Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Year of Crystal

Fifteen years ago today, Warren and I said, "I do," in front of our closest friends and family. I was twenty-three, he was twenty-six. Long before he proposed I knew I would be his wife. I didn't feel pressured to marry him, although once he put a ring on it, everyone seemed in a hurry to see us walk down the aisle. 

He came from pretty traditional stock so we didn't expect to live together before marriage. In fact, we bought a house together but lived in different states throughout our engagement. He got the house, filled with my parents and siblings as they adjusted to their move from Chicago, and I moved to Kansas City to pursue a position I loved with a global company. I wish I had the courage back then to slow us down a bit but given that we only got seven years of husband and wife, I am thankful that we went with the flow and were married a year after becoming engaged.

The actual wedding was the stuff sitcoms are made of. We planned an outdoor ceremony but an
unexpected storm nixed that plan an hour before the start time. Little mishaps popped up one after the other: the ring fell out of the box and rolled under the stage; the videographer loudly took a call during the ceremony and had to be escorted out; our parents forgot to remove the lasso from around our shoulders after the blessing so we had to shuffle around the stage, literally tied together! Warren and my dad started the day in urgent care because the yard work they did the day before led to a bad case of poison ivy and by the time we got off the flight at our honeymoon destination, I was burning up with a fever and red bumps on my arms, an allergic reaction to the poison ivy I contracted when I put on Warren's tuxedo jacket at the reception. All in all, I could write a book on all the things that went wrong on that day, and maybe I will but the thing I remember the most is recalling a conversation Warren and I had many times as we planned the wedding.
"This isn't about the party, it's about the marriage."
At the end of the day, all we wanted was to be married. We weren't concerned about the details of the ceremony or reception. Sure, we wanted it to be a memorable day for our guests because we loved them and were excited to bring them all together, but if a wedding hadn't been possible, we would have been more than OK. We wanted to share our lives together. We couldn't imagine not doing so. He was my best friend and it excited me to think that he and I would be a team for the rest of our lives. We had found our person in each other and were ready to start new traditions, make more memories and be the people we knew we could become with the other's love and support. 

Looking back, I love that it gave me a funny story to tell and I find the whole thing very sweet but what sticks with me the most, is that we were determined that it wasn't about the wedding, it was about the marriage. That helped us laugh off the small debacles that made up the day and to feel thankful for every minute of that day. It wasn't perfect and we didn't expect it to be. The most exciting part was becoming Mr and Mrs. 

I have been asked on numerous occasions if I want another wedding if I ever remarry. My answer changes depending on the day but what I know for sure is that as long as I spend that day with the person I choose to be my person and who chooses the same in me, it will be about what happens after the party and the hope that we'll reach beyond the Crystal anniversary and spend many decades as husband and wife, something I wish I had with Warren. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

My Chicago


People often tell me how much they love Chicago. It is hard for me to see the allure, having spent most of my early years trying to get out of there. To say I hated living there wouldn't be exactly true, but it is a place that elicits a wide range of emotions that are not all positive.
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Common "artwork" in My Chicago 
When I hear about the Magnificent Mile, Lake Michigan and the Bean, it's like I am hearing about foreign places. They were not a part of My Chicago. My Chicago was corner stores and Cobras; dollar stores, drugs and Disciples; bullets and brown people. I grew up far from the magnificence of Lake Shore Drive, the Sears Tower and Wrigleyville. The streets I knew were in Humboldt Park, a place where you had to be aware of your surroundings at all times, and what colors you wore where. You wouldn't want to be caught wearing black and green in a neighborhood ruled by black and yellow. It became second nature to know what colors belonged where and if you forgot, there was always graffiti on the walls to remind you which ganged controlled the territory. As a female, I often felt like I'd get a pass if I messed up the dress code but always feared for my brothers, cousins and male friends. 




Some of my best memories were of the summer, which happens to be when Chicago is most dangerous. I loved being outside and tried to do everything out there from play with my Barbies to scooting on the scooter, rolling in my skates and my all-time favorite thing - riding my bike. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to go outside and there were over a dozen neighborhood kids waiting for the next game of Catch, Hide N Seek or ready to share bubbles, sidewalk chalk and junk food. In many ways, my block felt like a small town. Everyone knew everyone. Most of the moms stayed home and were always popping their heads out the windows to check on us, offering cold water or allowing us to run inside and use their bathroom. The elders on the block sat outside and watched us, sometimes bringing us ice cream or slices of watermelon. It sounds idyllic but there was also an air of tension. 

