Relentless Files — Week 13


*An essay every Friday in 2016*

On Wednesday, I woke up to news that hip hop royalty Phife Dawg (born Malik Isaac Taylor) of A Tribe Called Quest, passed away. I thought of his mother, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, a lovely poet in our community. My heart breaks for her. I remember when she told me, in a car on our way upstate a few summers ago, “Maybe you know my son? They call him Phife?” I broke out in song right then and there.

By the way, my name’s Malik
The Five-Foot Freak
Let’s say we get together by the end of the week
She simply said, “No,” labeled me a hoe
I said, “How you figure?” “My friends told me so.”


I have so many memories with Tribe as the soundtrack, including the time they performed while I was a student at Columbia University, a makeshift wooden stage built right in front of the Low Library steps. We danced and smoked and bopped our heads for those two hours, excited to be alive and share this moment in history.

We are not supposed to outlive our children. I remember my mother in my arms the other day. Grief has aged her so much over these two years and nine months since my brother died. She’s thin. Her face lined with sorrow. She squeezed my hand and said, over and over, “I miss my son. I miss my son.” Earlier she’d told me she hoped I never knew that kind of pain, “el vacio” that kind of loss leaves. And as I watched her, I knew that, yes, I lost my brother and that was devastating…but he was her son and that’s an entirely different, next level kind of pain. This week I’ve been saying prayers for the far too many mothers I know who’ve lost their beloved children. It’s true, yo no me imagino ese vacio


After months of no contact (I blocked her back in September under the blood moon), I saw her at a family event, a babyshower for my cousin. I knew she’d be there, but I didn’t know what to expect. She’s so unpredictable. I had anxiety all week leading up to Saturday and blamed it on having started therapy.

Everyone I know who I spoke to about starting therapy told me they too were emotional messes in the first few weeks. It was my partner who reminded me, “Of course you’re anxious. You’re gonna see your mother this weekend…”

The first thing I noticed was how old she looks. Grief has aged my other. It’s not wrinkles, exactly, but like sadness has pulled her face down, like her entire face is a frown. We circled the room for a while (a large banquet type room in the basement of a church), avoiding one another. I took my partner with me because 1) I’m not going to hide my love and, 2) my aunt invited her. In fact, my aunt sent Katia an invite, not me. When I texted her about it, she said, “Oops, but you don’t need an invite. Here’s the address…it starts at 7pm. We’re decorating the hall the night before. Can you help?” I laughed when I got the response.

My mother was standing by the entryway when we finally made direct eye contact. I was going to the bathroom. She thought I was going up to her to greet her. I’m ashamed to say that I am neither that bold nor that compassionate. I was still wrapped up in myself and my worry to do that… When we were inches from one another, we stopped and stared. Her face fell. She reached out and smoothed my face with the back of her hand and said, “You’re still my little girl.” It was then, when my chest caved, that I realized I’d been holding my breath.

She pulled me into the hallway and we talked for a while. She asked what happened. I said, “You hurt me. I can’t let you hurt me anymore.” I was surprised by my own voice. It was calm. I was calm. There was no resentment or anger there. Just sadness and resignation. I told her I missed her too.

She looked at me and said, “You’re fat.” We both laughed. Then she got serious. “I know it’s ‘cause you’re happy.” I nodded. “I am.” That’s when she squeezed my hands, which she hadn’t let go of the entire time, and said, “I feel guilty. I showed you that.” And I saw the shame she carries over raising us in a lesbian relationship. A shame I can’t share…

Later, after too much drink, my mother fell apart in my arms. She cried for my brother, said how lonely she was, said over and over, “I miss my daughters.” The few times she came out of it and saw me, she grabbed my face and said, “I miss you, Vanessa. I miss you.”

I’ve been in a quiet space since that night. It’s a lot to process. I’m still making sense of it…of my mom admitting that she’s not well.

I don’t know what will happen between us, but I know that I see her differently now. I know she’s hurt me in ways that can’t be fixed with tears and a few I miss you’s. I know that my mother is deeply wounded and she’s right when she said that we’ve never understood one another.

I think of Dorothy Allison that day during the Tin House Winter Nonfiction Workshop in Newport, Oregon, when we were sitting on the deck of the Sylvia Beach Hotel overlooking the crashing Pacific, talking about our writing and why we write what we do. I told her about mom’s rape and the secrets I was revealing. Her eyes widened. “That’s why she can’t love me…” I said. Dorothy leaned over, put her hand on my thigh and squeezed. “Oh baby,” she said, her voice full of sadness. Then she looked away, past me. I don’t know where she went in her mind but I imagine it was to her own history of sexual abuse. “It’s so complicated,” she said. “so, so complicated…”


A while back, the fall after my brother died, I called my mom to tell her that a girl I went to boarding school with, Ana De Los Santos, had passed away from leukemia. We were from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn (Bushwick) and went to the same middle school, so mom had met her family. My mother insisted we go to the wake.

I still remember the sight of these two mothers holding one another in their pain. Mom walked up to Maria, who was seated in the front row, staring at the open casket. She wasn’t staring at her daughter’s body though. Her head was tilted slightly and her body was slumped, like she didn’t have the energy or the will to hold herself upright, and her eyes were far off somewhere. When mom put her hand on Maria’s back, Maria looked up and the corners of her mouth dragged down into the deepest frown. The frown of a mother who’s lost her child. Mom leaned over, said something to Maria in her ear, and they fell into one another. They held each other and cried for a long, long time.

I think of Tupac and Biggie’s mother, and how that grief bonded those women…

El dolor de la madre…ese vacio


The body remembers. I read that line somewhere this week and it’s been on loop in my heart since.

