Friday, March 4, 2016

On The Day The Music Died; A Letter To Nathan

Dear Nathan,

You woke me up in the wee hours of the morning, thank you for that. I had fallen asleep last night with a weird premonition that something was wrong, or that something was going to go wrong. When my daddy was very sick and in the hospital, I would fall asleep to Jose Alfredo Jimenez or Caifanes. I would wake up and still hear the music playing in my ear.

There was something different about last night. I tossed and turned and couldn’t figure out why I was so restless. I ended up moving the phone into the bathroom because it felt too overwhelming above my head on the bed frame. I woke up at about 1:15 am with what felt like a heavy weight on my chest. It felt as though I couldn’t breathe, and according to my husband, I mumbled some song lyrics and got up to turn off the music—something I have never done before.

This morning when I was sitting in the kitchen putting Queen Elizabeth’s head on the soda bottle, I got a text from your Uncle Joshua. It read, “I’m sorry to bother you so early, I need you to call me, please.” It was 7:40 this morning. I immediately knew what he needed to tell me. I walked to my room and called him so my children wouldn’t hear me react to his news.

I called him a liar, Nathan. I called your uncle a liar when he told me you were gone. I did this after I caught my breath and stopped myself from punching the wall. I lost my mind at 7:40 this morning and I still can’t find it. I can’t.

Do you remember the first time we met? I do. It was spring semester of 2015 and your uncle introduced you to me because he wanted you to know that I was someone you could trust on campus. You were getting off of work in the cafeteria and were going to give him a ride home. From that day forward, you said hello to me every time we passed each other on campus and each time you rang up my lunch. You always reminded me of someone, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Before the semester ended you stopped me in the cafeteria and asked me if you could get some advice. I was excited that you reached out to me and so I eagerly agreed. You had been invited to take a trip with students up the California coast to universities that you would otherwise not have an opportunity to visit and tour. I guess I kind of expected that you would have wanted to go on the trip because it was free to students, so when I asked you why you would consider going, I was surprised to hear your response. “C’mon, Lorena. You think my life ends at Golden West College?” No, Nathan. I didn’t think your life would end at Golden West College; I simply wanted you to hear it for yourself.

June 1, 2015 with the students at Cal SLO.
Look for me in the top left corner and you will see Nathan sitting right in front of me. 

I have watched my kids walk into a candy store. It’s no surprise that they want everything and their eyes bulge while their tongues wag. This is the vision I have of you when we finished visiting UC Berkeley and we allowed the students to explore the surrounding area. Dr. Gio and I escaped to Amoeba Records and you followed closely behind. I know why you let us walk ahead of you. You wanted the experience to be yours and yours alone. 

Did I ever thank you for inviting us to watch your gig in Santa Ana? I had wanted to go to Beatnik Bandito for quite some time, but knew it was not really my scene. “C’mon, Lorena, what are you guys afraid of? You think you’ll be the oldest one there? HA!” I smelled a challenge, Nathan, or perhaps reverse psychology. You were good at that. I found myself rocking out to you and your friends in this 12 x 12 space that was not built for musicians like yourself. 

You were bigger than life, Nathan.

It was the middle of November when you messaged me to tell me you needed to come into my office. Your dad died. You needed someone on campus to help you navigate work and school and all that goes along with keeping your head together when all you wanted to do was bury yourself with your daddy. I had lost my daddy 3 months earlier and you let me share my grief with you…it was time to pay back the favor.

In my office that day we went through every single emotion imaginable.

I hugged you as you cried.
I laughed when you laughed.
I stayed quiet when you cleared your mind with your impeccable speech.

I was exactly who you needed me to be exactly when you needed me to be there.

“How are you doing in school?” I would ask as you would drive by me on campus.

“Classes are cool, HA!” you would respond in your cooler-than-cool persona.

“I better not hear that you aren’t turning in your work, Nathan, or I will sit your ass in my office until it is done!” I would shoot back at you. I would smile as if I was joking, but you always knew I was serious. You knew I cared, didn’t you? You knew that I had this overwhelming sense of maternal instinct with you because you were the same age as my eldest child, didn’t you?

When Dr. Gio and I saw you on Wednesday you were speeding across campus on the cart. Your hair was flying everywhere (the hair that wasn’t tucked underneath your GWC staple beanie) and you looked as though a tune was playing loudly in your ears. We missed crashing into each other by a hair. We laughed. You waved. I was so happy to see you in your element.

