I’ve written about VONA. What it means to me. Why I keep going back. Why I’m the newsletter editor. Why I tell every writer of color that I meet that they should look into VONA. I even write the website address down for them in their journals. Type it into their smartphones. I’ve been back five times, this past June being my fifth. I was finally ready to work with David Mura. I’d finally earned those stripes. But I almost cancelled my trip two days before.
I spent March, April, May and June in the hospital with my brother. And no one knew. Not even my closest friends knew how bad it was. How do you tell people “my brother is dying” when you can’t even say it to yourself. Fifteen years of drug abuse had finally caught up with him. The doctors didn’t know how he had survived this long. 20 years of being HIV positive, most of that spent abusing drugs, heroin being his drug of choice. In March he started getting these really high, 104 degree fevers every night. He’d sweat so much that when he woke up the sheets were sopping wet through to the mattress. Repeated hospital stays and tests didn’t reveal a cause. They sent him to an oncologist saying it was leukemia. Negative. Then mom took him to Cornell Medical Center and that’s where they found the infection in his blood. But by that time the infection had damaged two valves in his heart. At first the cardiologist thought it could be treated with medicine. Three days before I was to leave NYC for VONA, a team of four doctors, my brother’s infectious disease doctor, two cardiac surgeons and his psychiatrist, told us that my brother needed valve replacement surgery, but he’d damaged his liver so bad with the drugs that even if he survived the operation, his liver wouldn’t survive the recovery. They said he had a few weeks to a few months to live.
My brother was, still is, my Superman. Even though he was a huge fuck up. Even though he stole from me, from everyone in the family. Even though he did some real devious shit while he was fighting that devil, I remember my brother before drugs. As children, he would tuck me into bed. He bought me clothes with every check he got when he got his first job at The Gap. He defended me against my sister, who was so quiet and cherubic looking, that she had mom fooled. Mom never believed her capable of doing some of the malicious shit she did. In fact, the truth of her mischief wasn’t revealed until we were adults. “Yo no hubiera creido que eso fue mi hija,” mom said.
My brother was all heart and beautiful before the drugs. I loved him, still love him, like I’ve never loved any soul on this earth. And I got to see his heart again, my Superman, in those last three months. So, when I got the news, I was ready to cancel my trip. The thing is, my brother knew all about VONA. How important it is to me. How I’ve made my way to the Bay for the past five years because this is my safe space. It’s where I found my light. It’s at VONA that I grew into the Vanessa I’ve always wanted to be, the writer, the woman who confronts fear, who isn’t afraid to be who I am. And even when I am afraid, I lean into it. Far into it. And it’s why I’m finally the woman who is writing the memoir I’ve run away from for more than a decade. So, when I cupped my brother’s face in my hands, just minutes after we cried as a family, after being told that my brother had only a few weeks to a few months left, I asked him, “Should I cancel my trip?” He screamed, “No!” and pushed my hands away. He looked at mom, “Can you believe…” I grabbed his face again, this time more gently. “No, this is between me and you.” He softened. “Sis, I’m gonna be okay. Go. You have to go to VONA.” And so I did. My brother, Juan Carlos Moncada, died three days later on the first day of VONA.
I got the call at 2:30 in the morning and called Diem. I knew he’d be up. Like me, he barely sleeps. He sent Kira to my room to hold me while I wailed, and in the morning Diem took me to the woods to commune with nature. That’s where I made the decision to stay. Because I’d promised my brother that I would go, so I had to honor him by staying.
People hugged me when they found out, staff and students alike. Sharline Chiang, a multi-year alum who I call sister, asked me, “Could you grieve in New York the way you can here, with us?” I fell into her arms. I knew the answer immediately. In New York, I’d be taking care, because it’s what I do. I’d be taking care of my daughter and my mother and my sister and my aunt and my grandmother and the kids and everything. Helping with the arrangements, calling his friends to break the news. At VONA I could cry, I could rage, I could grieve. I knew then that my brother sending me to VONA was a gift. His last gift to me.
That first day I was delirious with grief. I did the best I could, pushing myself to write, though the words came out like staccato, clave with no rhythm. I complained to my sister, Cynthia Dewi Oka (who I also met at VONA because VONA also gifts family and love). I wanted to write. I wanted to release on the page but I couldn’t get anything down that was fluid. The writing just didn’t make sense. Cynthia put her arm around me. “Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense, sis. That’s why jazz fucked up the world. Because it’s the grief of a people. Grief don’t make sense.”
