Healing Love

Love is more than the manifestation of its energy through someone’s physical presence.  It is an energy that endures far after the person is gone.  It endures in the hearts of the people who were left to grieve, to miss, and to yearn. I am only beginning to understand the grandeur and magnitude of the love my grandmother felt for us.  While her love was transformational while she was alive,  in leu of her physical presence, her love feels even more potent now.  Somehow the memory of her and the values of love, forgiveness, and compassion she raised us with have become the compass for how we discern how to live our lives.

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Gardenia’s were our Tita Carmen’s favorite flower.

As we navigate through our pain and relationships, we can clearly feel her guidance and wisdom. Her legacy lives in the choices we make for our lives.  We keep her legacy alive when we choose to love unconditionally the way she loved us; when we choose to forgive even in the most difficult situations, and when we choose to have compassion and to understand someone beyond the limitations of our own experiences.  These are the things she equipped us with, so we could liberate ourselves from the pain that has been passed down through so many generations.

As I listen to my brother speak, I hear my grandmother’s wisdom in the way he is choosing to see life.  In holding on to my grandmother’s love, he has had to allow his heart to open.  That is the irony of it – in order to receive someone’s love fully, we must be open to vulnerability, and even the possibility of hurt.  Opening our hearts exposes us to confront the pain and the trauma that we so often run away from, but it also allows us to love more deeply and intensely.  

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin

Growing up we all suffered our fair share of neglect and abuse.  My brother was a victim of my uncle’s own experiences of neglect and abuse.  My brother has come to understand that my uncle was also once a little child and his innocence was devastated by the raw and untamed pain of the adults that were supposed to protect his innocence. At some point of his journey, my brother had an epiphany – our uncle did the best he could with what he held emotionally, and took care of us as best he knew how; that was a moment of grace allowed through the opening of his heart.  He talks about seeing a bigger picture, one that occupies a significance much more powerful than the lens of his individual pain and trauma.  He has begun to recognize the infinite whole and to see himself as part of a greater process.

My mother also suffered a tremendous amount of abuse and neglect.  For a long time, like many of us who suffer through inconceivable experiences, she felt as though in some way she held responsibility for what happened to her.  As if the violence had specifically chosen her. What she has come to recognize is that what happened to her could have happened to anyone, and it does happen to many children, without some particular design or criteria for who it happens to.  It wasn’t her fault.  It didn’t happen to her because she was less divine or less worthy than anyone else.  And she too realizes that my grandmother did the best she could to love her and protect her from the abuse.

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From left to right: Tita Carmen, David (my husband), David (my brother), Carmen (my daughter), Ofelia (my mother)

My uncle, for the first time, listened during the quiet of the night to my aunt speak to him about the need for him to reach out to God.  She told him it was time to stop the suffering, and only by opening his heart to God would he find peace.  She often prays to my Tita asking her for her guidance, for her love to heal the wounds that my uncle has hidden the way the fog hides the trees. For the first time my uncle allowed my aunt’s plea to move him enough that he gripped her hand tightly, and turned slightly away to allow a tear to escape from his left eye. The first petal has unfolded.

As for me, my grandmother’s love has guided me to find true love – I have fallen in love with myself for the first time in my life.  I think about how much she loved me and know that I must love myself no less than that.  I believe in myself enough to have the courage to follow my heart and my purpose.  She is there to help me navigate through uncertainty and moments of doubt.  Also, for the first time in my life, I have a deeper, more authentic relationship with my mother.  It is my grandmother’s love that nudges me, even challenges me, to open up to the possibilities of a new relationship with my mother.  For so long I focused on what my relationship with her wasn’t, prodding and intensifying the pain of what I wished could have been.  But in doing that, I was missing out on what could be.  I honor my grandmother’s legacy by loving my mother the way my grandmother loves her. I cannot receive my grandmother’s pure love if I allow animosity to live within my heart. And the greatest gift I can offer my grandmother, is to heal the relationship with my mother, so in turn my grandmother and my mother can heal theirs.

As I reflect back to my brother David’s and my journey, there were so many times we were confronted with situations that could have easily lead us into gang violence, alcoholism, or even drug addiction;  situations that would have caused us greater danger and trauma. Most of the time, however, thinking about the immense pain we would cause our Tita Carmen, we had enough self-awareness and grit to stay away from self-destructive experiences.

