How we live

Every child wants to know about her birth and asks, Where did I come from? Many are answered with a birth story that speaks to the child of who she is and will be and that sets her life in motion in a particular way. Mothers know the story and tell it like a favorite fairy tale to the child, who rests her head on her pillow, on her way to sleep.

But sometimes the stories of origin are troubled, riven with complexity and unanswered questions, and bespeak a cloudy future. ~ “The Art of Being Born” by Marcia Aldrich in Best American Essays 2013

I don’t have a birth story. I don’t know how I came into this world. I don’t know who if anyone was in the room with mom when I came out, screaming and hungry and sickly. I know the pre-birth story. That mom was on birth control when I was conceived. That she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was four months along. That the doctors told her she should have an abortion because I’d likely be born with severe health problems. That mom refused. That when she told my father, dad accused her of setting him up, he chased her into the street and tried to beat me out of her. Mom was in and out of the hospital after that with pregnancy complications.

Then I know the post-birth story. When mom took me home, everything she fed me I either threw up or diarrheaed out. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Every medication they gave me, every new formula I was given, every new regimen, failed. Mom told me of her countless carreras to the hospital. When I dehydrated. When I projectile vomited for hours. When I was so weak I couldn’t raise my head. Finally she took me to a specialist a doña recommended and he referred me to St. John’s Medical Center, the hospital to which he was affiliated. I was admitted to the NICU. They did so many tests on me; genetics and blood tests on mom. They even asked if they could test my father’s blood, but papi refused. He didn’t even give me his last name until months after I was born.

One day mom came to see me after work, after she’d gone home to check on her other children, my sister and brother. Mom said I was sprawled out, wires and tubes sticking out of me, I had to get the IV through my head because the veins in my legs and arms were too weak to hold the IV. I had bruises from where they’d tried to stab the needle in. I looked like I hadn’t been touched tenderly all day. They told mom there was nothing they could do. That I wasn’t going to make it. Mom said she got on her knees and begged God, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir, llevatela.” Something came over her. She knew if I stayed there I would die. She started ripping the nodes off of me. The doctors thought she had gone crazy. They made her sign a form releasing them of liability. Then they created a makeshift board so mom could carry me because my bones were so weak, I couldn’t be held to my mother’s chest. I was only months old and I couldn’t be held to my mom’s chest; I couldn’t listen to the throb of the heart that lulled me when I was curled inside of her. That’s how mom carried me to the American Center (what mom to this day calls Columbia Presbyterian hospital), holding me on a board which she held out in front of her, her arms bent at the elbow.

There was an enzyme specialist visiting from Boston. He found that the birth control had eaten at my liver so I was born without enzymes to digest my food, and I was diabetic. I was in the hospital for four months. When I was finally released, the doctor put me on a special diet of yucca water. Mom had to grind the yucca every morning and wait until it settled. Then she scooped up the cloudy water that remained and fed it to me. When I responded well to that and started gaining weight, mashed avocado was added to my diet. Mom hunted the city looking for aguacate when it was out of season. I’m alive because of my mother. And, yet, I don’t know my birth story.

“But sometimes the stories of origin are troubled, riven with complexity and unanswered questions, and bespeak a cloudy future.”

What cloudy future did the unanswered question bespeak?

There have been so many cloudy futures bespoken by things that weren’t said in my family. Questions that were never asked. Answers that were never offered. I’m only now starting to feel the full weight of that reality as I mourn my brother and write our stories, and as I mother my daughter while working through this immense grief.


Maybe that’s why I’m so open with my daughter. Why I tell her so much. Why she knows that I almost lost her at three months. That I was on bed rest for weeks after the near-miscarriage. She knows that she is a C-Section baby. That I was in labor for 26 hours. That I flipped out on her father when he was trying to get me to focus on a tile in the wall when I was in the grip of the most intense pain I’ve ever experienced; worse than the pain of getting hit by a car while rollerblading to class in my sophomore year of college.

