“Too many people in this room,” he thought. “Again.”
It was getting late. 6 pm, to be exact, everything would shut down at the factory.
“Closing time,” he’d like to say.
The sun going down was the best alarm system ever devised for Dad. It meant quiet would be restored. It was the time when he felt most relaxed, when the world, his world, was in order. Dad sensed someone approaching. He prepared for impact.
“Hi, Uncle George!” the Person said excitedly.
Dad instinctually knew which of his smiles to engage.
He had quite the array of smiles in his arsenal; some were broad, others were veiled politeness. They were never fake or insincere. This one smile was one of his most appreciated because it had genuine warmth, even if he didn’t quite know the source of its heat.
Dad also learned a while ago that speaking in Spanish was always the best way to keep contact with short.
“If you gave them too much,” he reasoned, “they’ll stay too long.”
Communicating with people was never this hard, or maybe it was? How long had this been his “new normal?” Everything felt so hazy these days as if his mind was processing photocopies with very little ink.
Sometimes, the images before him (memories?) were shockingly bright, with each color pushing its vibrancy to the limit. It was then he couldn’t help but smile. He could see his world so clearly, shapes and figures that felt so familiar and real. Most of the time, he witnessed an expanse of grey that threatened to dominate everything. Not today, though.
Dad used to miss the “beautiful noise,” as he’d called it before he got “sick.” It still happened from time to time, and he recognized it. That once beautiful din was often too loud now, and it scared him, something that had never happened before. For Dad, this human tidal wave of sounds, letters, and languages pulled him under without a floatation device. He couldn’t begin to sort it out, taking his breath away when a room full of people reached its audible peak.
Dad was well aware something was wrong with his brain. He’d known for some time that things were off. Mom was still a mental constant, as was Sis. They offered him two of the few respites from the long days waiting for “quitting time” to arrive.
“Oh my god! Uncle George looks so good!” said Another Figure.
“This one was more excitable than the other,” Dad thought. Still, something in her face made him feel the need to offer more than one of his pre-fab smiles.
“Bien! Bien!” Dad offered as he excitedly patted this Person’s hand for extra measure.
Of all his Old World manners and gestures, the hand pat was his most friendly, the one he only used with people that meant a great deal to him. Perhaps the criteria had slipped a bit of late, but the importance of it hadn’t waned. Not yet, anyway.
More people arrived, breaking his repose. Suddenly, Dad’s leather lounge chair felt like a steel trap. He wanted to leave, but where?
“I know I’m still me,” he thought. A surge of emotion was rising in his brain, a lava-like substance that took very little time to heat and explode.
“Dad’s eyes are looking tense,” Someone said.
“He’s going to start kicking people out!” Someone else added.
“I’m not angry!” Dad wanted to shout.
He didn’t feel sure about who everyone was in the room. His eyes darted furiously about the den, desperately trying to find the familiar faces of Mom and Sis, but they weren’t around. That made him panic ever so slightly, the color of his eyes shifting from their charming hazel shade to something foreboding and stormy.
“Hace mucho ruido! Tanto ruido. Chingados!” Dad said to no one in particular.
For the record, Dad NEVER swore. In any language. But a long-buried archive of Spanish language profanities had since been unearthed. All bets were off as to when Dad would decide to access it.
“It’s so much better when it’s quiet. Don’t these people know?” he heard from within his fussy and uncooperative mind.
It felt like these words were tumbling forth. Dad could feel his mouth moving, forming a declarative sentence that could restore order, but it was futile. Even if he did manage to say something, it would not have been discernable to anyone. All they would hear was a defeated sigh from the man they came to visit and love as he settled deeper into the isolating safety of his leather armchair.
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:
Being a child of the 80s, the message of having it all seemed so easy to process. You went to school. You received a degree. You landed that dream job. Life was set. Easy peasy. Right?
I went to three schools, no degree. I did land a dream job, several. Life has been rather complicated thanks to my lack of financial restraint and other demons I have yet to truly conquer. But I’m trying, dammit. I’m trying.
I made a comment to my boss about making it only to “the middle.” Of course, he was annoyed that I am inferring that all of my hard work as a producer since 1999 only carried me as far as his company. That’s not why I meant. Not in the least. I’ve never felt more creative or expressed myself as well as I do as an interviewer these days. Hell, I tend to get a hug after every interview these days. Even from the men.
So what the fuck? Why do I feel like the sky is falling every damn day?
I’m single. Who isn’t?
