We met with Border Patrol this morning. People in my group asked good questions that the four Border Patrol officers seemed to appreciate.
What a bizarre situation everyone along the border is in. In a way it is an imaginary line and all involved are playing a game. The problem is this game causes incredible suffering and death, at least the way it plays out. The line is imaginary but if you think about it that wall is violent in so many ways. Toward the end of the conversation, which was good, personal and amicable, Sister Anne Catherine had been watching a group of birds who circled several times over the wall, sometimes fluttering to the ground on either side, as if they were showing us something. She nudged me and I watched too. “If only I had the wings of a bird I could fly away to safety,” as the Psalmist says. I can’t help but wonder what this wall looks like to God or if he sees it at all. However he sees it does he agree with so many of us that this wall is more important than human life and dignity? It’s always a sad, surreal feeling to see the border wall and know it’s consequences to human beings and to our own humanity. Such a cost. Such a strange and haunting place.
They talked about the infrared cameras, the anti climb, the sensors under the ground. We asked about human trafficking: they had only seen one case of that. Apparently drugs come in through the ports of entry almost entirely. They talked about how they sometimes had to save lives since people often die in the desert. Someone asked how often they saved lives they said not that often in this area but that it does happen and that helps them feel good about what they do.
There is a heavy emotional toll of doing this work and it’s hard for them to let it go when they get home. Asked what the hardest part of their job was, all four of them said it was seeing the kids. In the van again someone mentioned the suicide rate among Border Patrol being high. But I don’t remember. I was feeling depressed.
Again I had been praying at a fence. For love to win in the end.
It was hot outside and the sunlight was golden and slanting in beams when we got out of the van at the Wal-Mart Memorial.
I was not prepared.
The memorial stretched into probably about three city blocks. There was an army of religious candles going on and on and on. There were stuffed animals, pictures of the dead, messages to the dead, poems, letters, prayers. There were flags from other countries, a big poster of a fused Mexican and American flag that said, “Together against all odds.” There was a letter to the president pleading for understanding and change. It was in Spanish so I asked Maria to translate for me.
I big red poster near the middle that said,
“PAIN…. but I will not let it turn to hate.”
There was a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, statues and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, banners with Bible verses, a message of solidarity from the city of San Antonio, more messages, more prayers, toys of the little child who was killed. A massive number of flowers and rosaries. A child’s toy train.
A young white supremacist drove 11 hours from Dallas to El Paso to “kill Mexicans.” I can only guess he chose El Paso because of the spirit of friendship and community between the sister cities. Maybe he hated what El Paso represents. Maybe he wanted to do this at the border where people from both sides shop together. I don’t know. His manifesto had talked about “an invasion” referring to migrants and refugees and Hispanics in general I suppose. I had not read it. No need. I had been seeing its’ results.
Actually I wasn’t thinking about any of these things at the time. I was overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the place. We all were. It was riveting. It was devastating.
Eventually I sat down by a bank of flowers and religious statues to pray.
A woman I thought seemed like a family member thanked us for coming. I recognized the deep pain in her eyes and that aura of grief around her shoulders like a heavy black shawl that weighed her down.
When we got back into the van some people were crying. Nobody wanted to talk.
Chris said he knew we were feeling upset but we were running a little late for our last meeting of the day at Hope Border Institute so we just had a few minutes while we drove to get ourselves regathered. So we tried.
I think seeing this place would have hurt deeply no matter what. But after what we had been learning and the migrants we had met, it hit particularly hard. As we pulled away I thought, “This is the logical outcome of such madness.”
Next we went to a meeting with Hope Border Institute. The people who filled us in on their work and research taught us more about the history of the border and its militarization and the criminalization of migration.
They gave us a flowchart on how the asylum system works. It appears to be designed so that no one can do it.
They told us more about how NAFTA affected their region on both sides of the border, the closure of factories which relocated on the other side and the failure of the government to keep its promises of retraining workers, of family and communal lands being lost to farmers who suddenly were displaced and unable to feed their children, the way the consumption of drugs in the U.S. has corrupted institutions in countries in Central America, how migrants made to remain in Mexico, especially the Central Americans, are targeted by gangs to be kidnapped and how the corrupt police in Juarez sometimes help with the kidnapping.
One of them talked about a reason people are refugees is also climate change, particularly from Guatemala where climate change is happening in real time. Coffee farmers in Guatemala are having to move up 1000 feet every year as the sea rises.
They gave us some literature to go over about the work they do applying Catholic Social teaching to these issues.
One man on staff named Dylan gave us an extemporaneous discourse on what Our Lady of Guadalupe means to migrants. I remember him saying that she is neither Spanish nor totally Indigenous. She appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic convert. She said she came to comfort her children and hear their cries. Her knee is out to show she is dancing. She is pregnant. She is praying.
After this meeting we went outside for a much needed decompression to look at the other Diocesan buildings and statuary and little gardens to walk around and to talk.
My heart hurt. I think we could all say that.
At home(Casa Vides) we got word that the woman who asked us to pray for her son was beside herself because she had been notified that her son was in solitary confinement. “Why don’t they take me instead?” she had cried. She had fled her country because another son had disappeared. When she had finally been allowed to look at his body she saw three gun shots. Then she saw he had been tortured.
She had then fled with her two other sons. On the way she had tripped on a rock and been injured so badly her toe nail had gone up int her toe. They had to keep going but by the time they made it to the border she had such a bad infection all through her body she now had a port in her arm for antibiotics. We were all so sorry she was having to go through this. I thought of our prayers and messages on the fence outside his detention center. I prayed with Our Lady of Sorrows for her son, that she could hold him again and that the Holy Spirit would strengthen him and give him hope.
Before reflection Brinkly wanted to talk to us. She was very careful about what she said but something had been bothering her. The group had gone back into Juarez earlier that day. (I had stayed home.) They went to a lunch meeting with a Mexican official. She had been shocked about how much he sugar coated the situation in Juarez. She just wanted everyone to know that. The people around me laughed. Don’t worry, they said. It had been obvious to them after their day in Juarez anyway, that the guy was full of prunes.
He had said there were planty of jobs and that migrants could easily make a life there. This is untrue. Also Juarez has ten shootings per day. They have a problem with poverty that is obvious. Nobody had thought he was telling the truth.
Our reflection that night was much needed. Fr. Jose gently led us in an unraveling of what we had seen and heard that day. Then he played us a song about the God of silence and of night. It was soothing and reminded us that we could hide our faces in Jesus’ chest and sleep in love and prayer.
I didn’t know how I was going to sleep after all that. But I did. I was exhausted.
Today everyone else went into Juarez after breakfast to attend mass, meet with the priest Fr. Bill afterward, have a look at the shelters in Juarez and meet with Fr, Peter, a Carmelite Priest and Sister Betty at the Catholic Worker House there.
I took a writing day since I did not get my passport in time for this trip.
Sister Anne gave me some bubbles. She heard I love bubbles. So far I have written for a while, had conversations with two of the sisters at the house. They wanted to know how I was doing. They asked about my life. Sister Caroline is a Franciscan Sister. Sister Bea is a Holy Spirit Sister. Both are from Ireland originally. You can really tell with Sister Bea. Her accent is strong.
I sat on the couch near some women guests and did some writing there. We watched ice skating together, making signs to each other about it now and then. One of the women helped the one with the broken ankles from her wheelchair to the couch. I got her some water.
I wrote some more.
Later I walked to Sacred Heart Church. It is an historic and grand, gorgeous church, a bit worn but friendly. Mass was in Spanish. However I knew exactly what was going on and I said the responses to myself in English. I liked how the congregation claps during the songs. There was so much enthusiasm and joy in their liturgy, so much love for Jesus in the Eucharist.
I got some lunch at a little cafe. Afterward I walked to this coffee shop (The Coffee Box) where I am now.
I hope Frank remembers to ask the Carmelite priest in Juarez my question about service from a Carmelite perspective. I also gave my email address for him in case he wouldn’t mind emailing with me a little bit.
My hands have been shaking all the time. I love all the people but I am such an introvert it is hard for me to be around everybody nonstop. I am still a little shaky even with them away.
