The Other Side to Colombia

This week this essay yanked and pulled at me. A game of tug of war, my mind, and soul. Something has shifted since I began to write these essays. Already a highly sensitive person, a deeper sensitivity has developed. Perhaps, this deeper sensitivity was always there, behind all the layers of untold stories. A razor to the world. I want to cut along the edges. Where the start of a story begins to whisper. And I suspect it will be ongoing, as long as my fingers race across these keys. Words and sentences will  grab me by the hand and refuse to let go until they have been written. At the end when I’ve reached the center of the story, I get closer to the story I’ve always longed to tell. Me.

And week after week I’m compelled to write, though a list of worries plague me:

  1. Will this essay be well received as was my last?
  2. Does every essay take a piece of my soul or give me a piece back?
  3. Every essay feels like a marathon ran in mind. In my soul. Is this what writer’s endurance looks like?
  4. When I press the publish button and the essay is posted to my blog. A deep sigh rolls over me. And I feel closer to some finish line. Then I realize that another finish line exists. Do writers ever feel finished?

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On Friday one of the guidance counselors at my school walked into my classroom. She wanted to discuss a time period in the day to work on the mindfulness curriculum she offers to my students, once a week. But the first thing out of her mouth was: “I’m reading Papi…” She placed her glasses up on the bed of curls that crown her head. “I love what you are doing.” She paused and rested her eyes, the color of Pepsi, on me.”You are healing yourself through storytelling.” Her face flushed with excitement. She beamed at me.

I smiled. The kind that comes with no rehearsal. Broad and wide.

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And I think about my past few essays later that day, even now. A love letter to Colombia, the heart-break of Isabella’s death, Mami, and later Papi. Both their essays an acknowledgement that my love of story, and the power of writing came from both my parents. But it also acknowledged something greater that despite their flaws my parents did the best they could. One thing they both did, and did well, was showed their love for Colombia. In their bouquets to Colombia, air kisses, and passionate gazes, I grew to love Colombia. I fell in love fast. And hard.

This last Thursday, my in-laws made their way to my apartment early in the evening. My mother in law carried a small homemade flan. My father in law walked in with the sharp eye of futbol commentator, and an arsenal of FIFA facts. Colombia was to play a critical game. My sister, Joann and Tia Lola, not in Brooklyn both texted me that they would watch the game too. Colombian soccer games had long become a family tradition to watch together, even if apart. Mami would call me the next morning on my way to work so I could  go over the highlights.

Colombia vs. Bolivia in the elimination rounds for FIFA 2018. In order for a national team to qualify for FIFA they must earn a set number of points. The 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification process will decide 31 of 32 teams that will play next June. Russia the host country automatically granted the right to play. Colombia with only a few more games to play, started with 19 points on Thursday. In short, Colombia needed to add points to keep a safe ranking among the South American teams. https://FIFA_World_Cup_qualification_(CONMEBOL)

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My mother in law and daughter began to cook during the first half. We ate during the second. My son, in between his father and his grandfather, cheered and screamed throughout the game. I took my customary position on the edge of the sofa and proceeded to shake my fist at the television. During the second half when Colombia attacked with one goal attempt after another, I could no longer be confined to the couch. I began to pace the length of my living room floor.

The word hijueputa lashed across my tongue an easy dozen times. If you ever heard a Colombian strike out with an hijueputa; well you know, how we bunch up all the letters real close. We pull the hijue like a strand of gum in our mouth, as if those five letters bring no greater satisfaction than to be tugged across our tongue. Then spit out the puta with sheer disgust.  I stamped my feet and shouted at the referee. I joined my father in law as he called out shots and plays.

As the game neared to the end, a foul was called on the Bolivian team, and Colombia would have a clean shot at a goal. There would be a penalty kick at the 83rd minute, to be taken by the team’s captain and star, James Rodriguez. As James made his way to kick at the net. I buried my head in my hands. My husband stood up. I walked over to him. My mother in law and father in law began to pray. I let out a nervous giggle. Their fervor over soccer seemed almost comical.

But as I’ve learned and continue to learn. I’m reminded that underneath their prayers are layers of things unsaid. And like song ballad, sung in duet, their prayers were so much more. Plea. Love song. Call.

“Senor que meta el gol,” my father in law began his voice thick with reverence.

“Que el pueblo Colombiano se alegria cuando gana la seleccion.” My mother in law braided her words with that of her husband’s.

“Ayudanos Senor, nuestro pais es mucho mas que lo que la gente piensa,” My father in law added.

And Colombia is so much more than the list of stereotypes given.

James Rodriguez made the goal that night to win against Bolivia 1-0, and gain the needed three points. We screamed and hugged each other as we celebrated James’ goal. More points are need, but for now we were safe. https://www.youtube.com

And I was thrilled at their win. I even planned to wear my Colombian jersey to work the next day. But my in-laws words lingered in the air. And like the tide of El Rodadero en Santa Marta, I was swept up in memories.

*

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The first time I knew Colombians were treated differently at airports I was ten. Mami, Joann and I were on our way back home from a long summer trip to Colombia. On line to go through customs at JFK.

A Colombian woman with light hair, high heels, and a full face of makeup was the first to speak up. “Aqui traen los perros,” she turned towards the sound of custom agents and barking dogs.

I stared ahead. Her hatred, like fingers laced around my throat filled me with fear. The rage would come later.

“Don’t worry,” Mami glanced down at me. “Uds tienen el passporte azul.”

I looked at the two blue passports she held in one hand. Her mud brown passport with the words Republica de Colombia in the other. I wondered why she didn’t hold them together, and worried Mami needed to keep us separate. As if our places of birth created an invisible wall. Later in college, I would read Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, and know that this invisible wall had a name. Assimilation. https://Hunger_of_Memory The more I navigated the world as a Colombian-American the further I stood from my mother. Mami realized long before I did. A combination of her keen sense on how the world works and instinct.

But the world would soon indoctrinate me. This moment in the airport would be one of many.

“A todo los dejan pasar menos nostros. Los Colombianos siempre no hacen esto,” A Colombian man in line muttered aloud. In his hand was sombrero vueltiao. A traditional hat worn by men in La Costa de Colombia. I watched him hide it behind him.

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“Tenemos mala fama,” Mami offered.

Her words: Colombians have a bad reputation clung to the air. A few heads nodded in agreement. Other remained silent. Their faces pinched by the effort of their buried emotions.

And some spoke aloud:

“They think we are all narcotraficantes.”

“That we smuggling coke.”

The image of Pablo Escobar came to mind.

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“Don’t talk too loud. They hear that word. We will all get locked.”

I shivered.

“This is the part that I hate the most about coming back. They never lets us forget we are Colombian.”

And once again like angry parents, America and Colombia, pulled at my arms.

