The Armchair Tale

The Armchair Tale

 

“Too many people in this room,”  he thought. “Again.”

It was getting late. 6 pm to be exact, the hour where 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.

Hola!”

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 his speaking in Spanish was always the best way to keep contact with short.

“If you gave them too much,” he’d reasoned to himself, “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.

Some times, 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 was a witness to 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, his recognizing it.  That once beautiful din was often too loud now, and it scared him, something that 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 all 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 to himself. 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 making its way to his brain, a lava-like substance that took very little time to heat and explode forth.

“Dad’s eyes are looking tense,” Someone said.

Hija? Hermana?

“He’s going to start kicking people out!” Someone else added.

Hijo? Hermano?

“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.

Eulogy for My Dad or #Poppadoodlesforever

Eulogy for My Dad or #Poppadoodlesforever

IMG_7617My 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.

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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. 

IMG_2403When 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:

Alzheimer’s Los Angeles: https://www.alzheimersla.org

Alzheimer’s Association: https://www.alz.org/

Hilarity for Charity: https://hilarityforcharity.org/

From the mind of an Hermana Coraje…

From the mind of an Hermana Coraje…

“I’m glad I cleaned the house today,” she thought in her best Lady Macbeth fashion. “Too many damn cobwebs. Out damn memories.”

She’d contemplated burning some sage but settled on removing old totems from the past as being enough. Finding the photos of “that other family” triggered this latest “limpiada,” a lesson taught by her mother.

“The best way to get rid of the past,” her Mamá Coraje once said, “is to believe it never happened at all.”

Rewriting history was a family skill so well-honed, even Orwell would blanch out of shame. For the Coraje women, lies were irradiated truths. Truths were best regarded as lies told by those who only wanted to destroy their gossamer veneer of perfection. The singular male Coraje — the son or brother  — seemed to lack the focus required. He was a man-boy with feet of clay, desperate to be liked and loved, lacking integrity and grit.

Adept at creating her own reality since youth, this particular Coraje sister didn’t even break a sweat at the effort anymore. Ignoring events, people, the color of her skin, her family’s lower-middle-class reality, it didn’t faze her in the least. She chose to dance on the jagged edge, to remain a beautiful liar en pointe. Yet, the years were now revealing their own subtle truths, manifested in her stick-thin figure and the frozen look of bitter disappointment on her face. Whatever beauty or character was erased now.

It was seeing a photo of her mother with her American-born cousins that triggered this bolt of divine inspiration as she finished cleaning. She’d send the found photos to their original owners. It would be easier to simply place them in the trash.

La basura se junta,” Mamá Coraje would say about people who had lost their use to her.

Another pair of trembling hands would soon hold the plain manila envelope she’d carefully filled with photos covering several years from what was now a different lifetime. The note? Benign in its phrasing, but packing a wallop that would reverberate beyond several area codes: “I thought you could use these.” Its simplicity was almost too perfect! Minimum effort for maximum damage, this bread & butter note written with the same intent as a “Thank you” card or a grocery list.

Would she know that sending this package would elicit feelings of anger and rage? Would she know that emptying her house of what was once treasure would be deemed callous and heartless? That the question of “Who does this?” would be muttered via texts and phone calls and several lunchtime conversations? The frozen smiles captured in these wrinkled black & whites and torn color images belied something she would never allow herself to acknowledge: her own feelings of malignant envy.

As la Hermana Coraje transported the sealed envelope to the post office, she reflected on the scorched earth demeanor of the Corajes. It was a cold feeling, cold and lonely and terrifying in its power. Was this too much? Had she gone too far? But she caught herself before any rationality or humanity could take root. Gripping the steering wheel of her sensible Japanese car, a trace of a smile revealed itself as she accelerating on the gas.

“Dad”

“Dad”

Dad: How far is your house from here?

Me: About 14 miles.

Dad: I’m tired. I think you should go.

Me: But I promised Mom I’d watch you.

Dad: Where’s Mom?

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.

Me: Okay.

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…

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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.

 

“How to Be a Hermana Coraje” (or “11 Ways to Destroy a Marriage!”)

“How to Be a Hermana Coraje” (or “11 Ways to Destroy a Marriage!”)