I have noticed signs of the spirit of friendship between the two cities. On the side of a building painted in Spanish it says, “Love for Juarez.”
There is a famous sister cities mural as well. There are murals all over this city. There is a mural tour people go on. One of them is of the children who died in detention.
At the art museum a lot of the art deals with the borderland, it’s cultures and its issues.
The situation does seem strange: it appears to be one city divided by big steel fence and six places where you can cross over- showing your passport or your work visa.
It used to be one city named El Paso del Norte.
In the 1970’s there was just a chain link fence at the border. Just before NAFTA was implemented, the people of El Paso can tell you, the 18 foot steel fence we see now went up. This is generally taken to mean that the politicians knew that mass migration would result from the policies of NAFTA.
Eventually the group made it back to Casa Vides.
Our next stop was Casa Refugiado. It is a huge warehouse Annunciation House rented with the help of a local Evangelical church who donated the money for three months’ rent.
The first thing we all noticed was the efforts that had gone into this to make it beautiful and hospitable for the refugees. The local art community donated beautiful art prints and photography. Best of all were the giant murals in every area.
The Red Cross loaned what seemed like countless cots. There was a room that was a chapel filled with holy pictures. There were tables of Bibles in Spanish, holy cards and rosaries. Sometimes local priests come to say mass, the guests often hold their own prayer meetings as well.
There was a tiny clinic room where local doctors donate their time as needed.
There was some play equipment that we saw children playing on. Other small children ran through one big room, their mothers looking on.
We learned that right now the numbers were in ebb at the shelters but at some points that were taking in about 1000 people a day. Now that people are automatically detained the numbers have dropped for now. But the volunteers don’t know from one day to the next what will happen. Policies are constantly changing.
The plumbing had a lot of problems and the landlord didn’t want to fix them so Annunciation House needed to have port-a-potties put in outside and a huge mobile shower unit truck waited.
I thought about the detained children who didn’t get showers or the opportunity to brush their teeth. They could have easily done this. There was no reason but cruelty to not let those children have access to showers and to brush their teeth. If Annunciation House can do all this with donations how much could our government do- especially when they are paying so much per person for private companies to keep them in miserable conditions?
Back at Casa Vides there was a donated meal of burgers from the Presbyterian church. So dinner was easy.
A woman who has won a human rights award for her work with migrants in detention came to talk to us. Her main goal is to help return agency to these people. She helps them organize with one another, helps with bailing people out when appropriate, though she thinks it is more important that the unjust situation does not continue. She doesn’t want to bail people out and then have the system adjust itself for her doing that, which had started to happen. She can help them with their commissary accounts, phone calls, support, connections and help once they are free to stay that way. She felt like she didn’t want the award. She wanted this to not happen to people. She told us there was denial of due process going on, abuse, torture and punitive conditions for people who were waiting for their asylum cases. They can be there for years in prison conditions and worse when they have committed no crime. She also talked to us about the criminalization of migrants and our national tendency to criminalize mental illness, addiction and poverty. It is not effective and causes untold suffering and a waste of potential.
She also talked about the Indian men who were force fed when they were on hunger strike. She had been present with them for that. It had been cruel. I asked what she meant by abuse and torture. She said force feeding in the way they did, especially, is defined as torture. She said beatings, humiliations, laughing at people who are suffering, this is abusive. She answered our questions well.
Then we had reflection with Fr Jose. We shuffled off to bed.
One of the Sisters sets out coffee and bread for toast, eggs if anybody wants to cook them. One of our group, a sweet young man named Alex who is here to understand what his immigrant parents went through, took it upon himself to make eggs for everyone.
My brother-in-law, Frank was here doing his story telling when I came down. People were chatting, getting to know one another.
Eventually we got into the white van again and drove through the city to tour the border fence, an 18 foot slatted steel barrier, with an extra five feet of “anti climb” on top, numbered in sections. It was strange to see the freeway on the other side, looking very similar with the same kind of cars on it, but technically another country and separated by this forbidding fence.
Chris talked to us about border history, the effects of NAFTA on the people south of the border; how they lost family lands and were driven to work in the factories built along the border (for $2 per day) in places where there was nowhere for them to stay, nothing around, and no one they knew they could stay with, so they built these carton homes. Eventually these shanty towns formed along the border. He was taking us to one of these called Anapra.
We got out of the van a few feet from the border fence, section 357. The woman with us who is originally from Chile, Maria, wept when she saw it. Both of us went to the fence and touched the cold steel, praying.
I spent many a Wednesday afternoon praying in front of the abortion clinic in my town, even before it was built. Like other people who stood on the sidewalk with rosaries in shifts in front of the fence. The border wall too is a place of death and tragedy. People jump in desperation and die or are terribly injured here. It is a place of injustice, people driven into poverty or fleeing violence then forced back, denied relief, and in many cases, denied their lives and the lives of their children.
Similar to the abortion clinic, this place of desperation and death is somehow also sacred. It is the place of the suffering of God’s children. God cherishes all of their tears, sacred to him. We could do no less.
Some of the women were taking pictures of a baby doll lying in the dirt with its head smashed. I had purposely left my phone behind so I didn’t do that. I didn’t have to. I will never forget it.
With another glance at all the trash and the shanty town on the other side, with Mexican National guards walking in pairs along the fence on the Mexican side, we gathered to read an op-ed about various administrations’ history of border policy and what has been the catalyst for this, the point being that Trump did not start this, He is just more expressive and bold faced about it, and more extreme.
Then each of us talked about our impressions of the border. I remember that most of us felt sorrow and pain about the injustice of it, the sadness, the strange unreality of the place.
Fr. Jose talked about how he had always thought he couldn’t be racist because he himself is Hispanic but reading the Bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism, he realized that there is racism and class-ism among his own community, and how they look down on those who are lower class or darker skin.
He added that he was conscious of his sin of looking away from all this. He said his main reason for being here was to continue his process of conversion.
Frank said he had been with some of his Jewish friends to a protest about the child separation policy where the chant had been “Don’t look away.”
Chris listened thoughtfully. He is always doing that.
I talked about how this place felt similar to the abortion clinic and all the time I spent praying there. I told how in my home town the abortion clinic did finally close and the site is now the offices of Coalition for Life.
I said we can have hope that some day this wall would come down and this site became a symbol of the victory of the spirit of friendship, cooperation, acceptance and love. It could happen!
Some cannot understand the visceral reaction of many in the borderlands to the wall. It is not just a tool of national security. More than that, the wall is a symbol of exclusion, especially when allied to an overt politics of xenophobia. It is an open wound through the middle of our sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The wall deepens racially charged perceptions of how we understand the border as well as Mexicans and migrants. It extends racist talk of an ‘invasion’. It perpetuates the racist myth that the area south of the border is dangerous and foreign and that we are merely passive observers in the growth of narco-violence and the trafficking of human beings and drugs. The wall is a physical reminder of the failure of two friendly nations to resolve their internal and bi-national issues in just and peaceful way. It validates James Baldwin’s fear that Americans are addicted to innocence. It is a destructive force on the environment. The wall kills families and children. There will be a day when after this wall has come crumbling down we will look back and remember the wall as a monument to hate.
– Night Will Be No More, Pastoral Letter on Racism by Bishop Seitz of El Paso
After that we voted about what to do next. We decided to go to an art exhibit called Un-caged Hearts; art left behind by the separated children in detention at the Tornillo camp.
Some of the art was truly stunning. The symbol of the questzel figured heavily. The saying we were told, is “you can’t cage the questzel or it will die.” It is a treasured bird in Central America, no one is allowed to hunt it. It is a symbol of the soul.
Birds flying in transcendent freedom were a theme that showed up as well.
Pictures of their homeland, models of their churches at home, and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, were incredibly well done in great detail.
There were native costumes made from plastic wrap, and a soccer ball signed by the children that they had “kicked to freedom” over the fence. There was a note that explained this, along with the fact that art and soccer wee discontinued by the current administration. That soccer ball really got to us, especially the young man among us, Alex.