There are people that are raised with loving childhoods with very little wounds and traumas.  There are others that must confront very serious and painful experiences from a young age.  I don’t know why this happens, but it does. Maybe all those experiences help us to become more compassionate and giving toward others.  Maybe it helps us understand the universal experiences of humanity and our connectedness.  Whatever the case, one thing I do know for sure is love like the kind that our Tita Carmen nurtured us with can heal and transform the most damaged and beaten heart.

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“What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.”       -Rumi                         

 

 In honor of our Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother

May 26, 1926 – Nov. 24, 2010

See Me – Interview 1

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Me: How is your heart?

Student: My heart. It’s a mix. It’s full of . . . mmm. It’s weird. It’s like a cloud full of thoughts and it grabs on to everything that come to it, but only expresses the good. But sometimes the bad just stays there. And it tries to mix the good and the bad to see what happens, and to see how it can function, so that it can keep nourishing me with things that will help me grow.

Me: It seems like it was difficult to answer at first. Why?

Student: I don’t know. It’s just thinking about it. Because you never think about it until someone asks you.

Me: When do you feel the most powerful?

Student: When I feel . . . When I know. . . I feel connected to my cause. And I know it’s going to benefit not only me, but others. And I know that nobody is going to do it for me, so I have to do it by myself. When I know no one’s there supporting me. It’s just me. It’s just that decision that is you. So that is when I feel more . . .

Me: When do you feel the most powerless?

Student: When there is people around me and I feel that I need them, and I feel like if I do something, they don’t like it, they are going to be separate; they’re going to leave me. I don’t know how, but I feel like when there’s more people, I feel like I might be wrong, and I don’t be right for them. Even though I know that you have to do it by yourself, I feel afraid for showing. And, when also when there is someone really powerful, it keeps you (student creates a motion of pushing down with her hands), and there is nothing you can do about it; or you don’t have the control of the situation.

Me: When do you find that you show your true self? When do you get to show your true self or you get to be the most authentic?

Student: When I’m doing something related to art. It’s like an extension of me. It doesn’t matter how. It could be music, it could be paintings, it could be poetry, it could be writing something, but if it’s art, I feel like that is my mayor honor. And I feel that when you express your feelings, things go away and I can just be me, because it’s just an extension of me.

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Me: When do you feel that you are the least authentic?

Student: When I’m expected to say something or feel like something from the world. I feel like, like in school, mostly, I feel like I have to be in a box because I have to do whatever they think for me to do it. And if I don’t do it that way, I’m not going to get the degree or the diploma because I have to do it how is it right for. It has to be in that exact way – how they want me to be.

Me: So would you say that the time or the place you are the least authentic is in school?

Student: Yeah. Not by acting, but by showing my feelings in the work that is requested. Mostly like that.

Me: Who are you?

Student: I feel like I am a breeze that grabs from everywhere. I can’t say that my ethnicity is just Mexican, because my grandparents are from Spain. I can’t say I’m just from here or from there because I feel that I come from different places. My blood comes from different places and I was raised with a white, American, blue eyes, and I came to the United States. And I don’t feel like from here or there. I feel that we are all connected, and I feel like I am a mixture of it all, together. Even though I’ve never been in other countries, I feel that I have that culture and I make it a part of me. And I am, I believe I have a lot of imagination. I dream too much. I am a person that is more vulnerable than the rest because I focus more on my feelings and so then I feel that. . . .I am strong, but I feel that that strength comes from where my vulnerability lies. What makes me the most vulnerable, also makes me more strong.

Me: What do you like most or love most about yourself?

Student: Mmm? When I am with others I feel like they feel a liking toward what I reflect toward them. And I like to be with people. Not just being with people. I like to transmit things, and I am capable of doing it, I feel. That’s what I like the most.

Me: What do you dislike or hate about yourself?

Student: Sometimes I’m too emotional and what doesn’t affect others, does affect me. That makes me angry and sometimes, for me, not being able to do what I want, because what I think I should do and is right to do, sometimes I don’t do it. And that is what makes me the most angry- to know that I have an idea that I want to follow through with, but I stop myself from doing it due to other things. I don’t know if I am explaining myself.

*Post-interview: I think what I really mean is to not be loyal to myself, or to my principles.

Michelle

Me: Are there any things that seem to block you the most from doing the things you want?

Student: Mmmm? Maybe the environment. Where I am. How people believe in how the world should be. Like rich, money and stuff. The illusion of something that is not connected to the earth or others. That’s what makes me freak out.

Me: What makes you strong?