“Since when is being Colombian a bad thing?”

I looked down at the ground, felt myself grow hot with shame.

Customs never a quick step for Colombians in the 1980’s and the 1990’s too. Every suitcases and carry on were inspected, like parts of a crime scene. But unlike a true crime scene, no crime needed to be committed. But being Colombian during this time period was enough to deem you criminal. And even now the stain remains.

In Harvard Review of Latin America journal ReVista Colombia is discussed for its violence. From the 1970s to 1985, chronic violence, especially in the countryside, kept Colombia’s homicide rate in the range of 20-39 per 100,000 population, high by international standards, but not much above Brazil and Mexico. Then the leaders of the drug cartels began a campaign of terror and assassination, aimed at stopping the extradition of drug trafficking defendants from Colombia to the United States for trial. They also redoubled their efforts to undermine the police and courts through bribery and threats. Colombia’s homicide rate soared to 57 in 1985, 86 in 1990 and 95 in 1993. In the Department (province) of Antioquia, which includes the city of Medellín, the homicide rate oscillated between 245 and 400 per 100,000 in the early 1990s. The high murder rates coincided with rapidly increasing rates of all kinds of crimes against property and people as the criminal justice system nearly collapsed… http://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/roots-violence-colombia

It was a dark period for Colombia. Though the country not stranger to strife, past or present, would continue to stand. At times el pueblo Colombiano could barely get off their knees. Juanes lyrics come to mind. His song A Dios Le Pido …que mi pueblo no derame tanta sangre y que se llevante mi gentehttps://www.youtube.com

My mind wonders to those many summer trips to Colombia. And like those old movie reels I search for postcard images to share. I want to brag about the tall slender palmeras with its flowing green tresses. The beaches of La Costa, and their sparkling water and smooth carpet of sand. Also the balmy nights, the sky littered with stars. Salsa music del Grupo Niche or Joe Arroyo in the night air.

Saddened by the weight of the truth, I already know that in order to tell a story. A full story. Well, I must tell all the parts. Even the ones I’ve kept tucked away. Afraid my beautiful Colombia would lose its gleam. And only the ugly would be seen.

*

Unafraid and comforted by the fact that La Costa remained relatively safe during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but violence still unfolded. What is called el interior del pais, the center, of Colombia, were the battlefields of el narcotaffico. Pueblos, like Mami’s Chalan, were invaded by la guerilla. I thought La Costa was left alone because its beauty. Barranquilla often called la puerta de oro, was too beautiful of a city to be treated with anything but love. The last time I was in Colombia I took a charter bus with my cousin from Barranquilla to Cartagena. A two and a half to three-hour ride by road. A long weekend with my cousin and plenty of time to enjoy La Boquilla Beach.

We were halfway between Barranquilla and Cartagena when I was startled out of my book by an abrupt stop of the bus. It was my cousin sharp elbow to my ribs and narrowed eyes, which led me to look up.  A group of young men in uniforms climbed onto the bus. Their rifles rested across their chest. I scanned the rest of the bus and noted that everyone was sat straighter and taller.

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A baby wailed. I wondered if it was an ominous sign.

I looked over at my cousin. Her face composed, revealed nothing, but her eyes darted with fear.

I tried to think about the differences in uniforms worn by the La Policia de Colombia, Los Paramilitares, and Los guerilleros. They both had acronyms different from one another. FARC and ELN. They wore the same colored army fatigue as La Policia. It was hard in Colombia to know who was the good guy and the bad guy. Lines, long blurred and crossed. http://www.mtholyoke.edu

We were marched outside of the bus. The heat of the noon sun another oppressor. On the side of the road the face in front of me remained set with indifference. Some even dared to look bored. No one showed fear. At the time my heart filled with admiration and how brave Colombians were. And in turn, if they were brave, so was I by some ancestral DNA strand. Later I realized that behind those fearless faces was something  else. Colombians had succumbed to a world of constant fear. And I was filled with infinite sadness at the thought.

We were searched and sent back on the bus. The rest of the bus ride was quiet. It was as if everyone had held their breath. Now forgotten to exhale. I didn’t ask questions. Never bothered to ask why we were pulled off the bus, what they looked for, and even if it would happen again on the way back.

Colombia had already claimed mi primo hermano, Francisco a year before. Colombia had already claimed my Tio Julio years before that. Senseless. Violent. Names on the long list of those murdered by la violence that ransacked the country for decades.

So, yes Colombian soccer means so much more than a game between two teams. In many ways La Seleccion Colombia plays for their love of the country, as much as the love of futbol. They are Colombian first. Soccer players second. And with every goal and win, Colombia fights to change their image of what people believe to be Colombia.

It’s common during a big soccer match that the country of Colombia becomes paralyzed. Businesses close down, soccer games are shown during school hours, and police huddle to watch the game, oblivious to the fact they are in uniform. Crime ceases for the duration of the game. And for 90 minutes Colombia is what it was always meant to be. A beautiful country where its people rejoice with pride.

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Papi

After my last essay about Mami my sister called.

“Your last essay,” Joann started.

“Did you like it?” I hurried to ask. Up until this essay challenge I did not share my writing with my sister or any members of my family. I feared my loved ones would think my sentences silly, my metaphors dramatic, my similes forced. My writing was my mirror. I worried my family would turn their gaze at my reflection.

“I did,” she paused, “it helped… I feel like I get Mami now.”

“These essays help me understand myself… I need to tell these stories.”

My sister exhaled a deep sigh. The kind that comes from somewhere deep inside and stored for long.

“I have to tell these stories for us. All the women in our family.” I said. It’s been gradual, but I have begun to realize how much writing can heal and connect.

But in order to tell the full story. I must write about all the characters that shaped me. And this Papi essay began to bud soon after I hit the publish button on last week’s post. My sister’s call confirmed it. And several small incidents throughout the week served as gentle reminders to write this essay. I forced my fingers to hurry and type before I lost my nerve. But memory slowed me down. It does not work on demand like fingers across computer keys. Memory must be wheedled out.

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As I wait for the memories to come, I narrate the story that is Papi. But in order to tell the story of Papi I must start with Mami.

Mami, though complicated and with many faults was and is a steadfast in my life. She was the sun. I’d often have to look down or raise my arm to block the glare. At times her fierce boldness blinded me, and I was forced to hide in the dark. Mami raised my sister and I as if life was one perpetual battle. Life, gave Mami no other options, but to focus her gaze, and hunch her shoulders and swing. And in the shadow of her rage, I grew my own rage. Rage was the weight I would bench press to grow strong. But there wasn’t only Mami. There was Papi too. And in the shadow of his absence, part of me grew small and weak. The desire to be noticed was sparked and never rendered. Notice me, became the weight I let drop at my feet, as I glanced for men to take note, and come stand by my side.

