Coping with the loss of a beloved friend

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Tomas with his camera at Watchung Reservation in NJ.

I’ve been so lucky in life to have been spared death of loved ones when I was young. This is why losing my father in 2016 felt almost surreal. He had been ill for so long, that when his battle with Parkinson’s came to an end, it was almost a relief for me to him. He deserves to rest, though I miss him dearly.

But I was not prepared earlier this week to learn a friend Tomas, an ex-boyfriend, was to take his life suddenly.

[*If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, say something. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.]

And so began my week of floating around in shock, then grief, followed by quick spurts of anger, back to thinking it wasn’t real, and long bouts of painful wondering if there was anything myself or anyone could have done. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know.

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Tomas on his Harley Davidson V-ROD.

Two days later, I find I’m doing things slowly, mundane every day things—like taking a shower, when I’ll suddenly freeze to think, “I am bathing myself because my body is alive. He isn’t going to be able to do this anymore. He is no longer alive.” And then tears. It’s almost like I’m trying to convince myself.

That young people have to deal with this in high school and college is shocking to me. It’s hard to function without your thoughts turning into grief, disbelief, and again the overwhelming thoughts of wondering and guilt.

I was fortunate to have found out about this terrible news while I was on my way to the apartment of some very dear friends for some cod soup. They knew him and loved him, too. I cannot thank them enough for being with me that night.

In the days since, I’ve talked to my closest friends and family about this and they’re all concerned about me. That’s understandable, and I’ve been checking in with them and vice versa as my feelings continue in that cycle: shock, disbelief, grief, anger, guilt, wonder, utter sadness, and more sadness.

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Tomas on Bainbridge Island in 2016.

Why? Why did he do this? Again, I will never know the answer to this. But could I have?

After more than a year of not speaking or keeping in touch, as is the norm between some, if not most, former romantic partners, he reached out to me out of the blue. He said he was thinking of me and wanted to catch up. And so we did, on a quick half-hour car ride from Jersey City and Edgewater.

I knew he was in a relationship, and he explained it had recently ended. His living and work circumstances had changed, and he was “down in the dumps” about it, but continued to smile, saying he had his health, hadn’t been missing any meals and he’d rebound. I agreed. I always saw him as an incredibly intelligent and resourceful person who could do anything. I even texted him something to that effect after he dropped me off.

The next morning I texted him to have a great day. He wrote, “Good day to you.” And then I never heard from him again. I sent a couple more texts about things like an issue with my car throughout the week, and figured they went unanswered because he was busy. Or back with his ex-girlfriend. He didn’t get into details much but he gave me the impression the relationship was somewhat tumultuous. So, again, him not responding wasn’t odd as we hadn’t keep in touch on a frequent basis.

Then exactly one week after to the day that I saw him last, I learned of his fate.

This article on how to cope with losing a friend or family member to suicide has helped me, as have the many kind words of advice and consolation by friends and my family. But it’s very difficult to comprehend and accept.

I’ve been looking through old photos of when we were together and it’s, at times, overwhelming, but it also reminds me of the many good times we had. And so I wanted to document some of the great things about my friend, Tomas.

Tomas Lopez Jr.
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A tall and calm presence, Tomas loved cars, and was adept at fixing and customizing them. We constantly talked about them when we were on the road. He loved motorcycles, too, especially his Harley Davidson V-Rod motorcycle, which he cleaned lovingly on a frequent basis using things like Q-tips and toothbrushes.

Tomas was also a fan of boats, speedboats in particular, as he had recently spent some time in Florida with a friend who owned one, and took it to Miami Boat week. Tomas knew how to drive and maintain boats. He also had a small engine pilots license.

I met Tomas in 2015 in Puerto Rico, where I was spending a couple of nights before boarding a ship for a cruise with one of my girlfriends. We all spent a fun day at the Luquillo Beach, and he then insisted on taking me to see El Junque, the rainforest in Puerto Rico. I’ll never forget that fun drive to such a beautiful place I’d never been to before.

 

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El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico in 2016.

Tomas loved hip-hop music, electronic dance music and salsa, but not dancing to it. As of late, he told me he had been listening to Puerto Rican trap hip-hop artist, Bad Bunny, who I don’t listen to much, but whose song “Amorfada” makes me cry when I read the lyrics because I imagine they resonated with him.

I will always treasure the fact that I got to take him to see some independent Latin music artists, such as Making Movies performance at SOBs, that literally made him tear up. When I asked him why he was emotional, he said it was so cool to see young talented band doing what they loved, as learning an instrument to play music was something he didn’t have the opportunity to do as a kid.