I started teaching my daughter about God when she was in pre-school. I introduced her to God by telling her that God was in everything. When we walked to school, she’d point at things and ask: “Is God in the tree, mommy?” “Yes, it is.” “Is God in the stop sign?” Yes. One day a dog pooped in front of us. Vasialys giggled and gave me that face she does when she’s about to say something silly—eye brows arched, eyes smiling and wide. “Mommy, is God in poop?” We both laughed. “Yes, God is in poop too, baby girl.”

“God is in you too, mama. You’re a piece of God.” She marveled at this; that God could exist inside her too. I taught her that her body is a temple, that it, she is sacred, and if anyone violated her, if they touched her in a way that felt uncomfortable or unsafe, that they were violating God, and she should tell me right away. One day, when Vasialys was six, as we were setting up to watch a movie (Titanic, I think, she so loves that movie), she asked: “Why do you tell me to be careful so much, mommy?” That’s when I told her that a man had touched me when I was six; that I didn’t know that it was wrong and that it wasn’t my fault because no one had ever told me. My daughter’s eyes grew big like saucers and she frowned the most painful frown I’ve ever seen. She leaned in and asked, “Mommy, are you okay?” My daughter was the first one to ever ask me if I was okay about what had happened to me when I was six.


My daughter was six when I first wrote White Straw Climbs, the story about being molested by Millie’s uncle Valentín when I was six. It wasn’t until I saw that my daughter was just a baby that I realized that I was a baby when it happened to me. I’d been blaming myself for 29 years. And I’d punished myself for it.

It was my fault. I’d gone over to him willingly. I knew he was going to do something. He’d done it before. I didn’t understand the gravity of what he did until much later, but I knew that it was wrong. And, I knew it was my fault.

Now I understood why Mami lectured me and Dee about being careful with men, wearing shorts underneath our skirts and dresses, buttoning our blouses all the way up, sitting with our legs crossed. I always wondered why, what was the big deal. Now I understood why Mom beat me that time I’d lingered on Tio Damian’s lap, ignoring her dagger eyes. She caught me in the shower that night and lashed me so hard with her correa that the Ho from the “Honduras” embossing stayed imprinted on my thigh for days. “The next time I see you en la falda de un hombre, te voy a romper la cara!” She didn’t explain why but that day I regretted not listening.

I lay in the tub and let the hot water run until it singed my skin. I wished Mom had saved me from having to learn the why for myself. I wished she’d told me about what some men do. I wished I’d listened. I was dirty and desobendiente and had to be punished. I started scratching my inner thigh first. I moved up slowly. I clawed until I bled. Then I cried quietly into my bloody hands, telling myself that I deserved it. Every time I peed, the sting reminded me of my crime and my punishment.

I mutilated for months after, even after Valentín moved back to Puerto Rico. I never got close enough for him to touch me again. ~ Excerpt from “White Straw Climbs,” A Dim Capacity for Wings – A Memoir by Vanessa Mártir


I still wonder if I made the right decision. If I tell my daughter too much. If I’m too open with her because no one was open with me. Because silence devastated my family so deeply that I don’t know when some things should wait until later to be told, if ever. I’m still figuring it all out. And I’m growing up as I go. I want to say I’m growing more whole but I’m still so very much fragmented. Am I more aware? Most of the time, yes.  But I’m realizing that this work is taking a lot out of me and I have to re-asses my self-care, or lack thereof. It’s a process, as is everything; a wrenching process that can begin to chew at you if you aren’t careful. I’m at that space again where I’m feeling gnawed on. Pummeled. My friends have told me that maybe I need to take a break from the work. “Remember your joy,” one friend wrote me yesterday. The thing is, I’m from the “the-only-way-out-is-in” school. What’s helped me through the immense grief of losing my brother, Carlos, is the writing, writing his story, ours…but it’s also brought up a shitload of pains that I’d never dealt with. That I didn’t know was still there.

