“There is a beginning
and an ending for everything
that is alive.
In between there is living.”
-from The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
Before they renovated the apartment where I grew up, Mami tells me that there were swinging slatted doors to the kitchen. She tells me that for a long time before the renovations, you could see the spot where the hinges used to be. I don’t remember the doors, but I know something was once there because I do remember those hinge holes in the doorframe.
When I ask her what happened to them, she is quiet for a moment before she speaks.
“Your father ripped them out of the doorframe six months after your Uncle Tito died. He had been so silent about it, taking care of everyone else, that one day, he just got red in the face and ripped them off the wall, crying. He was curled up in the corner when I went to him. Uncle Tito dying really changed your father, you know.”
My father is not an explosive man. His explosions are usually tactical, strategic, at the point of overflow. Yet, he is one of the most emotional men I have ever met and is the reason why I truly believe in my heart that real men are unafraid to cry. But his emotions are usually very even-keeled and easy-going. If my father is upset, he is either really touched, really sad, or really angry. And if he’s “really” any of those, it’s not a tear falling or a sharpness in his tone. It is oceans and thundering explosions kept at bay for far too long.
So, when I hear that my father’s grief gave him Hulk-like strength to rip those swinging doors straight out of the kitchen doorframe, I don’t doubt the overflow was too much to bear any longer.
When I ask why they never put the doors back on the kitchen doorframe, my mother pauses again.
“I don’t know why. I guess I didn’t think it was right to.”
When we were children, my parents bought a book for me and my brothers called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. The book has beautiful depictions of nature in its living form and in its death. It is indeed a beautiful depiction of death. It gave us what we needed to know.
You live and then you die.
Everything lives and everything dies. The natural cycle of life.
It didn’t mention gunshots.
It didn’t mention rupturing arteries in people’s brains.
It didn’t mention unending grief.
When I speak to my oldest brother about grief and death, his words make me pause, make me write.
“You know what I was thinking, sis? Uncle Tito’s death is the reason why we were so aware of our own mortality as children.”
I am a very young girl. I don’t remember what I am doing but I hear a scream unlike anything I have ever heard. It stretches into the air, holds itself high, unbroken. One that seems to come from some deep crack in the earth.
I am a very young girl. But I know it is my mother screaming.
I walk to the kitchen, where my mother is. The refrigerator sits by the doorway on the left, the first thing you see. Next to the fridge, sits a wooden chair. You can almost hide behind the fridge in that chair if you pull your legs up. I’ve often done it in games with my brother. I see the curled wire of the house phone on the right wall in front of the fridge stretched to that chair, but I can’t see Mami.
I can hear her though.
She is sobbing, wailing almost, as if she is in pain, only I can’t see her. I stand there, afraid of stepping forward. The cries coming from Mami are ones I have never heard before. They fill the room, they drown out all other noise. They scare me.
I walk and peek around the fridge’s side. Mami is sitting in the kitchen chair, the phone pressed to her ear, her head leaning on the side of the fridge, her eyes shut, tears pushing through her lashes.
“Mami? Mami, what’s wrong??”
She looks up at me, lashes wet, cheeks flushed with her emotion. “My cousin Bibi died.” I think, for a moment, my mother awash in her grief, forgot I was a little girl, forgot a gentle preface. I didn’t know who cousin Bibi was, but years later, my mother would tell me I have her gait, her walk, her shape. It makes her smile with her eyes.
When we speak about this day, my mother tells me that I went back to my room and drew a picture to make her feel better. It was a drawing of her cousin Bibi in a coffin. I can imagine it was quite the shock.
I don’t remember drawing this. I remember nothing but thinking death was my mother’s wails.
Growing up, I never saw a picture of Uncle Tito because no one I knew had any.
My father tells me now that after he died, my aunt, in her extraordinary grief, made the entire family, sometimes with threats of violence, give her all of their pictures of Uncle Tito. He tells me her house became a shrine to her favorite brother. I asked Mami how Uncle Tito looked and she tells me he was baby-faced, with dark blonde hair, with the indigenous and European features of my father’s side of the family.
