The Teresa Jusino Experience

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Tag: death

Two Years Later: The Road to Failure, in Itself an Art

Dad and Me

Losing my dad two years ago today was both harder and easier than losing my mom.

It was harder, because I wasn’t there. I’d already moved to Los Angeles at that point, and I found out that he’d passed away on a phone call. Whereas with my mother, I got to be there when they pulled the plug on her life support and say goodbye (she wasn’t conscious, but still), I couldn’t be there for my dad, and that hurt. It still does.

It hurts especially, because of my parents my dad was the one I felt really understood me. We were the same in so many ways. My mother was amazing, of course, and I loved her so much. But my dad and I shared so many things, and they weren’t always good, but they were ours. We were both writers who were (and are) always late to things. We were both social creatures who were extremely stubborn and loved to debate a topic into the ground. We both loved travel, and music, and art of all kinds. We valued our dreams, and thought them as real as anything in “real life.” When I say “I’m my father’s daughter,” I mean it. There’s no one else’s I could be.

But in many ways, it’s because of all this that losing my dad was easier than losing my mom. Whereas my mother died with her mind in tact, and her passing felt more like a sharp tearing away, my father started petering out long before he died. As his mind started to go, shortly after my mother passed away (and apparently, she’d been covering for him in various situations, so we couldn’t tell it had already started happening), he was less and less the person I knew. My dad had entirely defined himself by his mind – talking about the value of education, reading The New York Times and doing the crossword puzzle every day, taking me to all sorts of educational places when I was a kid, and being the happiest for me when I did things like go away on Model UN trips, or go away to Dublin to study for a semester. Whereas my mom always cried, or worried out loud, if my dad worried at all he held it in. He always wanted me to know that it was okay to leave, because leaving meant learning and growing. Leaving meant change, and he never wanted me to feel guilty about that.

And that person started leaving us in 2006/2007, so that by the time he passed away in 2014, we’d already said goodbye a thousand times.

And even though I couldn’t be there, and even though I was so deeply sad that one of the people who understood me best in this world was gone, a part of me felt relief. Because knowing him so well, I knew that he would never ever want to be seen that way. My dad definitely had a lot of pride, and when he was in his right mind would never want to ask for help. So often, I wished he would. But in any case, to go from that person to the person who needs to be bathed and dressed and fed like a child…if he were himself, I know he would’ve hated it.

So, maybe it was for the best that I, of all people, wasn’t there at the very end, to see him on a hospital bed taking his last breath, looking more weak and frail than he’d ever been. He probably would’ve hated that, too. I got to see him looking more dignified. Made up, and in a suit. I got to say goodbye to him when he was more presentable. I think he might have preferred that.

Pretty much everything I do creatively, I do for my dad. (Yes, even Incredible Girl! Did you know that my father wrote a play in the early 1990s that involved a husband who wanted to engage in BDSM with his wife? Yup, he did! The apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess) Everything I achieve professionally, or pursue artistically, I do it with him in mind. Because for a million reasons he never could.

If you’d like to help me honor my dad today, plan a trip to somewhere you’ve never been or an experience you’ve never had! You can also read the eulogy I read at his wake, or give a donation to your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

And lastly, enjoy this poem from his short collection of poetry called Pillars of My Strength. He wrote these when he was only 23 and in the Air Force stationed at George Air Force Base here in California (which closed in the 1990s), and a lot of these poems are trying way too hard. 🙂 But this one, called “Tomorrow,” totally captures my dad’s personality – his drive, determination, and yes, stubbornness – in a way that remained true for him the rest of his life. It also shows that he knew what his failings were, but could never bring himself to stop fighting:

Failed have I, and well I understand, 
That in my undertakings, pride has played the greatest part. 
The road to failure, in itself an art, 
Was further enhanced by my stubborn stand.
However, even as a sun retreats unto the night
And a baby bird will try until he flies, 
So will I on prophecy rely
When a tomorrow with success will prove me right. 

