The Love That Lives On

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Parenting is so weird. You just have sex, a baby is made. Then one day you go to the hospital and give birth to a tiny human that the hospital lets you take home. Even if you are only seventeen years old and are an only child who has never held a baby or changed a diaper in your life. And just like that you are responsible for making sure this tiny person does not grow up to add to the number of assholes in this world. You also have to make sure they eat good food, grow up healthy, do not wreck their car or become a drug addict. It is really a lot when you think about it because really, you just wanted your baby daddy to like you, you were not really prepared for parenthood. But here you are and suddenly looking the window of your seventh floor hospital room holding your newborn baby, you are scared of heights.

There are all kinds of books to help you get ready for a baby, a toddler and even teens. But there are hardly any books on how to parent adult children. What happens when you reach the point in life where they are adults and do not have to listen to shit you say? What happens when they are old enough to make all their own choices but because you have been their mom their entire life, you know they are stupid. Not like, stupid stupid, but just too stupid to do things that land them responsible for another human life when all they wanted was a little love and sex seemed like the way to get that. You know, like you did when you became their MOTHER.

There are not many books on how to handle parenting adult children. How to respect your adult children, keep quiet when they are finding their way in the world and swerving on the road of life. Discerning when to say something and when to just let them find their way. It is not easy to know when to let them fall and when to swoop in and save the day. It is an entirely new phase in life and there are so many variables. But at least you can watch others and talk about this new phase in parenthood.

Parenting a dead child is a totally different story.

There are no “what to expect when your child dies” books. There are grief books and there are now even people on Instagram who are being open and honest about what it looks like to mourn a child. There are support groups too. But there are no books explaining how to navigate through the questions that come when one of your children dies.

How do you answer questions like “How many kids do you have?” or even “How old is *insert name of dead kid here*?”. Do you keep them the age they were when they died or do you keep adding to that number with each birthday. Do you even celebrate their birthday after they die and if so, what does that look like? Who is in charge of keeping up their grave? For Catholics, do you go to every mass offered for them? It is an obligatory mass or do people get to decide if they want to go?

All of these are things that come up and each one of them is a blow to your grief. And you figure them all out blind with no roadmap because nobody has written one.

A few years before Anthony’s suicide I went on a road trip across the country to Philly to see Pope Francis. There were many times on this trip that I was driving and did not know what to expect ahead of me because I had never travelled these roads before. I was so scared and it was really bad for a control freak like me to let go and surrender to the road ahead of me. In West Virginia I lost my shit and had to pull over to pull myself back together and wait out the rain. In hindsight that trip is a lot like the journey of Grief that I am on now since losing Anthony to suicide.

I am scared and I lose my shit a lot to the point of pulling over and taking a timeout before getting back on the road. I know where I am going, that is to do my best to get to heaven and pray Anthony is there for me when I get there, but the in-between is full of unfamiliar territory. Sometimes the road is dark and winding in front of me which scares the shit out of me but then the sun comes out and I get a grip.

I have decided to always say I have four kids because I do. Anthony is still my child. I also say that he is 25 years old because no matter what, Anthony still IS and the years still go by. Time is a tool for the living and I am still alive so I will use it. I am his mother so I take responsibility of keeping up his grave and we have dinner as a family on his birthday where we let his children blow out the candles on his cake for him. He mattered. His life was a gift and that is what we celebrate on his birthday. It is not easy. To be honest, it tears me up inside, but Anthony’s life is worth celebrating. The most important lesson I learned though is that just how I figured out how to be his mother even though I was seventeen and had no experience with babies is how I will figure out how to be his mother now that he is dead. Both situations are fueled by one thing: the love I have for my child as his mother. That lives on.

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Trip to the Rio Grande Valley

Me and my son Gabe

This past Saturday my son Gabe and I drove from Austin Texas to McAllen Texas to help New Wave Feminists unload a semi full of donations for the respite center there that is run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

As I native Texan, I do not say “The Border” and in fact I think that term has been coined by the media and it reduces this entire part of Texas that has its own culture and beauty. I get that the US/Mexico border is long and goes past Texas, but still. In Texas we call this part of our great state “The Valley” which is short for The Rio Grande Valley. People from there just say RGV. But never in my life have I heard it called “The Border” and I honestly would be so pissed to see it called that if I was from there.

