“Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.” ~James Baldwin
I told a friend the other day that I learned solitude in boarding school, and I relearned solitude in grief.
In just a few days, on the 24th, it will be a year and seven months since it happened on June 24th, 2013. Since I lost my brother and I was changed forever…
Those first days are such a blur. I was at VONA. I stayed because he sent me. Because when we got the news that he wasn’t going to make it, he said, “You have to go, sis. You have to go write.” That was on a Thursday. He died that following Monday, the first day of my writing residency at VONA. There’s a lot I don’t remember about those days, but what I do remember is clear and specific.
That morning, after the news had spread, I ran away from a friend who’d known my brother, who when I told her my brother had died, asked, “Why didn’t you tell me it got so bad?” I sat in the courtyard and dug my face into my hands, trying to muffle my sobs.
How could I tell anyone my brother was dying when I hadn’t admitted that to myself?
That morning Diem, Executive Director of VONA, took me into the woods. Bless that man for knowing what I needed. My friends and mentors Diem and Elmaz Abinader and Mat Johnson had all asked, “What do you need?” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I needed. It was hard enough to breathe, to walk, to deal with the world that just kept on moving when I wanted it to collapse just like I had. “If you need us to buy you a ticket, we will. Just say what you need.”
When we got to the woods of Tilden Regional Park, Diem walked away to leave me time to breathe. A hawk screeched through the canopy. Smaller birds chirped their panic, blue jays, finches, sparrows. I looked up into the trees. “What do I do? I don’t know what to do,” I prayed. That’s when I heard my brother’s voice. “Stay, sis. You have to stay.”
When we got back to campus, my sister friend Sharline walked over while I was sitting in the quad watching the hummingbirds. (They followed me that entire week.) Sharline sat quietly and rolled up her drum cigarette. “I’m staying,” I said in almost a whisper.
“Can I say something?” That’s one of the things I love about the community that is VONA, they ask permission first. “I think your brother gave you a gift by telling you to come,” Sharline said. “If I know anything about you, I know that you take care. It’s who you are. If you were in NY right now, you’d be taking care. Your brother knew that here you don’t have to do that. Here we can take care of you.” I fell into her chest.
I threw myself onto the page. I’m a writer, it’s what we do. It’s all I had. But what came out didn’t make sense. It was jagged like staccato, clave with no rhythm. Still, I pushed. I tried. That night, I was sitting in the lounge trying to write. I was frustrated and tense. I watched the students around me. They were glowing in that way VONA makes you glow—bright and free and safe. I was jealous of their joy. My sister friend Cynthia pulled me outside. When I explained what was going on, she sighed. “Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense, Vanessa. Grief doesn’t make sense. That’s why jazz fucked up the world, because it was the grief of a people.” Those words helped me loosen up and let what was coming in.
By Wednesday I was suffocating. I needed to get off campus and I needed to do it quick. A group of VONA students and I ended up walking miles into Oakland to a bar that a drunk girl from Portland kept telling us was right down the block. When we got there we ordered a drink and just as we were raising our hands to toast, Rihanna’s “Stay” came on. I felt grief clamp down on my throat. I ran out of the bar and stood on the sidewalk edge trying to breathe through it. I don’t know what it is to hyperventilate but that’s what it felt like. I tried to cry but couldn’t. Crying would have been a relief. When I finally caught my breath after what felt like hours, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Arianne, the sister I had seen on the BART on my way into Berkeley that first day. I had walked over and said, “VONA, right?” It was a perfect entry to VONA for the both of us.
“You don’t have to do this alone,” she said and stepped closer so I could felt her warmth crawl into my chest. “What’s up? What are you feeling?”
“I’ve been here every year for the past five years. I know what VONA does. I don’t want to taint anyone’s VONA with my grief.”
Arianne nodded and looked up at the street light, then back at me. “Can I share something?” She waited for my permission. “I’ve been studying wine. On the ground where the grapes are grown to make champagne, thousands of people died in battle. What feeds those grapes, what gives them body and texture, is blood. Blood is what gives those grapes life, Vanessa. Please don’t deny how your blood is feeding VONA.”
I look back at these moments and know they were pivotal in my journey through grief and my decision to chronicle it.
