In case you haven’t noticed, being in a reflective mood is a big part of who I am as a person.
I’ll pause for the rolling of your eyes, dear reader.
Yeah, I think too much. I think too much about stuff that is hardly ground shaking anymore. I, too, suffer from that illness of wanting to make myself seem so fucking interesting. So much effort has gone into curating a self that could be deemed “fabulous” or “fascinating” by others that I now question whether it was worth it. Losing Dad last month has allowed for a sense of clarity to take over. Revisiting all of our struggles together, the endless array of pendejadas I’d craft just to piss him off. And for what? He forgot them all due to his Alzheimer’s. However, what took over was something totally real and true. Each time he smiled, I knew we were in a good place. We laughed and lived out some of the best years of our lives together with respect. It will be a gift that will keep on giving.
These many years of trying on and shedding personas were exhausting, for me and everyone around me. The irony? Going back to my OG self now makes the most sense. Take out the chaos and “big feelings” and I have a nice rack of lamb to offer the world. That’s what brought me back to Dad. With him, I discovered that life doesn’t need an excess of adornment. It needs to be tended to with care and purpose. You nurture the best part of yourself and the people you love with sun and air, not artificial light, filters, and the prism of a stranger’s validation. Why it’s taken me so long to figure that out has more to do with what I thought I wanted to “see” in myself and the world.
Born a preemie, I guess I was determined not to fade into the background since day one. I had to see what lurked outside the safety of Mom’s womb! Haha. Once I started going to school, it became apparent that I had a voice and the power to be heard. Shyness be damned, the first person I made laugh in kindergarten was a revelation! I was aware of what made me different from the other kids. In the end, my early interests would dictate much of who I would be as an adult. It happened organically thanks to the people who remain my role models, at home, school, the library that was my second home. Then, I started to doubt my own singularity.
When I think about our mania to be noticed today by being considered an “influencer” or a “public figure” on social media, I can’t help but marvel over how it is also doing us such harm. It’s just a setting, for crying out loud. Creating a false persona took real skill in “my day” and we could not depend on a filter to cover the flaws. To bear witness to the elements of sameness projected by people all over the world today scares the shit out of me. We seem less inclined to break free from the pack to fervently embrace this culture of uniformity. Copycat beauty is not a celebration of individuality, which contradicts a generation’s determination to eschew the context of the past. Many parrot the importance of fluidity in their lives, but they swirl around the contained space of a very specific and packed fish tank.
This concept of curating an authentic life is also just another variation of “keeping up appearances.” And whoever coined the term, “adulting” should be ashamed. We live in an era that invents so many terms and slogans to validate confusion and insecurity. Most people can’t even commit to a simple meet and greet because of their lives being so “hectic.” Yet, they still want to be praised for doing the things you’re supposed to do as an adult! Argh. But yeah, planning and taking photos of yourself at brunch and Coachella will take it out of you. This doesn’t apply only to the millennials, either.
Sigh. I’m rambling here, I know. That I’ve grappled with the same insecurity of being ignored and feeling irrelevant for so long is one of my biggest failures. The trigger point from childhood, when I stopped letting my own true self exist for fear of being labeled “different,” cannot be allowed to be pulled. Opting to create an exaggerated self with the threads of what made me different wasn’t any better, either. Dad wasn’t always enamored of my colorful self, but he admired my voracious need to read, watch films, go to the theater, and articulate what I loved about what I was watching or reading. (Except “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He tore a companion picture book in half and threw it in the trash.)
Dad believed in the power of words and I have found comfort and solace in recognizing that part of him. I know I won’t fade into the background anytime soon. My will to speak and write is too strong. However, the point is to allow our words to count. Empowerment and courage will forever exist in words, even in a fish tank.
Having the courage and will to express myself is what will get me through this next chapter without him. Nostalgia has also proven a great source of empowerment, lessons that were buried only to resurface as I contemplate my own future. For example, when I was a kid, visiting the family in Tampico, the tíos thought it would be great to get me on a horse. I was about 4 or 5. Tío Paul was so proud to see me ride. Instead, he saw me fall off, which wasn’t unusual for me. Graceful athleticism was left out of my DNA stew.
I didn’t get back on that horse. I often wonder what life would have been like if I just got back in the saddle again. No filter, either. It speaks volumes to me today. I don’t need a horse anymore, but I do know I won’t be staying down if I fall. I’ll just dust myself off and keep on moving forward as my singular self. Witnesses welcomed, but not required.
My sister Nancy coined the name “Poppadoodles” way back when. I instantly loved the sound of it, both frivolous and absurd, two words you’d never use when you wanted to describe Dad. He was Big George, Jorge Sr., Tío Jorge, but never Don Jorge, or Jefe. He represented many things to many people.
Dad passed away the morning of Tuesday, February 26 at the age of 94 at our home in Pico Rivera. It didn’t rain that day. The sun was out. He was surrounded by family and our closest friends. Alzheimer’s was also his nefarious companion during the last 12 years of his life. It finally left us alone, but it never fully took Dad away. Jorge Sr. knew where he was and who was the source of the love in that living room space that day.
Writing about him in the past tense makes me want to scream. Thinking about him in the past tense makes me want to cry. That is why I choose to focus my emotion on words these days. Words were my best friend as a chubby, eccentric kid. Words were what kept Dad entertained as he shuttled us all over Los Angeles to meet rock bands at record signings, shows, musicals, sports, everything. A carefully folded newspaper or magazine was also with him when he played chauffeur to the exciteable brood that was us.
