Mother’s Day was different this year. Since the passing of my Ma and Grandma, the holiday has become more solemn for me, but this year, well, even more so. This was the first Mother’s Day without my sister, Norma and as the first anniversary of her passing approaches, the grief that I’ve been trying to reign in all year has been threatening to break through like a dam about to burst. At times, it feels like it’s only sheer will and determination that staves it off, but sometimes I ask myself, why? Why don’t I just allow myself to go through the grieving process? I think it’s because it hurts a lot and I hate pain. I hate the anguish that accompanies it. It’s raw, profound and one of those woeful things you just don’t want to confront, at least not willingly.
This semester I took a nonfiction writing workshop class. It was both scary and exhilarating. It was scary because I knew that what I was going to write was going to be read and critiqued and well, I’m a sensitive sort. At the same time, it was exciting to finally be able to share a piece that I wrote and receive constructive feedback from a body of writing peers. The following is the first piece I shared and appropriately enough it’s about grief. I wanted to share this as my second post because writing is a part of my cathartic process.
Death sucks. I mean it really sucks. I get that death is a fact of life and that we are all meant to depart this mortal plane at one point in time or another, but doesn’t it seem like our loved ones leave us at the most inopportune times? It doesn’t matter if your loved one was sick and dying or dancing the jitterbug the day before, you’re never really ready for them to go. There’s no death knell that announces the demise of your loved one is imminent. And even when you think you’ve been forewarned, because, let’s say, your family member is terminally ill; it’s not the same as being prepared for what’s about to happen. You’re just never really ready. Even those of us, who see ourselves as eternal optimists, who choose to hold on to hope even when there’s just a modicum of it left, find out rather quickly that the painful reality is that none of us can stave off the grim reaper.
A few months ago, my cousin informed me that my Titi who had been critically ill seemed to be stabilizing. I hoped that meant she was on the road to recovery, so I was hoping to visit her at the hospital. A couple of days later, I was at the movies with my son when another cousin called to tell me my aunt had passed away. Just like that my Titi Mercedes was gone and just like that another tragic moment occurred in what has been a series of tragic moments in my life. Because I promised my son a movie that day, we stayed to watch it. I’m glad we did because I let it carry me away to a place where I wouldn’t have to think about this death and its consequence until I had to. Once again, the question is – who is ever actually prepared to confront the specter of death, its aftermath and yet remain undaunted?
That aftermath is grief. Grief is death’s constant and loathsome companion. It acts like that hateful, unwanted visitor lingering perniciously after the funeral ritual is said and done, prolonging its stay with intent to provoke you into a state of despondency. Grief has a mission, and it’s to relentlessly torture you with anguished memories of your loved one and exacerbate feelings of self-regret with interminable reminders that things were left unsaid or unresolved or unforgiven. It offers no mercy or compassion in its vexing as it ruthlessly attempts to suck its victims into a swirling vortex of misery, pain, and despair. Grief will afflict and torment until you find yourself in an inescapable morass of profound and wretched woe.
I speak to what I know because I feel like somewhat of an expert on bereavement at this point in my life. At times in the past 12 years, I’ve felt what I’ve just described and more. I’ve lost my mom, my grandmother, my younger sister, and now my aunt. Two of these deaths were somewhat expected, illness and old age being the prime factors, but two were not. I believe that how your loved ones leave this earth impacts how acutely your experience of grief will be and not everyone’s experience with it is the same. I can only truly speak for me and what I can say for sure is that each of these four partings thrust me into intense and unwelcome seasons of my life.
I grew up in a small Puerto Rican family. It was just me, my Ma, my Abuela and my younger sister, Norma, or Normita, as we called her. Ma and Abuela raised us, Ma as the sole provider and Abuela as our primary caretaker and both worked hard to support our family because my father was in and out of our lives. He wasn’t there because he spent most of our childhood and early adolescence cheating on my mom and constantly leaving us in the lurch. Why my Ma put up with the dysfunction and chaos he caused for so many years; I just don’t know. What I do know is that there were, and to this day, continue to be painful and lasting consequences to my father’s actions.