On Sunday night, I woke up around 1am with a spasm in my shoulder that hurt so bad, I was bawling like a baby minutes later. The only thing that calmed me was my partner. She massaged my aching limb while I cried and talked me softly through it, saying, “you have to calm down, you make it worse when you tense your body.” This woman who knows this kind of physical pain firsthand, titanium in her body keeping her together, soothed me until I quieted. Days later, my shoulder is still sore.

Later that Monday, I started thinking about how the body stores trauma. I asked my partner to look up the emotional causes of shoulder pain, using an ap on her phone “Heal Your Life A-Z”. She sent me this.

I don’t know what will happen with my mother. I know that my body is talking to me, releasing stored fear and pain, and telling me to pay attention and be still.


My asthma’s been acting up pretty badly over the past two week or so, and I’ve also been waking up between the hours of three and four a.m. for weeks now.

I found a post this week about the Chinese Body Clock, which functions on the premise that energies move through the body at different times of the day for restoration and strengthening purposes. Blockages that hinder that flow can be the cause of waking up at certain hours. According to the science, waking up between three and five a.m. means:

This is the time when the lungs collect oxygen and move it to all the other systems in preparation for a new day. It is also when they remove toxins that may be present. Waking up and coughing during this time could be a sign that you need to consume healthier food or breathe cleaner air.

This time is associated with grief and sadness, and waking up during this time could mean something has happened in your life that makes you feel depressed. It is important to accept these feelings, grieve appropriately, and carry on with your life.


I had a bad asthma exacerbation after my brother died. I had another one late last year. It started not long after I cut contact with my mom, and I finally went to the ER at the beginning of the year, at the insistence of my partner. The resulting treatment (prednisone) had me bedridden for days with nearly crippling anxiety.

The body remembers…


This morning I read Junot Diaz’s essay, “How (In a Time of Trouble) I Discovered My Mom and Learned to Live.” One of my Writing Our Lives students told me about the essay recently. I’ve had the book, Las Mamis: Favorite Authors Remember Their Mothers edited by Esmeralda Santiago, for some time, but had only poked around in it, obviously not enough to know that Junot had a piece in it. Something compelled me to put it in my bag this morning, as I headed out to therapy.

In the story, Junot writes about how he fucked up in high school so bad that he, consequently, didn’t get into any of the colleges he applied to, not even the safety school. This sent him reeling deeper into a funk he saw no escape from. Until one day, Junot walked in from “another one of [his] useless nights out” and as he walked past his mother, who was sitting in the living room watching TV, on his way to his room in the basement, she said, “You know, I cried less when I lost my son.” …

That night I lay in bed and stared at my walls. You know ,I cried less when I lost my first son. Like I said, I didn’t know nothing about my mother. That I’d had another brother who had died was a huge shock even to hard cold me. That she’d never mentioned him in all these years was something else altogether. Said a lot about the kind of relationship n*ggers like me have with their moms. I always used to claim that I loved my moms, told everybody this, but how in the world can you truly love somebody you don’t even know?…

That night was the first time in my life that I had to deal with the possibility that my moms was a person and not just somebody who washed my underwear and cooked my meals. She had a world inside her, I realized. A world. It was like suddenly finding yourself in a depth of water. It was an astonishment.

Of course I thought of my mother. I thought about her expression when we finally spoke. I thought about how I warned her, after her umpteenth shot of tequila, that she shouldn’t play with that drink, that tequila demands a unique respect. She looked at me, smirked, and took another shot.

I thought about when I saw it happen—when the darkness crept in, that darkness that abusing tequila allows. There was bachata playing loudly in the background and people were laughing and talking and dancing. The decorations were up and festive, blue and white for baby Abel. The Lion King themed baby shower cake hadn’t been cut and my mom was sitting opposite me, across the round table, staring off into space, her face pulled down with sadness. I walked over, put my hand on hers. They were folded in her lap. She looked at me, squeezed her eyes tight and said, “I miss my son.” Then she pulled me up and said, “Mas tequila! Ven!”

A little while later, I was holding her while she cried…this woman who I’ve been so angry at, who I’ve resented and railed about, she cried in my arms and told me she’s lonely and that she misses her daughters. She wailed about how unfair her life has been.

My therapist asked how I felt about what happened. I’m most taken aback by how calm I remained and how although it hurt deep to watch her fall apart like that, I didn’t take it on as mine as I have in the past. I know it’s not my job to heal her…

It’s in your interaction with people that you see evidence of how much you’ve changed…& healed. This week was all about staring that reality in the face, and being proud of myself for it.


A memory came to me on my way home on the A train. I am so little, early-single-digit-little. I am lost. I can’t find my mother or my brother or my sister. I am in a stadium. I am walking down the steep stairs, careful with each step, taking one at a time, scared that I’ll fall. That’s what I was scared of—falling—not that I couldn’t find my mother.

Now I am climbing up the steps. My shiny shoes make a tapping sound on the concrete that makes me smile. There are people milling around. People who tower over me. I am so little, no one notices me as I take one deliberate step at a time, giggling at the rhythm of my shoes. Click. Click. Click.

When I told my mother of this memory, years ago, she was shocked that I remembered, that I can see the dust of the racetrack, the grey of the steps, the shiny black of my patent leather shoes (or were they white?), the blue, blue sky with puffy, cotton ball clouds. She said I was no more than two. This was before she got with Millie, when she was still Jehovah’s Witness (the religion she went back to after Millie died eleven years ago). It was a summer JW asamblea at the racetrack in Queens. What she remembers is that I never cried. I was lost and I never cried. I was only two.

In my memory, it was an adventure. I didn’t know danger then. I didn’t know yet about what some people do. I was staring at my feet, held by those shoes that made rhythmic clicking sound on those steps as I climbed.

patent leather shoes


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