On turning 40 & learning to love the bombs
I started writing about turning 40 weeks before my birthday on December 9th. On my tablet at my desk. Sitting cross legged with my lap desk resting on my knees. On the train, scribbling in my moleskin, hunched over my far too heavy book bag. I wrote about my 30s, how hard they were; how this past year kicked my ample ass, while also gifting me with so much beauty. So much love.
I had a reading done a few weeks ago by a spiritual advisor who said in his deep Nigerian accent: “You’ve been through so much.” His hand over his heart, he started rubbing his chest, wincing, like he could feel it. “You heart is sore. It hurts.” Then he looked at me intently, no shift to his gaze until he was done. “But everything, everything happen to make you grow. You have to see that now. You have work to do.” I nodded. He mirrored my nod. He knew I knew. I knew he was right.
I had all the feels on the build up to 40. Not because I’m scared or worried about 40. In fact, this is the happiest and most at ease I’ve felt in a long time… It’s just the 30s were so much.
Not two months after entering 30, I left my daughter’s father and became a single mom. I knew pretty quickly that the relationship with her dad wouldn’t last. I know now that we were meant to make that fabulous little girl and that’s it. But the relationship lasted longer than it should have because I was terrified of raising my daughter alone. I was terrified of repeating what my mother had done to me; the abuse, the abandonment…so I stayed in that relationship until my daughter was a year and a half. I actually tried to get him out right after she turned one. He wasn’t trying to leave. He put his hands on me. We disrespected each other. We were heinous to one another. You know when you’re mad you think some really malicious shit, right? Well, he said all that shit. His mouth just ran uncontrollably and I was always left wondering how the fuck I could have fallen for such an asshole. I know now that I was just repeating the cycle with him that I had with my past relationships—I was falling in love with mirrors of my mother… Emotionally unavailable. Emotionally abusive. Verbally abusive. Sometimes physically abusive.
I finally got out of that relationship but that wasn’t the end of that loathsome cycle. It continued throughout my thirties and didn’t really end until my late thirties when in the grief over losing my brother, I confronted all the griefs I’d been carrying around for so long, including the grief over being unmothered, feeling unloved and unwanted and unworthy, and that manifesting itself in my romantic relationships. It’s so cliché but still so fuckin true: how can you love anyone until you love yourself? I didn’t know that though I’d read it at least a few thousand times. It took the death of my brother to finally see it—that I wasn’t loving myself and that’s why I kept attracting the same kind of person.
Of course there was tons of beauty in my 30s: I left corporate American and threw myself heart first into my writing. I published my first novel and wrote another one that I walked away from when memoir took over. (I had that 352 page book bound and it now sits on a file cabinet at the entrance to my room. Every few months I pick that novel up and read a few pages; and, every single time, I remember how much I love the protagonist, India, and I know that that book will one day be out in the world.) I had another book I co-wrote published in 2010, the same year I quit my job to live this writing-teaching dream. I wrote and published countless essays and blog posts. I created the Writing Our Lives Workshop that I’m dedicating myself to growing and getting on line. I went to VONA and found a home and my voice. This year I was promoted to Workshop Director.
In my 30s, I fell in love and got my heartbroken.
I failed. I failed a lot. And I learned so much from those failures.
I had some incredible successes.
But if I had to name what affected me the most, I’d have to say it was the death of my brother, my Superman Juan Carlos, in June of 2013.
The other day I decided to clean up my phone. (It functioning at snail pace will make you do that.) I had texts and emails from years ago, including texts from my brother that I didn’t realize had transferred over. I saw the last picture I sent him from my flight to San Francisco. I was on my way to a writing workshop at UC Berkeley at VONA/Voices. We’d heard he wasn’t going to make it just three days before, on a Thursday. He insisted that I go. “You have to go write our stories, sis.” He said he’d be fine. That he’d be there waiting for me when I got back. I promised I’d chronicle the trip for him. “I’ll send you pictures and texts every day.” He smiled and nodded. “Okay, sis.”
Three days later, on Sunday, I took an early morning flight to the Bay. I texted him from JFK: “In the airport. This one’s for you, bro. For us. Love you!!!” I texted him when I landed and sent a pic of the Rockies that I took from the plane: “Beautiful view! Just arrived. Love u!” He never responded.
I got the call in the middle of the night. He died in his sleep.
Two and a half years later, I know for certain that I wouldn’t be who I am right now had my brother not passed. I know that this journey was one I had to embark on but it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t forced to confront all the griefs I’ve been carrying around for so fuckin long.
