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A Million Little Pieces
saying goodbye to the most singular, monumental, loving influence in my life
More than a decade ago my abuela asked me, shortly after having read my first novel, if I would write the eulogy for her funeral. It felt like somewhat of a morbid request given that she was perfectly healthy, but I nevertheless accepted the fact that her health would not always be as it was and acquiesced to her request.
I can find the words to express almost anything, but with her as my muse I struggled, in part because she has been the most singular, monumental, loving influence in my life since I came into this world. And I couldn’t quite bring myself to say goodbye to someone who had never waivered, never doubted, and never even considered giving up on me. She has been a grandmother, a mother, and a friend through the best moments and the worst. And as I confront the reality that her journey must go on without me I find that my heart is breaking into a million little pieces
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I know that I must find the courage to confront the advice that I know she would give me if she weren't the one departing. She would say, mi hijito, there are two things that you can never do: never accept the narrative of self-pity; and never throw in the towel when life gets difficult.
My abuela's name is Victoria Chávez and her life has been a testament to the advice she has given me.
The question I always ask before I begin writing is why my readers would be interested in what I have to say. And in this instance I asked why anyone would care to read about a woman who never graced their televisions or radios, never won a prize, was neither politically minded or a political activist, and the answer that came to mind was simple: she is a glimpse of what awaits us all, and as the sun sets on the horizon that is her life she reminds us that, in fact, she is all of us.
Victoria has lived amongst us for 89 years, has said farewell to both parents, all of her siblings, essentially two husbands; and in her later life even defeated breast cancer. And when I asked her what she most missed after all that she had been through, she said, “bailar-bailar-bailar!” (Dance Dance Dance!)
One of her closest friends once told me that my abuela's most remarkable trait was her “consistency of self,” her ability to go through life like a ship cutting through icebergs — never wavering in her person, faith, or love.
Her husband, my abuelo, passed away at relatively young age of 56 from a heart attack. She shed her tears for the man she loved, but she never once stopped living.
Claiming that it was too painful to live in the home where her husband had died, she purchased a new home and attempted to start another life. That new life took the form of a tall gringo from up north, and together they set off for southern California.
I was only about 7 years old at the time of her departure from our lives, but I vividly remember how angry her children became at the prospect of her running off into the sunset with another man. They tried to tell her that he was only ever after her money, but in the end she was never one to second-guess or explain herself.
It was probably a year before anyone in the family heard from her, and when she did make contact it was to invite me to spend the summer with her in California. My mom was reluctant but she eventually consented, and off I went with the idea of meeting Mickey Mouse and the rest of his gang.
I don't know what I expected as a small kid boarding a plane for the first time, but what I didn't expect was to find my abuela working multiple jobs to support her perpetually unemployed husband. Our mornings began at 5 AM when she would start her first job as a maid to the family of some wealthy doctor, for the first part of the day; followed by her working a shift in the mall as a cashier; ending with us returning home to her gringo in his recliner watching game shows, drinking his sweetened tea, spitting tobacco juice into a can, while apparently waiting for her to clean and make dinner.
It is important to note that we were never a rich family by any stretch of the imagination, back home, but my abuelo had left her a home and a rental property that were debt-free. Her monthly income from her property should have afforded her a comfortable life, and when my abuelo was alive that was exactly what they had. So it was a shock for me to see my abuela as someone else's maid, while for some reason pretending to be subservient to a man that she neither respected or loved. Even more troubling was the fact that I knew that nobody back home had any idea what was actually taking place in her life.
As you can imagine, my summer vacation wasn't exactly a vacation in the truest sense of the term. Yes, we visited Disneyland and she was relentless in making sure that we saw everything and took pictures with every one of Mickey's gang. But those were just the short reprieves. Because the truth of the matter, was something she would never say out loud or give cause for anyone to speak about: how unhappy she was.
Most of the summer was spent with her working and me watching. I helped when I could, but there was very little that I could do. She seemed to need me there, though, maybe as a taste of home or as a reminder of what might have been if only my abuelo was still with us.
I recall wandering the mall for hours while she worked. I visited every store, saw every product imaginable, and by the end of the day, when my little legs couldn't carry me any longer, I would find myself a wooden bench with a soft pretzel and a warm cup of cheese and watch people as they carried on with their lives absolutely oblivious to my little presence on the bench.