Student: Probably, my own experience of what I have seen, and to know I’m not alone in the way I think. And to know that I can help others. There are others experiencing the same problems or worse, and they have overcome. Maybe the examples I am basing my opinion on, the people who I see and admire, and see how they were able to succeed. That’s what gives me strength – to see the examples of others in history. Not just examples in history. Fore example, I am a very religious person and the examples in the bible and all that happened, those are the things that give me strength, as well as God. I am a very religious person. I am a Jehovah’s Witness, and I feel if I wasn’t a part of that, I’d be somewhere else. In a very distant place and my ideas would be so much different than what they are today. I wouldn’t have as much vulnerability as I have.

Me: What makes you weak for feel weak?

Student: To know there are bad people that can control me. Or there are people who control more than they should. Excessive power. Despotism.

Me: What do you hope?

Student: What do I hope. I desire peace . . . for me. To do something that brings me peace. And to feel peace in the environment.

*Post-Interview: What I fear the most are nightmares that destroy my dreams.

Me: When are you most visible? When do you feel the most visible – that people can see you?

Student: Art (laughs)

Me: When do you feel the most invisible?

Student: When I speak. Because when I use art, I don’t use words, I don’t think, I just play, or I just paint, or I write, but it’s not my voice. It’s more easier to let my feeling go out than when I’m speaking. With my voice, that’s super hard for me because when I think, I just hold (motions with two closed fists toward her heart), I can’t do something. I have to say it and it’s more difficult to translate my feeling in words. Language is . . . it could be beautiful, but if you don’t use it properly, you don’t get the same response.

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Me: Are there any other questions you would have liked for me to ask?

Student: Maybe in the future. Maybe when I realize . . . Thank you.

Me: Thank you. If you think about anything else you would have liked for me to ask, let me know.

Student: Can you send me the interview in my e-mail?

Me: Yes. I think it’s very powerful to listen to yourself speak.

Student needed to leave to her next class.  I thanked her for her courage to speak, for her honesty, and most of all, for the honor of allowing me to see a little bit of her heart and soul.

 

SEE ME Project – Introduction

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The “SEE ME” Project is an attempt to break down some of the more dehumanizing stereotypes that chip away at our teen’s sense of worth and purpose.  Often the only stories told about them are from the perspective of adults, and very often the stories that receive the most attention are those that perpetuate negative paradigms of youth. The inspiration for this project grew from a yearning to see more profoundly into their heart and soul. I want to have the opportunity to interview youth across all economic, social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and be a vehicle through which they can safely reveal a part of themselves. There are various purposeful layers to this project.  By reflecting upon and speaking about the most significant parts of themselves, youth can begin to see themselves differently from the way society portrays them. In addition, their stories will confront and counter the more widely accepted  “single story” of the entitled, selfish, irresponsible teenager, awakening a new consciousness for how we should engage our youth. My passion has always been to work in meaningful and transformative ways with youth.  In order to serve them in the best way possible, I must continue to make opportunities to learn from them, and these interviews will yield the content for my own learning.

I  have come up with a set of interview questions that I hope will shine light on more powerful and significant aspects of our youth’s lives.

1.  How is your heart? (Shared by a friend)

2. When do you feel the most powerful?

3. When do you feel the most powerless?

4. When do you show your true self? When are you the most authentic? When are you closest to being/speaking your truth?

5.When are you the least authentic?

6. What do you like/love about yourself?

7. What do you dislike/hate about yourself?

8. What makes you strong?

9.What makes you (feel) week?

10. What do you fear?

11. What do you hope?

12. When are you the most visible?

13. When are you the most invisible?

14. What do you know for sure?

15. What do you wonder? (Question suggested by a student)

16. What are you looking for?

17. What really matters to you? What do you stand for?

18. What is your intention/purpose for your life?

19. What are you listening for or to?

20. Who are you?

21. What keeps you alive? (Question suggested by a student)

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The idea of focusing on their eyes came from my own experience and belief that the first step we can take in acknowledging someone’s existence is by looking in their eyes. I originally wanted to photograph their faces, but many of the students did not feel safe in disclosing their identity. In a world in which they are so often shamed and bullied, it is very scary to disclose so much of themselves without feeling raw and vulnerable. However, I still wanted to somehow convey their essence while still honoring their request.  I cropped a few pictures and showed them to the students to see if this version of them would be something they would feel comfortable with – they liked the idea.