All of our lives, my brothers and I have heard the story of how he died. He was shot in the head. They called it a suicide but no one believed it.
“My generation is almost all gone, Angie,” my father says softly, his voice choking back a sob on the other end of the phone. “And my brother is still not at rest.”
I let him speak. I hold back my own tears because my parents’ emotions always make me cry, too. I hear him compose himself before he speaks again.
“I fucking hate when people tell me, ‘You can’t bring him back.’ No shit. I know he’s dead. But if I had the money, Angie, I swear I would open his case again. My brother has never rested and I never found out why he had to die.”
I was in my teens when, deep in our family photos, my father found a small picture of his brother, one so small that you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. Uncle Tito is in a leather hat and jacket, staring into the camera with facial features that remind me of my paternal grandmother. My father has it on his altar. It is the only picture he has of his younger brother. The one he still mourns.
Death is not hooded in black, holding a scythe, glimmering in the moonlight. Death is unbearable sadness, it is cold skin in coffins, it is my parents’ tears. Death is the bringer of grief. The Grim Reaper does not visit the dying or soon to be dead. If the Grim Reaper really exists, it does not visit those that are to die, it visits those that will grieve, those that live still.
When I tell my mother I am writing an essay on how death and grief permeated my childhood, she scoffs at first, tells me that death and grief wasn’t a huge part of my childhood, as if she had kept me and my brothers in a glass box where we could not hear or feel the energy of grief around us. But when I tell her I remember the day she found out Bibi died, she sighs into the phone.
“Okay, so your childhood was terrible then.”
“No, Mami, I didn’t say that. It was beautiful, but there was pain, too. It was a human childhood. Tell me about Bibi.”
She sighs again, “Bibi’s room in Puerto Rico was that good-girl type of shit. Posters and creative things everywhere. Remember how you used to have all that stuff on your bedroom walls? Like that.”
“Her textbooks were all in English and she only knew Spanish. I would spend so much time helping her translate her homework. We would laugh so much. I don’t remember about what but I miss laughing like that. When her parents died, she didn’t take it well. First, my tío Jojo and then her mami. She was in pain. I think she died of a brain aneurysm, you know, when a vessel pops in your head.”
“Your grandmother called me after Bibi died. I was so heartbroken after she died, Imani. One of my biggest regrets in my life is not being able to say goodbye to her, not going to her funeral. Anyway, my mother told me that she had a dream where she saw Jojo and his wife and a teenage version of Bibi. They were walking side by side, with Bibi in the middle, their arms linked, you know? Like walking together, holding each other. She said in her dream that Bibi turned back and her smile was radiant. Radiant. That’s the word she used.”
I ask my mother if she is still sad about Bibi. There is sadness dripping in her silence.
“It’s hard for me to dig deep like that, Imani.”
Uncle Tito died on January 2, 1982 and I was born on June 20, 1984. I was born into the open wound of my father’s grief. I have always known how he died since I was a child. A gunshot wound to the head. The story was always just the raw details. Baby faced and 19 years old and he was shot. When I ask my father the details, the images he speaks of are vivid, strong, emotional. I cry with him when he tells me. I ask myself sometimes if Uncle Tito would have been around, if he would have come to visit me and my brothers, if he would have liked me, been proud of me.
My father was 27 years old when his younger brother died. That night, my father was playing the Sesame Street tune on his flute for my oldest brother, who was three years old going on four. Everything was rolling along normally, just like the night before and the one before that.
The phone call interrupted the flute playing. Someone on the other end, he can’t remember who, was screaming on the other end that his little brother had been shot.
Our upstairs neighbor drove my father down to 170th Street and Sheridan Avenue, across the street from the schoolyard of Taft High school in the South Bronx. The bodega where Uncle Tito had been shot was the exact bodega that my father had seen my mother enter with my grandmother on September 8, 1976 and was so enamored with her smile, that he waited for her sitting on a mailbox, legs swinging, Puerto Rican papi chulo swagger on lock to capture her heart for the next quarter century of their lives.
This was once a place of joyous memory for my father.
What he was driven to that January night in 1982 would erase the joy for him.
When he arrived, my paternal grandmother and aunts were in hysterics. My father, in a strong thunderous voice demanded to know where his brother was.