Struck with the fever to clean my online house, I finally got around to deleting some files from my Drafts folder on MediaJor.com. These were unfinished essays that seemed like great ideas at the time but never really flourished for whatever reason. Imagine my utmost thrill to find one particularly glorious remembrance of days past. Oof. I guess I forgot about it or maybe I calmed down enough NOT to get involved in the escalating drama that inspired me to write something. It still makes me say, “Wow.” Reading it again made my skin crawl, particularly since it’s a fetid example of this Age of Rage we are living in. 

This post harkens back to the Fall of 2014, which was when I had the brilliant idea of writing a coda to the now infamous “Hermanas Coraje” series.  Coraje means “angry” in Spanish, itself a joke and a play on a famed Mexican telenovela known as “Los Hermano Coraje,” which I loved watching with Mom when I was a kid. 

The essays were intended to be a means to an end, of dealing with the painful consequences stemming from my aunt’s battle and demise from cancer in 2014. It seemed to help to turn certain relatives into characters in a Mexican telenovela. Adding fuel to the fire was the endless back and forth of these covertly shared texts and Emails from the so-called Coraje sisters, exchanges my warring cousins that personified Latino Drama and then some. I wasn’t at a loss for inspiration to keep this serial going for a while. However, this entire exercise proved to be anything but a laughing matter in the end. 

The essays I penned got angrier and angrier as my family’s situation deteriorated further and further. Each new text or Email was like a bomb going off and no one was spared from the shrapnel. Today, we’re still living with the injuries inflicted on both sides, which ultimately destroyed all of the tropes of the unified Latino family in the process. 

The first coda I attempted to write was an attempt to get away from Ground Zero, one that was a direct result of what became the last secret Email I would receive. I say “last” because the contents of this particular letter filled me with such contempt, I asked to be taken off the CC list altogether. I also decided to end my imagined telenovela on MediaJor.

The real hermanas Coraje were at their conjoined peak of “But we’re real the victims here!,” which was quite a feat since we had already buried my aunt. Make no mistake. These women were the actual instigators, the lead stirrers of one big cosmic pot of rancid menudo. The elder Coraje sister saw it fit to fire off a truly evil Email to her soon to-be ex-sister in-law, a punch thrown so low it hit the family at its lowest point. Our collective grief was turned into absolute rage again.

Given the way most families work, it was a matter of time before the contents of this destructive Email made their way around to the rest of us. We had an inkling as to the involvement of the sisters Coraje in wrecking their brother’s marriage. Their grotesque agenda of revenge and acrimony turned their brother’s wife into a member of our family. Yes, the family split and sides were taken. We sought to at least be a sounding board, but we turned into a means of emotional support as her marriage broke apart. Yet, we really had NO idea just how far the Sisters C were willing to go in ensuring her destruction.

Revisiting this letter, it was obvious that only making grammatical corrections would not be enough. Whether or not the entire family views this essay, it is just smart to only keep the emotional intent of the original note to protect the innocent and guilty and not retain any of the original text. So yes, I did rewrite the entire thing to best fit this essay. Also, note the “countersteps” have been fictionalized, too. While Hermano C’s ex-wife did offer her own rather pointed rebuttals, again, it would not prudent for me to air them out with the rest of the dirty laundry. 

To read the original post was to almost hear the elder Coraje sister slamming the keys on her insidious PC. Each hit nailed a coffin shut, forever keeping out any light, love and all things human from a couple’s union. Vengeance would be mine if I left it as is to give readers a better sense of the epic pendejismo of it all. Trust me, this collection of twisted maneuvers was devised by someone who has been burned by life one too many times.

In the two years since we ceased all communication with the Corajes, I’ve realized theirs is a house built on a foundation of resentment. They’ve done nothing but shift the blame for their imagined woes onto other people. I have zero respect for those who prefer to exist within the Cult of Victimhood. All of this makes me want to subtitle this post as “Own Your Shit!”  But, perhaps ours is a life lesson that can do us all some good, which is what led me to revisit this essay one more time…

They’re baaack. And not without leaving a few commandments behind for good measure. In fact, I should thank Las Hermanas Coraje for the wealth of material they’ve inspired me to compose. They’re web spinners and string pullers, the most cowardly roles to undertake when it comes to fucking shit up. These aren’t people who carry baseball bats to deal with shit. They prefer to do the side step as deftly as Charles Durning in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!”

