Chronicles of a becoming

I want to sit and write but my desk is a mess, no, my room is a mess, no, I lie, my entire apartment is a mess. Oh dear! And, yes, and still, here I am, writing. Thinking about this FB author page I created, where I’ll share all things literary, my obsession with personal essay, and writing and authorship; and my recent discovery, let’s call it a slap right to the left cheek, a backhanded one, sharp like from a pimp, “writing isn’t everything. It can’t be.”

It had become…and then, mom stopped talking to me and I sank deep into that dark pit that I’d been running so hard from though it was eating at me inch by brutal inch, like a fucking plague, a flesh eating bacteria that hurt like scarabs eating me from the inside out…depression. And then, to get myself out, to claw my way out, I stopped writing. I started focusing on my healing without the writing. Because writing had become everything and it couldn’t be.

See, writing can only heal so much. There had to be a confrontation with myself outside of the page, in the mirror, in my talk therapy. A confrontation with that pain that I’d been ignoring but had followed me like relentless ghosts do, watching my every step, a shadow right next to my own, that pain from not being mothered, from never really being mothered beyond moments here and there. I wish I could tell you different. I wish I could write a different story but I can’t. That would be a lie, a fabrication. I wish I was being dramatic.

I wish I could tell you a story of a mother and daughter who loved each other fiercely like Cheryl Strayed writes about her mother. My mind goes to a student I had a few years back whose writing about her childhood was so syrupy sweet I needed an insulin shot after reading it. “What happened?” I asked. “Nothing, I had a good childhood.” “Great, but something happened? That’s why you’re here, wanting to write a memoir.” She stared at me, blinking a little too much. She looked from me to my handwriting on the chalkboard, at the chalkboards around the room. There were no windows in that room. I’ve never used that room again. The air was too stifling.

“In a story something happens. That’s beautiful that you had a lovely childhood but you can’t write a memoir about that.” I was jealous. I wished I had such a happy childhood. I wished I didn’t have to fight to be so well-adjusted, if you’d call me that. I had to struggle to be functional. I still do.

Finally, after prodding and pages and pages of freewrites and writing prompts, she said, “I found out when I was nineteen that my parents were alcoholics. They drank when we went to bed. They’d been doing that for years.” There it is. That’s what happened.

She dropped out of my class soon thereafter.


say go hard as
a point of reference
but being gentle with things is

(Bonafide Rojas, 2014)

I read this this morning and thought, “gentle, yes, gentle.” I needed the reminder. I want to go out and sit in the sun and play with my dog, but most of me wants to be alone, sitting in the dark like I am now. Feeling it. It’s been this way for a few days now.

June 1st, I woke up, turned over and felt that sadness that’s become so familiar I know her scent when she’s feeling extra powerful, putrid like an alley cat after a hissing fight. “Remember me?” Then she pounced. When I looked at my phone I knew. June 1st. A year ago my brother was still alive.

In late May he was released from the rehab on Livingston Street where he’d been since being released from the hospital where he’d been since March. He was in the rehab for a month. He was on heart meds and taking methadone. The doctors worried he’d relapse so he was sent to the rehab. He hated it there. “Look at these people,” he’d say, his lip curled, nose in the air looking down at the residents who limped and scratched at themselves. His roommate couldn’t walk. Every time I saw him, he was staring blankly at the TV screen just inches from his face.

I swallowed hard every time my brother said, “I don’t belong here.” He’d poke fun at them when we went out to smoke a cigarette. “You see that one? The second day I was here he told me, ‘Lemme such your dick. I’ll give you $20 if you lemme such your dick.’” Carlos laughed hard, his lips quivering over his toothless gums. I looked back at the gray-haired man in the wheelchair, scabs on his arms, his skin was ashen brown like no amount of lotion could get it back to its once beautiful brown. The man was staring at us, a sadness in his eyes that made me turn away quickly.

Carlos never realized or accepted that he looked like them. That he was one of them. An addict. He had that sallow cheeked, deep-set-lost-eyes look that long time addicts get. His face drooped like a Bloodhound’s. I don’t have pictures of him in his final months. They make me cringe and cry. I want to remember him when he was strong…when he was still Superman.

Carlos was out of the rehab for all of a week or so before he went back to the hospital with swelling in his legs and feet. I met up with him one day. He took me for dumplings, a mutual addiction, at one of his favorite spots near his apartment in Chelsea. He walked with me to Trader Joe’s and we were supposed to walk around the city and hang out, like we used to do, going into little shops, imagining that one day we’d have the money to buy those $400 shades and that $200 t-shirt. But Carlos couldn’t. “I can’t walk a block without feeling out of breath,” he said, leaning on a lamppost. “Imma go home.” I offered to walk him the few blocks but he refused, “No, go do what you gotta do, I’ll be fine.” He went into the hospital two days later and never came back out. He never saw July.

On June 24th, it’ll be a year since I got that call at 2:30 in the morning that my brother had passed. I’ll be back in Berkeley. I have a feeling that’s where he wants me to be.


It’s hard to write in and about this grief. You worry that people will judge you. You worry that they’ll say, “Oh get over it already.” I think of a friend I saw recently who asked about the book. “You ain’t done yet?” It’s startling every time those words are hurled at me. Yes, it feels like you’re hurling a load of bricks at me. It’s a stoning.

“My brother’s death shifted the book a lot.”

“Yeah, that was a while ago, though, right?”

I didn’t know months was a while. I didn’t know you’re supposed to just pick yourself up and keep on going after the most devastating loss of your life.

Writing a book is hard enough. Hearing “finish that book already” or “Damn, you ain’t done yet” or some other iteration of a reminder that no, you’re not fuckin’ done yet, carajo, doesn’t make the process any easier. Grief is a universe, two moons and three suns on top of those stones. I’m still re-learning this new normal. I’m still growing into the Vanessa who can finish this book…who will.

I’m afraid though.

I’m afraid because I feel like this book is a goodbye to my brother and I don’t want to say goodbye.

I feel that it is a letting go and I don’t want to let him go.

I don’t need anyone to tell me that it isn’t. I don’t need anyone to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I don’t want advice. I don’t want to hear, “You have to get over it” or “He’s with you always.” I know these things. I just need to feel this right now.


Song of the Builders

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early (2004)

What’s crazy about grief is that even through the sadness that sometimes pervades and sits on your belly and chokes you, I can see the beauty of it, of everything.

Last night, as I was making my way passed the park, the beauty of the moon over the canopy of forest took my breath so I choked up and tears welled my eyes. “Gracias,” I whispered to her. I was supposed to meet friends on Dyckman. Instead, I went home. I wanted that moon’s glow to be my “Buenas noches.”

A few days ago, I was sitting working at my desk when my daughter went into the bathroom and started belting out a song at full lilt in front of the mirror. I sat and listened to the cadence of her voice, as she started over and over, adjusting her voice to make the notes. I listened to the shuffling of her feet as she danced around, performing for herself and her imagined audience. She came out and said, “Look mami, I was like this,” and she started singing into the handle of the mop. I laughed hard and pulled her into my chest. My sweet baby girl.

A simple text from a friend, saying, “thinking of you” can bring me to tears then make me giggle in all of a nanosecond.

And, no, I’m not crazy. I’m not exaggerating. I’m not over-emotive. I’m grieving. I’m doing the best that I can. I’m learning a new normal. I’m learning how it feels to be more present and aware and grateful. It’s a process. I’m in it. And, today, I’m sharing it.

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