I presented this keynote at on April 23, 2015 at the annual 100 Hispanic Women Mind, Body and Spirit Conference in Yankee Stadium. The theme this year was The Transformational Power of Love.
I’m a storyteller so today I’m going to tell you stories.
I’ve been struggling with this speech for weeks. I started it at least twenty times. I asked my friends “What’s love to you? How has it transformed you?” Most of them sent me sappy love poems and stories about romantic love, which is great but, honestly, that’s not what I was looking for. Last night I took my daughter out to eat. It’s the second day of the math statewide exams so I wanted to do something special for her, and, yes, it gave me reason to keep procrastinating on writing this. I asked her, “What’s love, baby girl?” She said, “Love is when you have your own kind of joy or happiness for someone. That can be for yourself, too.” Woah, the force is strong with this one. *side joke for us Star Wars fans
So yeah, I was struggling. I was struggling so hard I cleaned my house yesterday, that scrub down kind of cleaning, because the writing wasn’t flowing. It just wouldn’t give so me puse a limpiar. The truth is I didn’t want to write about what kept coming up, something that’s been very present in my life for the past two years. I wanted to write something different, but you know, the universe always has her way.
Two days ago, my uncle handed me a stack of writings my brother left behind in my grandmother’s house. He said that when he found them, he knew they were meant for me. “You’re the writer in the family,” he said. Tomorrow marks one year and ten months since my brother, my Superman, Juan Carlos Moncada took his last breath. Today I’m presenting this keynote address on the transformational power of love. Coincidence? Nah, I think the universe is much more intentional than that.
Let me begin in 1975. I was conceived on birth control. My mother was four months pregnant when she found out. When she told my father, he tried to kick me out of her. Mom spent the next five months of her pregnancy in and out of the hospital. I was healthy enough when I was born so they sent me home, but before long mom was back in the hospital. Everything I ate, I threw up or diarrhead out. The stories of my mother’s carreras con Vanessa are legendary in my family. None of the doctors could tell her what was wrong with me. Meanwhile, I just kept withering away. Finally mom took me to a specialist a doña told her about, because you know doñas are the medical experts of the barrio. The specialist referred her to the hospital he was affiliated with in Queens, St. John’s University Hospital. I was admitted to the NICU. They did countless tests on my months-old body; genetics and blood tests on mom. They even asked if they could test my father’s blood, but papi refused. He didn’t give me his last name until months after I was born.
One day mom came to see me after work en la factoría, 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 needle. I had bruises all over my body from all the tests they did on me. She said I looked like I hadn’t been touched tenderly all day. They told my mother there was nothing they could do. That I wasn’t going to make it. My mother got on her knees and begged God, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir, llévatela.” She says something came over her. She knew if I stayed there I would die, so she started ripping the nodes and tubes off of me. The doctors thought she’d 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. Imagine that, I was so fragile, my mother couldn’t hold me to her chest; I couldn’t listen to the throb of the heart that lulled me when I was curled inside of her. That’s how my mother carried me on two trains, more than an hour ride, to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in upper Manhattan, 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 took one look at me and knew what was wrong—I didn’t have enzymes to digest my food and I was diabetic. Turns out the birth control had eaten my liver. I was in the hospital for months. When I was finally released, I was put 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, mashed avocado was added to my diet because apparently avocado is rich in amino acids and enzymes. Mom hunted the city looking for aguacate when it was out of season. I’m alive because of my mother.
As soon as I was healthy, I set off with my brother to do every single mischievous thing we could think of. Mom says “tu salistes corriendo.” My brother was three and a half years older than me and we were terrors together. We climbed wall units, we scaled walls, we jumped high on the babysitter’s bed competing to see who could touch the ceiling with the tips of our toes. Who does that? We did. And that’s how I broke my left arm in two places when I was two and how Carlos got six stitches on his forehead when he was five.
My brother was everything to me. We were inseparable. If he fought, I fought. Where he went, I went. We climbed trees together and wrestled and played house. When I came home in the second grade and told him I was being bullied, he mushed and said, “Don’t you dare be a punk.” I came at him, all fists and flared nostrils. “Like that,” he said, laughing. “You go at them like that.”
When I was nine and Carlos was twelve, mom sent us to El Faro, the supermarket on the corner, to buy milk and eggs with the food stamps that came in little booklets of colorful bills that looked like Monopoly money. On our way home, we walked by Wandy, the giant six foot bully from the block, who was sitting on the stoop of her building. She said something to me but I ignored her. Then she said something to Carlos. “What you said to my brother?” I passed my bags to my brother, pushed the gate open and walked toward her. “What you gonna do?” She was laughing at me, mockingly. I didn’t give her time to react. I threw myself on top of her and wailed on her with my fists. She was still hiding her face in her arms when I walked away. I brushed past my brother with a smirk. Carlos reminded me of that fight one day that I visited him in the hospital just a month before he died. “That day I knew I didn’t have to worry about you,” he said.