If I would have known it was the last time I would see you:

I would have hugged you and held you and reminded you how much I valued our friendship.
I would have told you that your life was incredible and to continue being yourself.
I would have told you that you were exactly where Creator wanted you to be.
I would have told you that your perseverance was admirable.
I would have told you that you were loved by so many students, staff, and faculty.
I would have told you that your smile could light up a dark room.
I would have told you that you teach me about life just as much as you claim I teach you.
I would have told you that I couldn’t wait to attend your graduation…from a university.
I would have told you that I never wanted to write you this letter.

But, alas, I find myself in my room. It is both metaphorically and figuratively dark in here, Nathan, and all I can think about is that I wish you were still on this earth so I could tell you everything I should have told you. And I want to tell you that today your fellow students and friends from Golden West College will begin the inevitable process of grieving one of their own. You would be so happy to see the posters that Mostafa made for you. Ruby and Daniel helped him tape them to the easels. You would take one look at Han’s banner she made for you and say, “That’s BADASS,” with your crooked smile and off-center beanie.

You are irreplaceable, my dear Nathan. Our hearts are broken. My heart is broken.

Today the music died for me. Just like I can’t play Jose Alfredo Jimenez without thinking of my daddy, I won’t be able to play Caifanes without thinking of you.

I hope you and your daddy are finally reunited in heaven.

I already miss you. I will forever miss you, sweet boy!

Love, your campus mom,


Monday, February 8, 2016

On Cats with Five Legs and Being an Impatient Dreamer

The first time he had asked me if I was successful in finding the fifth leg on the cat I was left confused. I looked at him with the expression one saves for special occasions--like now, when you think your daddy has finally lost his marbles. I'm sure you're familiar with that look: lips pursed, eyebrows furrowed, head tilted while your spine straightens itself out naturally.

He didn't laugh at me. I interpreted his physical response as one of pity.

I could hear his feet shuffling nervously underneath the patio table. I could have been able to mistake it for leaves rustling along the cement floor, except there wasn't a hint of breeze on that warm December morning. So I waited. He waited, too. Grabbing the sharp knife in front of him that he had just pridefully sharpened, he methodically began to hack the outside of the jicama until he was left with this perfectly oblong piece of white fruit. Then he began to chop it. I was getting the feeling that he was stalling and using this damn fruit as an excuse to leave me agonizing over the fifth-leg-on-a-cat reference.

Then he began on the watermelon. I couldn't believe that he could pretend that nothing was happening and just cut up that watermelon instead of explaining to me the alien phrase he had just used. I finally broke up the sounds of watermelon hacking (yes, that's a thing) by asking, "Do you think you can explain what you mean by the cat thing?" I asked this in Spanish, of course, as my parents set the expectation very early in our life that conversations with them would never be in English. He chuckled.

"Tu eres una soñadora impaciente," he said to me, as if it would make any sense to me. Really? He was calling me an impatient dreamer? The conversation that followed was short, probably lasting no more than fifteen minutes. I stubbornly listened as my daddy told me that of all of his children, I was the biggest dreamer, but that I was also the most impatient person he had ever come across in his life. He used the fruit bowl we were munching on as an example.

"When you got to the table you saw the empty bowl. Of course I had to prepare the fruit for us, right? I had to cut the jicama and you wanted me to be done after that. But the watermelon was sitting in front of me and that needed to be cut. But you can't just cut fruit up and put it in a bowl without lemon. You like lemon on your fruit, don't you?" he asked, as I humbly nodded. I knew there was a lesson approaching. "Now you're enjoying the cold fruit with lemon and you can only enjoy it because you had to wait until it was ready. Don't be so impatient that you don't get exactly what you want in the end."

Ugh. Whatever. That wasn't what I wanted to know. So what! He had been cutting fruit for me my whole life and I don't always wait until the end. Sometimes I just walk right up and snag the slice of papaya before it goes in the bowl or take the first piece of coconut before he finishes removing all of the meat from the shell. Who had I harmed in that? I was just waiting to hear about the cat and his five legs.

Pretending that I understood the lesson and that it was necessary to my existence, I smiled and thanked him. I even told him he was right: my daddy and I rarely conceded to each other so the fact that I told him he was right was a huge (monstrous) victory for him. "And about the five cats or the legs or whatever? Can you please explain that before I go say hi to my mom?" I asked him with the last bit of patience my travel-tired brain could muster.

"Dice el dicho que el que le busca cinco patas al gato se los va encontrar. Pero el que es paciente y tiene la vista clara se da cuenta que en realidad la quinta pata es cola. Tu tienes que ver el gato con claridad, hija. Ve y busca las niñas. Estan adentro," and he dismissed me from the table as though my presence exhausted his patience. So let me get this straight: my daddy just called me an impatient dreamer. Further, he called me an impatient dreamer who looks at a cat and sees five legs until I see it with clarity and realize the fifth leg is really just its tail.