Without a doubt I was a pensive child, and while I waited for her shift as a cashier in the vitamin store to conclude my thoughts would drift to my grandmother's relationship with her children. I was old enough to understand that they resented her for having remarried and run off with another man at the expense of what they saw as their father's hard-earned savings. In fact, I still had the morning of my abuelo's funeral vividly in my memory: the family met at a small diner and my abuela showed up and handed each of them a check (presumably their inheritance); they argued and short tempers prevailed.
I remember my mother dragging me by the arm as we left the diner without even finishing our beverages. She was so angry as we drove home that she cried most of the way, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say. And if her decision that day to not give them what they wanted didn’t break the family it was certainly a precursor of what was to come when she decided to remarry and move away.
I only ever wished that they could have seen her as I saw her during our summers together in California.
Instead, her children described her as a selfish spendthrift who had caused their father no end of grief over her incessant need to impress others with her nice clothes, jewelry, and new things. They could never give her credit for having been their mother, or maybe never cared to appreciate why she was such a free spirit. And to be fair, their experiences with her are their own and I wasn't there to see or feel how their relationships with her had evolved.
It is relevant to also note that she came from a time and a place in Mexican culture where women married young, raised children and ran households while their husbands worked and provided. Yet, here was a woman who saw more in her uncertain horizons than just children and homemaking. She wanted glamour, beauty, and the independence to live her life on her own terms.
One of my favorite photos is of her seated on a bicycle. I had always assumed that the bicycle had been hers, but in one of our late conversations we were discussing regrets and she lamented that she had never learned to ride a bicycle.
Naturally, I immediately found the photo that I had and showed it to her, and together we laughed as she admitted that it had belonged to a friend because her father would neither buy her one nor allow her to learn how to ride one. Then she got married and forgot all about it until she was much older, but by that time she was too frightened to attempt it.
We laughed at that, too.
Especially because she was the most fearless person I ever knew. She never tolerated an insult to her person or her family. And when my abuelo refused to teach her how to drive, she waited, watched, and eventually taught herself by taking the car while he was at work without his permission; and by the time he discovered what was happening she was already a proficient driver.
She was as indomitable in her will as she was in her Catholic faith. Every night of our summers together I vividly remember being on my knees at her side praying the rosary, all the while listening to her fervent prayers for her children and grandchildren, above all else.
There was a time in California when she drove us through a storm in San Bernardino Valley when the winds were so strong that the highway was quite literally a parking lot of trucks tipped on their sides and there we were driving along in a pickup truck with a large camper shell defying the laws of nature with her rosary in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. A memory that requires no narration or explanation, in itself showing her indomitable spirit.
I admit, our summers spent together in California were so much more than just her working with me watching. We learned to play tennis together, danced, embroidered, visited museums, and had adventures in shopping malls and beaches — and through it all we became more than just grandmother and grandchild, we became friends. And what I most admired about her, even then, was that through it all she never felt sorry for herself and never stop believing that my life would have all the glamour and privilege that hers never did. Which was why she always insisted that I never accept someone else's narrative for my life.
She had this way of framing all her advice in the package of, “your abuelo always said…” to the point that I often wondered if he ever really said those things, or if it was just her way of keeping him relevant and present in our lives.
I hated leaving her at the end of those summers, knowing not only how unhappy she was, but also unable to tell the rest of the family what she was going through and living. She had sworn me to secrecy like only an abuela could and I was prepared to submit to torture before I said anything about what her American dream had actually turned into.
And unfortunately, just as her sons had predicted, when the money was all gone, her and her gringo had no choice but to come home — to my grandfather’s home, the only property left to her — only to find that she was still going to have to support him. Her gringo seemed to resent being told to find a job, and it wasn’t long before he packed his things and headed north to presumably find work. But we all knew that we would never see him again, a truth that she endured as stoically as she had every other hardship — without a second thought or the briefest of moments for self-pity.
I once asked her, years later, why she had left her family, her home and basically everything and everyone that she loved to move to a place she had never been with a man she obviously didn't love. She became taciturn as she moved her vegetables from one side of the plate to the other, either testing her answer in her own head or outright ignoring the question. The tension became so palpable that I decided to change the subject, but in the end she gave me her answer.
She said that it was la gran equivocación de su vida (the biggest mistake of her life), and that if she could go back and change her decision she most certainly would.
I remember feeling ashamed, as though it hadn’t been my place to even ask that question and again tried to change the subject, but she insisted that someone hear what she had to say and I suppose that I was always going to be that someone.
