When I feel that I don’t belong
Draw my strength
From the words when you said
Hey it’s about you baby
Look deeper inside you baby
“Together Again” — Janet Jackson
The following is the eulogy I composed and read today, October 11, to honor the life of my Aunt Susanna Contreras-Valadez.
Good morning…and good morning to you, Aunt Susanna…
To know Susanna Contreras was to know a friendly person, a kind person. She was also a practical person…extremely practical. She was a woman who understood how life is a constant balancing act; that everything has a cause and effect, as any parent can attest:
The house won’t clean itself.
The milk carton won’t replace itself.
Sitting in front of the TV won’t get your homework done.
It’s your decision, but I will always stand by you, because I love you.
I’m sure more than one of you has uttered such phrases before. But as parents, you are the first to teach us there are no guarantees in this life. Susanna was a realist in knowing that challenges will arrive, but they do get solved because family always sticks together.
When it became apparent that my aunt’s cancer was not backing down, it was no surprise that Susanna wanted to take a very practical approach to her future. She would fast track two major life moments. So, on a sunny June afternoon, Aunt Susanna turned to me and asked:
Would I marry her and Uncle Raul? (Yes, I got myself ordained.)
Would I write her eulogy? (Yes, absolutely.)
The subject was closed and we moved on to make plans for her grandson, and my godson, Gabriel’s trip to Knott’s Berry Farm for his 15th birthday, set dates for dim sum and the next cocido brunch and it was decided who would go on the next State Line turnaround.
That was nearly four months ago. We got most of it done, but I didn’t get a chance to marry Uncle Raul and Aunt Susanna. I wouldn’t trade this honor of expressing to you all how she lived and loved in a selfless way for anything in the world. So, how do we remember Susanna Contreras-Valadez?
It is ironic that we live in an age where people prefer pictures to words. But sometimes, images need a context as to what special moments can mean. For instance, see the pictures of my aunt that decorate this room today? Know that they are of a woman who was born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, that destiny had booked her to join Raul Valadez southern California before long.
They met on a Monday before Thanksgiving in 1976.
A meal at Carl’s Jr. was involved, followed by a visit to a pool hall. But this wasn’t their first official date. That happened the following Wednesday when he took her on a tour of his neighborhood. She must of liked what she saw, because she stayed, creating a family and changing the lives of so many people in the process.
The day my family met the beautiful young woman who changed uncle Raul. (Yes, uncle. She changed you in a very good way) was a true touchstone moment. I love knowing that Aunt Susanna lived in Pico Rivera for a bit, which is where my family still lives after 47 years. We may have even crossed paths without even knowing it. I can only think that this was all so meant to be. It was obvious the family was truly complete. We had found the special sauce, the secret ingredient that just made everything better. She made all of us better.
Since my aunt took ill, these many months have been as unpredictable and uncertain as life itself. We had to face some tough realities, like discovering how even the strongest family ties can come undone; that sometimes we lose our way. This is a hard world and the concept of family has to live in it. It’s so easy to remove whatever or whoever makes you feel small. But it is so much more damaging when we attempt to sever the blood ties that helped shape us. Everyone plays a part in the truths that we live. All we ever really want is a witness to the fact that we existed, that we were loved and loved back. Why we complicate it so much, I will never understand. I do believe that forgiveness is not a myth or a sign of weakness. I believe we can all find our way back to the center. There is no good or bad here because that’s what it means to be a family and in that context, Susanna Contreras is very much a center we will miss.
Think of the family members who found refuge at the house of Francisquito and Hacienda when life threw a curve. No matter how long their stay, or how crowded the conditions: no one would go without shelter or care. Not in this family.
Think about when Uncle Raul’s mother, Maria Maya passed away. Recall the concern in Susanna’s voice when she said Ama couldn’t leave this earthly world without her favorite earrings.
Think about those massive holiday dinners Aunt Susanna would prepare for days, jamming the tables into the living room so we could all sit together and unleash the beautiful noise that is us. The fruit salad; those deviled eggs!
At this moment, I would expect to see some side eye from my aunt. She knows when to pull us back down to Earth when we get too grand. She was the calm in the center of the chaos that is us. She never made a big show or expected a reward for all that she’d do for us. She did it because she loved us.
There is nothing too grand in saying how important family was to my aunt. Being a family is about representing its worth, its strength, and most of all, its love. Today, we honor all the roles she will forever represent:
Susanna Contreras is Sam and Celia’s daughter
She is Philip and Sandra’s sister.
She is wife to Raul Valadez.
She is mother to Denise, Daniel, Alyssa and Jamie.
She is grandmother to Gabriel, Sarah, Andrea, Sydney and Abigail.
She is mother in-law to Luis.
She is stepmother to Raul Jr., Diana and Vanessa, and step-grandmother to Julianna and Carlos.
She is sister in-law to Lilia and Jorge Carreon, aunt to Lilia, Jorge, Nancy and Ernesto.
She is sister in-law Maria Consuelo Garcia, aunt to Isidro Jr., Brenda and Connie.
She is a perfect confidante and friend.
She is an avid fan of a good “Law and Order” marathon.
She is one hell of a cook.
She is the sparkle that would appear in her eyes when she was so happy.
She is the big smile that appears when she tells you, “I love you too much.”
My aunt and I shared a lot, especially a love for words. It is said that we write our own stories with the lives that we lead. While we are painfully aware that those we love will die, and sometimes too soon, you must remember that it takes real courage to live. Susanna Contreras-Valadez did exactly that – she lived life with courage and on her terms.
There are so many other words and stories to help define Susanna. Please share your stories with the people gathered here today. Keep this dialogue going long after we leave each other’s company. Tell everyone what made Susanna so important to you. That is how you keep those we love with us on Earth.
It’s hard to say goodbye to Aunt Susanna. It was hard to read a version of this eulogy to her just a few days before she left us. (Yes, she had notes.)
I didn’t want this process to end because I knew it would make her loss that much more real when I reached the last words on this page.
Susanna was supposed to have the final say, but we didn’t get a chance to record that for you. I asked her what was the most important thing she learned in this life. Her answer? Life, in the end, is funny. We need to take time to laugh about it, even if life makes us cry.
So, keep this very practical thing in mind. When that moment hits you, and you’re missing Susanna something awful, turn on the TV and search for this sound (“Law and Order” sound effect). That’s her telling you she’s right there with you, she’s listening, she’s laughing…
And that she loves you too much.
Saturday, October 11 — Written in Salamanca, Spain, South Pasadena, CA and La Puente, CA. Posted from Lilybelle’s Paisley Park compound in Whittier, CA