I think of those hummingbirds that followed me everywhere during that trip so that anyone who was around me noticed. When I went back to VONA the following year, I looked for those hummingbirds. They were nowhere to be found those first few days. Still, I searched for them everywhere I went, on campus, on walks to the park, in the trees and bushes. Then, the morning of my brother’s anniversary on June 24th, 2014, as I walked out of the building with my homegirl Angie, a hummingbird zipped in front of us. We stopped, shocked by the suddenness and urgency of the bird’s flight. He perched on a branch at eye level and watched. Angie and I looked at each other. “That’s for you, you know.” “Yes,” I said with a smile. I was relieved. Just then, a girl with a Superman t-shirt (to match the one I was wearing) walked toward me. I giggled and teared up. I knew that was him, my Superman Juan Carlos, saying, “See me, I’m right here. I never left you.”
Some will say that’s just coincidence. I don’t believe that. I can’t. Sometimes it’s all I’ve had to keep going.
I spent the months after Carlos died writing and grieving. I wrote about the journey, I wrote about what we’d shared over those last three months I spent with him. I wrote down all the stories mom shared with me, so many secrets revealed. I chronicled all of it. Then, something shifted. The page stopped being comforting.
If I had to pick a day when it started, I’d say it was Thanksgiving. I shot out of bed, completely unable to breathe. It was like my breath was caught in the middle of my trachea. I was choking on my grief. All I kept thinking was: He should be here. He should be here. Carajo, he should be here. I called my aunt who is very much a surrogate mother to me. I couldn’t even talk. All I could do was sob into the phone. “Come over,” she said. “Come over right now.” I woke up my daughter who stared at me with those huge, expressive eyes of hers that tell you exactly how she’s feeling. Vasia was scared for her mama. I couldn’t protect her from my grief. We ran to titi’s house in our pajamas. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth. Later that day, one of titi’s boys (I don’t remember which one) came with me to pick up clothes. They made sure we weren’t alone. I didn’t get home until late into the night.
Carlos loved the holidays. He’d call me and say, “When we going shopping, sis?” We’d scour the city for sales, making sure to get something for everyone in our little family. I couldn’t handle not getting that call that first year. I couldn’t handle going to Macy’s Santaland or to see the tree in Rockefeller Center. There were days in December that I didn’t get out of bed. Everything hurt. The simplest thing would send me into crying fits, but what scared me the most was the rage. It was hot and it was white and it was old.
What made me finally get help? My baby girl.
It started out of nowhere just after the holidays in January. She refused to go with her dad one weekend. She’s been going to her father’s house every other weekend for the past eight years so I was surprised by it, but I thought it would pass. I was wrong. The next time, my usually mild-mannered, all the time chill nine year old, had an all-out anxiety attack. She cried and screamed that if I loved her, I wouldn’t force her to go. “I don’t wanna leave you, mommy. I just wanna be with you.”
When I spoke to her father, he tried to get me to use force, and he was totally against therapy when I suggested it. He’s from the school of “if you go to therapy, it’s ‘cause you’re crazy.” He insisted, “I’ve worked with hundreds of kids, Vanessa. She doesn’t need therapy.” Of course, I got the insurance information from him and took her anyway. Baby girl lives with me 95% of the time, so the decision was mine. I’m not trying to bash him here. He may not have been the ideal partner but I know he loves his daughter. The thing is, when decisions like this have to be made, I don’t wait for or expect his approval. I do what I have to do.
It took a little while to find a therapist for her. I had to call around. I discovered that there’s a plethora of therapy options for preteens and teens but the nine year old and below set are pretty under-provided for, or at least that was my experience. When I finally found one on the upper west side, I was a little confused when she told me she wanted to meet with me first.
I wasn’t nervous until I got out of the C train station on 72nd and Central Park West. The wind rustled the trees in the park. They were naked but still so pretty with their sharp edges poking into the gray sky.
The waiting room was all dark wood and dim lamp lights. It reminded me of a college dean’s office. There was the staple fake plant in the corner that looks real but you’ve seen so many of them in offices, you know it can’t be. There were National Geographic’s on the round center table and a few Highlights for kids, so I knew at least one of the therapists specialized in children. There were even a few Psychology Today magazines. I was reaching for one when she came out of her office.
