It’s been a month. 30 days. A stretch of weeks, hours that pull like yarn. I was at UC Berkeley at a writing residency when I got the call at 2:30am on June 24th that my Superman, mi querido hermano, Juan Carlos Moncada, had passed. It seems like so long ago yet it seems like it’s been just seconds…seconds since I held his face in my hands and asked, “Should I cancel my trip?”
That day, June 24th, I made myself write. Or at least I tried to. I made the decision pretty quickly to stay. He’d made me promise that I would go. That was on June 20th, just minutes after the doctors told us he wasn’t going to make it, that there was nothing they could do. He would last a few weeks or a few months. He died four days later. And before he passed he insisted I go to VONA. He knew how much it meant to me. We’d talked so much about it while he was in the hospital those last few months. We’d talked about my memoir, the stories I was writing. His story. He’d given me permission. So when I heard, I knew I had to stay, though grief grabbed me like a vise around my throat and has yet to let go, though the clench has eased somewhat.
I threw myself into my work. That first day my writing was like staccato, a clave with no rhythm. Rough and jagged and senseless and uneven. Like my grief. I spoke to my sister Cynthia about it. I was devastated…frustrated, suffocating. I wanted to release on the page, needed to, but I couldn’t find a flow. “Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense,” she said. “Grief don’t make sense. That’s why jazz fucked up the world, it was the grief of a people.”
The following morning, at 2:30am, exactly 24 hours after I got the call, I woke up and started writing. I wrote until 7:30. There were moments where I was in that space between sleep and consciousness. Cloudy, murky, but not dark. I’d write the lines that came to me like a whisper. I haven’t been able to read through all of those pages. I ended up filling an entire journal that week. Much of it is so incredibly painful to read. The grief is palpable, like blood dripping from the page.
I don’t want to write about grief anymore but that’s what there is. This incredible sense of loss, of desperation, of what-the-fuck-why.
I’ve been sitting in memory. Writing whatever comes as I remember our childhood, what I want to remember and how. I giggle when I remember how mischievous we were as kids, how we used to torture my sister who barely spoke or moved or did anything so we’d pull her hair and poke her and tug on her dress until she cried. Then we’d run. I laugh when I remember how just a few months ago he reminded about the fight I had with the six foot bully from down the block because she’d dared to say something snide to him as we walked by on our way back home from El Faro where mom had sent us to buy milk with the Monopoly money looking food stamps that came in little booklets. She had said something to me first but I ignored her, it was when she said something to him that I turned to her. I can’t remember exactly what she said but I can still feel the heat that filled my head so my ears burned. I pushed the wrought iron fence and stepped to her. She was sitting on her stoop. She laughed and said, “Whatchu gonna do?” That’s when I started pummeling her, fast and hard, so she didn’t have time to get up. If she had, I’d have been done for. I was all of maybe four feet tall. Then I walked away calmly, leaving her bewildered and crying, and my brother frozen, stunned at my cojones. “That day I knew I didn’t have to worry about you.” He was already in the hospital for almost two months by then. When he told me the story that is. We spent so much of that time reminiscing. I didn’t realize he was saying goodbye.
No matter what I do or how I try to avoid it, my stories go to that place. Cornell Hospital. Where he took his last breath. Where the doctors told us that there was nothing they could do to save him. That he maybe had a few weeks to a few months. He died three days later.
It’s been keeping me up at night. I’ve been sleeping all of three hours. Then I wake up and stare at the ceiling and remember him. And I laugh and I cry and I miss him. I get angry. Angry at him for leaving so soon. Angry that he’s gone. Angry at myself for not wanting to face that he was dying…
I haven’t been wanting to write about grief. I don’t want to be sad anymore. I don’t want to miss him. I want some semblance of normal back…then I get these messages that it’s okay. That grieving is okay. That I can take my time. That this is my process and I have to honor it. I have to mourn him…and shit, though it seems like an impossibility right now, eventually I’ll let go.
This morning I received an email from a WILD reader of the sort I get every so often–in which the writer expresses the belief that I loved my mother too much and that I grieved her too hard. Several times I’ve been told that my years-long feelings of loss were “not normal.” These statements (usually made without intending offense) stand in contrast to the thousands upon thousands of people who have written to me or approached me at my events (often with tears in their eyes) to thank me for putting words to a love and a sorrow that he/she also has for someone who is now dead–mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, children, friends. Young women. Old men. Teenaged boys. Middle aged moms. I wish I had a camera strapped to my head so you could see all the beauty and sorrow out there. So many people have told me the stories of the essential person they lost and they have all shared with me a deep sense of gratitude that I wrote honestly about losing a person who was essential to me. It gave them solace. It gave them the opportunity to see their own emotions brought to life on the page. It gave them a sense that they are not alone.
