On fear and grief and how they shift us

When I was growing up, I wasn’t scared of anyone like I was scared of my mother. And I don’t mean that healthy kind of fear. I mean that terrified, paralyzing kind of fear. That guttural fear I imagine you’d feel if you saw a black bear barreling at you. So yesterday, when my mother fell into my arms sobbing, “I want my son. Ay Vanessa, I want my son,” that fear came back. Except now I’m not scared of her, my trembling mother who suddenly feels so small in my arms; I’m scared for her.


As a kid, we hung out on the front steps of our building, me, my sister and the neighborhood kids. We dispersed quickly when Mom walked out, her face stern, a cigarette in her hand. All of five feet tall, she could take up the entire eight feet of the door frame and the four feet of the foyer. Some of the kids walked down Palmetto Street, others up Ridgewood Place. A few brave stragglers sat on the car hoods in front of the building, fidgeting with the seams of our jeans or staring down at the gutter, cracking the vials with the front of our shoes. No one looked directly at her.

They named her “Rambette,” the female version of Rambo. She was that menacing in her silence. She inhaled her cigarette in long drags, glaring through squinted eyes. When she was done, she flicked it into the street, rolled her eyes and went inside. No one approached our building for hours. Her force lingered there. ~Excerpt from A Dim Capacity for Wings


It’s the second time it’s happened since September: I get a call from my nephew telling me something’s up with my mom. He got a call from the school she works at and calls me right away. I imagine his hands shaking as much as his voice. I run to get my daughter and jump on the train. During the entire one hour ride to Brooklyn, I try everything to distract myself. I read. I listen to music. I help my daughter with her homework. I try to meditate. I breathe in long inhales and exhales. Still, the terror sits on the back of my neck so I feel like a bent over cavewoman. The words play on loop in my chest, “Please God, I can’t lose my mother.”


My lungs have not been the same since I got the call at 2:30 in the morning on June 24th that my brother had died. All I did that week was cry and write and smoke cigarettes. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. Then I quit in August. And still, my asthma did not subside. It got worse.

Last week, my lungs almost gave out while I was hiking in the woods of Inwood Park. This wasn’t the first time that’s happened.

The first time was while I was on the ten day cruise I emptied my bank account to take my mother on. I was in the gym working out when my lungs seized. I tried to keep going, to breathe deeply through it but my lungs weren’t having it. I walked slowly to my room. The elevator ride down from the top deck to the first floor felt like an eternity. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back on the wall, and I breathed as deeply as I could, which at that point was shallow and wheezy. I felt the walls of the corridor contract and expand with every gasp I took. The chemicals that are used to clean the ship stung my nostrils and eyes. When I finally made it to the room, I crawled to the nebulizer that was sitting at the foot of my bed and threw the mask over my face. That’s when I let myself cry. I stayed in the room for an hour, until my mom came in. I pretended to be sleeping. I didn’t want her to know.

It happened again once while I was jogging in late September. I was doing interval training, running up a hill as fast as I could and jogging back down. At one point, I felt my lungs seize before I made it to the top of the hill. My albuterol inhaler didn’t work. I started to panic. I stripped off my sweatshirt and put my head between my legs. The rattling of my lungs scared the shit out of me. I had to talk myself into calming down, breathing deep and purposeful, kinda like I do when I meditate.

I ran away from the truth of what was happening until last Tuesday, November 5th, the day after my lungs almost gave out in the woods. That night, I was writing about my brother. As soon as I typed, “When my brother died,” I felt a sledgehammer hit my chest. My lungs seized again and I felt suddenly like the thermal I was wearing was a straitjacket. I started shaking and crying. I couldn’t stop. I felt like I was hyperventilating, except I’ve never hyperventilated so I don’t know if that’s what it was. The nebulizer’s been in the same spot next to my bed since I got back from the cruise in August. With shaking hands, I squirted an albuterol capsule into the mask and pushed it over my mouth. My breathing improved but I spent the next hour trembling and crying. I used the nebulizer four times over the next twelve hours.

There’s no running from it anymore—grief has taken over my lungs. I had to do something and I had to do it quick.


Mom passed out at work. She had a few anxiety attacks a while back, had EKGs and other heart monitoring texts. She carried a box connected to her chest for 24 hours to track her heart rhythm. She told me the doctor changed her medication and said it was all related to my brother’s illness and ultimate death. She said she was feeling better and her cardiologist was monitoring her. I believed her.

I called her yesterday after getting the call from my nephew. She was crying and all she could say was, “Vanessa, ay, Vanessa.” Her principal got on the phone and revealed what mom had confessed: she almost fainted last week; Friday night, she fainted in her kitchen while she was alone; it happened again yesterday, but this time there was someone there to witness it. Mom wouldn’t let them call the ambulance.

When I arrived, mom was walking back home from the cardiologist whose office is just a few blocks away. I sat in her livingroom, my leg shaking uncontrollably like it does when I’m in a panic. We fell into eachother when she walked in. “I want my son. Ay Vanessa, I want my son.”

She looks so small now, my mother. Her eyes were rimmed with red splotches, like a raccoons eyes, except the black is red, bright red, like she’d been punched or had been crying for hours or hadn’t slept. Turns out, she had been crying uncontrollably and she hasn’t slept. Her cardiologist wanted to admit her to the hospital for 24-48 hours to observe her heart. Mom refused. She showed me the prescription for Xanax he gave her. “I’m not taking that. Ju crasy? No!”