I’m fat. Who isn’t?
My dad is dying.
Is it too late to change careers? Am I lying to myself thinking I can set up shop at the Vogue offices of London or Mexico City?
Can I go back to school and finish that damned degree once and for all?
My dad is dying.
And no one in my family has been able to think about life after Dad yet. Not even me, but the task is something I am grappling with now. I have questions, too. Is it going to feel like a house of bricks crashing all over us? Will it be followed by a sense of relief? Will it be followed by the sound of siblings running to the four corners of the world? Will we finally be able to be civil with each other and not let our toxicity spoil the soup? Is it all too late for that to happen?
I hear their not so hidden anger in the constant stream of critiques and judgments that dominate our dinner table. I sit and marvel these days, thinking, “These are the people that have my back?” Still, how can we shield ourselves from any sort of attacks when most are happening from within our own house? Dad wouldn’t want to see us this way. Mom doesn’t like it either, but she’s ground zero at times.
Our entire narrative has been penned with our Dad as the central figure. We do our duty, giving Mom a much-needed break where we can. Yet, how is it possible that I feel guilty for not wanting to be around any of them, that I am kind of hanging on to a thread of sanity right now. I should go back into therapy, something to diffuse the atom bomb that I carry in my brain right now. I am eating to stay silent, but I feel my body is in full revolt right now. It is literally slowing down. Every move, every reaction, it’s life in forced perspective.
And that’s not supposed to be the Mexican way. Oh no, we’re supposed to that warm, united front of good humor and great food. Allow me to dispel that concept. It is total BULLSHIT. You had to be that group when the family lived in the hacienda, where great swaths of land dividing us from other families and communities. You know what makes the Mexican family survive? A lot of us drink and eat… to forget the lives we can’t seem to leave. While it feels great to see that sentence, yes, it is followed by a strong wave of guilt.
I think about putting such distance between me and my LA life a lot now. It seems like I want to pioneer a life that doesn’t require facing the past or a present that only makes me wince.
So, what’s going to be the narrative of my Act II? It starts when the lead character, Me, reaches out for help. That’s what I am doing, reaching out for help and guidance. I can’t do this alone. No one can. The time does arrive when you have to release the side of yourself that stops you from harming yourself and others in the wake of the blast of an emotional bomb.
The woman crossing Atlantic Blvd. on the cusp of East L.A. smoking a cigarette. Did I mention she was pregnant?
The sounds of Dad shuffling across the living room to get a good seat and listen to the family chisme being dished out in big, heaping soundbites. He’d call this “the Beautiful Noise” in life B.A. (Before Alzheimer’s).
Nancy starring as the G’rilla from Manila at the BBQ rig for our last-minute family brunch.
Neto acting like he had Dengue Fever, but oh-so awake and eager to contribute to the chisme and chatter on such topics as “Why the new Roseanne series is ‘relevant’ or a ‘piece of shit.'”
Buying a foulard at the Versace boutique in the Design District in a bid to honor the great Gianni while having the clerk whisper to me that he is also an actor and model.
Being asked at Estefan Kitchen in Miami if I had a reservation for a late lunch even though entire place was nearly empty.
Discovering after interviewing great Nicky Jam that we have a lot more in common, like our battles with being members of the clean plate club.
Reuniting with Gin-Gin and getting ridiculous at Versailles in Little Havana over plates lechon and picking up where we left off, the true mark of a touchstone friend and savior.
Meeting two teen girls from NJ at LAX before our delayed VA flight to NYC and chatting like we were BFF’s while being surrounded by soap opera legends from GH heading to NJ for a fantasy weekend. It was no BFD for the girls yet it was for their moms as they texted them with pics, OMG!
Watching a sumptuous revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center, feeling emotional at listening to this glorious score by Lerner & Lowe, thinking how Dad saw the original production with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews during his life as a young man in the U.S. and understanding why he loves theater as much as me.
Sitting watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, desperately trying to suppress the emotion swells as Harry and his son Albus fought their way to understand each other, just like how I fought with my Dad.
Sharing some of the most important parts of my life with Nan in NYC, hanging with Karen and Stevie and hearing her effortlessly become one of this group storied group of friends who mean the world to me.
Powering through sleep deprivation and jet lag and failed not to “fag out” before interviewing several of my screen heroines on a Sunday afternoon in Hollywood, especially the wonderful Candice Bergen.
Even as life deals you some difficult moments, you have to stop and look around you to acknowledge the wonderful that still occurs. And that’s good enough in a world that is all about the hustle and flow.
