I’ve had a lot on my mind the past few weeks. Of course the crap sandwich with chemo, but also all the positives. Wil finishing Kindergarten, moving on to the easier chemo and not feeling as bad anymore. Enjoying summer and spending more time with friends and family.
All that has happened has made me reflect a lot on life. Shit, being told you have cancer will probably do that to most people. I realized that I could get all melancholy and boo-hoo “why me?” I actually have a Garfield doll (thanks Bro!) that was given to me on my 15th Birthday that has that on his shirt. Back then I guess it was one of my favorite phrases. Garfield’s traveled with me for almost 28 years (shit really? Wow!) He’s seen me use that phrase as a way of complaint, to now using it in my mind in wonderment when I realize how good life has been to me.
Some people know my background, many may know bits and pieces but a lot don’t. The longer Cliff’s notes version: My mom was the oldest female of a large poor family in Puerto Rico. She came to the states when she was 14 and started working at a bra factory in NYC and lived with her aunt and cousins. Eventually she met my dad. I don’t have the full story of how they met and what happened. At some point I do hope to start picking some memories from the primas’ brains (you hear me Hilda? 😉 ).
My brother was born while they lived in NYC, then they moved to Puerto Rico where I made my arrival. Eventually my mom moved back to NYC (the Bronx) with my brother and me, but without my dad. I was three almost four. They officially broke up. I have some harsh memories from that time that no four year old should have to see which involve alcohol, stolen pocket bags, burning apartments and a blackout (1977). But, that’s for another time.
We moved to Brooklyn where my mother started attending a Spanish speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church and she reconnected with her oldest brother. Life started looking a little better. We were still on welfare and food stamps and we still couldn’t afford much. I was the kid who wore her brother’s hand me down clothes, dresses from Woolworth’s and the store that sold clothes that had the “imperfections” (arm sleeves of different lengths and crooked hems). I could barely afford going on school trips and had the bologna and cheese sandwich with a thermos of V8 for lunch during trips while other kids were rocking their amazing lunches or had money to go to McD’s. There were no after school activities that we could afford, so I went to the library instead. We couldn’t afford cable TV so we watched PBS. When my friends from school had a party for their Cabbage Patch Dolls I brought my imitation one that was made at the factory that my mom worked at for $4.88 an hour. Eventually she met my step-dad, they married and things got a little better, and then they chose to move us to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
The summer between elementary school and JHS I was sent to Puerto Rico. I didn’t know the reason why. I was so excited to start the gifted program at my JHS with some of my elementary school friends that I’d known since Kindergarten. Then when I got home I realized that we’d moved from Park Slope to Bed-Stuy and that I wasn’t going to the JHS where my friends were. I never got the chance to say good-bye to them. I was sent to a school where I didn’t know anyone and into a regular classroom where most kids didn’t give a crap about learning. Then I found out we were no longer going to attend the same church. The church we attended since I was four. World flipped upside down twicw in one summer. At age 12 I hated my family and everything that was going on in my life.
I made it my goal to get into a HS where kids actually cared. I ignored the teasing and bullying in my JHS and made it into Brooklyn Tech HS. Finally! I hung out with the group of misfits that didn’t fit anywhere else but we fit with each other.
Then, another world flipped moment that year. This was as big and large as could ever be flipped for a 14 year old. Mom had cancer. She had been in the hospital for a couple of months and was back home. I believe it was around Mother’s Day when she told us.
Though she had been in the hospital and the people that had been visiting were visibly upset, we were never told what was going on. I knew it was bad; the catheter bag had blood. Even a 14 year old can pick up on that. But we were never told how bad until close to the end. Again, one of those memories burned into my brain. She pulled us aside into the dining room of our apartment. She was sitting on the beat up old couch that we’d gotten from our old church (that was once a funeral home). She told us she had cancer but not the prognosis. She led us to believe that there was a cure and that she was going to go through chemo and radiation. She died a month later from metastatic renal cancer that had spread to her lungs. It was less than a week after my brother graduated from High School and two month’s before my 15th birthday.
