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.

Not Haikus

i used to write poetry 
broken lines, imperfect syllables, heart
so hard so imperfect so fucking bright
like the blue sky trying to break through and taunt a hailstorm but instead instead
instead
it's just ice
not the rain we needed to cool us in a heatwave
just ice
tearing through my well-tended garden
stealing the blue sky
steeling the blue eye
and ruining me

Pandemic Prom

there's no heartbreak here
just my girl, eighteen years old,
ready to face them
sneakers underneath
(pandemic proms are outdoors,
under tents, in grass)
she's taller, braver.
in her silver floor-length gown,
she masters the night
and aren't we a crowd?
this master-mix of humans,
standing on these rocks?
unsinkable us
right below the Molly Brown
(ready to swim. Win.)

Tirador. Throw Me a Line.

I learned a new Spanish word today. It’s the story of my life, really, the story of any language learner. The learning doesn’t end. It doesn’t end with a high school diploma or a college degree or a summer in Mexico or a year in Spain. It just builds, like bricks on a wall, one word after another.

Tirador.

Before I learned the new word, this is how I tried to say it, in my mind combining the word matar with the suffix –dor, knowing, of course (the year in Spain??) that matador means the person holding the red cape for the bull. The person who KILLS the bull: “¿Has oído del matador en Boulder?”

His response? “¿Matador? ¿Como la persona con los toros?”

No, not like the person in the ring with the bulls. Like the person with the AR-15 rifle who killed ten people two days ago thirty miles from our house.

How can I say this to my child who, two days ago, for the third time, left a slipper in the laundry room sink where the washer drains and flooded my basement?

How can I say this to my child, who, two years ago, crossed three borders to find his way into my home?

How can I find the right word?

Google Translate. Shooter: Tirador.

Tirar: Throw. Suffix: -dor–person who…

Person who… throws?

The word in Spanish for SHOOTER is person who THROWS?

He was in the living room and I couldn’t see his face. And though we have an agreement that I speak to him in English and he responds to me in Spanish, I didn’t mince into English this time. Because he might hear some cockeyed version of this story somewhere else, and sometimes things get lost in translation.

El tirador? Quien mató diez personas en un supermercado treinta millas de aquí? El asistió nuestra escuela por un año.”

His response: “¿Es un gringo?”

Me: “No…”

Him: “¿Latino?”

Me: “No…”

Him: “¿Árabe?”

Spanish gone, I whispered, “Yes.” I didn’t want to say it out loud. I didn’t want to say out loud what the world might be shouting right now. I didn’t want to tell this boy that yes, like you, he came to this country hoping for a better life, and yes, like you, he faced racism and prejudice wherever he went, and yes, like you, learning a new language was a struggle.

Instead, the word hung between us. Tirador. Like someone holding a baseball, ready for the pitch. Someone holding a Koosh, ready for a classroom game of Silent Ball. Someone who didn’t know what to do with his anger or fear or loss, someone who walked the same hallways I walked, as a teacher in this high school, as a student in the same middle school I attended, a lost boy who couldn’t find his way.

My son had no other response. His childhood consisted of practically everyone he knew dying of poverty or gang violence, so the shock just isn’t the same.

Instead, I went to work. He came to school. That same place where the tirador walked, that same bubble where I thought the world wouldn’t come crashing down all around me. That glorious Italian architecture wooing me into an imaginary perfection.

South High School principal, 3 other administrators reinstated after  investigation | FOX31 Denver
My colleague, teaching with me at the same time, seven years back, brought me a poppyseed muffin this morning.

“We’re all just processing this. Baked goods are always good.”

And how it popped in my mouth, that sweet and perfect bread.

And my daughters, my three daughters where this school has been the center of their lives, as daughters of the teacher, as students of the school, as children of the world?

“They shouldn’t sell guns to anyone with a penis. Obviously, that’s the best way to eliminate mass shootings.”

And how will we walk in these doors? How will we walk into a supermarket? How will we face the world that we have created?

How will we shape our boys?

The boys who leave slippers in sinks and put FIVE blankets UNDER a fitted sheet and spend a year blasting a space heater instead of wrapping themselves in the warmth that exists under the covers?

The boy who comes home to me and screams, “You allowed our daughter to pay a 20% tip to a carpet cleaner??? What were you doing??”

“Well, the soccer practice got moved, and it was only an hour, so I was walking the dog…” (If only I had the cute pic to demonstrate):

“So now you’re a soccer mom, huh? A mom to him. When, a month ago, you said you’d separate yourself, that he needed to figure everything out on his own, that he’s a man, a tenant, that he needed to take the bus or sign up for soccer or buy the cleats or ride his bike or…”

“Are you done?” I ask my boy, my boy I married at twenty, well before my prefrontal cortex was fully developed, well before I knew what it was to be an adult, just like that 21-year-old boy who was allowed to buy a mass-murdering rifle?

“Well…” he won’t finish, knowing I am done.

“Well, I guess I am. I’m a fucking soccer mom.”

What I don’t say: Better a soccer mom than … Yet the sentence falls flat. It is as empty as the hallways of my high school in the midst of a pandemic. The thoughts are dark, behind the stage, behind the social media, behind those fucking bullets, and broken and cruel and loving and hopeful all at the same damn time.

Better a soccer mom who drives him to every practice and spends $300 on soccer gear and $464 on carpet cleaning because my eighteen-year-old daughter thought a 20% tip was better than pissing off her mama than…

Than a tirador?

A tirador?

A shooter?

Throw me a line. Because this world is fucking drowning me.

And worse, it’s drowning these boys who are just searching for a line to grab onto.