Here’s the thing: I understand that this grief that shattered me is what made me grow and change and face all my shit. It’s what made me work on self-love and self-worth. It’s what helped me finally realize and believe that I don’t deserve my mother’s abuse. It’s what’s made me stand up to her…and it helped me open up to the possibility of love, because I deserve it, because I’m worthy, because I want to share my life with someone… I know all this and still, I’d give it up in a heartbeat to have him back. To hear his voice. To hear the one person who loved me unconditionally tell me: You did it, sis. I’m proud of you.
That shit hurts layers of hurt. The knowing that part of me is grateful for grief…and the guilt that I feel that. The Oh My God, How could I? And yet…it’s true.
A few months ago, I read a GQ cover story of Stephen Colbert that will stay with me forever. In it, Colbert reveals that the joy he uses in his comedy comes from the darkest place in his life – the tragic deaths of his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was just 10 years old. He credits his mother for not being bitter.
…even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.” The Late, Great Stephen Colbert
Gratitude for everything… Joy and grief existing in the same place… I never would have understood this just three years ago.
It was in an Indo-Tibetan Buddhism class in college that I first heard the saying: “All life is suffering.” I resisted it for so long. I fell for that insane idea that you can be, should be happy all the time; that that’s what I should aspire for and nothing else. Here’s what’s so flawed about that idea: it’s fuckin impossible. For every up, there’s a down. For every crest, there’s a crescendo. There’s a whole spectrum of emotion that people refuse to acknowledge or deal with. They want to rush past the inevitable heartache that will happen to all of us at one point or another. Your love will hurt you, someway, somehow. Someone will die. Something horrible will happen—a freak accident will take the life of a beloved teacher or classmate; your dear brother will become a heroin addict and will spiral in such a heinous way, you will barely recognize the boy he once way, the one who protected you and taught you so much about love. Ignoring these realities won’t make them go away. Pretending they didn’t happen or trying to push past them, eyes on some distant yet-to-happen future, won’t dull the ache for long. Eventually they will come hurtling back and by then they have the strength of chupacabras…and then you’re really fucked.
There are some things that just walk with you, like the sadness I carry over being unmothered. I felt it the weekend before my 40th and I felt it during the holidays. I felt it hard though I tried to push through. Make no mistake, I too fall for that work-through-it-to-get-past-it idea sometimes. It never works. Ever.
Feel it all. That’s one of the mantras I am known for and believe, but sometimes it’s even too much for me too.
I don’t know if this shadow will walk with me forever. I know that I’ve stopped pretending it doesn’t exist. I know that the fact that I am unmothered has affected every single one of my relationships, from my relationship with my daughter to my friendships and former loves to my present, gorgeous love. I am forever aware of this feeling in my chest, this fear of abandonment, of not being worthy, this terror of fucking up and losing everyone. I understand where it comes from. I know the root. When your mother can’t love you, when she denies you her love, when she’s cruel and callous, even if you know it’s a result of her own suffering, traumas you can’t imagine, you will carry this. I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to break you, though. It doesn’t have to be a vise around your neck. It takes work but you can do it…I can do it.
This new perspective on love and the world and my own heart are what allowed me to do something I never thought I’d have the audacity to do—walk away from my mother.
Growing up I had a friend, Eli, who had an incredible relationship with her mom that I was envious of. Juji was very much a surrogate mom to me and my sister and other girls on the block that didn’t have such a close relationship with their moms. When Eli lost her virginity, her mother was the first one she told. When she got her period, she ran and told her mom. When she had a problem with a girl at school, it was her mother she consulted.
I remember one day talking to Juji about my mom. Mom had just beat me. I don’t remember why but Juji noticed her handprint on my bicep. She reached over and rubbed my arm softly. When I looked at her, her faced was flushed. It was one of the few times I saw Juji close to tears.
She said she’d had a similar relationship with her mom. “She beat me all the time,” she said. “I never felt like she loved me.”
Tears streamed down my face. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t let myself heave or sob like I wanted to. I just let the tears fall.
“When she died, I hadn’t seen her for years.” That’s when I gasped. I didn’t understand how she could go so long without seeing her mother. “My kids never knew her.”
It’s only now that I get it; why Juji walked away from her mom. It took me 39 years to do it.
“I didn’t forgive her until she was in the ground. I went to her grave and I cried and I screamed and I asked her why she didn’t want me.” Juji sniffled. She was still rubbing my arm. “She just couldn’t. I don’t know why but I know something happened to her that she just couldn’t.”
I remembered that day recently. I was twelve then. The following year, I’d leave for boarding school. I never moved back.
