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.
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.
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.