After the Funeral

After the funeral, we stand on the side of the road, the airport train bulleting past as January exposes itself in its bitter, beautiful glory: soft flakes fall from the silent sky, casting a quiet shadow on the muffled wails of all the mourners.

After the funeral, I hug a few former students and a few current ones. I praise one for his brief eulogy, ask him what he’s doing now. “Working, Miss, always working.” My current student scans the crowd for the other teacher who came here today, searching for a hug, for a morsel of hope.

After the funeral, I drive across slick streets to my parents’ house which is halfway between the mortuary and my home. We sit for hours discussing everything from senseless acts of violence to my children’s future to an upcoming family vacation.

After the funeral, I come home to my husband, fresh off his on-call work, and hear about his morning of installing and repairing fiber optics. My girls are all gone, one at college, one at work, one at her boyfriend’s house. The house, looking out on the snow that keeps falling from the sky but won’t cover the streets with its quiet beauty, feels empty, lonely, and just. Wrong.

But… I still have my life after the funeral. I still have all three girls. My husband. My country. My culture. My home. My place in this world.

I didn’t travel across half of Africa and then all the way across the world to save my family from a civil war so that they could have a better life, only to lose my eldest child to American violence years later. I didn’t leave behind my ailing mother, my grandparents, my religious practices, my native foods, the soil under the house I built.

And today, the snow seems hopeless. It doesn’t bring me the renewal that it usually brings. It doesn’t feel like a new beginning when a family so close at hand has been stripped of every new beginning.

A young man. A student. A basketball player. A brother. A son. A grandchild. A caregiver.

They were only allotted two hours in the mortuary. The line of people never stopped for the duration. The door never closed. With every seat taken, bodies had to line up and down every aisle, along the back of the room, along the front of the room, blocking the windows, next to the casket, sitting on the floor, holding small children in laps, comforting babies, comforting wailing women, trying to find comfort.

All four surviving siblings spoke, their voices cracked with a painful mixture of grief, anger, and remorse. And then they opened the mic, and we all stood as one after another human–former teammates, church leaders, cultural elders, friends, classmates, aunties, uncles, cousins–got up to repeat the same message: Giving. Kind-hearted. Generous. “Give you the shirt off his back.” Loving. “My best friend.” Funny. Down-to-earth. Direct.

All the qualities you’d want in a person, a friend, a son, a brother.

We could have stood there for eight hours, but the time was limited, the mic dropped, and the wailing women crept their way out into the snow.

After the funeral, for as long as I live, I will carry her guttural clench of despair in my ears, my heart, my memory. The sound of a mother, bent over her son’s open coffin, crying out to God and all of South Sudan and all of America and all of us: “Why? Why must I bury my son?” Heard not in words but in sounds, deep, unearthly sounds escaping from the depths of the hell that she is living in right now.

After this funeral, I will never be the same.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to welcome these immigrants into a country that robs them of everything. Even life.

After the funeral, no matter how horrible I feel about the hopelessness that is America, I will never, ever feel the loss that she feels: so profound, so innate, so impossible to overcome.

So impossible to overcome.

For Kevin

Dear Family,                                                                                                   

It would be impossible to encapsulate in words Kevin’s indelible impact on everyone he met in life. I was lucky enough to know him as a young man—really a fearless, jubilant boy—who knew how to bring vivacity into every room. Below is an entry from my personal journal written when Kevin was about to graduate from DSA.

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Thursday, 13 April 1995

It was Kevin and Hart (DeRose)’s senior showcase, a play called “On Tidy Endings” that the two of them wrote, directed, designed the set of and starred in. It had only two other minor characters, Wes (Zelio), and Elizabeth Horwitz. It was the story of a man who had died of AIDS, and it had Kevin playing his lover and Hart playing his ex-wife.

Their confrontation in his boxed-up apartment. I will never be able to even begin explaining how powerful that was, so I won’t even try. Let me just say that it was the best performance ever at DSA, and the best performance I’ve seen anywhere—on TV, the movies, or the theatre—since I first saw Dances with Wolves.

Kevin has grown up so much that I almost can’t believe he’s the same person I saw four years ago dancing a South Pacific scene with a hula skirt and coconut breasts. Kevin. I cried at the end, first for the characters in the play—their lives, their pain—it all affected me so much. And then I cried because I realized all too quickly, all at once, that he’s leaving, that soon the first graduating class of Denver School of the Arts will be gone, that soon that will even be me, me having to say goodbye, and now they’re leaving, and everyone leaves, and it hurt so much, but it was a good hurt, a cry that was filled with laughter and smiles, tears that were filled with hope and pride.