In the ten years that followed this conversation I had never heard my daddy refer to that saying again. I understood very well what he was saying to me, as he hardly ever spoke in an accidental fashion. I was once told that nothing is a coincidence and that what we are living has already been prescribed: our present experience is actually our minds and bodies catching up to what has already happened. I didn't believe it when I first heard it, but upon further applying this logic to lessons my daddy taught me it just seems to make sense.

On August 3, 2015, my daddy's health took a drastic turn for the worse. Without giving lengthy context about what landed him in the hospital, I will simply say that he had been sick for a long time and we watched him slowly reach the point of an inevitable surgery. This night my dad ended up in the ICU and I knew that I had to sleep in his room. Call it intuition. Call it a daughter's desperate attempt to hold on to her daddy. Call it selfishness because only one person could stay with him, but I arrived with my overnight bag filled with snacks and books to keep me awake through the night.

I remained quiet in his room because it was so rare to see my daddy asleep. I knew the medication kept him in a constant state of drowsiness and I wanted to let him rest without stimulating him. My daddy gave me a scare that night. He began choking and there was nothing I could do to help him. I ran out of the room to look for a doctor and couldn't find anyone. Seriously? How could people take a break in the ICU? I walked into someone else's room to find three doctors in there and said, " Can someone please help my dad. He's choking and he's probably going to die."

I wasn't shouting. I wasn't belligerent or impatiently flailing my arms like the situation easily called for. I just calmly stood there and hoped that someone would listen and follow me back into my daddy's room to remove whatever was obstructing his airway. The whole ordeal was over in like fifteen seconds. My daddy's breathing was uniform again and they left us alone after teaching me howto continue cleaning his mouth out. "So were you just trying to scare me, Daddy-O? You just want me to be awake all night?" I lightheartedly asked him. I would have stayed awake for weeks if it meant giving him more time with our family!

I paid close attention to his eyes and hoped I had given him something to be laughing at. He wasn't vocal at that point so I did all the talking. I asked him if he wanted me to read my book to him. He nodded up and down. I read a few pages of "The Girl on the Train" to him and then I stopped. I had a moment of uncontrollable sadness come over me and I got closer to him and saw that there were tears rolling down the corners of his eyes and into his ears. I grabbed a tissue and began cleaning his face.

"¿Esta cansado, verdad, daddy?" I asked him if he was tired. He knew exactly what I meant.

He nodded and closed his eyes. "Si le digo que tiene que seguir luchando, es como buscarle cinco patas al gato. Yo se que la quinta pata es cola. Y yo se que usted esta cansado, daddy." He shook his head. It took me ten years to show him that I had learned the lesson about five legs on a cat and looking at the end of his life with clarity helped me anticipate that loss would soon arrive. I retrieved my cell phone from my purse, turned on Spotify, and welcomed the new day listening to Jose Alfredo Jimenez while holding my daddy's frail hand.

Fast forward to February 2, 2016 and I'm sitting in my office with a student who needs someone to listen to her. She begins to tell me her story and some events leading to her present state and as I am giving her advice on clarity and finding what/who makes you happy, I heard myself give her the five-legs-on-a-cat analogy. I very clearly heard myself say to her, "To be unhappy is something completely different than being miserable. When you KNOW you are miserable, you KNOW that you are no longer where you belong."

There is a lot to be said about finding purpose and clarity when or where you least expect it. I never thought that the advice that I was giving to this beautiful, caring, young lady would so uncannily apply to my own life. That night my daddy came to me in my dream. It had been only the second time since his death that I had seen him, but this night was stronger than the first.

I woke up with an unexpected burst of energy. All the kids were sick. It was my day off and we slept in. When my husband woke up I blurted out to him that I was quitting my job. I half-expected him to come up with myriad reasons why I couldn't or shouldn't quit my job. He smiled, put his glasses on so he could see me, and said, "Ok. We are going to be ok."

This blog post is a long explanation of why I have resigned my position at the Intercultural Program of Golden West College. I have been at the College for ten years. My children have grown up attending, planning, and working cultural events at my side. This community we have built will forever be ingrained in the culture of our family, because the people I have worked with both on and off the campus ARE FAMILY.

I have no plan (yet). Those who already know about my resignation have asked me where I am moving to or what job is next and I have no answer for them other than I have faith that this bold move is the right move for myself and for my family. I will miss the work and the people. I will undoubtedly find myself longing for staff meetings and new procedures. Time will likely show me that a piece of my heart will be left behind in the Intercultural Program, but for now, my heart is anticipating the inevitable period of growth.

Life is good.