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At a Copa America soccer game at Met Life Stadium in 2016.

Something Tomas did do as a child and up until his young adult years was practice karate. Although exercise was not something he did when we knew each other, he told me he spent years going to tournaments on weekends, competing on behalf of the karate school he trained at.

Tomas loved going to marinas and seeing not only boats, but the river or sea. He also knew a great deal about recreational vehicles, as I found out on a trip with him to the Pacific Northwest. We stopped at a RV dealer and I saw his face light up every time we checked one of those luxury vacationing vehicles out.

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A marina in Seattle we visited in 2016.

Tomas loved to watch CNN, HBO’s Bill Maher, and Viceland’s Action Bronson and Weediquette. He followed the 2016 presidential election season with great interest and we discussed it nearly every day.

Tomas was not a fan of trying strange or exotic foods. He was a fan of steaks, chicken, and potatoes, and old-fashioned Puerto Rican dishes. He liked Cuban and Middle Eastern food, too. And at Dunkin Donuts, he always ordered a decaf tea with a chocolate glazed donut, BUT NO SPRINKLES. (It was funny when they’d mess that part up. He’d be so frustrated!)

He loved to travel, and had spent some time working for Delta airlines before I met him. Going to Puerto Rico to visit his grandmother might have been one of his favorite things to do.

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At Fordham Jubilee 2016

Tomas was a polite and friendly person who could strike up a conversation with anyone he encountered. Taking him to work or music related events was always easy for me because I knew he’d get along with anyone I introduced him to. He always won them over with his charm.

Tomas was not a fan of sports. But he did have a great time following the 2016 Copa America with my brother and I and even joined us at a game the Colombian National team played at MetLife stadium.

And that’s because he enjoyed doing things he had never experienced, whether it was going to a museum, or an independent music festival.

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I’ll never forget the way Tomas looked at problems. He was a fan of Eckhart Tolle, and recommended I read “A New Earth” when I was going through a particularly rough time with my father’s death and some other things and it seemed that every day annoyances or problems—no matter how small—annoyed me.

I’m not going to lie, I didn’t take to Tolle’s words then, and it was only after broke up and I experienced depression and sought help for it that I started reading authors similar to Tolle and understood what it was about. But a book is a book, and its themes can be fleeting if one is depressed. I wish I could tell him that today.

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Learning how to use a Canon with Tom in 2016.

One new hobby that Tomas picked up in 2016 was photography. He bought a Canon Rebel and took to it immediately, eventually buying a drone to shoot photos and videos when he was on his friend’s boat. He meant to show me some of the footage but we never got around to it.

I’ll always remember his strong laugh, super smile, sense of humor and the ease in which he talked to strangers, as if they were old friends. It hurts so much that someone who caused others to smile so easily must have been experiencing enough hopelessness or sadness that it caused him to take his own life.

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In Atlantic City in 2016

May you rest in peace, Tomas. You will be very missed.

*If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, say something. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

How one candidate changed when running for POTUS

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Christie at a NAACP event in 2014.

In Chris Christie’s first term as New Jersey governor, he nominated a black, gay mayor to the Supreme Court. In 2013, when Chris Christie was running for re-election governor of New Jersey, he  won endorsements for his reelection from black church leaders, and NBA star, Shaquille O’Neal. He eventually won, enjoying majority Latino support in the vote.

Also in his first term, Christie nominated an Indian-born Muslim to Superior Court in Passaic County, N.J. As WNYC’s Matt Katz reports, “when conservative critics alleged that the man, Sohail Mohammed, was going to implement Muslim Shariah law, Christie unleashed his famous temper.

“‘This Shariah Law business is crap,’ he said. ‘It’s just crazy. And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just ridiculous to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.'”

This is a far cry from Chris Christie, the presidential candidate, in 2016. He’s running in almost entirely white New Hampshire and Iowa. And he’s been endorsed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who had told the NAACP to kiss his rear end and alleged that President Obama hates white people. So what changed.

Listen to Katz’ report on WNYC to learn more.

On the holidays… and change

christmasChristmas will never be like it was when I was a little girl. This is a post about how it used to be, and how things have changed. Lots go through it, and now it’s our turn.

