During Sophomore year, part of our curriculum was a semester of “Personal Morality” class. It was my favorite class of my entire High School career. We learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and had to do a special project. I remember I made a mixed tape. I narrated parts and filled in other parts with clips of songs. It was pretty cool and I remember I got an A+ on it. We also had to do a People Magazine project. We had to create a People Magazine about ourselves. The magazine was passed around to our classmates for them to comment on various pages. I still have both projects in a box somewhere. We also learned about Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). The reason this class meant so much to me and it stands out in my memory is because of my teacher, Mr. C. He was engaging, entertaining, interesting, funny, and smart. Mr. C. was the type of teacher all the students went out of their way to say “hi” to. He was the “cool, young teacher” with the argyle socks and the preppy glasses and who knew all the latest music. Mr. C’s classes didn’t feel like lectures; they felt more like class discussions. He made you feel like what you had to say mattered.
During the last month of school that year, I had a problem and I decided to go to Mr. C. for advice. He listened to me and offered me some guidance. I treasured that I had been able to turn to him for help. Obviously, I had felt that he was someone I could reach out to in a moment of need.
September 12, 1986 - When we arrived at LAX, my whole family was waiting for us at the gate. We all hugged and cried so much. I rode in my aunt’s van with my cousins. The entire drive home all I did was talk about my new boyfriend, Robbie. When we got to my house, my cousins hung out with me, helped me unpack, and asked me questions about my new boyfriend. It’s odd but I don’t remember walking into the house for the first time. I guess it helped me that my entire family was there. I don’t remember if I went into my mom’s room or walked through the house or anything at all. I don’t remember if I had trouble sleeping or if I cried after my cousins left and it was just my dad and me alone at home. My journal mostly contains just stuff I wrote about my boyfriend and my cousins that day.
The following day was the Rosary and Burial. This is another memory that is a complete blank for me. I only wrote that there were over 100 people at the funeral and that everyone cried a lot. I wrote about going to the cemetery for the Burial. I said it was a “horrible experience” and that I felt “demolished” afterward. What I do remember is that after the burial, my best friend, Maggie rode in the limo with me back to my house and stayed the rest of the day with me until her dad came to pick her up. After Maggie left, I called my other besties – MG, SM, and MP. I wrote that they had been really sweet and helpful and that I had missed them a lot.
On my first day back at school, my friends were warm and welcoming. They gave me a card they had all signed. I hugged and thanked everyone and put the card up in my locker. The following week, my friend SM, gave me another card that had a cracked egg on the front and inside it said “Keep Your Sunny Side Up”. (Yes, I really remember this without digging the card out.) I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and I was not exposed to any English expressions, except at school and on TV. So, I had no idea what the card meant, but I knew it was something nice. Plus, she wrote really nice things too.
Just like my classmate who lost her father the previous school-year, I acted normal and seemed ok at school. I now understood my classmate 100%. (I will call her Chrissy.) Typically, teenagers just want to blend into the crowd, not stand out. I had had my fair share of standing out in elementary school, so I did my best to blend in during high school. After my mom died, I just wanted to be normal. School was a wonderful place for me to pretend everything was normal, because while I was there, it really was. I knew Chrissy must have felt the same way. I was sure that school was an escape from reality for both of us.
It was at home where “normal” no longer existed. For the first six or seven weeks after we returned from Argentina, my dad would drive me to school and pick me up every day. (Although I had turned 16 in March, I hadn’t gotten my driver’s license yet.) I don’t remember if my dad took me back to his lock shop with him after school every day. I imagine he did sometimes. What I do remember is that I had a love/hate relationship with my home. I loved being home alone because I could let my grief out full blast, but I hated being home alone because I missed my mom tremendously and I hated being there without her. It wasn’t normal in any way, shape, or form for me to be home alone. Remember, I’m the girl who had NEVER been left alone at home EVER except for one time for approximately 15 minutes when I was 14 years old. Now here I was for hours at a time, all alone in an empty house, lonely, sad, depressed, and useless. I didn’t know how to cook. I didn’t know how to wash my clothes. I didn’t know how to take care of myself.
At the end of October, my dad took me to the DMV for my driving test. When I returned to the waiting room and told him I had passed, he hugged me hard. He got choked up and told me that mom had been with me and had helped me pass. I hugged him back and cried, wishing my mom was there to celebrate with me. (It was the first of many more milestones to come that she didn’t share with me.)
Once I started driving, I remember driving home after school every day. I dreaded walking into that empty house. A lot of times I would go into my mom’s room. Look around. Open drawers. Snoop. Try on her shoes. Hold her clothes, smell them, and crumble to the floor sobbing into them. I’d surround myself with a mound of her clothes and lose total control. I’d scream out her name at the top of my lungs. I’d repeat “Mami?” over and over again as though calling her to come. It sounded odd to say her name out loud. I couldn’t believe I was never going to call for her ever again. She was never going to teach me anything ever again. We were never going to cuddle and watch Spanish soap operas again. We were never going to dance around the kitchen again. It was all just still so shocking and hard to believe.
