eyes rolled back in his head. People walk in and out of the train but no one sits next to him. They give him a wide berth. My brother is so high, he doesn’t notice mom sitting just on the other side of the train, watching. She takes two trains with him, the L and the 6. She exits the 6 train on 28th street with him. My brother has to hold onto the walls. He stops three times to nod out on his block and half walk to his apartment building. Mom doesn’t turn around to go home until she sees him enter the building. She needs to know that he’s safe.
Leviton: You write that Holocaust survivors were confronted with a choice: to grab hold of life, or to seek security.
Perel: In my community of survivors there were two groups: those who merely survived, and those who revived. Those who just survived didn’t play, because you cannot be on guard while you are playing. If they had a good time, it meant they weren’t watching out for danger. Their houses had that heaviness to them. The curtains were drawn. You felt these people weren’t really living.
The other group chose to keep their vitality, energy, and eros. I am very lucky to be from one of those families. It’s not enough not to be in pain. It’s important to be alive and to experience pleasure and joy. ~A More Perfect Union: Esther Perel on Intimacy, Infidelity, and Desire in Long-Term Relationships by Mark Leviton, The Sun (December 2013, Issue 456)
Mom’s favorite song is Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida.” She puts the song on at full volume and dances around her living room, belting the song at the top of her lungs. She’s somewhere wavering between utter joy and complete devastation. It’s a continuum she exists in now. Rushing back and forth, trying to keep herself upright, faithful, alive.
She closes her eyes and raises her arms in the air when the chorus comes on. It’s almost like she’s in a revival tent singing a gospel song.
Voy a reir, voy a bailar
Vivir vivir lalalala
Voy a reir, voy a gozar
Vivir vivir lalalala
This week, I accidentally came across text messages from my brother. I’d attempted to find them before but they never appeared. Then they did. Like magic.
The first one dates back to December 9th, 2012, my 37th birthday: “I know that you’re not seeing or feeling me at this present moment, but I want to wish you a very Happy Birthday and that I Love You…you’re like a fine wine, you’re getting better with age… J” When I didn’t respond, he sent me another message: “Hope that my Niece and you are well…Happy Birthday, be Blessed always.” I sent him a curt “Thank you for the message. Vasialys & I are doing well.” I was still mad at him then. Mad at his weakness. Angry at his manipulative ways. Angry that mom only mothered him although she has three children. This was before he and I sat in my aunt’s hallway and finally talked. The day he told me, “I’m a sin, sis. The Bible says I’m a sin.” And just like that, I understood his addiction and I knew that he needed me. I never walked away from him again.
The next message is from April. We’d already made up. We’d already had that conversation where I told him what I was writing, the secrets I’m revealing in the memoir. He’d already told me, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody will fucking talk.”
He gave me advice about mom when I told him on Mother’s Day that I missed being mothered. He said, “I think it would be good if you tell her how you feel.” When I told him I couldn’t handle being rejected by her again, he responded, “I understand…” The message came in twice.
When he was set to get out of the rehab in May, days after his 41st birthday, he confessed, “I have mixed emotions, I’m happy that I’m getting out but nervous at the same time.” He’d been in treatment facilities for two months, first at the hospital then at the rehab. I told him I believed in him and would support him whenever and however I could. And I reminded him, “You’re my Superman!” His response: “You’re the best sister a brother could ever ask for.” I wept like a baby when I read that.
A few days later, I sent him a link to a NY Times article I read, The Gift of Siblings. I wrote, “Read it. I know you’ll appreciate it.” I remember the knot in my throat when I read: “siblings are ‘the only people in the world you can be your worst self with and they’ll accept you.” I thought about how I’d walked away from my brother for over a year because I just couldn’t deal with his addiction. I can’t watch him kill himself, I’d told myself over and over again. I remember the guilt digging into me. I don’t know if my brother ever read that article. He never responded to the text.
