I have a lot of work to do, so I won’t have time to post something new. I wrote the following about four years ago. It’s a bit long, but I think it’s worth it… Have a great day.
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(Titi Fefi (l) with my mother, ca early 1990s)
“Can you walk on water? You have done no better than a straw. Can you soar in the air? You have done no better than a fly. Conquer your heart; then you may become somebody.”
— Ansari of Herat
I will forever be in debt to the men and women in my life. From the men, especially my father, I owe the gift of love for knowledge. It is fashionable, in our shallow, consumer-based society, to look down on learned people, but I will be forever grateful to my father and the men in my life for helping instill in me a thirst for knowledge. In fact, the word philosopher means lover of knowledge. It was through the masculine aspect of my upbringing that I was given my mind, the ability to construct and deconstruct logic, the skill of asking questions, the knack for intellectual discovery – these were all gifts.
For a long time I thought that it was through the mind that one evolved, but I was only half-right, there was something else missing. The other gift, bequeathed upon me by the women-warriors of my life, was the gift of the heart. It was through the feminine aspect of my upbringing that I learned that true liberation could not happen until the mind and heart are integrated. For many Eastern cultures, there are no separate terms for the mind and the heart – they are perceived as one and the same. The women in my life, through the power of their example, taught me genuine unconditional love. Many people speak of unconditional love, but few truly know jack shit about it.
I think a part of the problem today is that social conservatives have deconstructed the concept of family. What we call “family” today is really a downsized version of what family has meant for thousands of years. The nuclear family – the so-called basic unit consisting of Mother Father Sister Brother – is fairly new in history. For most of humankind’s history, the family included aunts, uncles, “adopted” family members, and sometimes even whole communities. Within these family structures, one learned about unconditional love and community responsibility and connectedness in ways that can never be possible within our downsized, hectic times.
I was fortunate enough to be raised in a large, extended family. We were close because we had to be – my parents and their siblings were first generation Puerto Ricans, thrust into a hostile and unforgiving society that neither cared nor welcomed them. So we stuck together: we lived in the same building and/ or city block and my cousins and I were raised more as sisters and brothers rather than dispensable family members. Our extended family shared resources, pooled money, served as safety nets for one another, and the responsibility of raising the children fell on everyone.
However, there was one woman who sacrificed the most and got the least in return. Josefa, or as we all affectionatey called her “Titi Fefi,” raised everyone’s children. All the adults would work, but Titi Fefi’s job was to take care of the children, make sure they were dressed, prepare hot breakfasts and lunches, soothed our scrapes, and mediated arguments. In effect, Titi Fefi was everyone’s surrogate mother – she was a universal mother.
She never asked for anything in return and bore her burden without complaint. Without her, not one us — no one — would have succeeded. As the children got older, she was able to find work as a washer-woman and it was through the labor of her raw hands, the outer layer of her skin often stripped from over exposure to laundry chemicals and washing, that “Junior” could buy books for college, or Cynthia could have those shoes she wanted, or Jaimito got a Christmas gift. We sometimes never even knew it was Titi Fefi’s doing, for her it wasn’t even giving, for her this came as natural as breathing, it was what was done, period.
Eventually, as is the case in our modern times, the family would disperse to different parts. First, it was my uncle, who moved to a NJ house on hard-earned money culled from a factory job. Then my older cousin would finish college and move his new family and mother, Titi Sylvia, to an upstate community. Little by little, everyone left our Lower East side enclave, leaving Titi Fefi alone. Well, actually, I lived with Titi Fefi as a young man, but most of the family moved on.
Oh, did I mention that Titi Fefi, barely a teenager herself, raised her younger brother, my father, during the height of the Depression in Puerto Rico, shortly after being orphaned.
We were always close as a family and the holidays were often celebrated at Titi Fefi’s house because her love was such a magnet for good feeling. No matter how successful the rest of the family became, the older generation always made it clear that family came first before individual success and material gain. They never forgot how important cohesion was for the family’s survival and they kept that message alive.
In time, one by one, the elders passed on, falling victim to old age and disease. As the younger generation moved even farther away, the family reunions became less frequent. The children of the second generation didn’t grow up with the same values or the understanding of an extended family and soon we all deconstructed into little units, separated from one another. There were no more huge and festive family reunions, and Titi Fefi would now often spend the holidays alone (or with me, a young man at the time more interested in the “hunt”).