My Ma was a strong-willed and determined individual, who could also be harsh and bitter at times, especially with her children. There were moments where she vented her anger over my father’s actions on us, so our childhood and teen years were turbulent and challenging, to say the least. My sister and I were very scared of our mother growing up. We never knew when she would explode because she seemed perpetually and vehemently angry. We could never do anything right and felt her wrath more times than we could count. When we disobeyed, she wasn’t shy to use the belt on us, but her favored method of punishment was verbal and emotional abuse that she heaped on us time after time and it reaped in both of us deep and long-lasting emotional consequences. Her heated barbs cut into us like knives, cleaving scars imbued with a ton of resentment, bitterness, and anger that we then directed back to her because as adolescents we didn’t understand why she did what she did. We didn’t understand that she wasn’t looking to hurt us consciously. Deep down I knew she loved us, but now, all these years later is when I truly recognize that she was just so angry at my dad and had nowhere else to channel that fury but at us. Had she realized back then that she could have vented her ire in other ways, I’m sure she would have done so. She didn’t, so for a long time, we bore the brunt of her abuse, and it left a profound defect in our souls. It was only after we grew up that we realized that we were just in the way. She wasn’t mad at us. She was furious at my dad, and it was his actions that damaged us all. In my mother’s case, my father’s abuse ultimately affected her physically as well.
My Ma was never one to imbibe, but she did smoke cigarettes for many years, and it was only when it began to affect her health that she stopped. It was a good step forward at the time but the consequences of her many years of smoking were already there. That combined with the stress of being the sole provider most of the time just exacerbated her ailing condition. The last time my father left in 1977, my mother fell gravely ill, and although she recovered somewhat, she was never the same. For the last twenty or so years of her life, Ma got progressively sicker with an array of ailments ranging from acute hypertension to diabetes to more than a few mini strokes. In Mid-March of 2005 when she was 69 years old, Ma collapsed after suffering a brain hemorrhage and on June 25th, 2005, she died of asphyxiation. She was 70 years old. She was very sick but was seemingly also on the road to recovery when she passed away. The prime reason she died was due to negligence on the part of the rehab facility where she was staying. The consequence of her brain injury meant she needed constant vigilance because she’d do involuntary things like trying to pull out her breathing tube. That last night at the rehab that’s exactly what she did and the nursing staff didn’t find her until it was too late. To make matters worse, she died on what was her grandson Jordan’s 17th birthday.
As the oldest sibling in my family, the responsibility of dealing with the aftermath of her passing fell to me. I had to take care of everything, and when I say everything, I mean everything. Until something like this happens to you, you will never know how much work goes into wrapping up what was the life of your deceased loved one. I became the matriarch of our small family by default and had to assume the responsibility for everything, including caring for our 93-year-old Abuela who had just lost her only child. I was also days away from losing my employment after 20 years on the job when all this happened, but that’s another sorry tale that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say I didn’t have time to worry about anything but the responsibility that lay ahead after my mom’s passing. There were a ton of things to do, and no one in the family besides me had the strength or wherewithal to take it all on. So I placed my grief on a shelf, so to speak and got to work. With help and support from family and friends, we buried my Ma on July 2nd, 2005.
Death is a Veil
Death is a veil
It obscures the what was
of a life defined by pain and suffering
difficulties in life remembered now no more
Death is a veil
It filters out the sighs, the regrets,
blotting out the brusque,
obliterating the disappointments,
illuminating the pleasures
Death is a veil
For it helps us now perceive
beyond the physical who was
to the memory of a good,
beneficent, cherished loved one
Seen now through this veil,
it is their legacy of kindness
that remains forevermore
Rest in peace, dear one...
Rest in peace
I wrote that poem as an assignment for a Creative Writing class that I was taking at NYU in 2008. I believe it captures well how I felt about my mother’s passing and writing it proved to be part of my healing process. Three years had gone by, and I was still dealing with the aftermath of her death. Outwardly I may have looked and felt fine, but inside I was spent. Emotionally, I felt fragile although what everyone saw was me trying to be strong. But being strong takes effort. Granted that my mom wasn’t an easy person to get along with when she was alive, but not having her around was worse. As I matured, we had become the best of friends. I had begun to understand who she was and had forgiven the past hurts and moved forward with love and compassion for my mother. I spoke to her every day. She took care of my children. She was my rock even as I complained about her because she could be so pessimistic, critical and demanding at times. But she was also intensely loving, kind and generous to a fault. That was a side of my mother few people saw, and yet regretfully it seemed I only focused on her flaws most of the time when she was present. Then she was gone, her passing a major tragic event, and I was left bereft and angry. It took me months to come to terms with how and why she died. All I would think was, “Did my mother suffer as she suffocated to death?” I was angry at the staff at the rehab who didn’t do their job and let her die, and mad at myself that I couldn’t protect her.
Once she passed, I was able to focus on how wonderful my mother truly was and how many lives she had touched. I remembered how she collected clothes for the homeless and invited them to come and eat with us during Thanksgiving dinner. She had no compunctions about helping those in need. I had forgotten those things and writing this poem was a reminder to me and to those who I chose to share it with that once our loved ones are gone we can choose how to remember them. We can choose to forget the bad moments and try and focus on the good. Because what’s the point of dwelling on the past anyway?