I never did ask what he read about or what he even thought about what he read. I just know that when it was time to take us home, he carefully folded the material back up and we’d begin the journey. That slice of peace and quiet was always obliterated by our breathless stories about who or what we saw. He’d smile and listen as we cut through the city with caution because his precious cargo was aboard.
God, I wish I did ask him about those articles in the Herald-Examiner or Newsweek. One time, he even stood in line with my brother and me at Tower Records on Sunset Blvd. We wanted to meet the legendary child known as Boy George. Talk about your culture club. (Boom.) When we got up to meet George, we told him our Dad was a George, too. A huge smile stretched across the Brit crooner’s tastefully made-up face. Wouldn’t you know they launched into a nice little chat? Like neighbors stopping for tea. It was something George did not have time for with any of gallery of nightcrawlers and club kids that were desperate for a similar audience? Dad had no idea who Boy George even was, saying “That’s a nice young man” as we walked away. I wish Steve Jobs had already conquered the world for an iPhone! Imagine the photo, heck, the footage! Still, the memory remains a treasure, regardless, and unfiltered all these years later.
It is fitting that Dad made his living as a textile engineer. The yarn spun on the daily at the factory was no less important and as strong as the family ties he weaved at home. It never frayed. Even when it was pulled to maximum tautness, we didn’t break. Sometimes the words I exchanged with Dad were in anger, punctuated by the slam of a door or the start of a car engine. Even our silences carried the weight and text of our thoughts. That wasn’t the case once he began his travels with Alzheimer’s. I’d be damned if I’d let that bastard of a disease rob me of my time with Dad. I fought against the ALZ hard with smiles, laughter, and talks, real talks. It started out in English and then transferred to Dad’s native Spanish when his mind placed me in that category of awareness.
I have no regrets. I only possess this incredible want to have him here for a little while longer. I was able to say what I carried in my heart to him way before he left us. It is my most treasured moment with Dad. It happened at the Arboretum in Arcadia early last fall. Walking was tough for him, so I got him a wheelchair. We ventured around the gardens. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful day. In fact, it was grey and humid. The grounds were going through some pruning and renovations. The only added color that day was the famed peacocks, which were plentiful. I chose to tell Dad that I loved him and that he was right about so much. That I was sorry for all the hell I put him through. He was quiet for a moment, then, he asked if it was alright if he pushed me around the gardens, that I’d done enough. I said, “I don’t mind.” He answered, “Okay.” Then he started to comment on the peacocks, saying they don’t do anything. Just walk around and show off. I laughed. “Dad,” I said. I can’t believe you’re arguing with a peacock.” He just smiled and folded his hands on his lap. “I want to go home,” he said. So, we did.
Dad’s burial services were on a sunny Tuesday morning in Pico Rivera. I had the task of speaking, along with my brother. Writing his eulogy wasn’t easy, but when I started to write it, the words didn’t fail me. As my dear friend Ann said to me as my grief was in its upswing:
“He may be gone, but please know, as someone said to me when I lost my Dad, “The conversation continues.”
And it does…
A Eulogy for Dad by Jorge Carreón, Jr.
When you’ve been blessed to live a life as long, rich and vivid as Dad’s, the brevity of a eulogy seems cruel and unfair. Six paragraphs and out. I couldn’t do that. You only have to stop, pause, take a breath and take a look around a room like this and see the emotion and extent of the impact one life can make. You take comfort in knowing that this speaks volumes to the character and respect generated by Jorge Ramirez Carreón. Words were his power, and words are the inherited power we wield today.
I remember the day after my big performance in a high school play when I asked Dad what he thought of my “star” turn. He said, “Mijo, you’re a lot of things, but you’re not an actor. Write. It is what you do best.” He was “right,” for lack of a better word. He was pretty much always right about things.
I’ve been staring at a blank screen for days, crafting this message of remembrance and goodbye for Dad. All I could hear in my head are messages like, “Is this going to be enough?” followed by “I can’t do this.” When I finally sat down to put these words up on a laptop screen, it was surrounded by his spirit at our family home in Pico Rivera. Flowers, his favorite slice of nature, were everywhere. Music, the songs inspired by his varied tastes, provided the underscore. It made sense to me here. He made sense to me here, the house that raised my siblings and me.
My brother has composed a fitting testimony to his life, the details and achievements of a life less ordinary, but extraordinary. He ventured from the security of his home and living in Mexico to venture into the unknown territory of the US. He met Mom, married, had four children; he built the life of their dreams. The palm tree that graces the center of our home in Pico is that perfect symbol of our family history. It stands taller than ever before. It has bent with strong winds, never breaking, even when it felt like life was too much. It is the summation of who we are as his people, his family. You find a piece of who we are with each frond. Lil’s maturity and leadership as the firstborn. Nancy’s devotion and selfless protection of us all. Ernesto’s poetry and introspection. Mom’s love of life and strength. It is resilience incarnate.
With Dad’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s 12 years ago, the first impulse was to think life was over, that he’d forget us all quickly, that the damage to his mind and body would be relentless. We were scared he’d never be able to partake in our lives most crucial moments as adults. We were cursed and doomed. Yet, in the end, it was a gift. My father getting lost in the haze of this infernal disease allowed me to find him again. It is a personal detail that I will never let go.