We were like that, inseparable, until he was thirteen. That’s when something changed in him. I was nine at that point. I didn’t understand. I just wanted us to do what we used to do—play handball on the wall of the lumber factory down the block, play house when mom was out. He always played the mother. He’d put on mom’s dresses and heels, and he’d stretch a pair of her pantyhose over his head. When I was eight, I watched him flip his hair with one flick of the neck. That’s when I knew he was different. I didn’t have the language for it, but I knew. So when he told me he was gay when we were in our twenties, I told him, “Honey please, I’ve known that since we were little kids.”
But once Carlos turned thirteen, he didn’t want me around him. He was always sullen and angry, and he was mean. One day, he got into a big fight with mom and he moved to grandma’s house. He never moved back. He’d call to check in on me but it wasn’t the same. After he left, I had no reason to stay so when I decided I wanted to go to boarding school when I was thirteen, I called him. He knew me. He knew that I needed to get out of there, and if I didn’t do it the right way, I was gonna get out of that house whatever way I could.
I loved my mother. I still love my mother, but she’s been through so much, she couldn’t love me the way I needed to be loved. She still can’t. So, I had to save my own life. Boarding school was my way out. My brother convinced my mother to let me go. To this day, leaving Bushwick, Brooklyn at the height of the crack epidemic, when it was a pile of rubble back in 1989, has been one of the defining decisions of my life. Between 1965 and 1980 there were over a million fires in New York City. The South Bronx is infamous for the aftermath of that, but Bushwick was just as devastated. Add the riots of 1977 following the blackout and what resulted was a neighborhood that was rubble for blocks and blocks. That’s the Bushwick I grew up in, not the Bushwick of today with it’s $5 capuccino cafes and $15 burger bars.
I wasn’t there to witness my brother’s spiral. I was away in boarding school, making my way in the world, but when Carlos didn’t go to my high school graduation, I knew something was up. I found out a few days later that he’d been caught in Miami with six bags of heroin in his stomach. He’d flown to Caracas, Venezuela to traffic those drugs. My brother was only 22 years old when he was sentenced to five years of federal time in my freshman year at Columbia University. I visited him at least once a month and wrote to him every week. I was trying to get my brother back.
Carlos got out the year after I graduated in 1997. I tried to get him to move in with me, but he had other plans. I don’t know much about that time of his life except that he partied a lot and that’s when he got into heroin. This time he wasn’t trafficking it. He was using it.
I could tell you about how he stole and manipulated. I could tell you about all the terrible things he did when he was on that fuckin’ drug. Instead, I’m going to bring you to March of 2013. By that time, my brother Carlos had been an addict for fifteen years, and I hadn’t seen him in over a year.
My mother called me on my thirty-sixth birthday in December of 2011 to tell me my brother had been found overdosed on the street somewhere on the upper east side of Manhattan. I was on the bus making my way home from a teaching gig in Hunt’s Point. I imagined Carlos lying on the sidewalk outside a luxury building. Someone out for a morning jog found him, foam gurgling out of his mouth. I dug my face into my lap and fell apart right there on the crowded Bx12. It was a choking crying that lasted the entire ride across Fordham Road. When I spoke to Carlos the next day, he told me he did it on purpose. I cried for days but I didn’t go see him. I couldn’t watch him kill himself anymore.
Mom stopped talking to me after that. She later said that it was because I’d abandoned her. She said, “I needed you to help me take care of your brother.” But what about me? Mom’s always found a reason to punish me by denying me her love.
All I knew at that point was that after seeing him, I’d reel into depression. I couldn’t be a mother or a writer or a teacher. I couldn’t live this life I’d built for myself. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I had to choose myself. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. We talked on the phone sometimes. I’d text him to check in on him, but I didn’t see Carlos for more than a year. Then I ran into him at my aunt’s house in March of 2013. He told me, “Let’s go into the hallway, sis.” We spent hours there, sitting just outside my aunt’s first floor apartment in the hallway of a five story walk up on the grittier side of upper Manhattan, east of Broadway because, you know, Broadway separates two distinctly different neighborhoods up there. We were chain smoking and talking about our family, our childhood and his heroin addiction.
That was the day he told me that he found out when he was 13 that he was conceived in a rape. We traced his spiral to that day, 30 years ago, when he was in eighth grade.
“I’m a sin, sis. The bible says I’m a sin,” he said. He already had the heroin face, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes; his face drooped like a bloodhound’s. His bald head shone with sweat. That’s what sticks out about him in his addiction—he was always sweating and eating candy; his pockets rattled with boxes of Nerds.
“I wasn’t supposed to be a drug addict, sis. This wasn’t supposed to be my life.” He looked at me then turned away, like he couldn’t handle what I reflected back.
That’s when I told him about what I was writing in my memoir. “I’m writing all of it, bro. The rape, everything.”
Carlos looked at me then he lit a cigarette and pulled on it so hard I thought he was going to burn it to the filter. Then he said, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody’ll fucking talk.”