A beautiful pencil drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to me. The child had written, “God is here.” I imagined this kid saying to himself or herself, in the midst of suffering, “God is here,” just as I have done in my darkest hours.
After this we went to a Mexican bakery and burrito shop for lunch. Some of the group, most of them from Milwaukee were unfamiliar with authentic Tex Mex food so for them so it was a real treat. I sat with Sister Anne Catherine. She asked questions about what she was eating because she had told her server to just give her whatever she thought was good. I said it looked like carne guisada to me.
We were taken to Mt. Cristo Rey, considered to be “sufficient barrier” and therefore the wall does not come near. This mountain is a convergence of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.
A trail winds around the mountain, leading to the top. Along the way are stations of the cross. At the top of this mountain of rock and brush, is a giant white crown topped by a giant white crucifix. There is also an altar for mass there.
On the way up our group prayed a migrant themed Stations of the Cross with Gospel readings and reflections and the traditional prayers. We took turns reading and leading the prayers.
The terrain around El Paso is so severe, almost all rock, with brush in some places. How in the world do people cross in this stuff without getting hurt? How do they do it carrying wiggly toddlers, or tiny babies or trying to guide exhausted little children? I don’t know. No one creates a path for them through the wilderness. And they are treated abominably when they finally reach their goal. Unwelcome, mistreated, held suspect, arrested, interrogated, stripped of dignity.
Sister A.C. and I talked about how it it would seem they deserve their feet washed, a hug, a hot meal and a soft bed after their heroic journey.
When we finally reached the top, everyone hot and sweaty and dusty, some men were working repainting the monument. They let some of our group help a little bit and take pictures with them. They said their fathers and grandfathers had helped build it and this work was passed down and done by their descendants as family tradition. They were getting ready for the 80th anniversary celebration when the bishop of El Paso would be there and a border mass would be celebrated.
They gave us water on the way down. They showed me the crosses with the names of the 22 shooting victims from the El Paso Wal -mart mass shooting.
On the way down, we talked with each other about our lives and about our thoughts. There were little shrines along the path for saints important in the region, Chris had said. I remember St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Francis, St. Martin de Porres.
I got to talking to him too. He asked about the tattoo on my arm and I told him the story about my consecration to Mary and that my tattoo is the North Indian design for a rose. I told him about my other tattoos too. We also began talking about our lives. He didn’t talk a whole lot, mostly asking me questions and keeping his own answers fairly brief. He is a kindly young man with a listening heart. He seems to possess a lot of wisdom too.
We went to dinner at one of the other houses, Casa Romero. The sister who serves there is a Mary Knoll sister. She showed us around. Then we listened to a presentation by Brinkley, one of the volunteers, about what migrant detention is like. It basically sounded like prison. She talked about how the migrants feel about this: “I didn’t do anything wrong. I am here to claim asylum. I am trying to do it legally. Why do they punish me like a criminal? “ Or “I just need to work and feed my family!”
We learned about the hunger strikes that had been going on at the detention center next door. Some of the men had been force fed which damaged their esophagus and internal organs with the feeding tubes, inserted with larger than necessary tubing, the procedure done rather violently and without local anesthetic. One of the med had fainted and stopped breathing at one point.
Brinkley got us to write prayers and messages to those in detention next door that she likes to ritually tie to the fence even though they can’t see them. I thought Franks’ was really good. “Love wins in the end.”
I left my Immaculate Heart of Mary medal hanging there on the fence too so that a part of me will always be there. We prayed in a circle for all of these people imprisoned in the big building next door with that barbed wire along the top of it’s high fence.
Soberly we went in for dinner: spaghetti and french bread and salad served by a retired couple who spends a month a year at this shelter. They were very kind. After dinner we all helped clean up. I was on mopping duty while others did dishes and so on. The women helping with dishes talked and laughed with a woman from our group, Maria.
One of the men staying in the shelter who had fled violence in his home country became very ill on the journey through the mountains. He now knows his kidneys shut down and he had a collapsed lung. He had lain in the desert praying that the police or border patrol or someone like that would find him and he said, “God heard me!”
Some of the women guests helping with dishes turned out to be “Social Security women.” These are widows whose husbands worked legally in the U.S. and who are entitled to their husbands’ social security. For some bizarre reason our government requires them to travel to the U.S. and remain there one month before they can claim their money. One of the women had become ill on the journey and was a day late and they wouldn’t give her her money. They said to stay yet another month. Widows of husbands who worked in our country from Europe and Canada and elsewhere in the world have their checks mailed to them.
I don’t understand the reasoning for this. It just seems unjust. The travel and one month stay is a serious hardship for these women. The travel is an expense for them, and taxing for the older ones. They have to put a hold on work, figure out what to do with the children or how to bring them along and they miss school. Sometimes the money isn’t enough to make it worth it and the government just keeps it. This seems wrong, the whole thing. One of our group said, “But that is unjust!” The women said yes it is but who can defend us. No one cares. Someone in our group sympathized about the journey. They said “God travels with us, God is with us.”
A young black man walked around listening to music. He was from Kiwa,(?) Brinkley said. She said they get refugees from all over the world, people who have been through jungles, crossed dangerous rivers, and braved danger to get here to safety.
In the chapel some of the women were praying the rosary. Father Jose went in and blessed each one. They cried. He said later he knew that it was not him doing that that caused them to cry, but what he represented to them as a priest.
One of the women asked us to pray for her sons. One of them is stuck in Juarez, and the other one was in detention next door.
We went back to Casa Vides for reflection and bed. Father Jose asked us where we encountered God that day. Everyone had a moment and we talked about that: the soccer ball, the art that seemed like a miracle in itself, the deep faith of the migrants, in the workmen on the mountain, in Chris himself. Everyone smiled at that. He is such a steady, patient, kind and wise young man.
Everyone went up to bed. Sister Anne hugged me goodnight. I remembered the blanket this time and therefore I slept much better, praying the rosary in my mind for the sons of that mother we met.
The first thing I saw when I came in the door of Casa Vides was a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a close up of her face, and the tips of the fingers of her praying hands. I thought to myself, “This is Mary’s House.”
There are several murals here in the dining and living room area. The largest is of the faces of several El Salvadorans who stayed here who died on their journey, except the two who were activists there and were assassinated as also was one of their sons. This house is named for them. In the middle is a green map of Central America. A banner across it bears a quote from St. Oscar Romero that says in Spanish, “If thy kill me I will be resurrected in my people.”
Throughout are flora and fauna of El Salvador and a landscape with a mountain in the back ground. In either side are two traditional figures facing the portraits.
Around the room here in a banner like swirl of peach paint that stretches all over the building and into the basement are written the names of all who have died on the journey or who were killed by agents of enforcement. If they have not yet been identified there is the word in Spanish, “Unknown.”
There is a large cross also, painted in Central American style. The rooms are named after Oscar Romero, and the activist couple who were assassinated, and their son, and, I suppose others like them. Every room has a name on or over the door.
Our group has been staying here in this shelter. We have five women in a small dorm room, three bunk beds.
The migrant guests stay in another part of the house so they have privacy and proper boundaries from our group. We see them at meals and in the common areas of the house. I don’t speak Spanish really but I can express compassion, ask if a person needs anything. Those of us who do speak Spanish can tell me the stories the guests have shared.
When we first got in we were a little early. Sister Caroline was handling a stressful phone call about one of their guests who had just left to meet family in another state but who was not allowed on the plane be cause of her two broken ankles. The three of us who drove sat down on the battered couch to wait for those of us who flew in from Milwaukee.
Eventually everyone else filtered in.
All of us were very tired. It was about 1 in the afternoon. We had lunch: spaghetti, guacamole and chips, black beans. Tea to drink. We each were invited to say what brought us here.
Everyone but me was from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees, a group just forming in Milwaukee. I said I had felt called to do something and to come to the border for a while now. As a writer I planned to write about this since it is something I know I have to give. I wanted to be able to speak confidently about what is happening at the border, to understand the issues, and to find out of there is anything I can do to help the people affected. I wasn’t sure what else God might have for me in this. I had been invited along by my brother in law, Frank and I was glad to be here. I told about my friend, Gloria who was undocumented and who died recently of completely treatable and preventable illness because she was undocumented. I wanted to dedicate this trip to her memory.