I miss you, Daddy. And I hope I can be your Tomorrow.

Ramon Jusino Jr.
September 7, 1935 – April 19, 2014

Ten Years Later: Things I Remember, Things She’ll Miss

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My mom died ten years ago today. Ten years. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday. Other times it feels like a million years ago. I’ve come so far and my life has changed so much in the subsequent ten years that it’s often difficult to remember what life with a mother was like.

I can’t just think of her face anymore without help from a photo. What I find myself remembering most are her hands. Watching them as they worked on something, or the way they felt when she’d hug me or hold me.

I remember her laugh. It was big, and raucous, and contagious. I remember that she had a great sense of humor, and that she talked about flirting with the male nurses in the hospital when she was sick. 🙂

I remember how she cried when I moved into the dorms at NYU, and how I thought it was so silly, because I was only 40 minutes away from the house. Now, I know those tears meant that she loved me so much. I knew that then too, I think, but I was too busy being an independent college student to focus on that.

I remember sitting with her in a hospital room toward the end, and asking her “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings or anything – I know you love me, and Kenny and Janette, and Dad – but if you could’ve done anything else with your life, anything at all, what would you have done?” And she stayed quiet for a long minute and then said “No one’s ever asked me that before.” And she couldn’t come up with an answer, because she’d never really thought about it. But I think she was glad to have been asked and made to think about it.

I remember my mom most when I find myself doing things she taught me – like neatly tying up plastic grocery bags so they’re easier to store, or beating out “Shave and a Haircut” on the side of the pot with a spoon while I’m cooking something.

I also remember her most as I live through things that she never got to see. She never knew that I moved to California, and that I’ve started to build a life and a home in the state where my parents spent the beginning of their marriage. She never met The Fiancee. She won’t be at my wedding. She won’t be around to see any kids I might have. When I go home to New York, while she remains a stop on my People I Need to Visit tour, it involves getting driven out to the cemetery.

She only ever knew me aspiring. She’ll never see me finally get where I’m going, and that makes me sad. I’m always nagged by the feeling that she died worried about me and my well-being. Not just in the way that all mothers will always worry about their kids, but because I’d chosen a less-than-stable career, and I was broke, and I was single, and I didn’t seem to be able to get anything together. I hope that, wherever she is, if she’s able to check in on what’s going on in between Heavenly massages and endless chocolate cake and ice cream that I’m okay. That I’m the best I’ve ever been. That despite the hardships, it’s all working out pretty well. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. It’s evolving in a way I like.

It always hurts a little when I hang out with The Fiancee’s awesome family and I remember that mine’s incomplete. Or when any of my friends talk about their parents coming to town to visit, or going to visit them back home. I’ll never have that, and I always try to remind them to treasure their parents while they’re still around. Even when they’re annoying. 🙂 I’m so glad that I went to go visit my mom in the nursing home, or the hospital, even when I “didn’t feel like it.” My only regret is that I didn’t do it even more.

It’s been ten years, and I miss her. There’s a hole in my life that was supposed to be filled by her that now isn’t. But I’m grateful that she was my mother. She was the best one I could’ve asked for. She wasn’t perfect, but she was perfect for me, and as often as she made me mad, or inadvertently hurt my feelings, or said something less-than-progressive and made me cringe, I also never doubted that she loved me.

She always let me know, sometimes through her words, but more often through her actions, that she loved me and was always there for me no matter what. She encouraged me even when she wasn’t sure what I was doing – like that whole “acting thing” or “being a writer” or whatever. Sure, she’d encourage me to get a “real job,” but she also never said I should give up the other stuff I wanted to do. She just wanted me to be practical and careful. And she would often surprise me. Despite those less-than-progressive things she’d sometimes say, she was equally likely to surprise me with a completely progressive opinion on something when I least expected it.

