Tag Archives: #weareone

Valley of Death

Once again the valley of death and grief are a yoke on my corazón. My brother Miguel Angel chose to leave this earth four days before my scheduled visit. My plan was to check out the extent of his cancer, report back to familia in the US, and consider when I would return again. My plan was to sit next to his thin body and read him my memoir, which begins the day I met him and ends the last day I saw him eight years ago before he returned to México.

I receive an urgent email four days before my trip from my niece to call and a FB message soon after of his death during a work gathering. I step outside, needing to be outside, near mama pacha, under the great eastern sun, where I can dissolve in tears, text a good friend, and call all my Mexican family numbers to no avail. My phone carrier figures out there is a block on International calls. They unblock my phone to no avail because by then my family is not at home and the cells phones still won’t connect. By then they are at the funeral home. By then Miguel’s body is being prepared for a viewing and cremation. By then I am on the phone with my friend, wailing that I had known his time was close and should have gone down sooner. My pain sears me with damnation for being too caught up in a logically timed trip.

Miguel was – and I am – of the heart — foolish and giddy with hope even when smoke clouds our vision and all around us is smoldering resentment and bridges burning. I sit in the sun and sob, full of terror that I have become too distracted by issues less important than the great matters of life and death. A co-worker finds me and my body shakes with grief in her arms, because loss require many tears for many years. It is a stream that ebbs and flows as life continues its majestic journey from dawn to dark, crushing loss to unimaginable joy. A flow that revisits other losses and creates a wave to knock us into an undertow of unresolved yearning.

Arriving home, I change my flight to the next day, packing casually as the flight isn’t until 12:30. I sleep little and wake groggy. I finally reach my sister Rosita who confirms the mass is at 7 PM, just when my flight would arrive. I go into action, canceling my current flight and buying a new ticket with the tentative assurance I can be refunded due to the circumstances. Calling a Lyft, I hurriedly finish packing and endure a longer than usual drive due to the heavy morning traffic.

My heart is in full motion now, willing me forward while accepting I will arrive twenty minutes before my departure time instead of the requested three hours for an International flight. Logically speaking, no chance in hell to make that flight. I pull up a map of the airport so I know to turn right when I enter the terminal, racing with my carry-on to security. No line. Two men in front of me are going slowly through their paces so I ask to go ahead of them and they agree. I keep running toward gate 10, passing 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I hear my name over the loud speaker. I race past 6, 7, 8 and down the escalator. By then my lungs are bursting and I am panting, willing my legs forward past 9 to the very last gate. Screw logic I think as I settle into the emergency row, alone and ready to burst with relief and gratitude.

I attend the 7 PM mass, remembering the prayers in Spanish as I sit between my sisters Rosita and Tere and look at the photo of Miguel and his querida hija Aranza. We are all a bit befuddled when the priest asks us at the end of the service to clap for Miguel, but we do so. We then become a procession that sidles into the narrow hallway behind the main seating area. Passing walls lined with small vaults, we stop at the open one that already contains the ashes of Miguel’s mother and nephew. A song by Pepe Aguilar that my niece Aranza has picked plays on her mother’s phone as she sobs quietly, mounting a small ladder to place the wooden box of her father’s ashes inside.

I sleep in a bed the first night on Rosita’s bedroom floor near where Aranza sleeps in Rosita’s bed. Rodrigo, her 20-year-old grandson, sleeps in the room I am in now, on the first bed, by then moved to the room where Miguel spent four months dying. Aranza now sleeps on a foam mattress in the same room with me. This is all to say there is alot going on and the chess pieces of familia move sideways, diagonally, and backwards more than forward.

Thus, sleep is difficult even though I spend a good nine to ten hours in bed, keeping to the Mexican CST time zone at night and to my PST in the morning. Grief is a greedy lover. My dreams are intense and fractious. Amid the time change, a lack of exercise, much caretaking, and my family’s different eating patterns, I practice compassion. I tell Rosita I am here to be the ‘gray’ in the black and white of death. Grief eats at our perspective and demands answers that insist on a winner and loser.