Our director, a young volunteer who has been here for almost two years, a very centered and gentle spirited guy named Chris. took us in a van to a local museum and memorial that celebrates an historic agreement about some territory, the Chamizal, that had been disputed between the U.S. and Mexico for many years. It is near one of the six border crossings in the city of El Paso and Jaurez. We could see people crossing back and forth from school or work back home, school kids with their backpacks, walking in chatty groups toward the bridge. There was a huge line of trucks standing still waiting to cross. I hear it sometimes takes hours but you never know.
The museum was educational about the cultures of the borderland, and its’ history.
We returned for dinner. Chicken and rice and salad and beans.
After we helped clean up, we went downstairs to the basement for reflection time. The priest who is with us, Father Jose, led us in a simple reflection format. Someone read from the Gospel. The priest asked us a couple of questions: What do you live for? And, “What is God calling you to do?”
We had talked at dinner about why each of us was here and that flowed into this discussion. Most of us don’t know exactly what God is calling us to do. But we know he lead us here to this place, and we all trust that his purpose for us will unfold. To all of us, our faith, expressed in various ways, is what we live for. The way I remember saying this was that what I live for is my relationship with God.
We closed the day with an Our Father, A Hail Mary, and a Glory be. The priest blessed us, and we all went up to bed. I was so cold during the night and I had not known there were extra blankets in the room. So I woke up often. I thought a lot about what this is like for the people who come here for help. So much must be going through their minds at night in the dark.
* The house we are staying in is Casa Vides. Annunciation House was the original shelter with volunteers who live there in community with the guests they care for. Over time they began to form a network of houses. But they are all under the auspices of Annunciation House.
In a bomb shelter in the Italian town of Trent in 1943, a group of young girls talked about how their hopes dreams were being crushed by World War II. Their town was relentlessly bombed. Families who could were leaving as the town literally fell apart. Those left behind were suddenly living in poverty and ruin. It seemed so hopeless.
Is there anything that no bomb can destroy? An ideal that transcends all? Something to truly live for? The answer that came was, “God.”
During the time in the bomb shelter, they opened the Gospel and read. The words of Jesus came alive for them like never before. They seemed immediate. They began to take a verse or phrase each day and try to live it concretely.
They began to care for and love those around them regardless of race, religion, politics or anything at all; to love them in a personal way and take care of them as Mary had cared for Jesus. They discovered more and more a spirituality of unity and love. Such was their light and joy that more and more people joined them. Eventually they became a new spiritual family in the Church: The Focolare Movement, an International Association of the Faithful of Pontifical Right, blessed and encouraged by St. John Paul II who was very excited about them and their promotion of the ideals of unity, love, and universal brotherhood.
The official name is actually “The Work of Mary.” They are to bring Jesus to everyone, as Mary did.
Focolare means, “Hearth,” in Italian and that makes sense because they have become true peace makers through their work, their spirit and their inclusiveness. They are a spiritual hearth, nourishing and welcoming the whole world.
Focolare operates in 180 countries now with 140,440 members. When I see what Focolare is, it gives me so much hope for the Church. “This is where we’re going now,” I think. And that makes me smile.
While Focolare is a Catholic organization, it welcomes people of other Christian traditions, people of other religions, people of no particular religion and atheists. As local Focolare member, Julia Mendonca Motekaitis says, “Anyone who wants to be one with the mission of love is welcome!”
Julia says being part of Focolare has given her a “deep sense of the universality of the faith.” She says, “This is one aspect of the Church I can really see that it is moving forward.”
What does it mean to live as a member of the Focolare? Julia says it has given her the tools to interact in society as a Christian, not to be timid, and also not to judge or move away from people who are difficult.
She talks about the ideal of unity in daily life. “You can be one with anyone at any moment. In any interaction with another person we can make Jesus real so they can see him!”
It’s not always easy. She has had to work through judgmentalism and prejudice she didn’t realize she had in order to love and encounter Jesus in others. “We have to see people with new vision, new eyes.”
Focolare was brought to Bryan-College Station by a Focolare priest (now a Bishop) Michael Mulvey, and is still going strong. At monthly meetings, a portion of the Gospel is read. Members talk about their failures and successes in trying to live it out. They support and encourage one another. Julia says the real goal is what happens between meetings, which is to love God by loving others, to be one with others “in all things but sin.” She says the spirituality and ideals of Focolare have given her the courage and resolve to live the Gospel.
Rose Schmitz, who has been part of Focolare for 24 years, described her faith life before Focolare as very satisfactory. She was very happy to be active and involved in the life of the Church. It was as if she was working for “The best boss in the whole world and I loved Him with my whole heart. I knew I was in the right building. But I felt like I was on the bottom floor and this boss was mostly on the top floor. I didn’t get to see him very much. It was as if I only saw the boss in passing on the elevator or something. In Focolare I realized he was in the other person all along. I thought, ‘Oh! That’s you!” Now she feels like she has coffee with the boss every day and he is always with her. She feels freed and more able to love as she has grown in Focolare spirituality.
I asked Rose how she thought we could heal the divisions of our time. She said that when there is a division, to remember that we are dealing with a human person. “People come first before things. People come first before ideas. Peace is more important than being right. ” Once you have prioritized seeing the other person as a human being first, “You can then enter into the division seeking to understand more than to be understood. The goal is not to change the other person, only to understand.” You will come away perhaps not as a winner, “but you will come away enlightened.”
In this way, I reflected, one would also feel more whole and so would the other person. Maybe that is what unity can be.
The Focolare ideal, I am told, is to love until love is returned. In that process of learning to love one another, each person begins to empty themselves. When that happens, the presence of Jesus becomes more clear. “He will begin to speak,” Rose says. “He will begin to solve problems, to bring about the unity he prayed for.”
Matt and Jari Whitacre, also long time Focolarine, talked to me about the annual “Mariopolis” most members try to attend regularly. People bring their whole families. The retreats are usually held on college campuses, and attendants stay in dorms. Their are different events for children of all ages, as well as discussions and talks for adults. There are shared meals and a games night for everyone. The only rule of the retreat is to love one another. Priests, Bishops, the consecrated, lay single and married people attend. Relationships are humble and egalitarian. Adoration is available as well as Reconciliation and daily mass. Jari notes that non-Catholics usually attend daily mass with everyone else even though this is not asked of them. There are times also that all can pray together as one.
All the Focolare family I spoke to talked about how loved and cared for they felt at the Mariopolis. Jari told a story about having a child come down sick and having to take her back to their room. People kept bringing Jari books to read, checking on her, bringing food, offering to help with the other children. There was an attendee who was a doctor who come by and asked if there was anything he could do.
Around the world there are permanent Focolare towns to show that people of all cultures, races and religions can live together in unity and love.
Over the years I have been to several Catholic conferences where there were tables around manned by people from various movements and ministries. I will say, “Oh there are the Focolare people,” pointing them out. And I am always right. There is something about them that is recognizable.
The founder, Chiara Lubich, asked why she didn’t wear a habit, replied, “I have no habit. My habit is my smile.”
Maybe that’s it; it’s that special Focolare smile, joyful and authentic. I consider it a sure sign of the Holy Spirit.
In my dream I am swimming in dark water. As I descend into depths unknown, I can tell there are other people watching from farther away, as if they line the walls of an underground cistern with different rooms and levels, filled with water completely, water unfathomable.
I dive into an area further down than the others. It seems like a dark aquarium but without light on either side of the glass. However I can still somehow see a box on the bottom. I open it. It is full of pictures, letters, keepsakes. In the dream I know what these things mean and I am filled with intense sorrow. My brother is at my shoulder now. A more terrible emotional pain than I have ever known fills me. I try to show my brother the things in the box and explain the significance and the pain but he can’t answer me. He only looks on. I am not sure he understands me.
I am distressed. “Why did you bring him?”
The Lord is silent, his expression inscrutable. I look at my brother who is standing at his elbow; “I can’t deal with talking to you!”
