The Cat

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Mom and our cat, Kilgore Teo. August 2015.

 

 

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.

Continue reading “The Cat”

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It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head

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.

Continue reading “It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head”

How do you grieve when you’re a non-believer?

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.

Of grieving and marshmallows

light-has-gone-out-of-my-life
Theodore Roosevelt wrote this on his diary after losing his mother and his wife on Valentine’s Day, 1884. Photo credit: Library of Congress

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.

Continue reading “Of grieving and marshmallows”