“When your abuelo died,” she said, “I felt so alone and frightened at the prospect of staying alone that I just jumped at the first opportunity that presented itself. And all I can say is that I was a stupid woman. Stupid to think that he loved me. Stupid to think that I could replace your abuelo. And stupid to think that I could change someone.”
It pained me to hear her referring to herself as “stupid”. Primarily because it felt like one of those false narratives that she had so adamantly warned me of over the years when time and again she made me promise that I would never be so foolish as to believe that I could change someone. And regrettably, I was unsuccessful in keeping that promise.
My history of marriage and relationships is a testament to my own idiotic insistence of doing just that. But despite my blunders, she never found pleasure in my failures and never ceased to encourage me to pick myself up and try again.
In fact, her favorite advice for me was, nunca te des por vencido! (Never give up!).
She was the one who taught me that failure is just another road, and not necessarily one to be shunned. I never understood her point, much less the lesson, until I was in the university and started to experience some of my own challenges with failure and disappointment.
Too much socializing and not enough studying had caused my GPA to drop, causing me to lose a scholarship that meant less money for books and living expenses. I knew that my mother couldn't afford to help me, and the advice that I got from my uncles coincided with that of my mother: you tried college and failed, now it's time to come home and get a job like everyone else.
I admit to having felt more dejected from the advice than the actual circumstances of not having the money to cover my expenses. But when I spoke to my abuela, she was as adamant that I not give up as she was angry that my own family had encouraged me to do so.
She came to visit not long after and offered me some money, but by that time I had already found another job and my problems of penury had been postdated for a later time. But she wasn't to be deterred, placing the cash under my pillow when I wasn't looking.
I can honestly say that I’m rich because of her. Not because of anything material that she gave me, but because she never once throughout my entire life stopped investing her love in me in every way imaginable, and I can't imagine having had a better abuela or primary influence throughout my life.
Her children, on the other hand, never forgave her for having squandered her savings. There were some brief moments of calm and attempts at forgiveness, for the sake of family unity, when she eventually managed to make a good life for herself with a divorcee named David. But the calm was always short lived.
David was good to her in every way imaginable and together they should have had a happily ever after ending. But, David had daughters and my abuela wasn't willing to stay silent about their financial dependence and abuse of his generosity. It was a strain on their relationship that eventually broke them, yet they remained friends-in-love until the end when he died from Parkinson's some years later.
In a very big way, he was the second husband that she buried. And at least for me, a second abuelo, too.
David was still alive when the fiasco of my wrongful conviction forever struct the death knell into our family. He visit me several times in the jail, and on the small video screen told me that she was the love of his life but he just couldn't bring himself to turn his back on his daughters. And as for the murder I was being accused of, I guess we had spent too many summers together fishing from before dawn until after dusk for him to doubt, even for the briefest of moments, the integrity of my character.
During his last visit, he said to me that “it's not about guilt or innocence with these people, it's about making an example of someone whenever the victim happens to be respectable and white.”
David also understood the dynamic between my abuela and her sons. He said to me that they would eventually turn their backs on her if she didn't turn her back on me. “Hopefully you will win this before it comes to that, because if you lose at trial they will secretly celebrate your conviction and your family will never recover.”
Honestly, I don't think I believed him. I knew that his intentions were good, and he wanted to prepare me for the worst, but since I couldn't even fathom, at that time, being found guilty of a crime I didn't commit, the relevance and prediction of his words didn't quite register.
He reminded me of a conversation we had had years prior while fishing. “Your uncles resent you,” he said. “They resent you because your grandmother loves you so much. You have always been her favorite, that much is obvious, but it's more than that. You remind her of your grandfather and she has never stopped loving him, which is why she will never marry me.”
I knew that what he was saying was true, but I also felt that any favortism towards me was much more complicated than it appeared on the surface.
I was the first grandchild and my abuelo died before his other grandchildren were old enough to make memories with him. But there was also the fact that my parents were divorced and my father was absent and my grandfather needed to fill that role. I was too young to ever think of myself as his favorite, but as I grew up to know him through the eyes of his sons and daughter I came to know a man who believed fervently in two things: family and personal integrity.
On the day he died I was the last person to interact with him. I was just beginning primary school and I would walk there from my grandparent’s home because my mother lived on the other side of the city and it was more convenient for her and her work schedule to leave me with my grandparents during the week. My abuela loved having me there, but it was never presumed that I could just spend the night without the explicit permission of my abuelo — formalities, afterall, had to be followed.