Standing ovation and then a room full of sniffling noses and unquieted sobs, everyone hugging each other, everyone loving each other like family, like a family that could never, by any means, be torn apart. I could not stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks for a long while, not until after we all eventually shuffled into the community room, not until after I hugged Cheryl and met Tad, not until after three glasses of punch and a piece of cake, not until after I hugged Devin, not until after Kevin signed my program, not until after talking to Olivia about senior year, not until after the toasts of many loved ones, not until after the pain of losing became the everlasting hope of gaining.

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Kevin will always have a place in my heart. He was a genius in every way—through acting, writing, singing, and, most importantly, loving. He loved everyone in his life, and he will always be loved. I feel so fortunate to have known him and shared so many moments of joy and sorrow, whether we were out to lunch at the back booth of Pete’s Kitchen, sharing a shake at Gunther Toody’s, dancing in Cheryl’s living room for her sweet sixteen, or singing all the songs we ever knew while riding in a horse carriage downtown.

Every memory is sweet, precious, and filled with love. And I will cherish him forever.

Kevin’s high school yearbook page from 1995.

Six Years Back

Six years ago, to the day, we had a snow day just like today. I got out the art supplies and all three girls colored all morning. All three girls put on their snow gear and built a snowwoman. All three girls giggled. Mythili finished a book she’d started three days prior. Riona helped me shovel. Mythili walked over to the local cafe and ordered tea, just like me.

Six years ago, they were still children. So happy to have a moment to themselves. To enjoy. To laugh.

And now what?

Before the day even began, I was crying. I cried myself to sleep, and now my eyes are so red I can’t even see straight. My husband tried to love me so hard last night, my perfect husband, but the pot smell seeped into the room, the door shut, the Camry reeked, and my worst nightmare crept under every crack.

It’s been two weeks and three voicemails to a non-responsive therapist since Mythili lost one of her closest friends to an overdose. And the last thing I want to smell is pot coming from out of her room. Pot she’s smoking alone. Because she’s lonely. Because she’s alone.

She was one of her closest friends whom she’d cut ties with months ago, months when her therapist deemed her better and stopped seeing her every week… every two weeks… every month… to not at all.

Not at all.

As if my girl, my child, was cured. As if all the phone calls I made to various medical and psychiatric doctors, begging to get her medicated, to no avail, were just washed down with every other aspect of this dark pandemic, a pill too solid to be swallowed. As if, after six months of therapy, her mind could go back to the mind of the girl in these pictures, from our snow day six years back:

I want to go back. I want to go back to that smiling child. I want her to tell me what I did. What someone did. I want a reason for the pain that torments her soul.

In two days, I have a four-day weekend planned. Booked months back with the hope that, with an outdoor heated pool, a cool town with tons of shops, and a hot springs right downtown, she’d want to come with us.

She used to love swimming. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Hiking. Camping. Traveling. Drawing. Doing puzzles. Riding her bike. Talking to me. Walking. Eating. Cooking. Baking. Reading.

All the things, all the things that I love, she loved.

And now she hates all of them. She hates everything. Even a snow day.

And do you know the weight of this? Do you know how much it hurts to see her hurt?

I’m not even at noon yet. I’m not even halfway through this hellfire snow day. When I went cross-country skiing to and around the park, trying to find peace after another night of four hours of sleep, I didn’t find anything but loneliness. I haven’t slept in days, weeks, months. Is it her? Is it Fabian who we’ve asked to leave, whose program sent the email today confirming that it will be within two weeks, that there’s another big meeting on Friday, the day we leave for Steamboat Springs, the day I begged, fought to have off, the day I requested as a personal day (along with Monday), putting in for my reason, “Mental Health Weekend,” and my principal’s secretary responded with, “Due to class coverage concerns, the principal is asking if you could just take one mental health day?”

One mental health day? I didn’t have a planning period for nearly three weeks because I was either covering classes or proctoring an English-proficiency test. Then my co-teacher got COVID and I had to fully run her class, too. Then my principal got COVID and couldn’t meet with me to discuss my request. And then I just gave up and changed my personal days to sick days. And this is the world we are living in, where we can’t take two days off, where the person who has to quarantine with their under-five set of kids for a week has priority over the mental breakdown of this mama of teens.

Before I went skiing today, before Mythili reluctantly agreed to go grocery shopping with me, this is what she told me:

“None of my friends want to listen to my problems. None of them care. I don’t want to talk to another therapist. I’m tired of talking to so many people. I just want to talk to her. I want to be home alone all weekend. I don’t want to be around anyone because nobody understands. Nobody understands how I just go through each day. I just go through each day, going through the motions, and I can’t find joy in anything, and I have no reason for it, and I don’t understand it, and it’s like something is just wrong with my brain, and I AM SO TIRED OF IT, I’M SO EXHAUSTED.”

