Water truth spilling in and out from several directions is hardly the bullseye I have in mind when I set out to write an essay, but each condensed distraction is leading faster to unraveling why I have to keep writing around what there is to say. Pa’ que tanto hablar? Pa’ que tanta’ palabra’? The very same streets of the Bronx that made me strong, made me who I am, also destroyed my parents. It is the mystery at the core of my life. Why them and not me when I had so many markers in place for that downfall according to all the good studies about what happens to kids who grow up like me. How do some of us become blood price so that others might go free? It is a question that plagues me and terrifies me as my sons become men.
When I began to write this in my journal it was a scattered, series of short, bursts of manic, anxiety. Lots of adjectives. Lots of splintering. I quickly ran away. It was February and March of 2016. Both of my parents (though they haven’t lived together since I was 5) were hospitalized in the same hospital on 5th Avenue ( Mt. Sinai) three blocks from where I was born (Flower 5th now Terrence Cardinal Cooke Nursing and Rehabilitation.) They were both in long extended medical crisis that have spanned several years now. Things get calm and then acute much as they always did when their problems were just the addictions. The trajectories of their stories are very different, but suddenly they were in beds on two different floors of the same hospital, and neither one knew, at first, that the other was there. Only I knew, though I had no idea what I was supposed to do with that knowing. Both were suffering from health complications directly linked to their drug addictions and countless other complications of lifetimes of self-abuse. My mother was on a ventilator for the third time in two years, a minor medical miracle in itself. She keeps coming back even when doctors say she won’t. My father is unraveling organ by organ terrified and enraged by his fate though he wrote it on the wall in his own handwriting every day of his life. He too has kept going past where his own doctor imagined. They are survivors and perhaps that is one trait we all three share. I don’t want them to die. They don’t want to die. Though it would have offered each of us relief in its own ripping off the bandaid from a long infected wound sort of way.
In my journal where I was opening all siete llaves at the same time letting words and fear and rage pour out all over me I wrote:
They are there and I am not writing this at their bedside, but I also can’t sleep. Which bedside would I write it by? My father has been the hero of this story because he tried harder, because he offered more, because he believed in educating daughters, because he had wives and more children who held him together over decades, and by default also held me. My mother, a woman, has paid a higher price. No redemption for the fallen daughters. With no wife to hold her together she has come undone again and again. My feminism knows this though it does not dull the pain of having lost her so many times across the entire span of my life. I barley know her though I know all about her. She barely knows me though she claims to know me well. We have wrestled with a terrible love my entire life. I have not been to that hospital yet, and writing this has been my way of saying what I don’t dare say out loud. I am exhausted. I am tired and terrified that the undertow I have been swimming against my entire life has finally come to claim me and will quietly slip me in with them.
If they, despite their complete estrangement from each other are getting sucked down together in the same building at the same time, why not me? I am their only child together. I am my mother’s only child at all. Perhaps this whole thing was a failed experiment. Resumes be damned. We are drowning. I am still that child trying to convince my parents to live. I am still trying to figure out how to get us home, how to not let them take me down that hole with them. I have no idea how this is done. How would I? I have never read our story in a book or seen our lives in a movie. ( end of journal entry)
Despite how tired everyone seems to be of the drug addict story line, I assure you this is a story I have never read anywhere, and I read a lot of damn books. Of course now that the drug addicts are in rural Vermont and Staten Island The New York Times is telling a whole other story about the public health crisis of opioid addiction. They were just plain old junkies in the South Bronx and Harlem in the 70’s. Failed people. Suddenly, it is a public health crisis and everyone is working furiously hard to help people get over the stigma and the shame. I am furious beyond what I have ever known each and every time I read one of those stories. We were all three still drowning in the stigma and the shame and the public health crisis non one ever bothered to tell us had claimed our lives.
But we did not drown. We did not die. And there are two more llaves left to open, so that maybe the water can run clear and make sense and offer hope to them, to me, to others like us.