Mark’s hand had been coming out to me and he had started to say my name.
“OK OK! So I can’t fix everything at once!” he says.
He turns as if to leave but I have to ask, “Wait! … Have you seen Mom?”
“No,” he says to my surprise. “But I can feel Mom.”
I think about that. “Are you with God?”
“I’m …learning about God.” Another surprise.
“Well… where are you?”
“I don’t know. It’s just quiet here.”
I think of of the land of the Samaritans, of Jacob’s well, and the mountain in the distance where the people worshiped God whom they did not really know (see John 4:4–26.)
“Do you see anybody?”
Just Bob.* He isn’t always here but he comes to see me sometimes and we talk.
I am circling over the top of the hotel where my brother shot himself and fell from a balcony on the ninth floor.
Then I realize I am standing on the balcony next to my brother. Intense grief wells up in me.
“Didn’t you remember us? Didn’t you understand how much we loved you?”
He doesn’t look at me or speak but I feel that I am him and in my mind’s eye I see our family and all of our friends. But they are so far away as if they are across an infinite chasm.
“I saw every one of your faces.” I feel his longing and love for each one dear to him. I understood that the longing was more like a longing for the past though. To him there was no way back. I feel his overwhelming sorrow.
I understand that while to me there was a way back, to him there wasn’t.
I can’t feel the impact of the shot. I don’t hear it.
But then I experience him falling. It’s slow, very slow. He knows right away after the shot that this was all wrong, a terrible, horrible mistake.
As he falls he senses these beings all around him, present in different places all of the way down; some close, some witnessing from farther away. He realizes they are sad, so sad. He knows they are sorry for him and that they mourn over this terrible act he has just committed. They are gentle though, not angry. Just terribly terribly sad.
He wonders what they are. He thinks his sister would probably call them angels, but he isn’t sure.
What happens now?
The fall continues in slow motion.
Suddenly he’s caught. It all stops. Big strong arms squeeze him tight.
“It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s all over. You’re safe. I’m here. Come on with me a while.”
Breaking the fall.
*Bob was my brother’s best friend, colleague, mentor and soul brother for 24 years. He was also his brother-in-law. Bob died in my and my brother’s arms in April of 2012.
As Suicide awareness month comes to an end my intention was to write about what happened, especially about that time leading up to my brothers suicide.
As it turns out, it is still hard to talk about. The reasons are traumatic and complicated.
Everyone says to be available, reach out, check on people, talk to them, try to get them to get help. Sometimes I feel angry when I hear that stuff. None of that worked with my brother. People “reaching out” or checking on him would have annoyed him.
I and other family members tried to get him to go to counseling, and as things got worse, to consider checking himself in somewhere because we knew he was seriously depressed, that he was in an emotionally and financially abusive relationship with his girlfriend of that time, and that he wasn’t acting like himself. We knew things were difficult at work. He seemed paranoid, angry, agitated and unbearably anxious every day. Some of his ideas about how to fix his situation at work sounded grandiose and like more than a long shot. I asked what people at work thought about these ideas. He said, “They don’t believe me.” I worried about all of this every day. We all did.
One family member was over one day when my brother started yelling at me about something no reasonable person would have even thought was something to get mad about. The family member then took me out on the porch and said, “He sounds like a lunatic!” I was exasperated. “I KNOW!”
He never used to yell at me before all this. Never.
He seemed not to know my character anymore at times- the one person who had always understood me. He called me judgmental, insensitive. I didn’t even fight back which is not normal for me. I think I was too stunned to do so. I am not sure. I stopped telling my friends what was going on, or at least the extent of it. They have known me forever so they knew anyway.
I may have thought I was being loyal or honorable or keeping things quiet but we must have seemed more crazy to the outside world than we thought. One family member who didn’t live there said it was a house of cards. Another quipped that the house must have been built on an old Indian burial ground and was cursed.
One morning I awoke to my brothers’ alarm endlessly going off. I was scared he would be late for work so I ran up the stairs as fast as I could to wake him up. I turned off the alarm and shook the lump under the comforter. A large,strange man turned over. I had no idea who he was. My daughter was sleeping downstairs. Where was my brother? The stranger shook himself awake and said he was my brother’s girl friends’ cousin.
My brother was asleep in his “man cave.” I was very upset. How could he leave us in the house with some strange man he hardly knew? He thought I was over reacting. I thought, “Am I? Am I being crazy?”
Things would be normal between us for a while as if we were in the eye of a hurricane. He hugged me one day and said he was so sorry about how he had acted in hurting my feelings the day before. “I can’t stand to hurt your little feelings.” He said, “When I hurt you I hurt me.” Or he would send me an e-mail from work saying he was sorry we hadn’t spent more time together lately and why didn’t we go on a four wheeler ride this evening when we got home.
We did go on the four wheeler ride, laughing all the time. He kept flipping off deer. I said, “Why do you keep doing that?” He said, “Because it’s so inherently WRONG! Here are these beautiful. graceful, innocent creatures who look up at you…. and you flip them off! ha ha ha ha.” I laughed too. He was so weird and I loved it.
Then a few nights later he would be yelling saying he had asked for family support and we had said no. Which was not true. I was doing everything I could think of to be supportive. I had stopped asking questions. Ever. It seemed to upset him. Even, “Where’s the cat food.” I tried to listen and be available before and after work, to hang out with him in the evenings, to listen and be supportive.
Other family members were also trying very hard. One of them was meeting my brother for lunch every day and spending time with him each evening trying to help him get through his hard time.
My youngest daughter and I lived with him for ten months after I sold my house. He had plans for building me a new one on his land with the proceeds. I would live with him until it was ready. We were so excited. I was excited to be with my brother. I tried to be excited about the house too because he was always getting me to look at plans. He even drew a picture of my cat, Godith in the house so I would be more interested. (Clever!) He dreamed of building me a little tower to meditate in, with windows all around. He drew a place for me to sit with my friends, a special window that would look into my chicken coop.
Something went wrong after about three months. I don’t know what had changed. Nothing happened with the house and his attitude got darker and bleaker.
Sometimes he talked to me about problems at work. Some of it started to sound strange. I wondered what was really going on. I asked hesitant questions. That never went well. No questions did at that time.
Guns started showing up all over the house. I don’t know much about guns but I could tell they were big, automatic weapons. They looked like space telescopes. We were stepping over them. They were in the closet and under the bed.
I tried to ask about the guns but he wouldn’t talk to me about it. Or anything,really.
I asked a family member to come get the guns away, someone I thought he would let do it. He said he was working on it. Apparently it was a touchy subject for my brother with the rest of the family too.
We were not allowed to act worried. We were not supposed to notice how crazy things seemed.
It was very strange about the guns. I don’t know why he was doing that. He had always been obsessed with something. Making home made rockets. Chess. Building beautiful speakers. He would do that thing all the time and get everyone else into it. Then he would drop it and move on to the next thing. I thought maybe moving out into the country had gotten him interested in guns. Maybe it was a neighbor that got him into it. I hate guns. I didn’t like it at all. But it was his house, as he was quick to point out those days.
He became hyper critical of me and my daughters. He had never been that way.
He was mean to my daughter and seemed to pick on her all the time. He rebuffed my attempts to stop his griping at her. She said I was just making it worse. She and I talked about it in our room at night. We would just leave the scene, we decided, when he got like that.
At some point he stopped answering my texts and e-mails. I just sent them anyway. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t just let him go without a peep.
He liked Buddha quotes so I started e-mailing him Buddha quotes every day. He said he appreciated them one time and that he often passed them on.
I prayed for him every day in an agonized way, walking with my rosary. I wondered how I could be a good sister in this situation.
Sometimes I got so worried about him I had panic attacks.
I was severely depressed myself at the time, and so was my daughter. We had lost my second husband to brain cancer three years before. Bob had also been my brother’s best friend and co-worker for 24 years. And we lost my mom six months later. She was only 63. Nobody had really recovered from that. And my brother seemed to be going under.
I used to ask him, “How was work?” when he got home, or “How was your day?” One day he said, “Don’t ask me that anymore.” So I started meeting him at the door with a glass of iced tea. “Here.” “Thanks.” “Hey look at you! You made it through the day!”
