Talking Dead, Amanda Stephen
“Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia. El Señor esta contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre: Jesús. Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros los pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”
– Ave Maria
In my church, whenever someone dies, we pray the rosary for nine nights straight for up to two hours. We pray in Spanish and sing in between every ten Hail Marys and an Our Father or two.
When I was younger, I thought these gatherings were parties because when they start, people are often chit-chatting and drinking “caliente,” as I used to call it when I was too young to know the proper term for hot chocolate in Spanish. We call these gatherings novenas. I used to say “noventas” but in Spanish that means ninety and that’s not right.
I loved going to novenas back then because I got to hear my grandmother sing. She has this dark, alto timbre to her voice which turns the Spanish psalms into something almost hypnotic. She always wore her best button-up blouses that were ironed to perfection and her black barely-an-inch heels. The novenas were held in people’s basements, backyards, or living rooms. My brothers and I used to hang out in corners with the other kids, dipping cookies into the “caliente’s” rich milk chocolate or running around. We laughed and played games while the adults prayed and sang. Occasionally someone would burst into tears. I would ask my brothers why and they said it was simply because prayers made those people sad. Then the singing would rise up around the sound of tears and drown them out or that person would slowly stop.
My grandmother would sit me next to her sometimes and translate the songs into English under her breath, pointing at words in the little hand-stitched booklets that were handed out to us when we would begin praying. She did that so I knew what we were singing, but I didn’t care about the translations. I wanted to learn the Spanish because the songs and prayers sounded ugly in English. I would look up at her as she sang and watch how her mouth formed the sounds of her native language. I would try to mimic the sounds, mimic her accent, until I felt it was right. I wonder if she smiled, watching me try to sing along with her, stumbling on pronunciation and pitch.
She used to bring my brothers and me to novenas and retreats, but as I grew up, one by one, we split, and I began to understand the sorrow novenas secretly harbor. The last novena my grandmother and I went to was for my eldest brother, Jose. I sang and prayed in English. I don’t cry in front of people often but I sat there, in the circle of grieving, praying women and Juan Cruz, a family friend and a man I’ve come to know by his warm smile. One of my legs shook. My hand gripped my knee and my nails dug into my jeans and skin to tell myself to resist the urge to run out of the room. I prayed with my head hung low. My right hand gripped my rosary as though it was holding me together. The words balled up in my throat and escaped as hot tears, rebelliously sneaking out from my closed eyelids, and sobs broke through the white bone of my teeth, like prisoners thirsting for sunlight.
I realize now why prayers make people sad.
“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts in under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.” – Luke 8:16
In Spanish, every word, every letter, every sound and syllable has a purpose. A meaning. An impact. Your name is everything.
Traditionally in Hispanic cultures, when your parents are unmarried, you have two surnames. They can be hyphenated or separated by de. The hyphen is synonymous to creation in the sense that it takes a part of two beings, combines them and creates something new that stands on its own.
For me, it’s the combination of the family I know, my mother’s family, and the family I’ve never met but yearn to learn about. The family I want to understand. I hate the de for it means belonging to someone else. If I were born with the de, my last name would be switched. My mother’s name would be first because I am of the Santa woman, but I belong to the Ramos man. I don’t like the idea of belonging to men who run away and hurt others without apology. I don’t like this tradition because there is a long history of women belonging, as objects, to men. I don’t want to perpetuate that.
My last name, currently, has no combination. Legally, I’m simply a “Ramos.” However, I combine it in my work to give thanks to my mother for giving me her caring, creative spirit and to give thanks to my grandmother for raising me the same way her daughter would have. Their name means more to me than my father’s ever will.
My grandmother is the original Santa woman. The first holy woman I have reference of. Santo means “holy” and so does Santa. The only difference is Santa is feminine, grammatically. Her name means light and her last name means holy and little does she know that God chose her name for a reason.
In my darkest moments, she tells me to ask her God for assistance and that he will lift me from the spaces without light. I try. I try every day to have that same faith in her God. She tells me God is her best friend because he has always been by her side through all of the hard times and all of the good. I understand that because she’s been that light for me. She speaks of God in a way that makes me wish I was still firm in my faith like I used to be. She’s told me many times that God doesn’t put mountains in our path to break us, he puts them there for us to grow and learn from. So, I got a mountain tattooed on my arm.
Once, I told her that I was angry with God and that I had stopped going to church. Over the phone there was a pause, but I swore I could hear her heart breaking. My memory has blacked out that entire conversation, except for when she said, “You shouldn’t be angry at God. He’s not the one who hurt you.” I probably said, “Okay whatever, Grams” in response but I can still hear her saying it, even now, knowing she was right and refusing to hear a truth I wasn’t ready to accept yet.
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away…” ~ Romans 16:17
I once had brothers.
When we lost Jose, my eldest brother and best friend, we lost our minds and our sense of self. Or at least I did. Not all at once. It’s been slow, like pouring honey out of a jar into your tea.