Although the block wasn't very long, I was only allowed six houses away from home in one direction and eight in the other. Corners were off limits. Do you know how much concentration and coordination it took to turn a bike around on a sidewalk, avoiding the lawn on one side and a fence on the other? As my bikes got bigger, it became increasingly more difficult and annoying. But the corner was where there was an open lot. When I was six, a girl not much older than me was raped in that lot. Next to the lot was an apartment complex where a ten-year old kid shot someone to earn his street cred but got prison time instead. I remember his mother inconsolably crying on the sidewalk as the cops hauled off her youngest son. The corner was where drug deals and gun sales went down and I was told to stay away from there. It was also where I became a victim of crime for the first time at the ripe old age of four. My mom and I were on our way to the corner store and I insisted on riding my Strawberry Shortcake tricycle. As we approached the corner, my mom just a few feet away, a guy ran by, snatching my gold necklace and scratching my neck and chest in the process. I don't recall what he looked like, or even what the necklace looked like. What I remember most was the surprise at how quickly it happened and the panic in my mother's voice when she called out. 

Panic was a common feeling that stemmed from fear and progressed into the anxiety I still deal with today. Fear for my safety is what I remember most about living in Chicago. The worse was at night. My dad often worked jobs where he either left before the sun came up or long after it had set. Because our apartment didn't have garages, he had to park his car wherever there was a spot. It was sometimes on another block and he had to walk in the dead of the night. As a young child, maybe eight or nine years old, drive-by shootings would often wake me up. I would get in the fetal position, clamp my hands together in prayer and beg God to keep my dad safe and that he didn't catch one of those bullets meant for someone else. I would repeat my prayer over and over again like a mantra, my entire body tense, feet rubbing over and under each other, eyes shut tight while tears and sweat dripped onto my pillow. I don't know how long this went on, but it felt like hours. I'm not sure how many times a week this happened but since drive-bys were pretty constant, I imagine it happened often. To this day, I know I am stressed when I lay in the fetal position and rub my feet over and under each other. 

Chasing the feeling of safety led to my choice to attend Iowa State University. By my senior year in high school I had seen a girl get shot by a stray bullet at a bus stop; lost friends and neighbors to gangs, AIDS and prison; been in and witnessed fistfights, and extended my fears past my dad's nightly walks to my siblings growing up and becoming targets in their own neighborhood. When I visited the campus I was less impressed with the academic accolades and more with how people left their cars running at the gas station and students didn't lock their dorm rooms. There was a feeling of peace and safety I hadn't known and I wanted that more than a degree from a certain institution. In fact, I had been all set to attend New York University before visiting Ames. It had been my dream school throughout high school but when it came time to decide, safety won out. 

Growing up in My Chicago carried into my experiences on campus. Whenever I saw someone in a baseball cap I would make a mental note of which side it was cocked so I knew what they represented. It took a long time for me to stop seeing people dressed in black and fill-in-the-blank color and not instantly categorize them into a gang. Even though I was in a place that was safe, embracing it didn't come easy. I often locked my roommate out of our room because I locked the door even to go to the bathroom. A phenomenon that blew my mind was how students of color always nodded and said hello when we passed on campus. I had no idea who they were and hadn't figured out the unsaid solidarity in being one of so few students of color. My lack of response to those greetings got me labeled as "that mean Spanish girl" by fellow students and I figured if it meant they left me alone to get my work done, then I was OK with that title. It took over a semester for me to allow myself to feel connected to the safety of my new environment. While I never got to unlocked door status, I did adopt the nod and greeting and stopped associating colors and hats with gang culture. 

But going home was a different story. I felt the tension of My Chicago in my muscles as I got closer to home. I expected violence at every corner and avoided venturing out as much as possible. In fact, I made it a point to stay on campus as often as I could, taking out loans for summer courses, working during breaks and finding internships in different states. I knew almost immediately upon leaving Chicago that I would never live there again. Twenty years later, my opinion hasn't changed.

Now that my family is out of the city and has made a life away from the dangers of My Chicago, I don't even have the desire to go back and visit. While I recently made a special trip just to visit the places I grew up hearing about like Navy Pier, Grant Park, Michigan Avenue, etc. it didn't feel like a homecoming. It was more about trying to see Chicago from a visitor's perspective now that I no longer have to call it home. While the handshakes, colors and hand gestures aren't as prevalent in Chicago's gang life, their legacy is still found in the homicide rates and makeshift memorials created on sidewalks across the city, honoring lives cut short over the same territorial mentalities that ruled when I lived there. My old stomping grounds has a Starbucks and high-end dog grooming place but the old artwork that adorned garages and sides of buildings that announced whose territory it is still shines. Gun shots are still commonplace and summers continue to be the deadliest season. It saddens me that a place that holds such beautiful architecture, amazing food and charismatic sports fans shares space in my heart with such strong memories of feeling scared for my life and that of my loved ones. Yet, I know that it led me to people, places and experiences that have profoundly shaped my life. It also holds some dear memories and I appreciate Chicago, even if I still don't want to call myself a resident ever again.