On Holy Thursday at my own house, the girls and I always washed each others’ feet. My eldest had moved to Oregon and my youngest was out that evening. I knew he wouldn’t want to do anything like that so I just stopped him in the kitchen and told him how much we all loved and appreciated him. I had a bowl of soapy water and I bent and washed his feet. “What are you doing?!”
“That made me feel really good. That was cool.” He mentioned somebody at work who was fighting cancer and that I should go and do that for her.
He started disappearing for days at a time, usually the weekends, and refusing to answer his phone. It was frightening. Sometimes I was so scared I searched his room for clues about where he might be. (Did he take his suit case? Was his toothbrush there?) I was getting a little crazy myself. Sometimes my daughter and I,along with other family members, were super angry when he got back. We asked what the hell was going on. We had been worried and so was everyone else. He was offended. He felt intruded on. He thought he should not have to answer to us and we were over reacting.
I was scared he was drinking.(He had been in recovery.) I was scared that his girlfriend would kill him one day. He moved her into the house with us and I could hear her angry screaming at him at night and what sounded like furniture being thrown around. He never said anything back.
I wanted to beat her up like I had beat up his bullies when we were kids or at least confront her but someone pointed out she had scary friends and that might not be a good idea for our family for me to do anything stupid or confront her. (One of her cousins had threatened someone working on the house, saying he was calling his gang members right then and that he would kill the man.)
I thought I should get my daughter out of there. I thought, “I should have done that months ago.” She ran away twice while we were there. It was scary and painful but I tell her now that I don’t blame her for it. The emotional climate of that house was not safe for her. I should never have stayed so long.
By this time we were locked out of the main part of the house all the time. I was able to cook for us but I had to wash dishes outside with the hose. My brother hardly ever spoke to me. He seemed brooding and angry, agitated, and not like himself.
He yelled at me because he could tell I was upset about his girlfriend though I was always polite to her. I was incredulous.
It seemed like I couldn’t do anything right.
Then some mornings he would gently wake me up, having gone and gotten me a special coffee, and invited me to come have coffee with him like when things had been normal. He would smoke and we drank our coffee like things were OK. I hugged him goodbye and after he went to work, I did too. Life seemed almost OK.
One evening I went to check on him upstairs in the loft. I told him he was looking a little better. He said that someone else had told him that that day too. He said he was trying to do some self care stuff and get into a routine again. He had gotten some movies to watch. He said maybe he was feeling a little better. He just didn’t have a sense of well being yet. He was going to up his medication he said. I was worried. “Does your doctor know you are doing that?” He didn’t answer me. Oh yeah, no questions.
He told me he was scared about what might be wrong with him. I remember the frightened look he gave me when he said that maybe he was mentally ill. This is when I dropped a very important ball he had thrown me but I didn’t know it. I did what I always did, I tried to reassure him, saying, “You’re not mentally ill! you’ve just been really really depressed and upset about a lot of things. But you’re not crazy. You’re going to be OK.”
He said, “I hope so, Shawn.” I said that I believed he was digging out of it little by little.
I am not sure if anything would be different if I had asked him more about why he thought he might be mentally ill, and what he was scared of about that. I don’t know. That was the last one on one conversation we ever had. I will never know if I should have handled it differently.
I often think, “He would have never let this happen to me.” Had our roles been switched he would have been intrusive and controlling. He would have insisted. He wouldn’t have worried what the rules were or what anybody else thought. He would have tied me to a chair if he had to.
I suppose in my defense I could say I didn’t understand. I was following my own role of being nurturing, being his defender, the person who believed in him. I had utter faith that whatever bizarre thing was going on with our relationship, it would never stand. He would come around. Things would straighten out like they always did, no matter what. I knew how necessary I was to him, and he was to me. I had complete faith in him. It was the wrong thing to do. But I didn’t know that then. If I had it to do over, I would have been mean and pushy instead. I would have hidden his car keys, taken the guns to the city dump, refused to cooperate with anything until he got the help I knew he needed. I respected him too much. More than he actually needed me to. Never do that if you know someone is in trouble. Then again, if someone is in this much trouble you may have slid down into the pit right along with them. I think this was the case. Looking back on it I don’t understand why I put up with any of what was going on at all. But that’s how it is. Everyone falls into their roles. And things get worse and worse before you realize.
He was almost never home. My seventeen year old was staying away as much as possible, always with friends. I didn’t blame her.
I had just started dating a kind, interesting (and cute!) man from Austin. We talked on the phone about every day and he was a nice break in all the chaos I was going through. Somehow we managed to fall in love in the middle of all this.
He was worried about me in this situation and he didn’t even know the half of it.
At confession, rather late in the game, I talked to a priest about the situation. I didn’t tell him much, only a few things. He asked if I had the money to support myself and my daughter on my own. I said I did and he said he would have told me to get my kid and myself out of there right away even if I hadn’t had the money. I promised him I would.
I felt guilty about leaving. I don’t know why because my brother didn’t seem to like having us around very much in those days. But I knew it made more sense for us to leave temporarily.
I started looking around for a place to live at least until my house was ready. I had lived there at my brother’s for ten months. My youngest was seventeen. This was an important year for her and me.Maybe this last year we knew we would be together we should get our own place in our old neighborhood near her friends again.
I found a place to go and quietly started making arrangements, not knowing what I would say to him about it with him seeming to be so fragile. I heard he had found out about it so I sent him an e-mail about what I was trying to do, that I would only be 15 minutes away, and maybe everyone would get along better like this until my house was ready. Maybe he could stop by on his way home from work like he always used to do.
But when I went to get money out of the bank, the account where the proceeds of my house was, in order to get deposits and other moving expenses taken care of, I discovered my account was nearly empty. To this day I don’t know what happened to it.
I don’t know if his girl friend or one of her scary friends or my brother did it. I had him on my account so he could get building materials and so on.
My eldest daughter had entrusted my brother with some money from a settlement she had from the death of her father when she was little. I called her and got her to check her account too. She only had $1000 left. We decided to close both accounts right away. We could not get much information about what had happened. There were extra accounts started in our names that we had not known about. Money had been moved between them over and over. It didn’t make any sense.
I didn’t even want to bring it up to my brother because I knew he was in such bad shape. So I didn’t. I was scared so I called a family member. This was so wildly out of character for my brother to do this or to have allowed someone else to. Doing anything that would harm me this much was so not him I was scared for him.
I was in shock. I went to stay with a friend until I could get a grip.
The family member I had told about the money tried to talk with my brother, but couldn’t get much out of him about the what had happened. I was surprised they talked about it. My instinct was to protect him for now until he was better. I wrote him an e-mail that I was OK and what I cared about was him getting better. We would work it out like we always worked out everything when the time was right. I told him I was just freaked out and would be staying with my friend for a few days. He didn’t answer but at that point he never did anymore.
A family member set up a meeting so we could talk about the whole thing, but texted me at the last minute to say he thought maybe it was not a good idea just yet.
The last time I saw my brother, I and my boyfriend were stopping by my dad’s house to drop something off. I don’t remember what it was.
I was surprised to see my brother there. They had been having dinner and he looked up, surprised to see me too. I knew he knew that I knew about the money so I was relieved when I saw him smile. I went over to him and hugged him, pressing his fuzzy little head to my shoulder, mussing his hair. He hugged me back.
He got up and shook my boyfriends’ hand in a kind purposeful way. When we left I said he had looked ill, but that he had looked better to me. My boyfriend remarked that he had looked very young, like a little boy having dinner with his parents.
Everyone was worried about him so he was staying with a family member while he tried to get better. One day he told that family member that he was going to take a little vacation time and just go somewhere, and that he would be back Friday.
He told one person he was going to Austin. He told another person he was going to Houston. Then he disappeared. We weren’t all that worried because he had been doing that from time to time, a few days here, a few days there. I reassured my family member. “He’s been doing this for a while. He’ll be back.”
I had said that I hoped he didn’t lose his job. The family member said, “I just hope he’s still alive.” I thought that was crazy. Why wouldn’t he be alive?