Regardless, no matter how you choose to meddle in people’s lives, wreckage will be left behind. A broken family will find the means with which to pull itself back together, but it is never really mended. The cracks are there to see forever, just like the words used to inflict the most damage possible in this digital age.

That said if you still want to know how YOU, too, can be a Hermana Coraje, follow their simple rules listed below. As for their ex-sister-in-law, bless her for having rebuttals at the ready, reminding us all that for every action you will experience an often equal or even stronger reaction:

Step 1: “Tell her to get back to work!”

Counterstep: I have NEVER stopped working. I am not sure what your brother, my husband, tells you. He’s probably — and conveniently — NOT telling you that I pay my share of thousands of dollars in household expenses, too. If either of you need a reminder, keep advising him in the manner you seem to think fit. I’ll show you the receipts.

Step 2: “Move your ass and starting talking to the lawyer and find out how you can protect yourself!”

Counterstep: That’s right, let someone else do the dirty work. As if no one will ever notice the stains on your hands.

Step 3: “DO NOT give her permission to exchange ANY information with the lawyer.”

Counterstep: What? Permission? Since you see fit to meddle in our marriage do you think I’m NOT going to know what crap advice you continue to give my husband? For the record, I’m reading this Email, too!

Step 4: “DO NOT reply to Isela’s email She’s either trying to flirt or dig up info!”

Counterstep: Isela is a friend, a real friend. She’s not part of the Vibora club like you and your sister. She’s just concerned about both of us as this entire situation goes from bad to worse. Honestly, why do you even care?  Or is all of this really about YOU?

Step 5: “DO NOT go to the meeting with the realtor. And for the record, why are you even thinking about going?

Counterstep: We have to deal with the house as that’s OUR home to deal with and not yours. It’s the house where you were welcomed but are now both having to LEAVE because of you.

Step 6: “Stand up for yourself! Move on!”

Counterstep: How can he move on when you’re the one writing the map?

Step 7: “Be a man! Don’t be some little boy doing what mama tells him to do!”

Counterstep: And what is it that YOU’RE doing now with this awful Email?

Step 8: “Tell her you will respond that text from the ex-girlfriend. The one we liked.”

Counterstep: Oh, that’s being mature. As if his texting his Ex is going to cause real damage. YOU made this happen, dear. Not me. YOU. Remember that.

Step 9: “Remember that everyone we know and knows you think you’re awesome. Just not your wife!”

Counterstep: I never stopped believing he was awesome until you and your sister poisoned the well and ruined us.

Step 10: “The marriage counselor said most of the money from your remaining sessions can be refunded. You won’t face a loss!”

Counterstep: We’ll never know. You took away any real chance for us to find out if we could fix things. All you’ve done is make sure they stayed broken.

Step 11: “She only wants access to your financials to mess you up. Are you stupid enough to just hand this info over to her?”

Counterstep: Spoken like a woman who’s never been in a marriage. I have a secret: Spouses are SUPPOSED to know each other’s “financials.”

I really hope you’re pleased with yourself. You’ve prided yourself on being an actress, another lie the family believes. You’ve been nothing but a bit player all these years, always in the background. I never would have guessed the best role of your tiny “career” was to be the lead player in ruining my marriage. Was it worth it taking center stage this way? You always referred to yourself as the big Catholic. Let this weigh heavy on your soul because I believe you will be paid back in full when it’s your marriage. That’s my curse for you.

Since you took it upon yourself to write this list of “steps” for my husband, I will make sure to keep them on hand for the future in case you or anyone in the family needs a “reminder.” Better yet, I’ll keep them in a safe place for our kids so they can read them one day. After all, isn’t what family does best, sharing everything?
You’re welcome.

Your sister-in-law under God’s law forever…

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Two years have passed. That note was the last we heard of Las Hermanas Coraje. In the end, this once star-crossed couple lost their house. No one earned a real dime from its sale, so the said “financials” were never improved. The ex Mrs. Coraje moved on with their kids to a new home and life.  Meanwhile, the entire bitter lot of siblings are now existing under one deluded roof, just like when their dad lost their business and was forced to move them in with an uncle, the very family they would turn their back on in the most callous manner.

