I am not one to live in the past. It is not because my life is too busy and I find it better to live in the present. Though that is true, the reason why I avoid thinking about the past is because all of my life, I have been afraid of discomfort and sadness. My grandfather died when I was 10, and I saw the devastation it brought to my mom. It was like a vacuum had sucked the energy and happiness clean out of her. All it took was one look for me to know that I never wanted to feel that way. So, rather than getting closer to my family during a difficult time, I became extremely distant, irritable, and numb. From that day forward, I held myself to an unrealistic standard of strength and invincibility and bottled up all negative emotions in the hopes that I would never have to confront them.
Photos are the main way in which I sustain certain memories and try my best to forget others. Certain photos conjure up far too painful of memories to make these photos worth remembering or displaying. So, I hide any evidence of these memories’ existences rather than dealing with the emotional discomfort they might cause me. This only worked for so long. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was an ordinary afternoon in the winter of 2006. However, winter would be the entirely wrong word to describe Nicaragua at this time of year. While a blue, cold, dismal blanket fell over the United States, Nicaragua was scorching hot and as blinding as the first moment when the curtain comes up at a show and you are temporarily blinded by the spotlights. It was a picture-perfect Nicaraguan summer, Toña beers filling every inch of the countertop like a tablecloth, the voices of Carlos Vives and Marc Anthony flying through the speakers, and all cares and worries fluttering eagerly away like a seagull after snatching a hot dog from the beach. We kids played all day in the hot sun and the parents took on the impossible task of prying children from near-suffocating hugs as my “fake cousins” and I avoided leaving one another.
I have always loved little kids, so of course a significant chunk of my afternoon was spent with Joanna. She had beautiful golden locks that matched the color of the bright sun burning high in the Nicaraguan sky and eyes full of youth and innocence that warmed my soul. Her contagious laugh was high and full like a chime of bells, and her smile was a beaming lantern on a dark, eerie winter’s night. Utter joy and happiness coursed through my veins that day with little Joanna by my side. It was like she was literally transmitting her own euphoria and optimism to me as she clasped her tiny little fingers around mine.
Though one might have guessed that Joanna, her two siblings, and I were indeed cousins based on the ease in which we played and the matching graham cracker skin tones we shared, they were not “real” family. In Latin America, genuine connection and love trumps blood relation. It was a surprising yet insignificant realization when a few years later I learned of this. It did not matter to me that these people I had been raised thinking were my blood relatives were actually not. All that mattered to me was how I felt. And to me, they felt like family, and no birth certificate or family tree could ever change that.
Eight years later, my little “cousin” Joanna died suddenly of a ruptured brain aneurysm on Tuesday, October 27th, 2014. She was sitting at her kitchen table eating breakfast, when all of a sudden something went wrong in her body and her heart stopped beating. One day she was here… and then she was gone. It did not matter in the slightest that we were not and never were blood related. Cousin or not, I was devastated by her loss. For so long I had evaded negative feelings and emotional discomfort, but here I was, in the same position as my mom a few years back – a position that I vowed to never be in, feeling emotions I promised myself I would never feel.
Joanna’s death was an unsolicited and harsh introduction to the world of death, grief, and sorrow. Whether I wanted to or not, I was forced to face these emotions for the first time in my life. Not only did I have to figure out how to cope with her death, but with the many that unfortunately followed. First it was Joanna, followed by my great grandpa, my math tutor who had been tutoring me since 6th grade, multiple Marin Academy students, and my mom’s best friend. I went from having experienced one death in my life to experiencing more than six in a matter of years. It simply was impossible to continue ignoring the immense pain and ache that had been building up in my heart.
Though tragic and heart-wrenching, Joanna’s passing changed something in me for the better. It allowed me to truly feel. To feel anything and everything for the first time in my life. It allowed me to accept the “both and” paradox of grief. That sometimes all I want to do is scream at the top of my lungs into my pillow or sob for hours on end, but other times, I can look at photos of my loved ones that I have lost and cherish the happy memories. And both are okay. I began to see photos as a tool to remember and honor those I had lost. I printed out photos of me and all of the loved ones I had lost, taping them on my wall next to all of the photos I already had on my wall of my happiest and best memories.
I used to want nothing more than to develop some sort of immunity to the heartache that death caused me. However, now I see how much enduring these difficult experiences has given me: the ability to embrace even my darkest of emotions, to grapple with the concept of death, and most importantly, to honor the memories of my loved ones rather than stifling them to avoid the discomfort. I am now content saying that death still puzzles and haunts me. Sometimes I just do not know how to feel or what to feel. Being sad feels awful, but also feels like the only right thing to do sometimes. I now know that this is a journey and continuous struggle, but I am never alone. A photo of me with each of my guardian angels are taped above my pillow as a testament to the past and an inspiration for the future. I look at them every morning when I rise and each night when I go to bed.
Looking at this photo of me and Joanna, I crave the childhood innocence that I once had before loss became a frequent visitor in my life. But I also smile upon remembering the times we shared and reflecting on how lucky I am to have known her for as long as I did. So though that little girl with a Dora haircut in the photo is a complete stranger to me, completely naive and unaware of the sadness of the world, Joanna is not. When she died, her indomitably happy, optimistic, caring spirit did not. Remembering her is like she was never gone. She was the most beautiful soul I have ever had the pleasure of knowing with the biggest heart. Her memory inspires me daily to be the kindest person I can be and that anything is surmountable, no matter how unattainable persevering may seem. She will never be a stranger to me. I find solace in the fact that when it is my time to go, Joanna will be there to welcome me with a huge smile and warm hug, just as she did every summer in Nicaragua and I know someday will again.