I stopped trying to make sense of my grief on the page. I just wrote. I threw myself into my work. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I barely slept. I read the assignments for David Mura’s class and wrote. By Wednesday, I needed an out. I needed an escape so we traveled, by foot, to Oakland to a bar where there was a pool table in the back. I smiled wide for what felt like the first time in weeks. We ordered drinks and I stared at the table, ready to go in. I so love that game! It’s like meditation. And just as we were making a toast (“To remembering,” I said), Rihanna’s “Stay” came on and grief grabbed me like a vise around the neck.
See, grief becomes an entity that walks with you. And just when you think you’re okay, that you can breathe and make it through, it hems you up. It dives into your solar plexus and then swoops up into your throat so you can’t breathe or talk. And you can’t cry because crying would be a relief. That’s what happened to me at that bar in Oakland. Grief grabbed me so hard, I had to run outside. I’ve never hyperventilated but I can tell you that’s the closest thing I can describe it as. I was outside the bar, wringing my hands and trying to steady my breath when I looked over and saw Arianne Benford standing next to me.
I met Arianne on the BART on Sunday morning, when my life still made sense. Actually, I recognized her from an advanced teaching artist training I did two summers ago in NY. I looked up, saw her and knew she was going to VONA, so I walked over and said just that, “You going to VONA, aren’t you?” That was how we bonded, so when she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “You don’t have to do this alone, V,” I let her strength bring me my breath back. After a few minutes, I was finally feeling better when she asked, “How do you feel?” I couldn’t lie to her.
“Because I don’t want to taint anyone’s VONA with my grief.”
Arianne nodded an I-totally-understand nod and asked, “Can I tell you a story?”
“I’ve been studying wine. In the area where the grapes are grown to make champagne, on that same land, thousands of people lost their lives in battle. So what feeds the grapes, what gives them their richness, their body, their bold taste, is the blood of those thousands of people. Don’t deny how your blood is feeding this soil.”
My mouth dropped. I stared at her for what felt like a long while until I got the sensation back in my body and threw my arms around her. Whenever I felt guilt dig into me over those next few days, I thought of those grapes and this blood, and the guilt fell away like a silk scarf on bare shoulders.
There was so much grief at VONA. It was the hardest VONA ever, but for different reasons. Because I was delirious with grief. Because I was writing stories that made me wade in shame and guilt and trauma. Because I was confronting so much of the stories that have haunted me. Because my grief was giving my memoir a whole different energy and I had to feel that and dig into it in order to write it. But, there was no other place that I was supposed to be. Because at VONA, I was held through it. By the beautiful people who know my heart and love me. Elmaz Abinader who says she doesn’t give good hugs but has held me more fully than just about anyone I know. Staceyann Chin who I worked with two years ago when she was pregnant. She came with her Zuri this year, and that little girl made me smile when I thought smiling was impossible. And holding her hand was like feeling God. David Mura, who hugged me at our last one on one and said, “You’ve done good work this week.” I didn’t realize I had until I came home and couldn’t stop writing. I haven’t stopped since. He made me see that all of this, my brother’s death, getting the news while I was at VONA, falling apart in the community that has been home since day one, all of it is part of the journey of this memoir. “You are becoming the writer who can finish this book, Vanessa.” Junot Diaz, who whenever he saw me, would run over to give me a hug and say, “How you doing, negra?” And we’d joke and he’d make me smile. Kira Allen whose hugs can keep nations from falling apart. Bonne Marie who took me to the beach and held my hand and listened. This woman exudes a love that is rare in this life. Mat Johnson, who made my chest cave in when I saw him wearing a Superman t-shirt that first day. “You tired already?” he asked. He hadn’t heard. When I told him, he hugged my 5 foot 2 frame with all of his six feet five inches, and I teared up so hard I had to do my meditation breathing so I wouldn’t collapse onto the cafeteria floor.
They all held me. From my classmate Emily who shared a journal entry she’d written at Hedgebrook that unlocked the heave in my chest, to the sister who came up to me that last day and said, “I know you may be tired of hearing sorry but I’m sorry. I feel like I knew him after reading your blogs.” She doesn’t know that I went to my room and cried after that. Not because I was grieving but because I realized, for the umpteenth time in that week, that I was making my brother proud and that made me cry tears that cleansed and gave me solace.
I’ve been carrying that VONA love since I returned to New York. So from now on, when I talk about VONA, when I rave about it to my students and every writer I meet, I’ll tell them about how VONA held me when I didn’t think I could be held. I’ll tell them that I’ve survived the greatest loss of my life because VONA cupped me with their love. I’ll tell them about the different ways that this community can hold you up and how, no matter what, they do not falter. Ever.