My family mobilized upon the Doctor’s word. Nancy and Ernesto led the charge in researching every facet of treatment programs, medications, insurance allowances, anything, and everything to make sure Dad would live his best life with us beside him. That he was with us for as long as he was, glowing with color and filled with energy, is a testament to everyone’s role in keeping Dad healthy and alive. We involved him in all aspects of our lives. He wasn’t “sick” Dad. He was chingón Dad for us, for everyone he’d offer a smile. That’s the lesson of his life. Don’t fear the illness; make it fear YOU.
Like many Latino men, we like to live in our memories, tasked with the preservation of our family lore. Being Jorge is not just sharing the same name. Being Jorge means living as the chief chronicler of my family. You should see the epic collection of slides that remain encased and boxed, dutifully scanned by my sister Nancy with Smithsonian-like care. That is why I was compelled to record all that is Us before Dad’s mental files were purged entirely of data. My family and I will never forget the outpouring of emotion felt by many of you who never had a chance to meet Dad in person but were witnesses to his life in other manners.
My name now carries a stronger aura of poetry and romance. Yet, Dad is singular, the original creation. My task is never to let his memory fade, preserving that beautiful handprint in my heart, in all of our hearts.
Back to the power of words. Dad era creyente, a devout believer. He was a voracious reader, informed, an elegant debater who loved a good match of wits. I ask you all to take a moment at some point today to think of a word that personifies what Dad means to you. Share it with us today, tomorrow, whenever inspiration strikes.
As for us? Let me tell you: Dad is adventurous, sage, loyal, devoted, humorous, strict, careful, silly funny, lover of the song “Guantanamera,” classical music and Lerner & Lowe showtunes, Howard Stern-listener, admirer of Trini Lopez, Willie Nelson & Glen Campbell, damn good long haul driver, world-traveler, Christmas card address monitor, abstract pancake maker, mistaker of wasabi for guacamole, Nescafe drinker, eater of canned tuna fish in Italy, church leader, Eagle Scout motivator, industrious, a textile engineer, cultivated, Catholic, mustached, bald, native son of Celaya, Caballero, Mexicano, husband, father, tío, hero. He is forever our Poppadoodles.
We love you, Dad. Te queremos mucho, Pa.
**This is a video produced by my brother Ernesto for his Mateo & 8th line of home decor. We played it during the rosary services in honor of Dad. Hearing his voice sound so confident was shocking for a moment, then, restorative and calming. I hope you give it a view.
***Please consider making a donation to one of the following charities:
If you know my family, you’ve probably heard the tale of “The Adventures of Dad, Jorgito, and the Golden King Tut Ticket of 1978.” It remains one of our favorite stories because it has everything, laughter, drama, realizations about a child’s true nature, and mummies. It makes sense that it includes mummies since most Latino families embalm all sorts of moments they can drag out from their tombs now and again. It usually happens at a family gathering, especially during the holidays.
But I digress. First, a little context to our Tut connection.
From 1976 to 1979, the treasures found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb toured seven U. S. cities, including Los Angeles. The exhibition was a wild success, to put it mildly. “King Tut Mania” was the only pyramid scheme destined not to bankrupt the regular folk. It was as if a Cecil B. DeMille film had come to vivid life, seeing images of these treasures. The mystery, the glamour, the history! All of it was on display, centuries of history and wonder behind glass. Angelenos lost their minds when the tour arrived at the L.A. County Museum of Art. About eight million Americans made the trek nationally to the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” when it hit their chosen cities. More than one million visitors were tallied in Los Angeles alone. And I represented two of those entries at LACMA, which is a family legend today.
A total history buff, my Dad was absolutely caught up in the Tut-related fervor. A factory beside his was manufacturing swag to cash in on the rabid demand for merch. He’d bring home such replicated artifacts as Tut’s funeral mask, a small statue of the goddess Isis encased in a lucite pyramid. Yes, these were factory rejects, but so what? It was so rare to see Dad get excited by such things, but his pragmaticism meant he was obsessed with science and history. He loved truth and facts versus the fantasy and abstract represented by fiction.
Talk about your golden tickets. Even Willy Wonka would have raised an eyebrow in surprise. Reaction to the tour’s stop in L.A. was so intense and swift that NO ONE could get access after the lots were released and sold to the public. You’d think the Beatles reunited to play Dodger Stadium. One good thing that occurred was how some of the participating museums put together special programs for local schools, making free tickets available to groups of students. Dad was muy proud when I was chosen as one of the fifth graders from South Ranchito Elementary to visit with the Egyptian boy king at LACMA. It meant something to him that at least one of his family members would bear witness to this glorious exhibition of rarely-seen history, and it did not disappoint when my classmates and I made our way out to the museum on the day. It was better than any movie I’d seen about Tut or Egypt. All that imagery, long archived in history, was finally real and part of our time in the world.
A few weeks later, as the exhibition prepared for its departure, Dad had this wild notion of heading down to LACMA to see if we swing two tickets. As he always said, “The worse they can tell you is ‘No.'” So, we jumped into our aqua blue V.W. Beetle and made our way to the west side of L.A.
Dad had no problem sending me to the box office – alone – to see if any cancellations were available. (I don’t think any parent would do that today. I was 11 years old, and Wilshire Blvd. was still a mega-busy thoroughfare, even then. But it stands as a lesson in encouraging independence and resourcefulness in my mind.) Unfortunately, my inquiry at the box office did result in a not-surprising “No, kid.” Dejected, I returned to the assigned curb where I was to wait for Dad, who’d been driving around the block the entire time.