You can’t avoid someone when you are looking into their eyes. You can’t avoid their truth, their voice, nor their existence. It is very difficult to look into someone’s eyes and condense every stereotype we have of them into what is reflected through their eyes. You can objectify someone’s nose, or arm, or leg, but the eyes can very seldom be objectified. They reflect our very own existence. In the eyes of another we can see our very own humanity. This concept has been at the core of many indigenous societies around the world. Mayans expressed this concept of connectedness as they greeted each other saying, “In lak’ech,” I am another you, and, “Hala ken,” you are another me. In the Southern African region, Ubuntu, represents the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Desmond Tutu best describes it as, “My humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” The paradox of this project is that by focusing on their eyes we are forced to acknowledge them wholly, and yet by only focusing on their eyes, we leave out the other beautiful parts of them. I hope that one day, our youth feel safe enough to disclose their truths and their identity without having to compromise one for the other.

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A few years ago, when I was still teaching, I facilitated an activity in which I asked student to write down all the stereotypes adults and the media perpetuated of them.  The wrote: Lazy, entitled, rebellious, rude, apathetic, drug-users, complaining, aggressive, angry, dishonest, manipulative, violent, reckless, obnoxious, ignorant, disrespectful, inconsiderate, selfish, careless, troublemakers, disconnected, hypersexed, self-absorbed, materialistic, etc.  Our students feel like outcasts; a marginalized sector of society that is seen as more of a burden than a gift.  Not coincidently, historically, these are the same stereotypical perceptions that have been attributed to racially and ethnically “unwanted” groups.  This is why I found the students’ responses so alarming, along with what I have observed to be a downward spiral of humiliating and abusive treatment of youth in places that should be safe spaces for them such as home, school, community programs, and church.  While dealing with youth has its own set of challenges, as this period of development can be a difficult one for them to navigate due to hormonal changes, exploration of self-identity, assertion of independence, peer-pressure, and other factors, the disdain with which adults approach our youth is a matter of civil rights.  They too have a right to thrive in our society without fear of discrimination repression, and oppression.

In providing teens with opportunities and spaces where they can safely share their stories and have critical dialogue about their experiences, we can support them in dignifying their existence. Through self-awareness and self-expression, they are more likely to experience a sense of empowerment in which they begin to take a greater active role in asserting their decision-making power, thinking critically, speaking their truth, searching for information and resources, advocating on their behalf, reclaiming their identities, and becoming the main protagonists in creating the lives they deserve.  As our youth makes sense of their lives in the context of the world that surrounds them, they begin to discover themselves and their potential as they give name to what they see and experience.  This is how they come to a new awareness of self, with a new sense of dignity, and a new hope.  It takes many seeds to cultivate a forest.  If I can be a drop of rain in that process, I will have served my purpose.

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SEE

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ME

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Gotitas de Lluvia (Drops of Rain)

Saying goodbye was difficult for the students as their session came to an end, I just didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me.  As I think about all the unforgettable experiences I lived in Costa Rica, I conclude that the pain of saying goodbye is worth those moments I lived.  Sometimes we get so close to people, and the impact they make in our lives is so life-changing, that we can’t fathom the idea of potentially not seeing them again.  We come across so many people in our lives, many for a very brief moment, like a drop of rain cascades down a leaf.  Others become part of our journeys, embracing and supporting us through our growth, the way soil anchors the roots of a tree during its life-span.

Leaving was much more difficult than I anticipated; I had such beautiful encounters there. I had started to grow roots in its nurturing soil, and was pulled out of a place, I didn’t realize, I wasn’t ready to be pulled from. People there walked around with their hearts opened, literally zinging me with love. I was wrapped in love, not only by the people in Costa Rica, but also by the students I served and some of the adults I worked with.  Of the students and the impact they had on my life I will write in a later blog.

The following are some of the little drops of rain that nurtured me during my stay in Costa Rica:

Don Gregorio

Don Gregorio tended to the volcanic mud baths in the Rio Negro Hot Springs that surround the Rincon de La Vieja Volcano. I had built a small connection with him during the few times I had been there with the students. He was a gentle, soft spoken man with an accommodating demeanor. He had hard working, brusque hands, callused and heavily worn by his experiences.  The kind of hands that could hold on to the heaviest burden and caress the most diaphanous butterfly.  In contrast to his hands, despite being an elder, his face was supple and radiant.  Aside from a few fine lines on his face, his cheeks were like two perfectly polished Pink lady apples nestling his eyes, which had a child-like gleamer in them.  He seemed to enjoy watching my antics as I struggled to adjust to the heat of the hot springs, clumsily scrubbed the dry clay off my skin, and cowardly committed to the cold river, all part of a detoxing sequence.

