“Dad”

“Dad”

Dad: How far is your house from here?

Me: About 14 miles.

Dad: I’m tired. I think you should go.

Me: But I promised Mom I’d watch you.

Dad: Where’s Mom?

Me: In Mexico. Visiting her family. She’s coming home today.

Dad: I’m fine. I don’t need you here. I’m tired. You should go.

Me: Okay.

That’s when I called my sister…

The day didn’t start out this way.  That exchange happened around 6 pm. We’d made a day of it, Dad and I. We ran errands, had lunch, even went to a movie together. Then things got a little complicated, ending with my saying to my older sister, “Thank God for pharmaceuticals.” In the end, I had to turn my Dad into Neely O’Hara to restore order. Under normal circumstances, this day out with Dad should have been like it was 40 years ago when we were father & young son. Now the roles are reversed, but with one crucial difference: Alzheimer’s.

Being with an Alzheimer’s patient is a bit like being in a scene from “Groundhog Day.” Repetition is the name of the game and it requires a decent amount of patience and humor when they are this stage. You push away thoughts about the silence still to come when they enter a state of haunted immobility as they no longer engage with the world. For now, we can still have conversations. These are comprised of lightning rounds of the same group of questions as they fixate on specific topics. In my Dad’s case, it usually involves the measurement of space or time.

I was assigned one day to sit and care for Dad, which was also the day Mom was to return from visiting her family in Mexico. Dad’s mental long play record was stuck in one groove. His current jam was the track about where was Mom and when would she return. My younger sister had gone to work and I was chuffed by the idea of getting to spend time with Dad in during the regular week.  I sat in our family home living room, taking care of Emails as Dad took his usual spot, the outside porch. Yet, for the next 90 minutes, he’d rotate from the living room to the porch. Each time Dad would enter the room, he’d ask:

Dad: Tu viniste a cuidarme?

Me: Si, papá.

Dad: Muy amable.

He seemed touched to know I had been asked by the family to take care of him. He’d rap on the table, an emphatic gesture that made me smile. An hour or so later, his pacing evolved into that of a caged animal. His eyes glittered in a unique way and the rapping, which at first felt like a war buddies fist bump, now had a tone of anger. Without hesitating, I took Dad on a Target run.

My Dad has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s for well over a decade. We’ve been fortunate to have him mentally present with us for so long. He recognizes my mom and sister, who care for him 24/7. As for the rest of my siblings, we are in iPod shuffle mode. Sometimes he knows who we are and we ignore the times he doesn’t.

Sometimes we are simply “los muchachos,” a catchall term that refers us as being his “kids.” It offers its own comforts, being part of that group memory. We’re still his children. Then reality takes over. One time, he told Mom I couldn’t be his son since I’m too old as he’s only in his 50s. I go, “Mom, that makes you an OG cougar.” We both laughed. You have to laugh, otherwise, you cry.

Dad’s eating habits are changing. Texture matters, in addition to the color of his food. At times, he can forget when he’s had a meal, then he’ll insist that he hasn’t. He is losing weight. He’s irascible at times, the Latino machismo surging to a boiling point when contradicted. Again, those glittering eyes are a sign for us to be calm. That’s when he’s in that “mad” mode.

My mom and sister have learned to wait out the tantrums instead of fueling them further, although I see now why Mom has no fuse at all anymore. Their matrimonial sea roils and it calms itself just as suddenly as if nothing happened at all. Yet the after effects are revealing the wear on her, too. The one saving grace? Whenever things do get too intense, Dad’s physician has prescribed Dad a mild sedative. Yes, it is on par with giving a screaming toddler Benadryl, but sometimes…

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I can see Dad’s age now. He’s 92. I regret not getting him on record to capture his view of the world, the chronicle of a Mexican immigrant father, businessman, and world traveler projected against the canvas of contemporary history. Today, he can’t differentiate what he sees on the television screen, fictional or otherwise, from his real life.

When we do receive those treasurable moments, though, it is on par with winning the lottery. Like the time, I went to meet Dad and my younger sister for a showing of “Atomic Blonde.” As they entered the cinema, he saw me and instantly opened his arms for a hug. Usually, he just offers a gentlemanly handshake and a pat on the shoulder, which was his way. But this was wonderfully different. For a moment, we were on the track many grown sons are with their older parent.

Families, particularly Latino families, do not like to share the truth of their loved ones’ health, especially serious conditions. For whatever reason, illnesses are a “private matter.” We become traffic wardens, telling onlookers, “Move along. There’s nothing to see. Everything is alright.” But everything is not alright. Our parents will get sick. They will change because of an illness, not because of some cosmic punishment.

I understand the desire, particularly when it comes to our parents or grandparents, to want people to remember how they were and not as their infirmed selves. It is such a waste of time, time left with us that we can’t possibly measure or gauge. Family can become so entrenched in denial. Better living through chemistry, at least when it comes to Alzheimer’s, yes. But the truth is it is just a stop gap.

I see where we are heading with Dad. That’s why I choose to laugh now about his, “Yo soy el dueño de esta casa” demeanor. It wasn’t easy knowing he wanted me to leave his house. My work caring for him was done and he wanted his independence and space back. Later that night, I regaled my Mom and younger brother about how Dad refused to go to sleep because he wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to “steal his shit.” Eventually, like a toddler, sleep caught up with him. Granted it was aided with the sedative I gave him a few hours earlier, but our cherished Poppadoodles was finally having a well-deserved rest.