The day he died, I waited until the family was downstairs and I went to shower, to cry. My cousins followed me in, despite my “Get out. I’m fine. I promise. I’m fine.” They sat on the floor of the tiny bathroom as I scrubbed at my body with my nails and scratched at every patch of skin and hair until it hurt more than my chest did. Crying in the shower is like drowning in slow motion. You don’t move. You don’t fight it. You breathe in water until it fills your lungs and then you drop to the floor of the tub, gasping and grasping at your chest. I sat there on the floor of the bathtub remembering that his suicide was a sin and thinking that maybe if I prayed, or even just hoped, his beautiful soul would go where all good souls go. Heaven.
My middle brother, Lu, has a snake-like smile. His promises are the melodies street charmers whisper to deadly reptiles in woven jars. They dizzy you. They convince you you’re not alone and when the music stops, he’s running away, off to charm someone new.
My grandmother used to yell at me for following my brothers around. “Get a life of your own,” she said. I’m pretty sure I said no, because I never had a life that didn’t revolve around their approval. I was never afraid of disappointing my grams until after my brothers left.
Before then, as the “baby” by five years and eleven months, I wanted my brothers to be proud of me so I made up these rules for myself in my head:
- The report cards went to Jose first.
- I wasn’t allowed to date until middle school because my brothers would kill me.
- I couldn’t date the skater boy because he looked like Jose and that was gross. All skater boys were since then off-limits.
- I would never date a blonde because my brothers mostly dated blondes and that never really worked out. No blondes for me.
- I would never ask Lu for advice. It would never benefit me.
Lu calls my grandmother often. He’s the only brother I have left. Still, I never pick up if I’m near the phone. His voice feels like hands around my neck, pressing the air out of my lungs slowly as the Joker laughs in the background. Some people don’t listen and can’t change unless they are willing to and I’ve given up trying. Nothing is ever his fault is the claim he has always made, even if he’s hurt you. You can’t strike a match under a wooden bridge and claim you had no hand in the destruction as you watch it burn. Still, I wonder if he feels lonely too.
“Haced todo sin murmurar ni discutir, para que podáis llegar a ser irreprensibles y puros, ‘Hijos de Dios sin falta en una generación deformada y torcida’. Entonces brillaréis entre ellos como estrellas en el cielo mientras os aferráis firmemente a la palabra de vida. Y entonces podré jactarme en el día de Cristo de que no corrí ni trabajé en vano.” ~ Philippians 2:14-16
My grandmother is the only mother I have ever known. She has raised seven children as her own and has been a huge part in raising my cousins and the generation after us as well. I always say my grandmother saved my life, because she has. She’s always come and rescued us. I wonder if we have ever thanked her, or if it’s even crossed our minds to.
She married a man back on our island nation of Puerto Rico, had four of his children and left him when she realized she was better on her own. She had moved to the States long before their divorce to become a nurse and a religious teacher. She raised her four children on her own, working multiple jobs to support them and put them into Catholic School and sports.
My mother played volleyball and was very smart. She placed on honor roll and had a free spirit. My grandmother always tells me how my mother once came home and told my grams she was wearing shorts under her uniform skirt because the boys would sit underneath the bleachers to look up the girls’ skirts. Grams says my stubbornness and my legs are my mothers.
When my mother left my hometown after having Jose, my grandmother supported her. She never complained. She never begged anyone to change their mind. She believed everything happens because it’s God’s will. When my mother left Boston with two more kids than she arrived with, my grandmother took her in and gave us a place to live.
When cancer ravaged my mother’s body, I like to think that my grandmother fought for us kids. I was six, and yet I picture her screaming at lawyers to keep us together. I see her sacrificing her lifestyle, being on her own for so long, to bring a kindergartener and two almost-teens into her house to raise as her own. My mom faded away slowly, or at least slowly in my mind, and my grandmother held her hand the entire time, the same way she held the hand of her mother, my namesake.
I don’t know if I remember my mom. I can’t tell if my brothers’ and grandmother’s stories have formed what I think are memories or if my brain actually remembers her. I told my brothers once with some conviction that “Mommy told me to promise we stay together.” Now that I’m older, I still believe that this is true, but I can’t remember her saying it. I can’t remember her voice.
My grandmother keeps telling me about how my mother wrote too. How my hands resemble my mom’s hands and how my mom’s hands resemble her own. I smile when she tells me these things, but a dark truth creeps around the edges of my mind because I will never know anything about my mother for myself. My grandmother knows, however, with her heart’s full conviction that I am my mother, part two.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
~ 1 Corinthians 3:16
I know wrath is a deadly sin, but so are envy and gluttony. I feel jealous every time someone posts a picture with their parents or siblings because I don’t have that anymore and I want it back. Sometimes I see parents holding the hands of their children on the sidewalk and I miss something I’m not sure I’ve ever had. I see siblings arguing in the department store over toys and I remember, with some increment of pain, all the arguments and fights I took for granted. I hold onto my friends and partner so tightly I scare myself into thinking I’m suffocating them. My biggest fear used to be the people that I care about dying, but I know now death is inevitable. I live knowing that a day will come when I have to live without my grandmother too. Now, what I’m most scared of is ending up alone. I’m scared of not holding onto people tightly enough to keep them. Still, I have hope.
