How stories heal us

If you told me at this time last year that I would be going on a cruise with mom in a few days, I’d tell you you were crazy. Actually, if you told me that ever, while I was growing up under her tyranny in Brooklyn and after I left her house at 13, never to return, while I was figuring out how to become a woman, sola, through trial and error, I would tell you you had no idea what you were talking about. I’d tell you stories about how abusive she was and how I felt beat up after visiting her. I would tell you about the time she held a knife to me when I was five, about the beatings with belts and extension cords and hard, open palms; about how she would call me retardada and ordinaria and tell me “tu dejas la inteligencia en la escuela.” I have a new perspective now. I’ve decided to tell a new story.

We begin our worldly journey by accumulating a whole battery of experiences. When events occur, we may reach a conclusion about their meaning and relevance based on our current knowledge, understanding, and feelings, interpreting each as either a success or a failure, good or bad, pleasurable or painful. If we never revisit these conclusions, not only is our past frozen in time—a story with no room to breathe—our present and future may become extensions of this cold reality. We become stuck, lifeless, deadened, caught forever in an endless replay of old and often painful narratives. The real tragedy is that these scripts are so powerful, they can strangle the present, even constricting our life’s physical energies.

But, when we undertake the task of making sense of our lives, searching for the maps that connect the many disparate paths we have traveled, we not only shed light on our pasts, we also complete a circle by connecting the past to our current concerns, feelings, needs, aspirations, and outlook. In this way we discover our truth, at least for now. ~Richard Stone, The Healing Art of Storytelling

* * *

It was December 9th, 2011, my 35th birthday. I was on my way home from teaching writing to sixth and seventh graders in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. I was going home to get dolled up for a lavish paella dinner with friends, then pool playing and dancing and drinking and joy. 34 had been rough so I was glad to be rid of her. I was imagining my new red shoes with my dress and was smiling at the visual when my phone rang. I looked out the bus window and answered. “Hi mom.”

“Tu hermano esta en el hospital. Dicen que fue una sobre-dosis.”

I rolled my eyes. “Again?” I thought to myself. Mom didn’t wish me a happy birthday. She was Jehovah’s Witness by then but still called on my birthday to talk about when she brought me into the world, how hard her pregnancy was, “tu fuistes la que me dañastes la figura,” she’d say. But she didn’t say any of that that day. Instead she told me what hospital he was in (Beth Israel) and said, “Se que tienes planes pero por si a caso quieres ver a tu hermano.” Her tone was harsh. I stayed quiet.

He’d been found passed out on the street close to death. A heroin overdose. When I called my brother, he told me he tried to kill himself. I didn’t know what to believe. My brother was so manipulative when he was using drugs. I never went to the hospital. That’s when mom stopped talking to me.

“I suffer from a chronic illness called addiction, which has been my ball and chain for about fifteen years,” my brother wrote in the piece, Writing Our Lives (1st Draft), on May 29th, 2013 @ 1:30am. “I’ve been to numerous ‘programs’, get out, stay clean for at least a year and then I put myself in a situation for that to happen, so basically I’ve sabotaged my own recovery. All drugs cause is destruction (self), pain, depression, and damage to the ones I love most, my family. I’ve hurt them all in some way, shape or form, my mother especially. Drug addicts get Master’s Degrees in every field, ex. Lying, Acting, Cheating, Major Drama Queens and Self-Loathing. We catch ‘I’m the Victim Virus.’ Drug addicts will cry, scream, lie, cheat, whatever is necessary to get that next Fix. Chronic Addiction is NO Fucking Joke, it’s like needing Air in your Lungs, Blood in Your Veins, Food in your Stomach, Water for your Body. It’s a Ball and Chain that is difficult to detach. You would do, say anything to get your next fix. The more you have, the more you want. Once your mind has made the decision to go on a Mission, there is no one or anything that can get in your way. (One is too many and two is never enough.)”

I spent a lot of time enabling my brother. Making excuses for him. Telling him he needed to get his life together. Angry at him for the devious shit he did. When I saw the scabbed wound on his hand, I asked him if he was shooting up. I already knew the answer. His defensive “No!” told me I was right. I watched him nod out and stayed quiet when he told me it was the methadone. I flipped out on him when I saw the new scab on the inside of his elbow. He denied it. “I wouldn’t do that to myself again,” he said, exasperated. I knew better. By that time he’d confessed that the scab on his hand, which had to be sewn shut, was from shooting up heroin. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?” He stormed off. Didn’t talk to me for days. Didn’t answer my calls. When he finally called, it was to ask me for money. I dealt with it for so long. We all did. The whole family. He’d stolen from all of us. At my sister’s wedding he stole $200 from her wedding money bag. He stole my grandmother’s stereo system and sold it for drugs. He stole jewelry, electronics, pawned his flat screen T.V. And no matter what he did, no matter how many times he almost fell over in her house, how many times he stole and lied and called from jail, mom was always there to pick him up. And it’s with stabbing shame that I now confess that I resented him for it, I envied him for the unconditional love she gave him. “Lo quise a el con pena,” she’s said more than once.