A few minutes later, she curled up on her bed and fell asleep. I heated up the beef stew she insisted I eat. “Come, hija,” she said. I still felt her bones shaking in my chest, the way they shook while I held her. I couldn’t eat with my heart aching like that.

“Okay, I’ll heat it up. Go lie down.” She listened and slept for the four hours I was there. I checked in on her and covered her with her blanket. I smoothed her hair out of her face and watched her, looking so peaceful and silent.


I’m only 38 and have been on my own for 25 years. I left my mother’s house when I was just 13. I’ve never regretted the decision though becoming a woman by myself, through trial and error, was hard, so hard I feel the knot of it in my throat every time I think about it. But I also realize, that I’ve blamed my mother for two decades for a lot of shit that I was responsible for. Yes, it’s true that she was difficult, but I’m still just as responsible for us not having a relationship. The truth is, I stopped trying long ago.

I remember reading a book once (or was it a line in a movie?) where a man was blaming his father for his life, mistakes he’d made, pain he’d carried. His father said something like, “You can blame me for what happened to you in childhood but only you are responsible for what happened to you as an adult.” I was so angry when I read that line. I resented it. I resented the truth in it. I resented that it made me stare in the mirror. I couldn’t stare back. I wasn’t ready to admit it, but now I am. Now I have to because, carajo, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if I don’t keep working on mending this relationship with my mother.

I realize that the weight of my brother’s death isn’t only mine, and while I struggle to hold myself up under its crippling weight, I have to hold mom up too, though she pushes me away when I try. She’s so stubborn, my mama. And I’m so much like her.

Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them. They move on. They move away. The moments that used to define them—a mother’s approval, a father’s nod—are covered by moments of their own accomplishments. It is not until much later, as the skin sags and the heart weakens, that children understand; their stories, and their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stone upon stones, beneath the waters of their lives. ~Mitch Albom, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven


I’ve been struggling to write since last Friday. I forced myself to get at least 150 words per day. I confess, it was terrible, whiny writing, but at least I wrote and that comforted me a bit, though since I’ve been so prolific over the past few months, the comfort was small and fleeting. Yesterday, something gave. Maybe it was the crushing rejections I’ve gotten over the past few days. I understand that rejection is a part of a writer’s life, but these were especially hurtful because, well, I’m in a soft space and I’ve been working so hard, and, yes, I really, really wanted these. Or maybe it’s that they came in rapid-fire succession like a fucking uzi. Or maybe it’s that I made myself sit with the ache. Or maybe it was that Mercury retrograde is finally over. Thank God!

Over those few days, I fluctuated between absolute terror over not being able to finish my memoir to feeling that maybe I’m not strong enough, not built for this. Certainly the fact that you haven’t finished it is evidence of your weakness. And the fact that you didn’t win that contest judged by one of your writing idols is proof that your writing is shit and nobody cares. We do a number on ourselves when we’re feeling weak, don’t we?

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are a part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.”…[My dark side says,] I am no good…. I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence. ~Henri J.M. Nouwen

It happened while I was sitting at the teacher’s desk in a South Bronx high school waiting for my next student. I had been staring out the window at the park across the street. When I walked out that morning, whispy snowflakes floated in the air. The air was crisp, the sky gray, the colors of the leaves bright. I thought, “Winter is here and so is 38. Oh shit!” (I’ll be 38 in just under a month.)

Across the street from the school, etched into the wall of the entrance to the park are two words: “I am.” That’s it. Just two words. Two full, demanding, questioning words. “I am…” What am I? Who am I? 38 and what have I done. That’s when I turned back to my screen and started writing. Thank God, I started writing.



When I went to check on my mom before I left, I watched her for a few minutes. I thought about how brave she is and doesn’t even know it. I thought about how she managed to raise three children while dealing with the trauma of being raped and having been raised in the kind of poverty that we only see in Save the Children commercials. I thought about how she never left my brother’s side, how she loved him con pena, how she longs for him. I thought about how I’d broken down and told her, “Mami, please, you have to get therapy. You have to do something. I can’t lose you. I can’t.” I thought about how broken she looked.

She woke up and smiled up at me. She looked so frail. “I have to go, ma. Vasia has school tomorrow.”

She leaned up and kissed me. Mom always walks me to the front of the building when I visit. She didn’t yesterday.

I teared up and hugged her tight. “I’m gonna be ok, mama,” she said. My throat clenched. My brother told me that the last time I saw him: “I’m gonna be ok, sis.” He died four days later.

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” ~Toni Cade Barbara, Salteaters

I’m scared that something will happen to my mother. She doesn’t want to listen to the doctors. She doesn’t want to take anti-anxiety or anti-depression medicine. She doesn’t want to take sleeping pills. She doesn’t want to be internada for 24 to 48 hours so the cardiologist can observe her heart. I told her I’d stay with her. I’ll sleep on the chair in her room if she wants. Anything to get her to listen to what her body is telling her. Anything to get her to stay on this earth a while longer. Anything to have a relationship with her, this woman who scared the shit out of me when I was a kid, who I wanted (and still want) to just love me.


A week after facing the grief that’s made a home of my lungs, I feel their strength coming back as I coddle and purge them. I’m not out of breath all the time and although I’m not 100%, I’m much better. And I’m writing again. Lord, I’m writing.

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