Guest Blog By Elizabeth Brico
If I am in an especially quiet place, and I try very, very hard, I can sometimes remember my stepmother before she transformed into a monster. She had clear blue eyes, a handsome smile, long hair that I remember silvered but which is brown in photographs. Her skin, too, is pale in my memory, but tanned in photographs. In both lenses, she is beautiful.
My stepmother was one of the kindest people I have ever known. She never spoke a cruel word to me or treated me unkindly, even though I was the product of an affair between her husband and my mother. She was never a monster. When I say that she transformed into a monster, I mean that her hair fell out, her eye withered and held a patch over it, her muscles lost their tone, slowly; her body shriveled away. In my childlike view, she became something to be feared-not because I thought she was fearsome, but because she was being possessed by something that was.
I don’t remember who told me my stepmother had cancer. What I remember was visiting her room; the room with the white walls and wooden floors. The room where she was always in bed. On the bedstand were her rocks. It was crowded with rocks, each wide and flat and painted upon with bright flowers or animals. On one of them was a crab, blood red like the big rock crabs on the windswept beaches of the Pacific Northwest, where we lived. Its pincers curved outward, reaching. I thought the crab was making her sick. Cancer, the crab.
When my stepmother died, I was not allowed to attend her funeral. I remember all of my siblings crowding together in the small front room where I watched TV, many of them old enough or almost old enough to be parents themselves. I don’t remember who said it; I think it may have been my eldest sister. It doesn’t really matter, because the words came from all of them. “You can’t go to the funeral because it’s for family only.”
It was not through my stepmother that I first met death, though hers left my childhood marked by its flavor. My grandfather, who I called Abuelo, died first. To me, he was the archetype of an old man. Feeble. I’ve heard the stories about my Abuelo standing up to Castro’s regime, how he kept his head high among threats and insults when he decided to leave Cuba. I’ve heard about the way he held his family together as they moved with little possessions and no money to a new country where they would meet the cold for the very first time. I have heard the stories, but when I was a child, my Abuelo was a slight, tenuous man, prone to wandering, who was losing his mind. I understood, even at such a young age, that he was dying. When it happened, I blamed myself. I thought that by predicting his death, I had caused it. I lived with that secret guilt for years.
There was no funeral. My Abuelo was cremated in New Jersey, 3,000 miles from where I worried my thoughts had killed him.
Tío José Luis
My tio (uncle) José Luis was a guerrilla fighter with the heart of a prankster. I remember the Christmas he set off a stink bomb in one of the gift boxes. Fumes erupted from beneath the shiny wrapping. My family ran helter-skelter across the apartment, a buzz of words children were not allowed to say.
I loved José Luis. Six feet tall, with giant hands that would swing me into the air, I could not picture him in the famous olive fatigues, or with a gun switching at his hip. I knew he was a comrade of Ché Guevara, the famous Argentine who led the Cuban revolution, and that he worked for, and was eventually arrested by Fidel Castro. I knew he barely escaped Cuba with his life, but he always seemed too funny to have that history. As a child, I did not yet understand that humor sometimes covers the darkest of pasts.
I would visit my Cuban family in New Jersey every year for Christmas, but one year, I did not see José Luis. His mother had died just before I’d arrived. He was depressed. He sent a message through his wife apologizing that he would not be seeing me for the holiday. He promised that the following year, he would take me around New York and show me how to use his big camera.
Shortly after I returned to Seattle, José Luis was diagnosed with lung cancer. I remembered cancer from my stepmother. I remembered the terrifying progression, and the way it stole her away piecemeal. But I also remembered the slowness of it. I believed I had years left with my favorite Tío. Lung cancer, however, is not breast cancer. José Luis died within months of his diagnosis. I never saw him again. We had no money to fly out for his funeral.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Grief is a process. We all encounter grief in our lives. For me, none of my experiences of it could be categorized as traumatic, even if some of them were tragic. My stepmother still had a yearning for life in her. José Luis could have contributed his great presence to this world longer. But, these deaths were within the scope of normal grief, even if pushing at its edges. I don’t doubt my siblings were traumatized by the loss of their mother, especially her son who was only a few years older than me. I’m certain my tio’s wife still feels his absence every day. For me, however, these were extended family members who died. Their losses were painful, but not, on their own, traumatic.
I felt robbed of the ability to mourn the deaths in my life. I was not allowed to attend my stepmother’s funeral. I couldn’t afford to mourn with my East Coast family. Grief has remained stuck in my body. It manifests as confused dreams, in which the dead revive only to rot before my eyes. The people I loved turn demonic. I never got to have a ritual. I was never provided a space for mourning.
Grief is not something we only experience in response to death. Trauma creates the necessity for grief as well. Trauma robs us of something vital. For me, it stole my ability to love myself, or to trust in the virtues of love. It shook the foundations of my ethics, and made me question the meaning of goodness, and whether or not I was good. Afterall, if bad things are supposed to happen to bad people, then what does being raped and abused mean about me? Traumatic abuse is an event that needs to be grieved as much as any death.
I developed PTSD as the result of domestic abuse. It is a disorder that manifests as permanent grieving. I cannot let go of my past. My trauma lives at my side like a ghost, haunting my days with flashbacks, and my sleep with nightmares. I have it, I am convinced, because my body does not know the process of mourning. I have never been allowed to ritualize my grief, or to socialize it with others who grieve with me. Maybe a funeral is what I need to help heal my trauma. Maybe I need to create a ceremony for all those I have lost, including the version of myself who loved a man who harmed me in return. Maybe if the girl had, even once, been invited to a funeral, she would not now be a woman trapped by her past.
Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer and the site author of Betty’s Battleground, a blog about life after trauma. She is also a contributing blogger for HealthyPlace. Recent freelance credits include VICE, Vox, and Mom.me, among others. When she isn’t actively momming or working, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.