Growing up I was surrounded by women. And longed for male presence.

It was during my  junior year of high school that I developed my first crush on a much older man. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, nothing striking about him. His eyes on me, well that was attractive enough. He was my humanities teacher, who arranged trips to the MET and to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. And always nodded his head with such serious regard when I answered in class. There was my poetry teacher at Hunter College. He wore corduroy blazers with elbow patches and carried a beat up briefcase. I took his Faulkner class the next semester. I was thrilled when he called me by my name the first day of class.

No consistent pattern to my crushes. Some teachers, but some not. The only requirement was older, and that they paid me attention. My first job ever was a receptionist at a Catholic Church, and I grew smitten with the Irish priest that spoke perfect Spanish, and loved baseball only second to God. He took an interest in my writing and encouraged me to journal in between answering the phone.  I was quick to develop another crush at my second job, as an administrative assistant in a technology company in lower Manhattan. An entire slew of technician paraded in and out of the office dressed in coveralls and utility belts. The oldest technician soon became my favorite. He was near retirement and was often kept in the office to perform light service calls. He treated me to lunch and would comment on the latest book on my desk. I kept all these crushes to myself aware that something deeper propelled them.

No surprise, my therapist was an older male with kind blue eyes that settled on my face with wide concern. And as he sat and listened to my streams of consciousness every Friday for four years I felt noticed. Once I began to teach fifth grade I was content to sit in between the two male teachers that made up the rest of the grade. During lunch we would take turns and listen to Cold Play, The Cure, Pearl Jam, there was Bob Dylan of course, and I’d insist on Biggie. I wondered if this was what the warmth of male family felt like.

My husband fell in love with my laugh first. Under the palmeras of Colombia late into the night I’d sit in a mesedor and throw my head back and laugh. He said he could hear my cackle pierce into his room, only a few houses down. “I just wanted to make you laugh even harder,” he told me after we began to date.

“And I just wanted someone to hear me laugh,” I responded.

Though the universe conspired to make up for Papi’s lack of presence with these men. It was not enough. They say a father teaches their daughters how to be treated when they are women. And this was no different for me. It’s simple. I’ve spent most of my existence in search to be seen. So many parts of me have acquiesced to this, despite that I know better. Yet I succumb to all the clichés that label me with daddy issues. There was the  row of A’s in college that I waved like a banner at a parade. I dote on and nurture the men in my life, aware that men like to be taken care of, but in turn unaware that I needed that reflected back by my own self.  There is my love for: eyeliner, tight pants in which I swish my hips side to side, and fitted tops that show off cleavage. There is my dance moves. I swear rival a fly girl. I close my eyes and channel Iris Chacon as I grind on the dance floor. She was seen by so many men in the 1980’s. I wanted to be wanted. And part of me still does…

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This is me. This is Connie. Connie who was unfathered. Those four words I have never written before. And most of my life I’ve ignored it, denied it, excused it, resented it, and become enraged by it. And for the first time this past week I wanted to explore it. I think the need to knead out my emotions into words evolved from that push to get past the layers and go deeper despite the fear in my heart.

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While Mami is my muse, Papi is often segregated to a minor character. And sometimes I delete him from my writing altogether, in an attempt to exact my revenge. Erase him from the pages in an attempt to make him unnoticeable. But in my erasure of Papi, I’ve erased my truth. My father did not notice me growing up. I’ve spent most of my life living in the overcast, which that shadow created it. And they are so many reasons why Papi never grew into being a father or husband or a man of the house. But I think at the root for all those reasons is one: el machismo.

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines machismo as:  a strong sense of masculine pride. It’s further defined as an exaggerated or exhilarating sense of power or strength. The sentences they provide to help support meaning are about athletic ability and a confidence that exudes take charge attitude in terms of business dealing. The origin of the word machismo comes from macho, Spanish. They also provide a list of synonyms: virility, macho, manhood, manliness, and masculinity. I find the definitions as well as the sentences given insufficient, and lacking. One thing that I know for certain is that everything is layered. And when you think that you have peeled back the final layer you are wrong. There is always something new to uncover.

So, I  have new definition for machismo one I created based on what I’ve unearthed. Machismo: do not show any sign of weakness no matter the cost. Note: not just exclusive to Latin men, but males of different race included.

I wish I arrived at this definition long ago. But I was so attached to the heartache Papi created, unable to let go of the narrative, I didn’t consider anything else. That perhaps Papi had a story himself.

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If Mami gave me the love of storytelling, then Papi was the inspiration to write it down. Papi was a sportswriter for El Diaro de La Prensa for over twenty years. And before that he wrote for Noticas Del Mundo for a short time. He was a freelance writer before and after his work on both newspapers.  Papi spoke community sports on WADO. He’d often record from the home landline. He punched his fist in the air if Joann and I giggled or raised the volume on the television. There would be feedback on his recording, and only his voice was to be heard. The sound of two girls in the background would interfere with the segment. But would also serve as a reminder that he was a father. A fact he dismissed over and over.

Papi by nature was not a nurturer, and when he was home he sat at the kitchen table. His typewriter in front of him, as stacks of newspapers created a fence around him. He kept us apart.

The differences between my parents would make people gawk. It made for a lot of confusion in my mind. I often felt tangled by their contrast. Papi was and is the opposite of Mami. If she smothered, well then he detached. And while she was from a rural part of Colombia, Papi was from the city of Barranquilla. Mami had two left feet when she danced and hid in the kitchen during parties. Papi danced with his soul worn on the outside, and people always crowded to see his moves. And what Mami lacked in education, well he made up with an extensive vocabulary, a great recall of facts, and natural conversational skills.

And they are other great details about Papi. Papi studied in a seminarian in his twenties and hoped to be a priest one day. However, he dropped out after a year. He soon discovered socialism and idolized El Che. I’m not sure when exactly, and even if he himself could pinpoint it, but somewhere along Papi began to drink. His drinking defined him early, that much I know. But it took a grip on him from the start, and never managed to let go.

But the part I want to highlight is my father was and is highly sensitive. Sensitive and male, in a time and a culture, which did not celebrate poetry in your soul. Papi did not shy from weeping in front of Mami, Joann, and I. He cried as he watched telenovelas like Carrusel. https://www.youtube.com His face wet as he watched the young children from the soap opera navigate through the dramas of their lives. My childhood is peppered with incidents of Papi soaked in tears. There was the time Michael Landon died. A beautiful tribute was given to him on television. Papi sat in the kitchen and watched, while Joann and I watched in the living room. As I walked into the kitchen I stared at him stunned, pain fixed on his face for a man he did not know. I wondered why my father a man who refused to soldier on the weight of fatherhood wept for an actor best known for his role as a father. Only now as I write this, do I contemplate that my father was not unaware of the fact that he couldn’t and wouldn’t be the father, I needed him to be.

