A letter to my deceased brother on my 39th birthday
I find myself walking the streets we used to walk, you and I, Carlos. The cobblestone streets of SoHo, staring into boutiques and shops we couldn’t afford. You and your Gucci taste with your K-Mart pocket. You’d laugh hard when I told you that.
Remember that time years ago (was it 2002?) when you were living with me, I needed a pair of black boots and you dragged me to Fifth Avenue, into Gucci, Prada, Fendi and all those shops I’ve never been back to. Of course I didn’t buy anything. I was making all of 35K a year so I couldn’t afford to shell out $800 on a pair of boots. I still can’t.
“You wouldn’t buy these?” you asked. You were holding up a pair of fierce knee high, five inch heeled leather boots that cost half my rent. I shook my head and gave you that “you’re crazy” face you always thought was so hilarious. It could make you crack a smile no matter what mood you were in.
“I mean, if you could afford them, you wouldn’t buy them?” you asked, your eyes brows arched, coaxing me, as if to say, “Really, sis? Really?”
“No, Carlos,” I said and headed towards the door. The sales guy didn’t even bother to come over to ask if we needed help. We didn’t look like the type of people who shopped there.
Today I came to the dumpling place on 23rd street that you brought me to just two days before you went back into the hospital for the last time last May. Rickshaw’s Dumpling Bar. It’s now a fast food gumbo place. I can’t tell you what it did to me when I came by here last spring to get some dumplings and saw the place closed down. I fell apart right there on the crowded street, all fat tears and snot and whimpering. So I didn’t look for it when I walked out of Home Depot a few minutes ago, a new lampshade in tow. I didn’t even realize I was looking at the same place when I spotted it from across the street. The new sign reads “J. Gumbo’s” but you can still see the “R” of Rickshaws etched behind it. I was so surprised I crossed the street in the middle of the block. A yellow cab honked loudly and I’m pretty sure the driver yelled all sorts of expletives at me when he drove by but I was too focused on getting to that restaurant.
It’s the same set up, just renovated; new tables, a fresh coat of paint. Energy is the same just rejuvenated, new. How’s that for a metaphor, bro? I mean, I’m here in the same body but am so different from that woman I was all those months ago, a year and a half that feels like forever and at the same time just yesterday…except you were alive then, bro. If I close my eyes, I can still see your smile and the way you looked at me from across the table. No one’s ever looked at me like that.
I’m sitting by the window where we sat. You tried to tell me to order the fried pork dumplings. “Those are the good ones,” you said. I insisted on the steamed vegetable kind. They were soggy and bland. Of course the pork ones were crispy and juicy, delicious like you said they would be. I pouted but wouldn’t tell you you were right. You said you were going to the bathroom and returned with an order of fried pork dumplings for me. While you were gone, I’d eaten two of yours. I looked at you sheepishly, you laughed, then we talked and ate. That’s what we always did best together.
You tried to keep up with me that day. You came with me to Trader Joe’s on 21st and 6th Avenue, even went into Burlington Coat Factory to look at summer dresses. You didn’t complain once until you stopped mid-block on 23rd between 6th and 7th Ave, and leaned on the building. You were pale. “I can hardly walk a block without getting tired, sis,” you confessed. “My feet are swelling too.” You pointed at your sneakered feet. You were wearing the black and white Supras I’d bought you for your birthday just a few weeks before. You agreed to call the doctor the next day. You waited two days instead. The doctor told you to go to the emergency room. You’d never walk the streets of your beloved city again. Sometimes I wonder if you knew.
Maybe that’s why I walk the city like we used to. A few minutes ago, I watched a white plastic bag fly over Madison Square Park. The wind lifted it higher and higher until it soared like it had wings up over the skyscrapers. The sky was a clear blue, that almost metallic blue that only happens on cold days like today, two days before my 39th birthday.
