A few days ago I found out a woman I attended boarding school with, Ana D., who turned 38 in July, who had yet to have children, who was supposed to have so many years ahead of her, died. She was cancer free after two bone marrow transplants. She posted in her Facebook profile in July: “A few months ago I received a double cord bone marrow transplant. Today I found out my marrow is now all donor! Thank you to those moms who donate their cord blood.” So she beat cancer but because of the aggressive treatments she received, her body was unable to fight infection. What ultimately killed her was a fucking infection not cancer! I thought of a line in an old school salsa, “La cura resulta mas mala que la enfermedad.” I thought of my brother, and that familiar ache that sits in my solar plexus came rushing up and into my eyeballs.
I thought about death and grief and the pain Ana’s mother must be enduring right now. And I thought about my mom. She called me the other day to tell me she was going to be in my aunt’s house and I should stop by. My aunt lives two blocks from me while mom lives all the way in Brooklyn, in the same railroad style apartment I grew up in. An hour ride on the subway. A half hour ride by car. Far enough. It’s better that way.
As soon as I walked in, I knew something was up. Her nose was flared the way it only widens when she’s annoyed and has had it. She complained about my grandmother and how “she already started.” She huffed and complained for the next half hour until my aunt arrived. I sat and listened, careful not to ruffle her feathers.
When I was walking her to the train, she told me she’d gotten a call from my brother’s sister, I’ll call her Magda. The oldest child of the man who raped my mother and impregnated her with my brother. “She was crying,” mom said. She heard that my brother had died. She said she had to call. Has been wanting to call for so long. “She was crying so hard,” mom said. She asked for forgiveness. She said she always wanted to say she was sorry for what her father had done to her. “I didn’t know she knew, ma.” I looked at my mother. She stayed quiet and looked away. The lights of the Broadway traffic flashed across her face. Her eyes were glossy. “I don’t know who knows.”
Magda told mom something she never knew. When my brother visited the Dominican Republic years ago, he went to visit his father, to confront the man who was accused but never punished for raping my mother. He’d died just a month before. Magda took him to the cemetery and left him alone by the grave. I picture my brother crying and kicking at the dirt. The grass has just started to grow. He grabs the flowers someone had placed on the tombstone and throws them, “Fuck you and these flowers,” he screams. My brother leaves. He never gets his chance at closure or redemption. That night he gets falling over drunk on a lethal mixture of Mama Juana and Brugal. When he comes back to NY, his first stop is to his dealer’s spot. He doesn’t unpack for days.
Heroin was different. I loved it. It was the first thing that worked. It took away every scrap of hurt that I had inside of me. When I think of heroin now, it is like remembering a person I met and loved intensely. A person I know I must live without. ~”Heroin/e” by Cheryl Strayed
My brother’s father, Mario, had a total of 25 children. My brother was the youngest, and like him, a number of them are drug addicts. Five, my brother said. Their drug of choice? Heroin. They’re strewn across the globe, as far as Germany; some live here in NY and in the Dominican Republic. I wonder what they know. I wonder how much they know. I wonder how many of them are being choked by silence.
I go back to that day my brother told me, inhaling hard on a cigarette, “I’m a sin, sis. The bible says I’m a sin.” He chain smoked the entire time we talked in the hallway of my aunt’s building. This was the same day I told him about what I was writing, the silence I was breaking in my memoir. This was the same day he said, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody will fucking talk.”
We were almost at the train station when mom mentioned Millie. Her voice cracked when she said, desperately, “I don’t understand why Millie did that. Why did she tell my son? He was so young.” Millie told my brother when he was just 13 that he was the result of a rape. Millie also told my mom, over the phone, no less, that my brother was HIV positive.
This was the mid-1990s. Millie was living in Puerto Rico at the time. She said she moved to take care of her dying mother but her motives revealed themselves when word got back to mom that she had a new woman out there. Mom was devastated. They were on the phone when Millie told her, “Hold those tears. Hay muchas mas lagrimas que vas a llorar.” Mom didn’t understand. She pushed until Millie said she was going to tell her so she’d stop crying. So she’d save her tears. “Tu hijo tiene el SIDA.” Mom looked at me. I can tell she’s fighting not to cry. She’s so angry and hurt but she’s tired of crying over Millie’s malice. “Nobody knew who Millie was,” she said. And I know she’s right.
