My grandfather died when I was 2 years old. I never met him. The only things I have of his are two pictures – which are actually my mother’s – 2 black and white pictures. The first is of a tall, lanky man, dressed smartly – if not oddly formal – standing in the middle of a yard with the hot Caribbean sun beating down on him; the second, a close-up portrait. That was it. All imagined interactions, hoped-for futures, dreamed of backstories, stemmed from these 2 pictures. For so many years as a child, I inexplicably fixated on these pictures, perhaps because he was the only grandparent of mine that was dead at the time and I knew I could never have him, which made me want him that much more.
Being a first generation American, my other fixation was learning my history – who were my grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins in Colombia? Why did we come here? Did my parents ever want to go back? Are we American or are we Colombian? Could we be both? My mom tried to answer these questions, including the ones about her father, because I could not ask him.
My grandfather died of a heart attack. He died young. He was abusive, and he became angry and oftentimes melancholy, when he drank, which he did on the weekends. He left my grandmother and his 7 children and started his life anew with another woman and adopted a child when my mom was 9 years old. That’s the last my mom saw of him or had any significant interaction with him.
We couldn’t speak ill of the dead (or could we?), so we didn’t really speak of him at all. And still, I wanted to know, I needed to know more, not just out of a sense of curiosity, but I felt in learning something about him, I’d learn something about myself somehow. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve felt this odd connection to my grandfather. Like somehow beyond the grave he was tapping my shoulder and claiming me as his. It felt good to be connected to someone in that way, although I’m not sure I understood it then, or even now.
When I was in high school we read “Somnambulist’s Ballad” by Garcia Lorca. I liked it, so I read it in its original Spanish and was absolutely hooked after the first line, “Verde, que te quiero verde” or “Green, how I want you green.” I’m not sure how or why that struck me so deeply, but it did. It immediately became one of my favorite poems, and has remained so after all of these years. I remember sharing this poem with my mother and her telling me she recognized it because it was my granddad’s favorite, too. He and my grandmother would read to each other at night, and he would oftentimes read poems to his kids at bedtime, and “Somnambulist’s Ballad” was one of his favorites. The poem is gorgeous, with really stunning imagery, which is one of the reasons I love it. It tells of a young woman on a balcony, green hair, green skin and silver eyes, under the moonlight. She cannot see, but all things see her. A man, possibly her love, is hurt and trying to get to her, but he is apparently too late, as she has taken her life. The poem is short, but dense and leaves a lot open for interpretation. I could not help but think that of all the poems that have ever been written since the beginning of time, it was not a coincidence that my granddad and I shared the same favorite one – the fact that we would even have a favorite poem was telling, I thought.
Yet, for all of my digging into my grandfather’s life, the details were few and never changed: He was abusive; he abandoned his family; he created a new life for himself with a new family; he died of a heart attack when he was quite young. So, while what I did know about my grandfather was not positive, I focused on what was: he loved books, he loved my mom, he was very intelligent; we shared the same love of poetry, and even shared the same birthmark on the shoulder. Again, further proof I thought, of being marked and claimed as his…
In my mid-twenties I visited some distant relatives in Venezuela. I was excited because I hadn’t been to Venezuela before and had never met this side of my family. One afternoon as I was talking to my cousins the subject turned to our grandfather, specifically my grandfather’s suicide. My grandfather’s S-U-I-C-I-D -E. My sister and I were just dumbfounded. I remember asking my cousin if perhaps he wasn’t confusing our grandfather with someone else because our grandfather had died of a heart attack. He didn’t kill himself… Of course what I was saying was absurd. My cousin wasn’t confused. There was no heart attack. I was the confused one. My grandfather died by suicide. I was never told because it was never the right time; because it was too horrible to talk about; because of so much shame, so much anger, so much pain…so many reasons…
This is not an attempt to idealize my grandfather’s life or romanticize his death, both were by all accounts and any objective measure, tragic. I’m doing this because it’s important to me that the record be set straight and that my grandfather not be permanently erased; I believe that is owed to him. I’m doing this for myself and for my kids, to reclaim our history, our story – the good, the bad, the ugly; all of it. But I’m also doing this for my mom, and in so doing it I hope that the burden of that truth that she’s worn like an albatross around her neck all of these years, is lessened somehow.
My grandfather died when I was two. His name was Daniel Breton. He took his life. In the middle of the day. In the bathroom, while his family was in the house. He shot himself. His suicide is not the entirety of his life, but it is the tragic endpoint of it.
For a long while, I was so angry with my mother for not sharing the truth of my grandfather’s death with me. I felt denied something that was mine and I had a right to, and yet, last year when one of my kids started asking me those same questions about our family, Colombia, my grandparents, etc., I was tempted to lie, to “protect”. I took a deep breath and started speaking; it felt like I was taking a huge step into some unknown, across a deep chasm where I didn’t know what would be on the other side. I took a breath and explained what’s inexplicable and unimaginable – “my grandfather was sick in the brain, and very sad and felt hopeless, and he killed himself. And it was a very sad and horrible thing, and it forever changed Vovó’s (grandma/my mom’s) life. I wish he would have asked someone for help, because killing yourself is never the answer.“
It wasn’t an easy conversation, but I was glad we had it. I would be lying, however, if I said I wasn’t second-guessing myself afterwards, wondering if I had said too much or if I didn’t say enough. I’d also be lying if I said there wasn’t a fair amount of trepidation about hitting “publish” now – what am I inviting by making this public? Will people see me differently? Will I be viewed through the prism of my grandfather? I don’t know, but what I do know is that the albatross is finally off of all of our necks, and my grandfather is rescued from oblivion…and that’s a good feeling.
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Originally published at www.imaginenj.org