Johanna was one of those cousins who fell into the honorary sibling category. She lived a few blocks from us and she was my younger sister’s age (best friend) so we grew into adulthood together. We borrowed clothes, we shared secrets, we argued and we loved each other like siblings do.How not to love that sassy, mocha skin girl?
How not to wish the very best for her?
How not to wish that she would see herself the way my sister and I did? Like a phenomenal, artistic woman. Like a woman worth to be loved by someone as worthy. Like an infinite field of possibilities…
But it is hard. It is hard to swim against the current. It is hard to break the noxious family patterns that had been engraved for generations. Especially, when these behavioral patterns have become accepted and they are considered normal by everybody else within the family.
I can’t complain about my childhood because all the hard experiences made me extremely resilient. Nevertheless, not everybody reacts the same way to life hardships.
Growing up under my father’s side of the family was like growing up under a dictatorial “machista” regime. We women were second class citizens and men were spared all kinds of abuse by the mere fact of beingborn a male. Most women in our family were psychologically, economically or physically abused. This was just the way things were and there was nothing we could do about it. I never agree with these unfair set of rules, not even when I was a child. I always rebelled against it and I pictured a brighter future for myself. Having a mother than despite being a victim of abuse, encouraged my sister and I to become independent, strong women, helped considerably. Having grandparents from her side of the family loving us unconditionally and reminding us of the wonders we could accomplish was priceless. But as I mentioned before, not everybody reacts the same way or shares the same luck.
Most of my female cousins accepted their unloving fate. They did not feel special enough to break the cycle and consequently ended partnering up with even less special men, just because their eyes have been so used to look down than looking up to the stars was not only pretentious, but also insane.
That is how I was labeled most of the times, as pretentious, because I dared to wish a better future. A future with a loving man by my side, and more importantly, a man who would see me as an equal. I remember thinking most of my cousins were lost causes. After all, they were all perpetuating the same mistakes made by women in our family for generations. Nevertheless, there was always hope for one, my dear Johanna.
I thought Johanna had been mesmerized by my ideas of independence. I swear I saw her eyes shining when I spoke of my dreams of travels, Master’s Degrees, wonderful men and freedom. Freedom, from the curse, that seemed to have been casted on the women of our family. My house, our conversations were a safe harbor … no storm, no bully and certainly no curse could touch us there. At least that’s what I thought. After all, she had seen me fighting for what I wanted and she had seen it work.
So eight years ago she helped me pack my apartment to come here to USA. I remember it as if was yesterday. Johanna fought my sister over the clothes I was giving away. We had some beers and we laughed a lot recollecting memories from our childhood and teen years. She was young, she was beautiful, she was single … she told me with sparkly eyes that one day, she would come to visit.
Unfortunately, life drastically changed. In a matter of three years my dear “negrita,” as we used to call her, started dating first a married man and then a man fresh out of prison. She left her parents’ house. My guess is, she could not tolerate living with her alcoholic, irresponsible father any longer, so she moved in with this shadow of a man to run away. She worked to support him because he did not manage to keep a job.
When I came back after my first year away, I actually saw her kind of happy. She looked great in her work clothes and she told me she felt useful and independent. I faked an #iamhappyforyou kind of smile for like 15 minutes. After those eternal minutes I just could not hold my tongue anymore. I knew she had run away from one worthless man to fall in the claws of another. This happiness was just an illusion. I spoke my mind. She got upset. She told me I was wrong. She called me a “snob!” She said that poor men actually “love better.” For her, his lack of responsibility, ambition and personal hygiene automatically equaled honesty and decency. I felt something breaking inside me as I heard those words. I just realized that I had lost her!
In my desperation, I remember yelling (pardon my French) “Fuck girl! Social status and money have nothing to do with this! I am talking about self-respect. I am talking about choosing a worthy partner to live your life with, someone who lifts you up! ” We argued for hours. In vain I tried to instill that little fire of hope again but it was too late, she was already blind. She was already looking down, accepting the fate, settling for shadows.
After that, I did not return home for two years. In those two years the situation only worsened. As I predicted, he never got a stable job. Besides, he dared to cheat on her and left her after a few months of finding out she was pregnant. Being right never hurt this much.
My sassy, sweet morena became extremely depressed and got really sick. My family never told me how sick she was. They hid the information because I was going through a difficult situation in my new job and they did not want to add to my stress. To be honest, they could not have told me what she had either, because her doctors never found out what it was. I have no idea how she managed to keep that baby inside her with life slowly slipping away out of her body, and soul.
But she did, at least for a while and she gave birth to an extremely premature beautiful girl. The baby and the mother stayed in the hospital for a while and then went home with her parents. I came back to my country for a visit right around this time. I was with my mom on the phone one day before my trip when she said “I have to tell you something.” I know my mom so well that I knew that something was not something good. She continued “You will have to mentally prepare to see your cousin. She is not the Johanna you grew up with. She looks at least 30 years older. She has lost a lot of weight and her skin is peeling off.”
Not even that call prepared me for the sight of her once I came back. I thought I was going to faint when I saw her. I faked a big smile. I hugged her and held back the tears that were about to come out of my eyes. I gave her the gifts I had for her and we talked. Or better said, I nervously talked and talked while she looked at me from some distant place inside her. We saw each other almost every day during my stay. I talked and talked making plans for the coming summer. I told her off, I tried to cheer her up, I joked, I recalled stories from our childhood but she answered weakly, mainly out of politeness I guess. Her eyes had lost all happiness. It was like talking to a ghost. She kept on repeating she felt tired. She kept on saying that all she wanted was to sleep.
Me, the super trooper though, hold hope. I thought myself a miracle worker. I kept visiting her expecting a change, a response, a ray of light… and she pretended I know. She faked a cheerful attitude not to disappoint me. She really did, but she had already made her choice.
A month after my departure, one hot afternoon of September I got a call with the dreadful news of my cousin’s death. I remember my mom saying something like "her body just gave up."
They say people can’t die out of sadness …
I think she did.
I could not cry at that time. I was also unable to travel to my country for her funeral. I buried the pain I was feeling some place deep inside me. I masked my sadness with anger, anger towards her father, the men in her life, the unfair conditions that surrounded us while growing up… and also her. Yes! I was mad at her for leading her life the way she did. I was mad at her for letting things affecting her, the way they did. I was mad at her for giving her precious love to undeserving, abusive men. I was mad at her for not loving herself… for not being strong.
Now, I wish I just had comforted her. I wish I had hugged her more. I wish she would have been stronger. I wish I can forget that hopeless look in her eyes. If I only knew all my pep talks were nothing but meaningless chatter at that time. If I only knew that was the last time I was going to be able to hold her hand.
Whenever I come back home again and visit Florencia (Johanna’s daughter) I feel hopeful. She is strong, charismatic, intelligent and so full of fire in spite of being so tiny, that I know her mother is watching over her. She is making sure Florencia fights for a bright future, for a life full of possibilities and tremendous, immeasurable love...a love to the moon and back.
The author blogs as Bloggable Girl at Skirt Magazine, where she originally shared an extended version of this story.