Author and her uncle

Finding Voice

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

My path to becoming a writer began on a mild Chicago winter day in January 1988. But I didn’t know it. It was the day my uncle Danny died of AIDS related pneumonia.  He was one of those rare authentic adults who was filled with the joy of living. I loved, admired and adored him.

His death inspired my journal writing –  he suggested it a few months prior to his death and his death inspired the content. The sorrow in my soul broke open my heart and inspired me to write without thinking about what was written.

A few months later, my AP English teacher said I had a “gift.” He said my writing sounded like I was speaking. He said there are people who spend their lives trying to do that.

I now know he meant to say my writing had voice, which is something to practice. Instead, I took his observation, his compliment of my creative talent as an accomplishment I didn’t need to strive towards anymore.

I thought, if I had achieved something that others spent their lives trying to achieve, then why go any further? Why pursue this thing that came effortlessly?

Instead, I exercised my analytic mind, I became a scientist.

I went to college, then grad school and studied things that didn’t come easy to me. But they were things associated with another love, the ocean. I longed to play with fish all day. I dreamed of a life swimming around in their watery environment, studying their behaviors, their life history, and their diversity. I didn’t have a job in mind, I just followed my love.

I knew I loved fish, I loved tropical waters and I loved the TV show Magnum P.I. that was filmed in Hawaii.

This girl from Chicago, dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, marrying Tom Selleck and living happily ever after studying Hawaiian fish. But it was hard trying to achieve this dream.  Despite all of this love, I was only a C+/B- student at the illustrious University of Chicago, the school I ended up at because I didn’t apply to the “right” university in San Diego, where I really wanted to go. UofC is a school so anti-social, so anti-anything I had experienced in my previous life as an inner-city kid going to public schools, that my only goal was to graduate so I could continue pursuing my dream of becoming a Marine Biologist some place closer to Hawaii, like California.

For four years, I ignored the better grades I received in those classes that required creative writing and kept working hard at those classes involving solving formulas and equations. I ignored my talent.

My love for the environment and for writing merged on Earth Day 1990. I wrote a comment to a letter someone wrote the editor of the Maroon, the UofC newspaper.  I wrote something about think global and act local, but what I remember most vividly is the feeling I felt when people recognized that I was the one who wrote the comment. I remember where I was – paying for books at the local Cooperative book store and the cashier, another student, recognized my name. The feeling that my words meant something to someone else was powerful. I took it as symbolic of what my future as an influential scientist would be like.  I didn’t think it was something I could have pursued at that moment, change my degree and become a writer.

I wish I kept a copy.

Society didn’t show me a writer role model. No one told me about the importance of sharing one’s writing. My role model was Jacques Cousteau. His colorful, fish filled documentaries I watched on Channel 11, the PBS station in Chicago, were my inspiration. I wanted to do what Jacques did. Although, on some level, I did know that the elusive “Robin” in the Magnum P.I. series, the owner of the luxurious estate Magnum lived on, belonged to a novelist, but I associated that with the romance novels my mother read. Blech! I couldn’t do that, I thought to myself, I’m too smart.

If only I knew.

Note: This musing was written as part of a class on writing memoir – the assignment, called thematic stepping stones, was to look at things in my life that are in conflict and write about it. I chose “creative vs analytic self” and wrote for twenty minutes about the moments in my life this conflict arose. It was an assignment written by Theo Pauline Nester.

A bed of roses…

Death.

No matter how hard we try, we just can’t get away from it. Nope, sorry, you too will die, your spirit will leave your physical body and go…  wherever spirits go when we die. So why do you ignore it? You know… Death?  When someone you know or love is consciously dying because they are terminally ill or they are on life support after a tragic accident – why are you afraid? Why don’t you know how to act? to feel? What to say?

uncle danny 1987
Uncle Danny with cousin Nick, 1987, photo taken by author.

