In memory of my brother on the 6th anniversary of his death (& a reflection on Pose)

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We are at home alone. I don’t know where mom and her partner Millie are. My brother Carlos is in charge. We are playing house. He is ten. I am six. 

He is the mother. He is always the mother. 

He puts on one of mommy’s dresses. Her heels. He sashays in them effortlessly. He puts a pair of her stockings on his head. He flicks his neck and they cascade over his shoulder. 

I remember this scene so vividly. My brother. Me watching him from my seat on the couch. 

Something sparked that day. A thought. A knowing. I was too young to have language for it but I knew my brother was different. I also knew that I loved him. Adored him. He was Superman. 

I don’t know when my brother came out, officially. I know he came out to me when we were already in our twenties. He was HIV positive, but up to that point he’d told me he’d contracted it from heterosexual sex. His son was a few years old by then. His explanation for how he got the virus was dubious but he was my brother. No matter what, he could do no wrong in my eyes. 

Then one day he told me. “Sis, I’m gay.” I laughed. I told him the memory. I said: “I’ve known since that day.”

“Werk, bitch,” he said. And that was that. 

***

Carlos spoke to me about his friends at the House of Xtravanganza. He introduced me to some of them, but he never let me hang out with them. 

Once, his friend José, who was a dancer in Madonna’s Vogue video and toured with her in her Truth Or Dare Tour, said, “Ooh, your sister is fierce. I wanna hang with her.” He tugged at my two indigena style braids. Called me Pocahontas. 

My brother rushed me out. I didn’t see him much for a while after that. He didn’t bring me around his friends. 

That was before I learned about the heroin. 

***

I’m not sure how to write about him sometimes. My brother, Carlos. I don’t have many memories of him from childhood. They say that memory works that way. That your mind remembers the trauma, the suffering, as a defense mechanism. You remember to avoid those things from happening again. To avoid those people, those situations, in the future. 

Carlos was my person. When we were little-little, I was his tail. 

What I can remember from our childhood is the overwhelming feeling of being loved and cared for. With Carlos I was safe. 

I can trace my insomnia way back to childhood. I heard things. I saw things. I’d wake up in the middle of the night trembling and crying. Mom got over it real quick. She’d send me back to bed, blaming it on the horror movies and TV shows I was obsessed with watching—Friday the 13th, Children of the Corn, Tales from the Dark Side. 

This was around the time I was first molested. I know now that nightmares and insomnia are aftereffects of this kind of trauma. I didn’t know that then. What I know is that while my sister screamed at me from her top bunk to shut up, my brother pulled me into his bottom bunk, where he cradled me until he or we both fell asleep. He didn’t know that I’d often stay up until dawn peeked into the kitchen window. 

Back then I thought demons only came at night.

I remember the change in Carlos. It happened when he was in middle school. That’s when something happened to him that shifted his whole axis. He wasn’t the same after that. He started rebelling. Getting in trouble in school. Staying out late. Fighting with mom and Millie. And me, the one he was closest to, the one he gave advice to and teased lovingly, he pushed me away. I was devastated. 

There was a darkness to Carlos I couldn’t comprehend. What had happened to my Superman? Decades later, on his death bed, he would share that it was in 8th grade that he found out that he was conceived in a rape. We traced his spiral to that moment. That’s when Carlos started feeling that he wasn’t worthy of love. 

I always think of Voldemort when I think of this truth about my brother. According to the story, Voldemort wasn’t capable of love because he was conceived while his father was under a spell. He wasn’t conceived in love. 

Carlos didn’t think he was worthy of love because he was conceived in a rape. 

His social worker confirmed this to me when I met her, finally, at his memorial. She walked over to me and said, “You’re his little sister, right? He loved you so much.” I probed her. Asked about his life, his heart, what he shared with her. That’s when she revealed it: “He didn’t think he was worthy of your love. Of everything you and your family did for him.” 

And so he did things to confirm that. 

Isn’t that what we do? If we believe something about ourselves, we bring that energy into our lives. We do things to prove that, again and again. Perhaps we don’t do this consciously, but we still do it. Repeatedly.. Until we realize what we’re doing, until we recognize the cycle…if we ever do. 

***

I finished watching the first season of Pose a few days ago. I felt my brother throughout. Carlos was a gay man who loved the gay nightlife and the queens, and he loved his houses. Like Billie Porter, he was “ballroom adjacent”–he went to the balls that happened in the 90s, but he never walked in one, at least not to my knowledge. He was in the House of Xtravaganza for a while, but I can’t give you specifics on the extent of his involvement. I don’t know if he ever lived with them or much else really. Truth is, I don’t know a lot about that part of my brother’s life, but Pose has helped me understand on another level what that community meant for him and why. 

Carlos died never being able to talk to our mother about being a gay man. He’d tell me that mom would ask him sometimes, “When are you gonna meet a nice girl and get married?” He rolled his eyes and neck, sucked his teeth. “Don’t she know I’m gay?”

“Well, have you ever told her?” He ughed at me and changed the subject. 

There was so much he and mom didn’t talk about. They had such a dysfunctional, codependent relationship that depended on my brother staying shut a lot, something I refused to do… something mom always hated and still resents about me. Mi boca grande. 

