Because the shelter in place has been indefinitely extended, I didn’t know what to expect for my 48th birthday. I had hoped to spend time with my immediate family and close friends but over a week of flu symptoms had changed my plans. I didn’t know that my birthday would be a day of sadness.
My former student Donte lost his battle with Covid-19 on my birthday. He was 28 and I can’t help but wonder what he would have done if he had lived to be 48. I met him when he was a freshman. 9th graders are little. I know most teenagers don’t appreciate being perceived as children. They are children; my 18, 19, or 20 year old seniors are kids. Donte was especially little as a 9th grader with signature brightness, innocence, openness and mercy. I remember him crying big tears across for me in my office because he was being teased by peers. Understandably he lashed out with choice words. We likely discussed how hard it was to be insulted and how I understood where he was coming from having endured teasing as almost all of us do. I am confident I praised his strength, intelligence, kindness, and sense of humor. I hope I reminded him about the importance of taking a deep breath and standing up for ourselves in a way that do not hurt us or others. It was the kind of conversation I’ve had with so many young people over the years. I wanted to build him up. I wanted to remind him of his value. I wanted him to leave our conversation knowing he had my support. As the years went on, Donte grew in popularity but he never changed from that loving person he had always been. That says a lot about Donte. High school can bring out the worst in people; adolescence is a challenging time. The need to belong can prompt anyone to be her/his worst self. Thankfully Donte had many mentors. There was not a staff member on that campus that did not love and look out for Donte. He was blessed.
I learned of Donte’s illness on July 1st. On July 4th my good friend alerted me to the fact that Donte had been placed on life support. I made a phone call to Donte. In my voicemail message, I shared how much I had loved him then and still loved him now. I told him I wished him healing and peace. I reiterated how strong he was and how proud I was of him and how I hoped he would recover so that we could reconnect. I’m glad that I was able to tell him how much he impacted my life.
It’s always difficult to lose good people. I often ponder why good people suffer from illnesses. I think of my dear friend Brett and so many ancestors: Don, Charlene, Danny, David, Father Bob, Mama Luz. I think of the people who have caused suffering in many lives and how they don’t even seem to catch a cold. I often pray about this line of thinking. I know it is not merciful, forgiving or loving to feel this way. Anger is a part of grief, a part of humanity. I’m angry we lost Donte. I’m angry that we haven’t done enough to stop this disease from taking away so many beautiful people from us. The anger fades and I am filled with sadness and love.
Donte used to dream of running his own restaurant. It would serve international cuisine and would be called Donte’s Inferno. The front entrance would bear a sign quoting Dante Aligheri, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We laughed about that many times. I am sure Donte is at the front of the house. Those who enter will be filled with hope, the way Donte was and is.
I made an exception to my morning soundtrack this Friday. I listened to a different sort of gospel music. I listened to the testimony of a man named Prince Rogers Nelson. A year ago, we lost a beautiful man , a revolutionary voice, a musical genius. A year later, many of us are still in shock and experiencing grief. We continue to celebrate life and joy in his honor.
I first saw Prince in his “Controversy” video on MTV. Who was this handsome man playing that song with the funky beat? From 8th grade on, I was best friends with a Prince freak. Though I don’t consider myself a super fan like some of my friends, I loved his music, style, and political boldness.
The day Prince died, I was in a state of shock. My brother had sent me a text. I said it was a hoax or a joke. I was aware Prince had been hospitalized due to exhaustion. It never occurred to me that there might be any other reason for an emergency. I did not cry that day. I reached out immediately to my best friend and one of my dance sisters who is a devoted Prince fan. I wanted to be sure they were all right and I sent them virtual love and hugs.
The following day, radio stations devoted time to playing Prince’s hits. I was driving on a rainy morning to work when “Purple Rain” was played. I broke down and wept. That morning, I decided I wasn’t going to dwell on the reasons for Prince’s death. He lived fully. Prince was committed to veganism, animal rights, his faith in God, his craft; he pursued his passions to the fullest. I would remember his life and legacy.
Many of my friends fell into deep depression when Prince died. Still, the loss brought us closer together. His death reminded us not only to continue loving his music but to love one another. I was blessed to take part in a Prince Tribute dance with Bay Area Flash Mob. I committed to weeknight classes during the busy beginning of the school year because I wanted to show my love, respect, and admiration for Prince through dance. We were lucky to be able to reprise that dance for my friends who are Prince super fans. It was an honor to share that experience with them and the warm and loving Prince fan community.
Prince blessed us with so many gifts. We still feel the loss and will likely always feel it. I take comfort in knowing Prince is with God. #wemissyouPrince #Princeforever
Eight years ago, I was thirty-four. I was depressed, overwhelmed, and doing little to get better. I also lost one of my dearest friends to cancer.
Today is the anniversary of Brett’s death. I honor the day annually. I also still celebrate his birthday. While he lived, we began a tradition of gag gifts for his birthday including a bulk pack of Irish Spring soap to commemorate the time an aging barfly walked up, took a deep sniff, and wondered aloud why he smelled so good and a box of Lucky Charms because of the goofy leprechaun voice he would use on the phone at work. It didn’t matter what we gave him. He loved it and made a big show of his appreciation. He was a man of great joy and gratitude.