I do not regret the frustration I felt at times that day. At times, I wanted to just yell, “Why don’t you understand?” I felt robbed because I can’t stop thinking about the conversations we could be having now we are both able to communicate again. It all seems so unfair. I can’t tell him I finally understand what he tried to teach me when I was a kid. I can’t tell him how he hurt me when I came out to him 17 years ago. I can’t tell him that I forgive him. I can’t share with him how I think this full circle reality we share is so good and inspiring to me.

Like “Groundhog Day,” we will be back at the same starting point the next day and the one after that. Our “Dad’s Day Out” will be forgotten, but how marvelous to know that when we do get to do this again it will be like a brand-new adventure. We have nothing to mourn or feel sorry about here. Dad is a part of many lives, not just with the family here and in Mexico, but our friends, too. As long as that smile still shines through I will remember what his mind can’t hold anymore. It’s the ultimate privilege and the best story I am ever going to be able to tell.

From the Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles website:

“Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles is a leader in developing culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and services, including those for Latinos.  Research shows Latinos with dementia are low users of formal health services and less likely than non-Latinos to see a physician.  Given the significance of familia in the Latino community, families (particularly daughters) provide a disproportionate share of Alzheimer’s care.

In order to reach these women (and their families) ALZGLA has taken a creative approach…we produced a bilingual, educational telenovela.  Lost Memories tells a story familiar to many Greater Los Angeles families.  It also disseminates complex medical and health information to caregivers with the goal of raising awareness of Alzheimer’s, fighting stigma, and encouraging Latino families to seek help sooner.

In honor of Latino Heritage Month,the 4-episode web series will debut September 19 at alzgla.org and on YouTube.

 

“Wear Sunscreen (or Graduation Day)”

“Wear Sunscreen (or Graduation Day)”

Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much
Or berate yourself either
Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s

— From columnist Mary Schmich‘s essay for the Chicago Tribune, June 1997

Finally, a reason to write an essay about being proud and happy. I’m hitting the “Pause” button on my ravings to concentrate on an experience shared by many of us: the day we graduate from high school.

It goes without saying that we are never really ever out of school. Classrooms are either ground zero for inspiration and imagination or a repelling force that hurtles bodies into other stratospheres of life. I will never judge those who deem the classroom as their Waterloo, either. Valuable lessons can only be learned if we’re open to them, whether out of a book or experience. But the act of graduating, of moving forward, is such an empowering reality.

I’ve never been good about letting go of things or moving forward. Hell, I didn’t even graduate from college. But that’s another story. It’s just too easy to choose the safe confines of avoiding confrontation or making decisions that can alleviate all that ails or stagnates us. But, sooner or later, you get your PhD in courage and strength. You walk, head held high, smiling at all that you’ve accomplished. You’ve shed that extra weight, that 10-ton magilla of emotion and/or fear, and you move forward.

It was a glorious day to see the photos and videos of my godson graduating from high school in June. He was the first grandchild of my aunt and uncle to graduate from high school. I know my cherished aunt, his forever Nana, was smiling that glorious smile the moment he made his way down the aisle to receive his diploma. Lord knows the family has endured some trying times, but my godson has grown into one of the most sincere, intelligent, genuine and decent human beings on this planet. We need more like him and that’s a testament to his parents’ upbringing, my divine cousin and her husband. I admire their tenacity, more, I admire their ability to remain a unified front against that could tear them asunder. They were not destined to life an acrimonious life of arrogance, keeping up appearances and regret like Las Hermanas y Hermano Coraje, That in itself is a lesson for all of us to uphold and appreciate.

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It is going to be exciting to see what happens to my godson next. And rest assured, we will all be there to cheer him on to his next achievements. That goes for all of the grandkids, because that’s what family does. Whether by blood or choice, you stay together through the challenges, emerging stronger and more united. Even if it seems like the pain and emotion will never subside, you will survive intact, and most of all, loved.

I recalled the famed Mary Schmich piece for the Chicago Tribune as I was writing this essay. Immortalized by producer Baz Luhrmann as a surprise pop hit, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” it is the perfect commencement speech. It is a delicious slice of life advice that any columnist worth their Pulitzer Prize would like to represent their abilities. So, in a rare bid of optimism, I am concluding this essay with a special address to the Class of 2017…and anyone else who is taking a step forward into becoming the person they were meant to be.

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Wear Sunscreen

By Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind side you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium.

Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

 

 

“How to Be a Hermana Coraje” (or “11 Ways to Destroy a Marriage!”)

“How to Be a Hermana Coraje” (or “11 Ways to Destroy a Marriage!”)

Struck with the fever to clean my online house, I finally got around to deleting some files from my Drafts folder on MediaJor.com. These were unfinished essays that seemed like great ideas at the time but never really flourished for whatever reason. Imagine my utmost thrill to find one particularly glorious remembrance of days past. Oof. I guess I forgot about it or maybe I calmed down enough NOT to get involved in the escalating drama that inspired me to write something. It still makes me say, “Wow.” Reading it again made my skin crawl, particularly since it’s a fetid example of this Age of Rage we are living in. 

This post harkens back to the Fall of 2014, which was when I had the brilliant idea of writing a coda to the now infamous “Hermanas Coraje” series.  Coraje means “angry” in Spanish, itself a joke and a play on a famed Mexican telenovela known as “Los Hermano Coraje,” which I loved watching with Mom when I was a kid. 