“Where’s his body? Where’s his body?” They could only point into the bodega, where there was an office in the back that Uncle Tito would sometimes go and hang out at. My father walked to the bodega’s entrance and was told by the officer standing there that he wasn’t allowed in.
“That’s my brother, officer. Look, I’ve been to Vietnam. I know what it might look like. Let me see my brother.” My father told me he didn’t regret the lie. Besides, he already knew what to expect. My father knew what death looked like.
“It was the South Bronx in ’82, mama. We had all fucking seen it already. Baby, when they tell you there’s a war on drugs, don’t believe them. It’s just a war on us. Just a war on us.”
What my father walked into changed his life. There was his baby brother, slouched on the ground, the back of his head “shattered,” his blood and bits of his brain coating the brick wall behind him. The bullet had gone behind my uncle’s right ear and through the back of his head. My father says he touched his brother’s leg and it felt cold like clay, like ice and he “melted” in front of his little brother’s body. He prayed an Our Father over his little brother’s corpse, prayed for his soul.
“Padre nuestro, que estás en los cielos, santificado sea tu nombre,
venga tu reyno,
hagase tu voluntad,
asì en la tierra como en el cielo.
Danos hoy nuestro pan cotidiano,
Y perdónanos nuestras deudas,
asì como nosotros perdonamos á nuestros deudores.
Y no nos metas en tentación,
mas líbranos de mal.
My father watched as the EMTs zipped his brother’s body into a body bag, watched as they wheeled the gurney to the ambulance, helped them lift it into the ambulance. He kicked the door of the truck and then composed himself, because he knew he would have to navigate the all- consuming grief of his mother and sisters.
His grief would wait until six months later to erupt in ripped doors and sobs that curled him into himself.
“My brother’s death was ruled a suicide, Angie. But I don’t believe that shit. I never have. There was a bullet, lodged right in the tool box there on a shelf on that brick wall. I took that bullet and gave it to someone and then no one ever talked about it again. No one ever talked about it. The case was never followed up. It was just another Puerto Rican kid, just another Latin kid involved in some shit and no one cared. I cared. My family cared. We cared. I know he didn’t do that shit to himself, Angie.
My brother was left handed and the bullet entered the right side of his head. Right behind his ear. How did that happen? How COULD that happen? The gun residue was still on his skin when I saw him Angie. I saw it. The bullet was from a Magnum, my brother has a .38. No, no, Angie. I never thought my brother killed himself.
And the people that know what really happened, they will face their judgment by God when the day comes. Some of them are dead already, Angie, and I hope they asked for forgiveness. They will feel the kind of pain that made my sister surround herself with a shrine to Tito, the kind of pain that could rip apart my family for years. Those were crazy times for your daddy, Angie. For my whole family. I stayed away from that shit. I stayed away from it. But when it’s your family, your heart never leaves.
I knew that the bullet I found was gotten rid of because it told the truth about what happened. But I got scared for my life, scared for your mother and your brother. I knew when that bullet disappeared, that they wanted it to disappear and me bringing it up again would put us all in danger. We could’ve been killed, too.”
My father stops talking after this. I feel the heaviness of that decision in the way his voice sounds when he speaks next.
“I always thought this shit would be easier as I got older. But it’s not, Angie. You just get older and deal with it. You turn gray and you get smarter, but you deal with it. That’s what you do.”
There are details of this story that my father and mother have divulged to me that I have chosen not to write. Details that could rupture fractured familial ties further, details that would be too shocking and too sad for people to read. My father has urged me to write them and I will, when the backlash of it all will only be for me and not for him, nor for my mother.
I won’t add to my father’s pain, hardened like a bug in amber, that he still wears. I can’t.
His grief is still my grief.
This essay is not done. I’ve realized that as I struggled with writing it. I realized that grief has impacted my family in ways that are hard to limit to just one essay. I realized that grief is layered, becomes hardened. I realized that there has been no transformation because it has been something we just “deal” with and not anything we allow to flow. We must get through it. We must deal.
We have not faced it. And I’ve only just begun putting it all into the light.
To Be Continued….