Music moved Papi even more so. He’d tap his foot to the beat of the song as his eyes filled with tears, and he mouthed the words of vallenatos, boleros, cumbias, and salsa lyrics. The first time he saw Carlos Vives perform Alicia Dorada his tears slipped down his face. He said it was a great remake. It was second only to the original by Alejo Duran. https://www.youtube.com

As I listen to the song and type tears slip down my own face. And I don’t excuse my father for his absence, and I do not absolve him. He chose Budweiser, Johnny Black Label and Aguaradiente Cristal over us. That was wrong, and I bare the scars from it. But the truth remains that my father was born too sensitive. Mami’s sensitivity matched his. And maybe that’s why they fell in love so long ago. But while Mami balled her fists and squared her jaw against the world, Papi did not. He hid behind his fanatic obsession over futbol, his constant entourage of friends, his writing, and el ron. In his constant hide and seek game the real definition of machismo bore down on him. In my writing I refer to him as Papi. I have always called my father by his name. He hid so well, my Papi often felt like a stranger. And still does.

But this essay is my attempt to know him better. And with every essay I come out of my own game of hide and seek.

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Mami…

Since I began these essays ten weeks ago I have taken note of how they have shifted me:

  1. My already low tolerance for small talk has become even lower.
  2. The nagging feeling to tell those around me what I think and feel or withhold it from them as some form of punishment has lessened.
  3. I’m writing more; therefore, less television.
  4. So, I’m haunted by how much time I have wasted. My novel calls out to be finished. And short stories have begun to call too.
  5. Details of my life now come with a thought or the spoken words of, “I think this is an essay” or “This should be an essay…”
  6. And story now finds me, as if the world, conspired to see me as one giant memo-pad.

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The last few weeks I’ve been busy with close reading of different short texts with my students in an effort to prepare for the upcoming standardized tests.  This past Friday I read an excerpt from a book called The Most Beautiful Place in the World by Ann Cameron. It was a scene about the main character, Juan who was rejected by his own mother and made to live with his grandmother. Soon after he starts school Juan’s love of words is noticed and he’s given the opportunity to skip a grade because he’s that smart. His grandmother is overcome with emotion because as a child herself she was never given the opportunity to go to school. She never learned to read and write.  https://Most-Beautiful-Place-World/

I read with my students and underlined and annotated the text under the document camera. Necessary, in order to support their short responses based off of their interpratation of the text. And as I did this I become overwhelmed with memories and thoughts of Mami.

“You know guys,” I turned to look at my students in front of me. Clipboards with a copy of the text on their laps and pencils in their hands. “I know we are supposed to be preparing for the test at the end of the month, but do you want to hear a story?” I asked.

Sixteen years of teaching and I never had a class that didn’t enjoy a good story. It was a mid day snack for their minds. This class was no different. I smiled at their eager nods. “My mother is like Juan’s grandmother.” I let the words sink in and waited for a reaction. “My mother never went to school a day in her life,” I rested my elbow on the lectern that held the document camera. Already pinned down by the weight of the story.

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“Why?” One of my student called out. She’s part of that new and gentrified Brooklyn. Dressed in tight jeans with holes, Doc Martens, and a Bob Dylan T-shirt.

I looked at my brown students some of them very well aware of why. But they remained silent. “My mother was born in 1936 in a rural part of Colombia.” My eyes fixed on my student that had asked why. And I thought of the idea windows and doors behind diverse books. This was my story, and this was not the door that she would walk through with me, but it could be a window for her to see something else. “It’s so remote it can’t be found on the map.” I said.

And this was true even people from Colombia. They refer to it as that small town near Sincelejo. What’s it called, Chalan? Is always the unsure questioned asked. The biggest claim to fame for Chalan was it being the birth place of el burro bomba. In short, members of LA FARC got someone to hide a homemade bomb inside a donkey in front of the local police station. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FARC Ten officers died because of that unsuspecting donkey, but people now had a reference for Chalan.

I tell none of this to my students.

“So your mother doesn’t know how to read?” Another student asked, his face twisted in shock.

“She never stepped foot in school.” I said with my neck jutted out and my eyebrow cocked. Heat rose off my chest. I took a long breath before I spoke again. “But she taught herself how to read using the Bible.” I doled out pieces of my mother to my students as I looked at the class library. Bright colored plastic bins held dozens of books. My eyes lingered over the labels of each basket: names of authors, titles of series, names of genres, catchy titles for fun topics. I thought of what Mami’s book basket would hold: La Santa Biblia, Los Nueve Domingos del Divino Nino, and Las Oraciones Ayudame Senor. But it would also hold Mami’s shame. The shame of not being able to do what a five-year old learns to do—read.

“Wow,” I listened to the murmurs from my students as the idea that their teacher’s mother never went to school sunk in.

I stood up straight my hands on my hips like a super hero ready to defend Mami. “My mother’s father didn’t think it was acceptable for girls to go to school. My mother was one of eight, and they were three girls. And not one of them went to school. They were meant to stay home and help with cooking and cleaning.” I rattled off the details of the explanation Mami gave about why she never went to school. “My grandmother was illiterate.” I stated. She never learned to read a word.” My neck tense.  I placed my hand on my shoulder and rubbed. I knew that I picked up Mami’s shame and carried it as well, a  result of four years on a therapist’s twill sofa. But I now realized I carried my  Abuela’s shame as well, alongside Mami’s.

Mami was always proud of the fact that she could sign her name. Her mother, my grandmother didn’t even know her letters. She signed with a crooked X. It looked like two sticks across each other. Abuela’s name was Reparada, but was just called Repa. And for the longest time I believed that her name meant repair, but I was wrong. Reparada after a quick google search I learned meant renewed. Repa lived in Chalan  most of her life, except the last twenty years of it. She was forced to leave her house after the guerilla occupied most of Chalan. And afraid that they would recruit my cousin who she helped raise, then fifteen, she moved to the city of Barranquilla with him.

Mami left Repa’s side and Chalan at twelve. Promised by an Aunt who lived in the Barranquilla, schooling in return for help with chores around the house. Mami was thrilled by the idea that she would finally get to go to school, and was blind to her Tia’s ulterior motives. Once in Barranquilla Mami was made to be nanny and a servant with no pay. School was never mentioned again. Mami drifted from nanny and servant jobs for most of her adolescence. School eluded her and she gave up on the dream to read.

“Ms. Meza,” a student called out to me. I was pulled out of my thoughts and looked around the classroom as my students raised their hands to ask questions about Mami.

“Yes,” I looked at my student. He was an avid reader, and when he wasn’t calling out in class or acting the role of self-proclaimed jock, he could be found lost in the world of the book in his hands.