My mom’s passing shook us all to the core, but because grief is not a “one type fits all” deal, it also affected us all differently. The first few weeks after Ma died, while I was playing the role of the “strong one” in the family, my heartbroken Abuela was crying a ton of tears. It was distressing to see her in such anguish. My grandmother was tiny, all of 4’9” and I’d sit with her and hold her small hand in mine and just let her weep. I didn’t know what else to do. Then one day the tears suddenly stopped, and it was as if she shut herself off. She went into a catatonic-like state where she was unable or unwilling to do anything but sit on her sofa and stare into space for hours on end. It took some months to bring her out of that experience, but eventually, she came through it, and it happened in the following ways.
Abuela was always a woman of deep faith and believed in the promise of eternal life. She was heavenly-minded, always praying, always reading the Bible and modeling all the best qualities of her Christian faith. In her moments of deepest despair, she knew to call upon the Lord and He would answer. He was her hope, her comfort, her solace and I knew that through her tears, He was hearing her pleas and offering her the consolation she so desperately needed. Another thing that helped her process her grief was to talk about Ma so I invited the ladies of her church to come over and visit with her and the more they came, the more she shared stories about her beloved daughter. The more she anticipated that day she’d see her daughter again. I began to see her coming back to who she was before the tragedy. Lastly, she found solace in her inspirational poetry. A former schoolteacher, my grandmother, was a prolific and I’d say divinely inspired poet who would spend hours on end creating her verses and editing them. All of her poems rhymed and she frequently committed them to memory to recite. Abuela was the original slam poet. Because she was always editing her writing, I made her a binder, filled it with printed copies of her poems and gave her a red pen. I encouraged her to get back at it, and she did for a time, although truth be told she was never really the same. Her health began to deteriorate, and five years after mom died, my grandmother passed too. She died in hospice care.
Abuela’s passing thrust me into grief once again, but this time it felt different. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I guess I knew that at 98 years of life, she didn’t have long to live anyway. I also knew she just wanted to move on from this life and be reunited with her child. Abuela would always talk about that place where there are no more tears, no more sorrow, no more pain, and where you reunite with your departed loved ones (Revelation 21:4). Deep down, I knew Abuela was hanging on to this life because she thought we would suffer her loss too deeply if she left us too soon. We assured her we’d be fine, and in the twilight hours of Tuesday, July 27th, 2010, the Lord called her home and she passed peacefully into eternity. I was there in that hospice room when the nurse gently tapped me on the shoulder to tell me she was gone. I didn’t see her take her last breath, but I got to kiss her goodbye. I miss her terribly to this day, but there’s a sense of resignation when death occurs in an older adult. It’s easier to accept its finality and so is moving on from the experience of grief. For me, this was a shorter season of sorrow, but a mourning period nonetheless.
Latino families tend to be very close. We are always up in each other’s business, so to speak, but in a good way. When it came to cheering on the significant events that occurred in our family and especially when celebrating our children’s successes, no one was a bigger cheerleader after Ma than my sister, Norma. Of all of us, she took Ma’s death the hardest. Hers was a prolonged season of grief. It seemed to me like she could cry a river of tears for weeks on end. It was profoundly sad to witness, but we rallied around her as a family and worked earnestly to bring her through that dark tunnel she was in. I admit it was a little scary for me to watch her in this process of bereavement because my sister suffered from depression and was so disconsolate for what felt like a long period. But with the passage of time, the deep mourning and anguish of grief abate somewhat, and Norma began to pull through slowly and out of the darkness.
My sister lived in Florida, so she wasn’t physically around to take in all the important family events, but we always tried to loop her in and keep her up to date on what the kids were doing. She was so genuinely proud of all her nieces and nephews. As I mentioned, she took on Ma’s old role as the ultimate family cheerleader, reveling in the news that my son was graduating salutatorian from his high school and had received an offer to attend college on a full ride. It was a given I’d keep her up to date on my son’s accomplishments as he traversed his college journey. We even talked about her coming up for Jeremy’s college graduation in 2020 as she did in 2013 when she flew to Cambridge for our niece, Virginia’s graduation. She was supposed to be here for that significant event. She just was.
This past summer, on June 25th, 2016, eleven years to the day of my mother’s passing and my nephew’s 28th birthday, my son graduated high school. June 25th has become one of those dates that will always carry with it bittersweet memories. But on that particular day, it was super special, and to say my endorphins were at a max would be an understatement. I was still on that high a week later when I got the call from my nephew.
