Friday, December 27, 2013

Titi Fefi (What Really Matters Series)

Please know that no one dies until their memory ceases to exist. This is my attempt to honor the memory of someone who meant so much to me.
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Can you walk on water? You have done no better than a straw. Can you soar in the air? You have done no better than a fly. Conquer your heart; then you may become somebody.
 -- Ansari of Heart

I will forever be indebted to my elders -- my predecessors. From the men, especially my father, I owe the gift of love for knowledge. It is fashionable, in our shallow, consumer-based society, to look down upon learned people, but I will be forever grateful to my father and the rest of my family for helping instill in me a thirst for knowledge.

Philosopher means lover of knowledge. It was through the masculine aspect of my upbringing that I was given my mind, the ability to construct and deconstruct logic, the skill of asking questions, the knack for intellectual discovery -- these were all gifts. I am not saying these are essentially male traits. I do think that penetrating awareness is a masculine aspect (which we all possess).

For a long time I thought that it was through the mind that one evolved, but I was only half-right, there was something else missing. The other gift, bequeathed to me by the women-warriors in my life, was the gift of the open heart. It was through the feminine aspect of my upbringing that I learned that true liberation cannot come about until the mind and heart are integrated. In some Eastern cultures, there is no separate term for the mind and the heart -- they are perceived as one and the same. It was mostly the women in my life, through the power of their example, who taught me genuine unconditional love. Many people speak of unconditional love, but few truly know jack shit about it. I am not saying that the domain of the heart is essentially female (it isn’t). I do think that the heart is part of the feminine aspect of our psyches.

I think a large part of our social problems today stem from the deconstruction of the concept of the family. What social conservatives today call “family” is really a downsized version of what family has meant for thousands of years. The nuclear family -- the so-called basic family unit consisting of Mother/ Father/ Sister/ Brother -- is something fairly recent in human development. For most of our shared history, family included aunts, uncles, cousins, non biological (“adopted”) members of a larger social network, and sometimes even whole communities. It was within these extended family structures that one learned about unconditional love, community responsibility, and connectedness in ways that can never be possible within our downsized, alienated, and hectic times.

For that matter, what are social networking sites but a modern attempt to reclaim the larger, more expansive meaning of family and community? It is as if we sense a loss of connection in our materially richer but increasingly insular, and sometimes desperate modern lives, and we reach out.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a large, extended family. We were close because we had to be -- my parents and their siblings were first-generation Puerto Ricans thrust into a hostile society that neither cared for nor welcomed them. So we stuck together: most of us lived in the same building and/ or city block and my cousins and I were raised more as sisters and brothers rather than dispensable family members. I often joked that if a bombed were dropped on 704 E. 5th St., our family would have ceased to exist. Our extended family shared resources, pooled money, served as social safety nets for one another, and the responsibility of raising the children fell on everyone.

However, there was one woman who sacrificed the most. My paternal aunt, Josefa, or as we all affectionately called her, “Titi Fefi.” She raised everyone’s children. All the adults would work, but Titi Fefi’s central role was to take care of the children, make sure they were dressed, prepare hot breakfasts and lunches, soothe scrapes, and mediate arguments. In effect, Titi Fefi was everyone’s surrogate mother -- she was a universal mother.

She never asked for anything in return and carried her burden mostly without complaint. I can honestly say that without her contributions, our family would have been hard put to survive. I could also say that most of our successes were partially (and often almost fully) connected to Tit Fefi’s sacrifices and sacrifices like hers. As the children got older and the family moved on, she would eventually work as a washer-woman and her raw hands, the outer layer of her skin often stripped from over exposure to laundry chemicals, were often the reason why someone could buy books for college, or I could have those shoes I wanted, or a cousin got a Christmas gift. We sometimes never even knew it was Titi Fefi’s doing, I honestly believe Titi didn't see it as giving, her generosity of spirit came as natural as breathing. It was what was done, period.

Eventually, as is often the case with upward mobility and cultural assimilation, the family would disperse to different parts. First, it was my uncle, Jaime, who moved to a Jersey City house on earnings culled from years toiling at a factory job. Then my older cousin, the first to finish college, married and moved his new family and mother, my aunt, Titi Sylvia, to a small upstate community. Gradually, everyone left our Lower East Side enclave, eventually leaving Titi Fefi alone. Well, actually, my father and I lived with Titi Fefi, but most of the family moved on.

We were always close as a family and the holidays were often celebrated at Titi Fefi’s house because her love was such a magnet for good feeling and connection. No matter how successful the rest of the family became, the older generation always made it clear that family came before individual success or material gain. That generation never forgot the central role cohesion played for the family’s survival in those early days and they kept that message alive.

But with the passage of time, the elders passed on, falling victim to old age and disease. As the younger generation moved farther away, the family reunions became less frequent. The children of the second generation didn’t grow up with the same values or with the experience of an extended family, and soon we all separated into little units, apart from one another. There were no more huge and festive family reunions, and Titi Fefi would now often spend the holidays alone. And though I lived with her, the truth is that at the time, I was more interested in chasing insanity.