As I rounded up the students, I realized that that might be the last time I’d ever see that place again, and the last time I’d see Don Gregorio.  In that instant, he approached me, grabbed me by my shoulders and looking into my eyes, said, “Bueno Muchacha, ya no vienes mas?”  Confirming what I already knew in my heart – this would be my last encounter with him.  “Cuidate, que Dios te bendiga.  Eres una muchacha muy especial.”  In his eyes, I saw his sincerity, and I also saw God, and the beautiful connection our two souls had made.  I couldn’t help but to believe his words, not because they boosted my ego,  but because there was a deeper source that told me so.  Perhaps, because he seemed to believe it more than I did.

Doña Veronica

Doña Veronica was in charge of coordinating and preparing all meals for the program.  Her coordination was no easy task when you consider all the dietary restrictions she had to adhere to when designing the meals.  Some students were vegetarian, others vegan, still others were allergic to peanuts, kiwi, fish, dairy, even lentils.  On top of that she was cooking for 52 people, of which 45 were very hungry teenagers.  Every day, she showed up like magic, with a heart full of love, which manifested in the delicious meals she cooked, and a smile as radiant as the ablaze warm sunsets of Costa Rica. She knew exactly who needed to be served what, without looking at any notes, might I add.  Most of her day was spent serving or preparing for the next meal, and yet she always had time to pause, look at us in the eyes, address us by our names, and ask us how we were doing.  I don’t remember when I began hugging her, but it happened, spontaneously, the way the morning gives way to a new bloom.

The last week of the program, I was exhausted, emotionally and physically.  Being responsible for the well-being of 45 students 7 days a week had started to take a toll on me after six weeks, not to mention the challenging working dynamics that occurred when staff members also interacted with each other 7 days a week and lived on the same premises.  Saturday morning, as we were headed out for our last weekend excursion with the students, unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, Doña Veronica called out my name as I was about to get on the bus.  She pranced toward me, with her arms opened, and gave me an embracing, loving hug, the kind I looked forward to from my grandmother when I needed refuge from life’s complications. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed that hug; I needed her nurturing love to get me through the weekend.  Being so far away, with people I had only met a few weeks before, had left me yearning for the unconditional love I was so used to back home.  The kindness with which that hug was given blunted the challenges and intensity of the weekend.

Playa Naranjo

Playa Naranjo is a secluded beach in Costa Rica, and in order to get to it by land, one must ride in a 4-wheeled vehicle with a vigorous suspension capacity through the forest for approximately an hour.  The students were brought to this majestic place to surf, camp, and observe sea turtles nesting.  As the sun prepared to descend behind the robust mountains, it began to tinge the clouds with golden hues of amber, cerise, and coral. Apposite to the direction of the sunset was the most brilliant, colorful rainbow I had ever seen in my life.  I sat on the fine, bold volcanic sand marveled by this spectacle of God, pondering how I had gotten so lucky to witness that moment.  I was filled with so much love, it began to pour out of my eyes.  All of these amazing things in the world flowed inside of me like a river – they seemed to be a gift to me, like Doña Veronica’s hugs, and Don Gregorio’s words.

Don Gradvin

“Buenos Dias, Cristina.  Pura Vida!”  Was how he greeted me every morning with the most sincere and spirited smile I have ever encountered. Don Gradvin made me feel as if all of Costa Rica was smiling at me.  He exemplified the phrase, Pura Vida, a term which literally translates to pure life, but has a more profound meaning for the Costarricenses.  Pura Vida reminds us to be like a river and flow in the direction that life takes us; to persist the way the trees persist in the rainforest, but also to surrender, to let go and transform from what con no longer be, the way the host trees surrenders to the Matapalo trees, a strangling species, which envelops the host tree as it struggles for light in the darkest areas of the forest; and to remember that no matter how much or how little we have in life, life is here to be embraced and enjoyed.  Don Gradvin was my hummingbird – he brought out the joy, playfulness, and enthusiasm for life in me, and in everyone that engaged with him.

He was one of the bus drivers that drove us everywhere. Aside from fulfilling his duties as a bus driver, he also gave of himself and made all the experiences so much more vibrant by participating alongside the mentors and students, whether it was shoveling gravel, wheelbarrowing cement, or making tamales, he was always present,  allowing us to feel that we were the most important thing to him in that moment.   Even the bus rides from the service sites were exciting.  At the end of the day, exhausted as the students would be from the toil, they’d yell out, “49,”  in Spanish. The number to their favorite song on Don Gradvin’s CD.  They’d dance in celebration all the way back to home-base, where Don Gradvin would   chant “Pura Vida” as each student got off the bus.   The same words he told me as he bid me farewell from Costa Rica.