Eventually, I would leave too, traveling, despoiling maidens, pillaging, and plundering my way through life. I would marry, and/ or enter committed relationships and so now Titi Fefi was mostly alone. People forgot, folks – they forgot the raw hands, the sacrifices, and the unwavering love. Titi Fefi never had children of her own, but we were all her children, somehow. Yet we forgot. Or maybe we were too busy trying to manage our own lives, I don’t know. Sometimes we’re so busy working at living that we forget to live.
She never complained; never uttered words of regret. She did what she had to do — just like breathing, it was for her.
My lifestyle was such that Titi Fefi’s home was my main base, the place I could always return to when I needed and her door was always open for me. I always had a key. No questions were asked when I entered through that door, only if I was hungry. I was to marry into a stable and loving relationship, eventually, but I would always visit Titi Fefi, at least once a week. Oh, how her face would light up when I would come inside. I’m certain that even if I were a sexually motivated serial killer Titi Fefi would still love me just as much. That was who she was – she was love incarnate, everybody’s mother.
By the time I became divorced, Titi Fefi was in her late 80s and suffering from various infirmities, one of them being the onset of dementia. She had lost some cognitive functioning to the point that the family was concerned for her safety. I moved in with her.
Big mistake! LOL!
For the last two years of her life, I lived with Titi Fefi and it wasn’t easy. It was almost like taking care of an unruly child. It sucked up my life and sometimes I was sooo resentful. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night and accuse me of plotting to take over her apartment. Other times, she would become confused and ask me where she was. Still other times she would have long discussions with me thinking I was my deceased father (whom she raised as her own). It wasn’t easy and I was losing heart.
There were good times too: her outrage when I would to ask her when was the last time she had sex, for example. She would laugh at that. And we would spend hours talking about our family history. Folks, if you have an elder in your life, take the time to ask them about your history. I guarantee you, it’s a whole lot better than any of those fuckin’ stupid-assed “reality” shows on TV. LOL!
Then one day I found her crying. And she talked, and talked, and she was doubting if her sacrifices had been worth it. No one remembered her, no one visited her, she said. And all my anger and resentment dissipated and I knew right then that if I were to have carried her on my back for the rest of her life, I still wouldn’t have repaid my debt to her. So we stayed together through thick and thin.
I had become so angry with my family for neglecting her. Outside of one cousin, no seemed to give a damn. So I had planned to make this speech at Titi’s burial. When I explained my idea, she asked me to promise her that I would not say anything negative.
She taught me, that day, that for some people, that’s as it good as it gets and they suffer a great price for not being a little deeper. She taught me that you give because it is as natural as breathing, not because you’re doing something. So, not knowing what to do, but knowing that there was something important here to relate, I asked her, “If there is message for the family you have, what would it be? Because, like it or not, I’m going to say something when they bury your ass.” After crossing herself and admonishing me for speaking of such things, this is what she said:
“I want this to be my message to my family that I love so much: Tell them that family is the most important thing in life, that no matter what you become or what you do, it means nothing if you don’t have family. Tell them that.”
That was her message and I give this message to you today because, while it might not be deep, or earth shattering, and you might not even get it, it is the most important message you will ever hear, and you will never understand it fully until you become that message.
Her last words to me were to leave her alone because she was tired and she didn’t want to answer my teasing and impertinent questions (“Titi! Are you using condoms?!?! Are you practicing safe sex?!?”). I sensed her tiredness when she didn’t want to eat the pizza I got for her (she loved pizza) and left her alone, tucking her in. And when she rolled over to go to sleep, I kissed her cheek goodnight.
She passed away during the night and the next morning, when I went to wake her up, she still had that same smile on her face.
This is for all of us who have known, and will know, the pain of loss, and for those of us who have disconnected from our hearts. There are some today who may not have anyone, or whose family is far away or gone. There are many of us confused about this world gone slightly mad and deep inside perhaps we despair, uneasy smiles on our faces.
My aunt’s power of example was that the answer to such despair and uncertainty was to love – to reach out and become engaged, enriching the lives of those around us in the process.
May you all find it in your hearts to give gratitude and cherish the gifts we are all given.
Though you may not know it, you are loved. You are loved for being who you are, right now this moment, and you will always be loved in that way.