When I was little, we didn’t have much — I will never forget one Navidad in particular in which my dad gave my brothers and I $3.00 each in a white letter-sized envelope. I wasn’t sad about the lack of toys for gifts, but felt awfully embarrassed for my father and told him it was OK. But it was awkward. I recall vividly that he handed us those envelopes on our way out to visit with family. We stuffed our stash in our rooms and piled into the car. The holidays were here and we were going to have a good time as we knew how!

Christmas time was filled with a jolly (yeah, that word describes things perfectly) times with our small, yet close, family.

My tio Raul (my father’s older brother and without question the uncle I was closest to) and tia Yolanda were always a part of it, as were my (distant? Not really, try super close!) cousins, Maria and Susy, whose mother, Mari, was my tio Raul’s sister-in-law. My aunts on my mother’s side (Mirta, Nina, Chiqui), their children/my cousins, and my maternal grandmother (abuela Esmeria) would get visits from us, as well. Gifts weren’t aplenty, but food was cooked with love, Colombian music—courtesy of my dad’s record player—filled the living room, and good times were had.

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The only way we can see my abuela now is by flying to Miami.

As we grew older, most of the family moved away to warmer climates. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the late 1990s and things haven’t been quite the same every since. My maternal grandmother, now in Miami, would go on to develop Alzheimer’s, and later, my tio Raul, also in Florida, would find out he, too, had Parkinson’s.

Somewhere in there, I was married, then dealing with the spouse’s alcoholism. Then I was separated, and divorced. Throughout it all, there were no tears on my part, only would’ve, could’ve, should’ves. It’s like I lost my ability to feel.

Cousins got married, some moved away, and, as happens, life gets in the way. There are work and parenting commitments, as the next generation of children have to be raised, and so, not surprisingly, intimate family gatherings hardly take place.

Today, Dec. 23, marks four years since my tio Raul passed away due to Parkinson’s disease related complications. I got to see him at a nursing home a few months before he passed, and, honestly, I know he’s in a better place today. I miss him terribly, but Parkinson’s can be an awful disease. I say can be, because I acknowledge there are other illnesses that are much, much worse.

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My Tio Raul (left in L photo, center in R photo)

But Parkinson’s eventually imprisons one in their own body. It starts with nerves and muscles, but eventually takes your voice. I remember when I visited him, I could hardly hear him. I kept a happy face and joked around, as I always do, but it is awful to see. I didn’t want him to feel that way.

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The last time I saw my uncle in 2011. With my cousin Maria (L) and my tia Yolanda (R.)

Meanwhile, back home, my father was still as stable as the Deep Brain Stimulation surgery he had in 2006 could keep him. He hadn’t had the Parkinson’s tremors in a long while, but his voice and ability to speak were eroding, and rigidity was taking away his independence via walker. He became wheelchair-bound, but he was home for every holiday.

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Dad at two different Christmases.

However, this will be the first Christmas without him in the home while we have Christmas dinner, for instance. Here are some tips on how to cope with grief and loss throughout the holidays, courtesy of Fordham professor Lisa Cataldo.

“People think they’re supposed to be happy during the holidays. This is supposed to be a time of sharing with your family, of positive relationships, of celebration and joy,” Cataldo said. “Many people feel alienated, because they’re not in that space, and that idealized image of the holidays only makes them feel the lack of those things more acutely.”

 

Two thousand fifteen has been a tough one for our little clan. My father fell and broke his hip on Jan. 21, 2015, and was in and out of hospitals, knocking on death’s door at least three times through March. Since then, he’s been in a nursing home, and it’s not easy. Sure, it’s a facility that can serve his needs 24/7, but this comes with much advocacy from us. You have to be there to make sure he’s not neglected. Any sign of a temperature or low blood pressure can spell trouble. A very bad bed sore he developed in February is only now showing signs of progress. (This after I had a very honest discussion with one of his nurses, who said he’s probably go to the grave with that wound. It wasn’t harsh; just real.)

In late August, I had to put my best friend, my 14-year-old black lab mix, Skunky, down. A cancerous tumor forced me to put him down and I still can’t believe I live without a dog!

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Me and Skunky in Washington Heights.

Thanksgiving was sad, but no one talked about it. In addition to the fact that my older brother, wife, and nephew moved down to Orlando, the house was quiet. My mom and I visited my dad in the late afternoon/early evening. My younger brother stopped by as late as visiting hours would allow. Out by 8 p.m.

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Christmas 2014, my dad’s last one in his house!                                              With my nephew, RJ, and my mom, Maria. 

My younger brother’s girlfriend’s mom and brothers came over, which was nice, but it was very low-key. When the patriarch of the family isn’t around, and can’t even eat due to Parkinson’s related swallowing problems, it’s just sad.