It’s how I know that she’d be surprised, but ultimately supportive of my upcoming marriage to The Fiancee. She’d love her, because I do. I just wish they would’ve gotten to know each other.
Anyway, I think my rambling’s at an end. I love my mom. I miss her. I celebrate her and the wonderful (and wonderfully complex) person she was. And I’m grateful for her.

If you’d like to help me remember my mom, feel free to go to your nearest Puerto Rican restaurant and eat a pastel in her honor. 🙂 You can read the eulogy I read at her funeral. Otherwise, a donation to your local chapter of the American Diabetes Association is always a great choice.

Mariana Hernandez Jusino
September 21, 1935 – April 5, 2006

Grief is Weird

I wrote the following on 4/30/14 in my journal, but wanted to share it with all of you. Because grief is weird, and I wanted to reach out to those of you who’ve ever lost someone you loved and know exactly how contradictory, crazy, tumultuous, lonely, and weird grief can be. 

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Me and my ever-growing tribe when I needed them most. New York, 2014.

Me and my ever-growing tribe when I needed them most. Croton on Hudson, 2014.

Never is the question “How are you?” more loaded than when you’re mourning the loss of someone you love. And it seems impossible to answer it the way you’re supposed to – gracefully, with just the right amount of solemnity and just the right amount of good humor to allow the person asking to join you in your grief without drowning them in it.

It goes something like this:

They come at you, face full of pity, telling you how sorry they are, then asking the dreaded question. How are you? The thing is, you were fine before they asked that. You’d gotten all your crying out earlier, and you’d managed to pull yourself together, and you were looking forward to seeing your friends precisely because you didn’t want to think about things like aging parents, or grieving, or nursing homes. You wanted to be normal. And then they ask you how you are, and it makes you feel guilty – because if it isn’t apparent, if they have to ask, then clearly you aren’t grieving hard enough. And what does that mean? Why aren’t you More Sad? And so you feel the need to explain yourself, like “Oh, I’m OK now, but I was devastated before,” or “It’s all still really surreal right now.” And those aren’t lies exactly, but they aren’t the whole truth either. Because sometimes you actually are OK, and you want to reserve the right to be OK, and you start to resent people who bring their sadness to you, because they want their turn to share in your grief, and you get a little pissed off and think “It’s not my fault you weren’t there with me when I was crying to myself at three A.M. Stop trying to out-sad me!”

But, of course, anger is a part of the grieving process – and you remember all the times when your friends have lost loved ones, and you didn’t know what to say, and you become immensely grateful that they’re even putting up with you and your emotional ping-pong, because they get you, and they trust in your love, and they know that this is what you need to do to process the fact that your parents are dead. They follow your lead, because they’re you’re friends – they’re your family – and every death you share reminds both you and them how important you are to each other.

Then there are the people who don’t know. The people who missed the announcement on Facebook, or who aren’t close enough to you to have been told. The employers or acquaintances who never knew your dead loved one. They ask the question innocuously. How are you? And they’re expecting the usual “Fine,” or news of your writing career, or your love life, and it’s then when you want to scream, HOW AM I? ARE YOU KIDDING? THE ONLY FATHER I’LL EVER HAVE IS DEAD, AND I’VE ALREADY LOST MY MOTHER, AND ASIDE FROM TECHNICALLY BEING AN ORPHAN NOW, BOTH MY SIBLINGS HAVE FAMILIES OF THEIR OWN AND I DON’T, SO I FEEL LIKE MY BRANCH OF THE FAMILY TREE IS COMPLETELY SEVERED AND FLOATING ADRIFT IN SPACE! AND DESPITE HAVING GREAT SIBLINGS, WONDERFUL FRIENDS, AND A PARTNER WHO LOVES ME, I STILL FEEL FUCKING LONELY BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE A “HOME” TO GO TO AT CHRISTMAS! THAT’S HOW I AM!

But you don’t say that, because that would be hugely unfair to someone who had no idea what was going on with you. So you tell them – my father died – and brace yourself for having to relive the sorrow all over again with a new person as they express their condolences days, weeks, months after the fact.

