Eleven years ago, my ex-husband suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his family. Last Father’s Day, my then 25-year-old daughter, Alexandra, had weathered the holiday storm well, especially considering that she was in isolation as a result of the worldwide pandemic, and it was the first Father’s Day she was grieving the loss of her 21-month older, only sibling.
A few people over the years have offered unsolicited advice, saying that my role was to be a father as well as a mother. I told them that’s pure nonsense. I can only be a mother, because that’s my role. My role is not a father role. My role as a mother has changed, but during those times when a situation baffled me, my 12-Step foundation kicked in and the answer never failed: unconditional love.
I knew it was a sad holiday for her and on the wings of faith (and Mama Sandra) this past Sunday, I did what I really was scared to death to do, but did anyway, and that was to drive into New York City from our little green town about an hour and a half away for a visit with Alexandra. After 30 minutes, I regretted my decision since it seemed everyone on the road was vying to size up for the Indy 500. In comparison, I felt as if I were Grandma Moses hitting the highway, taking a folk art painting break for the day.
When I finally arrived, Alexandra and I went to a nearby movie theater to see In the Heights. My daughter, a former Washington Heights resident, had been raving about the movie since its premiere. I suppose most people attend movies in the same manner they brush their teeth – without overthinking it. For me now, I live in the screenshot of life, but, in actuality, I am also knee deep in a subplot that changes, but what doesn’t change is the reoccurring theme of pain.
This was the first movie I saw since the passing of my best bud, brilliant 26-year-old son, Marshall. As we walked inside, down the movie theater’s hallway, my PTSD from losing a child kicked off. Here’s a little snapshot of the subplot that played in my mind:
What was the last movie he ever saw? Oh, that’s right. It was about two years before he died alone in the bedroom closet of a house he rented in Kentucky, a death later sealed with a clean toxicology report, the site of two previous suicides. I have no clue what movie he saw, but it was shortly before the landlord wouldn’t allow him to break the lease of the house he despised. He went with a woman he had recently met online. I was overjoyed at the idea that he met her and did not have to be alone on the weekends. As it turned out, for about a month in Kentucky, she finagled every dime she could from my son to provide complimentary entertainment and dumped him after Marshall started realizing that she was taking advantage of his resources.
What was the last movie I saw with my son? I believe it was Avatar in 2009. When we were still a family unit, the four of us sat engrossed as we watched the movie. Silly me, I lavished in those moments, not because of the movie, but because I was sitting next to the three most important people in my life. During that time my gratitude could fill the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and that was just to start with, because it overflowed. Silly me.
In essence, since the 2019 tragedy, I have trained myself to black out my mind’s screen. Inhale. Exhale. Real world.
I chanted my mantra: Keep the faith. You will make it through.
However, ten minutes into the movie’s preview section, I took a nosedive into the dark abyss. I felt like a flea that was swallowed up by a bad, bloody case of hemorrhoids as overblown as the theater. This time faith was futile. No mantra would work.
You see, two separate movie trailers involved two young men who died of suicide. Both of the clips hit deathly close to home. I braced, tried not to fall too far into the bloody swamp. I heard my daughter ask, “Do you need to go into the lobby?”
No lobby. Just a lobotomy I need. That was what I wanted to say but froze and somehow my sick humor helped to pull me up, and I returned into my skin as the hemorrhoidal monster shrunk.
Keep the faith. You will make it through.
By some miracle, I was able to focus on the movie. You do not have to be Hispanic or a first-generation American or immigrant to relate to the musical that is filled with a sense of hopefulness in the eye of the hopeless and voices in a climate of the voiceless.
“We are all one.”
That’s what I thought as I saw Alexandra’s tears flow. It was then that I realized living life in America is not always about achieving the so-called American Dream: Life, Liberty and Justice for All. It is also about lifting each other up as a community when we fall into the subplots of life that do not appear as if they were written for us in mind. Those times when we feel forced to wear costumes in which there is barely room to move, because they are not suited for us, yet we manage to stuff ourselves down to our “soles” and walk the line of courage with fake faith and hope.