There are messages from the last time I saw him outside of the hospital. He took me to Rickshaw’s for lunch, a dumpling spot he’d been raving about on 23rd Street near his apartment. We walked to Trader Joe’s and talked about his new life while I shopped. “I’m gonna stay clean, sis. I promise.” (We found out later that he’d used a few times while in the rehab.) He wanted to go back to school (FIT for Fashion Buying and Merchandising), start working out and eating healthy (I’d gotten him into juicing), and he wanted to travel. “I wanna go to Europe, sis. Let’s go. It’s gonna be ova!” We talked about my plans to move to the Bay. “You go ahead and settle in and I’ll follow you in like six months.” He confessed that he could barely walk. His feet were swollen and he was retaining water again, but he swore the new heart meds would fix it in a few days.” My body’s still getting used to them.” He was admitted to the hospital just a few days later.
I wrote to him as I was packing to leave to VONA. We had just found out two days before that he wasn’t going to make it. I wrote to him from the airport and took pictures of the view from my window as we traveled across the country and landed in San Francisco. I told him I was going to document the trip for him. He died not twelve hours after I sent him the last message.
Mom told me an interesting story when I went to see her this past Sunday. She said she thought of me during the sermon at the Kingdom Hall. (Yes, mom’s a Jehovah’s Witness now.) The elder told the story of an athlete who lived to win a medal for his country. She didn’t say the sport but for some reason I imagined a track star, one of those dudes who throws the discus like the Myron statue, Discobolus. He never wins the medal, not even the bronze, so he resigns himself to an ordinary life. He returns home to live with his mother and sister and their dog. The mother is especially close to the dog. Mom compares the relationship to the one her next door neighbor’s children have with their dog, a tiny furry little thing that yaps consistently. They got the dog after their father died earlier this year, leaving two children under the age of 10. The boy was especially devastated by his father’s death since they were so close. I imagine the mother doting over the dog like the little boy does. She picks the best bones for him, leaving them meaty and tender for him to savor on for hours. The former athlete takes up riflery as a hobby. One day, while he’s cocking his gun, the thing goes off and kills the dog. The only one who sees is his sister and she never lets him live it down. Whenever the mother asks the girl to do something, she passes the chore on to her brother, always with the same threat: “If you don’t do it, I’ll tell mom.” After endless abuse, the boy finally tells his mother. She says, “I always knew. I was just waiting for you to tell me.”
“That’s when I thought of you and your sister,” mom said. It’s now that she sees how my sister treated me when we were growing up. I can’t count how many times she threatened me with the same “Imma tell ma.” Mom recalled one time Dee got mad at me and told mom that I had pierced my nose and took the hoop out every time I visited. I was already in college by then. Had been out the house for five years. Dee was still living there.
It was from my sister’s angry mouth that mom found out I pierced my belly button when I was 18, had a miscarriage when I was 19, and pierced my tongue when I was 20. And there were about a dozen betrayals in between and after.
Thanksgiving was so hard. I woke up choking on my grief. I got up, threw on some sweats, didn’t even brush my hair, and ran to my aunt’s house. I had several crying fits before noon but just being around family helped. Then my sister arrived.
My relationship with my sister stands in sharp contrast to the one I had with my brother Carlos. Watching my sister and how we interact (and don’t) put my relationship with my bro into focus. I imagine a bright spotlight on an otherwise dreadfully dark stage.