But this was his scene and I couldn’t be a part of it… I had my own journey to navigating and interrogating my queerness. I got my inside at Krash, the famed Queens nightclub on Steinway Street. 

This was in the late 90s when I was a baby writer who couldn’t yet call herself a writer and believe it. I worked as an editor and writer for Twist Magazine, the gay nightlife monthly mag. I once interviewed Jessica Foxx for Twist Magazine. She was the Queen of Clubs, one of the most famed drag performers at Krash. She arranged to meet me at a restaurant next door to the club. 

She came in wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, subtle make up that was a huge contrast to how I’d seen her onstage, always extravagant and over the top. That day I got to see a side to her I didn’t know. It was my first education into trans lives. 

I don’t have a record of the interview nor do I have a copy of the magazine article but what I remember most was her story about her father’s rejection. I remember how she cried quietly, dabbing at her eyes, her shoulders shaking. 

Truth is I was really transphobic then. When I went to Krash and the drag queens were shady to me, I said and thought some real transphobic shit in response. I don’t say this with any pride. In fact, I’m ashamed of myself. But admitting this is part of my confrontation with myself. 

What switched things for me? The interview of Jessica Foxx. I saw her humanity, and in turn I saw theirs. 

What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. Source: Chris Abani’s Ted Talk “On Humanity” 

I remember thinking of the Willie Colón song “El Gran Varon”, about a transwoman whose father rejects her. She dies alone in a hospital bed of “una extraña enfermedad.” That strange disease was AIDS. The song was released in 1989 when the outbreak had reached epidemic proportions and so many were dying alone. 

How many stories exist like this? Countless. Too many. 

I get now why my brother didn’t push my mother to accept his homosexuality. He didn’t believe he was worthy of love. My mother loved him con pena, feeling she had to love him more because of how he came into this world. 

“Tu eras la fuerte,” my mother told me once when explaining why she was so hard on me. The strong one can carry the burden…or at least we’re expected to. 

***

The all encompassing feelings of my brother in childhood are love and safety. 

Memories of our childhood include the one I started this reflection with. Him taking my sister and me to school when we attended the same grammar school (PS 384) and day care center (Audrey Johnson Day Care Center). 

If I close my eyes, I see us once walking to school through the snow. I am in second grade, my brother is in 5th. There was a storm the night before and most of the sidewalks and streets hadn’t been shoveled. Carlos made us walk in the street where cars had created pathways with their tires. He kept me close to him, holding me by the elbow so he could steady me while he plodded through the slushy parts of the road, where the snow came up to his knees. 

I remember the fight I had with the bully from the block Wandy. She was taller than me and heavier than me and older than me, but I took her down for talking shit to my brother. Carlos brought up the fight when he was dying. “That was the day I knew you could take care of yourself.”

I remember the first time he broke curfew when he was in 8th grade. How mommy cried when she beat him. How he didn’t cry at all. 

I remember when he started working. How independent he became. How he pulled away from me. How I grappled for him. Reaching. Reaching. He didn’t swat me away, but he didn’t put his hand out either. 

I remember the letters he’d bring me from Ruben, my first love from down the block. I was 12, in 7th grade. He was good friends with Lucy, Ruben’s mother. She gave him someplace warm to be when he didn’t want to be home, where it was tense and often violent. Carlos showed me that he loved and trusted me when he snuck me those letters behind mom’s back. 

I remember when he went to Clara Barton High School and when he started working at The Gap. He bought me something with every check he got and shared the bookbags he bought for himself.

I remember when he left. Not the moment itself, but the absence of him. I was in 7th grade. Weeks after he left, I had a fight with an eighth grader, Sybil, a girl with a reputation for starting trouble. She messed with the wrong one that day. I knocked down two teachers to get to her. I took all my rage out on her that day.

***

Carlos wanted to work in fashion, as a designer and in fashion merchandising. He wanted to be famous. I see so much of him in Pray Tell, the character played by Billy Porter in Pose. A black man. A suffering man. One who has seen and been through too much. But Pray Tell was able to save himself. My brother couldn’t… 

In those houses and those ballroom scenes, Carlos could live the fantasy. There he was loved, he was worthy of love, he was surrounded by community. No one knew his story. No one knew he was conceived in a rape. Everyone was queer, marginalized, different. Everyone was shunned in some way, some how. Perhaps that was part of the affinity? I don’t know. But I see the allure of the fantasy. It was an escape, if only for a few hours, from what his life and history really were… 

In his interview on the Stephen Colbert show, Billy Porter said: “the [ballroom] culture is something that’s really interesting because it’s a culture of chosen family. I think that’s what’s so great about the show: the show presents what chosen family looks like. Sometimes our biological families are not equipped to love us unconditionally in the ways that are necessary for us to thrive when we’re LGBTQ people. The ballroom culture is a culture that emerged out of these people being thrown out of their houses just because of who they are. But we found our tribe. We found our family. The culture is about making sure that we uplift each other, and it’s amazing.”  