So when mom called and told me he was in the hospital again, I didn’t go see him. And when my brother told me he’d tried to kill himself (“I’m tired of being a drug addict. I’m a mess, sis.”), I didn’t console him. I didn’t run to his side like I had so many times. I didn’t call him again. When I’d hear he was back in the hospital or in jail again, I shook my head and went on with my life. And I pushed the guilt away, though it always found its way back. I convinced myself that I couldn’t watch him kill himself, but that was only half true.

Months past and I didn’t call him or see him or mom. When I ran into mom at my aunt’s house, she’d roll her eyes and wouldn’t look at me. She didn’t say hello or goodbye. I stopped saying Bendicion because her “Dios te bendiga” felt more like a curse than a blessing.

One day when we walked into my aunt’s house, we heard my mom’s voice from the kitchen. My daughter ran to her, excited because she hadn’t seen her Tata in months. Mom didn’t even kiss her before saying, “What’s wrong with your hair? Tell your mother to wash it.” Vasia sulked away. I grabbed my stuff and my kid and left.

We reunited at my brother’s bedside in March. She had barely spoken to me in 15 months. She wasn’t an asshole and she wasn’t hard or harsh or callous. She kissed me and stared into my eyes and asked, “Como estas?”

A few days later, I arrived at the hospital with fruit and a salad and a burger for my brother that he’d begged me for. “Okay, but no fries. And you have to share a salad with me, too.” I so wanted to save him.

We ate and talked and laughed. Mom shared the burger with my brother and we all shared the salad. When my brother was in the bathroom, mom said, “Thank you for being here. Me siento tan sola con lo de Carlos.” She squeezed her eyes tight a few times and I saw her. Really saw her. I saw that she just wanted not to feel so alone in her pain over my brother’s condition. She wanted someone to hold her up while she held her son, my brother. I haven’t turned my back on her since then.

Now mom calls and texts and shares her life. And she’s finally telling me her stories. She calls to ask me for advice and for my opinion. She’s being the mother I’ve wanted her to be for 37 years.

The other day I called her while I was in a community garden in El Barrio eating lunch with Vasia. The rows of tomato and pepper plants reminded me of the garden mom had for a few years back when I was a kid. Laughing, she tells me that she’s picking coffee in a finca in Lares. Then she half screams, half giggles, and says a guzano fell on her head. Then she gets serious. She tells me about how the day before, she was waiting for her friend in the backseat of the car when she thought she’d locked herself in. Her heart started battering her chest and she started shaking. Shaking bad and crying. “Ay, era tan feo, Vanessa. Se sentía como si mi corazon se me iba brincar del pecho.” Somehow, she thought to grab her phone and call her friend who came running. She had the wherewithal to think of that but didn’t think to reach over to the front seat to hit the power locks.

“That was an anxiety attack, ma.”

“Ay si. Lo de Carlos has affected me so much, Vanessa. I was so scared.”

She agreed to make an appointment to see the doctor and last night sent me a long text asking me to look into natural anxiety remedies. “No quiero tomar nada recetado ya que eso es adictivo.”

I don’t remember mom ever asking me for advice on anything before a few months ago.

When we talked yesterday, she said she may not sell the house afterall. “Let’s talk about what to do with it, Vanessa.”

“What happened? I thought you wanted to sell it?”

“Ay, si no vale la pena, no se. You still want to do something for your writing?”

My heart skipped and I imagined a writing retreat in the house on a hill on top of a hill in Lares. “Whatever you want, mom.”

“We talk about it when I get back.” She gave me her blessing, told me she loved me and hung up.

Today, I’m sitting in the park writing all this, musing over the stories she’s shared. Her confessions. Her anger. Her resentment. Her profound ability to forgive and understand and have compassion. I’m realizing more and more that my mother is not the woman I made her out to be. She did love me. She still does. She just didn’t know how to show it while grappling with her own pain.

Yes, she was hard and there were times that she was abusive, that she didn’t know how to control her rage. But she was just a woman in devastating pain trying to raise three children with little support. And now, she’s confronting the past that she tried so hard to escape in the stories she’s sharing with me.

A life ‘unstoried,’ regardless of its length, is, in an undeniable way, stunted. ~The Healing Art of Storytelling

Mom doesn’t want to be stunted anymore. And by healing herself, she is helping to heal me, giving me a new perspective on her, one that is more compassionate and understanding and grateful. We are on a journey together, me and my mother. We are reclaiming our past. This is sacred work. This is the journey of A Dim Capacity for Wings.

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