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I am so grateful to God for bringing so much love into my life, whether it’s through people that exist briefly in my life or people that are on this journey with me.  Even in the midst of being so far away from “home,” I felt God’s love through the people that manifested their brilliant light. Through Katia, the year-round administrative manager to the villa we were staying in, who invited me to stay at her house my last day in Costa Rica to celebrate Mother’s day (August 15) with her family, who also welcomed me with generosity and warmth. Through Alex, one of the mentors, whose big-brother presence, even though he was younger than me, made me feel supported and encouraged.  Through Bernarda, one of the housekeepers, who despite the poverty and struggles in her life, was a vibrant and gregarious woman.  She’d surprise me with specially made gallo pinto or hand-made corn tortillas.  I appreciated her hands, and the smell of the maize when she’d make the tortillas, for in those moments, I was reminded of the way my grandmother poured her love into me through the food she made.  I’ve felt her, as much as I felt God,  in the small interactions filled with love that I experienced in Costa Rica.  As challenging and exhausting as the program could be, there was hardly a day that passed by that didn’t offer Costa Rica magic – “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stood out in stark relief” to the stressors of the program.

 

Illusion

 

He tells me I’m cute,

makes cat calls

when my hips rumble by,

but I don’t believe him.

 

I want to be told I’m beautiful

because he notices the way my

curls drape over my shoulders,

because my smile makes him smile,

because in my eyes he sees the

woman that’s awakening inside.

 

I don’t believe him when

he holds me, I feel like a

load in his arms, as if

he is doing me a favor.

 

I don’t believe him when

he kisses me.

The yearning for the gentleness

of a playful kiss lingers

longer than the shadow of his lips.

 

I want to be kissed,

hard, with intention,

the way a hummingbird

approaches honeysuckle.

 

I don’t believe his hands as they

travel through the cambers of

my body so obtrusively, I won’t

dare to slow them down,

invite them to explore and play.

 

When he touches me, I want him

to take his time, the way the fog

caresses the mountains and sacred

valleys of Peru. Imprint every curve

and ridge of my topography

in his mind.

 

I don’t believe in his silence.

When my heart speaks its truth,

my words are met by the timber

of his preoccupation.

 

I want his presence

the way the tree shelters the birds

in its arms,

the way the sun

validates the moon,

the way

the conch holds the sound of

the ocean.

 

I don’t believe him when he

says he loves me.

He doesn’t look long enough

into my eyes for me to catch

the movement of his lips.

 

It’s a phrase spoken from habit,

fills up space and time.

Not enough to forget that a

second ago, I wondered why

we stay together.

In Her Dying Process, I Found Peace

As I stepped out of the airplane I smelled a familiar smell of dew and dampness, one which I had smelled before in places like Veracruz and Cuba.  For a moment, I looked back hoping I’d see my grandmother trailing behind in her walker.   My visit to the Philippines was the first time I traveled out of the country without her.  The last time I had smelled tropical humidity was when we had visited Cuba for the second time.  I remember arriving to the Cuban airport, feeling uneasy and uncertain – eyes watching and interrogating us as we walked through the corridors, before reaching the immigration booths.   A wall lined with doors stood between us and Cuba.  We were each escorted to a different door.  I was asked for my passport and stood in long silence as the official probed and prodded at my passport, swiping it several times and staring intently at the computer, which I had no view of.  All a sequence of actions, which heightened my uneasiness and uncertainty.  I was finally told to go through to the other side. As I opened the door, I saw my husband waiting.  I was relieved.  A few minutes later, my daughter came out.  My grandmother took the longest.  Finally I saw a door open with a bit of sound commotion – loud voices, animated voices and laughter.  I instinctly knew that was my grandmother.  She had been entertaining the officials with her traveling stories, and everywhere she went, she made sure people knew I was a teacher at Hoover High School.  She always had a way about her that brought out the best in everyone she came across.  To her there was no distinction between a person of power or authority and someone with a less “powerful” role.  She treated everyone with dignity and respect; pass the roles that identified them, right to their spirit.

I wanted to make sure, during the last months of her life, she was treated with the same dignity she had always treated others.  Though she was dying, it was important she continued to be validated and honored.  That she didn’t just become someone we were taking care of, but that we were standing in solidarity with her.  The process of coming to peaceful terms with her death would be one that would connect us all.  Coming to terms with death did not mean giving up on (her) life; it just meant we stopped fighting death.  By surrounding her with love and family, we attempted to make the process less frightening for her.