I’ve often been asked if I could go back in time and give myself what I most needed in the time following my mother’s death what would it be and my answer is always company. I felt so utterly alone. Like I was the only one who’d lost the person I loved most in the world. I wish I’d joined a grief group or somehow found others who knew what I meant when I said and did the things I did. All these years later I understand that I created through my writing what I needed most. I found the people who look me deep in the eyes and say, “I know what you mean.” I found one of my most necessary tribes by writing what was in my heart.
If my truth and their truth feels “not normal” to you, I think you probably just got lucky and I’m sincerely glad you did, but I hope you will believe that those emotions are normal to a whole lot of us, even if we don’t express them often.
To all of you who are suffering or have suffered I want to say I understand and I know you understand and the power of that mutual understanding is everything. It is love. It is light. It is the only way forward. ~Cheryl Strayed
I’ve learned so much over these few weeks. I’ve learned that most people are completely inept at dealing with grief, including me. And I’ve also faced the reality that this grief isn’t new. This grief dates back years. To my high school graduation. After four years of always being on the honor roll and taking AP classes and leaving everything and everyone I knew and loved, on my way to an ivy league university, my brother didn’t make it up to Massachusetts to share the day with me. He’d taken a trip to Venezuela to swallow two balloons of heroin. He got caught. He went to jail the fall of my freshman year at Columbia University.
My grief dates back to the summer of 1994 when on a sweltering day on a corner in Inwood, my then boyfriend’s mother told me, “Pero tu no sabia que tu hermano tiene el SIDA. Eso todo’l mundo lo sabe.” I wanted to scream, I wanted to slap her for being so fucking heartless, I wanted to run, but all I could manage to do was give her my back before my knees buckled and I hit the floor.
My grief dates back to my college graduation when my brother didn’t show up though he’d promised he would. He said he couldn’t get out of work. I later found out he was too hung over to make it.
My grief dates back to the first time I saw him nod out. To when I saw that scab on his hand and he swore angrily that he wasn’t shooting up. Of course he was.
My grief dates back to that call on the day after Christmas in 2002. He was living with me. I couldn’t turn my back to him though he stole from me, from all of us, and called my friends begging for money, and stole my phone and so much. I just couldn’t give him my back. I wanted to save him. I had to save him.
That night I’d stayed over a friend’s house. I knew something had happened as soon as I saw my home number on my cell. “Come home,” his voice was panicked. “Something happened.” “Oh my God, Carlos, what did you do?” I screamed. I came home to find my door axed in. Yes, there were gashes in my door. He had stolen drugs from someone and they had come to my apartment to find him. “What if I’d been home?” I yelled. “What the fuck did you do, Carlos?” He just cried and rocked himself. That’s when I finally turned my back on him. That’s what it took. I couldn’t help him at the expense of myself.
This grief dates back to that conversation we had in March, just before he went into the hospital, before they found out what was wrong, before they found the infection in his blood, the holes in two of his heart valves, the pulp that was his liver. He was getting the high fevers by then. 103 and 104 degree fevers every night. Fevers that made him shiver and sweat so that his sheets were sopping wet and had to be washed daily. This grief dates back to that conversation when he pulled on his cigarette so hard I thought he was going to burn through the filter in one drag. “I’m a sin,” he said. “I looked it up in the Bible. It says I’m a sin.” His face drooped like a hound dog’s, heavy with regret and pain. That day I told him what I was writing. That I was revealing the secret that’s had our family in a choke hold for forty years. He swallowed hard and said, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody will fuckin’ talk.”
This grief dates back to all those years ago when I lost my Superman to drugs and bad influences. To that side of the gay scene of New York, the nightlife and its darkness and its ugly.
And still, in this grief there is beauty. So much beauty. A beauty that cradles me when grief steps up and shakes my insides. When I picture his face and wish I could just hug him one more time. When I hear his voice on my voicemail and all I can do is lay in fetal position on my bathroom floor and sob.
Beauty is in those last few months that I spent with my brother, when I saw my Superman again after so many years. The love we shared. The stories. The laughs. Taking him out for a fancy dinner when he was given a day pass from the rehab on his birthday on May 16th. Sharing huge salads with him and natural juices. Bringing him books to read and talking for hours about who we were, where we’re going, how proud he was of me.