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. ~ “Heroine/e” by Cheryl Strayed


The last day I saw my brother, he was in a lot of pain. His feet and legs were swollen because of his failing heart. Apparently, a failing heart causes your body to retain water. Part of Carlos’s treatment involved a limited intake of fluid. That meant, he could only have 8 ounces of water a day. And, he had to pee into a container that measured it by the milliliter, then he had to write that number on the whiteboard that was on the wall at the foot of his bed. Every day that number was lower and lower. 8 milliliters because 6 then 5 then 4.

On the last day I saw him, on Friday, June 21st, I walked in to find my Carlos with his feet propped up on a stack of pillows. His feet looked like they were bulging; like there was so much pressure on his skin from the inside, that his skin was cracking and flaking, the flesh beneath wanting to burst and break free. I dug into my bag and took out the bit of Eucerin I had that I used to treat my hands that dried up from the weights and boxing gloves. I started massaging his feet. They felt hard to my touch. Hard like rocks. Like cement. Carlos asked me to be gentler. “Soft, sis, they hurt.” I started rubbing in slow, circular motions like I did to my nena’s chest when she was just two years old and got such a bad cold that I eventually had to take her to the emergency room. Carlos moaned softly and fell asleep. I don’t remember ever having touched his feet before.

When I left, he was feeling better. He wasn’t nodding off like he did sometimes in the middle of a conversation. The doctors explained that it was because his liver was too weak to clean his blood of the toxins that he’d been putting in it for fifteen years. I hugged him tight and kissed the top of his head. He’d just shaved the day before so his head was already a little stubby. “Imma be okay, sis.” He squeezed my hand.

I made like I was about to leave, then I pulled the curtain back. He was smiling, like he knew I was going to do that. “I love you,” he mouthed. That’s the last image I have of him—him smiling. He died two days later.


Feet washing is ancient. The Bible records washing as a Christian custom ritual; it’s seen as a gesture of humility based on the belief that Jesus washed the feet of his apostles on the evening of their final meal together. Members of some Christian sects believed that foot washing imparted salvific grace to the recipient. In others it’s seen as a way to seek and celebrate reconciliation with the receiver. In Hindu culture of India, touching the feet of others is a sign of respect.

I’m not sure what made me massage my brother’s feet. Maybe it was that I needed to feel connected to him. Maybe on some unconscious level I was seeking confirmation that we had reconciled after spending so much time apart, not talking, of my resenting him and not trusting him for so long. Maybe I wanted to imbue him with salvific grace. Maybe this was my last desperate attempt at saving him. Maybe I just wanted to ease his pain.

What I do know is that I’ve gone back to that moment often since he died…when I’m feeling his loss like a sledgehammer to my chest, when I’m crying so hard that I feel like I’m suffocating. It reminds me of how we were. It reminds me that he’s still here, if not in body, then in spirit, in my hands and my heart. In the way I live my life. Every. Single. Day.


  1. I remember sitting in your class and taking in all the information you fed my ears, information I kinda forgot now, but one thing I never forget was that after correcting one of my papers you said “good stuff, keep writing”. From that moment I received the motivation I need to continue writing. Writing has become a way to expressing myself. It seems as if things are understood better that way, words come faster, tears run freely, and weight is lifted off my shoulder and onto the paper. I’m not going to lie I take breaks from time to time but your words repeat over an over again and pick up a pen a begin another untold story but I drop the pen again.

    Something today made search your name and I got to this page. Wonderful. I read the first entry and I’m touched. Maybe because part of it remind me of my self. I don’t know if it’s because when I was younger I always wanted to be like you; strong, motivated and determined. I’m glad to know that as I keep writing so do you. I hope you never stop writing because it’s through our writing we will always stay connect. Thank you Ms. Martir. May god be with you and your family. God bless you and those around you. Love, Paloma ❤

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