“Good morning, everybody. And thank you for being part of this extremely special, and important, occasion.
We are taught that it isn’t the destination, but the journey that defines us. They obviously never met Raul Valadez and Susanna Contreras. It’s been quite a journey, but they were meant to be each other’s destination.
They are defined by the life they’ve built for over 35 years. They are a poignant example of loyalty, patience, honor, and most importantly, love.
In technical terms, they are indeed a partnership. But, those who know them, who shared their joys and tears for these many years, understand them as what they are: as husband and wife – and in ever sense of these words…”
That is as far as I got in writing my wedding notes for Uncle Raul and Aunt Susanna’s nuptials. At 11 am, on a sunny Monday morning in September, my sister called to tell me she passed away.
It was a long day. We sat at the house on Francisquito. We heard the usual sounds, too. Laughing. The kids were running around. Little Abigail was wielding her blankie like she was Shirley Bassey flinging her cape on stage at Royal Albert Hall. (Google it.) Sydney slapped my face with a new diaper, thinking it’s the funniest thing in the world. (It was.)
There was a lot of hugging. It was good to hear everyone talking. It was good to hear everyone laughing. It was the crying that was hard to watch. It came in in waves, in between the sweetness and calm. For a moment, we felt awkward that we weren’t grieving more. It’s such an extraordinary process.
It isn’t only in movies where we admit it’s a relief when the person we love puts down their arms in their fight against cancer. But isn’t a relief. It hurts. It’s as if you’re being punched in the most tender place on your body with brass knuckles and a blackjack.
Haven’t you had enough this year? How many more people do you need to recruit? Nobody asked for this conflict. Nobody wakes up to say, “I want to join your ranks.” I know at this very moment, another family member is sitting on some floor, laptop open, tapping the keys in an effort to make sense of all this emotion and reality. We are aware that when a military war comes to an end, the survivors’ tale becomes the narrative. It’s that rousing, nationalistic chronicle of victory. But no one wins in the war with cancer. It is all scorched earth.
I want to scream right now. My mind knows that while cancer may rob people of who they love and cherish, compassion and strength should bring those left behind closer together. That hasn’t been the case with us. Wounded pride, insufferable smugness and other examples of self-absorption have tainted our grieving process. It started with one, only to spread outward like a virus.
My mind can’t seem to focus on what is going to happen next. The most I’ve done is scroll through my phone to find all those Instagram moments. I just wanted proof that sad isn’t the only memory I am going to have of “that day.”
The Susanna from 71 weeks ago is not the same aunt from three weeks ago. I don’t want to focus on what we all witnessed “that day.” I choose to focus on the constant in these photos, her smile. Gosh, it’s Osmond sized, sincere and uninhibited. She exuded life, even when life offered things not worth smiling about.
I can’t believe how little time we had with my aunt this year. I’ve been given the task of saying tomorrow’s eulogy, a task she gave me in June. You can deconstruct the gravity of such a request. It didn’t faze me in the least. It went beyond privilege and honor in my mind. She accepted me from day one. How could I not oblige? (Uncle Raul later pulled me aside to make sure I knew just how connected she was to me. I didn’t know, Uncle. I really didn’t know.)
The hard part now is reconciling how we all let the summer go by without pushing for a day to see Raul and Susanna get married. I was in Spain from the end of June through the end of July, but August was a relatively quiet month. We had the cocido brunch, but I could see my aunt was slowing down again. Man, she was determined to make that meal special. And it was, but we avoided the reality a ticking clock was present.
My mom and I made good on our promise to go to the Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino in Primm Valley to see La Sonora Santanera the weekend after Labor Day. Susanna did her best, but we spent most of our time in her hotel room, talking and watching her favorite shows (Hello, “Law & Order”). She would barely eat and she ultimately missed the show. It was apparent to me at this time that her illness had transitioned from a waiting game to signs of a mortal end.
I knew that weekend at Buffalo Bill’s was a gift, but I chose to hide it well. I will never forget the blessing of seeing my uncle and mother look like teenagers again when La Sonora Santanera played the first notes of “La Boa.” I was meant to sit next to my aunt, who gave me “cosqillas” as she smiled that beautiful smile of hers while watching some of the rougher “Special Victims Unit” episodes ever.
A few weeks later, my aunt refused further treatment.
I went to visit her the Wednesday after her decision. My family then spent the following Sunday with her and Raul and the kids. Susanna was in a very frail state, but aware and feisty. She waved at me. I smiled. She needed her rest. But we were elated that Raul had proposed. Again! And she finally said, “Yes.”
After we all made our separate ways home, my cousins and I spent hours texting about when Uncle Raul and Aunt Susanna should get married. It was that Wednesday. No, it was Saturday. Saturday was perfect! Sooner was better. Aunt Susanna wanted to wait two more weeks, but my cousin Alyssa said, No. it was going to be this Saturday. (Aunt Susanna was so annoyed by that decision, exhibiting that fire of hers, but she acquiesced.)
We went through times, date, food, who to invite with an eye set for Saturday, October 4.
Monday, September 29: I was in my office, stealing a few moments to start writing my wedding comments. I had been ordained over the weekend. I wanted to keep my notes brief. We waited such a long time for this moment. Minutes counted now and this wasn’t “The Jorge Wedding Show,” complete with an entrance cue of “Maybe God Is Tryin’ to Tell You Something” from “The Color Purple.” (I won’t lie. I dreamt that.)
I was writing the final phrases, “…as husband and wife – and in ever sense of these words…,” when my sister Lil called to say Aunt Susanna had collapsed and was having trouble breathing. It was the most normal conversation. She’d had similar moments before, but something told me, “Move, bub. Be with your family.”
I left my office and the comfort of Los Monkeys, but before I made it to the corner of Wilshire and Crenshaw, Lil called back to say aunt Susanna had died.
Saturday, October 4 came and went. Some of us gathered together to honor the wedding day, to just be there for each other. Hearts were heavy, eyes were soggy at times, but spirits remained on high. We were going to honor the legacy of our cherished aunt in our inimitable style. And we did. The exquisite joy on Sydney’s face when she heard the first bars of “All About That Base” solidified why we will never be apart as a family. My aunt made that happen and we promised her achievement would never be in vain. (And, even if that damn Meghan Trainor song is on a perpetual iPod loop, we’ll do it for family.)
I wish I could have honored by aunt’s first request, but I will be delivering her eulogy as promised. I hate letting her down. I wish we had moved faster. But, I take solace that Raul and Susanna did exist in this world as “man and wife.” Life, love, memories was the foundation of their union. The house off Francisquito and Hacienda was their church. And we are all their followers. They made it work their way.
Let no man, or anyone else for that matter, ever tear that asunder.
#hueytutannaporvida #susannacv #lifeisart
Updated on Friday night, October 10, originally written and posted on Wednesday, October 8 from Wayne Avenue Manor.