I was well trained not to question his actions anymore, not to express alarm, and to think everything might be a little crazy, but that it wasn’t THAT crazy.
But things were seriously wrong, and they had been getting more and more and more wrong.
The worried family member talked to my brother who said he was fine and would be home late Friday.
My thoughts were that he was at his bottom and would come up from here. When I got a message from somebody at his work asking if he was safe, if he was with me, I had replied that he had been OK the day before and we expected him home Friday. Then I got another message like that from another of his colleagues.
Then I got a message from a family member who was on a trip to Florida that Mark had sounded really weird the night before, sending texts that sounded like goodbye. Time to worry.
He wouldn’t answer his phone, would not answer texts. I called another family member. We decided to call the police.
I texted and called over and over, even sending the number of a suicide hotline in case he would rather not talk to us. I hoped it was all overkill that he would gripe at us about later. It did not seem real.
Later I got a text from a family member: “Just received Mark’s suicide e-mail.”
I rushed to be with family. When I got there I started to read the suicide e-mail. It was addressed to two other family members and said they were the only people in the world who loved him. I remarked, “There must be another one for me,” and asked if I could check my own e-mail. There was nothing. So I scanned the only letter, which began, “By the time you read this I will be dead.”
I was in shock, as you can imagine. We all were. He only mentioned me twice in the letter, and my children not at all. What he did say about me was that he didn’t know what to say about me and that I would “make up [my] own s*** anyway.” And he said I would be “OK… in every way.”
Then he gushed about the two family members to whom his letter was addressed, asked that they one of them take care of the other one, asked that they be kind to his girl friend, and gave unrealistic financial advice about selling his house and car in order to take care of the one of them who was financially challenged.
He said he knew people who were suicidal always say this but he didn’t see any other way out.
He said he couldn’t believe he was doing this but he was doing it.
As the police were doing whatever they were doing, we were desperately texting him. I begged him not to do this. I reminded him the kids had already lost two fathers. I said I didn’t care about the money and that we always had each other no matter what, that it may seem hopeless but there was a way through.
The others were doing the same. One of us said, “it says the message was delivered. Maybe he’s still alive!” We didn’t know where he was. I had no idea I had been in the building next door to where he was when I got the text about the suicide letter.
At some point I felt unwanted for some reason. One family member did tell me this was not my fault, and that the letter had been cruel. I will always be grateful for her kind words and her hug.
I went to my friends’ house where I had been staying. My other friends began to show up to wait with me.
I sent one of my daughter’s friends to pick her up from her boyfriends’ house but to my surprise she refused to get in the car. She seemed to think I was going to give her a talk or something and she wouldn’t come home. I had to let her be.
At about 9pm I got a call from a family member that said the police had just been there to notify them that they had found my brother. He had been at a hotel in town and he had shot himself. He was dead.
My friends drove me to go tell my daughter before she saw it on the news or something. She was sitting on the porch when we got there. Someone had already told her. She said, “Mom, it’s not your fault.”
When I called my eldest daughter she was hysterical at the news. Her husband cried too. She had just gotten home a day or so before from visiting us but she got in her car and headed back to Texas pretty much right away. She called several times along the way crying.
Not me. I didn’t cry. I don’t remember crying.
Everyone seemed relieved when my boyfriend got there from Austin. I remember putting my head on his chest in my friend’s kitchen.
Another friend had been cooking mushroom curry. I had love and support.
Friends continued to arrive. Some even came from far away to sit with me, old friends. People from work came by.
My closest friends and my youngest daughter came one night to pray the rosary for my brother. I remember my friends in a circle on the living room floor, candles burning, rosaries in hand. We prayed and cried and hugged each other sometimes. We talked. We remembered.
A dear friend who is a deacon came over too. He even talked to my other daughter over the phone. The girls wanted to know what happened to his soul. Our Deacon said that the Church commends such souls to God’s holy mercy.
One family member came over and cried in my arms asking how I could over forgive them. I didn’t know why. Why that question? Forgive what?
They said if that was them in that letter, if our places were reversed, “I would want to die.”
“Well I do,” I said. “But that’s not your fault.”
They said they would do whatever they had to to get my money back for me. Which seemed a strange far away concern to me.
People tell me I often acted like I was OK, that I laughed and joked around some. Other times I seemed so far away my friends thought, “Our friend is just gone.”
Time passed. I don’t remember much about those dark days that stretched into months and years.
I was like someone who had just come back from war. I was shell shocked a lot of the time. I had nightmares if I slept at all. I yelled at people over nothing. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Everything triggered me. I wondered if this was how my brother felt. People were there caring about me but I didn’t feel their love. I felt unwanted. In some cases this was true, to my dismay. But most of the time it wasn’t.
My friends had been through so much with me, other tragedies included.
This one, I reflected, was the one that broke me.
My boyfriend would drive me to Austin because he had to work and he was afraid for me to be alone. I used to sit in the lobby at his work staring at the covers of magazines.
He drove me back. I only remember that it was dark.
I got an apartment. I sat there alone with my books and my daughter’s little dog, Flower.
I didn’t understand anything.
I couldn’t get the information I thought would make this make sense. Nobody would talk to me about it who might know. I was scared anyway that I would find something out that would hurt me more.
I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t stand any more pain.
People seemed so far away and the world didn’t seem real to me.
Maybe that’s how my brother felt.
Maybe that’s what he thought about on that hotel balcony.
A few years later I finally thought of talking to the hotel manager. He told me my brother had been there a week. He had seemed fine. He had spoken to him. He had sat by the pool with his coffee and cigarettes working on his lap top.
Then on the Friday, August 21st at about 3 O’clock or so he had parked his car beside an obscure emergency exit, taken a gun out of his trunk, climbed nine flights to a tiny balcony overlooking the pool and patio, sat on the rail, and publicly shot himself. Someone at the pool had called 911. The police had told the hotel manager that he had probably done it this way to ensure that if the gun shot didn’t kill him the fall would.
I never saw his body. The police report is sealed (I don’t know why.) The police said they would talk to me and then wouldn’t. I cannot see the autopsy report. I don’t know what kind of gun it was. I don’t know what was on his phone besides our desperate messages. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why he seemed to be angry with me when he died.
All of my reading of public documents and trying to talk to people helped me feel less helpless for a little while.
I went to the hotel. I walked the way he had taken. I went up the stairs. I sat on the balcony for an hour. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t know what I was feeling. I didn’t cry until I left.
Twenty-one years ago, my youngest daughter, Roise, (pronounced “Rose,”) was born at home, at sunrise. My dear friend, a nurse and midwife, Andrea, put her on my stomach. My baby looked up at me with frightened eyes, and said “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
As her dad, who was in our bed holding me, sobbed with joy, I said to my child, “It’s OK! I’m your Mama!” I nursed her for the first time, and my husband, Blaze, gave her her first bath in our kitchen sink, after my sister in law, Shawna, had cut her umbilical cord. All the women in the family were in the bedroom with us when Roise was born; my step mom, my daughter, Maire, who had run in at the right moment, and my mom, holding Maire in her arms.
After everything was all cleaned up and Roise Mariah was pronounced robustly healthy, everyone left with a happy glow. Maire and Blaze climbed into bed with Roise and me and we had a long family nap. It was beautiful.
I’m having coffee with my friend, Andrea, mid-wife and Hospice nurse. She’s talking about work and spirituality. People often ask her how she can do what she does, especially the Hospice work. But she says that, aside from being tired sometimes, and worried about her own problems when she’s on her way to work, there’s nothing negative about what she does. She forgets everything else in the presence of a laboring woman or a dying person. “It’s like a window to Heaven!”
More often than not, dying people she comes into contact with are in a state of peace as they near the end of their earthly lives, and they commonly seem to be seeing and talking to people in the room that nobody else can see, most often, people they love who have died.
My mother looked up in wonder, not having really spoken for months at the end of her illness. “What are you all doing here? Are you going to take me with you?”
The deaths Andrea has been able to be present for were powerful spiritual experiences for her. The houses of the dying are filled with God’s presence, and she prays deeply when she is working with a patient and his or her family.