“I think it’s so ironic” He studied my face before he spoke. “You know your mom and your grandma,” he stood up from his chair as he went on to explain. He used his hands as he spoke, like punctuation they helped the fluency of his words. “They never went to school and didn’t learn to read. And then their granddaughter and daughter, you… you are a teacher. You love to read. You are a writer. Isn’t that ironic?” His eyebrows high on his forehead in awe of this connection he made.

I stared at him.

His eyes were fixed on me. I could see that he saw me as more than just his teacher. Because here I was a  woman, who was once a little girl raised by a mother who was uneducated, a heavy burden to carry. And instead of pity on his face, there was another look he wore. It was appreciation. He saw three stories intertwined. And though they were part of me I could not read them as such.  A lifetime unable to untangle myself from the shame that held me tight, I was left loose by a ten-year old with a keen sense of how story works.

I turned away for a second. I blinked away a tear. And steadied my heart. “I never thought of it like that,” I said.

It wasn’t long before we returned to the reading work we started off doing.  Juan and his story built a bridge for me to walk on and think of Mami. The rest of the day and days after I have walked back and forth on that bridge.  And a list of tiny epiphanies have popped up.

  1. All this time I thought that teaching was part of a plan to help students like me caved in by dysfunction at home seek solace in books and writer’s notebooks. But that was only piece of the plan. It pulled me closer to the story of mi abuela y mi madre.
  2. And not only can telling your story set you free, but it can help you revise your thinking. I refused to share the story of Mami not going to school with many because I thought they wouldn’t understand. That hipsters and blanquitos would wrinkle their nose at me and avert their eyes like a world vision commercial.
  3. In writing about Mami I gained understanding about all the different pieces that make her up. And in turn I was given access into myself.
  4. Then there is the idea of why I read and write.

Mami is as complex a character as you can get. She’s always been a hit by my writing teachers, writing group members, writers at retreats and workshops. My friends love her and call me to have her pray for them. They love her gems of wisdom that she strikes out with. And while I love to write about her refranes, wild and spicy sayings, and even her violent outbursts. I have always shied away from writing the root of Mami. The stories about her growing up in rural Chalan and living on her own in Barranquilla during her teen years. Details she would hurl at my sister and I, meant to sting. I would often wonder if Mami hated pieces of me and my sister because we had her. We had a mother that was present. In her efforts to break the pattern held by her and Repa, she smothered us. Most of my life I wanted my mother who wasn’t mothered to not be such a mother.

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I don’t think I realized that my mother was unmothered until just now as I typed that sentence. She never called it that. I didn’t even know there was a name for it until I read the words in Vanessa Martir’s writing about her own mother. https://vanessamartir.wordpress.com/

Mami would say Repa was brutal with her beatings. That she pushed and shoved her away from birth. Never really wanted. Mami grew up absent of hugs and kisses and tender names whispered in her ear. In an effort to comfort herself she listed off the reasons why Repa behaved they way she did. “Mi mama was married so young and straddled with a litter of kids. She went hungry for us and worked herself to the bone for poquito pesos. She was left a widow young.” The excuses endless.   f6d737e0c8f7c23362d4e19cd30b7891

During the ages of 11 through 17 I read a book a day. It was my oxygen. And from ages 18 through 22 I read two or three books a week. I was an English major at Hunter College, and would read books on other English professors’ syllabus along with what was required of me by my own professors. Shame propeled my obessive reading as much as the need for escape. I wanted to make up for two generations of illerate women in my lifetime. A futile attempt to correct a wrong rooted in history, culture, and circumstance. But one thing I gained from my all those books I have read. Well,  I understand how story works, that behind the symbols hides a story. That characters are portals to other characters. Storylines not meant to merge, collide, and something beautiful is always born of that. That much I know to be true, and I know that Repa, Mami, and I, our stories are woven together. That without one the other can’t exist. So, in order to tell my story I must tell Mami’s, and in order to tell her story I must tell Repa’s. And only then will my story be complete.quote-Neil-Gaiman-write-your-story-as-it-needs-to-184641

 

 

 

February 6th… How could I Forget…

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My friend Sandra, a  self-proclaimed hermit and whose text messages always read like poetry, sent me this quote last year in the Spring. I was deep in emotions that threatened to leave me faced down. A difficult situation coupled with two other stressful events at the time placed me in the storm. Only now in the aftermath can I see that the situation was part of my own doing. A lesson in the curriculum of lessons, titled: life’s a teacher. And once all that heavy rain relented and the gray skies gave way to a glimmer of sun. I was left changed, and one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to tell all my stories.  Yes, even the ones that hide and still break my heart.

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Late last week mid spin class,  I remembered I didn’t reach out to my God-sister earlier in the month. February 6th came and went and I failed to remember, the anniversary of her daughter’s death. My legs frozen by this realization, I watched the RPM’s of my monitor slow down till a O blinked back at me. I wondered if that was what my face looked like. An open O of shock. Almost a decade later and the date never went unnoticed. The beat of the music pounded throughout the room and I fixed my eyes straight and began to spin. But my mind was far away, from the spin studio of the gym. I was lost in the memories of February 6th, 2008.

It was Ash Wednesday. Lent was early that week.  Mami left early in the evening with Gloria, her neighbor to misa. Papi was holed up in the kitchen lost to a world of Univision and Radio WADO, which Papi played simultaneously. We were in between apartments and living with Mami and Papi in their two bedroom in Sunset Park. My husband, four-year old daughter, my five month old son, and myself squeezed at Mami’s since late August. A week since we secured the new apartment, my husband was painting it after work the past few nights. On a whim I picked mango colored paint for the living room in foolish hope that the bright color would shield our family of four. And I soon learned that there was no shield. I knew better. My whole life Mami trained Joann and I, to hold hands with disappointment and wrap our arms around with worst case scenario.  And even so, this I did not expect.

I walked over to the phone at the first shrill. My daughter was asleep in Mami’s room. She shared the room with my parents during our stay there. Her toddler bed shoved in a corner closest to Mami’s side. I looked over in the direction of the room and raced to the phone from one end of the living room to the other.   “Hello,” I whispered.

“Connie,” my sister’s voice on the other end.

I looked at the cable box that blinked in green letters 7:28 and frowned. The television show I looked forward to on Wednesday nights would start at eight. My eyes skipped over to the sofa where a pile of laundry waited to be folded and put away. I’d have to rush my sister off the phone after a few minutes. “Listen,” Joann I started.

“No, don’t rush me off the phone this is serious,” her voice like a horse off track trampled across my chest.

“What?” I pressed the phone close to my ear. I walked over to the couch. My son on his musical swing, slid back and forth. His head to the side and his eyes closed, soft and peaceful. I rubbed the back of my hand against his cheek.

“It’s Bella,” she took a long breath. The kind that you take before you dive into water.