Examining the movie closer, my daughter saw her grandmother, my mother, who died in 2015, in the character of Abuela Claudia, matriarch and surrogate grandmother of the barrio. She keeps her culture alive and never loses the true definition of value. Abuela is the perfect example of how we, as a society, should not measure people by their titles, but on the ground they stand on because, in the final analysis, it is how they make it sacred – turn it into a better place than it was before they stepped on it, even if that means undertaking a tiny action like making their bed in the morning.
Abuela’s ground is sacred because she views everything as sacred, even a bread crumb. Powerless to her meager circumstances, she finds willpower to forge on in life by stringing herself along on the small details that skip others by, details like hand embroidered towels. Likewise, even though the world beat my mom to the ground, she survived by seeking leverage from little things like robins and sparrows. No matter how insignificant to others, she reveled in the details, a perspective the movie brings to light.
I, in fact, remember my mom making the sign of the cross three times and kissing a piece of bread before reverently putting it in her hand to eat. I can also recall my mom flattening wrapping paper in her soft hands and putting it in a drawer that smelled like a lilac garden. The drawer was full of crumbled wrapping paper from gifts she or our family had received over the years. To her, it was not just her appreciation, but the value of the giver who put the effort behind presenting the gift. It was as if she took the love that was given and continued its acknowledgment into infinity.
Thankful for every little crumb of substance, like Abuela, my mom, as limited as she was, did not limit her generosity and was truly delighted to bestow gifts of her own. For years, when I was growing up, she knitted poodle dogs around whiskey bottles for many of the neighbors. Sometimes I was saddened because she wrapped things that were already in the house and gave them to me on my birthday or Christmas as presents. Today, I realize it wasn’t that we didn’t have the money or she was being vicious, it was that everything to her was a gift. Like Christians who spread the word of the gospel, she spread love through re-gifting, because nothing in her eyes lost its value even if it loitered around for years and years.
In fact, when my mom gave my daughter or son something of hers like a butterfly pin, it wasn’t just a piece of jewelry. It was a part of her and she gave it with her heart and soul. That was why Alexandra wept, because each and every little token her beloved baba presented, no strings attached, to both her grandchildren, is the spirit that weaves through her and brightens my daughter’s sad and cloudy life. Hopefully, one day the good memories shared with her brother and maybe, by some miracle, her father, will also lighten the load she carries.
My soul, too, is a tapestry of unconditional love, gifts I have received over the years. It patches me up when I am down lower than dirt so I can stand my ground and maybe be strong enough to give pieces of it away. This is the faith I walk. Giving others unconditional love is my duty to carry on the legacy.
Alexandra summed up the movie as we hit the hot air outside the theater: “It’s all about community!”
I remembered when she was younger and said DNA did not make a family. Love did. If this is the case, my daughter and I have a huge family bulging at the sides! It is our little barrio full of people like the children’s godmother and my partner and his family and my friends Michelle, Camille, Anna and Anne and the handful of people who walked March 2020 on Marshall’s behalf to raise awareness that we are all vulnerable, regardless of how we act, what we do or what we say; and so many others, who drive the extra mile to visit. It is the people who do not understand our pain, but will ask us about it because they are ready to listen without judgment. It is the people who are brave enough to mention my MARSHALL’s name and share a beautiful memory about him.
In the movie, the community of Washington Heights experiences a blackout, but at their lowest point they prevail because of the one lone voice that tickles the imagination to believe in Santa Claus proportions. Eventually, the electrical power comes back and lights up the Heights. In the end (spoiler alert) Abuela dies, but the director successfully presents the process of dying as walking into a bright light.
That’s our non-DNA family: a bright light that if we can’t find it, it will find us, and we have a steel-like faith that we will travel through those Indy 500 days even if it knocks the wind out of us because in the end, the only thing of lasting value is love.