I thought of walking up to 28th Street to where you lived. My feet turned on 23rd and headed west though my neck strained to look up Fifth Avenue, remembering the many times we’d taken that walk together.
The other day, it was rainy and cold, and Vasia and I were heading to an event. We were running late. We’d taken the 6 down to 28th Street and planned to walk west to get to the event on 27th Street. It never crossed my mind that we’d have to walk past where you lived. I know if I’d remembered, I would’ve taken another route; taken the long way around just to avoid walking by there. I stopped dead in my tracks when I recognized my surroundings through the mist, and choked up when I looked to my left and stared into the lobby of the Prince Charles, where you lived for more than two years before your death. I hadn’t been on that block since your memorial last September.
I thought back to when we went to clean your apartment. I opened your drawer and your scent came at me with a woosh. I fell to my knees and dug my face into your jean shirt, the Armani one you always wore. The one I didn’t take off for months after you left me.
I’m on my way home now on the A train. There are missing person posters posted all over the 42nd Street Station. I saw them in the 14th Street station and also in Union Square. Every other poster is in color. His name is Andy (Andreas) Robinson and he’s 25. He was last seen on December 1st in NYC (Manhattan). Elsa and Bruce Robbins, presumably his parents, are asking anyone with information on his whereabouts to please contact them. They provide a home and cell number, and include three pictures of their handsome, young son, missing in the prime of his life. It’s December 7th. He’s been missing for six days. I think of you and the times you went missing. We never put up posters for you, Carlos.
I’m thinking of the months you went missing when I was pregnant. So many months. You never saw me with my huge belly. You missed my baby shower and Vasia’s birth in August of 2004. One day, when Vasia was already three months old, our uncle Mario and his wife invited the family over for dinner. When I arrived, Mom came down to help me with all my stuff. You have to carry so much stuff when you have a newborn. “Your brother’s upstairs,” Mom said, grabbing the diaper bag out of my hands. I stopped at the door of the elevator and whispered, “No.” It felt like a roar in my chest. I clutched the handle grips of the carriage, steadying myself because I felt lightheaded with rage. Mom squeezed my white-knuckled hand. I eased my grip. I stared down at my little girl, bundled in her fake fur pink coat that covered every surface of her except for her nose and those cheeks you loved to squeeze. She stared up at me with those big brown eyes that to this day bring me to my knees. I was so angry at you that you hadn’t met my daughter or been there for me when I was pregnant. This was not the way we’d planned it when we were kids. You were always supposed to be there. I didn’t know what to do with myself when you weren’t.
When I walked into Mario’s apartment, you approached, your eyes cast down with shame, and took Vasia into your arms. You started sobbing into her neck. You cried while you took off her coat and fussed with her clothes, the tiny sweater she had on, the tiny patent leather mary janes and tiny white dress with lace trimming.
“You’re a mom, sis,” you said, still crying. We fell into each other.
Weeks later, you came to my new apartment to help me clean and organize. I was in full nesting mode. Within minutes of arriving, you went into the bathroom, and when you came out you were falling over yourself you were so high.
“How could you bring that into my house?” I said, blubbering. “I have a baby, Carlos. A family.”
When you asked me for money for a cab, I gave it to you though I knew you’d probably use it to buy more dope. What choice did I have? Anything to assuage my guilt. I always felt guilty that I couldn’t help you, bro. That I couldn’t save you from yourself and those ghosts that haunted you.
My heart often goes back to that conversation we had in Titi’s hallway three months before you died. The day you told me, “I’m a sin, sis. The bible says I’m a sin.” You were never the same after you found out when you were just thirteen that you were conceived in a rape. For the first time, after fifteen years of protecting you and enabling you until I finally walked away, I finally understood your addiction. I never left you after that. How could I?
A few days later, I went to AWP in Boston after one of the biggest snowstorms of the year. Remember that? You called me while I was on the bus and told me, “Be careful.” You checked on me a few times a day every day that I was there.