Carlos and Dee fought often. Just like she and I did. Me and my brother had our tiffs but we somehow always came back together. “You had the same heart,” mom says. One of Carlos and Dee’s last fights was at mom’s house about two years ago. I wasn’t there. They were talking about Lady Gaga’s meat dress. My brother said it was art. My sister labeled it trash. She said Lady Gaga was trash and had no talent. The thing about my sister is that anything that doesn’t fit into her view of things, she dismisses as garbage, beneath her. (She recently said that she thinks people who go to the gym to work out are stupid. WTF?) If you don’t agree with her (which my brother and I often did not), she’ll deem you stupid and won’t hesitate to tell you that to your face. Apparently she did just that to Carlos that day. Carlos asked what the hell she knew about art and called her unsophisticated. Pa’ que fue eso? Dee had a fuckin conniption. She called my brother a crackhead, a tecato, a bum, a low life, every possible ugly thing she could think of, she hurled at him. My brother stormed to the room (which wasn’t very far since my mother lives in the same four room railroad style apartment we grew up in). The family was eerily quiet. I say eerily because if you know my family, you know that quiet is never a word I’d use to describe us, la familia mala punta, as we’ve called ourselves for years. My mother says that Carlos came back pleading, “Dee, you’re my sister, we shouldn’t fight like this.” Mom says it was like Dee was injected with super rage. I imagine that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta injects an overdosed Uma Thurman with a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. Dee went bat shit, frothing at the mouth crazy. She called my brother everything and anything she could think of. She brought up the money he stole from her wedding a few years prior. The stereo he stole from grandma. Anything she could use as venom, she did, relentlessly, maliciously. It got so bad my aunt who shares birthdays with my brother (May 16th, exactly 10 years apart) and has been a second mother to all three of us, intervened and told my sister she crossed the line. “Ya ‘ta bien, Dee. Te pasastes.”
My brother and sister barely spoke after that, and yet, when we got the news that he wasn’t going to make it, the first thing he said was, “Dee, you have to call Dee.” His sobs were so deep, so guttural, I can feel my insides shaking right now remembering them.
And so, on Thanksgiving, when I sat next to my sister and stared at her, I so wanted her to turn to me and say something big sisterly…to ask about my writing like my brother always did. To share her life beyond the “same shit, different day” she always replies with a sneer every time I ask how she’s doing. It’s the same answer whether I ask her face to face or over the phone or via text. I wanted her to tell me how she’s coping with my brother’s death. She didn’t even mention him. She did none of what I wanted her to do. When she finally noticed I was staring, she turned to me and said, “What? What the fuck?” And because I’m not in a place to fight or argue, I moved away, mumbling, “Nothing, Dee, nothing.” I went outside to breathe and try to push away the sting of how much I miss my brother.
I know it’s not fair to her to compare relationships. She is who she is and I can’t expect her to replace him or fill the hole that his death left, but grief doesn’t care about fairness.
When my brother’s son walked in, I almost lost it. I threw my arms around him and felt myself shake. “You okay, titi,” he asked repeatedly. I just held him and sobbed. He looks so much like my brother. Same hairline, same wide shoulders, same gait. I’ve been so angry at him.
My brother se murió con la pena of not seeing his son. I called my nephew when we got the news and told him that if he didn’t see his father before he died, he’d have to live with that for the rest of his life. He never went. The last time my brother saw his son was last Christmas, six months before his death. But as I watched him on Thanksgiving, I knew that I had to let that go. I was holding on to this resentment that wasn’t serving anyone, especially not me. I took him out into the hallway and told him I needed to talk to him. That I had to let out what I was feeling but didn’t want to ruin a holiday. I asked him to please meet up with me some time in the next week. He left to get a haircut and never came back. I haven’t heard from him since.
Crying is a private act, a grueling exercise that requires me to fold into myself with the cause of my suffering piercing my core. My face contorts into a warped version of itself that I don’t want anyone to see. Then, of course, there is the aftermath: the red nose, the puffy eyes, the feverish chill that invariably comes after a good cry, the feeling that I’m physically ill. ~Praying Alone in Qatar by Adriana Páramo, The Sun (December 2013, Issue 456)
For much of my life, crying was a private act. It was something I did in the dark, at night, alone in my bedroom, the blanket stuffed into my mouth, my head buried in my pillow so my whimpers couldn’t be heard by anyone but me. And, sometimes, not even by me. Maybe I was trying to keep even myself from hearing and seeing what I was really doing—breaking. I can hear the terrible things I told myself: Get yourself together. You’re not this fucking weak. This is little girl shit. You’ve been through worse.