Some people may wonder why I continue to honor Brett in the way I do. Brett had been my confidant and the voice of reason during a time when I wasn’t the best version of myself. A coach by vocation, he would encourage me as he might have one of his players: he was direct, results-driven, and often tough. So he continues to be my coach. For every training run and half-marathon I complete, it is Brett to whom I dedicate the final mile. Every time I face a challenge, I remember Brett during his final months. While these thoughts may be saddening, they are also empowering. My friend transitioned in strength, power, and joy.
This is a letter I never completed last May:
When I was in the hospital nearly two weeks ago, I realized I was on your floor. I don’t know which room you were in but I remember the elevator ride w T. I don’t remember the walk down the hall but I remember how you held my hand as I struggled not to cry. You told me not to worry. That moment illustrated the man and friend you were.
What you taught me was to persevere. And so I have. At work. On training runs and at half-marathons. Through illness. When I fight, I do so in the knowledge that you are in my corner.
“These streets are snatching our babies right out of our arms.” Blues used to joke half-heartedly that I go to funerals once a month. In the six years we have lived together, I have experienced my share of losses of family friends and acquaintances. Though I haven’t attended every funeral, I have taken part in viewings, vigils, memorial services, and celebrations of life. My November ancestor altar grows every year. Still, some of those events are more difficult than others. Perhaps I had a closer relationship with the deceased. Or maybe the loss is an unjust tragedy, in the case of my colleague’s son who was killed this past week.
I remember the little boy with a bright smile, when he was my M’s age, ever present at this father’s side at school sporting events. I remember him carrying a backpack that seemed to be twice as his size as his burly football coach dad walked him to the neighboring elementary school before classes began on our campus. Until last night’s funeral, I had no idea he was my colleague’s stepson. Their bond was beautiful to behold.
It had been a few years since I had seen my friend’s boy. He was a lanky pre-teen when I last saw him. I now see that he grew into a handsome young man. From the stories his friends and relatives shared, he continued to be an upbeat, fun-loving person. He became a father to his own son. Last night’s service paid tribute to his life and the love he shared with his beloved family.
In the weeks, months, and years to come, the news media will tell the story of this young man’s death. There will be details and revelations. The family will not only experience their terrible loss as a private family matter but also as a public one before the criminal justice system and the media. I pray for their strength, love, and integrity as a family to carry them through this tragedy. I pray for our communities that we may be willing to do the hard work to truly nurture our youth. I pray for all young people to be touched by the spirit of hope and peace.
All My Love, V Dearest Vanessa, We don’t know each other. I’m ashamed to admit I never saw your films nor did I read your writing though as a Latina writer I try to support my hermanas in art. I only know about your passing because I follow Alisa Valdes on Facebook. Still, news of your death has touched me. Once it could have been me blogging a farewell. I wish our paths had crossed somehow. I could have told you about my own struggles with self-doubt, depression, and the allure of a quick death. I wish I could say I was the secret to my own survival. This is only partially true. I have to credit therapy, prayer, the love of family and friends. Mostly, it was simply fear that kept me alive, fear of the unknown. Then I received unexpected news. Suddenly, it wasn’t only my life hanging in the balance but that of my daughter. So I really had to rediscover my will to live. But I was no stronger than you. I suppose I stayed a few days more. Now we won’t know what might have been if you had done so, too. I am sorry you have left the world. I am sad the world did not sense the depths of your pain. I am hurt that we will never know the extent of your potential and that only your art will endure. But I hope you have found the freedom you sought for most of your life, la libertad of peace. I pray for the repose of the soul of Vanessa Libertad Garcia. Con safos, chica.
Are ringing through my opened ears Inciting and inviting me. Limitless undying love, which Shines around me like a million suns, It calls me on and on across the universe” The Beatles
This morning, it feels like a hundred years have passed since you died and yet it seems I talked to you last week. As a matter of fact, I talked to you on Sunday during that last mile of my ninth half-marathon. I asked you to help me do it. I told you I wanted to quit. Every time I want to give up on something, whether it is running or work or any other challenge, I talk to you. In death as in life, you continue to be a coach. You push me and I am grateful.
My world has changed so much. I am the happy mother of the most amazing child. She knows you as her uncle in heaven. I know you would have liked her.
I am still teaching across the boulevard for the cross town rival. While it is a dark, demoralizing time for most teachers, and I can’t lie and say I don’t struggle with low morale, I still love what I always loved: the kids, the books, the conversations. When I get too assistant principal with my students, I try to channel you and be more of a coach and more of a kid.
The greatest change is that I embrace life. Life used to be such a struggle for me. It is ironic that I had to lose so much before I could finally love this great gift of life. I am humbled and grateful.
I know you are well. I like to picture you driving that gold Camaro down the Pacific Coast highway, blasting LL Cool J.