The therapist, we’ll call her K, was in her early 50s, with roots that needed to be touched up badly, glasses that were held up by the tip of her nose, and a waifish figure that was not complimented by her far too large suit. I get modesty but jeez, lady. Still, she was gracious and her eyes were kind.
The first thing I noticed was that she had no computer in her office. Unlike the waiting area, it was brightly lit and had hardly any wood at all. In fact, it was mostly white, except for the throw on the couch and the rug on the floor.
She signaled for me to sit either on the couch or the chair in front of hers. I opted for the chair. I mean, I’m not the one getting therapy.
She ruffled through some papers, grabbed a pen from her desk, pushed her glasses up her nose (by that time I wondered how they were still on) and looked at me with a small smile. The woman wasn’t exactly cold but she wasn’t warm either. She was pleasant. Professional. I wasn’t going to be inviting her out to coffee anytime soon and we’d definitely never share a pitcher of sangria at Camaradas but I felt safe enough.
“So, how do you pronounce your daughter’s name?” She proceeded to ask me basic questions about Vasia, her age, grade, hobbies. “So, what’s been going on?”
“I don’t understand,” I stammered. “Shouldn’t you be asking Vasia that?”
“Well, yes, I will, but I thought I’d ask you first. You’re her mom so what’s going on with you is what’s going on with her.”
I felt the knot build in my chest but I swallowed it down and started. I told her about Carlos’s death six months prior and everything that happened after, how mom had stopped talking to us, how her godmother (now former godmother) had basically abandoned her, how Vasia stopped dancing because it was just too much for me to keep up with it while I was grieving. “It’s a lot for a nine year old,” I said. I gasped for air; I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t been breathing.
Kay leaned back in her chair, cocked her head and folded her hands on her lap. “That’s a lot for you, too.” I started heaving and crying and could do nothing to make it stop. Kay didn’t rush me. She passed me a box of tissues and waited. She didn’t stare but she didn’t look away either. She just waited for me to get myself together.
“I’m sorry,” I said, over and over. “I just…I’m sorry.”
She nodded softly and waited. Then she said, “You know, taking care of yourself is taking care of Vasialys.” She pronounced my baby girl’s name perfectly. More tears.
By the time I saw her again the following week, I’d contacted the social worker at one of my teaching gigs and was going through the process of finding a therapist for myself. I started therapy the week after my little girl did. By that May, baby girl started easing her way back into her weekend routine with her dad, and I was getting a hold of my grief through weekly therapy sessions that cost me $75 a pop but were worth every penny.
For the first time, a stranger affirmed how I was feeling about my grief. My therapist, we’ll call her B, explained so many things in ways that I could wrap my brain and heart around and take them in. When I explained my childhood and how I’d always been made to feel like I was too sensitive—“ay, a ti no se te puede decir nada,” my mom would say—my therapist said, “You know, when you deny someone their emotions, you deny their existence.” B helped me see that I wasn’t just mourning my brother, I was also grieving my mom. She helped me forgive myself for walking away from my mom, reminding me that I didn’t deserve to be treated so cruelly and putting myself first was a matter of self-preservation for both me and my daughter.
It’s been six months since I’ve been in therapy. Therapy gave me a perspective I’ve been digging into in my life and my stories. It’s helped me see where this struggle with self-worth comes from, how paralyzed I’ve often been by it even though I continue to be productive and push back. More than anything, therapy taught me that I can be better, that healing is a journey, one I’ve consciously been on for some time. As a result of therapy, I can finally say that I’m grateful for what grief taught me. And I’m grateful for knowing to put myself first.
One day last spring, Vasia and I were walking through Central Park when she started talking about her anxiety. She told me about a time her father spanked her baby brother, Mason. “Mommy,” she said, tears streaking down her face. “I could feel it, mommy. I could feel it in my heart.” I kneeled down and brushed Vasia’s curls out of her face. “It’s okay, mama.” We sat down on the grass and talked about how profoundly we feel everything. “You know, when I was a kid, they told me I was too sensitive,” I shared.
“You are sensitive, mommy. We both are.”
“Yes, my love, but there’s nothing wrong with that.” Vasia and I watched people walk by enjoying the warm weather after a brutal winter. I looked down at my girl whose head was in my lap. For the first time in a long time, I knew we would be okay.