As I kept a vigilant eye out for our family Beetle, I felt someone tap my shoulder. I looked up to gaze at a handsomely dressed woman. She smiled this congenial smile and asked, “Are you trying to get tickets for Tut.” I didn’t think this was a “Stranger Danger” moment as she looked like she’d been to Bullocks Wilshire, the storied department store, which mattered to me back then. Haha. I think I said something like, “Yes, ma’am. But there aren’t any tickets.” She reached into her pocketbook and pulled out one of those Golden King Tut tickets.
“My friend isn’t able to make it, so why don’t you take it,” she said.
You could almost hear an angelic choir at that moment. I went from a “No” to a shocking “Yes!” Fortune favors the child left alone on a busy street, dammit!
I wish I remembered more of that exchange because I can only hear my saying, “Thank you, ma’am!” I couldn’t stop staring at that ticket, which is how Dad found me as he pulled up to the curb. I stepped into the car and yelled, “Dad! I got a ticket. Look!” He smiled this huge smile.
Then I said, “I’ll be right back. I’m going back in!” And boom, I was off!
Oh, how my family and I have discussed that moment of total selfishness. The lack of awareness. The utter glory of my young self-absorption! For years! Reflecting on that moment, I know my Dad would have never left me in the car while he walked through the exhibition. Although, he did leave me to my devices at the ticket office. Whatever. The important thing was for me to say, “Dad. Here’s the ticket.” For him to decline would be a lesson in how we sacrifice our needs and feelings. (See, Catholic guilt does start early!)
I don’t remember what I wore or even ate that day. I can’t pull up any descriptive details of our lives in 1978. I remember Dad’s dejected look as I turned and sprinted away. I didn’t spend as much time looking at the exhibits as I did the first time. I was painfully aware of Dad waiting outside by himself, which did make me feel a little self-conscious. Maybe I did realize what I did was pretty lousy. Despite the packed crowd gaping and crowing about the artifacts filling the galleries, it was a hollow victory because I was seeing them without my father. Maybe I didn’t know how to articulate these feelings then, but my early elation felt less strong as I walked briskly through the museum and out the door to meet up with Dad. He asked if I enjoyed it all the second time, and all I could say was, “Yes.”
As we walked to the car and started the journey home, I remember the long silence as he drove. I knew I hurt him a little. Once home, I also remember hearing Mom and Dad talk about my impulsive nature, my incredible luck, and my impulsive nature again. It was followed by laughter, but I knew I had disappointed them. (Hell, I’d live to disappoint them again and again, but this episode remains my favorite since it carries a better layer of charm and innocence.)
In the end, Dad and I would share a Tut experience in 2005 when “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” appeared at LACMA. This time, the entire family made the trek to Wilshire Blvd. Of course, that adventure is marked by Mom loudly saying in the museum foyer, “Hmmm. This all looks smaller than the exhibition your father and I saw in Cairo. You know, in Egypt.” (Hahaha. Yes, we’re THAT family.)
That’s the upshot to the original Tut tale. My globe-trotting parents ventured to the land of the Pharaohs, experiencing an unforgettable view of the Tut treasures and more in Africa. As much as I envy them, I am also proud of my parents, who took their vacations in places far and away. They were our first adventurers, showing us how to explore the world without fear or hesitation. We were tasked to leave our backyards and see what lies beyond a museum brochure or a movie screen. As a result, we’ve also created our brand of history as a family.
Tut would dazzle us a third time in L.A. It’s been 100 years since the discovery of Tut’s tomb. This extensive collection of artifacts, the largest assembly of its kind, will be touring the world to honor the occasion, perhaps the last time they will ever be seen outside of Cairo. Naturally, the city of Los Angeles was selected by the Cairo Museum to host the world premiere of “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharoah” at the California Science Center. Of course, members of my family and I made the journey yet again, and yes, the day is sold out. However, Dad won’t be able to make the trek to the California Science Center with us due to his current health issues. Mom and Neto were also down for the count due to having colds.
My family and I know we don’t need a reason to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “The Adventures of Dad, Jorgito, and the Golden King Tut Ticket of 1978.” It is a bummer to note that the glorious golden mask can no longer leave its home in Egypt. It means our spirit of adventure will have to take us to the heart of the Nile to see the pyramids and Sphinx and give them our best from our parents who stood there in awe and joy many years ago.
What a powerful full circle moment nonetheless, one I will share with Poppadoodles when we return from our visit with El Rey Tut. I am reluctant to write more now as I feel tears building up. I have so much more to say to Dad, from “Remember when?” to “Thank you” to “You were so right!” I’m afraid that conversation has to happen sooner than later and time is no longer on our side.
As my family and I take in these treasures anew, I can’t help but be reminded of the beauty of history. Wherever these essays may rest long after I’m gone, I hope people will appreciate the love and respect that remain hallmarks of my Dad as a parent and a human being. What I hope is unearthed years from now is that our history as father and son, and as the Carreon Family as a whole, was a precious one indeed.
I’ve come to discover that a visit to the doctor with an Alzheimer’s patient is a mini-documentary in itself. I’ve only been to the emergency room with my Dad one time. The bulk of these responsibilities have been with my mom and siblings. It does feel weird to say I was glad I was able to be there for Dad that weekend. It meant not completing interviews at a junket, but he had fallen and hit his head. The urgency in my Mom’s voice was enough of a motivator.