The ritual was always the same: mother would call from her work in the early afternoon to talk and see how my day at school had went; she would then ask my abuela if I could stay the night, to prevent having to wake me up so early in the morning to transport me across the city before school, so that she can make it to work on time; and abuela's response was always the same: “we’ll see what abuelo says when he gets home from work.”
Of course, all of this was just a formality.
Because moments before he arrived I would always hide in the coat closet, knowing that he would go there to hang his coat. My presence in the house was always easy to detect because I never went anywhere without my toy cars, all of which he would see scattered on the floor, but he always pretended to be surprised when he opened the closet door to hang his coat.
He would pick me up in his arms and give me the biggest of hugs with all his love. He always smelled the same to me, a combination of earth and mechanic’s grease.
This ritual repeated itself day after day and week after week, and never once did he tell me that I couldn't spend the night when I asked.
I always waited until he had me on his lap while he rested in his favorite chair before I asked the question. But on that particular night it was different, he was different. When I asked if I could spend the night he suddenly became very sad, so sad that years later following my wrongful conviction I often wondered if his sadness was because in that moment he saw a glimpse of my future without the constraints of time and knew what was coming.
I don't know.
What I do know is that his eyes filled with tears when I asked him if I could spend the night. He put both of his enormous hands on my shoulders and said, “tonight is not a good night, you shouldn't be here.”
Abuela was angered by his answer but she never saw his tears, only I did. And to this day I have never stopped thinking about them, about him, and about how he could have known that within a few hours he would skip dinner, lay down, and never wake up again.
Despite him not wanting me to be there the night that he died, I was anyways. It was close to 3 AM before my mother received the call from one of the neighbors, because abuela was too distraught to dial the old rotary phone. I remember the flashing lights of the ambulance and how all those people who I had never seen before kept walking in and out of the house without knocking or asking for permission. I kept thinking, abuelo is going to have something to say about them not wiping their feet.
I was seated all alone on the living room sofa and nobody seemed to notice me. Then it happened, the paramedics who never wiped their feet rolled him out of our lives on a gurney with a white sheet covering his body.
When I first launched this newsletter I wrote about what it was like to hear the finality of the cell door close behind me once I was convicted. I admit, a lot of what I have written reeks of self-pity, but I remember comparing tragedy to a tsunami-like wave that crashes over us leaving what remains in a million little pieces on the floor of our cells or lives.
I said then that I couldn't immediately pick up the pieces and move on, because more than anything I needed to walk over the broken shards with my bare feet so as to feel each and every piece of my life that was no more and know that it was real, that they weren't just memories that I had invented.
My abuela has weathered her storms and tsunami-like waves and her methods for processing loss are different than mine, maybe even different than most of yours, but despite all of her follies and imperfections her love has carried me through the most dreadful of storms. And I feel the need to defend her memory from those who will inevitably say that she was selfish, inconsiderate, cold, or even mean-spirited; because while she may have been all of those things to someone, to me she was funny, loving, generous, faithful, and above all, devoted to her family even when her own sons turned their backs on her for never doubting in me, my innocence, or my inevitable exoneration.
One of her sons once told me, about the time she asked that I write her eulogy, that she was only holding on to life because of me, and that as far as he was concerned it was selfish of me to give her hope. And as time and circumstances conspired to slowly claim her mobility and quality of life, I have often thought about that conversation. But I always come to the same conclusion: her love is quite possibly the closest any of us will ever be to God in this human form that we call life, and I am most certainly not eager or ready to see her go.
On August 9, 2022, she was rushed in an ambulance to the hospital because she had two large cysts on her left breast that she had been hiding from everyone, and on that particular day they finally ruptured. Within two weeks the official diagnosis was stage 4 breast cancer, and the best way to describe her reaction was — unmoved.
I remember speaking to her the day she received her diagnosis and she was as unperturbed as always, more concerned about possibly missing her video visit with me than whatever the doctor had to say. I asked if she understood what the oncologist had told her about her diagnosis, and she repeated almost exactly what I had already been told, and yet, she was calm.
Days later we again spoke over a video visit on Google Meet and I asked her whether she understood the mortal danger of her condition. She said she did, but wasn't worried because everything was in God’s hands and He would take her when He was ready.
Fortunately the cancer hadn't yet spread from the grapefruit-size tumors in her breast to any other part of her body. Which meant that there was a good possibility that with radiation and chemotherapy that the nefarious intentions of her tumors could be neutralized.
