While my daughter and I jumped on the “This is Us” bandwagon late, I have to admit that I’ve secretly enjoyed watching how the series explores the mundane everyday experiences of life, love, and family. Last week was a tough one for viewers as we have finally seen how the father of the show, Jack, dies. In reality, I have been surprised by how affected I was by these recent episodes because I’m not usually the kind of person who identifies with television characters. They often don’t look like me, tell my story, or reflect my community. However, the storyline spoke to a common, visceral emotion that is felt across communities and location: grief.
I, too, was a young adult, 20-years old, when my father died suddenly in the 90s. The last time I saw him, I had chastised him because he had ordered an expensive (to us) brand new TV from Sears to watch the Super Bowl with my brothers. When the Super Bowl came around, the TV was on back order and didn’t arrive on time. Instead it arrived the week after his death, and I implored the delivery guy to take it away. And, just as I saw my nurse friends debating on social media about what they should have done for Jack in the hospital, there were also questions about whether the doctors had done enough to diagnose my dad’s symptoms when he went to urgent care the morning of his passing. He was sent home after having some testing done, and that night, after he went to bed, he went into cardiac arrest while my mother brushed her teeth. This, of course, was life before cell phones.
I was away at college in Los Angeles, and that very weekend had taken my first road trip to the Bay Area with my roommate. When we returned back to a friend’s house after an evening out, there was a voicemail on her answering machine from my mom. While her words were calm, the pitch in her voice terrified me. “Llámame mija.” Call me, she said. I immediately got on the phone and starting calling my family but couldn’t get a hold of anyone. My brothers. My sister. No one answered the home phone. I finally got a hold of a family friend. They suggested I call the local hospital because that’s where my father had been taken. She didn’t have the courage to tell me he had already passed away. I eventually located an attending nurse who, after confirming that I was indeed my father’s daughter, told me quickly and bluntly that he had expired after going into cardiac arrest. Expired? I think I dropped the phone and fell to the ground in shock.
Everything after that is a blur. And honestly, it was all a blur for many, many months after.
All of this came back to me after watching Jack’s death on “This is Us” and seeing his wife Rebecca stand alone as she grieved her husband and took care of their kids. The aftermath is certainly one of the hardest parts. When she and her three almost adult children slept on the couch together, I was reminded of how my sister and I didn’t leave my parent’s bed for a week. The three of us slept together because our grief engulfed us in our sleep.
But I also wondered where the rest of her family was and thought about how my mom’s sister immediately set out to be with us. She didn’t have a visa to cross from Mexico, but she came anyway. She brought laughter to our grieving home and kept my mom company for the next two years. My dad’s absence left a gaping hole that was patched up by new ways of being that my tía brought with her — we spoke more Spanish, had new visitors, ate new foods and reluctantly tried to imagine a future without my father.
My dad died from a skin infection called cellulitis, a disease that in 2015 resulted in about 16,900 deaths worldwide, up from 12,600 in 2005. It is, however, a treatable disease. My mother received a phone call from the hospital the morning after his death because the doctor wanted to get my father on a strong antibiotic. My mother responded, “He’s already dead” and hung up on them. Since the infection had started on his left arm, it spread quickly to his heart without treatment. I remember my father’s doctor called us in a few days later for a family meeting to discuss the precautions that the hospital had taken, probably to protect themselves. I think my mother saw no use in pursuing the what ifs. Again, she said, “Ya está muerto.” He is already dead. This was the only truth that mattered.
The morning before I left for that fateful road trip and the day before my dad died, he and I were on the phone for two hours. He was a musician and I was finally starting to appreciate his talent after many years of feeling embarrassment when he played the congas on the dashboard of the car and sang in front of my friends or called out to me from the stage during a gig. That day we talked about music, San Francisco, my grades, and my future. I told him that I wanted to get a Ph.D., that he was going to have to wait for grandchildren and that he needed to stick around for another 20 years. He responded, “Oh, you’ve got me for another 20 years…”
Nine months after my graduation with my doctorate, my only child — my daughter — was born, to the date, on the 12th anniversary of his death. Every year as we are celebrating her life and getting the piñata, cake, and presents ready I often forget what the day also signifies. Then out of nowhere I am hit in the stomach and heart with an undeniable sense of grief.
In my adult life, I’ve read and been in conversation with others who believe that Mexicans laugh at death. This, however, never resonated with me because it has never been my experience or tradition. I’ve been trying to reconcile what that means with the proliferation of Day of the Dead ‘celebrations’ across this country and the way it is attached to the Mexican culture. Our visits to the cemetery in the pueblo in México we are from and to my dad’s grave site here in the U.S. were always somber and filled with deep sadness. While we may have celebrated the lives of those who passed, my family’s relationship to la muerte was never irreverent or indifferent.
Grief lived in my mother’s eyes from the time her father was murdered back in Mexico when she was also a young woman of 20-years old and was only confounded by her husband’s sudden and untimely death so many years later. I don’t think my mother ever recovered, and when 17-years later she too passed, my sister-in-law noted that she could ‘finally rest’ with my father.
Grief lives in our bodies in ways that are triggered by popular TV show or trips to the grocery store when you smell cilantro and are reminded of your mother’s kitchen. Oftentimes you can’t control the tears.
I appreciated Rebecca’s ritual of grief, who every Super Bowl goes through the motions of preparing the foods she last shared with her husband. She also explained to her son that she receives messages of love each year in so doing.
Valentine’s Day was the last holiday I spent with my father. I remember my mom hid the last box of chocolates he gave her in the back of the closet for years. Ironically, we are coming up on the 24th anniversary of my father’s death, and just this week — out of nowhere — my cousin in Mexico sent me a picture of a card that we as a family had sent to him for his college graduation.
It was dated February 14, 1994, six days before my father died.
It had been a while since I had seen my dad’s writing. The memory brought me great joy. I could hear his voice in the shape of his handwriting and this was all I needed. I’m grateful for these unannounced reminders. They are, indeed, what sustain us as the memories become faint. The body remembers.
Michelle Téllez is an Assistant Professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.