I grew up in South Texas which is about three hours from The Valley which is weird because you would think that would be South Texas since it is the most southern part of the state. But Texas is huge.

It was not uncommon for my Tio Roy and Tia Mary to help people who had crossed the border and were on foot or hitchhiking from The Valley through their town to go further north. My Tio had a police scanner and sometimes when he heard that the police were after someone who was suspected to be here “illegally”, he would get in his truck and go see if he could find them, give them water and a ride past the county line. My Tia had storage rooms full of donations that she would give to people in need, a lot of them were Mexicans who had crossed the border looking for a better life for their family. These were things that I saw happen my entire life. People have been crossing the border in The Valley for as long as I have been alive and even before then. They have also been dying in the Rio Grande and the desert as long as I can remember.

My son’s biological grandfather was one of those people who crossed the border illegally looking for a better life and he did just that. He worked hard and he raised his family. He was also a Deacon in the Catholic Church and served his community his entire life here in America. He became a Citizen when Anthony was around four or five years old.

I am telling you all of this information because for me, the issue of immigration is an issue that has been a part of my life since before I was born. My first published words were in a letter to the Editor for the Amarillo Newspaper about the issue of immigration and the Government’s failure to fix a broken Immigration system.

My family worked in the fields of the Texas Panhandle and often my grandfather could not find work for his family of American citizens because those jobs were taken by people who crossed here illegally for work and would work for cheaper than my grandfather would. My family also thought that our citizenship made us better than people who came here illegally. Part of that is rooted in history considering that we are Tejanos and the whole -point of Tejanos was that we did not want to be Mexican. This is a real fact that most people do not know since Tejano culture has all but died except for the newly discovered love everyone has for Selena. Hispanics do not publicly discuss this issue in our community though or how so many of the officers working in border patrol or in detention centers are Hispanics and why. We just skip over that part but it is important to note when discussing the “racism at the border” because ya’ll, it is not a bunch of white border patrol agents who are working down there, it is mostly hispanics. We have fallen for the lie that if we are born a few miles north of the river that we are somehow better than those seeking to come here for safety or a better life. I have never understood this at all but it is a reality in the Hispanic/Latino community.

So going to McAllen came with a lot of historical, cultural and trauma based baggage for me. As Hispanic mother who has seen person after person say that these mothers bringing their kids into the US to flee danger are at fault for the way their children are being traumatized and in some cases dying due to conditions in detention centers, it was difficult for me to shake the feeling that I was driving my child into danger and if something happened to him it would be my fault. I was raised by a worrier who saw a lot of shitty things happen to Hispanics.

My mother grew up in a time when she was not allowed into spaces that had signs saying “no Mexicans allowed” and even though we were not Mexican, white people did not care about truth and considered us Mexicans since we were brown and spoke Spanish. (for those of you confused: Native Americans and Spaniards make brown babies that grow up speaking Spanish. That does not always mean Mexican.) So I have an inherent fear of border patrol and especially in a time when the president of this country is tweeting the kind of racist statements I have heard all my life telling women of color to go back to the country they came from. Spoiler: I belong in this country, especially the state of Texas, more than most of the racists who use that line on me. My great grandmother was full blooded Native American from Texas before it was even Texas meaning way way before it was part of the United States of America. As far as I am concerned it is Trump that can go back to where his family came from because my family came from right here.

My point is that I had a lot of anxiety taking my son down there. I had not ever been further south than Corpus Christi Texas. That was intentional. Everyone who knows me knows that I do not go anywhere south enough that I am going to have to go through a border patrol checkpoint to come back. All the nopes.