It was during that trip over breakfast with Chris Abani, my mentor who you heard so much about, that he asked me why I was writing my memoir. “Redemption,” I said. He swallowed his lips and leaned back in that way he does when he’s about to say some Jedi shit. I braced myself and grabbed onto the lip of the table. “Redemption is easy, Vanessa. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.” It’s now that I really understand the profundity of those words. We spent those last three months of your life restoring our relationship. And I’ve spent the last year and a half since you died restoring myself, remembering who the fuck I am. Becoming the woman and writer you always said I was.
Bro, I know I wouldn’t be who I am today had you not died, but I still wish you didn’t have to die for that to happen. I remember that call at 2:30 in the morning on June 24th of 2013. I was at VONA in Berkeley, where you sent me. “You have to go, sis. You have to go write,” you said. Just a few minutes before we learned you weren’t going to make it. The cardiologist gave you a few weeks to a few months to live. It was a Thursday. I was scheduled to leave that Saturday. You wouldn’t let me stay. You died Monday morning.
The last image I have of you is of you smiling. I pulled back the curtain after saying goodbye, as if to say, “Lemme see you one last time.” You were smiling that mischievous smile I knew so well. The one that signaled to me that you were up to something, you had something up your sleeve. Something that would likely get us in trouble. I wonder now if that plan was to die while I was gone, in the middle of the night, by yourself so no one could call you back. I would’ve called you back, bro, but you know that already, don’t you? You know that I would sacrifice all this growth, all this becoming, to have you back. In a heartbeat, bro. Sin pensarlo.
After the call, I threw myself into my writing. After sobbing and shaking and raging, staring out the window and asking god “Why?!,” I grabbed my journal and poured my tears onto the page. I’ve never gone back to read those words. I’m scared to. I’m scared of the chasm they might (re)open.
It was in the forest that I made the decision to stay. That morning, Diem, my friend and the Executive Director of VONA, took me up into Tilden Regional Park. There, I cried and talked to you. I heard you clearly say, “Stay. You have to stay.” And, so I did.
So much of those days are a blur, but what I do remember, I remember clearly. I remember the hummingbirds that followed me around. Always close. Always watching. I remember sitting outside of the dorm in the quad when I got back from the park. My VONA sis Sharline walked over to me. I told her I was staying and I told her why. She said, “That was a gift he gave you sending you here. What would you be doing in NY, Vanessa? Taking care. It’s what you do, you take care. You don’t have to do that here. Here we’ll take care of you.” I sobbed into her chest.
I tried to write that day. What came out was stunted and choppy. It was like staccato, clave with no rhythm. It didn’t make sense. When I shared my frustration with Cynthia (my dear sister-friend who sent you that card and care package when you were in the rehab center), she took me outside and said, “Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense. Grief don’t make sense. That’s why jazz fucked up the world; it was the grief of a people.” Those words freed me to write whatever came. I’ve been writing like that since. Marathon writing. I only realized a month and a half ago that I’ve been writing an essay collection called Relentless. I was beating myself up over not working on my memoir the way I thought I should be while something just as beautiful was happening, bro. Who knew? I know, I know…you did.
Around this time last year, I went into the darkest place I’ve ever been in my life. I shouldn’t say I went because it’s not like I went there willingly. It was more like I collapsed into it. I’m imagining a rock slide, a mud slide, and an avalanche all at once. I was buried in the debris of that. Am I exaggerating? I can picture you saying it: “Damn sis, really? Ain’t that a bit much?” No, pa. That’s how it felt. Suffocating and fuckin’ terrifying.
