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The death and life of a friend

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” John 11:21

For the fifth and final Sunday of Lent, the Gospel was about the raising of Lazarus.  Verse 21 in Chapter 11 of John reminds me of the losses I’ve faced, especially my friend Brett. His death was the beginning of a series of difficult moments in my life but also a sea change which made me truly commit to healing.  God was never absent in those moments.

When Brett’s health worsened, he was full of serenity and warmth. It was as if his best qualities were magnified in those final moments.  I was moved by his love and gratitude. The closer he got to death, the better and more holy he became.

It is difficult to accept you will lose someone to terminal illness. It is hard to understand God’s glory is present in those moments. On a personal level, I didn’t want to lose my friend. I didn’t want to lose someone who had been my comforter. A lot of people didn’t realize how unwell I was back then; Brett was ministering to me in my hours of need. I sat with him during his illness but it wasn’t enough to help him get past it.

His life and death have served as an example to me. Whenever I’m faced with a challenge, whether it is half-marathon training or my own health woes, I meditate on how Brett prepared to die. It’s hard not to say, “Lord, if you had been here, you could have spared him.” After all these years, the wound is deep. I am hurt I lost my friend the way I did. I am sad I lost a good person.

Lazarus’ death was one of the few times Jesus broke down in tears. He was a minister to the sick and the dying.  Yet he grieved for his friend. Raising Lazarus was both a gift he gave to Lazarus’ grieving sisters and the beginning of the end for Jesus himself.  The Pharisees gained more evidence in their case against Jesus; in challenging the status quo, Jesus was condemned to death. His death, like Lazarus, became a new beginning.

The raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of what is to come. As Lent winds down, we reflect on the journey to death, which we walk with loved ones but also our own journey to resurrection.

Jesus raises Lazarus to life - John 11:1-44

Holding the door open

I am a woman of patience. Too much patience, I sometimes think, but in my line of work, it is essential. That being said, I grapple with my tendency to be mild with folks, even as they work my last nerve.  I can occasionally channel my #innermongoose.(A fearless favorite) On a day to day basis, I tend to keep my thoughts to myself.

Since Election Night, I have experienced many emotions. Grief is a messy process and it is different for everyone.
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Through social media, well-meaning friends and  acquaintances have posted, either in their own words or via shared images and articles, that it’s time for everyone to move on.  I have been asked to choose love, to hug more, to open doors for strangers, and even to pray for the president-elect.  I have been questioned about love for my country, regard for unborn children, and even the way I am parenting my child through this crisis.  And, sabes que, I have had enough.  Ya me tienen harta. Tu no me mandas!

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Not you, not anyone, other than the Lord and sometimes my mama or daddy.  Tu quien eres?
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Tu no me mandas.
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I can cry, rant, curse, laugh, and react in any way I want. I can take to the streets in protest. I can declare the president-elect #NotmyPresident.  If you don’t like what I have to say or do, GTFO.  Vete. Largate. Borrate.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I am done.

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This morning, I unfollowed a fellow blogger. She’s likable and well-spoken.  I respect her enough to head out on my way. She’s entitled to her opinions. She is standing strong in them.  So am I. There’s nothing to be gained by trying to change her mind and sharing my judgments with her.  She will believe as she does. I will believe as I do.  With one difference. She has a privilege I do not.  It’s easy to tell people how they should be feeling and acting when it’s safe for you to do so.  The most dangerous of the president-elect’s followers won’t attack her.  While I can exit stage left on any conversation that makes me uncomfortable, I can’t escape reality.

In the days, weeks, months, and years to come, I have to be prepared for the worst that could happen. I have to arm (yes, I said “arm”) my only child with the knowledge and skills to grow up into an empowered woman of color. (Mothering a warrior)These are our lives.  These are our rights. If you can’t understand or respect that, then let’s wish each other well.