I stopped. And braced myself.

“Maricela’s daughter died.” My sister said. And in the silence that followed her voice, I wondered how my sister could ever form her mouth around the words let alone speak them a loud.

“What?” I raised my hand to my temple on instinct, as if her words were fists.

“Maricela’s prima Patricia called me. She’s at the hospital with Maricela. She wanted us to know.”

“What?” I choked into the phone. I pulled at the neck of my T-shirt and twisted it in my hand. The burn of the fabric in my hand was a scrap of distraction. I twisted harder. “How?” My mind accelerated  to a list of possibilities. Isabella was a year and a half and born a healthy baby something heinous must’ve happened. “La mataron?” I asked in disbelief.

“No,” Joann’s voice came through the phone.

I looked around the apartment disoriented. My eyes unable to settle on anything like the twisty spinning rides at Coney Island I saw a swirl of color. I held my breath desperate to feel the ground again under my feet. “Did she… the window?” I grasped to complete a sentence. And I thought of the school psychologist at my school from when I first started teaching. My first year was his last year, retirement in his future. I learned his son had fallen out a window as a toddler many years ago before I met him. And what struck me  when I did meet him was that his body told the details of this horror story he lived. He walked with his head hung low, his hair disheveled, and his ties were always stained. My eyes traced the frame of the window in the sala my throat felt tiny and dry.

“No. No it wasn’t like that. It was in her sleep,” my sister’s voice choked. The emotion in her voice was permission enough to fill tears in my eyes.

Free of my T-shirt, I raked my hands through my hair and my eyes bounced back from the swing to Mami’s room. Sleep was now a sadist and a burglar, it threatened to punish and steal. “Maricela, ” I called out my God-sister’s name through the apartment. “Dios Mio Maricela,” I willed my words to reach her like some super hero’s spotlight.

“I’m on my way to her now,” Joann said, her emotions harnessed.

“Mami’s not home. La nina esta dormiendo y el nino. I need to go.” I listed off, my sentences broken.

“I have to go. She’s my best friend,” my sister trailed off.

“Our God-sister,” I completed.

Mami was her only family member when she came to America. So, she formed strong friendships. She filled the empty slots with comadres y  compadres. And titles of God-mother and God-sister made it official, and a piecemeal family was created. Maricela and her mother, Belen were more than just friends and neighbor. No, they were family.  Joann and Maricela while six months apart were only separated by a grade. And I trailed a few grades behind. It was clear that Joann and Maricela closer in age were friendlier. There was no malice in this dynamic, just very matter of fact.

“You have the baby,” Joann said, “and your breast feeding,” she pointed out.

My mind scanned the last time I’d seen Maricela. It was in early October on a weekend she had come over with Isabella. She was armed with hand-me-down fancy breast pump, a boppy, and sitting chair for babies. It was an ordinary visit. We sat on Mami’s bed and took turns holding my son as we watched our daughters play on the floor by the side of the bed. And for weeks after Isabella died I analyzed every moment of that visit. I searched for clues certain they were to be found if I looked close. Only now, I know that people often do that after a loss or a trauma. Brene Brown says:  Our brain is neurologically wired to make up a story about what’s happening. We recognize the narrative pattern of story. If we give ourselves a story in the moment, it rewards us chemically, but it rewards us whether it’s accurate or not.

I don’t remember how my sister and I ended that conversation. It wasn’t long after that Mami came home from misa. Like a kid left late at dismissal it felt long, and my head would snap up with every footfall that came outside of the apartment door. If Papi noticed me pace back and forth from the living room to the door, and pass the kitchen through the hallway. Well, he didn’t say anything. Papi was never home much when growing up, so it never occurred to me to tell him anything. And this was no different. As soon as I heard Mami voice call goodnight to her neighbor I rushed to the door. I looked through the peephole and saw her wool jacket and bright pink scarf. And like a weight that you must unload as your knees buckle I pulled the door open before her hand could touch the outside knob.

I heaved the words: “La hija de Maricela murio.” My words hung between us. Mami walked around me like a skilled officer. She didn’t take her eyes out off of me, even as she pulled off her coat and hung it up in the closet and placed her shoes inside too.

“Como fue? Que fue? Que dices?”Mami fired a series of questions at me. Mami’s face began to twist to one of those distorted Dali paintings as my words began to sink in.

Somehow we spoke to Maricela’s mom on the phone that night. She was in the hospital. My sister called too. Mami took over, and for once I did not mind. She spoke on the phone and listened. Her rosary beads clutched in her hands the whole time. Papi sat in the kitchen and looked up at Mami and I, as we retold the story to each other, as if somehow we would get a different ending. The doctor ruled out any foul play early on and suspected Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood. Wikipedia explains SUDC:

Sudden unexplained death in childhood (SUDC) is the death of a child over the age of 12 months which remains unexplained after a thorough investigation and autopsy. There has not been enough research to identify risk factors, common characteristics, or prevention strategies for SUDC.

There would be an autopsy to confirm, but the doctors were sure. It was not uncommon, it did happen. They were kind and compassionate. Death of children was tragic and always sent shock waves to the family and those around. This was no different. We were shaken. The television and radio turned off, Papi wept. Mami and I cried silently, our cheeks slick with tears.

My hands cold and wrapped in a sweater, unable to find warmth my body shivered.  “Tengo tanto frio,” I pulled the sweater tight around me. I didn’t remember picking it up, but my mind was shut off to anything but this: Isabella was no longer with us. Maricela would have to deal with this for the rest of her life. And my mind wandered to our childhood memories, Maricela, Joann and I. When a lifetime bond was formed over endless games of Clue, day trips to Action Park, and Christmas shows we wrote, directed, and acted in for our parents on our living room floor. And like when we were children that shared snacks and germs I decided this too I would share. Her pain was my pain. And I carried it. It was not asked on her part, nor did I ask for her consent to hold her pain. But this is what you do for your God-sister.

“Hoy yo no duermo,” Mami said.

“Yo tampoco,” I followed Mami into her bedroom and climbed into the bed. The thought of sleep petrified me, but scarier was the thought to be alone.

Mami and I shivered under layers of blankets that night. The wind howled outside and the windows  buckled under the force. Rubencito slept in the bouncer between us. We spoke over his sleeping body. And every few minutes one of us stood up to stand over Holden in her toddler bed. We didn’t have to say aloud what our new fear was. It was said in those silent gaps when our minds turned over every detail of the night. Desperate to offer Maricela and Belen something, anything to ease their grief, but aware that we were empty handed. We walked in their shoes, Mami and I. “They must be leaving the hospital now. On their way to the parking lot. In the car they must be silent. The highways are empty. Maricela’s is probably watching everything from the car window in a daze.” We feed each other bits of this story until late into the night. This was how we broke night. Sleep evaded us both.