If I had to pick a day when it started, I’d say it was Thanksgiving. I shot out of bed, completely unable to breathe. It was like my breath was caught in the middle of my trachea. I was choking on my grief. All I kept thinking was: He should be here. He should be here. Carajo, he should be here. I called titi but couldn’t talk; all I could do was sob into the phone. She told me to come over. I woke up Vasia who stared at me with those huge, expressive eyes of hers that tell you exactly how she’s feeling. She was scared for her mama. I couldn’t protect her from my grief. We ran to titi’s house in our pajamas. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth. Later that day, one of titi’s boys (I don’t remember if it was Gabriel or Omar) came with me to pick up clothes for me and Vasia. They made sure we weren’t alone. I didn’t get home until late into the night.
You loved the holidays. You’d call me and say, “When we going shopping, sis?” We’d scour the city for sales, making sure to get something for everyone in our little family. I couldn’t handle not getting that call last year. I couldn’t handle going to Santaland or to see the tree in Rockefeller Center. There were days in December that I didn’t get out of bed. Everything hurt. The simplest thing would send me into crying fits, but what scared me the most was the rage. It was hot and it was white and it was old.
Somehow, over time, in the writing and the living, I learned to work through that rage. To let it fuel me. I found its source and held it close, knowing that denying it was futile. You can’t live the life I’ve lived and walk out of it unscathed. You just can’t. None of us is all light, bro. You taught me that.
This year I learned to be alone. My mind goes to a James Baldwin quote I recently posted on my wall over my desk: “The primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone.” I see you rolling your eyes at me from the other side. Yes, I’m a nerd. I always have been, but I swear you would have loved Baldwin. You were as much of bibliophile as I am. It was you who introduced me to William S. Burroughs and Reinaldo Arenas. But, yeah bro, it was this year that I learned to sit and be with myself; to listen to my own thoughts. I learned to see my own beauty. I have accepted that I will constantly have to circle back to remind myself that I am worthy, I am enough, I am everything I am looking for. I am worthy of love, bro. And so were you. I wish you would have seen that…
I’m not sure I could have come to all these epiphanies had you not died. I had to be destroyed by your death to become who I am today; the woman you always knew I was. I had a long conversation with Chris Abani recently when I discovered I was writing this essay collection. He told me that a death is only tragic if nothing comes out of it. I’ve been sitting with that since, tossing it around my head like a hacky sack. I never thought I’d be grateful for grief. Writing those words “grateful for grief” stings in a way that makes me nauseous. And yet, I think about what I’ve learned about myself and love and the world; I think about the woman I’ve become and I’m proud her, bro. I’m proud of how I took this loss, the greatest loss of my life, and made the grief into gold. It was alchemy, pa. I’m proud that I can finally see who the fuck I am–relentless.
On the morning of my 39th birthday, I want to tell you one last thing before I end this letter; I want to say I’m sorry.
Mom texted me this morning. She wrote:
El no celebrar no es olvidar. Jamas olvidare May 16, March 29, y Deciembre 9. Aunque siempre fui una perra contigo, siempre te ame. Jehova te bendiga todos los dias de tu vida.
What can I tell you, bro? Mom hasn’t talked to me in a year. This is the first text message she’s sent me in months, and this one is the kindest.
I go back to all that time we spent together in the hospital. You confessed something to me one day: “I’m scared that something’ll happen to me and you and Dee and mom will never talk again.”
Bro, I need you to know that I tried. I tried to have a relationship with her. I couldn’t love her past her grief, past that pain she’s carried since she was raped all those years ago and got pregnant with you. I couldn’t love her past her grief over losing you. I stopped trying to, and I’m sorry for that. Maybe you’ll see it as selfish but for me it’s more a matter of self-preservation. The truth is that it hurts less to not have her in my life. I have my own daughter to raise. I have this life I’ve created for myself. It’s a beautiful life, bro. It’s not without challenges but it’s beautiful and it’s mine and only I can live it. I chose myself. I chose my sanity. I hope you can see that and can forgive me.
I will love you and honor you forever, Superman. I hope you found peace in the next life that you didn’t find in this one. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for what you taught me. Thank you for being my brother.
With all my love, your little sis, Vanessa