My running club

Presente! 
I have been running for nine years and in that time, I have had plenty of reasons to run, think time while I run, training calendars to follow, and miles to cover.  A few years ago, my friend and fellow runner Alejandro posted an online challenge.  He challenged us to offer the names of our departed family and friends who lost the battle with cancer. He would wear their names on ribbons on a flag he would wear during the race. He would also think of these people during his training.  While I did share a few names, this challenge changed the way I ran. My running club was born.
Inspired by my friend, I began to devote my training runs to those I have lost.  I honor those I lost to cancer. I honor those I lost to AIDS and suicide.  I honor those I lost to accidents and old age.  Every single mile is spent with one person.  I remember them and revisit the memories we shared.  Sometimes I do talk to them. I ask what they might do in a situation I am currently living. If I feel tired or unmotivated, their memory pushes me forward.  So many of my antepasados fought to their last day. Their courage inspires me.

Since my running club began, a few traditions have been established.  I always run with my grandfathers and my uncles who have died. I always run with my baptismal godfather. The first mile, so often the most challenging, is usually offered to someone who passed recently. In recent months, I have lost my Tio Mario, our host when we visited Peru last summer, and one of my mom’s best friends, Rosario Otarola. The last two miles are offered to two special people. The second to last mile is offered to Luz Nieves, my best friend’s mother. Mama Luz was a vibrant, beautiful woman and devoted mother. She cheered for my best friend and me during a few of our races; it was my best friend who first inspired me to run.  The last mile and therefore every crossing of the half-marathon finish line is devoted to Brett Haagenson, one of my dearest friends. Brett was a coach and teacher and he still plays those roles in my life.  Currently, I am dealing with workplace challenges so they are on my mind while I run. Thinking of Brett helps me smile and shake that negative energy away. 
I am truly grateful for the amazing people in my life. My running club has allowed me to stay close to those who have passed. 
I remember and honor these people and ask that you lift them and their families up in prayer.
Tio Mario
Rosario Otarola
Rafael Medrano
Abuelito Marcelo Calderon
Abuelito Rodrigo Urbizagastegui
Tio Delio Calderon
Tio Armando Villa
My nino Malaquias Mercado
Godfather Alex Loza
Charlene Brown
Keith Rodgers
Marco Ortiz
Father Bob Mathews
Remy Watson
David Villalpando
Danny Pastor
Donnell “Don” Grant
Luz Nieves
Brett Haagenson

Dearest Brett

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:
Dearest Brett,
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.  

Valediction for a young man

“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.

Live in glory, Kris. 

Prayer for hope

“A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished…” William Shakespeare, Act 5 of Romeo and Juliet
“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” Allen Ginsberg
The morning after a tragedy is quiet on many levels.  There is the usual quiet of mornings.  Also there is the lull of reflection.  Of course, there is the silence associated with various emotions: the numbness that accompanies grief, the tense muteness preceding or following rage, the stillness of shock. So often we are at a loss after a tragedy, however close we may have been to those involved.  I didn’t know Trayvon Martin and yet I, along with millions of others this morning, feel the weight of his loss and the failure of the court system in freeing the man responsible for his death. 
When I first wrote about this case over a year ago (Media misrepresentation in Trayvon Martin case), I pondered how my distance from the events led to my misunderstanding and confusion about the events as news. I also pointed out how the many layers of my life experiences impacted my thoughts.  At that time, I knew Trayvon Martin would impact us as a nation.  This morning, I realize Trayvon Martin has impacted me as a person. 

As a mother, as a woman of color, as an educator of at-risk youth, and as a proud American, the verdict delivered  in the trial of George Zimmerman exacerbates the fear, worry, and heartache I have about race relations in my country.  I live in a country where children can be attacked simply because how they look. 
Talented Sebastien De La Cruz, aka El Charro de Oro, came under fire for paying homage to his Mexican culture as he performed his National Anthem. 

Brand-name cereal Cheerios shut down online comments on their YouTube video feed after their charming commercial featuring a biracial family inspired racist reactions. 

I live in a country in which a TV show featuring several Latinas as sexy maids reaps high ratings and positive buzz despite the stereotypes perpetuated. 


So while we battle these issues in the media and the social networking worlds, I trust that our legal system will not be affected by racist images and misconceptions.  I am crushed when I am disappointed. 

Somehow, I carry and hold up hope.   As an artist, I choose to embrace all people as we come together creatively to build community. 


 As a mother and girlfriend, I choose to stay in my community because it offers an opportunity for my daughter to grow up in a different America, one where all people can live together. 
I choose hope. 