The side effects of her treatments were going to be brutal, and as much as I couldn't stand to lose her I also couldn't encourage her to embark on a course of action that would only bring her more suffering. I knew without being told that she was hanging on to a thread of hope that the federal court would grant our habeas corpus petition, overturn my wrongful conviction, and thereby bring me to her bedside before it was too late. But the reality was, the federal court had already been sitting on its decision for over fourteen months and when the federal magistrate, Laura Fashing finally entered her recommendation it was just more of the same: ignore the truth and the law and kick the problem down the road to someone else.
I also know that the federal district court will most likely affirm the magistrate’s decision, leaving us the onerous task of appealing to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
I needed to hear from her that she understood the harsh reality of what awaited her with chemo and radiation treatments. But she knew my intentions, and she was quick to remind me of what she would never let me forget: to never accept a narrative of self-pity; and most importantly, never give up. No te des por vencido!
Months later the truth of her advice and those words came to fruition when her scans showed that her tumors could no longer be detected. There was no guarantee that the tumors wouldn’t return at some point, but at least for the moment she was cancer free and could refrain from further treatments.
When I finally saw her and congratulated her on her victory, she remind me that our lives are in God’s hands and He is the only one who decides when it's our time. And I honestly couldn't help but marvel at the magnificence of her mighty faith despite so many disappointments and seemingly unanswered prayers in life. And for the briefest of moments I began to think that maybe her faith actually could move mountains, and that the federal court would act — uphold the Constitution and set me free before she departed.
Then, another wave crashed over our lives.
Weeks later her daughter found her in bed unable to move her extremities or even sit up. She was once again rushed to the hospital while we learned that her body was fervently fighting sepsis from a severe infection thought to be caused by her inflamed and arthritic knee.
Her whole body is now inflamed and in pain and she will likely never be mobile again for as long as her life resists the inevitable. Surgery was suggested as a way of scrubbing out the infection from her knee, but it was likely that she wouldn't survive such an invasive procedure. Which left the doctors with only one alternative: to make her comfortable and wait.
She was transferred to a nursing home because the doctors feel that she needs 24-hour care, but when I speak to her she cries and tells me that she just wants to go home and rest. It breaks my heart to be helpless in helping her, but it also opens my eyes to just how indomitable she still is.
We had a visit last Wednesday, as per our routine through Google Meet, and from my digital-vantage point at the foot of her hospice bed I was troubled to see her head turned to her right in what appeared like such an unnatural position. I asked numerous times if she could see me, she said that she could but I couldn't see how if she wasn't even looking at the screen. I didn't push the issue and instead focussed on trying to comprehend what she was saying about her food and how eager she was to dance with me one last time.
I asked her as I always do, cuando vamos a bailar, abuela? and her answer was the same. Muy pronto, she says. And my eyes tear up every time she says it.
Over the years whenever she would write a letter or end a phone call she would always say, Gracias por hacer mi día y noche felices (thank you, for making my day and night happy ones). At the end of our last visit we both said this to one another, and when the headset was removed from her head I asked why nobody had taken the trouble to adjust her head on the pillow. But apparently, they had adjusted her head, I was told. In fact, numerous times, but she would always get angry with them and with all her might she would again turn her head to her right. I asked why she was doing that and they showed me.
On her little table next to her bed was my photo, and that's what she was looking at — not the screen of the tablet but the picture on her bedside table.
Victoria has never been a perfect person, she is as flawed as any of us, but without a doubt she has loved perfectly and valiantly, and for that, I fervently believe that even if heaven doesn't exist, right now, that at this very moment a heaven is being made for her and all her loved ones, and without a doubt it will have an enormous dance floor.
Whenever we speak she never lets me tell her how much she means to me. I assume because it's too close to self-pity to say such things. And I don't know if what I write will be published in time for her to read it.
What I do know, is that, I am who I am because of her, and I wouldn't trade her love for all the fame, fortune, or freedom in the world. Because of her I know that even if I am discouraged at times, I will never be defeated because her love will most certainly never diminish — not even with death.
And my final words to her are these: be brave, my friend, because our sorrows are not eternal; we will once again dance and laugh, and the pains that we have lived through will one day be the pleasures that we live for. If my heart is breaking into a million little pieces, it is only because you have always been the one to turn the light on for me when the darkness gets close, and that light is your enormous love — I will miss you, abuelita.
Hasta pronto, abuelita, besos y abrazos y te quiero mucho.
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