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Happier times, despite the Parkinson’s.

To make things worse, we have not quite dealt with our feelings. In one of the bad hospital stays, where a very bad pneumonia caused ICU doctors to have to intubate him, and even insert an I.V. of antibiotics through his carotid artery, my mom and I cried a little, but something about our family of five prevents us from outwardly displaying our fears and general grief. Again, it’s like we’ve lost our ability to not be numb.

There are frequent spats between us, about who doesn’t visit, or visit enough, and the person who is doing the most, of course, is my mother. She is trying to live her life, joining a YMCA and attending classes, and doing better at not spending all day at the nursing home, which is draining.

It’s draining because my father tries to speak to us and we can’t understand him. It’s draining because there are so many residents who don’t get visitors and look to you for any little conversation. It’s draining because there’s a certain smell, a certain way the staff there is overworked and stressed, and, most of all, because we know he’ll be there for the rest of his life.

It’s also disheartening to recently read about nursing home employees sharing pictures of themselves mocking or abusing patients on social media. It just adds to my guilt that I need to be there more. Working in New York, living across the river in Jersey City, and having to drive further north to the home in which my dad now lives.

There’s a lot of wondering what life would be like had he not gotten sick, or remembering what he was like before he was diagnosed. It’s pointless, but it comes up in conversation a lot when we get visitors.

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With my brothers. I miss my sister-in-law (third from left), now in Florida.

I think a lot about possibly getting Parkinson’s myself. I dream vividly; I always have, but telling my mother about how it can signal Parkinson’s really upset her. But I’m just being realistic about the fact that it can very much be genetic. I spend a lot of the time at the gym because of this, since exercise has been shown to slow the progression of the disease, something we did not know when my dad was first diagnosed.

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My nephew, RJ, lives in Florida now, and I miss him so!

I was never really big on winter holidays. I always liked the Fourth of July and summer in general. I dislike the cold, the dark coming early, and having to stress out about gifts. But we’ll do it. Christmas will be fine, but figuring out how to be with my dad when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1 is another hurdle. (We’re not sure if visiting hours will be strictly enforced or whether we’ll disturb his three roommates.)

If I could have one wish for 2016, it’s that we deal with this better. It doesn’t seem like my younger brother and I have time for support groups or therapy with the full-time jobs and side gigs, and having to drive to visit mom and dad. But I’ll suggest it. We’ll see.

I am EMPHATICALLY grateful that my father is still with us. He doesn’t seem to be in pain many times, but as his nurses aide sometimes says when I’m in his room with her wonderful Haitian accent, “He seems miserable.” (I think it’s more aches that come with being bed-ridden most of the time.)

I pray 2016 brings us some better days.

What is a normal life, anyway?

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 2.31.54 AMTonight I tweeted, “Will things ever be normal again?” A friend responded, “Define normal.”

I told him it had to do with my father being in the hospital (Yeah, he’s back after his blood pressure dipped and he developed a fever) and that, for the past month, my only two destinations have been work and nursing home and/or hospital.

But he’s right making me consider a definition. What is a normal life, anyway?

I can’t say my life was super ideal pre-my dad’s pretty debilitating fall and hip trauma, but I wasn’t mired in constant worry about them unless I’m completely immersed in my work. Today, even when I’m at work, they’re all I think about.

My father has had Parkinson’s for a little more than 18 years, and my mother is his primary caretaker, despite working part-time. I always went to their house to visit, but in 2014, as his Parkinson’s progressed a bit deeper, I went home nearly weekend to give her some relief.

But this is different. Going from work to hospital till nearly midnight, and back home (with mom; she’s asked me to stay with her until my father comes home), and back to work again, is EXHAUSTING. On top of that, not staying at my own apartment means a half hour ride to my place to pick up clothes once or twice a week. Then there is the mental party, constant worrying, even though he’s in a facility crawling with nurses. It’s tough.

So, no I can’t define normal. But I do know it’s not this.

Factor in my father’s inability to speak clearly (something that started about eight years ago, and has gotten worse since) and mild dementia, and I’m left mentally and physically drained.

I’ve written this in the past: None of this is about me. It’s incredibly tough on the entire family. But this is my dad. I feel like I have to be there for as many hours as possible every day. I’m also there to offer comfort to my mom, who I can tell, is scared about this all.

As abnormal as this may seem, I’m glad I’m here with her, and in frequent touch with my brothers. If I could go back time, I’d prevent my father from falling, but this closeness that we’re feeling as a result of this sad trauma is priceless.