The entire time we were together, I found moments to hold his hand. I modulated my voice to be the sound of reassurance as nurses checked his vitals and, especially when he had a CT scan. That machine was loud and scary enough for us both. In between was a round-robin of the same questions in Spanish, “Where’s Mom? and “How far are we from home?” He rarely if ever speaks to me in English. I loved witnessing his gallantry with his sincere “Thank you’s” as we went from urgent care to the hospital. Funny, he never asked, “Who are you?” I consider that a small blessing and miracle.
In the end, Dad was pronounced healthy and fine. No damage, although the doctor did find evidence of a previous fall that had healed.
A year and a half later, Dad’s visits of late have been a little more challenging. After a struggling with pneumonia in early January of this year, the effects have taken on the dynamics of a luge run during the Olympics. As of late March:
He’s still fighting pneumonia.
He’s having trouble walking.
He may or may not have new spots on his lungs.
His pancreas is swollen.
He is having physical therapy, but he still reluctant to stand tall because it hurts.
He is silent for long stretches.
He sleeps a lot more.
He is a bit more irascible.
He needs a haircut.
He doesn’t want to eat, choosing instead to spit his food out.
He struggles to swallow.
He’s lost seven pounds.
He weighs around 122 lbs.
*He thinks he’s 32 years of age.
*That means my mom is a cougar!
It is comforting to know we aren’t the only family trying to balance all of the emotions and realities of having a parent with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Maintaining a sense of normalcy is our priority. Yes, he lacks control of his bodily functions. He is still Dad in whatever state or phase of the disease he endures. This isn’t the time to mourn him yet.
However, that doesn’t mean frustration is non-existent. I bristle every time I hear my Mom or sibling raise their voice to him. I know what it masks and it isn’t denial. We are adults with ailing parents. The narrative that awaits us all is already scripted. As my mother said to me recently, “I just want to make sure he’s comfortable.”
Oh, and don’t pat Dad’s tummy. He will slap your hand away.
That’s all we can do. That’s all any of us can do. Now, what can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation? Unlike previous generations, we have so many more resources to understand Alzheimer’s and its effects. It is important to be informed and proactive in keeping our loved ones healthy and safe.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, Latinos are “1.5 more times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than whites. Now, we may be living longer, but too many of us are still succumbing to health risks like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, which may all be triggers for Alzheimer’s and stroke-related dementia.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Part of the Latino culture is the propensity to say, “No pasa nada” when it comes to “serious” matters as personal issues like our health. Is it a sense of shame of having things be imperfect in our family? Is it the fear of appearing weak? Is it ordinary pride or vanity? Maybe it is all the above.
My father, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes years before developing Alzheimer’s, owes his extended lifespan because of my mother’s tireless efforts. The woman mobilized into action like Diana Prince and she made a point to include my siblings and me in the process. Mom was prepared in terms of the many questions she asked of his doctors, My younger brother took over the research. My older sister discussed support groups. My younger sister became a caregiver, too. As we now know, two or more lift, feed, carry, wheel, and, fight better than one.
Mom changed the way he ate, removing the foods that were the cause of his diabetes and her high blood pressure. The result? He is now 93 and it wasn’t until this year that the effects of some fantastic medications that slowed down Alzheimer’s to give him 14 more years of quality life. My family did its part to understand this disease, benefiting him and all of us. We have no regrets here. None.
Latinos remain the fasting growing population in this country. Yet, we may see as many as 1.3 million of our people afflicted by Alzheimer’s by 2050. That’s too many. I encourage you all to study, learn, pay attention to all of the signs that could indicate the illnesses that can lead to being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or enduring stroke-related dementia. Be part of the fight. Be part of finding the cure. Remember everything you can for them. It is what keeps our loved ones on this mortal space.
I made a promise to my Dad to remember it all, his journey and ours, for him. And to provide others with a view from within this difficult space. Until a cure is found, more families will be affected by its ravaging effects. No one should feel alone or without recourse! Resources do exist to help and answer the myriad of questions as to how to better control this disease. Be informed!
I have written before that Dad was the keeper of our family lore. To be able to write down these chapters is an honor and privilege. And when the time is right, I will read them to him. I think he’ll approve.
“People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing.” — Will Rogers
“There’s so many things that are hard to hear every day that you do want to have some Oreos, Like people say, ‘what do you invest in during the Trump era?’ I feel like, Hostess Cakes. Most of us are just scared and eating ice cream.” — Judd Apatow in a New York Times interview published on January 14, 2017. “
My turning point towards breaking up with the Sad and Bad Me arrived when I went from labeling 2017 as a “dumpster fire” to a “Trumpster Fire.” As I reflected on how #45 has wreaked havoc on too many people around the world, it magnified the cruel ineptitude of the last three years with the monster I’d become. It was that depressed and self-absorbed version of myself, revealed I possessed no real limit as to the amount of rage I could contain. It became woefully apparent that said rage has permeated even the banalest of conversations between friends or strangers anywhere in the world.
Many of us have seen how it continues to clog our social media feeds. People have no problem unleashing an unholy hell, all captured on our phones and converted into viral videos set in planes, local markets or city streets. Maybe you’re one of those people who chooses to race through red lights in complete disregard of the consequence of a car crash. It doesn’t help that we have a leader who fuels this state of disrespect and divisiveness with a single, expertly composed and timed Tweet. To think this is not all linked to 45’s equally cruel ineptitude is more denial.