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Mural that depicts My Chicago, titled A MOTHER'S GREATEST FEAR

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Eve


The eve of Warren's death happens to be Valentine's Day. I was never a huge fan of the holiday, other than I was born exactly nine months later so I guess I should be thankful for it. I had many Valentine's Days that were just like any other day of the week, whether I was single or not. As a wife, I honestly can't recall all our Valentine's Days together but I do remember our last one. We treated it like any other day because it was a Tuesday. Warren and I both worked that day, having had a date night the weekend before. After work I made our daughter a Valentine's Day box with some treats she liked, including a blue bath bomb she used that night. While she bathed Warren got home. It was some time after 7PM. He had a work event that evening where he wore his olive green suit. He took his final photo at that event, surrounded by colleagues, leaning on a crutch. He had torn his Achilles tendon and it was still healing from the surgery. His cast had been off for a few weeks but his foot wasn't ready for his full weight. He arrived home exhausted. He took a few bites of the dinner I had left for him but was too tired to eat any of the heart-shaped brownie my daughter and I had made for him. It was his favorite treat. His skin was pale with a tinge of yellow. I could tell by looking at him how tired he was. We laid in bed and something played on the television. We ignored it as we talked about our day and listened to our daughter play happily in the tub. At one point she called out, "Can we save this blue bath water so I can play in it again tomorrow?" We giggled at her request and he wrinkled his nose as he told her the water would be yucky by the time she bathed again. She kept playing and we enjoyed the quiet time together. 

After goodnight kisses and tucking her in, we laid for a while longer, a mundane evening like any other. 

That was our Valentine's Day after seven years of marriage. Today is the eve of seven years of living without Warren. I have been his widow as long as I was his wife. Just like our marriage, this time has flown by. So much pain has passed through these last few years along with so much joy. He has missed so much, from births to deaths, graduations and other milestones of those he loved most. Those are some of the most painful moments. Happiness is always tinted with sadness at the thought of not sharing these moments with him. People love to tell me that he is still with me, that he is a part of everything I do and I nod politely because they mean well but have no idea how hard it is to face these moments without him physically at my side - How I ache to see his smile, or hear his laughter or his voice guiding me through them. His spirit does little to fill the void he left. 

Over the years I have become the master of pretending I am OK. And in many ways, I am. A few anniversaries ago I was the picture of anger. It burned from within. For other anniversaries I was numb, afraid and anxious for the mix of feelings I knew would come. I never know what set of emotions will abound. Often I dance between them, doing a back and forth salsa between extremes while functioning as normally as I can given the new normal that is my life. I can never not be his wife even as I move forward with my love life. He is never far from my thoughts even as I try to be in the moment. His example colors my actions even as I doubt whether he would do as I do. I live to make him proud while realizing that he will never have to face the challenges I have been left to handle. At times this new normal is a weight that drowns me and makes me a fighter. Other times it is the armor that gets me through when I think I can't handle something - a reminder that I've been broken and put myself together piece by piece.

Warren shaped me in ways I am still discovering and even in death he continues to influence my being, my thoughts, my view of the world. People who have never met him have talked to me of the impact he has made on their life and those who knew him help me keep his legacy alive. I see him in the smiles of my nieces and nephews, hear twinges of his voice in my father in law's stories. At the same time, the longing for his physical presence still stings at the center of my core, reminding me that my great love is a memory. On the eve of seven years post love-of-my-life I remain thankful to have a soulmate and that because of all he taught me I can say with confidence that while I am scarred and still healing, I am OK in more ways than I ever dreamed possible. My love is still strong but it bends towards him in a grateful arch of recollections, thoughts and life lessons I am blessed to have learned from a man who was made of pure love and compassion and who lives on in me every day.

Tomorrow will be hard. I will remember in exquisite detail the minutes of the day - from his last moments to my first as a widow. I may cry and feel anger, I may spend time in the fetal position. I might mindlessly snack on junk and be numb and I might laugh out loud at random flashbacks of silly moments. All this might happen back to back or over the span of hours. I never really know. All I know for sure is that anything I feel is OK, normal and exactly what I need. 

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