It was mid-morning on Saturday, July 2nd, 2016 and we were sitting down to breakfast. That call is hazy to me now, and I don’t remember exactly how Jordan broke the news because he was crying so hard. What I do remember is putting my fork down and staring at my husband and son in disbelief as my nephew told me through gut-wrenching wails that his mother was gone. My sweet, lovely, generous, kind-hearted, best friend and best sister anyone could ever ask for had died in her sleep. Norma went to bed the night before and never woke up. Just like that, gone at 53 years old. That moment for me felt like a stab in the heart. I experienced an emotional pain so intense and intolerable that I truly thought my heart would burst. I was in such a state of shock that I couldn’t even cry at first. I just sat there stone-faced for a bit. Once again, I was thrust into another horrible process of grief, and it was wholly unwelcomed. It was something that I didn’t want to experience again so soon, but here it was, and here it still is. It’s now been almost a year since it happened and I still feel that ache. The melancholy comes and goes, and I can feel myself being dragged into a mode of despair at times. I’m really trying to be strong, but at times I do feel broken.
When Ma passed, I went into automatic mode. I delayed and unwittingly prolonged my grief just because I thought I should. To face it was to confront profound anguish and despair, and I wasn’t ready. I used the busy excuse. I told myself that I didn’t have time to indulge emotional distress. Instead of seeking help with my bereavement process, I packed it all away neatly, somewhere deep inside, hoping not to have to think about it, maybe not now or ever. The thing is you do have to face it eventually. It took many months for my buried grief to resurface and the dam holding back the store of tears to finally break. It happened on a day when I was alone sorting and looking through Ma’s old papers and a ton of family pictures. Healing from grief for me that first time was a slow process, and it wasn’t until three years later, that I was given that assignment to write an elegy for class and there began a process of catharsis for me. Writing helped to heal my broken heart although the truth is you’re never really whole again. A huge part of me is still missing because my mother is irreplaceable. Now with my sister gone, another part of me is gone, and I wonder – how long it will take for me to heal again?
Grief is not something you can tie up with a neat little bow. Even with the passage of time, its remnants remain to be triggered by the banalest of things. That familiar scent of musky perfume your mother loved to wear. The holidays, where you sit at the table and reminisce about how only Abuela knew how to marinate that pork shoulder just right. It happens every time I look at my beautiful daughter whose dark hair and hazel eyes resemble my sister more and more each day, so much so that people always thought she was Norma’s child instead of mine. I dream about them at times. In my dreams, I hug and kiss them. It feels real, and it’s what I long for more than anything, but then I wake up and realize my truth. They’re gone. I can’t hug Ma one more time. I can’t just go and sit and chat with Abuela, who was my confidante and the one person I trusted the most growing up. And I definitely can’t call my sister anymore and just shoot the breeze and be her big sissy. They have all left this earth, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s why I hate grief. That is why I despise this process of bereavement with all that is in me, and it’s because I can’t do anything about it but confront it.
Now my healing heart is broken anew. In the few months since my sister died, I have tried to approach it differently, but it’s hard. I don’t want to hoard the hurt. I don’t want to deal with it later, but sometimes I just do. At times the pain is still as intense as what I felt on that July morning. It feels overwhelming at times and especially so this past holiday season. I tell myself again and again that it’s okay to cry when triggers hit, but I don’t always heed my reminders. The reality is I know I need to face my grief. It’s how I will begin to heal. And yet, I still feel a deep need to be that source of strength for my nephew Jordan, for my kids, for Norma’s husband, Jerry. I know they rely on me for help. They call me for advice and come to me for guidance. They ask me to pray, and I do even as melancholy, and a looming depression threatens to weigh me down. It’s a daily struggle, but as with all things, the more you go through it, the more you know what to expect and how best to overcome those moments of despair. At least that’s what I’m learning.
My nephew is now in grief therapy, and I’m glad. It’s helping him. My other siblings are dealing with the loss of our sister in their way because it’s a different process for everyone. My sister’s husband, Jerry is doing okay, still adjusting to his new status as a widower. As for me, I go to church, and I pray. I keep busy with work and school, and I write. Above all I do life. I know I’ll get through my sister’s passing eventually. Like I did with my mom. Like I did with my grandmother. Like I’ll do with my aunt. We all must go sometime. Death and its consequence is a fact of life. We are all mortal, and we will all die. It’s what we leave behind that counts. I know that, and I hope that whatever that is, whatever my legacy will be, helps my family cope with my loss. I hope that they will always remember the good things I sought to do and did and focused on what I tried to teach them. But “it is their legacy of kindness that remains forevermore,.” For me that’s the key gift I hope endures for them and generations to come.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this long piece. I hope you didn’t read it with the notion that I’ve given in to my grief because I haven’t. I’m determined to come through it because the idiom holds true, “this too shall pass” and besides like my Abuelita, I hold on to the hope of seeing my family again someday. Psalm 116:5
Until next time.