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.
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.
So let me take you by the hand, and lead you in this dance
It’s what I got, because I took a chance
I don’t wanna rule the world, just wanna run my life
From “Control” by Janet Jackson
Glucose Reading: 102
I recently gave myself a little test on control around the start of week 7. I wanted to see if I could enjoy a snack of raw walnuts without turning this tasty, crunchy treat into a marathon of eating my feelings at a single sitting.
Guess what? I failed.
It’s a subtle test, trying to limit yourself to “enough.” I’ve never been good with “enough.” I’m all about “more.” I wolfed down half of that damn bag of walnuts on the drive away from Trader Joe’s. I didn’t even try to wait and make it home! The mania surged in that familiar way is staggering because it is uncontrollable. It’s this powerful sense of hunger, of feeding this ravenous, desperate beast that can’t seem to be sated. It scares the shit out of me, this feeling of “more.”
I had this flashback to when I was a kid, this one afternoon when my dad took me to Baskin-Robbins for a treat. I was down for an ice cream cone, but when we got to the store, I changed my mind and eagerly asked for a pineapple shake. Dad bought it, but when we were in the car, he turned to me and said something that struck me as odd at the time. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something along these lines:
“Whenever you go with someone to a place like Baskin-Robbins and they offer to buy you something, don’t just pick something expensive. You never know if they have enough to pay.”
My dad was always trying to instill in me this lesson on frugality, which I never heeded. Not until it was too late and even then I still could do better. The consequences of my errant ways with money are on par with my eating disorder. I can’t consume — or spend — enough. It always had to be more…for me. Looking back, I realize that my dad went without so I could enjoy that frosty treat. He didn’t have enough for us both. Two cones yes. A cone and shake? No. I don’t even think I shared it with him. Irony? We’re both diabetic and can’t have such sugary drinks anymore.
Every time I go anywhere with my dad today, I think about these selfish moves I pulled on him, of my lack of control to put such machinations aside. That is why I work extra hard to make sure he feels so cared for and appreciated whenever we go out together. It doesn’t wipe away how awful I was to him all those years ago. I don’t want to be redeemed in that respect. It’s my own issue to reconcile. However, I do want him to know that I was able to control my own wicked tendencies in the end, that I listened and took his lesson to heart.
I’ve been trying to compose this diary entry for several days now. Talk about a lack of control. More like a lapse in focus as my career reaches one of its many rises we all experience throughout the year in productivity. A few things have happened of late, some of which have nothing to do with my current weight loss journey, yet the theme of control is not far behind.
While I continue this struggle to stop letting my emotions tyrannize my health, I’ve been scanning my motivations in other areas for similar problems, too. Like my relationships. I learned after my break-up with the Ex that you can’t control or maneuver someone into becoming the person YOU think they should become. It strangled the life out of our relationship. While it was a bitter lesson in the end, true to form, it remained a lesson I didn’t seem to want to heed. The results of trying to control ALL relationships can come undone.
I’m not sure how to explore this situation as a diary post at the moment. I can only say that my intentions were honorable, but realities exist when you all of your worlds collide together. Is it worth compromising one’s rust. Worse, what do you do when the view from the other side is disturbing to you, cold and unwarranted.
Part of me recognizes how much control I’ve given people over my interests, values and decisions these many years. I’ve let it rule me to not so great effect, allowing for real regrets to be honest. I could chalk it up to wanting to be liked, of wanting to be the peacekeeper, but really it was an evasion from reality. I think up better narratives than the ones I live or at least I’ve convinced myself of that. Complaining is so second nature to me, I often wonder if it, too, is just a manifestation of my inability to live an honest, contented life.
My desire to wrest control back of late has not been without its roiling points and it’s made me question more than just how I live my life. I was never going to be an industry player. I was never a shark in that regard. It has been a struggle, changing how I perceive my career and its importance in defining myself. I am privileged to be with people who see beyond the false trappings of the entertainment industry. They seek to nourish themselves in ways that is comprised of real sustenance, of seeking knowledge on things that make us question our world as we live it. That is what crave so much more these days.
If you recognize the foods that can cause you harm, you avoid them, right? But how far do you go with people, no matter if they are well intended or not? How do you reconcile the changes you are going through with those who are in a state of arrested development? As I continue on this journey toward wellness, I will continue to ask myself these questions. Whatever the answers, I do know they will be achieved on my terms.
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.