People

How death broke my family and Whatsapp put it back together


Death broke my family once.

It all started when my grandfather had a stroke. He was the pillar holding up my dad’s side of the family. My dad has three brothers and four sisters. One of his sisters has five children. We’re a big family and it was only suitable that grandma and grandpa’s house was our home base. None of us ever called them grandma or grandpa–they were essentially second parents to us. We called my grandmother Mama Alma and my grandfather Papa Luis. We’d shorten the names to Mama and Papa, which translate to mother and father in English. That’s how critical they were–and are–to the fabric of the family.

Orange trees

Orange trees

Every major holiday, birthday, or celebration was held at their house. They had a huge, two-story, red brick house with a balcony where we would sleep on cots under the stars. In the back yard, there was an avocado tree and an orange tree. There were huge turtles we would feed corn tortillas and white rabbits we would feed lettuce.  The house was also haunted, but what special house isn’t?

One of my aunts and one of my uncles had houses behind my grandparents’ house. Another of my uncles had a wife whose family lived down the street. And for symmetry’s sake, another of my aunts had a husband whose family lived down the other side of the street. I could walk into the corner store and say I was so-and-so’s daughter and everyone knew who I was. It felt like everything had been strategically arranged before I was born.

The best breakfast in town

The best breakfast in town

Every morning my grandmother made a big breakfast. Huge bowls were filled with every combination of eggs you could imagine. Beans and fresh tortillas were brought in from the small tortilla factory a few blocks away. Everything was within walking distance and after breakfast my grandfather would sometimes take us to his rancho, where orange trees covered the fields. We would ride in the back of the truck and pick oranges as he strategically passed just under the branches of the trees. We’d arrive back at the main house on the rancho sticky, covered in juice, and smelling like dirt and citrus.

Life was glorious and as far as I was concerned I had the best family in the world. There were tons of kids to play with, aunts and uncles to tell me how special I was, a grandmother to spoil me, and a grandfather who knew everything about everything.

Then he died.

I remember being in my dorm room pressing the snooze button for the third time when my phone rang. It was my mother and it wasn’t a normal time for her to call. I knew before I answered that there would be tears. My mother knows how to keep it together when she needs to and she did that for me during that phone call. I’m an only child, but I’m the oldest of the first generation of cousins living in the United States. It was always understood that I was responsible for telling my younger cousins bad news and sharing my easter egg hunt candy with them.

One by one, I called my cousins to let them know. It was like a procession and I felt like the grim reaper.

I couldn’t go to the funeral and I felt incredibly isolated from my family. I was alone and my family was mourning and there was no one to hug. This is the first time I felt detached from them.

After that, there were slowly fewer holidays, birthdays, and special occasions held at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother eventually moved out, creating an identity crisis for many of us.  It was as if a part of us had been taken away. There was no home base anymore. We still made it work, though. We saw each other and we loved each other. But it wasn’t quite the same.

I was much older now, and while I missed the innocent, fairy tale illusion of my childhood, I could now appreciate the wisdom and company of my older cousins. While I have many cousins, only six are women. (The aunt I mentioned with the five kids?  All five are men.)

I was very close to my cousins and I spent months living in Mexico with the cousin closest to my age, Lety. She was unlike anyone else in our family and she gave us life through her laugh. She taught me about makeup and how to push on the hose with my thumb so the water would shoot out. She taught me about love and, most of all, about loving myself. She inhaled life and was a magnet to everyone around her. She could make you feel special in a room full of people.

When she was 24, she died of cancer.

When someone dies when they’re old, there is sadness. When someone dies at a young age, there is anger and hate. I never want to know what it’s like to lose a child, but I’m certain it changes who you are. A piece of every single one of us died that day. For some of us, it changed who we were a little bit; some for the better and some not. We couldn’t be in the same room without bursting into tears randomly. Everyone was reminded of her just by being around someone else in the family. We were walking reminders that one of us was no longer there. And that slowly started to break us.

We talked less. We visited less. We needed time. We needed space. We had lost our home base and on top of that there was a broken home now. Mexico itself was in a state of disarray. My grandmother was living with my aunt in the United States. We were like ants when you throw water on them: flailing, running around trying to get back to the line.

For a while, it was like this. Everyone would reach out to the person nearest them because that’s as far as our emotions could go. We would still see each other but it was once a year and it started to feel like we couldn’t pick up where we left off as we once could.

Then there was Whatsapp.

When this app came out it was really popular in Mexico. Communicating between countries had always been a problem so we all jumped on board when we realized we could text each other. A family group was made and slowly every aunt, uncle, and cousin was added. We would say good morning and good night. We would post memes about it being Monday. We would post pictures of ourselves, our children, and our pets. This may not sound like a lot but for us it was like a reunion on our phones every day.

There was finally a place to share our happiness and our lives with the people we still cared about but hadn’t known how to reach out to after we healed from the past.

The other day my aunt had a small surgery. Her son notified the group and we all sent her our goodwill and wishes. He sent a picture of her right before the surgery to reassure us she was fine and in good spirits. Most of my family is Catholic and one of my cousins suggested a prayer chain. Half an hour later we had an updated picture of my semi-sedated aunt out of surgery and ready for dinner.

The support and community felt through this seemingly simple group text brought me back to my grandparents’ house. It was like we were sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by bowls of food, avocados from the tree in the backyard, children running around, and the family together. It was like we had found our home base again.