The essays were intended to be a means to an end, of dealing with the painful consequences stemming from my aunt’s battle and demise from cancer in 2014. It seemed to help to turn certain relatives into characters in a Mexican telenovela. Adding fuel to the fire was the endless back and forth of these covertly shared texts and Emails from the so-called Coraje sisters, exchanges my warring cousins that personified Latino Drama and then some. I wasn’t at a loss for inspiration to keep this serial going for a while. However, this entire exercise proved to be anything but a laughing matter in the end. 

The essays I penned got angrier and angrier as my family’s situation deteriorated further and further. Each new text or Email was like a bomb going off and no one was spared from the shrapnel. Today, we’re still living with the injuries inflicted on both sides, which ultimately destroyed all of the tropes of the unified Latino family in the process. 

The first coda I attempted to write was an attempt to get away from Ground Zero, one that was a direct result of what became the last secret Email I would receive. I say “last” because the contents of this particular letter filled me with such contempt, I asked to be taken off the CC list altogether. I also decided to end my imagined telenovela on MediaJor.

The real hermanas Coraje were at their conjoined peak of “But we’re real the victims here!,” which was quite a feat since we had already buried my aunt. Make no mistake. These women were the actual instigators, the lead stirrers of one big cosmic pot of rancid menudo. The elder Coraje sister saw it fit to fire off a truly evil Email to her soon to-be ex-sister in-law, a punch thrown so low it hit the family at its lowest point. Our collective grief was turned into absolute rage again.

Given the way most families work, it was a matter of time before the contents of this destructive Email made their way around to the rest of us. We had an inkling as to the involvement of the sisters Coraje in wrecking their brother’s marriage. Their grotesque agenda of revenge and acrimony turned their brother’s wife into a member of our family. Yes, the family split and sides were taken. We sought to at least be a sounding board, but we turned into a means of emotional support as her marriage broke apart. Yet, we really had NO idea just how far the Sisters C were willing to go in ensuring her destruction.

Revisiting this letter, it was obvious that only making grammatical corrections would not be enough. Whether or not the entire family views this essay, it is just smart to only keep the emotional intent of the original note to protect the innocent and guilty and not retain any of the original text. So yes, I did rewrite the entire thing to best fit this essay. Also, note the “countersteps” have been fictionalized, too. While Hermano C’s ex-wife did offer her own rather pointed rebuttals, again, it would not prudent for me to air them out with the rest of the dirty laundry. 

To read the original post was to almost hear the elder Coraje sister slamming the keys on her insidious PC. Each hit nailed a coffin shut, forever keeping out any light, love and all things human from a couple’s union. Vengeance would be mine if I left it as is to give readers a better sense of the epic pendejismo of it all. Trust me, this collection of twisted maneuvers was devised by someone who has been burned by life one too many times.

In the two years since we ceased all communication with the Corajes, I’ve realized theirs is a house built on a foundation of resentment. They’ve done nothing but shift the blame for their imagined woes onto other people. I have zero respect for those who prefer to exist within the Cult of Victimhood. All of this makes me want to subtitle this post as “Own Your Shit!”  But, perhaps ours is a life lesson that can do us all some good, which is what led me to revisit this essay one more time…

They’re baaack. And not without leaving a few commandments behind for good measure. In fact, I should thank Las Hermanas Coraje for the wealth of material they’ve inspired me to compose. They’re web spinners and string pullers, the most cowardly roles to undertake when it comes to fucking shit up. These aren’t people who carry baseball bats to deal with shit. They prefer to do the side step as deftly as Charles Durning in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!”

Regardless, no matter how you choose to meddle in people’s lives, wreckage will be left behind. A broken family will find the means with which to pull itself back together, but it is never really mended. The cracks are there to see forever, just like the words used to inflict the most damage possible in this digital age. However, if you still want to know how YOU, too, can be a Hermana Coraje, follow their simple rules. However, the soon to be ex-sister in-law had rebuttals at the ready. Thus, she is reminding us all that for every action you will experience a reaction:

Step 1:”Tell her to get back to work!”

Counterstep: I have NEVER stopped working. I am not sure what your brother, my husband, tells you. He’s probably — and conveniently — NOT telling you that I pay my share of thousands of dollars in household expenses, too. If either of you need a reminder, keep advising him in the manner you seem to think fit. I’ll show you the receipts.

Step 2: “Move your ass and starting talking to the lawyer and find out how you can protect yourself!”

Counterstep: That’s right, let someone else do the dirty work. As if no one will ever notice the stains on your hands.

Step 3: “DO NOT give her permission to exchange ANY information with the lawyer.”

Counterstep: What? Permission? Since you see fit to meddle in our marriage do you think I’m NOT going to know what crap advice you continue to give my husband? For the record, I’m reading this Email, too!

Step 4: “DO NOT reply to Isela’s email She’s either trying to flirt or dig up info!”

Counterstep: Isela is a friend, a real friend. She’s not part of the Vibora club like you and your sister. She’s just concerned about both of us as this entire situation goes from bad to worse. Honestly, why do you even care?  Or is all of this really about YOU?

Step 5: “DO NOT go to the meeting with the realtor. And for the record, why are you even thinking about going?

Counterstep: We have to deal with the house as that’s OUR home to deal with and not yours. It’s the house where you were welcomed but are now both having to LEAVE because of you.