As I remember this, I think of the Rizzo’s song in Grease: “I don’t steal and I don’t lie, but I can feel and I can cry. A fact I bet you never knew. But to cry in front of you, that’s the worst thing I could do…”
And I think of my mentee of nearly seven years who was dumped on Thanksgiving, by phone, no less. She texted me, “I hate myself for feeling like this… Like bitch you survived your father being killed and you can’t handle this? Ugh.”
I responded: “Don’t you dare do that to yourself. You’re human and you’re hurt.”
I winced after I sent the text. My past flashed in front of me like a slide show: the many times I’ve done the same thing—beat myself up for feeling, for crying and mourning and being sad.
My brother’s death has given me a new perspective on so many things, including that: crying and letting myself feel and grieve however I need to, when I need to. I still find myself beating myself up. I pause often to say, “Gentle, V. Gentle.”
The one emotion that I’m struggling with is anger. I’m angry and sometimes I can’t contain it. Sometimes I find myself clenching my body and I wonder how long I’ve been doing it before realizing. I can feel it in the ache in my shoulders and in the screaming crescent moons on my slackening palms. It feels like driving a car with the brakes on. It is rage. Hot and suffocating, rage. I can breathe through it when I’m aware but it’s the awareness of it that I’m working on. The thing is, I’m learning that this anger, this rage, is also okay.
I was unpredictable. From smiles to snarls, I would become a fierce version of myself. Words and looks caused me to bristle. Normal situations turned into colossal problems…all these emotional assaults diminished my self-esteem. I would attempt to cry myself calm in the shower, into my pillow or anywhere that I could release that overwhelming hysteria without embarrassment. Suppressing my feelings intensified the rage, but I just couldn’t express or release as much as I needed to… [Then a counselor said:] “It is okay to be angry.”
Could this be true? Was it really okay to be this red-hot angry? Was keeping my raw feelings to myself the real problem? Uttering those taboo, words of resentment and disappointment would actually alleviate the overwhelming pain that threatened my relationships…
I recognized that the loss I was experiencing was profound and life changing. I was robbing myself of the right to grieve to the extent that I deserved. ~Better a Raging Grief than a Crying Shame
This is revolutionary for me, this idea that not letting myself be angry, to feel the roiling heat of rage, is “robbing myself of the right to grieve.” We’ve been taught that anger is wrong and we shouldn’t feel it. That it doesn’t serve. That it can stifle and eat away at you. But “anger can be a useful tool, when channeled appropriately.” For me, it’s helping me turn within.
I am paying attention to where it’s directed and why. Like today, when I lashed out at a friend when I thought she was telling me how I should grieve. We both realized that we weren’t being our best selves in the situation. In her trying to console me, she wasn’t giving me the space I needed to grieve how I needed to. And it wasn’t malicious or unkind, she was just desperate to help because she cares. And, me, in my angst over the situation and my overall grief, I thought she wasn’t being empathetic. And that’s what it comes down to: a search for, no, a need for empathy. This grief is so isolating, and, yes, some of the isolation is self-imposed (sometimes I just want to be alone), but the lack of ritual around death and how grief has lost its communal approach, does something that exacerbates the grieving process. I’m still figuring it all out or finding the rhythm in the waves. Or maybe I’m just reaching out for a safe space in the storm. I don’t know really. I feel lost most of the time. The thing is, I’m not trying to hide that or lie about it. I’m doing what I need to do to somehow find my way or make my way. Poco a poco. Dia a dia. And I’m writing about it and reading about it and sharing about it. Because if there’s something we all have or will share at some point, it’s grief over losing someone we love. There’s no preparing for it. Ever. But you can find some calm and some perspective. And there’s solace in realizing that you’re not alone in this. That someone was that ravaged by grief, and somehow, they made (or are making) their way through it.
Remember: Redemption is easy, Vanessa. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.