By the time I was 10 years old and stood over my father’s coffin, I had already stood over three humans laying in rest in their own coffins: Francisco and Josefina Aponte, my maternal grandfather and grandmother respectively, and an an elder from our church whose name slips me. My father’s death was expected. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer two years prior, and yet my family remained on the merry-go-round expecting the blur of repeated make-believe to come into focus.
I never really cried at my father’s funeral. After a four-day wake and funeral service (would you expect anything less from a good Catholic Puerto Rican family?) I returned to school as though nothing had ever happened. My father’s death felt like a natural turn of events, so the regularly scheduled programming of Mrs. Shapiro’s 5th grade class would continue as usual. Why then, did my mother have trouble waking up in the morning? Why did I get bounced around different family members’ homes? Why did my sister party more like a rockstar than she ever had before? Why was Grandpa Harry so eager to pick me up from school every day? When was this pack of Puerto Rican women going to stop chanting the rosary at my house every single night?
Five years later, Ma died. She was my father’s mother and apparently I have her hands. During the funeral, I saw my father’s headstone for the first time since his death. The rush of pain and sorrow never found me as I stood there with the rest of my family. It all seemed very natural to me. Death that is.
In college, one of my closest friends Emma couldn’t understand how no one in my family was in therapy, and specifically how I wasn’t in therapy. “Your father died, your grandmother died, your brother has been in and out of the clink, you’ve been surrounded by violence. You’ve got a lot going on Castroodles. Just go to therapy,” she told me. I finally took Emma’s advice when we graduated. She had found an unorthodox therapist in Brooklyn Heights who charged you what you could afford. It was like Section 8 therapy. His name was Bob and he looked like the Crypt Keeper. Bob was kind with a mostly toothless smile. He listened and he didn’t have answers for me because I was supposed to find them myself. Good thing I was only paying him what I could afford. We spent the last ten minutes of every session breathing: Deep inhale, deep exhale. The first time I did this, and every time after, my body would convulse and my belly would shake with uncontrollable laughter. As I lay there, unable to contain the audacity of some comedy show in my head, Bob looked at me like a science experiment. Surely I was doing something wrong. I was coming to therapy to get to the bottom of my Daddy Issues and all I could do was laugh.
Two years later, Bob died. I wondered when Ashton Kutcher was going to emerge and tell me I was getting punked. He did not emerge but the sound of the merry-go-round did. You see, my close friends knew I was in therapy but my family did not. In my family, if you had a problem, you just dealt with it. You didn’t talk to someone about your problems, that’s why you went to church. You tell God your problems. And by the way, your issues don’t mean jack shit to the people that are less fortunate so just be thankful you’re alive. In my family’s eyes, they weren’t being harsh or unreasonable, they were just surviving. I needed to do more than just survive. I suppose that’s why I always played sports or competed in races to be physically fit. If I could survive a 90-minute rugby match, a God-only-knows-how-long Tough Mudder or the Harlem Hills in August, surely I could do more than survive.
Until I got divorced, was let go of a network job and had no idea where I was going to live with my two toddler-aged boys. There weren’t enough steep hills for me to run my trauma away. The merry-go-round stopped and I was petrified. I found a new therapist and she was horrible. Period. Full stop. I retreated and looked for answers on the inside because that’s what a good introvert does. I thought the answers would begin and end with losing my father so early. Nothing was coming into focus. I stopped working out. I stopped believing I was resilient. Surely this was rock bottom but every time I looked down, the earth was nowhere near my grasp.
At the age of 35, it was finally time for me to turn 11.
A new therapist emerged. Art was his name. When we couldn’t meet in-person, I could text him or email him or call him. I told him I had daddy issues. It took 2 years for me to realize I had Marysol issues. I had spent my entire life masking issues of trust and understanding in a father I barely knew. I defined myself by the job I had and the career I was chasing. To those around me, I was tough, resilient and put together. While that remains true, I needed support, and I still do. Therapy takes on a new meaning for me now. I continue searching for answers on the inside but I also ask for help from the people I love. The people I love and respect are flawed. I accept their flaws and try not to adopt them as my own. I’m flawed too. People have very distinct opinions of me, and none of it is my business. I cannot force an outcome, no matter how strong the voice inside me is.
On a good day, I listen to music with my boys and we dance like we’re on Soul Train. I still push my body to its limits with exercise for when I don’t everyone around me suffers. I meditate when I can which is never enough — and I breathe — only this time, sometimes I laugh, and sometimes I cry. I’m evolving. But that 11th birthday was a doozy.
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