My Tia Mary told me that even though part of my Tita was fighting to survive, there was also a part of her that knew she was dying.  One after noon, they were sitting in Tita’s bedroom, and she was gazing outside, toward the backyard.  All of a sudden, she brushed her fingers through her hair with a look of sorrow.  My aunt, her sister, asked, “Que tienes Manita,” as she lovingly called her.  My grandmother sighed deeply and responded, “Siento que se me va la vida, Mary.”  She felt as though life was escaping her.   She spoke of wanting to live a little longer for her family. She had dedicated her whole life to us, and the most difficult part of dying was learning to let us go.

A month prior to Tita’s death, she asked me to take her to the salon so she could get her routine beauty care – manicure, pedicure, and waxing, even though there wasn’t much hair to wax, her tattooed eyebrows ensured she always had perfectly shaped arches.  Even in the midst of battling for her life, she refused to stop living.  Tita was such a diva-fashionista.  She had such a sense of style and a hip look that mirrored her hip attitude.  She had also asked me to dye her hair; in all her eighty-four years, she had never worn it silver.  It was the last “normal” girls-day-out we spent together.

As I was dying her hair, we had a moment where we talked about her cancer and how she felt about all that was happening to her.  She had spent so much of her life caring and nurturing us, she just couldn’t fathom there being anyone else who would fight for us the way she had. During our conversation, there was a pause followed by Tita shaking her head as she gently sobbed.  I asked her if she was crying because she was afraid of dying, but she shook her head and continued sobbing.  Then I asked her if she was concerned about Carmen’s well-being, and I assured her I would always watch over Carmen the way I knew she’d want me to.  But she shook her head again and said, “No, no es eso.”  Then it hit me . . . she was scared to die before she had the opportunity to see Carmen again; she was surrounded by so much family, but Carmen was still finishing up her semester in college.  When I asked if that was why she was crying, her sob became stronger, like a wounded child, and she nodded her head.  It broke my heart. Carmen was not only a gift in my life, she became a symbol of hope and new beginnings for both my Tita and I.  In her, we began to see the liberation we were all waiting for.

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Tita Carmen and Carmen, High School Graduation 2010

Two weeks before she passed, she stopped going to her radiation treatments.  It had become a great struggle for her to attend the treatments; each time she went she became more fatigued.  Getting dressed, walking to the car, getting in and out of the car, walking to the medical office, undressing again for the treatment, receiving the treatment, getting dressed again, and making the trek back home had become just too labor-intensive.  And one day, as it was time for her to get ready, she grabbed my hand and softly pleaded, “Ya no mas,” shaking her head with the little energy she had left.  I knew, without radiation, the opportunity for a miracle diminished greatly.  I asked her if she knew what canceling her radiation treatments meant.  She softly responded, “Si.”  We both recognized in silence, it was officially the beginning of the end.  My grandmother was a fighter, she never gave up, but she made that decision because her body could no longer fight.  She got back in bed, and lay down like a vulnerable child, relieved that she would get to rest.

Carmen arrived a week before Tita’s death.  For Carmen the process was much more difficult; she had not been present, as we all had, to assimilate Tita’s journey to dying.  When Carmen left to college at the end of the summer, Tita was a vivacious and colorful woman, and returning to see her in such a declining state was heart-breaking to say the least.  The following is a journal entry in which Carmen describes her coming to terms with Tita’s dying:

My Tita Carmen loved, and I mean, loved food.  If you offered her food, she would take it in a heartbeat.  If you had food left over, she would gladly eat it.  Food was important to her because in many Latino cultures and families, food is what connects us. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, Tita Carmen was basically gone.  She could no longer move and her speaking ability was almost non-existent.  But to me, one of the most important aspects she had lost was her desire to eat.  Feeling hungry signifies life.  It means that your body wants to keep fighting and living.  My Tita Carmen had practically lost all sense of hunger.  There were only two things she would eat, if that: sopita and banana.  I remember when I fed her, she wasn’t very hungry, so we decided to give her a little bit of banana.  My grandmother had always been the one to take care of us, and now we were taking care of her.  (Tita’s maxillary muscles had started to weaken, so she could no longer fit her dentures in her mouth.  This made it so that we could only feed her soft food.)  With the banana, I had to be careful not to scrape too much onto the spoon, because she couldn’t have too much at once.  I still remember what it felt like. . .feeding my grandma like a baby felt like I was saying goodbye to her.  It was a coming to terms with the fact that she was going to leave us soon. 