When my uncle Danny was consciously dying, having been diagnosed with AIDS a year or two earlier, I visited him for 3 weeks during the summer of 1987 in San Francisco. I was 16 and in denial, how could he be dying? He was full of life, was an amazing chef, funny, caring (he had started school to become a nurse when he was diagnosed), handsome and most of all I loved him more than any other person in my life. He was my father figure, since my relationship with my biological father was not so great. He was the person who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted to study in College, how I was feeling, he was actively engaged in my life. So how could he die when I was beginning to go through a period in my life when I needed him most?

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

I was selfish, “Uncle Danny, can you move back to Chicago?” I asked one morning during that 3 week visit, I  wanted him to be closer to me. “Honey” he said. “I am going to die here.” Despite my shock at his answer, I appreciated his bluntness, I respected that he was a man who didn’t mince his words, he told it like it was.  During those three weeks I was with him, the last time I would be with him on this earth, I tried with all my might to squeeze everything I could out of every day. I was  hyper-conscious of his impending death, I tried hard to cherish every moment with him, thinking this could be the last time. Despite being a warrior against death, I still had a weird hole inside of me, one that somehow couldn’t be filled with the fresh squeezed orange juice he gave me every morning. Nor with saying “I love you Uncle Danny” every night before going to sleep. I was scared that when he wasn’t around, who would care about me like he did? Who would listen to me?

The day I had to get on a plane back to Chicago, I knew it would be the last time I would see him. I tried pushing that feeling aside as I gave him that last hug before walking down the jet-way. That walk down the jet-way was the longest walk of my life, I was all too conscious of what was happening, my heart breaking with every step I made towards that plane. The worst was I couldn’t just break down and cry, I was in public for crying out loud. I had to keep it together, if not for me, for my uncle, whose eyes I did catch when I did one of those “last looks” the kind that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt – the kind that tore an even greater hole in my heart as I saw tears welling up in my uncle’s eyes.

Journaling saved my life. My uncle recommended I start journaling after a phone conversation soon after I returned to Chicago. He also suggested I look into applying to a university I had never heard of before, called University of Chicago (my future alma mater). A few months later during a cold Chicago winter morning, I awoke abruptly, got dressed and went for a cold walk along the shore of Lake Michigan before anyone was awake. I took a long walk, eventually ending up at a local catholic church, St. Joseph’s. I was not raised religious, but I felt a need to light a candle for my uncle and say a prayer. After an hour or two I finally went back home. As soon as I walked in the door, I heard my mother on the phone, confirming what I already knew, he had passed away.

My grandmother was with him that morning, and later that year, I would share my story with her and she would confirm that at the moment he took his last breath, was the same time as when I woke up.

Author and grandmother 1971
One of the first images of the author and her grandmother, 1971.

My grandmother, Elivira Rosa Silva was born 95 years ago in Preston Cuba, where my great-grandfather worked in the sugar cane fields of an American company. She died 5 years ago, just shy of her 90th birthday in San Francisco, CA. Although she was old she had been full life: a former beauty queen, she cared about her looks to the very end, she loved eating well and sneaking a cigarette every now and again. She gave up her independence, reluctantly, about a year before her death.

On Valentine’s day 2007, I tried calling her at the nursing home. When the nurse said she wasn’t available, I called my mother to see if she had spoken with her. “No” she said. I called again the next day and still no luck, so I called the receptionist. After trying to locate her, the receptionist came back to the phone and said, “Your grandmother is not here.” I responded, “Is she in the hospital?” “Yes.” she replied, not able to give me anymore information than that. I called all of the hospitals near Alameda, CA and finally found my grandmother in the CCU of a hospital in Oakland CA. After talking with her nurse, I was able to talk with her doctor. “You are the first family member I have had a chance to speak with” the doctor said. He went on to explain to me that she had several infections in her body, her kidneys were not in good shape and her heart was bad. I asked what her prognosis was and he said 50/50. I hung up the phone and made a reservation for early the next morning to fly down to Oakland.

2005 author with grandmother
Last image of the author together with her grandmother, 2005.

I had to convince my mother that “this was it” that if she didn’t get her butt on the next airplane to San Francisco that she would regret not being there during her mother’s last days on this planet. My mother was letting her anger at her mother get the best of her. Thankfully she did get on an airplane.