It is about the same temperature here as where I live in Marin, but Rosita’s house, like most houses in Mexico City, only has portable heaters. Aranza and I set up the oscillating one wherever we go in the chilly house, as we play cards, practice jacks, and eat meals at odd hours. It warms our room each night and comforts our broken corazones.

“Soy muy dispersa.” We repeat this phrase over the next eight days when we lose our train of thought or forget what we are doing. We chuckle and feel our way back to the present moment with each other’s help. “You were talking about this and then you said that and then you started saying A so you were probably going to talk about B.

On Monday I accompany Aranza and Rosita to the therapist, bringing my laptop as I imagined sitting in the waiting room while they met. Pues no. He meets with clients in his living room, so I sit on the smaller couch and tenderly witness the session, listening to both of their expressions of grief and loss. Finally, Rosita tells him to ask me something. I feel my  sadness expand through my body and my voice quaver as I speak. Cannot remember what I said, but I know my wish was to add some shading and texture to what they had said. We end up eating at a place called Sushi Miguel, which I love for bearing my brother’s name. You can’t make this shit up.

Later that night in Rosita’s home, I go to my room to ground myself, to allow others to be away from my aura that pulses strongly. It can be sharp and forceful apart from my wishes to protect me. I had excused myself from watching a movie together. My niece comes in to say the DVD (old school) isn’t working and to spin in pirouettes around the room. Then el gato Sebastian pads in and climbs over my keyboard. My sister Rosita follows a few minutes later to say the DVD is still not working and to kiss me goodnight. She easily slides into telling stories in her masterful way, building tension slowly and tortuously, delivering perfectly timed punchlines with wonderful voice inflections. I keep writing amid the creatures surrounding me because I must. Because it is what writers do with angst and pain. Rosita notices she is wearing a slipper on one foot and a clog on the other. Sebastian climbs on my, uh, that space between the laptop and my chest.

“Doesn’t he bother you?” asks Rosita.

“Pues sí,” I answer.

“Do you want me to take him away?”

“No.” I pause. “If I removed everything that bothered me I would always be alone in a beautiful garden.” Rosita laughs and leaves with Aranza to go downstairs. Sebastian then settles on my neck, purring and occasionally gouging my neck with his claws. He was buena compania for Miguel as he lay in the same bed I have snuggled in for five nights now.

I spend Tuesday,  el día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, with Tere and her familia, eating at Johnny Rocket’s, something I have never done in the US. Afterwards we wander the mall, enjoying the lights and a break from underlying grief. My family here is BIG into Christmas decorations. I even try on some shoes, but I cannot find a style and color I like, which is a shame as the prices are so much more reasonable than in the US. Life does go on amid loss.

I spend several hours the next day sitting in the sun on a bench with Rosita and my laptop, translating my memoir with much more ease than I thought I would. At times Rosita makes the ‘time out’ signal and adds a story, asks a question, or gives her analysis of family dynamics. Aranza is picked up by her mother and abuela later that evening and I search my belongings for something to give her to seal our new connection. I decide on a small bottle of oil full of healing yerbas I had received at a training. I had used it once and she liked the smell. Many abrazos later, nos despedimos. Rosita and I continue wading through the memoir past midnight, avid readers caught up in observing ourselves and other family members as characters full of flaws and courage.

Fretting the next evening we will not finish the memoir, I tell her we can finish via phone or WhatsApp video. We end the storytelling near midnight again, snuggling in my bed with Sebastian. I sleep poorly this last night for a number of reasons and wake with a mild headache and tears brimming. Now that I am leaving, all the cortisol I have been releasing from my adrenal glands to supplement my natural energy is ebbing and grief is breaking open my heart again. I miss having one of my dad’s pañuelos instead of grabbing nearby toilet paper and napkins to mop up my tears.