In the first months, my dad and I used to go to the cemetery every Sunday. It seemed like the right thing to do and it was something I needed to do. We also did it out of guilt. My dad, siblings, and I all had heard my mom say frequently that when she died she’d better have flowers on her grave every week. She used to say that she had a feeling that her grave was going to become abandoned and not have a single flower on it. Hence, the guilt. The cemetery was a place I despised but it made me feel closer to my mom. I knew that just six feet under me, she was there. God, I hated that thought. My mind would race. I would imagine what she looked like in there. I would clench the grass in my fists and imagine digging her out.
On October 19, when we arrived at the cemetery, I lost it. I cried really hard in front of my dad for the first time since we had been back. For the first time I saw my mom’s grave marker. It was such a big shock and it made her death very real. Seeing her name was such an ugly feeling. I absolutely hated everything about that marker. Yet, I had been the one who went with my sister-in-law to pick it out. I had been the sole decision maker on what the marker was to say and which design to use. I had picked one with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. (My mom had belonged to a Sacred Heart Association so I thought she would have liked it.) I had never written the wording for a grave marker (how many 16-year-olds have?) so I copied the text from samples the staff showed me. Except I wrote it in Spanish.
As I knelt next to my mom’s grave and wept, I glanced at the image of Jesus. I felt like slapping it with all my might. I was angry at Him! So very angry at Him! How could He do this to me?! How could He do this to my mom?! My mom had been such a devout Catholic. She had prayed so hard for her health and for her to be able to finish her mission of raising me. She had read her big blue bible every flipping day of her life. She had had her nightly routine of prayers and of blessing me with the statue of Jesus every night. So much religion. So much faith. So much prayer. And this was how He repaid her??? What the hell kind of sense did any of this make to Him? How was I supposed to make sense of it?
There was nothing I could do in my home that didn’t trigger me to weep. I wept as I made my mom and dad’s bed; I wept whenever I caught a glimpse of a photo of her; I wept as I made myself something to eat; I’d cry for long periods of time, talking to her out loud and yelling at God because I was SO angry at Him. And I would write her letters in my journal. I wrote her so many letters. I would tell her how angry I was at God for making her suffer; for allowing her to see her death coming; for killing her and taking her from me; I wrote to her my memories of the ICU in Argentina - of seeing her tearful eyes asking for my dad; of hearing her weak, soft voice asking me if she was going to die; of kissing her as much as I could because I never knew if it was going to be the last time I’d see her; of holding her weak hands in mine; I wrote to her that I would never forgive God for any of it. I would write to her that I felt so alone because I had no one to tell my problems to; no one to comfort me; no one to make me feel better; no one to love me as much as she had loved me; no one to make me feel like I was the most important girl in the world. I swore to her that I would try to imitate her in every way possible and that I would try to be an extraordinary woman, wife, and mother like she had been. I begged her never to leave me; to always be with me; to take care of me and keep me safe; to please come back home. I thanked her for everything she did for me; for disciplining me; for loving me; for making me feel treasured and valued; for playing with me; for making me laugh. I asked her forgiveness for not having been a better daughter; for upsetting her; for disobeying her. I told her I needed her and I missed her.
What surprises me the most about re-reading my letters to my mom is how much anger I had. I am very familiar with the stages of grief and that anger is one of them but I had forgotten how raw and direct the anger had been, especially toward God. I had forgotten how much I wanted to understand God’s decision to leave me motherless. I had forgotten how much I had cried when I had seen my mother’s grave marker. I also remembered the advice I got from my teacher/counselor Mr. C.
When I had returned to school from Argentina, Mr. C. had told me that if I wanted to talk, to let him know. I immediately took him up on the offer. Once a week, Mr. C. would pull me out of class and we’d sit on a bench and talk for an entire class period. He was an angel in disguise. He gave me an outlet for my grief and he introduced me to the concept of “therapy”. (My first experience of many more to come). When I had shared with him that I felt like slapping the image of Jesus on my mom’s grave, he said “Then do it.” What? Really? It had never occurred to me that I could actually slap Jesus. I had been raised to believe that it was wrong to be angry at God or to do anything against Him. But the following time I went to the cemetery, I let Jesus have it and it felt good.
Mr. C. was the first person who taught me about doing whatever it was I needed to do to survive my grief and to take care of myself. He was the first person who taught me about giving myself permission to feel what I needed to feel. He was the only person I would share my deepest thoughts about wanting to dig my mom out of her grave; about imagining what she looked like in there. Mr. C. was the only person I would tell about my previous day’s crying frenzy with my mom’s clothes. So many times alone at home, I really thought I was going crazy, but Mr. C. assured me that my feelings were normal and that I wasn’t crazy. He listened to me. He validated me. He allowed me to share my feelings in a safe environment without judgment.
I am eternally grateful to Mr. C. for everything he did for me. He means the world to me and I will never forget how much he helped me at a time when I felt like I was so alone. I find it pretty fascinating that the person who had taught me about the Stages of Grief the year before, ended up being the same person who helped me through them. (Once again, there are no coincidences.) (It also doesn’t escape me that in recent years I’ve been fulfilling Maslow’s higher level needs – Esteem and Self-Actualization – that Mr. C. taught me about 30 years ago.)
I had the great honor and pleasure of seeing Mr. C. a couple of years ago at a dinner with classmates. I refreshed his memory of how he had helped me once upon a time. Most importantly, I was able to personally thank him for his kindness and to tell him about the difference he had made in my life. It was a full-circle moment that I will never forget. I will also never tire of saying it…Thank you, Mr. C.