That day, I finally understood my brother’s addiction and I never left him again. Thank God I didn’t. He died three months later, and I’m grateful every day for that because in those three months we restored the relationship we had as kids.
My brother used to tell me all the time, “I’m proud of you,” something my mother’s never said to me, not once in the almost 40 years that I’ve been alive. Not when I graduated from Columbia University. Not when I published my first book. Not when I quit the safety net of a full time editing job to live this writing and teaching dream of mine. The one person who always told me, “I’m proud of you, sis” was my brother.
When a book I co-wrote won an award a few years ago and I was flown down to Atlanta to receive it, I called my brother from the veranda of this posh hotel they put me up in just across the street from the Emory campus. “I’m having breakfast on the veranda. This is some All My Children shit, bro.” He laughed so loud and said, “What the fuck is a veranda?” “I don’t know but I know I’m eating on one.” We laughed and chatted for a bit and before we hung up, he said, “I’m proud of you, sis. You’re doing it. You’re doing it big.”
When I quit my job five years ago, I called him and told him what I was about to do. I did it as a single mother. I did it because I was exhausted. I didn’t want to work at a place where the CEO of the organization referred to me in a Fast Money Magazine article as “the Latina single mom.” No mention of my ivy league education or my numerous published credits. Only the stereotype was relevant. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I quit my job because I wanted to do something that I could be proud of. I wanted to set an example for my daughter, to show her that she too could live her dreams. Kids learn from watching us. That whole “do as I say, not as I do” is nonsense.
When I called him up and told him, my brother said, “Do that shit, sis. If anybody can do it, you can.” He didn’t discourage me once. He was always in my corner. Always. May 28th marks five years since I quit my job to live my dreams. I’ve never looked back. My brother and I talked about all of that when he was in that hospital those last three months.
We got the news on a Thursday. My brother needed double valve replacement surgery, but he’d destroyed his liver with fifteen years of drug abuse so even if he survived the surgery, he wouldn’t survive the recovery. My brother was going to die.
When they brought us back to the room after breaking the news to us, I told him I was canceling my trip. I was supposed to head out to Berkeley, California two days later for a writing residency at VONA, the only multi-genre writing workshop specifically for writers of color. I’d been there every year since 2009 and my brother knew what that workshop meant to me. He got so mad at me when I told him I was cancelling. He turned to my mother, “Can you believe her?” I cupped his chin in my hands and turned his face to look at me. “This is between you and me, bro.” He softened and grabbed my hands in his, “You have to go, sis. You have to write our stories.”
So I went and my brother died the first day of the workshop on June 24th of 2013.
His death broke me. It broke me in so many ways that I’m still grappling with. But I only recently realized that I had to let his death break me in order for it to give me life.
See, I knew that that loss had the potential of destroying me in irreparable ways, so I did something—I sat in that grief and I let myself feel all of it. It was the darkest time of my life, but let me tell you, I’m grateful for it, because it was in that darkness that I found light. It was in that darkness that I found the transformational power of love.
When someone dies, they tell you that loss is the greatest grief. They don’t tell you of all the other griefs that resurface. The grief over being an unmothered woman, of having to become a woman sola, through trial and error, and all the stupid decisions I made as a result of that, like falling in love with the same man over and over again, different body, same man—emotionally unavailable, like my mother.
But it was in grief that I saw myself. And I saw that I wasn’t loving myself. I saw my beauty and my bad ass and my flaws. It was in my grief that I became the woman that my brother always said I was—relentless.
The day before I left for VONA, my brother and I were sitting looking out onto the water of the East River. The river was swollen because it had been raining a lot. My brother turned to me and said, “There was always something different about you, sis. Ever since we were kids, you always went after what you wanted. That’s why you are who you are.” I didn’t see what he was seeing then, but I see it now. That’s the transformational power of that kind of love. When someone can hold a mirror to you even after death and their love can help you see the you that you really are.
That kind of love is beautiful. It’s a blessing. A gift. And I hope that you all have it in your lives, and I hope you gift that love to someone, because that’s what makes us who we are…that’s what makes real heroes.
I can stand here and talk to you about the transformational power of love because I’m living it. I am finally who my brother always said I was, and as soon I started owning that and living it, viviendolo con gusto, my life has changed in ways that have stunned me and made me cry tears of joy. My writing is out there in a way that I always wished, but didn’t really imagine could be true. My essays are published everywhere, from Huffington Post to some really renowned literary journals. I was given space at Columbia University, my alma mater, to teach a writing class I created, Writing Our Lives. And I’m currently completing a memoir about my journey through grief and what I learned about love and the world and myself in the greatest grief of my life. The book is called Relentless.
I can finally say that I am grateful for what grief has taught me. I will forever be grateful for having the brother that I had, who loved me so fiercely that even after death his love continues to shape and transform me. I am the woman I am today, two years after losing him, because he believed in me. Juan Carlos Moncada, this one is for you.