Beauty is in the new relationship I now have with mom, who hadn’t spoken to me in over fifteen months when my brother went into the hospital. One day she said, “Thank you, Vanessa. Me siento tan sola con lo de Carlos.” And I knew then that that was why she’d been so cruel, because she was in pain, because she felt isolated, because it’s the only way she knows to show she hurts. I held her hand. “I’m here mom, but, you know, I need support too.” She looked at me and nodded almost unperceptively. She squeezed her eyes tight and she didn’t fight, she didn’t attack, she didn’t say anything. But she squeezed my hand and I knew she understood.
Beauty is in the trip mom and I took to JC Penny to get a juicer for my brother. She had plans of helping him adopt a new healthy lifestyle when he got out of the hospital. She’d started listening to me and my suggestions, something I can’t say I remember her ever doing. This was before we were given the news. She met me uptown and we took the train together. The first time I’d been alone with her and spent real time with her since I can remember. We were on the train when she asked, “Mandastes las 50 paginas?” Carlos had told her all about VONA and what it meant to me. The insane amount of work I had to do beforehand, all the writing and reading and the 50 page submission. “No, I have it in here.” I tapped the book bag on my lap. She made to grab the bag. “Oooh, let me see.” “No!” I pulled the bag away. We laughed playfully. “It’s all about you and how bad you were with me.” Mom laughed hard, her mouth open, head thrown back.
“How do you feel about me writing your story?” I’d never asked her though I’d fretted over it. I was so scared of hurting her, of opening up a wound, of her flipping out and not understanding. Of her feeling violated, like I’d betrayed her trust. “Como te atreves?” I imagined her lunging at me. I imagined her crying. Crying incessantly. I imagined her inconsolable.
Mom looked at me and shrugged, “I don’t care. Just don’t use my name.” My mouth dropped. Then mom started telling me stories. That was in early June. She’s been telling me stories ever since. Stories of her childhood in Honduras. How she would sneak out of her grandmother Tinita’s house to go with the priest from the church up the road to preach to people in the campos. How defiant she’s always been.
How at six while on a train from Saba to La Ceiba, she overheard Tinita say that the conductor, the man who had just taken their tickets and paused to look at her, was her father. When mom asked, Tinita waved the question away. Mom became obsessed with finding out who he was. She asked around the barrio and was told where he lived with his wife and children. Mom went to the house and was welcomed by his wife. She couldn’t understand why she and her grandmother starved while her father and his family ate well. Fruits and tortillas and frijoles and habichuelas and whatever vegetable they desired. Her father just ignored her. Still, mom visited every day, hoping to one day win him over. Hoping that one day he’d acknowledge her. One day he’d say he loved her. Then one day he bought his children ice cream but didn’t buy one for mom. His wife fought with him and bought her an ice cream from her money. Mom cried when she told me the story. All these years later, 59 years old, my mother still cries over her father’s rejection.
Stories of how she came to this country and what happened to her and how she was blamed. “Este pais a sido una desgraci’a,” she says, as she rocks herself. It was the night before my brother’s memorial. I slept over the entire weekend, something I haven’t done since I don’t know when.
“The telling of the story decreases our sense of isolation. My sister, a therapist, whose clientele is primarily Latino, has worked with refugees who have survived incredible trauma—villages burnt, relatives tortured or shot before their eyes. They are numb and silent with grief. My sister says she knows they are going to make it when they can tell her the story of exactly what happened to them.” Julia Alvarez, Writing Matters
Today I read this in Julia Alvarez’s essay collection “Something to Declare,” and for once I felt solace. The last stage of grief according to the traditional elegy. I know because I’ve been writing one for several weeks now. It’s all I could do to release the load from my chest. Grief was just sitting there, demanding that I acknowledge her. Demanding that I give her words.
Incomplete elegy for my Superman
The traditional elegy mirrors the three stages of loss…
One is Lament where I grieve for you & reveal my sorrow
Two is Praise where I show how amazing you were in life…why you were my Superman
Three is Consolation and Solace…this will be an incomplete elegy ‘cuz I’m not there yet
1 – Grief
The first stage I can do. I am in the clutch of my grief. Thing is it’s not a new grief. This one is old. This one goes back to when you first left the house. I was just eleven. You moved in with grandma. Promised you’d return. You didn’t. I left two years after you. With you gone, there was no reason for me to stay.
This grief goes back to when you got locked up when I was graduating from boarding school. To when I found out, on the street from the mouth of una bestia desgraciada that you had the virus. It was still a death sentence then. But that’s not what killed you. Heroin did.