Step 6: “Stand up for yourself! Move on!”

Counterstep: How can he move on when you’re the one writing the map?

Step 7: “Be a man! Don’t be some little boy doing what mama tells him to do!”

Counterstep: And what is it that YOU’RE doing now with this awful Email?

Step 8: “Tell her you will respond that text from ex-girlfriend. The one we liked.”

Counterstep: Oh, that’s being mature. As if his texting his Ex is going to cause real damage. YOU made this happen, dear. Not me. YOU. Remember that.

Step 9: “Remember that everyone we know and knows you thinks you’re awesome. Just not your wife!”

Counterstep: I never stopped believing he was awesome, until you and sister poisoned the well and ruined us.

Step 10: “The marriage counselor said most of the money from your remaining sessions can be refunded. You won’t face a loss!”

Counterstep: We’ll never know. You took away any real chance for us to find out if we could fix things. All you’ve done is make sure they stayed broken.

Step 11: “She only wants access to your financials to mess you up. Are you stupid enough to just hand this info over to her?”

Counterstep: Spoken like a woman whose never been in a marriage. I have a secret: Spouses are SUPPOSED to know each other’s “financials.”

I really hope you’re pleased with yourself. You’ve prided yourself on being an actress, another lie the family believes. You’ve been nothing but a bit player all these years, always in the background. I never would have guessed the best role of your tiny “career” was to be the lead player in ruining my marriage. Was it worth it taking center stage this way? You always referred to yourself as the big Catholic. Let this weigh heavy on your soul because I believe you will be paid back in full when it’s your marriage. That’s my curse for you.

Since you took it upon yourself to write this list of “steps” for my husband, I will make sure to keep them on hand for the future in case you or anyone in the family needs a “reminder.” Better yet, I’ll keep them in a safe place for our kids so they can read them one day. After all, isn’t what family does best, sharing everything?
You’re welcome.

Your sister in-law under God’s law forever…

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Two years have passed. That note was the last we heard of Las Hermanas Coraje. In the end, this once star-crossed couple lost their house. No one earned a real dime from its sale, so said “financials” were never improved. The ex Mrs. Coraje moved on with their kids to a new home and life.  Meanwhile, the entire bitter lot of siblings are now existing under one deluded roof, just like when their dad lost their business and was forced to move them all  under one roof with the very family they would turn their back on in the most callous manner.

I am loathe to report that they’re still playing their pueblito games, too. So much for growth and maturity. But, I will never forget the elder Coraje‘s parting shot. I still can’t believe the nasty tone and manipulation found in that note. But the worst part? It’s just pathetic to know the Coraje brother’s balls are still being kept by his sisters.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the final chapter. The Resurrection of Las Hermana Coraje? After all, writers are encouraged to “write what they know.” Well, the author of this family’s narrative is God himelf. I suspect even he would need major encouragement to pen a revision.

“Signed, The Desayuno Club” or “Vida y Muerte”

“Signed, The Desayuno Club” or “Vida y Muerte”

My optimism seems to be at a premium these days. Singing along with my Burt Bacharach playlist on my iPod in the kitchen? Dancing as if no one’s looking? These are things that I have to muster up the energy to even contemplate, forget about execution. Sure, we can meme our way through the tough times with slogans like “Life Happens.” We all know life happens on its own timetable, without reason or warning. However, what do you do when the “Big Moments” pile up like a Friday afternoon on the interstate? How do you not feel like that F-5 twister purposefully chose to hit your home, skipping over other parts of the neighborhood?

I can’t remember a point in my life where the issue of mortality has been so present. These little earthquakes of truth and emotion are growing in intensity. We are aware that our lives are curated like one big Jenga® puzzle, moment by moment. At some point, a silvery thread of fear begins to weave its insidious way through our consciousness. Some of us will deftly snip it away, while others wither under weight of knowing some force can and will pull that one piece out, sending the whole thing crashing down. It’s not a productive way to live. Based on this sentiment, the events that have occurred to my family and friends of late have left me grappling between wielding the scissors and succumbing to the weight of all this mounting grief. I have reached a point of reckoning, of great questioning. And given my propensity to FEEL things, it is starting to hurt, triggering an agenda of self-destruction that is starting to scare me.

We are about to enter the fourth month of 2016. It’s not quite April and so many of life’s grand themes have found their way into all of our worlds. It’s been a season of births and deaths, peaks of elation and valleys of grief. Parallels keep manifesting themselves. I wasn’t alone in feeling shock over the loss of my childhood friend Anthony Dominguez last Christmas and the concussive effect of his passing has yet to abate.

As if on cue, it was long after Anthony’s death that I received the wonderful news of two friends, who are in fact sisters, had given birth to their first children just weeks apart. The great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez couldn’t pen this chapter any better. (Well, yeah, he could.)

Life. Death. Birth. Then the lightning round began.

In March, an important and much needed family reunion in Mexico was preceded by the news that the father of my childhood best friend passed away. While in Mexico, we were shocked to discover two close family members were grappling with their own mental China Syndromes. A few weeks later, on Easter Sunday, a day representative of rebirth and renewal concluded with a terse DM from another key member of my Pico Rivera family of friends.

Steve wrote: “Hi, I have some bad news. Please call me…”

My mind catalogued the litany that’s become all too common, particularly in Latino families. If the phone rings late at night, you need to steel yourself. Someone is gone.