I am loathed to report that they’re still playing their pueblito games, too. So much for growth and maturity. But, I will never forget the elder Coraje‘s parting shot. I still can’t believe the nasty tone and manipulation found in that note. But the worst part? It’s just pathetic to know the Coraje brother’s balls are still being kept by his sisters.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the final chapter. The Resurrection of Las Hermana Coraje? After all, writers are encouraged to “write what they know.” Well, the author of this family’s narrative is God himself. I suspect even he would need major encouragement to pen a revision.

“Signed, The Desayuno Club” or “Vida y Muerte”

“Signed, The Desayuno Club” or “Vida y Muerte”

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.

Because, we are life.

Signed, the Desayuno Club

 

“I Resolve to…Understand That The World Goes ‘Round” — #theclosingoftheyear

“I Resolve to…Understand That The World Goes ‘Round” — #theclosingoftheyear

God, how long have I been basking in the glow of hyperbole?

It’s like I don’t know any other way to express myself or view the world. Everything to me is:

Big!

Bold!

Must have!

Must see!

Like!

Post!

Followers!

Retweet!

It’s all just a cover-up, really. This endless search of non-information that clutters my brain, distracting me from the narrative that I really want to express, not just to the world, but to myself. If there is anything to offer as a resolution for 2015, it is to abandon the hyperbole and focus on what matters in defined terms. Fuck these endless social media streams, I want truth again.

I haven’t been too eager to promote many entries on this blog of late. It’s been a combination burn book and teen girl journal for weeks. “This family member talked so much shit about my me!” or “Those family members had the nerve to make it all about them!” or “This date was just another Harry Houdini! Now you see him! Now you don’t!” I bet even Taylor Swift would go, “Fuck bitch. Get a new theme!”

What happened to self-reflection and understanding, to humor and positivity?

What happened to the last third of 2014?

Well, a lot.

John Kander and Fred Ebb composed a song for Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” called “The World Goes ‘Round.” I’ve had it on a loop these last few weeks. It helped shape what I decided to write today, summing up exactly what sort of year many of us experienced in 2014.

Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad
But the world goes ’round…

And sometimes your heart breaks with a deafening sound…
Somebody loses and somebody wins
And one day it’s kicks, then it’s kicks in the shins
But the planet spins,

and the world goes ’round….

I thought a lot about what this closing blog entry of the year should contain. But, as I sit here in my bedroom (More teen girl imagery. That has to go in 2015), I find that I don’t want to replay any of it. I want to focus on the reality that the world will continue to spin — and that hope matters.

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My boss Alan and I got into a rather revealing discussion about hope, an ideal my friend doesn’t seem to think exists.

But I do. I really do.

Hope, like love, has lost its power. It’s a brand. It is a campaign logo.  It has been appropriated by the self-help contingent, those annoying life coaches and magazinespeak spinners. It is that blanket statement too many of us use to cover up our woes, disappointments and our other beautifully weak and frail moments. “Don’t worry. There is always hope.”

Hope, like love and happiness, takes effort. It takes work to NOT let yourself fall prey to the myriad of distractions and stupidities that dominate our daily lives. You can’t use hope blindly. Hope needs to be seen clearly. It isn’t like prayer. “I hope” is not like talking to God. You are talking to yourself. You are being your own source of faith and courage to face the challenges that we face. And the challenges, particularly at this age, will arrive with the efficiency of a high speed train.

Hope, like love, is not for pussies. And hope needs to be taken back from the legion of those wanting to cash in on our gorgeous neuroses for their own gain. Before any of us can begin to understand just how important love is in our lives, we have to reeducate ourselves in the power of hope. Where there is hope, you will find love. You will find them exactly where you left them before you let all the static of modern life cloud your own beliefs and true self.

In a few hours, 2014 will join the album of detritus that is memory. It will be relegated to the tales we tell whenever we reunite. Those who are lost, will be remembered. Those who hurt us will be reviled again, but ultimately forgiven because they just don’t know any better. Those who made us laugh, will make us laugh that much harder. And we will all be glad that we survived to tell the tales again and again.

I also found great comfort in another song, one composed by Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn for the film “Toys,” performed by Wendy & Lisa and Seal. It features this lyric:

This is a Time to be Together
And the Truth is somewhere here
Within our love of People
At the Closing of the Year.

I spent these last months in a state of free fall. I haven’t hit ground yet, but I see it below. I have not lost sight that it is with my family and my family of friends, new and old, here and abroad, where I did find my truth in 2014.

I can’t wait to find out what I will learn in 2015.

Wednesday, December 31. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA.