When my brother Carlos died in June of 2013, I did two things: I threw myself into my writing and I started devouring stories and essays, anecdotes, blog postings, anything and everything related to grief. I was looking to make sense of this senseless loss; how my querido hermano finally succumbed to his fifteen year heroin addiction at the far too young age of 41.
(Cheryl Strayed’s “Heroin/e” quickly became a favorite I revisited many times. Then there was her essay “The Love of my Life” and David Sedaris’s “Now We Are Five” and so many more that I can’t even begin to list.)
I wanted proof that I wasn’t going crazy. Something to explain the knot in my throat that I couldn’t seem to swallow or cry out or scream through.
I needed someone to tell me that this grief would pass because it seemed impossible that it could. That the vise grip it had on my throat would loosen.
I needed to know that I would survive this feeling of dying. The tiny little deaths I endured daily when people who did not know how to handle my grief said things that felt more like knives than comfort (“you’re strong, you’ll be okay” “he’s in a better place now” “everything happens for a reason”); when I heard Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car or smelled his cologne on a passing stranger; or that time I swore I saw him in a crowd and I freaked, ran toward him, only to have this stranger look at me like I was a lunatic. The thing is, in that moment I was. I was losing my shit.
I was terrified that I would forget him, his voice, that mischievous twinkle in his eye when he came up with a scheme that would make mom scream and chase us.
I was desperate for people to know who he was. Not just the heroin and how he lost himself in it and stole and manipulated. I wanted them to know him when he was my Superman, how he loved and believed in me, what he taught me about love and life and survival, and how so much of who I am, my fierce, my “fuck that, I got this,” I owe to him.
During the holidays of that year, I went into a really dark place. If I had to pick a day when it started, I’d say it was Thanksgiving. I shot out of bed, completely unable to breathe. It was like my breath was caught in my trachea. I was choking on my grief. All I kept thinking was: He should be here. He should be here. Carajo, he should be here. I called my aunt who is very much a surrogate mother to me. I couldn’t even talk. All I could do was sob into the phone. “Come over,” she said. “Come over right now.” I woke up my daughter who stared at me with those huge, expressive eyes of hers that tell you exactly how she’s feeling—she was scared for her mama. We ran the three blocks to aunt’s house in our pajamas. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth. Later that day, one of her boys (I don’t remember which one) came with me to pick up clothes. My aunt made sure we weren’t alone. I didn’t get home until late into the night.
It was after that that I picked up a chair and sat in my grief. I went willingly into an abyss I was scared I would stay in or wouldn’t know how to claw out of. (I’m picturing that scene from Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill lowers a bucket into that torture pit chamber of his and you get a glimpse of the blood and fingernails and scratch marks on the wall.) That’s when I started reading everything I could get my hands on about depression, how grief can trigger it, the dangers, the menace.
Despite this, I didn’t acknowledge my depression until sometime in February, when the blackness started to ebb and I could see light on the edges. It was blue and shadowy, almost grey, like powder. What mattered most was that it wasn’t all black. It symbolized hope.