“Was it his father?” I thought.

Blessedly, it wasn’t Mr. Chavez, but my heart still broke after I hung up the phone. The son of another member of our childhood group had lost his life in a car accident on his way back to college.

Reunions have been playing out with frequency these last months. In fact, this “Big Chill” group dynamic has alternated between being a welcome distraction to pulling the scabs off old wounds. Not that I’m complaining. It’s giving me license to feel other things, not just a sense of despair.

Many of these people were the formative friendships of formative years, personalities that have been reconstituted into the myriad of relationships I’ve encountered and nurtured in the 30+ years since graduating from high school. As many of us gathered to celebrate or mourn of late, it’s striking how we easily fall into the roles we played as children and teenagers. We reveal just enough to feel like we’ve closed the gap of time. We laugh, smile and upload pictures to our respective social media sites. Then we make the slow walk back to our cars taking us back to our own lives.

I am coming to terms with the biggest lesson learned in returning to the center square of my life. It hasn’t been said amongst us yet, but it is very much present:

We are mortal after all.

My own emotional state of mind swirls with so much color right at this moment, high dynamic angry color. I see shades of vermillion, red and orange, all in heated tones that make me sweat without even moving. Is it alright to say that I’m sick of having cancer and Alzheimer’s invade my cherished family fold? Since the passing of my aunt Susanna in 2014 to the family implosion the followed and beyond, I’ve been searching for some sort of answer as to why these life events can happen without pause. And when friends say to me, “That’s life,” I just want to scream and have a violent release of some sort: “They don’t understand!” But they do, because it’s happened or it is happening to them, too.

I can’t help but note the irony. I was born into a culture that embraces death, celebrating it with riotous shades of color and the sweetest tasting of candies. While I proudly display my calaveras, Catrinas and other artwork by José Guadalupe Posada at home and in my office, I wonder if its the American propensity to stir up fear that is wreaking havoc with my strength. (I toyed with using the phrase “steel bougainvillea” here, but I thought better of it.)

I knew as I went home the night of Anthony’s rosary service that I was going to write something about the significance of his death. However, it’s been several months since that moment and what started out as a tribute piece to him has taken many strange turns, unleashing a torrent of so many themes. It became about being 40-something, of going from boys to men and the rediscovery how much real life wages a war with us all. Despite my intent, this post read so fake and uninspiring. The altruistic reason to write about Anthony was being smothered by my own narcissism, as if I wanted to show off some incredible power of syntax and phrasing. I was overthinking it. Words would come out in fits and starts, sometimes with way too much flourish, corrupting the emotion in the process. It didn’t help that I would project my state of mind onto whatever I wrote. Worse, it was became apparent that the spirit of Anthony was now lost in all this fancy word play. Ultimately, it became about nothing at all. Just noise. I only wanted to make sure my friend knew I hadn’t forgotten him. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be adding names to create a list:

Tacho’s father, Roberto.

Anne’s son, Matthew.

It’s hard to keep a linear thread with this post. Since Anthony’s rosary service, I’ve been grappling with a total lack of focus. His loss magnified certain truths about what many of us stand to face from this point forward. News of other friends’ life challenges only cemented this creative block. I just folded all of this helplessness I felt into the depression that was entrenching itself in a way I’ve never experienced before. I wasn’t caring about anything, especially my own health. I only cared about my Dad, whose bout with Alzheimer’s is reaching a new stage amidst all this change.

This post couldn’t be a “Jeremiah” from the ‘mount, extolling the virtues of a cherishing a bountiful life while we can. How could it when a feeling of woe has saturated so much of what we see of this world on the daily? It rendered the spilling of digital ink on a white screen almost impossible. This was supposed to be a tribute, but I am empowered by what it has become in the last days.

I have been ruminating about the moment when we become aware of that thin line between life and death. Is it the loss of a grandparent? Or is it those hurried and emotional conversations you overhear from under your dining room table, where your parents process the news that Nana or Tío are “no longer with us?” Is it better to learn about death when your first goldfish receives that funeral at sea in the family commode? It doesn’t matter the context. In the end, you never forget that shocking wave of hot tears, whether theirs or your own, that leaves a stamp of realization.

As we get older, at least for some of us, dealing with death is supposed to get a little easier, recognizing it as being part of the ebb and flow of life. Sorry, but that doesn’t make the loss any easier to accept. However, honoring a sense of respect for mortality will do wonders for one’s resilience if you let it. You begin to understand that being born is not your only induction into the human race. It’s actually part of a longer process that culminates when you understand your place on this mortal Earth is not permanent.

I won’t forget the catalyst that prompted all this soul searching any time soon. Earlier this year, at Anthony’s service, I joined the growing crowd at St. Hilary on a chilly, damp Monday night. I was heartened by the amount of people waiting to head inside the church. As I walked, shoulders hunched, cold hands seeking warmth in my sweater pockets, I found myself already sorting out a rush of emotions, thinking to myself, “How did this happen?”

In between it all, fragments of the past starting to make their way to the front. All those pieces solidified the minute I heard my name, “George.” No one else but my people from home call me that anymore. And suddenly I was 10 years old again, as the past and present collided with incredible force. The crew was all there, the one that started at South Ranchito Elementary, gained new members at Meller Jr. High before reaching its zenith at El Rancho High School. I stood with these men, weaving in and out of solemnity and laughter from reminiscing. We fell back into the roles we had as teenagers, easily retaking our places as we filed into the church to pay our respects to our friend.

