When the heart breaks

It’s a scientific fact—you can die from a broken heart.



I finally went into my memoir again. I rewrote the beginning chapter. It now starts: When I told my brother what I was writing, he stared at me for a long moment, lit a cigarette and pulled on it so I hard, I thought he was going to burn it to the filter. Then he said, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody will fucking talk.”

I saw my mom unexpectedly two days later. She showed up for my grandmother’s surprise brunch. She smiled when she saw me and hugged me tight. I’ve been feeling that hug for the past twenty four hours.

The last time I’d seen mom, she made me cry. She was reverting back to her old self, the cruel mother who pushed me away. Who I never had a relationship with. The mother I ran away from when I was thirteen. But on this day, mom was smiling more than I’ve seen her smile in a long time. And I did my best to keep that smile on her face. I played old school ballads for her that we sang along with and danced to. Songs by Camilo Sesto and Rocio Jurado and Juan Gabriel and Jose Jose. I told her that every time I hear those songs, I smell the strong scent of King Pine and imagine her in her bata, dancing and singing while she mops the house. I’m eight or nine years old. When the music crescendos, mom closes her eyes and sings along. Off key and crazy beautiful, she sways her body and I imagine her remembering a sweet memory…or maybe a painful one. Which, I’m not sure, but I know that mom is far away and she doesn’t come back until she opens her eyes.

The family sat around and reminisced. They talked about life in Honduras. Mom retold the gallina story, the one I’ve written so many times, that she’s told me in so many renditions. The hen she stole because she was hungry “y yo quería gallina,” she says. I learned that abuelita Tinita made her sell the hen because selling it fed them for a week as opposed to feeding them for a day or two. She laughed when she remembered how grandma beat her when she found out that mom had stolen it. Abuelita Tinita was proud and no matter the hunger they suffered, she was no thief and wasn’t going to raise thieves.

They talk about the hunger. The poverty. Grandma says, “mira la ignorancia,” she put cash in the mail for her daughters but the money never arrived. This was before Western Union and Money Gram. When the mail service couldn’t be trusted. Grandma didn’t know any better.

She sits quietly while mom tells stories of the hunger she suffered. “Pero las traje,” grandma interrupts. She wants everyone to know that though they suffered, she saved them by bringing them to this country. There’s a chorus of “no fue tu culpa.”

“Tu fuistes padre,” mom says. They’re talking about the traditional role grandma gave up. She worked and brought her daughters to this country so their “mother” was her mother Tinita. Grandma took over the “father” role of provider. She had no choice.

“Perdí el amor de mis hijas.” Again, a chorus of “it wasn’t your faults” fills the room.

Mom talks about the day they arrived from Honduras. It was New Year’s Eve. “Estaba entrando el 1971,” mom says. She talks about how Pan Am told grandma they weren’t on the flight so they had to wait for the airline to track her down. They were in the airport four hours waiting. Mom was 15. Her sister was 7. Mom says it was only then that she learned to love her sister. The one she tortured in Honduras because she was so jealous of her. The one she called, “esa negra.” The one who is now like a surrogate mother to me.

Mom doesn’t mention anything else. She doesn’t mention how her heart almost jumped out of her chest when she saw her mother’s husband. She doesn’t say that she knew he was a pervert. But she looks at me and I know she’s thinking it.

At one point mom and I are dancing to the salsa “Uno se cura” by Raulin Rosendo and mom says, “No me quiero curar,” and again I think of that line in Toni Cade Bambara’s Salteaters, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Just so you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, ‘cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”


Mom texted me this morning. “It’s been three months. How I’ll live with this pain?”


I was broken by Millie’s death eight and a half years ago. I didn’t realize until recently that despite my efforts not to martyr her in my memory, that’s exactly what I did. Millie wasn’t to me what she was to everyone else and as I’m digging into my stories, I’m seeing the blatant truth of that more and more.

And I’m realizing that after my brother’s death, in an effort to have a relationship with my mom, in my joy that she was finally opening herself up to the possibility of it, I started giving mom far too many passes in my memoir. Yes, it’s true mom has suffered the kind of tragedies that would have broken most people. It takes a special kind of person to survive the hunger of her childhood, the rape that conceived her son, the betrayal of her mother, the relationship she had with my father who tried to beat me out of her when she told him she was pregnant, my brother’s addiction, his eventual death, the volatile relationship she had with Millie and all the other pains that make this list far too difficult for me to continue typing…but mom was also cruel. Mom was abusive. Mom fucked me up.

I got into a deep discussion in my Writing Our Lives class about the way we portray the people in our lives. One of my students has a particularly heinous story about her relationship with her mother. She doesn’t want to forgive her and while I get that, considering the vile way she was treated and deserted, human beings are layered and often contradictory, and as writers, particularly as writers of memoir, it is our job to show those layers and how often the different parts contradict each other.

Another student, a therapist, who I talked to about my mother and how hurt I was that she was reverting back to her old self, told me, “That’s not about you. That’s her home base. You have to understand, Vanessa, she sees you as a mirror, so when she’s dealing with you, she’s dealing with herself. She won’t be able to do anything more passed that until she redeems herself.”

Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain pattern get passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future. ~Yehuda Berg

My student, the therapist, added that what helps her is to see people as emotionally handicapped. “It helps me have compassion for them.”

Later, the same student, told me about a documentary she watched some time ago, “I think it’s called The Science of Love.” She says that it was in that film that she learned that scientifically the heart can really break. I thought about my brother and his heart and how he needed surgery to replace two valves but he’d destroyed his liver with the drugs so “even if he survives the surgery, he’ll never survive the recovery,” his cardiologist said. But it wasn’t my brother’s heart that gave, it was his liver, and I still can’t help but see the symbolism in that. My brother’s beautifully damaged heart kept pumping.

And I thought about my mom and how the doctors are monitoring her heart. She told me yesterday that her heart isn’t pumping properly and the doctors are having her keep track of when she feels the palpitations and when she feels an anxiety attack coming; what she eats beforehand, how she sleeps the night before, etc. I wonder what her heart looks like in her chest and how my brother’s looked when he died. I can’t help but imagine that they both have a crack right down the middle, from the horror of his conception and how no matter what, no matter the time that passed and the love that was gifted to them, neither one of them ever felt worthy of love…I imagine that’s what kept that gap gaping. Kept it from closing up and healing, because the only way to mend it was to seal it with the cement that is love…but when you don’t consider yourself worthy or able, what is there to do? My brother numbed with drugs. Mom numbs with cruelty. I don’t know which one is better or worse off.


It’s been three months since he died. My brother, Juan Carlos Moncada. Three months since I got the call while I was at my writing residency at VONA. I’ve been chronicling mom’s stories since then. It was only last week that I went back into my memoir and started shaping the book again. Combining the stories I had with the stories mom has given me these last few months. Now I know why I couldn’t finish it. My brother’s death is part of this book, A Dim Capacity for Wings. The book chronicles how silence devastated my family. Silence is what killed my brother. What led to his addiction. What led to my leaving at thirteen. And my mission to break that silence is what brought me back. What reunited me with my mother at my brother’s bedside. So it’s the story of why I left and why I came back. Silence being the motivation both times.

I’m writing it bro. Maybe somebody will fucking talk.



  1. I can’t wait for this to be complete. I feel your pain and am in awe of your resilience. I too share in your childhood pain. Very similar upbringings. I pray for you and your family to find some peace at heart and in your soul. God bless you, V!

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