And I thought about how a few hours could change a person, because I was different. A new Connie emerged between those second when I answered the phone and I looked up at the clock on the cable box. And as the days passed I would get to know this new version of myself. I now saw danger in the benign and I needed to safeguard myself against the scary world. Sadness reached me down to my very toes, and the sharp edges of grief scraped against my soul. Guilt ransacked me too. My children were alive. Maricela’s daughter was not.

quotes-from-brene-brown

This story does not end here. I could write about how I went to school the next day to teach with swollen eyes and hung over from lack of sleep and the bender that grief can send you on. When I called Sandra to tell her that afternoon she screamed into the phone and I screamed once off the phone with her. How at the wake my brother-in-law cried so loud Maricela was the one to comfort him. It would be over a week before I dared turn on the television or a radio. The only sound I could bare to hear were my own thoughts. And there is more. But I will end it here.

Before I even began to write this I reached out to my God-sister. I told her this essay was brewing and that I wanted to write it, but only with her blessing. She was honored and trusted that I would do right by her and her daughter. We caught up quick over text and shared busy working mom stories. Now a mother of two boys she’s often swamped with their social lives and schoolwork, along with her own work. And we ended our conversation with tentative plans to see each other soon. I called my sister to share this all with her as well.

When we spoke I didn’t apologize for not remembering February 6th like I always have. I forgave myself instead. And in forgiving myself I realized a new version of Connie emerged. One that was less afraid. Less afraid of the world and less afraid to tell all the stories that have shaped me. Good, bad, and yes the sad tragic ones too. The one you told no one for a long time because you thought them incapable to feel what you felt. Tears, pain, and heartache were the only responses I would accept when I told the story of Isabella. But I’m different now I trust myself to feel now. I still don’t like too much feeling, but I’m learning to lean in to that pain. That it will cause discomfort, but it will not leave me dead like I so believed for a long time. And with this new trust in my self I trust others with Isabella’s story, jut like Maricela trusted me.

February 6th… How could I Forget…

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My friend Sandra, a  self-proclaimed hermit and whose text messages always read like poetry, sent me this quote last year in the Spring. I was deep in emotions that threatened to leave me faced down. A difficult situation coupled with two other stressful events at the time placed me in the storm. Only now in the aftermath can I see that the situation was part of my own doing. A lesson in the curriculum of lessons, titled: life’s a teacher. And once all that heavy rain relented and the gray skies gave way to a glimmer of sun. I was left changed, and one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to tell all my stories.  Yes, even the ones that hide and still break my heart.

72f4c3fabff26d49e303b03ec0b17cea

Late last week mid spin class,  I remembered I didn’t reach out to my God-sister earlier in the month. February 6th came and went and I failed to remember, the anniversary of her daughter’s death. My legs frozen by this realization, I watched the RPM’s of my monitor slow down till a O blinked back at me. I wondered if that was what my face looked like. An open O of shock. Almost a decade later and the date never went unnoticed. The beat of the music pounded throughout the room and I fixed my eyes straight and began to spin. But my mind was far away, from the spin studio of the gym. I was lost in the memories of February 6th, 2008.

It was Ash Wednesday. Lent was early that week.  Mami left early in the evening with Gloria, her neighbor to misa. Papi was holed up in the kitchen lost to a world of Univision and Radio WADO, which Papi played simultaneously. We were in between apartments and living with Mami and Papi in their two bedroom in Sunset Park. My husband, four-year old daughter, my five month old son, and myself squeezed at Mami’s since late August. A week since we secured the new apartment, my husband was painting it after work the past few nights. On a whim I picked mango colored paint for the living room in foolish hope that the bright color would shield our family of four. And I soon learned that there was no shield. I knew better. My whole life Mami trained Joann and I, to hold hands with disappointment and wrap our arms around with worst case scenario.  And even so, this I did not expect.

I walked over to the phone at the first shrill. My daughter was asleep in Mami’s room. She shared the room with my parents during our stay there. Her toddler bed shoved in a corner closest to Mami’s side. I looked over in the direction of the room and raced to the phone from one end of the living room to the other.   “Hello,” I whispered.

“Connie,” my sister’s voice on the other end.

I looked at the cable box that blinked in green letters 7:28 and frowned. The television show I looked forward to on Wednesday nights would start at eight. My eyes skipped over to the sofa where a pile of laundry waited to be folded and put away. I’d have to rush my sister off the phone after a few minutes. “Listen,” Joann I started.

“No, don’t rush me off the phone this is serious,” her voice like a horse off track trampled across my chest.

“What?” I pressed the phone close to my ear. I walked over to the couch. My son on his musical swing, slid back and forth. His head to the side and his eyes closed, soft and peaceful. I rubbed the back of my hand against his cheek.

“It’s Bella,” she took a long breath. The kind that you take before you dive into water.

I stopped. And braced myself.

“Maricela’s daughter died.” My sister said. And in the silence that followed her voice, I wondered how my sister could ever form her mouth around the words let alone speak them a loud.

“What?” I raised my hand to my temple on instinct, as if her words were fists.

“Maricela’s prima Patricia called me. She’s at the hospital with Maricela. She wanted us to know.”

“What?” I choked into the phone. I pulled at the neck of my T-shirt and twisted it in my hand. The burn of the fabric in my hand was a scrap of distraction. I twisted harder. “How?” My mind accelerated  to a list of possibilities. Isabella was a year and a half and born a healthy baby something heinous must’ve happened. “La mataron?” I asked in disbelief.

“No,” Joann’s voice came through the phone.

I looked around the apartment disoriented. My eyes unable to settle on anything like the twisty spinning rides at Coney Island I saw a swirl of color. I held my breath desperate to feel the ground again under my feet. “Did she… the window?” I grasped to complete a sentence. And I thought of the school psychologist at my school from when I first started teaching. My first year was his last year, retirement in his future. I learned his son had fallen out a window as a toddler many years ago before I met him. And what struck me  when I did meet him was that his body told the details of this horror story he lived. He walked with his head hung low, his hair disheveled, and his ties were always stained. My eyes traced the frame of the window in the sala my throat felt tiny and dry.

“No. No it wasn’t like that. It was in her sleep,” my sister’s voice choked. The emotion in her voice was permission enough to fill tears in my eyes.

Free of my T-shirt, I raked my hands through my hair and my eyes bounced back from the swing to Mami’s room. Sleep was now a sadist and a burglar, it threatened to punish and steal. “Maricela, ” I called out my God-sister’s name through the apartment. “Dios Mio Maricela,” I willed my words to reach her like some super hero’s spotlight.

“I’m on my way to her now,” Joann said, her emotions harnessed.

“Mami’s not home. La nina esta dormiendo y el nino. I need to go.” I listed off, my sentences broken.