Too many of us are taking out our frustrations on other people. At times, if I give in to the news cycle of DC’s newfangled swamp things, I become resolute in believing this nation exists in a state of siege. It became fucking overwhelming, toxic, really. It was time to take stock and ask where my relationship with myself was heading. It was clear something had to be done. If too many of us hate ourselves first, left unchecked, it will spread like cancer to those we care about around us.
That’s what these last years have felt like, at least for me. Once the grief of my aunt’s death from cancer subsided, the lingering anger manifested itself in my punishing myself first, calling myself “fat,” “lazy,” unhappy,” “ugly,” and “unworthy.” I went on to annoy my closest champions by voicing that stagnant reel of complaints on a loop. Worse, I abandoned people altogether, hiding behind my work and family as an excuse. I don’t regret the time I chose to spend with my Dad because Alzheimer’s is enough of a reason to fight for the good that is still a part of him. Yet, my penchant for taking extreme swings left or right is very much at play here. I’ve always been about the “All or Nothing.” I love extremes because I have BIG feelings. As 2017 came to a close, I exhausted myself at last.
I’d exhausted myself as much as I’ve run out of excuses NOT to stay on a healthy track and find the jubilation that comes from being healthy, emotionally and physically. I’d exhausted the well of “Woe is Me,” the one that makes me feel like Eeyore. I never felt like I hit rock bottom, but I did fall close enough to place my palm on its surface. That scared me enough to take action. Again. So, at the behest of my bestie, I joined Weight Watchers. I felt ready to rein in the madness of the last few years and change trajectory. But first, a few admissions:
It isn’t about achieving the Revenge Body (if that’s even thing, no matter what E! Television and Ryan Seacrest may think).
It isn’t about winning back an Ex.
It isn’t about showing my high school friends on Instagram and Facebook how awesome I look on the outside, covering up what ails me most about still being single on the inside.
It isn’t about curating a better social media presence or trolling for more ‘Likes.’
I don’t want to take meds for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol anymore
I don’t want “the Sugars” to claim my eyesight or other body parts like it has with other people I care about.
I don’t want to have a heart attack or stroke like it happened to other people I care about.
I don’t want to feel slow and unable to cope with anything anymore.
I don’t want to die before I have a chance to make good on the many goals I still have ahead.
I don’t want to be skinny.
I want to be healthy and let in a bit more joy and keep the rage from infiltrating every other part of myself.
As I start walking towards being 51 years of age, I accept that the most toxic relationship has really been with myself. It would be so easy to blame the world or even 45. But that would be lying. The choice to eat bad food, overspending, to not exercise and other crutches were all efforts to impress that miserable side of Me. It would be all too easy to change course. What would I be left with to complain about to the world? It is not enough to like the bad boys, we have to be our own reckless suitor in today’s “Fuck It and Fuck You” world, too?
Every Saturday, for as long as it is feasible, I will join my fellow Weight Watchers to learn how not to let life go to “waist.” I will track what I eat, how I move, and how the good choices will impact life for the better. I am breaking up with the bad Me, dammit. He doesn’t get to dictate the terms of what good I can achieve in 2018 and beyond. Deep down, I know it’s not me, not the truest part, that has sequestered my best self in this room of fear. Time to let go of that angry version of Me and step out into what matters most: joy.
Yes, life is going to be that much more complicated and grey. But, we don’t need to add any more rage to the atmosphere. We have enough. Time to add something good, the best part of ourselves that brings out the best in others. That’s how you start a revolution, by forgiving ourselves for being sad, angry, and unfocused. Most of us want to do something good in the world, but it can’t happen by ignoring what is perceived as “depressing” or thinking “What’s it going to matter?” It matters. A lot. Too many of us are hanging by thread. We need to take control of our own joy. Let it inspire you first, then others will follow. That’s a trickle-down theory that can work. Besides, when it comes to struggles, being healthy means having the strength to face the tough spots with grace.
And know this: Healthier, informed people means more of us can fight the good fight to take back what I know matters to many of us: life.
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.
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…
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.
Dad was a big fan of Glen Campbell. That these formidable men have been afflicted by Alzheimer’s is still tough to fathom. Today, Mr. Campbell succumbed to this disease. He leaves behind generations of fans, a loving and supporting family and a legacy of art that is without compare.
I will never forget the sound of his music playing over the car radio as my family and I drove through the Southwestern desert on our way to visit family to Mexico in the early 1970s. My Dad would hum along, tapping the steering wheel, offering back-up. It was a late night, our family Impala cutting its path through the star-filled darkness. Dad didn’t know I was awake, his silent co-pilot, determined to remember it all.
Years later, before Mr. Campbell retired from touring, my siblings and I took Dad to see him perform live at the Pala Casino outside of San Diego. His own family shared the stage, with his daughter carefully guiding her legendary father through the songs. I remember holding back tears as my father smiled and tapped along to the music, clearly engaged by the Campbell musical experience like it was those many nights long ago.
Both men were in the throes of dealing with Alzheimer’s at that moment, never knowing what they had in common that evening. That one of these two men is no longer with us fills me with a surge of fills me with a surge of emotion. I am very blessed t still have my father in my life, despite the hardships of this disease. While Dad was far from being a rhinestone cowboy or a Wichita lineman, he still towers in my heart and life. And the music created by Mr. Campbell? It is a shame I can’t tell him it will forever be something so profound and poignant for my family and myself, now and forever. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, for leaving us this gift, too.