This morning, I offer a prayer for hope, the hope that Trayvon Martin’s death was not in vain, that as a nation we recover from this tragedy in the spirit of reconciliation, and that the families most affected by this loss find peace.  

A true friend

“I had the best dog. But I still have the best friends!” me, 2/7/12, Facebook comment

For the first time since I was a year old, I won’t have a dog in the house. After nearly thirteen years, I put down my beloved Talula to rest yesterday, accompanied by my life partner, Blues, and our family veterinarian. Talula had had cancer for well over a year and we just couldn’t stand to watch her fade away slowly.

Dogs are great friends. They love unconditionally. They don’t cast judgment. They don’t engage in gossip. They don’t complain. They live in the moment and share joy with everyone they meet.

What I loved best about Talula was her genuine joie de vivre. A pit bull mix puppy found wandering in a bad Hayward neighborhood, she was always gentle and happy. Apart from my parents’ mellow Lab, Pinto, Talula was the sweetest dog I have ever known. I trusted her with my toddler. Her early experiences made her skittish but never aggressive or unpredictable.  She proved that she was more than a breed or a beginning.

During the painful process of putting Talula down, I asked Blues why humans aren’t more like dogs. Then last night, on the same social network that often makes me doubt who people really are, I was reassured that my oldest friends and some of my newest friends are loyal, trustworthy, and loving.  People, like dogs, have the potential and capacity to be authentic and selfless.

I will never forget my wonderful dog. She knew me before and after my recovery, before and after motherhood, and always gave me her heart.  While I grieve her absence, I rejoice in the peace of knowing she is at well-deserved rest.

Poem for a friend

 

I wrote the following poem in Spring 2011 as part of the “Poetry for Change” curriculum unit  in . English 11, Future Leaders for Social Change Academy
 
Four years and eleven days later
A villanelle
For Brett
We lost our friend so long ago. 
He left us before the summer came.
Our loss darkened springtime with woe.
Tainted cells grew, silent as snow,
Slowly smothered out his life’s flame.
We lost our friend so long ago.
There was no way for us to know.
In vain, all searched for one to blame.
The loss darkened springtime with woe.
We fell prey to its undertow,
Gave up hope, cowered in shame.
We lost our friend so long ago.
A robust warrior was brought low,
Disease became victor in that game.
Our loss darkened springtime with woe.
We lost him to an unseen foe.
Our lives will never be the same.
We lost our friend so long ago.
This loss darkens springtime with woe. 

Three panic attacks and a letter that should have been shredded

Grief is awful. Brett’s passing has affected me more negatively than anything in recent personal history. Not even my big breakup four years ago has caused me so many sleepless nights, crazy nightmares, crying spells, and panic attacks. My symptoms of depression have returned and my behavior and thinking is reflecting that. Almost everyone has been understanding and supportive.

I know I wasn’t fully recovered on May 9th but I had greatly improved. I was happy and confident. I was getting back in touch with myself. The hours of writing and using cognitive behavioral therapy exercises had changed my thinking. I know I made progress because I can read through the charts, graphs and notes and I can see the positive changes. I know I can work towards healthy thinking and behavior again.

I make mistakes. I do things that are irrational, frustrating, and concerning. I’m not perfect. I take responsibility for the poor choices I have made in the past two weeks. But I also recognize that I have experienced a heartbreaking loss.

A song for my Play Brother

Anxiety has returned. We’re helping organize Sunday’s memorial service. So the emotions are resurfacing.

King of Pain, The Police

There’s a little black spot on the sun today
It’s the same old thing as yesterday
There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top
There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop

I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain

There’s a little black spot on the sun today
(That’s my soul up there)
It’s the same old thing as yesterday
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop
(That’s my soul up there)

I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain

There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a blue whale beached by a springtide’s ebb
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web
(That’s my soul up there)

I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain

There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out
There’s a blind man looking for a shadow of doubt
There’s a rich man sleeping on a golden bed
There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bread

King of pain

There’s a red fox torn by a huntsman’s pack
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a black-winged gull with a broken back
(That’s my soul up there)
There’s a little black spot on the sun today
It’s the same old thing as yesterday

I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain

king of pain
king of pain
king of pain
I’ll always be king of pain…