What made me finally able to walk away from my mom? I fell in love with myself. I saw my worth and my magic. I saw myself with all my vulnerable and all my relentless, and I loved her. I loved her fiercely. That opened me up to falling in love with someone. Her name is Katia and she is love supreme. Mom found out and flipped out. I’m used to my mom punishing me by denying me her love. She’s been doing it for as long as I can remember. She’d stopped talking to me over a year ago for reasons I still don’t know. I get it. It’s her shit. She’s a woman in pain who hasn’t come to terms with the terrible things that happened to her. My mother is devastated over what happened to my brother; his years-long drug addiction and eventual death. She is bitter and angry and in so much pain; she hasn’t healed and doesn’t know how. Still, none of that gives her a pass. None of this makes her treatment of me excusable. It was when she tried to deny me this love that I finally said that’s it. I blocked her. She can’t call me anymore or send me vile messages. I haven’t seen her since the spring when I ran into her at my aunt’s house. When she walked by me, she pulled her arm in so she wouldn’t touch me.
Recently a situation happened with my family where for the first time, she was taken to task for the way she treats me. I had imagined this scene differently. I imagined I’d feel relieved and supported. Yes, I felt validated, but I was also mortified at the idea of my mother being alone. I imagined her sitting alone in her apartment, crying endlessly, inconsolably. Yes, I know she brought this on herself, but still…
What do I know now? That I am unmothered. This is a primordial wound that I will always walk with. This doesn’t have to break me. I could be bitter about. I was bitter for a long time, actually. I’m not anymore. Just like I’m not bitter about my brother’s death, though it still stings. There are truths about our lives that will always hurt us. The little girl in me will always want her mother. The woman in me knows that this truth has shaped so much of who I am. As a former lover once told me so poignantly, “I know why you take care of me…because no one took care of you.” That in a nutshell is who I am. I take care. I take care of the people I love. I go all out for them. I will go to blows for them. I will cook for them and help them however I can. But I’m also learning that it’s okay to say no. It is okay to take care of myself. I don’t care to be the self-sacrificing woman who always does for others and never for herself.
Recently my beloved offered to give me money for groceries. “You’re always cooking for me. You make me dinner. You pack me lunch,” she said. “Let me help.” We were in a Spanish restaurant in my hood having dinner. My daughter was seated across from us. I buried my face in my hands, fighting the tears that insisted on coming. I was overwhelmed. I’m not used to such generosity. I’ve gotten so used to doing it alone. The bills. The rent. The groceries. Everything. My beloved put her arms around me, “What’s wrong?” she asked, worried. Baby girl spoke up. “My mom is used to being the one who helps everybody. She’s not used to getting help.” Baby girl sipped her water and looked at me over the rim. I dabbed my eyes.
I avoided the conversation with my beloved, until two days later she sent me money via QuickPay followed by a text message that went something like, “You can avoid the conversation. I’m still going to help you.” It’s another iteration of the conversation we had early on in our still young relationship, “You have to let me take care of you,” she said.
I had this in mind when I found out two days before my fortieth that I had been accepted to Tin House’s Winter Nonfiction Workshop with Tracy Johnson. I’d applied without thinking about how I was going to pay for it. It was five in the morning and my excitement quickly became anxiety. “How the fuck am I going to pay for this?” I asked my partner. She looked at me intently and said, “Now is when you really let yourself be vulnerable. GoFundMe.” A few hours later, I followed her advice and started the fundraiser. Not eight hours later, I was fully funded, including an incredibly generous donation from one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay.
What did I learn? It’s okay to ask for help. I thought about my bruja sister Lizz who told me about a trantric workshop she took a while ago where the facilitator said that people who can’t receive have issues with control, because receiving is a relinquishing of control. I relinquished my control and asked. My community answered the call.
I turned 40 on December 9th. I tried starting this essay weeks before. I was trying to make sense of all the emotions that were coming up and how I felt this birthday marked something big for me. It was the first birthday I’ve been able to celebrate since my brother died. I’m in love now and so very joy-filled, and I’m well on my way to finishing this memoir that chronicles my grief and everything I’ve learned about love and the world and my own raw heart in the journey. But it was after my birthday, as the Winter Solstice approached, while watching the movie Creed that I realized what I’ve been writing about.
It’s just before the last round of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed’s fight with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, and Rocky wants to end the fight. It’s been a blow for blow, intense match where Creed has more than shown himself a fighter in his own right. Donnie is a mess. He can’t open his right eye and his body is battered, but he pleads with Rocky to let him finish. Rocky asks what else Creed has left to prove. “That I’m not a mistake,” Creed says, and you get why he’s sacrificed so much & gone to such lengths to become a fighter. For the first 39 years of my life I functioned from a similar place—trying to prove that I am worthy; to shush the voice in my head that sounds so much like my mother. As I enter 40, I know now that the journey of these past two and a half years since my brother died has been to get to a place where I finally believe myself worthy, loved, lovable and whole. Relentless. That’s the space I will function from from now on. I’m ready to let the old story go.