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