I am grateful my last meal is with both Tere and Rosita, bringing us together to forge a plan for supporting Aranza. As I sit in the restaurant booth, I diagnose my headache, lack of appetite, and urge to vomit as an incoming migraine. They occur rarely for me, but this one is not surprising given my week. I love it that Tere asks and the waitress gives me some aspirin. This would never happen in the US. That and my electrolytes packet dissolved in water ease the surge of disequilibrium, but I still sadly leave my chilaquiles uneaten on my plate.

Tere drives me to the airport with Rosita and the braid of joy, sadness, and fullhearted longing that accompanies me on every visit to México surrounds my corazón as I hug them each in turn. I am once again alone in the emergency row, grateful I avoided a full-blown migraine with aggressive allopathic medication and the EFT tapping I was  taught by my naturopath when my first one occurred a few months after my mom’s death. I sooth my puffy eyes with the amazing vistas after take-off and then a romantic comedy that is predictable and sweet — much better for my soul than the fake ‘churro’ I leave for the cleaning crew.

Life and death hold hands all the time. They do not fear each other. This year and every year they welcome me to the valleys and mountaintops to sit and gather the unpredictable lessons each holds. I often say a day without tears is a day my heart is not doing its job. It is a day I have succumbed to the limitations of my logical mind and forgotten to listen to the wisdom of my corazón. The dominant US cultural norm of thinking over feeling breeds denial. I received a tough lesson on its impact last week. I can only go forward with a renewed commitment to listen and honor the beat of my heart despite the clamor of logic.

Que descanses en paz Miguel. I look forward to our new connection across the realms of vida y muerte.

Living with Grief

“I don’t when, or where, or how, but I see a tattoo in your near future. Perhaps it will be the date of Javi’s death, or his birth, but you will sear his pain into your skin to keep his heart beating in yours. An acknowledgement that his life and his death are part of who you are. It is a full moon and he calls out to all of us across space and time. He reminds us of what is not yet done, what arms we must now take up, what sorrows we must now bear and what joys only we can express.”

I spoke that into my Notas de voz app in the middle of the night on August 7, 2017, a week and a day after my son’s best friend died of an accidental overdose of Xanax and alcohol at age 22. Three days after the full moon my son celebrated his 22nd birthday with many friends he had met through Javi, who had planned to be there in body, but only hovered in spirit.

Another question woke me a few nights later: How to stay present in the grief of the moment and not get tangled in the grief of the world or the grief of the past. Not an easy task ever. In Charlottesville, Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer said: “Remember in your heart: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. And I want you to pay attention, find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way. You make it a point to look at it, and say to yourself, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’And that’s how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child, but, by golly, if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”

With my mother’s birthday on August 18th, the grief from the past entered the tattered muscles of my heart. Grief is always present if I pay attention, coming like a wave and triggering all the losses in my life, no matter how much I honored and felt them at the moment. There is no end, only a settling in with grief. That is why I mark dates on my calendar, why I keep reaching out to people who have suffered loss. Like tiny petals from a flower, grief falls into the moist soil of our corazones and slowly becomes one with our lives. Someone has the same accent or we use the same gesture of one who has left this earth and we wince with remembrance. My practice is to welcome the moments with a deep breath of love and gratitude for my life, for the opportunity to feel deeply, love deeply, and offer compassion to others living with grief.

I sat with my son for several days after Javi died, along with his twin sister, and witnessed his shattered heart. I set up an altar with a vela and some flowers. My son added an art piece painted by Javi and a bottle of his favorite alcohol. We said very little, offering him a wide meadow to empty tissue boxes, eat in little spurts, fall asleep with the lights and TV on, drink and sob and drink and sleep.

His wings dragged behind him, his breath stuck in his throat. He could only see a few feet ahead, his wish to fly unfettered with so much space he could close his eyes seemed impossible. He was so weary, so wanting to rest.

But ahora he can’t with his heart ripped to shreds, his guilt a noose around his neck, time too slow and too fast at the same time. How could it be a week already, how could the minutes pass so slowly. He dreads ahora, dreads going to sleep, dreads waking up and facing the same horrible reality. I can’t ease the pain that is a knee to his gut, a kick to his thigh, a punch breaking his jaw.

Al final, he is still alive and Javi is still dead. Al final, life will bear a gap where Javi would have been, as on his birthday. Al final, there is death. Al final, there are tears dripping off his nose. Al final, he will not sit in Javi’s room again with the fan he never turned off, will not talk tats with him or be stupid drunk with him.

Al final, I cannot make this go away. Al final, al final, al final there is nothing to soothe Javi’s mom, nothing to say or do that changes death. Nothing to take away the knives of sorrow that pierce my son’s heart. Heavy already with David’s death last year and Javi’s now, fear grips him about who will be next. He might even wish sometimes it would be him so he doesn’t have to ever look inside a casket again at a friend’s still body. As for me, I wish these young men of color would egg on each other’s brilliance as much as they do their risk-taking with drugs and alcohol. But then I remember they were not meant to survive and they do their best in a world that does not honor their gifts except to appropriate them for profit. When I looked for news the day after his death, I saw that he was not the only young man of color that died that night in Oakland. RIP Javi. Que descanses. Que todos descansamos until the next wave washes over and reminds us we are never alone in our grief. #52essays2017

Familia de Agua

Blood and water, given and chosen.

We are born into a familia that can rarely give us all we require to grow into our full vibrant selves. If I had been told that earlier in life, I would have saved myself years of resentment and grief, years of trying to squeeze love from a blood stone. When I did awaken to this reality, I saw my life has been filled with people who were my familia de aqua, people who came around when I required a lifeboat to take me to shore. We were born to be raised en comunidad, not in nuclear family silos that breed scarcity and competition. Many spiritual paths understand this and fight to teach this amid the “rugged individualism” of the US culture, seeing relations as a broad notion that signifies connection with all beings.

When I was very young, Gloria was the first person that brought water to my parched corazón. She was raised by my mom’s tía and should have been introduced to us as our aunt. My mom didn’t do that so I didn’t realize for years she was my relation, even if not by blood. She struggled under the harsh judgement of my parents, but her indomitable spirit and cariño seeded love in my heart and allowed me to play and feel delight as a little girl and now as a woman.

The next water woman to enter my life was Judy, a neighbor who gave me unconditional love in my early teens and for many years to come. Even as her own family struggled through challenges, her unwavering belief in my capacity to succeed and flourish stayed strong. Her twin Jill also bolstered my self confidence when we would all be together. Judy, pictured on the left, would even introduce me as her daughter to people who would give us a funny look. They wondered what she meant, since our closeness in age and difference in color tones did not match those words.

I met my buddhist teacher in my early forties and her commitment to my spiritual path set me on a course of fearless intimacy. I had been in a spiritual desert for many years, and she guided me into the soto zen practice toward freedom with her  teachings on dismantling and transforming the enduring legacy of oppression. I eventually vowed to live by the buddhist precepts in a jukai ceremony. Ryūmon Sensei’s voice, teachings, and example lit a path that continues today.

In my mid-forties, as I faced my mother’s impending death, I was directed to Tereza, a holistic curandera who welcomed my exhausted spirit. She infused me with full-hearted peace when the final breath escaped my mom’s mouth and kept deepening my wisdom and bravery in the years to come. She still guides my journey and shares hers with me as we walk together as healers and peaceful warriors in a world that asks us to develop and bring forth all our gifts to honor our ancestors.

I longed for many years for my mom to be what I was told she would be for me, but once I released that delusion, I could take what she did offer and see her as a human being who did her best. While I could not heal her wounds, my comunidad supported me to heal mine. The practice of accepting what is beneficial and grieving what does not serve my spirit has been of inestimable value in all my relations.

Because of this, I understand and practice the essential and necessary act of stepping in with younger people when the present moment asks that of me. It is a blessing to offer to others what their parents and blood relatives cannot. Breaking through unhealthy patterns of isolation is a liberating opportunity to be in our authentic power and nurture that in others.

I have highlighted specific individuals, but there have also been groups who have encouraged and validated my path. As a writer, I can name many teachers and readers who share their creative wisdom and fierce determination so I can create my very best.

Familia de agua remind us that we are much more than we often believe due to the inequitable strictures of who matters more and less in this society.  It truly takes a village and I am always on the lookout for water kin. I also stay alert for when it is my moment to be familia de agua to the generation who will carry on a legacy of peace, justice, and joy.

The Camino

I watched The Way with Martin Sheen (birth name Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez) starring as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo walking trek. It hearkened memories of my own hitchhike/walking pilgrimage in 1979 with several friends after a study abroad program. He took the French Way and started in France, while we started the same route in northern Spain as depicted on the map.

We only had a few weeks so we walked and hitchhiked to stay within our timeline. I had only told my sister I was hitchhiking, but my mom, querida metiche that she was, went through Susan’s letters and found out. I received a letter admonishing me to stop ‘hijacking’. I was earnestly looking for ways to be open with my parents about my inward and outward journey, but I did not know how to translate it from US born daughter to parents who crossed borders to find a better life. To my mom, this pilgrimage was a sign that I only wanted to be a parrandera and abandon my studies at Stanford.

She acknowledged receiving the pamphlet I sent on the pilgrimage and that it looked muy bonito, but because it meant stopping at churches and convents, she wondered if I was una Sta. Teresita de Jesús o un San Francisco de Asis. She admitted to believing in God, but also in comfort, something she thought I might want to consider. While we did at times scramble to find cheap food and lodging, we soon met a man who gave us a ride and delivered us at a convent where we were treated to a nice bed and warm food by the nuns. After that, they directed us to the next convent that would welcome and house us. Unlike the pilgrimage documented in the movie, we did not stop at the designated locations to get a stamp because we were digressing from the official version and using the kindness of strangers who gave us rides when they saw our trusty hitchhiking hand stuck on the end of a cardboard pole. (Yes, Sherie, I still have it!)

Several moments remain indelible. There was the day we met some motorcyclists and Karen hopped on the back of one for a ride on the winding roads. I felt the terror of her safety, wondering what I would do if she were injured or killed. She was so tough, but she also had a tender side that provoked my protective gene to watch out for her. I breathed a huge sigh when the ride ended.

There were the meal breaks along the road with gente amables or in a small cafe when Sherie would unpack and play her guitar, inviting us to sing:

May all your dreams bloom like daisies in the sun
May you always have stars in your eyes
May you not stop running not until your race is run
And may you always have blue skies

 

Finally, there was the very end of our pilgrimage, walking up to the main cathedral and hearing the bells ring as if they were timed to go off when we arrived. Magical for three young peregrinas who were drinking in the life of being in the present moment without our usual duties and responsibilities. Here is an excerpt from a poem I wrote:
Nos encontramos por un día de nuestro camino
nos unimos con pan, con conversación
el tiempo que tuvimos era bastante para alegrarnos que todavía hay gente buena
nos encontramos hoy con mas esperanza
mientras seguimos nuestro camino por la vida

One day I will return and walk the whole way, hopefully with one or both of my twins. While Santiago de Compostela is an actual journey to a sacred place and shrine, it is a reminder of the other pilgrimages I have taken and am on now, those long journeys or searches of lofty purpose or moral significance. To every writer and artist, every parent and caretaker of a parent, every activist and lover, every monk and educator, every border crosser and rule breaker – I honor and salute your weary feet, tired souls, and unrelenting belief in the power of the human spirit to rise above the hateful, fear mongering acts that surround us daily. Thank you for believing in your amazing dreams in the sun and don’t stop running until your race is run. Ashé. #52essays2017 #weareone