Someone who hasn’t seen me in a while asked me “How’s your mother?” when I was in New York last week. And I gulped – how could she not know? – and said “She died in 2006.” And I got to relive my grief again, on top of the new grief for my dad. Awkward.

Anyway, what I try to remember is that there’s no correct way to grieve, and no one knows what to say. There’s nothing to say. You both want to be cheered up and want to wallow in sadness. You want to remember, and you want to forget. You remember smiles, the feeling of hands on your face, laughs, fights perfectly, even as you struggle to remember exactly what your dead loved one looks like. And photographs start to feel like a lie, because they capture faces, they may even capture moments, but they don’t capture feelings, or what the people in them meant to you, and the longer you look at photos, the more your dead loved ones start to feel like characters in a story you heard once, and it seems insane to you that the story is yours, and that it’s allowed to go on without them.

At 34 years old, no human experience feels more contradictory to me than grief. But amid all the conflicting feelings there has been one constant. Love. My family pulling together and being there for each other. My friends being there for me. The Boy silently standing beside me with hugs at the ready. The sharing of happy (and hilarious) memories of my dad. Cuddles with my friends’ new babies that give me hope. So much love that it breaks my heart and mends it all at once.

Corn Flakes With Orange Juice

While I was supposed to be making potato-leek soup and a baked good to bring to the first annual Friendsgiving today with my BFF’s, I had to back out of those plans when I heard some sad news. The grandmother of Vanessa, my oldest childhood friend, passed away this week, and the wake was today. I was touched when Vanessa texted me to tell me, as we haven’t kept in the best of touch over the years, and I knew I had to go.

First, Doña Juanita, as I called her, was a huge part of my childhood. She used to watch Vanessa and me after school, and I was always over at her house to play. She was a fiery woman with an easy to spark temper, but she also cared about her family immensely, and was one of my dad’s closest friends (I guess great tempers think alike?).

That’s the other reason I felt compelled to go to the wake today. In addition to wanting to be there for my friend, and wanting to pay respects myself, I went because my father can’t, and I know that he’d want to if he could. It was a strange feeling, sort of being there as my dad’s representative. As Vanessa’s mother, daughter of the deceased, introduced me to people and explained how I knew the family, I felt the weight of history. Not just my own, but of a history that existed before I was born, when my father used to have a factory, and Doña Juanita used to work in it, and how my mother and Vanessa’s mother knew each other when they were pregnant with us, which is how she came to be my oldest friend. And now, here I was with Vanessa at her grandmother’s wake; my now-married-and-six-months-pregnant friend with whom I ate the orange juice and Corn Flakes concoction we stupidly served ourselves at her Doña Juanita’s house when we were about six after she made us finish it, yelling at us for wasting food. Crazy.

Also, today was the first time in a long time that I prayed a rosary. I’d forgotten how meditative it is. I have my own rosary here somewhere, and I’m going to find it. It’s a really helpful way to pray. And with thirty or forty people in a room all praying it for the deceased at once? It felt like our hearts and thoughts and energies were all working to send this woman directly to Heaven. Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200. 🙂 And we were praying it in Spanish. If it’d been a while since I’d prayed a rosary, it’d been even longer since I’d said prayers in Spanish. Yet there I was, reciting the Our Father and the Hail Mary in Spanish as if I’d never stopped. Yet another part of my childhood that resurfaced for the occasion. It was nice to be reminded of a time when Spanish-speaking culture was more a part of my life, as well as to be around people who remember me from when I was under the age of five.

I’ll be attending the funeral service on Monday morning, because I know my father would’ve wanted to attend that, too. If you think of it, send your prayers/good wishes to Vanessa and her family, as they’ve lost a powerful matriarch. Though, since she was 95, it’s not as if she didn’t live a full, long life! She’s earned a good rest.

RIP, Doña Juanita. You were truly a one-of-a-kind lady.

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