It was grief that drew me up that plum tree in our backyard in Brooklyn. I was just five and six and seven years old grieving my life, the abuse I endured from my mother, how cruel my sister was to me, being molested by the old man next door. Ese desgraciado.
Years later, already well into adulthood, my sister would acknowledge how cruel she was and she’d confess to our mother all the things she did that I was blamed and subsequently beat for. My mother would shake her head and say, “Yo nunca hubiera pensado eso d’ella.”
Millie knew. She would say, “esa gringa tiene el diablo por dentro” but mom would defend her. My sister was so quiet and timid and docile and obedient. My sister who would walk around the apartment barefoot all day. She would wait until I opened the cot in our tiny bedroom she, my brother and I shared, between the bunkbed and bureau, and would climb up to her top bunk. She would look down at me, lying on the cot below, and would sacudir her filthy feet onto my head.
I was grieving al that when I laid my body on those branches and started telling myself stories, imagining a different life.
I didn’t know that then but I know it now.
I thought Relentless was about the grief over losing my brother but this book I’m writing (A Dim Capacity for Wings AND Relentless in one) is one I’ve been writing since I was that little girl in the tree with scraped knees and scuffed shoes. It’s about how I’ve taken this grief and made this life. The journey of answering the question: How have I and continue to live without my mother?
On the morning of June 29th, I wrote about grief. That afternoon I learned a dear friend of 20+ years couldn’t deal with his own and decided to end it. I am saying prayers for all of us right now. Yo, if you’re struggling, reach for love. Get help. Please. I love you. You are important and necessary. We need you to keep fighting the good fight…
The day I got the news, I walked around in a numb haze. It was a week after the three year anniversary of my brother’s death. I received the call just before the Publishing Panel. I was standing next to M. Evelina Galang, a faculty member of VONA & the moderator of the panel. She saw my face and heard my exasperated, “What?” She put her arm around me. I told her the news and walked out. I was in a numb haze for the rest of the day. VONA fam took care as they always do–my sister-friends Nívea & Grace & Elisabet walked with me and listened to my stories about my friend. A deluge of memories from my growing up years. Later Grace would bring me food (a chicken pad Thai) which I picked on but made myself eat a bit of just to nourish myself.
It was the next day in the dining hall for breakfast that it really hit me. Old school salsa was playing, Frankie Ruiz and Hector Lavoe, Willie Colón’s “El Gran Varon”…I thought of all the clubs I went to with my friend to dance salsa, Copa and Latin Quarters and Expo and Supper Club…
A deluge of memories.
Facebook status on 7/2: My 8th consecutive VONA was a mixture of magic and grief. I held space for 160 writers who inspired me with their commitment to their stories. It was the 3rd anniversary of my brother’s death…& I got word that one of my dearest friends who was an integral part of my formative years took his life. I am now resting and recalibrating, reminded of why I do this work I do where I write and confront the difficult. Those demons will get you if you don’t come for them first. They took my brother and three days ago took my friend. I will honor them both in the work I do and remind us all of their beauty, even if they struggled to see it for themselves…
I will remember that you were the only one crazy enough to take rollerblade missions with me from uptown to Brooklyn and the Village and Purple Lights in Battery Park City. I will remember that you taught me how to drive in your white Benz and you’re the reason I have a hot foot. When we hit 280 in Jersey, you said, “you do 80 on this road, everyone does 80.” You were one of the loudest cheers when I graduated from Columbia and shrugged when I told you I wasn’t going to law school. “Fuck it, V,” you said. “You gotta do what’s right for you.” You weren’t exactly encouraging when I told you I wanted to be a writer (“writers are broke,” you said) but you made sure to tell me how happy you were for me when I told you excitedly how fulfilling this life is. I will remember our trips to Miami and Amsterdam and upstate. I will remember how you introduced me to Indian and Korean food, and how you paced when you told stories, your arms flailing, a wide smile and contagious laugh that snapped me out of whatever foul mood I was in. I will remember how many times you helped me move out of my dorm at CU and the many apartments I had over the years. I will remember how you would call me and sing, “Tell your supervisor you’re leave early today, it’s our anniversary…” & I’d have to remind you that I wasn’t rolling in cake like you, had bills to pay and couldn’t just walk out my job like you could. You’d always be waiting for me outside when I got out at 5. I will remember your raucous parties at your house in Jersey and on Payson in uptown, what a great host you were, that huge heart of yours that gave so much to everyone. I will remember teaching you to play handball and how hard you tried to dance salsa and although you had two left feet, you didn’t care and kept trying. I will remember the clubs we went to and the time you fell on me as we entered the hotel in South Beach so I went flying into the glass table in the lobby, sending it and the huge vase on it crashing to the ground in shards. I had a gigantic bruise on my right bicep for the rest of the trip and although every witness said it was your fault, you insisted even years later that it wasn’t you, that it was me and my clumsiness to blame. I will remember how yours was one of the only calls I took when my brother died. You said, “What do you need? Do you need a flight back to New York?” You already had the American Airlines website open on your computer. I will remember the times you held me when I cried, when I felt like a failure and like the universe was conspiring against me, you reminded me that I could do anything, if I just set my mind to it. I will remember you on rollerblades and skis, always active and planning a new adventure. A trip here. A mission there. Camping and flying and running and skating, you lived your life on your own terms & encouraged us to do the same. The last time I saw you you told me, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you this happy.” I told you about this life I’ve created for myself and you smiled wide and hugged me. When my daughter came up, already taller than me and shining supernova bright, you said, “I always knew you’d be a great mom,” and I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat because hearing that from you was everything. We didn’t always agree on things and you felt the brunt of my pain when we were hanging out in my 20s and I hadn’t come to terms with my past and the weight I was carrying, but you always loved and accepted me as I was and helped me, all these years later, to start to do that for myself. I love you, dear friend. I always will. Thank you for your friendship and fierce love. Godspeed.
I am in Key West writing this on my phone. I am with my partner. I am relieved to be in her arms and exhausted from these two weeks of so much love and this sad news. I want to remember joy. I want to remember the good of my friend’s life. He who was described as “an artery” bringing so many people together.
I remember the night of July 1st when I walked around the U of M campus with Elisabet. I took her to the enormous banyan tree in the middle of the campus. It looked majestic, lit from the bottom where its roots gnarled. I read her the myth:
The banyan tree is the type of tree that the Buddha sat under, according to some legends, but its mythological significance goes even deeper. While banyans are real trees, there are many beliefs that persist to this day regarding their magical nature. One story tells of a father who had his son take a fruit from the tree and look at the seeds inside. The boy was then told to open one of the seeds and tell his father what he saw inside. He explained that he saw nothing, and his father explained that from that nothing, the banyan tree sprang forth.
In the story, he uses this as a lesson to explain how so much life and greatness can come from so little. However, the tree has truly mythical powers beyond just its prodigious size. The belief persists among many today that the banyan’s roots never stop growing; they continue down into the Earth and lead to a truly eternal tree. Much like a phoenix arising from the ashes, if a banyan tree is hacked down, the legends say it will use its powerful roots deep below the ground to return to its former glory.
“What a fuckin metaphor…” Elisabet looked at me and shook her head.
How is it some of us are made so resilient by our ghosts while others, like my brother and my friend, are crushed underneath their weight?
I think of the poet who remarked about the excerpt I read of “Millie’s Girl”: “that must have been so hard.” My deadpan response I think is part of the answer: “I write the difficult.”
Some time ago I made the decision to confront and deal with my pain. I think that’s made all the difference…