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People

The ways in which I am like my father


Some people are afraid of becoming their parents. There have been times when this was true for me, like the first time I caught myself rationalizing like my mother or avoiding conflict like my father. But to quote one of my favorite books, The Sandman, “We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves.”

I am like my father because we both try to avoid conflict at all cost. I used to think this was selfish of him and I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t rather talk about his feelings than have an outburst or go off by himself. Now that I find myself guilty of the same crime I realize that while it is a little selfish, it’s coming from a place of desire to love. My father worked a lot and my mother did too, so we didn’t have much time together. My work days are long now and I only see loved ones for a few hours every evening much like my parents used to see each other. The last thing I want to do with that precious time is argue or disagree. Those moments are like treasures that I want to polish every night, not bruise.

I am like my father because we can both quickly lose our patience with people we love. As a child, I remember my father immediately shooing me off after failing at some task. I thought he didn’t like me very much because I wasn’t as capable. Now that I do the same thing, I see how hard it is to watch someone you care about struggle and fail. My father and I must be the most cynical idealist to ever walk this earth. We want everything to be nice and flowy and happy.

I am like my father because sometimes we just need to be alone. I don’t know if you’ve read Harry Potter but there’s a werewolf in one of the books and he has to hoard himself up in this room underground so he doesn’t hurt anyone when he changes. But of course he doesn’t tell anyone he’s a werewolf so Harry Potter and Co. follow him and nearly die. My dad and I think we’re werewolves and as egotistical as that might sound, we can be mean and hurtful. I always thought it was childish of him to walk away from arguments. He would go hide in the garage. Now that this happens to me, I think he just knew himself well enough to go to a room when he was changing so as to not hurt us.

This makes it seem like we’re monsters and we probably look like that sometimes but all of these things seem so small when I think of all the ways I hope I’m like my father.

I hope I can be as dedicated to anything as he is to his family. I have never felt safer in my entire life than when I’m with my father.

I hope I can be as talented with my hands. My dad can fix anything, he can paint, play the guitar, work on cars, cook, mend a little bird’s broken wing, and in a pinch figure out how to make a ponytail.

I hope I can be as strong. My father has always had muscles, but he’s also always had the incredible ability to move on from anything. When anyone tells me that after a certain age people don’t change, I know they’re wrong because my father has grown every year since I’ve known him and it’s always for the better.

I hope I can be as accomplished. As a teenager my father moved to the states from Mexico. He found a job, saved money, bought a house, and helped other people who were trying to do the same by letting them live with him. Then he met my mother and kicked them all out. Since then he’s worked hard to give us the world. Money can’t buy you happiness if you don’t have love and he gave us both. It’s incredible to me that a man with nothing but the shirt on his back, a lack of education, and a language barrier could come to own a few houses, a few cars, send a kid to college, and still have some money and energy left over to encourage his wife to retire early.

In some ways I have turned into my parents and I guess I’m pretty okay with that.

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Having your parents over when you’re in your twenties


I was running at the park when it happened. Wanting to change up the scenery, I headed to the park for a long run as punishment for the cookie and red, velvet cake I had this week. I ended up going around the whole park because I can’t read signs and am easily distracted by birds. So much so that I just end up following them and thus spent two hours walking/running/crawling in tunnels around the park.

Anyway, my mother called. I hit ignore immediately. Can’t have her messing up my jams. I need music to stay in the zone sometimes when I workout because I’m not a freak that loves to run for hours. But she called again. As a general rule, if someone calls me three times in a row, I answer. Regardless of what I am doing. It’s clearly a life or death situation in my book.

“Hey…[long pause.]”

yea…

“We’re leaving in a bit.”

okay?…

“To Victoria. To pick up your car.”

Oh, okay. I’m running. Call you later. [PANIC]

Okay, normally I would panic. But it’s been a pretty boring week so I had done a lot of cleaning already and I actually kinda missed my parents.

I figured I had a couple of hours so I took some photos at the park before heading back.

Clearly, the next stop was at the store for some alcohol and a movie because we tend to sit around awkwardly and I wanted to avoid that since my teenage cousin was coming along for the ride too, bless her soul.

Once my mother called me to let me know they were in town, I just started pacing. The wireless went out again at that moment so I couldn’t distract myself. I was so excited to see them even if it was only going to be for a couple of hours. I paced some more and told Orbison to calm down because he was making me nervous. He looked at me from the couch where he was trying to sleep and gave me  a look that said, “Pull yourself together. And bring me a taco.” I thought about how different this was compared to a year ago. A year ago, I would probably still be running around, hiding random things I thought they would judge me for and texting my bff about what an inconvenience this was. Just then Orbison leaped toward the door.

They brought me chicken nuggets and the food tasted like love.

Once upon a time my mother visited me and ripped the fan chain out in a hulk-like fashion. Maintenance took a look and said they would replace it. That was several weeks ago. My dad took a look at it as soon as he walked in and deemed it unfix-able as well. It always touches my heart how he always checks the apartment looking for things that might need fixing. I remember he got upset when I was younger because I rearranged my room while he was at work. He didn’t care that I had moved things, he was just sad I didn’t need his help. Yea, that’s the kind of dad I have.

My dad went to bed before the movie was over so my mom and I did what we do best. Stayed up and gossiped about random family members/people we work with/anyone who we happened to see that day. It was great.

It blows my mind that there was a time I didn’t know how to talk or be around these people. They’re actually pretty cool.

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