Still, I wonder: will I ever have fun again? Will I ever just aimlessly walk around after work and dip into a store, or into a place for a glass of wine? It doesn’t seem that way at all.

“It was not so good.”

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My parents and I with my nephew at his preschool graduation in June 2014.

Earlier this evening, my very tired mom and I walked through the hallways of Hackensack Medical Center so we could meet my dad, who was being transported by paramedics, to a long term rehab facility in Fair Lawn, NJ: Maple Glen Center, a Genesis Healthcare facility.

On our way to the elevator, we encountered a super cute older gentleman who looked a lot like Fred Mertz (a character from 1950s sitcom, ‘I Love Lucy.’) He asked us who our patient was. I explained. He asked what rehab center my dad was being moved to, because his mother was in the hospital, and the facility she was in previous to her hospital admission, was “not so good.” Turns out it Care One Teaneck, which is a sister facility to Care One Wellington, where my dad was a patient in for about two and a half days before his blood pressure dropped due to dehydration and he was rushed back to the hospital. (Turns out the same happened with the cute little old man’s mom.)

This is our new reality.

This is what we have to deal with from now until my dad is well enough to come home, or goes to a place that is not home. People who have gone through the nursing home/rehab facility experience advise us to be there “at all times,” a near impossibility for my immediate family; we all work. (Today I filled out paperwork for my mother to take a leave of absence from her main part-time job, but it’s important for one of us kids to be by her side to provide her some respite.)

It’s really hard to swallow, but I have to be the stronger person. I have brothers, but I can see how this is harder for them. Two sons that always saw our dad as an active, strong, and funny guy, and how he’s a shell of the person he once was. I’m daddy’s little girl. I tell it like it is. I am there and am handling more of the being there, and paperwork of healthcare, because I must.

I cannot seem to form tears about my dad’s condition. I hold it in, save for every fourth day, when I can no longer hold it and something makes me angry to set me off. Yesterday, it was an argument with my brother about giving my aunt a ride somewhere.

I aspire to be like my mother.

I’ve always been used to her being a super strong woman who doesn’t scare easy. When I was 19, I feel asleep while I was driving and got into a terrible accident, dislocating my hip, breaking my wrist, cutting my forehead pretty deeply, and bruising my knees. I remember my dad crying in the intensive care unit, setting off my own waterworks, and my mom telling him to stop, that I’d be fine. She then grabbed by hand, gripped it, and told me to stop crying; that I’d be back to normal in no time. She was right. I was walking in less than eight weeks.

I really wish I could revert back to age 19, and my mom can once again be that warrior woman who, to this day, at age 69, works a couple of part-time jobs. It’s so hard to have a dad who looks scared and confused because we leave him at night, and a mom who is teary about her partner of 45 years (this Feb. 22!) not sleep with her at night.

It’s obvious I need to be that warrior woman. But it is tough. I may have a white collar job, and a master’s degree, but I feel I’ll never be their caliber of tough.

 

Women Entrepreneurship Conference in New Jersey

Screen shot 2014-10-06 at 9.37.09 PMA former assignment editor from my newspaper days is now a program manager at Montclair State University’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and she’s asked me to share the following information for what seems like an excellent FREE event for the business-minded.

Women Entrepreneurship Conference
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Montclair State University
1 Normal Avenue (University Hall – Conference Center 7th Floor), Montclair, NJ
Sponsored by the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship

This daylong conference of high-energy inspiration and practical tips for entrepreneurial people. The event is for those who are looking to grow their own business, or start a new venture, or executives who want to be more entrepreneurial in their company. Students and wannabe entrepreneurs are welcome! And the event is FREE: (You should register here: http://bit.ly/1CQhr8L)

Confirmed speakers include:

Essence magazine’s Mikki Taylor, Catalyst’s Ilene H. Lang, NASDAQ OMX’s Ellyn McColgan, Golden Seeds’ Joan Zief, venture capitalist and former Time Inc. exec Fran Hauser, Tracye McDaniel of Choose NJ, Kathleen Coviello of NJ Economic Development Authority, Michelle Lee of Wells Fargo, networking guru Sally Glick, plus executives at companies ranging from startups to giants like Prudential and Horizon BCBSNJ.

Visit WomenEntrepreneurshipWeek.com for speaker bios.

Everyone is invited to join the conversation. Use #WEW on social media. Tag your posts with @FelicianoCenter on Twitter.