I can trace my grief back to when I first saw you nod out. When you first stole money from me. When you brought your crazy to my house. You were living with me. How could I give you my back? You, my superman. You who I shadowed as a kid. You stole drugs from someone. They came to my home looking for you. They axed in my door. It was the day after Christmas.
This grief from your muerte is grief on top of grief on top of grief. See, my Superman ceased to exist when that monster took you. Your kryptonite. Esa maldita droga, la heroina.
But I saw glimpses of my Superman those last few months. Those long conversations we had about growing up. That fight I had with Wandy, the six foot bully from down the block, who we ran into on our way home from the supermarket El Faro. I was eight. You were twelve. Mom had sent us to buy milk with the food stamps that came every month in little booklets of colorful bills like monopoly money. Wandy was sitting on her stoop when we walked by. She said something to you. “What you said to my brother?” I pushed the gate open and stepped to her. She hadn’t finished her sentence when I was on top of her all fists and flared nostrils. I didn’t give her time to react. She was still hiding her face in her arms when I walked away, brushing past you with a smirk. “That day I knew I didn’t have to worry about you,” you said.
And just days before you went into the hospital you told me, while you were pulling on you cigarette so hard I thought you were going to swallow it, “I’m a sin, sis. The Bible says I’m a sin.” And I told you what I was writing, about the rape and the silence – the curse that’s suffocated us like a wet towel over our faces. You told me how you found out when you were just a niño de 13 años. And then, silence. You were supposed to continue viviendo like nothing happened, like nothing had changed, like that wasn’t going to affect you. No therapy, no nothing. So when I told you that I was breaking the silence, I’m telling the world about that fucking curse that’s had our family in a chokehold for over forty years, you said: “Write it. Maybe somebody will fuckin talk.” And that day I understood your addiction in whole different way. I understood why you had to numb. I understood why you had to try to.
Pero the way you went, bro. Three days after the doctors told us there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t operate because the heroin had eaten your liver, and it got to your heart too, eating holes into the valves so the only way to fix it would be to open you up but even if you survived the surgery, your liver wouldn’t survive the recovery. They said your heart would continue to fail until it would just stop. They gave you a few weeks to a few months. You died three days later. Three days. And it was your liver that failed not your heart. Your heart kept going. It kept beating. It kept thrashing. And I can’t help but see the metaphor here. Your heart, it kept going. You, Superman, who were all heart. You wanted to keep going.
I was in California at a writer’s residency when I got the call. It was my first day. I stayed because you made me promise I would go. It was the last gift you gave me. There I could grieve like I couldn’t here. Here I’d be taking care. Here I’d have to worry about mom and my daughter and my sister and my grandmother and the kids and everyone. Everyone but me. There I could be held, I could cry, I could rage, I could honor you in the writing. I want you to know that I did, querido Superman and will continue to. I knew I had when a girl I don’t know, who reads my blogs, came up to me the last day and said, “I feel like I knew him from your stories.”
2 – Praise
Idealizing you doesn’t honor your truth or mine. Still, as much as a fuck up as you were, you were my Superman.
You didn’t see me during my pregnancy and didn’t meet my little Vasialys until she was three months, but you cried when you first held her. ”You’re a mom, sis.” And just like that all the anger and resentment I had stored up over those months disappeared. I could see in your sunken eyes how strung out you were.
You struggled with that monster for over fifteen years. I bounced on you for the last year of it. Because I couldn’t watch you kill yourself. Because it was killing me and in order for me to be the mother and writer and teacher and woman I needed to be, I had to walk away. I felt that guilt pierce into me every day, every time I heard you got arrested, every time you were back in the hospital, but I stayed away…until a few months ago. Until you pulled your heart out and showed me all the bruises. Until you gave me the permission I didn’t know I needed when you said, “Write it sis. Maybe somebody will fuckin’ talk.”
In those last three months I saw my Superman again. The one who taught me what real love looks like. The one who told me, “I’m proud of you” though mom to this day never has. The one who restored so much before he left. You restored us, our relationship. How we were. You restored me and mom, who hadn’t spoken to me in so long.
And now. Now mom sees what you always saw, the writer in me. When I came back, she gave me the pages you told me about. You said, “I started writing my story, sis. But I couldn’t finish. It’s too much. I got writer’s block. That’s for you. You’re the writer.” Five pages. In your handwriting. Five pages of so much.
That’s the only solace I have, that you left me those pages. The pages you titled “Writing Our Lives” after my workshop. You started, “I’ve been blessed with a sister who has always been independent. We’ve been talking about her second baby, her “memoir.” But this isn’t just my memoir, bro, it’s ours, and this is the only solace I have right now…and this is why this elegy is incomplete…