And the tears took over. Hers and mine.

And what have I done through my tears today? I have been working on a puzzle and telling my son that he’s moving out next week because I failed him and texting my husband, to which I knew he would say yes, “Can you, for the second year, stay home with Mythili this weekend instead of having this amazing weekend together?”

Because there is nothing amazing about wanting to take two days off in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a mental health crisis. There is no new snow in Steamboat, no leniency for teachers, no grace for a mama whose heart is as broken as her child’s.

And the boy who is leaving my house next week? Am I supposed to feel good about it? Relief? Gratitude?

There is nothing, nothing but remorse.

Because he’s probably feeling much like Mythili, and I couldn’t help him.

Because I’m feeling much like Mythili, and I can’t even have a long weekend. I can’t ski the pain away, drink the pain away, pretend that the pandemic, my job, my family, don’t exist.

We exist.

And we all hurt so fucking much right now that we cry ourselves through a snow day.

A snow day–the best day ever. Six years back.

Dear Fabian

I just want you to know that I tried my best. I loved you the best way I know how. I tried to show you the world–Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, Kentucky… Skiing in beautiful places. Camping under the stars.

I tried to make you a part of my family.

I tried to show you that structure and discipline are the way to a successful life.

I tried to save your money so you could have a future. You would have had $13,000 to start your life. Out of the $9000 I gave you, I likely spent $5000 trying to include you. To show you these beautiful things, places, and experiences. To send money, thousands of dollars, home to your family in Honduras. To love you. To offer you a safe home and stability.

I barely knew you, and I took you into my home.

And you lit a match and burned it all.

I hope to God you learn from this and treat the people in your future better.

I hope to God the next time someone changes their entire life to accommodate you, you show more respect. You WORK YOUR ASS OFF to use your intelligence for your future. You shut down your stubborn ass, ask for help, and apply yourself one hundred percent to work, education, and discretion.

I hope that one day, if you ever go back, you look at the Grand Canyon and say, in utter amazement and gratitude, “Thank you for taking me to this ever-stretching, carved-over-thousands-of-years glory, and sharing its beauty with me.”

I hope you learn from your mistakes and make something out of your life.

Nothing and no one is stopping you.

It’s all on you.

And don’t burn your bridges next time.

Finding Joy

My uncle died of COVID three weeks ago, just a few days before Christmas. He was the uncle who married my aunt, a young single mother of three boys, the first of whom she gave birth to at age sixteen, and took them in and raised them as if they were his own. They were the only couple of my mom’s six siblings who made the three-day drive from Colorado to visit us in upstate New York during the seven years we lived there. They made the same trek nearly thirty years later to surprise my sister for her Adirondack wedding, again the only members of my mother’s family to do so.

When I was a kid, my family joined the clan of aunts and uncles and cousins several times to do backcountry camping and motorbiking. My uncle once took me on a long ride through the mountains, me sitting in front of him on the dirtbike, until there were no more blue-sky views, no more stream crossings, and no more gas, patiently navigating and sharing with me his love for that bike, that adventure that brought so much joy to his life.

I wish I could say more, but social media and politics and all the things between now and then put a mountainous divide between my uncle and me. How could the same man who loved to crack jokes in front of the campfire and who left his mechanic shop to his adopted oldest son also tell me that Brett Kavanaugh should be on the Supreme Court and Trump should be president and that guns are the ultimate freedom?

In the end, politics took him more than COVID, and maybe that’s the way he wanted to go, unvaccinated and adamant until his last breath.

In the end, the people who come into our lives bring both joy and sorrow, no matter how close or distant the relationship is.

The sorrow is ever-present and easy to trap on the tips of our tongues. But the joy? It is too often shrouded in fear, hatred, or regret.

Not long after my uncle died, I heard (through the same evil social media) of an amazing human being, a classmate and friend from high school, who died of colon cancer. The outpouring of posts for this man will likely never end, and the hole he has left with his absence will be impossible to fill. And Kevin, though I hadn’t seen him since high school, brings back so many vivid memories to me. I can still hear his voice singing in our high school musicals, in the hallways at DSA, in the carriage ride downtown, on the bus on the way to school, in my heart. I can still remember the times I cried in his arms because of one heartbreak or another. The words I wrote about him in my journal. The poem he read shortly after graduation. The detailed map of Denver he carried in his head. The energy that he poured out of his whole body and into everything he did and everyone he met.

How does one measure a life? How does one spend their days–browsing the Internet, singing on stage, begging their children to do their chores? How much of life is lost in those moments of sorrow, of misunderstanding, when what each and every one of us is truly searching for is joy?

Sometimes that joy seems too hard to find.

But we must find it. Wherever we can.

Life is too short not to.