I have consciously danced with death on a bed of roses, smelled her heavenly scent and felt her prickly thorns in my heart. Death opened my heart to experience life, raw, naked, intensely. So why would I want to fear this part of my natural life history as a human? Why would I want to miss out on witnessing the amazing transition from our current dimension to another?

I will be there with you as you die. I am not afraid. I consciously walk towards death every day and I have never felt so alive.

Til Death…

Death.

What it means to each of us is very personal, but transcendent as well, meaning it is a part of our being human. What is your relationship with death? Is it filled with fear? Peace? or Indifference (which may lead back to fear)?

The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.
The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.

It was June 12, 2012, a month ago, when I went to an old friend’s funeral. Khal’s passing reminded me about my relationship with life and with death and how we who are left on this physical plane to deal with loss. Although Khal’s physical body left this planet way too soon and it filled me with sadness, I knew his spirit lives on in the people whom he influenced with his love and his stalwart personality. I am at peace with death.

What I am not in peace with is how some of us will meet our death. Through stupid accidents, preventable or treatable diseases, through another’s incompetence or malicious intent.  Khal’s death was due to preventable and treatable diseases, that many of us have, it’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it’s called pride, it’s called emotional abuse as a child, it’s called being overwhelmed with life. I saw so much of my own struggles when I last talked to him, we had just reconnected via Facebook in 2010 and were planning a small high school reunion. During this time I remember sharing with him my concern over his weight and health (he was an athlete in high school and a U.S. Marine), he shared that it was because he had a hard time making time for himself.  I suggested he think of his future, his kids, that he needed to find time for himself, for them and he promised me that he would start going to the gym. I said I would keep tabs on him, that I wanted to hear how he lost weight when I saw him at the reunion. I did keep tabs on him, once or twice and he had started going to the gym. I was even keeping tabs on him in my dream state: “Khal, I had a dream that you were smoking in your garage.” I messaged him one morning. He was dumbfounded, he said that no one, not even his wife, knew that he smoked. I asked him why he did that, and he responded “Stress.”

I lost contact with Khal soon after the reunion. He had reconnected with other friends and I had hoped through that he would find some reprieve from his stress and quench his need to talk to someone about it. I was also going through my own dark period (end of relationship, dealing with demons from my past, etc.) and had begun shutting people out of my life. During this time I even deleted my FB page, losing contact with many people I thought were superfluous in my life. I was performing my own type of death ritual. I needed to do that to reconnect with my true self and needed time and space to find me.

Me and tio
The author, with Uncle Danny, circa early 1971.

This wasn’t the first time I had done my own death ritual. Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Transitioning from marriage to divorce. Death to me is a transition. I came to terms with death, both physical and psychological, when I was a junior in high school. It was during this time that I learned my uncle had AIDS (a preventable and now treatable disease). It was the mid-1980s, when the big AIDS scare began and all those awareness campaigns started. Uncle Danny wasn’t just any uncle, I had three others, he was my kindred spirit. He died during my senior year, an already difficult transition period (college looming, boyfriend being a butt head). Thanks to his suggestion, the summer before his death, I had begun writing in a journal. These journals, were pivotal in helping with transition; they provided me with a venue to vent my anger, talk about my sadness and eventually see that in death we do not part with those whom we have that special connection. My uncle was there with me then and is now and I’m still writing in a journal.

I am at peace with death. I am at peace with transitions. Trust me, it doesn’t make it any easier when a relationship ends or when someone you love dies. It doesn’t mean that I look forward for the next transition to happen. No, because I am still only human and I have these things called emotions to deal with, to work through, to come to terms with. But I am wiser. After each transition I learn something new about my self, about what it truly means to be human and what this life is all about. My spirituality grows with each transition. It is as if being at your most vulnerable, your most human, opens a window to see beyond this physical plane of being. To gain sight to see that my energy mingles with all the energies of the universe, that I am a part of something greater, that we are a part of something greater.

I am at peace with death and with life. Today I realized it has been a month since my friend was buried, and in recalling my relationship with death I realize that it has been 24 years since my uncle died. I am vulnerable, I am feeling emotional, but I am also feeling the love that connected us during their time on this planet and I can continue feeling it to this day and possibly forever.