The houses and the ballroom scene gave my brother family that I couldn’t, we couldn’t. It pains me to say I couldn’t be that for him, but in many ways I understand. I was so young and lost. And Carlos was lost too. When he’d been a beacon for me for so long, how could he show his little sister this side of him that was so vulnerable and confused and lonely? A side he thought I’d reject because of what society told him about who he was. He found what he needed in that community. Until he didn’t…

Until he found heroin and that became his way out… That became what shut out those voices. The memories. 

Once he told me that when he was high he could see our mother being raped. I was appalled. Angry. I thought he was using mom’s rape as a excuse. I didn’t know he was sharing with me what haunted him most… why he sniffed that powder and eventually put a needle in his arm: to numb all of that.

“If you know someone who’s using or has used, you should know that this isn’t as simple as them making bad decisions. They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle. Source: Five Unexpected Things I Learned From Being A Heroin Addict 

***

I was at a writing conference in Berkeley when I got the call around 4 in the morning that my brother had passed. That’s 1am here in NYC where I live. At around that time last night, I heard drums. I cocked my ears. I sat up and listened. There they were. Low but distinct. Drums. I closed my eyes. I felt them in my chest. I thought: “They’re having a party for Carlos in the spirit world.”

Afterwards, I switched between laying in the dark, staring at the shadows on the walls, playing games & scrolling through social media. At one point, I came across a story on Instagram. 

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Had the opportunity to do a really special tattoo the other day, take a second to read the story, you won’t regret it.

@madiejohnson wrote: “My Aunt Tina, one of the healthiest and most amazing people I know had an unexpected cardiac arrest and according to doctors had died and was brought back to life four times by first responders before arriving to the hospital. She was put on a defibrillator and after miraculously waking up the first thing she did, unable to speak because she was intubated, was ask for a pen and in my cousins journal wrote, “It’s real.” The people in the room asked, “What’s real?” And she responded by pointing up to heaven with tears in her eyes. Source: Suedesilver

My first thought was: “I hope so.” 

I think of Carlos often. I have two pictures of him in my living room. Baby girl had a picture of him holding her when she was months old. But I’ve been thinking about him extra hard these past few weeks. It started when I binge watched Pose.

Episode 6 of Season 1 completely undid me. Pray Tell’s boyfriend Costas is dying in a hospital that he describes as “grim and dank.” He decides to produce a gay cabaret night for the patients. The tears streamed down my face as Pray Tell performed “For All We Know” while staring at his love. I texted my brujermana Lizz “You have to see Pose!” That’s when I felt the grief slam into my chest. I sobbed so hard. I felt that grief in my body like it was new. Like my brother had just died…

I’ve been been working tirelessly these past few weeks–reading essays, editing, prepping for the Writing the Mother Wound Intensive that happened this past Saturday; Writing, Writing, Writing.

I was also avoiding.
I knew the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death was looming.
That was the loss that almost took me out.
That was the nuclear bomb that shifted my axis and nearly destroyed me.
No, it did destroy me.
Losing my brother killed parts of me that I know now had to die…
But I don’t wish that pain on anyone.
Carlos was and still is my Superman.
No one loved me like he did.
No one looked at me and supported me and believed in me like he did…
I’d been trying to forget,
To not remember.
But the body keeps the score.
For days, I’d been feeling the grief in my body and spirit.
On June 20th, I remembered that was the day, six years ago, that I heard the worst news, “He’s not going to make it.”
My brother needed double heart valve replacement surgery. Two surgical teams came to the same conclusion: he’d destroyed his liver so bad in his fifteen years of drug abuse that even if he survived the surgery, he would never survive the recovery.
He was supposed to live a few more months.
Instead, he died alone in the early morning hours of June 24th.
He waited until I was in the Bay at a writing conference. In fact, he told me to go: “You have to go write our stories, sis.”
I’ve been trying to do that ever since. Write our stories, the beautiful and the devastating.
I think of this when I get shit for writing what I do. When I get called a traitor, treasonous. When my mother and sister punish me by denying me their love…
My brother may have poisoned his body but what really killed him was silence. Silence around the traumas my family has endured, my mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, all of us.
No more. Silence has taken enough from us.
This is the story of A Dim Capacity for Wings, and Imma tell it all.
I promise you this, bro. For you. For us. Forever.

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7 comments

  1. What a powerful piece of writing Vanessa. Your brother must be proud of you.

    I’m left pondering how we failed him.How he couldn’t feel lovable, not accepting the love shown him as real, as unconditional.

    I never met him, but your post reminds me how important it is to show love to as many as possible. It’s something, I guess.

    • Thank you for reading. I think it’s important to remember that because of his trauma, my brother didn’t feel worthy of the love given to him, so it didn’t matter what Love was displayed to him, he couldn’t receive it…

  2. I could not stop reading, as the love, commitment, determination and honesty you convey shone through. Your family, biological and chosen are so fortunate to have you writing and representing fearlessly. Thank you for being that beacon we all need.

  3. Vanessa I do not know you, but I do know pain,… and this is one of the worst pains ever, but I want you to read Acts 24:15. And just think about what it really says. You got this

  4. Loved every word. You have taught me so much maestra! How you don’t hide on the page. How we must tell our stories because shame can only live in silence.

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