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Tita Carmen, caught eating again. . .

Two days prior to my Tita dying, she asked Carmen and I to give her a bath.  “Escojeme una blusa para ponerme,” she requested.  She wanted to get out of her pajamas and dress in her usually fashionable clothes.  Perhaps it made her feel more alive, or perhaps she wanted to feel like herself before she died.  When I pulled out the first blouse, she wrinkled her nose in a protesting gesture and mumbled “No. Esa no.”  Then I pulled out another blouse, and she wasn’t going for that one either.  I thought it was so like my Tita to be lying sick in bed, but still be meticulous about what she wanted to wear!  Finally, at about the fifth blouse, she nodded her head.

That day, Carmen, Tita, and I experienced a beautiful moment in which we found acceptance and closure.  My Tita asked to be given a bath.  By this point, simple tasks like taking a shower were just too arduous.  I remember Carmen and I gently wiping down her body with a wet cloth, trying to record in my memory every mole, every age spot, every vein, and every wrinkle.  It was the greatest honor and sign of respect that Carmen and I could give her for all that she represented in our lives.  It was also a moment my daughter and I would share for the rest of our lives, and perhaps, a moment she would remember when it came time for her to come to terms with my death.  I felt proud of the compassionate and generous woman Carmen was becoming, and humbled that my Tita had played such an essential role in her upbringing.

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Tita Carmen bathing Carmen – 1 month old.

After bathing her, in her deteriorating state, she lifted up her hand, struggling against her weakening body, and pointed toward Carmen.  Then, as if she had weights on her tongue, she asked me with an affirmative tone, “Es mi niña,”  pointing toward her chest. To which I responded, “Si chiquita, es tu niña, tuya.”  She nodded her head in agreement and winked at Carmen, giving her a strenuous smile that radiated with joy.  This moment came full circle to the day I gave birth to Carmen.  Tita told me when Carmen was born, as soon as she was placed in my arms, I looked at her and asked, “Es mía, es mi niña?”   She was so pure, so perfect.  I couldn’t believe I deserved something so beautiful.  What magic existed inside of me, that I could create such beauty?  I imagine that’s what Tita felt in having had the opportunity to be part of shaping Carmen’s life.  In a very perceptive way, Tita knew her spirit would live on in Carmen.  Carmen was (is) our niña.

In witnessing my grandmother’s journey to a physical death, I learned to discern what I needed to let go of and what I needed to hold on to.  Life is about nurturing another being, understanding that how we care for that being, whether it is a plant, a crop, an animal or a person, will determine the significance of our own lives.  Sometimes we are even fortunate enough to nurture a being into life.  Only when we love another being and stand in solidarity with him or her, can we begin to realize and embrace the miracle of life.

I didn’t know at the time, but in caring for my grandmother, I was nurturing her into death.  It wasn’t something that came easily, especially when I had to come to terms with never touching or speaking to her again.  Some deaths, like my brother’s, are tragic and unexpected therefore they cause a lot of grief and suffering before one can come to peace with them.  But there is something very mystical about witnessing the dying process of someone who lived a complete life.  As I watched my grandmother physically fade away, I was able to feel that she was more than her body.  The last few days, when I couldn’t connect to her physically anymore, I felt a different energy, a presence that was unbinding and timeless.  In some aspects, nurturing Tita into death was more profound than nurturing life because I found a deeper connection to spirit.  Death is something we all want to understand, but can’t, so when I came face to face with its mystical essence, it hit me at a soul-level, the way nothing in this world has. I understood then, that spirit is the only lasting reality, and with that understanding, I knew that my Tita would be with me (us) forever.

“I always thought I would become more than I am today”.

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I dreamt of glistening wings of courage

that would expand the length of my voice

 

That my voice would take flight and echo

within the deepest chambers of my heart

 

I thought I’d know my heart intimately enough

to trust it

to listen to its whispers through the

clatter of uncertainty

 

I thought of painting murals of yellow freedom, filled with

sunflowers and freesia

and purple love

all over the world

 

I thought of engraving music into majestic whirlwinds

laughing with adorning sparkling notes

waltzing to a saxophone or perhaps conga drums

 

I thought I would have a building named after me

a building made of chocolate and powdered gold that

shimmered and glowed

and protected from nightmares

 

I imagined to be fiercely myself

subjugating

the realities surrounding me to

my dreams and hopes.

 

I thought I’d understand God,

My purpose

 

Still hoping to become more than I am today

 

Learning to love who I am in this moment