Regardless of the time spent apart since graduating high school, the foundation set all those years ago is still very much present. More, I think of the legacies that were created as a result of our time together:

Anthony was a huge part of my adolescence in Pico Rivera. I was never going to be a jock, but I am forever grateful that he never judged me, or anyone else for that matter. Even if I was sometimes the least skilled member of the teams we were part of as kids, Anthony remained a loyal friend from elementary all the way through high school.

Tacho and I were from the same neighborhood, cultivating a friendship shaped by the countless walks to the three schools we attended together. His family opened the doors to their home and restaurant to us all without question or reserve. I shall never forget Mr. Baeza, who remains a true caballero in my mind, just like my Dad. It says something that our families continue to have their roots in the same houses after 40 years.

Anne remains this quintessential pixie, albeit with a wicked dash of punk rock. She is still her own person, full of spirit, possessing a singular wit and a brilliant smile. In the photos I’ve seen of her son Matthew, I am heartened to see how much of her is present in his own vibrant smile and the personality captured in those frames. It makes his loss so much more difficult to fathom. My only regret is missing out on so much of Anne’s adult life so I could have shared a little bit of her journey as a mother.

Their narratives are forever interwoven with mine, and vice versa, I hope. We talk so much about how we’re disconnected today, but back then we were the definition of connectivity. It was incredible how widespread this reach was when you think about it. Schools, parks, after school activities, church, Scouts, cheerleading, Little League, Pop Warner, everything and anything social. It was like we were living this John Hughes-penned life but with a lot of added flavor. I mean, we’re talking Tapatío, Tajín, salsa cruda, salsa verde and roasted jalapeños. Because how vanilla was a John Hughes movie in the first place?

This is going off topic, but it occurs to me how much of our lives surrounded food. It was tacos from Mario’s and nachos from Casa Garcia. It was being treated to Sir George’s Smorgasbord, Naugles or Omega Burgers. It was post-game celebrations at someone’s home or at Shakey’s Pizza. Even now, it’s hard to stop this list for fear of leaving things out.

Looking back, I do remember how we expressed our incredulous shock at those who left us before we turned 18. Kathy Esparza didn’t make it to senior year at El Rancho. We paid our respects and we moved forward. The pep rallies continued. From Homecoming to Powder Puff, Prom and Graduation, we kept going through all of the rites of passage on schedule and without delay. The concept of loss wasn’t something we would contemplate much. Loss was just something that happened on the field, on the track or on the court in the gym.

My concept of loss won’t be the same same anymore. Despite the poetry we can ascribe to it as being the closing of a circle, it is still an end. And to be honest, I’ve never been good with endings. These scenes are destined to be replayed again, alas, but they must be met with grace and humility, too. As I begin to compose these last paragraphs, I’m think I can find my way to some peace. I am grateful in many ways for the opportunity to have reconnected with so many people. It speaks volumes to know that these archetypes of what I now want to call The Desayuno Club would gather once more — and without hesitation, too. And I am privileged that so many opted to share a part of their lives with me. They answered the question as to what happened to the Class of 1985? And it proved an inspiring answer.

We worked. We dated. We got married. We had children. We lost lovers. We lost parents. We ended marriages. We lost jobs. We remarried. We started new jobs. We had second families. We got sick. We got better. We will get better. In short, life happened and it continues to happen as these words float across the screen.

As I continue to reconnect with the men and women that played a part in shaping my life, I am secretly thrilled to l see glimpses of what we were: The jocks, the brains, the cheerleaders, the cholos, the cha cha’s, the Oish, the strange, the wild, the calm and the cool, always beautiful and forever young.

But I also see an incredible beauty shaped by resilience, tradition, strength and love. I don’t think who we are and what we represent is ever erased or replaced in life. Yes, we have a shared outcome in this world. But I’d like to think we are just one more layer in a temporal pan of cosmic lasagna. We will all add our particular blend of flavor and spice before a new layer is placed on top of us, all representing every milestone we achieve, layer after layer, pan after pan, for infinity. Despite the context of what brought us together, it’s given me something to feel that’s as close to optimism as I can declare right now. We are not alone. Ever. Therein lies the solace we can offer each other without condition.

You won’t be faulted for saying to me, “Stop your whining and man up!” We all process grief differently, so STFU. However, it is important to say that I don’t want this to be considered a “Woe is Me” post. I’ve taken to writing about these feelings to find a place for them so they don’t diminish the hope, care and optimism that my family members and friends need right now. It’s hard not to go from the micro to the macro in a given moment. For instance, most of us will accept the painful truth that the sooner we accept the truth about mortality, the sooner we can start living. That is, living for the moment and for the one’s we gather around us. No matter our stations in life, our wealth is the sum of our memories, darn it. That is truest and most vital achievement we are fated to accomplish. My challenge now is to continue to believe that, if only to stave off the rage that threatens to dominate my physical and mental self.

I am not sure how to complete this post. It has to mean something for those who read it, especially for the families of Anthony, Mr. Baeza and Matthew. An impact was made by their lives and it will not be forgotten. Maybe I should leave it open, for others to fill with their thoughts and sentiments? All I know is that we are connected again at a time when we need it most. Even if it is just for a moment, one thing remains certain. We will endure.

Because, we are life.