Eventually, I would leave too, chasing women and drugs, pillaging, and plundering my way through life. I was exploring the edge of suffering and I was usually in and out of her life, meaning Titi Fefi was mostly alone. Most of us, including myself, forgot. We forgot the raw hands, the sacrifices, and the unwavering love. Titi Fefi never had children of her own, but we all were somehow her children. Yet many of us forgot. Or maybe we didn’t forget, perhaps we were too busy, I don’t know. Life sometimes does that, you know, we forget about the important things. Sometimes we are so busy trying to make a living, we forget to live.

She never complained; never uttered words of regret. She did what she had to do, just like breathing, it was for her.

I am no angel in this drama. I used Titi Fefi’s kindness for my selfish needs and often exploited it. Titi Fefi’s home was my main base, the place I could always come to when I needed a place to live and her door was always open for me. I always had a key. And when I would appear out of nowhere, the only question asked when I entered through that door was if I was hungry. In due course, my life would change and I would enter into a stable and loving relationship, but I would always visit Titi Fefi, at least once a week.

Oh, how her face would light up when I would come visit. I’m certain that even if I were a sexually motivated serial killer Titi Fefi would still love me just as much. That was who she was -- she was love incarnate, Everybody’s Mother.

By the time I divorced, Titi Fefi was in her late 80s and suffering from various infirmities, one of them being the onset of dementia. She had lost some cognitive functioning to the point that the family was concerned with her safety. I moved in with her, thinking it would help both of us.

Big mistake! LOL

For the last two years of her life, I lived with Titi Fefi and it wasn’t easy. It was almost like taking care of an unruly child. It sucked up my life and sometimes I have to admit I was resentful. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night and accuse me of plotting to take over her apartment. Other times, she would become disoriented and not know where she was. Still other times she would have long discussions with me thinking I was my deceased father (whom she raised as her own child). It wasn’t easy and I was losing heart.

There were good times too: her feigned outrage when I would ask her about her sex life, for example. She would laugh at that. And we would spend hours talking about our family history. Folks, if you have an elder in your life, take the time to ask them about your history. I guarantee you, it’s a whole lot better than anything on the TV machine.

One day I found her crying. And she talked, and talked, and it was as if she was doubting the sacrifices -- wondering if they had been worth it. No one remembered her, no one visited her, she said. And all my anger and resentment about taking care of her dissipated and I knew right then that if I were to have carried her on my back for the rest of her life, I still wouldn’t have repaid my debt to her. So we stayed together, Titi and I. One day, I went out and stayed out the entire night (it got so I didn't have a social life) and I got a phone call the next morning that Titi had fallen during the night. She spent the entire night on the floor until her home health aide arrived in the morning. I felt fucked up about that.

In time I would become resentful and angry with my family because I felt they had abandoned her, so I had planned to make this speech at Titi’s burial. When I explained my idea, she asked me to promise her that I would not say anything negative. She made me promise that I wouldn’t start any shit at her burial. She taught me that day that for some people, that’s as it good as it gets and sometimes they suffer a great price for not being a little deeper. She taught me that you give because it is as natural as breathing, not because you’re doing something, or expecting something in return.

That day, at a loss for what to do, but knowing that there was something important I had to do, I asked her, “If there is message for the family that you have what would it be? Because, like it or not, I’m going to say something when they bury your ass.” After crossing herself and admonishing me for speaking of such things, this is what she said:

“I want this to be my message to my family that I love so much: Tell them that family is the most important thing in life, that no matter what you become or what you do, it means nothing if you don’t have family. Tell them that.”

This was her message and her life's work and I give this message to you today because, while it might not be deep, or earth-shattering, and you might not even get it, it is the most important lesson you will ever learn and you will never understand it fully until you become that message.

Her last admonition to me was to leave her alone because she was tired and she didn’t want to answer my teasing questions (“Titi! Do you use condoms?!!” “Are you practicing safe sex?!!”). I was surprised that she refused to eat the pizza I had brought (her favorite treat). Sensing her tiredness, I kissed her cheek goodnight and she rolled over to go to sleep. She smiled…

She passed away during that night and the next morning, when I went to wake her up, she had that same look on her face.

This is for all of us who have known, and will know, the pain of loss, and for those of us who have disconnected from our hearts. There are some today who may not have anyone, or whose family is far away or gone. There are many of us confused about this world gone slightly mad and deep inside perhaps we despair, uneasy smiles on our faces. My aunt’s power of example was that the only sane response to such despair and uncertainty is to love -- to reach out and become engaged, enriching the lives of those around us in the process.

May you all find it in your hearts to give gratitude and cherish the gifts we are all given.

Though you may not know it, you are loved. You are loved for being who you are, right now this moment, and you will always be loved in that way.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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