She is more grounded and profoundly present than at any other time in her life, she reflects, when she is working.
Sometimes, as she goes about her own daily business, she thinks, “Wow, I really did that.”
The morning my second husband, Bob, had died, Andrea had the beautiful idea of inviting our close women friends to come and wash and anoint his body. She thought of it because in the Bible, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial with bathing, oils and spices.
Our friend, Amy, had a set of Biblical essential oils, such as frankinsence, myrrh, myrtle, spikenard, etc.
Andrea, with solemn tenderness, guided us through an improvised ritual; with Bob’s body modestly draped, we washed him reverently, and anointed him with fragrant oils.
We cried and we prayed.
She guided family and friends in prayer and asked each of us if we had anything we wanted to say as we waited for the funeral home, and for our friend, Deacon Ron Fernandes, who led us in prayer and blessing, and even singing.
“When a family is spiritual, it’s really nice for me- especially if they are Catholic. I am always glad to see icons or a crucifix or picture of Mother Mary in a house. Then I know I can openly pray the rosary. The rosary is definitely the prayer I pray the most during my work.”
“During labor or grief, my imagery/prayer is, ‘Please, Mother Mary wrap this mother, this couple, this family, me, in your mantle of grace and mercy.’ I call that image to my mind.”
Andrea says she often senses the presence of Mary at births, especially.
“I think I identify with her because she labored to birth Jesus, she was human, and she suffered the grief of His death. This comforts and gives me strength.”
I have always thought it was perfect that Andrea was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12. The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn, and in that image, she is pregnant.
“People are always so grateful. And I think, I didn’t DO anything, I was just there!”
I know why people are grateful. They are grateful because she was there. Andrea brings a sense of solid, motherly, and professional competence into a frightening situation, she gives the intimate and ultimate mysteries of birth and death back into the hands of the family. Then these events become far more personal, home and family-centered experiences because of her courage and love, her willingness to come to the family, and serve them where they are, in order to allow them to give birth, or to die, at home. This is a gift of peace.
She recognizes, nurtures and draws out the best in people when it is most needed. She makes them feel empowered in trusting the process.
Precious to me is the memory of Andrea holding my hand as I labored in the bath tub. I laughed and said I could not imagine our family doctor doing this, as good as he is.
“There is just so much love that is there,” she says, tearing up.
She is certainly adept at finding the beauty inherent in these events, and transmitting it just where it is needed.
As we talked about her work, she cried now and then. Don’t worry, she cries easily. She also believes so much in what she is doing, she is very passionate about it. She gets frustrated trying to describe her thoughts and experiences. She thinks she is in-eloquent. But she’s not.
Andrea is very earthy, and as I thought about what she was saying, and what I learned, having watched her work, I see that her spirituality involves being very in tune with the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of the physicality of birth, suffering, and death, of what Veronica’s veil would have really looked like, smeared with the dirt, blood, sweat, snot, and tears of the very real Face of Our Lord.
The blood and water from the side of Christ make sense to Andrea. She has these all over her all the time. She understands the physical as deeply spiritual. Hers is an Incarnational spirituality, true to the One who came to share our sufferings and give us life; actual life, not just an idea, Life we can touch and hold. That’s how real the Resurrection was. Jesus wasn’t just a spirit. He was and is real. His wounds were touched by His disciples. He ate with his traumatized friends. He comforted them.
Andrea experiences this truth of the Incarnation as an every day reality, and to her, it just is.
Well, not really, because she cries when you try to get her to talk about it.
The trip to Corpus Christi where my parents both were from was usually taken in the evening. At that time (the early 1970’s) traveling the 250 miles from College Station where my parents attended Texas A & M, to Corpus in our VW Bug (we had a couple of VW vans over the years too) took about six hours.
We made this journey often. This was where both sets of grandparents and lots of extended family lived. We went for holidays, sometimes for the weekend, sometimes because my mom was homesick, or because we were out of money and needed help.
At those times, one or both grandmothers offered to pay our gas, feed us for a couple of days and send us home with groceries.
Sometimes my parents needed more time for school and work and sanity so they had us stay there for extended time in summer. They were quite young and they needed a lot of support back then.
A night drive was preferable in part because our car didn’t have air conditioning and it is almost always hot in Texas.
Often there was little radio reception so my family made requests for me to sing. I had our Linda Ronstadt albums memorized in particular and I was a good singer.
Like a lot of siblings on trips we tended to fight in the back seat. I am sure this is another reason for the evening departures. We would sleep more and bug them less.
I liked listening to mom and dad talking after my brother fell asleep. I liked looking at the moon and wondering why we never passed it up. I liked looking at the patches of earth we drove by in an instant but that were the whole world to the bugs that lived in the grass there, or to the person who woke up and saw that patch of earth every day. My brother and I talked about these things when he was awake. He liked to think about that stuff too, gazing at our feet on the car window, considering the scattered stars beyond, the shapes of buttery clouds, wondering what other people thought about.
Or maybe he would fall asleep on me and not get off and I would have to push him into the floorboard and then various forms of chaos would ensue. You know how it is.
Whether we slapped each other or not, we regarded this trip as a sacred journey. The excitement was intense. A lot of the happiness was about seeing my maternal grandmother, “Granny,” whose house was our unquestioned home base in Corpus Christi. We loved her passionately. We loved Grandaddy and all the assorted animals that lived in or around the little house on Dewitt Street.
We loved rolling cigarettes for them with their cigarette roller (and being paid a nickel apiece!) We loved playing Dominoes and “Go Fish” with Grandaddy and hearing his stories. Granny was colorful and funny and a little bit crazy and she loved us like we were her everything.
We could recite the names of the towns along the way from College Station to Corpus Christi and that is how we understood how far along we were on the way.
It was our sacred duty to wake one another as we approached certain markers of the journey’s progress.
The Shamrock station in La Grange was one of these places. It had a covered vending machine area and everyone was allowed to get something. This was a very big deal because my mom did not let us have soda or junk food as a rule.
My brother loved the hilly winding road outside La Grange with the stone walls on either side. I had to wake him up for that so he wouldn’t miss it.
Here is Giddings where our van engine blew up that year and Sally had to come pick us up.
The halfway point outside of Victoria had to be noted and celebrated by all.
The turn off near Refugio.
Portland… The first sight of the water.
We were always so excited at the sight of the Harbor Bridge (usually just called “The High Bridge”) that crossed to Corpus Christi I am surprised we didn’t throw up.
Both of us could hardly contain shrieks of joy as we began the ascent. For a while, all you can see is steep climbing road ahead lit by headlights, and the vast expanses of dark water to either side. Then at the highest point of the bridge suddenly the sparkling city opens out before the traveler like a fairy kingdom. It was a moment of awe I was to duplicate for my own children.
Neither of us would ever let the other sleep through that.
We would always try to pick out which one of those lights might be Granny’s house.
The excitement at this point was almost too much for us.
Her house was out in Flour Bluff so it took some extra time to get there. We always went down Shoreline and Ocean Drive along the bay with its sea wall, palm trees and tall houses, past the hospital where I was born, past that ugly church with all the bells that my mom said was an eye sore. I always watched for that great big pink mansion with the back yard sloping into the sea, wondering what it would be like to walk out your back door and be standing at the edge of the sea like that. There was the house that looked like a castle, too.
We were sure we could smell the salt air, that we could feel the ocean’s greeting.
By the time we turned from South Padre Island Drive onto Talmadge and then to Dewitt Street, pulling into the little driveway with its over arching Oleander trees, we were usually screaming with happiness.
The screen door would fly open and slam against the house. Granny would be standing on the threshold, her arms open wide, yelling, “MY BABIES!” as we shot out of the car like rockets to be scooped up and squeezed tight. Cats ran every which way, dogs barked, people laughed and exclaimed and hugged. My grandfather would hang back shyly, pointlessly telling the dogs to quiet down, until we jumped all over him like maniacs too.
There was always coffee on and a pot of beans on the stove.
Eventually we fell asleep on pallets on the floor near the big air conditioner in the living room window as the grown-ups talked and smoked late into the night.
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