The Millie I knew wouldn’t do such a thing. The Millie I knew was gentle and kind and built a bike for me out of parts she got from friends and neighborhood junkyard. The Millie I knew taught me how to throw a jab and a hook when I was six years old and came home crying because I was being bullied. The Millie I knew wasn’t capaz of doing such a thing…but she did and I’m still grappling with that truth and what it means. Yes, I know people can be one thing to one person and something else to someone else but this…this is heinous, and the chasm between who I thought Millie was and the things she did is so enormous, I’m not sure I can reconcile the two…not in this grief.
It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue. ~ “Heroin/e” by Cheryl Strayed
When I first noticed the sore on my brother’s hand. It was just above his wrist where his thumb met his hand. I grabbed his hand when he reached for the cigarette I was passing him. “What’s that?” I grilled him, searching his face for what I don’t know. Guilt, maybe.
“Nothing. I cut myself.”
“You cut yourself?” I stared at him with disbelief. I couldn’t believe he thought I would buy that. I couldn’t believe he thought I was that stupid or that gullible. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”
“Ay, Vanessa, please.” My brother only called me by my name when he was annoyed or frustrated or just wanted me to shut the fuck up. When I heard later that he had to get it stitched shut, he didn’t answer my calls for days. When he did, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t have to. He knew I knew and I knew he was ashamed of himself. It was an unspoken thing between us—he showed me his shame and I didn’t rub it in his face.
“The hypodermic needle, I read, was the barrier that kept the masses from heroin. The opposite was true with me. I loved the clean smell of it, the tight clench around my arm, the stab or hurt, the dull badge of ache. It made me think of my mother. It made me think of her, and then that would go away into the loveliest bliss. A bliss I had not imagined.” ~Heroin/e
One time when he was living with me back in 2001 or 2002, we were sitting in my room watching television. He was nodding out and when he caught me staring at him, he said, “It’s the methadone, sis, I swear.” I knew better but I didn’t push it. Out of nowhere he said, “You know, sometimes when I’m high, I can see mom getting raped. I see it, sis. I see it happening.”
I didn’t say anything. I was too blown away by his audacity. I thought he was coming up with another excuse for his addiction, another rationalization. And I was pissed at him for using mom’s rape as a crutch. I was so wrong. My brother was showing me the depth of his pain. He was trying to show me how fucked up he really was. He was telling me about the cuco, the ghost that haunted him relentlessly. I didn’t really understand or pay attention until earlier this year, when he said, “I’m a sin, sis. The bible says I’m a sin.”
I dreamed of heroin. I woke in the middle of the night with a wanting so deep I was breathless. I had started seeing a therapist to talk about heroin. She told me that this wanting was normal, that indeed when you use heroin the brain responds by activating pleasure neurons that would normally remain dormant. She said it would take months for them to calm. Until then, they go on aching to be fed. Trying to trick our body into it. I could see them, spindly arms with mouths like flowers, blooming or wilting and then blooming again. “What about pain?” I asked her. “Are there neurons in the brain that come alive only with agony? And if so, how long does it take for them to die, to fold back into themselves and float away? ~”Heroin/e” by Cheryl Strayed
Did they ever calm for my brother, those pleasure neurons that helped him forget about his pain? How could they when they were the only thing that quieted the ghosts? Heroin was the only thing that numbed it all. It was the only thing that took away every scrap of hurt inside of him.
And those neurons that came alive with agony? They had a way of reincarnating. Of coming back again and again and again…and so he relapsed, again and again and again.
When my brother went back into the hospital the last time, he was placed in a room that had the most spectacular view of the East River. We watched boats sail by and the river swell up when it rained. Later, he was moved to a room that faced a wall. A wall someone painted with bright colors in geometric shapes. But it was still a wall and you couldn’t see the sun, it never came directly into the room. I hate it that that was the last thing my brother stared at before he died.
I learned yesterday that the Vikings believed that every man dies three times: first when his body gives up, the second when he is buried, and the third when his name is said for the last time.
I think my brother first died when he took his first hit of heroin. And he died again when he grabbed the needle and injected himself. He died every time he took a snort or wrapped a belt around his arm to push the needle in. He came back to life for short spurts when he was sober and trying to get his life together. He came back to life those last three months I spent with him. Even though he was in and out of consciousness sometimes because his body was so full of toxins from the years of drug abuse and his failing liver. He was the most alive in that hospital than I’d seen him in years. He died this past June 24th, but every time I write a story and even after this memoir is done and out in the world, I will never stop saying his name. Juan Carlos Moncada. And I will never stop telling our stories. My grandchildren will know about him and their grandchildren will hear about him and so he will be kept alive for generations to come. They will know him as Vasia called and still calls him, “Tio Tio.” My Superman. The man who taught me love and told me, “Write that shit, sis. Maybe somebody will fucking talk.”