Signed, the Desayuno Club

 

“Vivir con miedo es cómo vivir a medias” (Cuentos de la vida real 2)

“Vivir con miedo es cómo vivir a medias” (Cuentos de la vida real 2)

 

En ver las imágenes desde Mexico últimamente, siento una tristeza muy profunda. Se ve miedo, rabia, caos y desesperación. Ha llegado el momento de enfrentar la corrupción y violencia que ha deteriorado la imagen del país.

Vivir con miedo es inaceptable en un mundo moderno. Pero donde hay miedo si se puede encontrar esperanza y el deseo de rechazar lo que nos agobia. No pretendo comparar mis propios miedos con los que se vive en México hoy. Pero si recuerdo el poder que se realiza cuando pierdes el miedo y empiezas usar una voz alta y clara. Es lo básico de nuestro ser.

Era el año 1977 y ese verano fue el momento que terminé mi primera decada como Jorge Carreón Jr. Durante casi 10 años, me quedé con la determinación de vivir al lado izquierda del centro. Solo pensé en cultivar los intereses que eran cualquier cosa menos lo que era normal en Pico Rivera. No tenía muchos amigos, pero eso no me importaba. Quería perderme en todos los libros y películas que podía procesar antes de regresar a la primaria en el otoño. La mayoría de los niños tenían ganas de ir al parque, tomar clases de natación o tener días lánguidos en la playa. Yo quería saber más del artista moderno Andy Warhol y leer mis libros de Nancy Drew. Pero mis planes se quedaron en supsenso cuando mi papá me dijo que yo iba con él y mi hermana a visitar a su familia en el D.F.

Era como si el pusiera un alfiler en el globo de mi sueño de verano.

Así que fui, inocente al siniestro plan que mis padres habían inventado sin mí. Papá sólo tenía dos semanas de vacaciones de la fábrica. Eso significaba que junto con mi hermana, quien mantuvo la primera de una vida de secretos, tendríamos que quedarnos con nuestros familiares durante todo el verano. ¿Y cuándo llego el momento que me enteré de eso? El día que mi papá se regresó a Los Angeles sin nosotros.

Me dio una rabia feroz. Le grité. Lloré. Lo seguí a la puerta de la casa de mi tía en la mejor manera que aprendí de las telenovelas: “¡No me dejes!” Nunca se dio la vuelta. Caminó con buen paso a la puerta sin decir otra palabra más. Nunca me sentí tan lejos de mi vida real en California. Fue demasiado. Casi no hablaba el idioma. Ne dejaba de pensar: “Yo no soy mexicano. ¡Soy americano!” Pero todo mis gritos cayeron en el vacío. Estuve en esta casa sin esperanza para el resto del verano.

Pensando en este momento, me doy cuenta que no sabía ese verano con mi familia mexicana sería un regalo. ¿Cómo podría saberlo? Yo era sólo un niño. No pude ver mucho con mis ojos llenos de lágrimas. Tenía miedo de lo nuevo, de enfrentar la fuente verdadera de mi identidad: México. Nunca paramos de enfrentar lo “nuevo”. Gente, ciudades, costumbres, situaciones, todo lo que nos une como la raza humana. Fue el primero de muchos miedos que tendría que conquistar en mi vida, pero sí los conquisté.

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Tenían que pasar 37 años para entender que la vida es demasiado corta para cualquier sentido de temor. Nacer latino es obstáculo suficiente en un mundo que valora la vainilla sobre el picante. Como ya he madurado, me emociona y me preocupa ver como nuestra narrativa nacional se conforma con la comunidad hispana. Espero contribuir a esta narrativa, para que refleje lo que realmente es ser un american en 2014. No tengo mucho espacio para el miedo con el fin de lograr ese objetivo. El miedo casi me dejo mudo durante todo un verano. Pero yo tomé ese paso que me llevó a un grupo muy especial en este mundo. Me convertí en un americano bilingüe, realizando el sueño de existir dentro de dos mundos que he llegado a representar con orgullo.

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Miércoles, 24 de noviembre. Escrito y subido desde Wayne Avenue Manor en South Pasadena, CA

 

“The Tale of My City” — #istand

“The Tale of My City” — #istand

“You’re not going to lose him this time. He’s a part of you forever,” said Mrs. Madrigal to a heartbroken Michael Tolliver in Armistead Maupin’s “Babycakes.”

How I loved the Tales of the City books. In some way, Maupin’s chronicle of 1970s to late 80s San Francisco and the denizens of Barbary Lane felt like a primer to the gay life I was trying to nurture in the 1990s. I identified at first with Mary Ann Singleton, that ambitious career gal from Cleveland who was so intent on reinventing herself. It made sense to me, a 20-something from Pico Rivera making inroads as a publicist and future MediaJor. But now I see myself as early Michael Tolliver, the one who wanted love so hard it hurt. Yet, he always got right back out into the dating fray. After all, tomorrow was another day! But so much was to change.

In the years since the start of the AIDS wars, HIV is no longer an immediate death sentence and being gay is no longer just a poignant coming out story told once a year. Gay is part of our national dialogue, a new frontier of the civil rights movement. Marriage and parenting stand right and center with acceptance and tolerance. We see progress, backlash and an uncertain future as gay will not live behind a stone wall anymore. It’s an extraordinary time for many of us. Yet, I fear we are no closer to finding happiness within ourselves. I think we punish ourselves in so many ways. I sometimes think we are our own worst enemy, taking on so many negative isms, particularly in how we look, who we fuck, who we love.

