Originally written for strandedonland and published Febraury 2018. Re-edited here in August 2019.
Guilt is relentless in its emotional constrictions. It ignores reason and best efforts to reinforce the lie that we are not enough. That we haven’t done enough. That we haven’t tried enough. That we haven’t suffered enough to earn our way out. And we believe it. Often we inflict the self-shaming onto ourselves, crushing any semblance of who we were or who might want to be.
My most profound entanglements with guilt came in 2017.
My childhood wasn’t exactly the norm. My parents didn’t follow the societal rules for their time. My mother proudly named herself the family gypsy and used her 20s and airline job to see the world, not marrying my father until she was 29 (ancient for her time). She was also the breadwinner, a role my father never objected or fought. Now the tables are turned, but back then we were a tight unit of outliers.
My parents made it a priority to always be going somewhere new: If we were not on a flight thanks my mother’s job, we were in our car en route to a new neighborhood or place to eat at least once a month. Our family motto: “Let’s go for a ride.”
They instilled a fervent curiosity in me. I thrived on movement, and I still do. Traveling with them is how I found writing. As a teen, I emailed the inflight magazine editor asking how I could travel write for a living. To my surprise, the editor wrote back: I have no recollection of what the email said, but the editor’s effort imprinted on me.
What began as family ritual blossomed into a travel writing career, and in my late twenties, I found myself publishing articles about destinations I never even knew existed. I was on-the-go every few weeks or months. Airports were second homes. I always had a travel bag packed. It was bliss.
And then it stopped. An abrupt halt in my reality came in February 2017.
My grandmother had a massive stroke on February 4, 2017. I had actually scheduled three weeks off that month to work on personal projects and take a little breather, but that time ended up being devoted to countless trips to the hospital, rehab center, and my parents’ house. The two intense, uncertain, and emotionally draining months soon followed: I witnessed the relentless tearing of our family stitching as our matriarch fell from grace.
My grandmother helped raise my brother and I. We never had a babysitter or went to a daycare program. She and my father shuffled us everywhere. Despite her old school mentality, she was fiercely independent. Even at 89, she lived alone. She would have been alone the night of her stroke had my aunt not gone to visit her.
The stroke left her entirely paralyzed on her left side. She cannot walk or stand or even use the restroom on her own. She is bedridden and wears a diaper. After much debate, the family decided to move her in with my parents and split her homecare between my mother and my aunt.
In those months, I used my flexible freelance schedule as an opportunity to help them in as many ways as I could. I came by to help change her, move her about, or just keep her company. The dynamic between my mother and I shifted: I went from daughter to confidant, giving my mother an ear and a shoulder whenever the situation become too overwhelming–which was often.
Loss consumed me. The loss of the woman who was one of my biggest fans, the loss of my mother, and the loss of my own day to day life. Our collection agonies infuriated me, depressed me, and engulfed me at times. I have been mourning her inevitable loss ever since.
The relationship between my mother and I shifted in the process. As she became my grandmother’s caretaker, I, in some ways became hers. My mother needed a shoulder, an ear to listen to her frustrations and her doubts. She needed me to be more than a daughter. She needed an adult woman capable of providing strength and understanding whenever she ran out. I owed her that and so much more, so I welcomed this role: In some ways, I was losing my mother to my grandmother and navigating a new relationship dynamic I wasn’t fully familiar with.
Then three months later, on Mother’s Day, my dog of ten years, Mona was diagnosed with terminal hemangiosarcoma (a type of blood vessel cancer) with a life expectancy of three months “at best.”
She woke me in the middle of the night with excessive vomiting and diarrhea: Unable to even lift her head, my boyfriend at the time and I, carried her into the animal hospital: After two days of test, we got the somber news.
It felt like it came out of nowhere: She had just had a healthy checkup a few weeks before but something in my gut told me to get pet insurance while she was healthy. A week after I cleared the insurance’s “waiting” phase, Mona was diagnosed.
In the weeks that followed, there were nights where I thought Mona might not make it. Nights I slept on the floor next to her just to make sure she was breathing. She went in and out of the hospital. But she just kept pulling through.
By early June, Mona had started chemo sessions every three weeks. Between the diet changes (I cooked all her meals), chemo, and some herbal remedies, Mona eventually stabilized. Her specialist called her “the miracle dog” because her aggressive cancer type should have wiped her in less three month’s time.
Between the ailments of my oldest love and my youngest love, I needed to be home. I needed to be on call. I needed to learn how to caregive. And so for those summer and fall months, I stayed put.
Still, there were days that I ached for the road. I mourned for all the stories I wouldn’t be able to tell. I’d decline working press trips or weekend getaways, and then I’d sit on my balcony and watch the planes fly by overhead. I was denying myself oxygen.
The longings triggered bouts of intense guilt: The suffocating guilt from my desire to travel when so many of the beings I loved were struggling. The guilt of not knowing how to do, and be, all of this for them, and feeling like I fell short daily. I owed my family my life, why couldn’t I be stronger? Why I couldn’t I carry the weight without breaking down? Why I couldn’t be what I needed to be for them, and for myself? Why couldn’t I manage more?
Sometimes I’d weep. Other times I let a silent tear escape or lose myself in a long walk. My pocket took a hit, too. As a travel writer, if I’m not traveling, I’m not writing. And if I’m not writing, I’m not working–I had to learn to navigate new career terrain and pave a new path. Mona’s medical bills were high despite coverage. My relationship stumbled into its last legs. The emotional density during those months were as suffocating as the Miami humidity. At times, I had to remind myself to breathe.
In September, Mona ended chemo and her vet gave me the green light to lessen her doctor’s visits from every three weeks to every other month. In October, I received a last minute press trip invite to a bucket list destination–Costa Rica.
Despite declining myriads of opportunities over the previous months, this invite etched itself into my mind. I had bought Costa Rican photography books in my teens. The ocelot, my favorite childhood animal, lived in their jungles. Costa Rica presented itself as an opportunity to ease my current situation’s gravity and attempt recenter myself: Even the slightest progress would be enough. I couldn’t say no.
But it stirred me with anxiety and doubt. I needed to trust that Mona and everyone else would be there when I got back. I needed to allow myself to breathe again.
So I synced my apartment’s Nest camera to my phone. I left behind four pages of handwritten care instructions. I cooked Mona a week’s worth of food, two days more than she actually needed. I spent an extra day with my grandmother and mother, just in case.
And I went. And everything I needed found me in Costa Rica. Clairity, lightness, hope, strength, stillness–they all embraced me as if I had never left them: They greeted me in the placid waters of Los Suenos, at the hill tops of a hike on Tortuga Island, and in the waterfalls of Laz Paz Waterfall Gardens & Nature Reserve, where I finally saw an ocelot up close. It felt wrong to meet the country’s verdant beauty without anything but openness, so I opened myself up to uninterrupted healing.
I decided then that it was time to let go of the guilt, to let go of the belief that I didn’t deserve my own peace because others needed it, too. I decided to let go of unhealthy habits, people, and relationships, and edit my life down and manage it within the realm of my own boundaries. To lead with love, but also self-care, so I could be more to those I loved and to myself in return.
I returned home with these vows and a renewed sense of self. And my oldest love and youngest love were right there waiting for me.
Mona passed away on Christmas Night 2018. My Ita passed away surrounded by her family in May 2019 and was laid to rest in Puerto Rico.