an elder once told me, “whenever your heart gets broken - feel the pain, feel the ache and then get the art out of it.” i was just 18 years old when he was sharing this gift with me. i remember loving the dramatic overtone of the comment more than i thought i understood it. it wasn’t until 20 years later while i was standing in my mother’s hospital room, on father’s day, that i fully understood the gravity of what was told me.
in early june of 2015, i was agonizing over a job offer that required me to move to washington, dc from philadelphia. i was petrified because 1: i had never lived in any city other than philadelphia; 2: i would have had to leave everything i worked so hard for in philly; and 3: i was afraid that i would fail. i must have called everyone under the sun to pick their brain. i had built a strong case as to why i should go and an even stronger case as to why i should stay. i still could not make a decision.
i called an old friend who knows all of the wonderful and not so wonderful things about me. he is also one of the most honest people in my life. i presented him with both of my cases. he didn’t reply as first but after a minute or so, he responded with “you gotta go. you gotta take it. you will be fantastic in dc and even if you fail, all the things you will learn inside of that failure, will be good too.” now it was me that was silent. he must have sensed my fear because he then said, “we won’t turn out like our mothers. that time has passed. the cycles we have been trying to break are broken. know that. you will be ok.” he then added, “and gurl, we already the most successful heauxs in our family so we good.” i laughed, he laughed but i promise you, we were serious.
it was in that conversation that i knew that i would be moving to dc. it was in that conversation that i found a way to let myself off of the hook. i have broken the cycle that has plagued my family. i had just been too busy running from my past, my pain and trauma to really enjoy it. i was ready to embark on this adventure.
a few weeks later, my younger brother called to tell me that our my mother did not have much time and i needed to come immediately. “she wants to see you,” he said. i booked my flight to polk county, florida and by coincidence, it was father’s day weekend. admittedly, i did not want to make this trip. what gave me the most anxiety was knowing that i would have to be in a room with family that i had yet to completely forgive. my mind, body and heart still remember the abuse and neglect. while i have written poems and stories that have helped to move in a different spot of that pain, it is still there. in fact, i was so anxious that i made my younger brother promise not to “leak” the information that i was coming to florida. i also made him promise that he would not let people make me feel unsafe or try to take photos with me. god bless his heart because that boy did just that.
family did try to take photos with me. i politely declined. i was
questioned as to why i was able to take photos of people but no one
could take photos of me. i replied “because this request was in my
rider. talk to my management about negotiating changes for my next trip
here.” they laughed. i laughed but i promise you, i was serious.
sitting in the hospital room watching my mother go in and out of consciousness, i watched her grandchildren play. i watched her children laugh. i watched their wives and girlfriends make small talk about parenting and doing hair. i endured my sister begging me to take a pic. i compromised and gave her my phone number and said that i would text a pic of me that has been already been filtered for posting. she laughed. i laughed but i promise you, i was serious.
back to the hospital room and it’s being full of people. i was harkened back to my childhood. our house was always full of people. it was always full of people the world did not want. in the 80’s, our house was always full drag queens, transgender women and a few of the gay teens from the neighborhood. in the 90’s, our house was full of her friends who did not always have consistent housing. i hated it! there never seemed to be space or silence. while my mother did make sure that i had my own room, in a house with just two rooms, i felt like 6 brothers was enough. i thought “why did we have to have other people stay with us?” i resented it. so much so, that even now my closest friends have only been in my house a handful of times. this is because i have grown so guarded when it comes to my space. but here i was, in a hospital room, full of people that even “woke” spaces do not welcome. this time i didn’t resent it. i was instead filled a humble pride, immense joy and gratitude that my mother, even in her last days, was surrounded by people who were returning the love that she had provided them. “y’all muthafuggas ain’t going home?” they laughed, i laughed but i promise you, i was not serious.
on monday, june 22, 2015, after surviving poverty, crack addiction and the loss of a son, my mother, rosa m. ortiz-fonseca, took her last breath. with no fuckin’ resources, she raised 7 boys on her own. she housed people who had no place to go. she fed the entire block when she cooked and if you fucked with any of her kids, she would beat every ass on the block. my mother was a warrior. she was a giant. this is the spirit that lives in me.
i accepted the job and moved to dc a few weeks after my mother’s death. i am still learning to get used to my new life in dc. i am still learning to live in a world without my mother. even two years after my mom’s death, i am still learning to be – period.
an elder once told me, “whenever your heart gets broken - feel the pain, feel the ache and then get the art out of it.” it was the art that kept me present and provided me a foundation to stand on whenever i felt my legs would give way at any moment. the art saved me and i got to share it with my mother – until the end. here, i share these pictures with you.
- louie a. ortiz-fonseca
my mother being provide pain management medication
my two brothers and their two friends
family and friends in my mother’s hospital room
my brother tony. he is the brother mentioned in the story.
my brother alfredo with his son
nurse prepping to medicate my mother
i fed my mother her last meal. it was chicken noodle soup.
note written for my mother by her grand children.