As posted on the Glen Campbell website: “In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Glen Campbell Memorial Fund at BrightFocus Foundation through the CareLiving.org donation page.
Are we crazy? Living our lives through a lens Trapped in our white picket fence Like ornaments So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble Aren’t you lonely Up there in utopia Where nothing will ever be enough? Happily numb So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble
Leave it to Miss Katy Perry to inspire this return of DAHFGM. Her performance at the Grammy Awards presentation was marked by a singular theme: To Persist.
With the first weeks of #45 leaving an acrid taste in our mouths, or at least in the mouths of the sane, I found myself losing a sense of forward momentum. By week 2, I was wondering if I was stupid for even trying to diet during a time where my emotional triggers were being pulled on the daily. By week 3, I was nearly laid up with a respiratory infection that had me coughing like an old Parisian whore with consumption. It was then that I started not wanting to document a damn thing.
My Facebook page was littered with a constant stream of my own rage against the #45 machine and it was gumming up my inner works. So, I shut down Facebook and I shut down my own train of thought to find some much needed clarity and focus again. In short, I needed to find the means to persist with this choice to improve my health.
It is the start of week 4 and here is the latest:
Glucose Reading: 156
I’ve managed to shed just over 10 lbs. so far. It was 12 as of Friday, but the return from my trip to Baltimore, a side trip to Palm Springs and the brunch celebrating my Dad’s 92nd birthday did prove to have its effects in the end. What it had going for me was my ability to NOT reach for “those foods which will not be named.”
I brought unsalted, raw walnuts, pistachios and pepitas along with dried broccoli florets with me as snacks to Baltimore. I ate fish or chicken, scrambled egg whites and veg for as many meals as possible, filling in the gaps with protein bars and fruit. And water, lots of water. To discover the joys of Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken in Maryland was enough to make me to click on Lyft for a lunch run on a really cold Thursday afternoon before I started interviews on a new film project. That heavenly steak at the Woodberry Kitchen on the last night with the EPK crew was the stuff of dreams, but also the fast track to feeling bloated for two days. Haha. But it was so worth it.
Saturday was my big, bold, bear adventure to Palm Springs and the IBC events at the Hard Rock Hotel. I jokingly referred to friends as it being “My Big Bear Puta Weekend,” but suffice it to say the only putas were the ones ignoring me and my attempts at being an object of desire. Instead, I was the object of one hilariously drunk senior’s determination to get the attention of the overwhelmed bartender at Hunter’s so I could have a club soda. This is after a young cub from Rochester told me that he was leaving my side to go get his “flirt on” — with someone else.
For a brief shining moment, this super hot gent from San Francisco seemed to prefer me to the evening’s SNL cold opening. Sadly, the thumping bass of 70s disco was the only bump and grind that was going to happen for me that night. SF Guy showed me a text from his ex, who also happened to staying in a different room at the Hard Rock: “I need my boy’s butt.” Needless to say, he and his butt answered the call.
Going home the next morning, I felt a bit dejected and adrift. It was a familiar friend, attempting to road dog with me with a determination that I take pills to eliminate. The pills put up a good fight, though. It ain’t easy being “good and bougie” in a crowd that prefer the exact opposite. I’ve always tried too hard to fit my particular brand of gay into a category that is so decidedly NOT me. Case in point, the first thing I saw when I entered the Thunderdome of the IBC pool party was a portly millennial sporting a tee with emblazoned with this legend: “I’m only here for the gang bang.” Yeah. I wasn’t about to add my own brand of special flavor to the bubbling hirsute smoothie that afternoon. I knew from that moment that this act of persistence was one that needed to be shed along with my obsession with King Taco carnitas burritos with salsa roja y queso cotija.
Celebrating Dad’s 92nd birthday at this fantastic eatery called Salazar in the Frogtown section of LA restored a lot of good. The tears that welled up in his eyes when we sung “Happy Birthday” were just wonderful to behold. Alzheimer’s Dad was not present. My true Dad was very much with us and cherishing every smile and kiss he received from my family. I couldn’t help but hug him for being the sentimental person he’s always tucked carefully inside his strict demeanor and Old World gentlemanly values.
Palm Springs faded into the past and I returned to my regular life of forward motion. And, eating that sugar free cake, plus the horchata with Stumptown coffee were well worth the splurge in light of the kale salad with grilled chicken, yams and queso fresco I consumed, despite the envy I felt eyeing everyone else’s choices at the table. (Dude, the chilaquiles that Dad enjoyed were TEMPTATION on a plate.)
Today is Monday, and a few things have rattled my own sense of self, which I don’t want to rehash as there is no point. Numbers were a little up from Friday, but all that rises does fall with little effort when I try. Especially when it comes to losing weight. The power lies in being able to persist.
Bringing this back to Katy Perry’s new track, “Chained to the Rhythm,” it is easy to find yourself trapped in a bubble of your own making. We get safe. We get lost. We free ourselves. We get scared. We return to the safety of the bubble. It is a very easy way to live. And no, we often don’t see the trouble until it is too late.
Last night, I slept in fits and starts, feeling this strange tightness in my chest. I still feel it now. Perhaps it’s one more tape of negative thinking I still need to purge in order to reach a peak of wellness, one that I will sustain for the rest of my life.