When we reached the respite center there was a lot going on in the street and there was no parking. I thought “wow, this is great, looks like a lot of people are here to help!” but what I didn’t know at the time is that some members of congress where touring the respite center and holding press conferences there. Here’s my thing. I am tired of seeing members of congress touring detention centers and respite centers and holding pressers. What congress needs to do is do their damn job and start creating solutions to this mess. What is happening now is for sure worse because of Trump’s administration but BOTH parties have failed for decades to create a solution to fix the broken immigration system. It is time for them to get to work, not having photo ops to win elections. It is up to those of us voting for them to hold them accountable. And I mean BOTH PARTIES.

A group of about twenty of us worked for about four or five hours in the Texas heat, which is the worst in the Valley, unloading a semi full of water, diapers, backpacks, socks, shoe strings and other stuff. The people in the semi were boiling but still managed to keep up their spirits. My son Gabe hauled so many loads of supplies on a dolly and put them up for the volunteers of the respite center. The assembly line of people helping to get everything up the conveyor belt was 12 deep. While we probably all disagree on solutions or on who is to blame for this mess, for those few hours, we all worked with one goal in mind and that was to unload this semi and get these supplies into the hands of people who need them. I think that congress can work together as well to help make this crisis better. I also think there is room for pro-lifers and pro-choicers to work together as well to help asylum seekers and work together to hold our leaders accountable. They have used the abortion issue to keep us from working together long enough ya’ll. In the end we all agree that women and children should not be treated like shit, let’s all work together towards that.

One thing that I heard someone say is that we do not even have healthcare or resources to help our own citizens so how can we allow these people in and help them. Considering this came out of the mouth of someone who is pro-life, my thought was that this is what most women who are considering abortion have going on in their mind. I know because I have been in that place three times in my life of finding myself pregnant and thinking “i do not even have enough to take care of myself or the kids I already have, how the hell am I going to manage another child?!”. Guess what? We make room. That is what being pro-life means. That is what being “open to life” means. Open to life isn’t just for pregnancy. We have reduced being “pro-life” to being about stopping abortion when it is so much deeper than that.

Aborting my oldest son would not have solved the issue of poverty. Let’s stop thinking that eliminating the poor is the same as eliminating poverty. Eliminating poverty means building a society where people can work, pay bills, see a doctor and get an education without working four or five jobs. A society that respects the dignity of its citizens is a society where mothers welcome their children into the world. As a brown woman who has had white people tell me that I would not be able to mother my children so I should make the responsible choice to abort them, my opinion is that abortion as the solution to poverty is usually rooted in racism at worst and white privilege at best. But it is for sure not rooted in understanding the strength of motherhood.

These donations are amazing. I was proud to see how much people can do to help others. It was great to work hard in a hot warehouse with people I don’t agree with for a common goal of helping human beings in need. But all of that is a band aid if we keep voting in leaders who are either making these crises worse and/or are not doing their job to fix it. If we do not hold ourselves and our leaders accountable, then people will keep suffering and also children will keep dying.

On the way back I had to go through the border patrol checkpoint. I was so nervous, I had no idea what they would ask for or how the whole thing would go. The border patrol officer asked me where I was going, where I was coming from and what I was doing there. My first instinct was to say that it was none of his business but I already know that is how you make things more difficult for yourself. That is what you learn from a young age as a Hispanic. Which is why I roll my eyes anytime I see anyone say “you have rights”. Yeah, I had the right to tell him I didn’t have to answer him, but that would have gotten me pulled to the side, my car ransacked and taken a few hours out of my day and that is the BEST case scenario. But what surprised me is that when I explained to him what we had been doing he said “so there are still good people in the world”. He was hispanic and looked just like my Tio Roy and was nice to me all things considered.

For so long I had made presumptions about border patrol and they have only gotten worse in the last few weeks. That interaction with this man who was nothing but nice and respectful to me made me check myself and my temptation to dehumanize anyone at all, including border patrol agents. Which to me was the greatest pro-life lesson of the day.

Overall, the Rio Grande Valley is a beautiful part of the state I love so much. I realized it is possible to work with people I disagree with, some of them Trump supporters, for the common good which means that is possible on a bigger scale like congress and I have checked my own assumptions about border patrol as a whole.

As a Catholic sidenote: I went to San Juan and lit a candle for my Tio, Tia and Anthony and got holy water for my mom. It was a great day with my son Gabe which was a blessing since I have come to find so much joy in time with my kids. I am so proud of him for how hard he worked on Saturday. On the way home we stopped at a BBQ place in my Tio’s hometown and as we left there was the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen in my life and it felt like maybe God was saying “good job”. Gabe and I went to honor Anthony’s memory and I think we did just that. We will be going back to help at the respite center!

Rebuilding

Suicide destroys your life. It robs the person who died of their future and it robs their loved ones of everything else. I can’t think of Anthony (my 22 year old son who took his own life over two years ago) without it taking my breath away. He was such an amazing human being. I’m not just saying that because I made him from scratch. I don’t think I have ever had anyone say anything to me about Anthony other than how awesome he is in his entire life. Or death.

I was prepared on how to plan a funeral thanks to my Tio and Tia dying 10 months apart before Anthony died. Plus, I’m Hispanic. We start learning how to plan funerals as toddlers. Death is not foreign to us. We are expected to go to funerals as children and learn how to fall in line to pay respects to the grieving family. We have rules. Who sits where and what time you are supposed to be at the funeral home. If you are a child of the dead person then you get there as soon as the funeral home opens the doors. Then from there are the siblings and nieces. My Tio’s obituary caused a huge scandal for mentioning me in it because I was one of a million nieces and my whole name was listed with his children. My entire family, including my mother, flipped the eff out because that is against the Hispanics of America Funeral SOP. So death is no stranger to me. I have been in training on how to plan a funeral since I was three years old.

What has caught me by surprise (well, one thing, because let’s face it, I say “what caught me by surprise” in a lot of my writing on grief. I know.) is how I have had to rebuild my life. I feel as if I’ve been in a two year long coma and I’m barely waking up. Or like I have been living on another planet while everyone on this planet has just kept on going.

I no longer want the same things I wanted before Anthony died. Which really sucks since I’m 4 classes away from getting a Bachelors in Philosophy and it turns out that I don’t really care all that much about a lot of Philosophy stuff. My kid is dead, I do not care that all these men sat around thinking of new ways to disagree with Aristotle.

I also no longer want to be a Catholic speaker who goes around saying things like “but in the end I know God has a plan for my life” because the truth is, I know He has a plan for my life but it would be great if I didn’t have to bury my kid in that life. But then again, a lot of mothers bury their kids. Some mothers have their children ripped from their arms by our Government and have no idea if they are ok. So why do I think I should somehow be spared from this level of horrific suffering? Why do any of us think that? Because it is easier to live in that space of ignorant bliss than to know the horrible things that could happen to us in life even though God does have a plan for us that requires us to survive those things.

I just want to tell my story. I want to tell it honestly, openly, freely and with some dark humor because life without laughter is just depressing AF.

I will tell it to Catholics or non Catholics, atheists or Buddhists. I don’t care. Suffering is a part of the human condition and suicide is a plague robbing us of our children. We have to start listening to the stories of those left to rebuild their lives after suicide has burnt them to the ground.

So yeah, rebuilding. I am having to rebuild every one of my relationships. And first I have to rebuild myself. What do I want? How do I want to do it? What is my first step in doing it? And then I have had to change my entire view of motherhood. I no longer see my children as burdens. Ever. No matter what. Because when you go two years wishing for nothing more than to have your dead kid annoy the fuck out of you, you start to appreciate the alive kids annoying you anyway they want to.

I am rebuilding my marriage. Which isn’t easy. And it’s even more difficult when it’s the thousandth time you have started over with the same person. Spoiler: Stacey and I have rebuilt this relationship a dozen times. You would think it would be easier by now. It isn’t.

And then I have to learn how to be a friend. It’s challenging to be a friend to others when you think nothing is as big of a problem as finding your kid dead in the garage. But I have to figure it out because 1. I need friends, I’m a extrovert and 2. I don’t want to be a self-centered asshole. I didn’t have a good handle on how to be a good friend before losing Anthony so this is more of just building than REbuilding to be honest.

All of this takes up a lot of energy. Energy doing a lot of thinking and laying in bed staring at the ceiling. Energy that doesn’t look like I’m doing anything which makes me feel lazy and like I’m wasting time. So I am also rebuilding how I talk to myself and how I treat myself. I give myself time and space and love to lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. I give myself permission to go out with a friend and drink 6 shots of whiskey and have fun. I give myself permission to tell my kids to make dinner some nights. And I give myself permission to take a bubble bath at 3 in the afternoon if I want one. For me, being kind to myself and taking care of myself is not easy. I have to fight the voice in my head that tells me I’m selfish, lazy and do not deserve the luxury of an afternoon bubble bath. As if I have not had a hand in the work it took to get this house, with this bath, or this life. As if some fairy just came and handed it to me. As if, I didn’t wait tables, help with company paperwork, raise kids, cook dinners and build a readership with my writing to make this life reality. That voice is rooted in the belief that I do not deserve good things or happiness. And that voice does not come from God. So I am rebuilding my relationship with myself which is part of rebuilding my relationship with God.

So here we are. The biggest relationship of all. The one with God. *deep breath*

Before Anthony died I thought I knew God. I thought I knew what being Catholic was all about. I thought if I just did all the things that good people did, I would be a better person. That meant not being me because anyone with a brain could see that who I was was not a good person. Who I was was a person who made terrible choices that landed me in terrible situations like the county jail for a DWI. Who I was liked to drink until life was fun. Who I was liked to sleep with strangers, sometimes more than one stranger at a time and sometimes both female and male strangers and in public. Who I was liked to feel good but believed that the only kind of feel good I deserved was the kind that happened in clubs full of smoke and sketchy people. The kind of places that Good People do not even know exist. Because I was not good. Everywhere I looked I saw that message. I did things that Good People called sins and Good People said because I did these things, I deserved all the bad things that happened to me. Because God punishes people who do those things. That’s who I thought God was and so I thought when I forced myself to not be Who I Was anymore and had the sense to mimic The Good People that God would stop punishing me.

Then Anthony died.

Then I knew God as the asshole who can perform miracles in the Bible but somehow didn’t perform one for me or my son and just let him die alone in the garage. God allowed me to stand on the other side of the wall where my son’s body hung lifeless and discuss what I was going to make for dinner an hour before we found him. To me, after Anthony died God was both the only place I found peace and the One I was the most angry at. And that reminded me of my first marriage. Where I was in a relationship with a man who loved me deeply but beat the shit out of me when he was high. So God became an abuser to me.

Rebuilding that relationship has not been easy. For one thing it means accepting that I do not control anything, especially the Creator of the Universe. It means that suffering is possible and none of us are special in not facing the worst kind of suffering but some people do get off the hook on having to face much more suffering than “oh no, my pool isn’t working UGH” or some other Not Dead Kid crisis. And I will never know how exactly the suffering lottery works but I do know that in the lives of a lot of people in the world, I am on the winning end of it because so many people in this world have it so much harder than me. Rebuilding my relationship with God has meant letting go of all the rules that make it easy for me to count myself in the Good People club and others out of it. It has meant knowing that God does not care about my opinion on who is not worthy of His love. He has my back, but He has the back of my enemy just the same. He is God, not my body guard. Rebuilding my relationship with God has meant letting go of a lot of things: expectations, beliefs, judgements and control. It has meant learning that God will die for me but He is not mine to control. He calls the shots and I can cuss about it and kick and scream about how unfair it is, but that isn’t going to change it.

I am still figuring out exactly how to have a relationship with God which means all my other relationships are also still under construction. I do not know what is going to happen but I know that rebuilding takes time and patience and love, so that is what I am giving myself. That is what I am allowing God to give me. Finally.