October of my freshman year in college, exactly one year after my brother died, I got my first tattoo. I booked the appointment with a friend months beforehand and told my grandmother the day before I went to the parlor. She tried to change my mind. She hated that both my brothers had tattoos. Your body is your temple. Yeah that’s true, but temples have stained glass windows and murals. Why can’t I?
Jose drew my tattoo, as a joke, before he died. He doodled it on a piece of notebook paper, in blue ink, and then traced over it again in black, during his lunch break. When he showed it to me, I told him I didn’t want a skull on my body because I didn’t want to be marked with death. We were both superstitious, so he understood, but I loved the rose because our mother loved roses. It was supposed to be for Mom.
I came home after my tattoo was finished and walked into my kitchen with plastic wrap taped over my left shoulder. The rose’s petals cupped the curve of my shoulder as a banner curved through it. It reads, “There’s a light that never dies.” Where the banner touched a rose leaf sat my mom’s name and Jose’s name just underneath.
“What in the world is that?”
I shook my head. “Grams, did you think I was joking?”
“No, but I thought maybe you’d change your mind. I hope it’s not large and ugly.”
I peeled the wrap from my slightly bloody shoulder, revealing the new ink to her.
I laughed. “So you don’t hate it?”
“No, I don’t hate it. I don’t like it, but he would.”
“That’s all that matters. Their names are in my skin now, Grams.”
They can’t leave me ever again.
“There is no one holy like the Lord, there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.”
~ 1 Samuel 2:2
“Mira, Pancha, if you pray, God will show you the way. You have a guardian angel watching over you. Thank them for all they’ve done and they will help you heal. They’ll help you find your way again.”
I wonder often who my guardian angel is. Is it my mom or my brother? I have been so lucky to have made it this far and I’m not the type of person to claim that it’s been all my doing. My anger isn’t with God. He’s not where my hurt comes from. If I’ve learned anything from counselors, it’s that anger is a secondary emotion.
“Angelica, por favor, don’t hold on to your anger. When I’m gone, you need to be able to stand on your own.”
My grandmother has been steady and consistent my entire life. My warrior. My mother. My teacher. My guide. She asks me to believe again. Begs me to. She believes that when she is gone all that’s left will be me and God. She’s not wrong. Still, I’m angry for her, for when she leaves this world, anyone who has ever met her will have lost a light in their life.
My cousin, Tynan, once told me, “When Grams dies, you’re going to run the family. It’s your turn to step up.”
I looked him in the eye, and said, defiance in my voice, “What are you going to do if I don’t want to?”
His dark eyes that match his darker skin were filled to the brim with hurt and sadness. I had never seen him so serious. “Well, then we’ll all be lost. Up a creek without a fucking paddle.”
In the early August of 2018, my heart raced as my feet inched closer to the church. One step at a time, I dug my nails into the palm of my hands as my grandmother smiled at the other church goers on our way inside. She’s known them since before I was born. My head hung low. I felt shame.
When the door of our church stood before me, my hand reached out for the handle, and I opened it wide, staring at my feet and letting my grandmother through the door before me. She smiled at everyone she knew, but not at me. She didn’t want to make it seem like she was too happy I was there, and she didn’t want to pressure me to come back again either. We got to our usual pew, fourth row from the way back. We scooted in slowly as to not draw attention to ourselves, even though we were super early and there were only six other people there. My grandmother rummaged through her purse and handed me four dollars.
“I didn’t get to light a candle for your mother and brother this month. Here. Go light them.”
Silently, I left the pew, looking up at the altar where the candle offerings stood by the statue of Mother Mary. The air had left my lungs.
Santa Maria Holy Mary
I stared at my feet as I started to walk towards the front of the church.
Madre de Dios Mother of God
I passed empty pews and pews with singular persons in them.
Ruega por nosotros los pecadores Pray for our sinners
I looked upward toward the Statue of Mary. She birthed an entire deity. The savior of us all. She did it mostly on her own and, on top of all that, she ascended to heaven, holy.
Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte Now and at the hour of our death
I tucked the four dollars into the offertory box and lit my candle stick, for my mother, with the flame of another candle. I lit a second one for my brother. They burned next to each other. We use the flame from other people’s candles to symbolize sharing the light of God.
I knelt on the single person pew in front of the statue of Mary. It’s customary to pray for the ones you’ve lost. I stared at her porcelain face. She didn’t look sad, but she didn’t look happy either. She looked like a woman who had been through the ringer and survived. She looked like my grandmother. She looked like my mom. I hoped I’d look like her one day.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, looking Mary in the eye. “I have been angry for a long time, but I’m here, so, I guess this is a start.”
About the Artist
Amanda Stephen · Virginia Commonwealth University