Sigh.

It doesn’t matter. Because I can’t stay in this place anymore. Like Michael Tolliver, I fumbled some nice attempts at being in a nurturing and caring relationship. Mouse, as he is referred to by his best pals in the books, never stayed down for long. Well, once, after his cherished Jon Fielding is claimed in the early part of the AIDS crisis. But Mouse finds his direction again and learns to not let the scars of the past paralyze him. I admire his strength so much.  And I admire the power of Maupin’s own romantically charged realism. What I have forgotten was one of the essential lessons of his books: Being gay doesn’t mean being a victim.

For too many months now, I’ve been allowing myself to exhibit the worst of victim mentality. I gave up so fast once I got back from Spain. I’ve returned to wallowing in that same swamp of depression, building a new fortress around myself again. The weight of this misdirected emotion is starting to drag me under all over again. The heaviness of this mindset is like wearing concrete shoes. It’s the Eeyore Syndrome all over.

At some point, we have to acknowledge the sensation of hitting the bottom of the abyss. It is an all too familiar place for me. I’ve made this trip before, man. So many times now, I can use my miles and still have enough left over to return a few more times. With upgrades, too.

My heart can’t take much more of this. My brain is constantly screaming at me to man up, that it is time to simply not give a fuck. John advised me that since he turned 50, he wakes up each morning making a list of things he simply won’t give a fuck about that day.

Well, John. That day has arrived. My list is my own, of course. However, I offer these lyrics to one of my favorite tracks recorded by Idina Menzel, which speak so much about the frame of mind I am in right now.

My ex Tucker and I always debated about what mattered most about a song. He said the music revealed more than the words. I countered that the music’s emotionality didn’t exist without the lyrics to guide the way. We were the embodiment of that debate. He saved his best self for his music and I continue to write down what I feel needs to be said at the peak of emotion. I often wonder what we would have sounded like if we dared to collaborate on a song. If we ever did let that happen, I would hope that it would sound like “I Stand.”

Because, after all these years of carrying around this guilt and disappointment, I can’t believe I haven’t allowed myself the freedom to believe that I can stand on my own two feet. So much has been lost this year, reminding me of how fleeting life can be. We will be up. We will be down. But we are never out.

I know he won’t save me. I have to save me. And no, moving on doesn’t mean I’ve “lost” him. He’s always going to be a part of me.

Whoever comes my way next, like Menzel and Ballard write, I, too, will live for that perfect day. And I am going to keep loving until it hurts like crazy. I have to recognize that the past is just that, the past. The present is not so bad. The future? Well, ask me tomorrow.

But I know I will be standing.

Tuesday, November 11. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA.


“I Stand” by Idina Menzel & Glen Ballard

“When you asked me, who I am
What is my vision? Do I have a plan?
Where is my strength? Have I nothing to say?
I hear the words in my head but I push them away

As I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe theres a better place
I dont know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway

And I don’t know what tomorrow brings
A road less traveled, will it set us free?
‘Cause we’re taking it slow, these tiny legacies
I dont try and change the world
But what will you make of me?

As I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe there’s a better place
I dont know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway

With the slightest of breezes
We fall just like leaves
As the rain washes us from the ground

We forget who we are
We can’t see in the dark
And we quickly get lost in the crowd, oh, oh

I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe there’s a better place
I don’t know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway, oh

I stand for the power to change
I live for the perfect day
I love till it hurts like crazy
I hope for a hero to save me

I stand for the strange and lonely
I believe there’s a better place
I don’t know if the sky is heaven
But I pray anyway.”

Lo que es ser latino. (Cuentos de la vida real)

Lo que es ser latino. (Cuentos de la vida real)

Ser latino es ser una persona emocionado. Pasión es la calentura que vive en nosotros. Es la raíz de nuestro archivo cultural, en donde encontramos material para telenovelas hasta el fin del tiempo.

No quiero disminuir el impacto de la emoción latina. Lo digo porque soltamos nuestros emociones porque no las tenemos miedo en expresarlas.

En la novela chicana, La casa en Mango Street, la niña Esperanza enfrenta las emociones de su calle con ojos y pensamientos bien claras. Para ella, lo emoción es ser humano. Somos débil, con deseos en proteger el imagen de ser un adulto maduro.

Mi mamá, una persona quien es la imagen de ser la mujer latina fuerte, prefiere tragar sus emociones que expresarlas con una lagrima. Pero en el 1977, recuerdo del momento que la vi llorar por la primera vez. Murió su hermana Carlota. Estuvieron peleadas sobre algo que se dejó en el pasado. Ni recuerdo los detalles.

Yo contesté el teléfono, la llamé porque estaba afuera de la casa. La llamada era de Tampico. No entendí mucho pero supe que era algo importante. Mi mamá se presentó, había un silencio y de repente se tumbó al piso.

Ahí, en sus rodillas, fue todo el peso de su emoción, el remordimiento y la tristeza.

Sentí que el mundo cambió en un breve instante. Mi mamá no era de fierro. Era una persona normal, con emociones como las mías. Nunca me sentí mas cerca de ella.

Ahora entendí como es ser alguien sin temor. Se me salió lo que es ser latino ese día. Tomé su mano para darla mi apoyo como su hijo de dos mundos distintos.