A block away from home, I held out each hand one at a time admiring my fresh manicure, a shopping bag filled with detergent pods dangled from one of my wrists. My phone buzzed in my coat pocket revealing the screen saver of a chicken nugget. It was Holden, my daughter.
“Are you almost home?” Holden asked.
“Be there in a minute,” I turned the corner towards our block.
“I’m just letting you know, so you’re not surprised, Luis got arrested again,” Holden referred to our neighbor from across the hall. Luis lived in a studio with his wife and we often heard them yelling at each other and after we saw him dispose of empty alcohol bottles down the trash shoot. “There are cops on the blocks and an ambulance too.”
“I’ll be right home,” I said. I saw myself click off the phone, place it back in my pocket, notice the two cop cars, the ambulance, and let myself in the front of the building. Fights, alcoholics, cop cars, ambulances, buildings, like theater sets they made up the different scenes of my childhood and adolescence. Mami was a rageaholic to Papi’s alcoholic. I caught a glimpse of myself in the lobby mirror, and looked surprised to see myself reflected back. I rode the elevator to the third floor and opened the door to find my fifteen-year old daughter and eleven-year old son looking out the window.
“Did you see Luis?” Ruben asked. “I was the one who heard the whole thing and told Holden.” My son was matter of fact as he went through the details of what occurred. Luis had tried to kill himself after a long bender.
I watched myself listen, kiss the tops of their head, and sort laundry.
“Come with me to the laundry room,” I told Holden as I dragged two baskets out of our apartment.
“Watch it!” Holden called out.
Holden drew me to a stop. “What?” I spun around to face her.
“Look at the floor,” Holden pointed at a bloody footprint on the ground.
I looked down and saw the dried blood in shape of a large shoe.
“Oh my God look over here,” Holden walked a few feet and bent down to stare at a streak of blood. Then motioned towards the door of the elevator speckled with blood. “Mami did you walk through this hallway and not see this?” Holden asked pulling the elevator door open, while balancing the laundry basket on her hip.
“Look at this!” Holden pressed the button to the lobby. There were smudges of blood on the wooden panel walls, droplets of blood on the floor, and a hand streaked on the inside of the elevator door.
“What the hell!” I was overcome with the sensation of being startled awake.
“Mami you rode up on this elevator and didn’t see anything of this? Or what was in the hallway? You always do this!” Holden shook her head back and forth, her eyes filled with concern, and her voice rang with exasperation.
“Do what,” I asked. I felt my senses slowly start to turn on.
“Mami I love you, but sometimes you are so lela,” Holden used the Colombian word for spacey. Lela, a word often called by others and myself, for being easily distracted, quick to daydream and stare for what could be hours as a child, a habit I never outgrew. Later I’d learn what I called habit was a defense mechanism.
And like a little kid, I shrugged my shoulders and hung my head. When did it start? I wanted to ask Holden. The words clogged my throat, and kept me silent. My mind shouted the question: When did it start? When did Holden feel the need to be my parent?
The first time I heard the words generational trauma, the image of heavy chains linking past and present, despite renouncing their weight, crept in my mind. While something deep inside me recognized the words as the truth behind my ache. Mami had not wanted to be anything like Abuela Repa, and I did not want to be anything like Mami. An oath I was certain kept the chains from dragging me to the past. What I could not see was: what one does not acknowledge one cannot heal. My pain kept me blind all the while the chains tightened and linked around Holden.
I was twenty-five when I gave birth to Holden. Mami often blamed her overprotectiveness, and what I called smothering, on her being an old parent of forty-one. I on the other hand would be cool, fun, easy to talk to, and all the things Mami wasn’t.
My plan was to parent Holden the opposite of what Mami had done and did. While Mami worried incessantly, pumping fear into me in order to build a shield against all the dangers in the world. I would dole out the necessary bits. If Mami ruled by terror, my approach would be friendly and smart. Unaware I had not been parented, but made to parent, not raised yet grown.
But. The pathology of the familiar repeats until it heals. Holden had stepped into the role of parenting long before that elevator ride.
“What happened Mama?” Holden called from the back of the car. She was six and in her pink flowered car seat. Rubencito, two years old drooled as he slept in his own car seat beside her. I clutched the steering wheel and pulled over the shoulder of the road. Holden’s face darkened with concern, as her eyes traced my hands.
“I just needed to hit pause,” I said. My mouth was dry and mind raced not unlike the cars barreling through the highway. One exit, I shook my head, couldn’t even do that. My foot kept hitting the break pedal, jerking us forward, and forcing a stream of drivers to sit on their horns. I looked at the road ahead and shuddered thinking about going back on it. It was endless and unpredictable, sparking terror inside of my body, my mind became consumed with losing control of the car.
“Are we still going to Tia’s?” Holden asked.
I remained silent. The thought of merging back into traffic towards where my sister lived left me mute. This was the second time this happened to me in the past week, on the Verrazano Bridge, same dry mouth, racing mind, and Holden calling from the back if I was ok. I didn’t know what to say then nor now, as Holden kept calling to me, are you ok Mama? Are you ok?
I can answer Holden now. I am ok. The fog is lifting. I had to own what happened in order to feel it and heal it. I’m still healing. I suppose I will be healing for a long time. My pain great, passed to me a generation at a time. But, I can parent myself. You go be a teenager, Holden. I got this!
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