“I have to go. She’s my best friend,” my sister trailed off.

“Our God-sister,” I completed.

Mami was her only family member when she came to America. So, she formed strong friendships. She filled the empty slots with comadres y  compadres. And titles of God-mother and God-sister made it official, and a piecemeal family was created. Maricela and her mother, Belen were more than just friends and neighbor. No, they were family.  Joann and Maricela while six months apart were only separated by a grade. And I trailed a few grades behind. It was clear that Joann and Maricela closer in age were friendlier. There was no malice in this dynamic, just very matter of fact.

“You have the baby,” Joann said, “and your breast feeding,” she pointed out.

My mind scanned the last time I’d seen Maricela. It was in early October on a weekend she had come over with Isabella. She was armed with hand-me-down fancy breast pump, a boppy, and sitting chair for babies. It was an ordinary visit. We sat on Mami’s bed and took turns holding my son as we watched our daughters play on the floor by the side of the bed. And for weeks after Isabella died I analyzed every moment of that visit. I searched for clues certain they were to be found if I looked close. Only now, I know that people often do that after a loss or a trauma. Brene Brown says:  Our brain is neurologically wired to make up a story about what’s happening. We recognize the narrative pattern of story. If we give ourselves a story in the moment, it rewards us chemically, but it rewards us whether it’s accurate or not.

I don’t remember how my sister and I ended that conversation. It wasn’t long after that Mami came home from misa. Like a kid left late at dismissal it felt long, and my head would snap up with every footfall that came outside of the apartment door. If Papi noticed me pace back and forth from the living room to the door, and pass the kitchen through the hallway. Well, he didn’t say anything. Papi was never home much when growing up, so it never occurred to me to tell him anything. And this was no different. As soon as I heard Mami voice call goodnight to her neighbor I rushed to the door. I looked through the peephole and saw her wool jacket and bright pink scarf. And like a weight that you must unload as your knees buckle I pulled the door open before her hand could touch the outside knob.

I heaved the words: “La hija de Maricela murio.” My words hung between us. Mami walked around me like a skilled officer. She didn’t take her eyes out off of me, even as she pulled off her coat and hung it up in the closet and placed her shoes inside too.

“Como fue? Que fue? Que dices?”Mami fired a series of questions at me. Mami’s face began to twist to one of those distorted Dali paintings as my words began to sink in.

Somehow we spoke to Maricela’s mom on the phone that night. She was in the hospital. My sister called too. Mami took over, and for once I did not mind. She spoke on the phone and listened. Her rosary beads clutched in her hands the whole time. Papi sat in the kitchen and looked up at Mami and I, as we retold the story to each other, as if somehow we would get a different ending. The doctor ruled out any foul play early on and suspected Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood. Wikipedia explains SUDC:

Sudden unexplained death in childhood (SUDC) is the death of a child over the age of 12 months which remains unexplained after a thorough investigation and autopsy. There has not been enough research to identify risk factors, common characteristics, or prevention strategies for SUDC.

There would be an autopsy to confirm, but the doctors were sure. It was not uncommon, it did happen. They were kind and compassionate. Death of children was tragic and always sent shock waves to the family and those around. This was no different. We were shaken. The television and radio turned off, Papi wept. Mami and I cried silently, our cheeks slick with tears.

My hands cold and wrapped in a sweater, unable to find warmth my body shivered.  “Tengo tanto frio,” I pulled the sweater tight around me. I didn’t remember picking it up, but my mind was shut off to anything but this: Isabella was no longer with us. Maricela would have to deal with this for the rest of her life. And my mind wandered to our childhood memories, Maricela, Joann and I. When a lifetime bond was formed over endless games of Clue, day trips to Action Park, and Christmas shows we wrote, directed, and acted in for our parents on our living room floor. And like when we were children that shared snacks and germs I decided this too I would share. Her pain was my pain. And I carried it. It was not asked on her part, nor did I ask for her consent to hold her pain. But this is what you do for your God-sister.

“Hoy yo no duermo,” Mami said.

“Yo tampoco,” I followed Mami into her bedroom and climbed into the bed. The thought of sleep petrified me, but scarier was the thought to be alone.

Mami and I shivered under layers of blankets that night. The wind howled outside and the windows  buckled under the force. Rubencito slept in the bouncer between us. We spoke over his sleeping body. And every few minutes one of us stood up to stand over Holden in her toddler bed. We didn’t have to say aloud what our new fear was. It was said in those silent gaps when our minds turned over every detail of the night. Desperate to offer Maricela and Belen something, anything to ease their grief, but aware that we were empty handed. We walked in their shoes, Mami and I. “They must be leaving the hospital now. On their way to the parking lot. In the car they must be silent. The highways are empty. Maricela’s is probably watching everything from the car window in a daze.” We feed each other bits of this story until late into the night. This was how we broke night. Sleep evaded us both.

And I thought about how a few hours could change a person, because I was different. A new Connie emerged between those second when I answered the phone and I looked up at the clock on the cable box. And as the days passed I would get to know this new version of myself. I now saw danger in the benign and I needed to safeguard myself against the scary world. Sadness reached me down to my very toes, and the sharp edges of grief scraped against my soul. Guilt ransacked me too. My children were alive. Maricela’s daughter was not.

quotes-from-brene-brown

This story does not end here. I could write about how I went to school the next day to teach with swollen eyes and hung over from lack of sleep and the bender that grief can send you on. When I called Sandra to tell her that afternoon she screamed into the phone and I screamed once off the phone with her. How at the wake my brother-in-law cried so loud Maricela was the one to comfort him. It would be over a week before I dared turn on the television or a radio. The only sound I could bare to hear were my own thoughts. And there is more. But I will end it here.

Before I even began to write this I reached out to my God-sister. I told her this essay was brewing and that I wanted to write it, but only with her blessing. She was honored and trusted that I would do right by her and her daughter. We caught up quick over text and shared busy working mom stories. Now a mother of two boys she’s often swamped with their social lives and schoolwork, along with her own work. And we ended our conversation with tentative plans to see each other soon. I called my sister to share this all with her as well.

When we spoke I didn’t apologize for not remembering February 6th like I always have. I forgave myself instead. And in forgiving myself I realized a new version of Connie emerged. One that was less afraid. Less afraid of the world and less afraid to tell all the stories that have shaped me. Good, bad, and yes the sad tragic ones too. The one you told no one for a long time because you thought them incapable to feel what you felt. Tears, pain, and heartache were the only responses I would accept when I told the story of Isabella. But I’m different now I trust myself to feel now. I still don’t like too much feeling, but I’m learning to lean in to that pain. That it will cause discomfort, but it will not leave me dead like I so believed for a long time. And with this new trust in my self I trust others with Isabella’s story, jut like Maricela trusted me.