My brother started the Marines in the fall and I had nowhere to live in NYC, so I was shipped off to Puerto Rico. It was a place I barely knew to a school system I never attended. Again world flipped. Fortunately I had my cousin to be my counselor, best friend, sister, and partner in crime. Without her, it would have been a much more difficult journey.
I decided to get out of dodge and applied to colleges in the states, and as I waited for a response from them, we got a call at 1 AM from the police barracks in town. It was regarding a “Diogenese Milanes”. I wondered what my Dad had gotten himself into, he lived in the Dominican Republic at that time. Then they said, no, it was a Marine Sergeant and Captain that were there and needed to see us in person and it was regarrding my brother. We were so country, we didn’t have a street address so they needed directions to the house which is why they called. I felt faint. Though my dad was alive, my brother was the closest family I had left.
Once they made it to the house they told me that my brother had been in a car accident during Desert Storm. He had suffered head injuries. No other information was available and they told me that during a time of war news was slow to come by. All week we called and were told no news is good news but finally a week later they told us he was in Germany and though hurt very badly he was stable. A few months later he flew to Puerto Rico and visited for my High School Graduation. He wore his dress blues at my graduation All the girls were flipping over him.
The next few years were spent in New York (state), with a two year stint back in PR where I thought I’d never make it back to finish college — but somehow I did after a year of teaching in PR and a semester at the University of PR, and a gentle kick in the butt from my brother also helped (thanks, Tony!). They were a crazy few years where my eyes were opened to things I’d never seen and where the naive little girl grew up. I formed friendships with people that, even though they’re far will be a part of my life forever (in no particular order): Michy, Len, Thomasina, JoAnn, Rob, Miriam and of course Peter. I’ve had friends later in life, but these were the people that were around during a time where I was still trying to figure myself out and helped me see things that I wasn’t aware from different perspectives and views. They also have allowed me to see the occasional glimpse of my true self.
Quick fly-over the early professional years, marriage and all that jazz since most people that know me now are pretty familiar with the more recent years. Now we have the crap sandwich that we’re dealing with.
My past has shaped me to be who I am. Writing all this, I think back to the one thing that kept me going was a growing positive attitude and confidence. There were two situations in my life that have taught me that keeping secrets, especially big ones, are no way to live your life. That’s why I’m pretty open about what’s going on. There’s no reason to keep quiet. All it does it shut people out of your life and make them wonder what is going on – and come to their own conclusions. I’ve also learned to give in and let others help out.
We can’t control what we get, what diseases come about and what tragedies may enter our lives. But, what we can control is our reaction to them, how we go about taking action because of what’s happened and our attitude towards it and those around us. Most times, I’ve taken the I can do this attitude. I managed college pretty much on my own. There were many times I could have said, shit, this is hard, I guve up, but I didn’t. I made sure to surround myself with positive people that helped me find solutions to my problems.
I also realized that I don’t know myself as well as I think sometimes. There are days that I realize that something I just said or did was pretty mean and so I decide to make a better choice and have a better reaction next time. Then there are times when I’ve thought that I wasn’t strong enough to handle something and I’ve been able to push through.
I’ve seen a lot of negativity lately. People that get angry because not everyone agrees with their world view. Those that think that everyone should think like them and follow what they believe or do. The funny thing is, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many different people from so many walks of life with so many different contradicting perspectives and beliefs—and they all think they’re right. We all do. Because of this, I’ve come to the live and let live point of my life. I now try to avoid negativity on public media – it has no point other than ruffling feathers just for the sake of reaffirming what we think with “likes” and “so true” comments. Negativity won’t change people’s minds on anything except their opinion of you.
There’s already too much anger and hate out there. No need to add more to it. There’s no need to alienate people just for a bit of social media bravado.
I want to end with some positivity, Wil just came over tonight out of the blue to give me a hug and a huge kiss (on the lips of all places). He’s not very affectionate so this is one that will go straight into moma’s heart for later reflection.