I hadn’t felt this sense of loneliness in a while. It’s on par with feeling left behind at times. This roller coaster we’re all on right now is shaking so many of us to our very cores. It is gratifying to see that so many of us are questioning our place in the world. At the same time, many of us are questioning our own journeys towards a revised self-awareness and true enlightenment. We want to break free of the bubble, to persist despite the efforts of many who prefer our silence. So I will continue with these missives, self-absorbed or not.
It should be so damn easy, being able to feel happy, healthy and eager to partake of this thing called life. Why hide? Why lie? Why feel lonely? Why be addicted? Why be the subtle shade of beige? These are truths I seek. Not for myself, but to share with as many people who have the same questions. At some point, I won’t think twice about the things I choose to ingest anymore, either. That is why it is important to persist. That is why it is important to resist.
It is time for the many to be amongst the already woke lions. Myself, included.
It is my desire Break down the walls to connect, inspire, ay Up in your high place, liars Time is ticking for the empire The truth they feed is feeble As so many times before They greed over the people They stumbling and fumbling And we about to riot They woke up, they woke up the lions
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.
Mi nombre es Jorge. En el barrio de mi nacimiento, todavía soy “George,” pero ya no me identifico come ese muchacho del ayer. Soy Jorge, pero no soy el original. Yo soy el segundo Jorge porque llevo ell nombre de mi padre. Mi madre quería llamarme Alejandro pero nací para llevar la marca de ser el primer hombre en una familia sencilla. El orgullo me nombró, no la poesía o el romance.
Llevar el nombre de mi padre tiene una gran responsabilidad. Como todas las cosas buenas, los griegos inventaron “Jorge.” Per mis padres Jorge y Lilia Carreón Ramirez crearon esta versión. El origen de mi nombre representa lo que es un granjero o una persona que cultiva la tierra. Ni siquiera puedo cuidar una planta. Sin embargo, esto me dirige a usar una metáfora. Las palabras son lo que yo cultivo porque soy periodista. Yo cuento las historias de personas que tú conoces para ver en la tele o leer en la Internet. Creo que eso me hace un granjero de los medios.
Siendo el segundo Jorge de mi familia es una historia diferente, una historia que no llevo a contar al mundo. Nunca pensé que mi padre y yo teníamos muchas características en común. Siempre estuvimos en una guerra de ideología. Ahora soy mayor y empiezo a darme cuenta de lo que tenemos en común. Como la mayoría de los hombres latinos, vivimos en nuestros recuerdos. Es como si fuéramos granjeros cultivando la tierra que da vida a nuestro´árbol genealógico.
Ahora mi padre está enfermo. Su mente está borrándose lentamente en una manera insidiosa. Un día no voy a ser el segundo Jorge, pero el primero. Es por eso que tengo que recordar todo relacionado con él y con nosotros. Porque ser Jorge es mas que compartir el mismo nombre de mi padre. Ser Jorge es vivir como el conservador de la historia de mi familia.
Porque anoche, al final de la fiesta de cumpleaños de mi hermana mayor, mi padre se olvidó de mi por la primera vez. Me dio su mano, como si yo fuera un desconocido, no su hijo mayor, no el que lleva su nombre. En ese momento, si cambio todo porque reconocí que sí, mi nombre contiene poesía y romance.
Porque llegó el día de ser Jorge el primero.
Domingo 28 de septiembre 2014. En mi casa en South Pasadena, CA
My name is Jorge. People still call me “George,” especially in the neighborhood where I grew up, located in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles. I’m Jorge, but I’m not the First. I am the Second Jorge because I carry my father’s name, a junior version. My mom wanted to name me “Alejandro,” but I was born to carry the name of our patriarch, the first boy born of immigrants in their new country. Pride named me, not a sense of poetry or romance.
To carry your father’s name is a huge responsibility. Like all good things on this earth, it was the Greeks who invented Jorge. But my parents, Jorge and Lilia Carreon Ramirez, created this version. The origin of my name is supposed to mean “farmer” or a person who cultivates the ground. I can’t even take care of a plant. Regardless, this does lead me to use a metaphor. I cultivate words and images because I am a journalist. I tell the stories about people you know to watch on TV or read on the Internet. Maybe that makes me a farmer with the media as my expanse of land to nurture?
Being Jorge the Second is a different story, one I never intended to tell to the world. Not really. Yet reasons exist why I can admit that I never thought my father and I had much in common. We were always locked in a battle of ideology. Now that I am older, I see what we do share and it is more than the name. Like all Latino men, we live in our memories. It is as if we are a special brand of cultivators, tasked with the preservation of our family trees.
My father has Alzheimer’s. His mind is slowly being erased in the most insidious manner. Since the day he was diagnosed, I knew that at some point I would no longer be Jorge the Second, but the First. That is why I have to record all that is Us before his files are completely emptied of data.
Because being Jorge is not just sharing the same name.
Being Jorge is living as the chief chronicler of my family.
Because last night, at the end of my older sister’s birthday party, my father forgot who I was to him.
He offered me his hand to shake, smiling and saying “It was nice meeting you.” Sure, it was a polite and friendly gesture. He meant it. That was the version of Jorge for when he met people he liked. But it was more than that, because I recognized that my name does carry poetry and romance.
Last night, I became Jorge the First.
Sunday, September 28. Posted in Spanish and English from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA