I was 22 years old. I was in college. I was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. I loved it. And then I got sexually assaulted.
E was seventeen when they met. She wore her rose-colored glasses proudly, and the new city didn’t faze her. She was there to succeed, to become someone. She wasn’t there to waste her time.
And then she met M. He was twenty-three, a smooth-talker with a charming smile and emotional constipation. She didn’t trust him much, but she followed his every word with rapt attention, and maybe, maybe M wasn’t as bad as everyone said he was.
It took one car ride, one smile, and E fell head over heels and never resurfaced.
+ + +
She was sweaty and sticky and not for fun reasons. E sighed deeply as she watched the shoppers pass her by, thinking about all the work waiting for her at home. But she looked at her wedding band and reminded herself about commitment, about how much she loved M.
Breathe in, breathe out. If her high school friends saw her There, at a flea market trying to sell M’s merchandise, they’d laugh. They’d judge. She was a lonely formerly-rich girl in a city far away from her family, and there she was, selling trinkets and cheap groceries.
It was all for M. She’d do anything for him.
+ + +
They didn’t like her. She was an intruder, she didn’t belong. M’s sisters talked about her behind her back, and she knew it. L sat next to her and handed her a plate.
“Don’t let them bother you,” L snorted. “It’s not worth it.”
E wondered how L had managed to make it as an outsider in this family, in this snake pit. E wondered if she’d be able to survive at all.
+ + +
M was disappointed. Their first child was a girl, not a boy, but a screaming, curly-haired girl.
“Maybe the next one,” he said, half-joking.
E looked at the crying girl in her arms and she was able to breathe for the first time in months.
“Alejandra,” she said softly, and she felt happy again.
+ + +
He raised his hand and E didn’t even flinch. She waited for the slap, eyes open and head held high.
M had already destroyed her verbally and emotionally. Maybe a punch wouldn’t hurt as much as his words.
Their daughter looked up from the table, a crayon in her hand.
M walked away, hand in his pocket. E’s face was intact, but her soul, well, not so much.
+ + +
M was disappointed, again. Their second daughter was born during World War III, their looming implosion too close to ignore. The baby didn’t cry, and E couldn’t help but laugh at the thick black hair that was quite literally erupting from her daughter’s head.
Just like her father’s.
“She looks just like you,” E said.
M held the baby in his arms and he smiled, a miracle. “Yeah. She does.”
And for a second, E thought that maybe it was time for white flags.
+ + +
It all ended (or so it seemed) two years before the new millennium started. M took boxes and boxes and boxes and hoped E would reconsider.
But the damage was done. E was all shreds and tears and blood and she wanted him gone. M knew he couldn’t hurt her anymore. Unless. Unless.
He grabbed their eldest daughter and told her, “I am dead to you. I’m not your father anymore.”
He made his grand exit, feeling accomplished, thinking that by hurting an 11-year-old he had managed to hurt E one last time.
Their daughter handled it well, though. She learned that ghosts can’t be loved.
+ + +
Like fucked-up magnets, they somehow ended up involved again. E couldn’t help it, M was the one, the only one, and forever would be. M didn’t know what he wanted, and whatever force brought them back together played a cruel joke on them.
First Act: Friendship and late nights and movies and this is how it should have been from the beginning.
Second Act: M is actually a decent father now. His daughters learn to love him again.
Third Act: Collapse. Poof! He disappears.
Daughter number three looked nothing like him. She looked just like daughter number one, and E felt like there was a lesson to be learned there. Time to go back to her roots. Time to leave the city that had caused her nothing but heartbreak.
A year after the Third Act, E and her daughters packed their bags and left that wretched city.
E slowly learned how to live without him.
+ + +
She managed to put hundreds of miles between them, and somehow M continued to hurt her, to hurt their daughters. E wistfully reached for her rose-colored glasses, forgotten so long ago.
They were cracked, and she couldn’t see anything anymore.
She loved him. She was not in love with him anymore.
+ + +
She’s dying. Her daughters pretend everything is fine and that they will all grow old together. Her youngest storms into the room and tells her all about her day, and she’s smart, and witty, and funny.
E sees so much of herself in her youngest. And she worries about her the most.
The other two try to hide their sadness with loudness and laughter. The eldest doesn’t let her do anything without supervision and E wants to scream at her sometimes. She’s perfectly able to do things, thank you very much.
Sometimes she has fever dreams, and her mother is standing right there. They have long conversations and E wonders if she’s already in heaven. But then she blinks, and it’s just her eldest, asleep and snoring on the chair next to her bed.
E reaches for her phone, and finds M’s number.
Maybe they could talk one last time. She doesn’t have much left, and she’d like to say goodbye. So she slowly types the text, every single muscle on her body begging for rest, and hits send.
She wonders if he’ll reply.
+ + +
+ + +
Their eldest daughter finds a letter addressed to M after E passes away. E forgives M for everything he did to her on that letter, and gets her closure. Their daughter wonders if E wanted to send it to him at some point, but then she gets to the end.
“This letter is for myself,” E scribbled. “And no one else.”
The letter is torn into a million little pieces, and is thrown into a large, black trash bag.
The rose-colored glasses follow suit.
April 2015. It was a pretty pleasant day, uncommon for the humid northern Mexican city we were at. Mom and I were watching TV in her room, when my sisters stormed in, excited.
“Did you hear that?” asked Mena, the youngest.
“What?” My mom asked, muting the TV and sitting up. We looked at each other, and we were probably thinking the same thing. In a city as restless and violent as that one, it was most likely yet another gunfight.
“Meowing,” said Gabs, pointing at one of the windows in Mom’s room.
I walked over, and sure enough, a kitten was sitting there, meowing its lungs out. The girls squealed and ran outside, in love with the tiny feline already.
“Make sure they don’t bring him inside,” Mom groaned. She was never a fan of cats.
The girls fed it some turkey breast and gave him water, knowing that the time with the kitten would be limited. My aunt wasn’t a fan of cats either, and it was a stray, so that was that.
+ + +
The cat didn’t go anywhere. We eventually discovered it was a he, and although my aunt refused to make him an indoor cat, she allowed him to stay.
As much as my aunt tried to pretend she didn’t like him, that pretense went away after she bought him a collar, and cute little bowls for his water and food.
I named him Kilgore, after my favorite Kurt Vonnegut character. My sisters named him Teo.
He loved to go to Mom’s window and meow and purr against the mosquito screen. Mom was amused by him and eventually warmed up to him, and would talk to him. Kilgore always replied with a loud meow.
It made me laugh, every single time.
Mom lamented the fact that she couldn’t touch him, because my aunt was worried that his fur would cause some sort of havoc in my Mom’s already-weakened body.
But Mom talked to him everyday, and Kilgore always meowed back.
Chester Bennington’s death left me breathless. I won’t go into what Linkin Park meant/means to me (hint: a whole damn lot). But damn it, it hurt.
I was already battling a pretty darn bad depression episode, and the news that he passed sent me to a dark place I hadn’t seen in a while.
Depression fucking sucks.
How do you grieve when you’re a non-believer?
This a question I hear often, right after I reveal I’m an atheist when asked about grief. Actually, I don’t like the word atheist, it always sounds so divisive. I prefer the term non-believer. I just think it sounds nicer.
Let me elaborate.
– – –
Christmas Mass had just ended, and I was waiting outside for the rest of the family so we could go back to the hotel. My aunt R, who is my aunt by marriage, found me after a couple minutes.
She lost her mom many years ago, so we started talking about how the first holidays without them sucked, and she gave me plenty of good advice.
Finally, she told me she didn’t understand how people who don’t believe in God are able to grieve properly. I didn’t say anything, just nodded.
“I can’t bear the thought of never seeing my mom again,” she said. “How do atheists deal with that?”
I kept quiet, changed the subject. My family, with the exception of my sisters, has no idea I’m a non-believer.
– – –
I figured out I wasn’t religious when I was 12 years old. I kept it to myself, of course, because I was attending Catholic school and my family was very involved in the church. My mom was also a teacher at a private Catholic school.
It’s not something that happened overnight, it was slow-burning, a thing that grew until I came face-to-face with that fact that I really didn’t believe in God, or an afterlife.
I struggled with it. Did it make me a bad person? I thought I was confused.
My crisis got worse when I came to terms with my queerness (or bisexuality, if you want to label it), at age 15. I thought that maybe I didn’t want to believe because I knew the church would never accept me.
I looked into other religions, but the feeling remained the same.
I just didn’t believe. Once I accepted it, I felt relieved.
– – –
My mom raised us with an open mind. She told us we should respect other people’s religions, because everyone is raised differently. She was a devout Catholic, but she didn’t think her religion was the only way.
I still remember when I told her I was a non-believer. It wasn’t that long ago, maybe four years or so. It was harder for me to come out as an atheist than it was to come out as a queer woman.
My mom was devastated. She didn’t care about my sexual orientation, but she couldn’t believe I wasn’t part of the church, ANY church, anymore.
After being speechless for a few minutes, she took my hand and said, “You’re a good person. I don’t doubt that. I need to process this, but I can’t and won’t change your beliefs.”
I know she struggled with accepting my atheism up until she died, and sometimes she would ask me questions, and I gave her answers she didn’t understand.
She was somewhat relieved that my atheism didn’t come from a place of anger or bitterness. It is just a thing that is part of me, but doesn’t define who I am.
– – –
While mom was battling cancer, I would often sit with her and read her the Bible or pray rosaries with her. She would thank me for doing so, because she thought it was a hugesacrifice for me to do something I didn’t believe in.
But it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. My mom found comfort in religion, in God, in Jesus, and I was grateful for that. Her faith helped her cope with her pain and struggle, and I will always appreciate that.
With religion, my mom coped with the thought of dying. Without religion, I coped with the thought of losing her.
– – –
The day after mom died, we had a memorial mass for her. It was absolutely packed, there weren’t enough seats for people inside the church, and it was all oh-so overwhelming.
My sisters and I were sitting right in front of the altar. Everyone came over to give their condolences, and then it happened.
“God needed another angel.”
I don’t remember who said it, it’s all a blur, but I remember glancing at my sisters and seeing their faces. One of them looked absolutely furious, and the other one started crying.
Later that day, one of my sisters said, “You heard that, right? Well, I need my mom here, not somewhere else!”
I told them that they meant well, that it is something people say to comfort those who have lost someone, but they weren’t having it.
It was the first time I felt absolutely lost, and didn’t know what to say.
Until today, my sisters are still struggling with their faith. I know that most of that struggle is due to the shock of losing mom, and that’s okay. Maybe in a couple years they’ll find their way back to the church, or find another church, or maybe they won’t go back to anything.
That’s fine. I’ll be there to support them no matter what they believe.
It’s particularly hard to feel this way in a devout, conservative family. We don’t talk about this with my mom’s family. They don’t know how my sisters feel about the church.
It’s better this way.
– – –
How do you grieve when you’re a non-believer?
I think you grieve just like anyone else. You deal with the fact your loved one isn’t around anymore, you cry, you scream, you get angry, you hurt, you laugh.
The only difference is that you accept you’ll never see them again.
In my case, I’ve decided to devote my life to advocate for cancer patients. That’s how I cope, that’s how I grieve. I try to do my best at creating awareness for colorectal cancer screening and prevention.
This is the best answer I can give anyone; I’ve found a purpose that works for me.
But back to the “no afterlife” issue.
I don’t think my mom is truly gone. She lives in me, in my sisters, in all the people she met. I honor her memory every time I can, so she lives through stories, anecdotes, and photographs.
Her energy hasn’t gone anywhere. I still can, and always will, feel her in my heart.
My mom’s apple salad was, still is, legendary.
I never tried it growing up, because I found the combination of marshmallow and apples to be, well, gross. But everyone always raved about it, how good it was, and it always disappeared from the bowl in minutes.
My mom made it for the last time for our 2014 Christmas dinner, almost two years ago. She was fragile and tired from a brutal round of chemo, but she insisted that we had to stick to tradition, so she got out of bed and started preparing the salad.
She was halfway through it when she realized that my aunt forgot to buy the marshmallows for the salad. My mom always used a particular kind and brand of marshmallows, and we all knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find them at a Mexican grocery store on Christmas Eve. However, I grabbed the minivan’s keys, took one of my sisters with me, and we went on a search mission for those marshmallows.
We ended up finding very similar ones after visiting several stores, and mom’s smile when she saw them lit up the room, the world. I sat down to watch her prepare the salad (she refused help), and I told her I’d try it. She looked at me in shock, because she knew I had never wanted to try it before. But she smiled some more and said, “Well, I have to make sure it’s extra delicious this time.”
It was. I immediately regretted all those years during which I refused to eat it, because wow, it was tasty. We joked about the marshmallows and how we avoided a tragedy later that night, while mom took her chemo pills.
Today, marshmallows make me cry. Whenever I walk down a grocery store aisle and I notice the marshmallow section, I have to look away. My throat shuts down, and my eyes sting with tears, and I have to look away.
Grief creeps on you like that, when you’re least expecting it.
I haven’t seen my father in 11 years.
I’d like to say that many difficulties have prevented us from seeing each other. That he has desperately tried to visit us, but obstacles always ruin his plans.
But this isn’t that kind of story.