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Paging Dr. Jo

Long before I was twelve years old, I always said I wanted to be a surgeon.

I was raised by my mother—who spent a great deal of the time outside the house working. I am the youngest of four, with the smallest age gap between my siblings being 4 years, the oldest two are 8 and 9 years older than I. Needless to say, I spent a great deal of time playing alone but my grandfather was always around when my mother was not.

My grandfather had eleven children and unlike most of them I knew what it was like to be raised by him. I know my grandmother’s rendition of things and I know my grandfather’s rendition, I believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. However, their relationship and his relationship—rather lack thereof—with his children has no bearing on my relationship with him. I was once a fatherless daughter; he mended the broken heart of a little girl who for no other reason than circumstance had no one else.

My grandfather used to watch Spanish soap operas while I sat on his bed playing with my Barbies. He’d play Spanish guitar while I sat on his lap. He’d protect me from spankings—even though I would have choked me, if I were my mother. He called me, “La Negrita Del Pilar,” which translates to the little brown girl of the pillar. He also called me Johanna the bird (Johanna Pichon). I have a personal belief, which may be goofy, but so far has been pretty true in my life; that nicknames are a sign of true affection, of something bigger than us. This is not to say that people who call you by your birth name love you any less but those people who give you other names, have the potential to see you for more than what you are. They see the essence of you and are able to gauge something that you may not be quite ready to see. I have had some of the best friendships with people who refused to see me as just Johanna with the silent H.

People often said I was the light of his eyes. He was like my best friend. I know. . .who would have thought? He was an old man and I was just a kid, but this old soul of mine has been pretty keen since a very early age.

My mother always forgot I did not like peanuts, so when she would come home with candy, and brought a bag of yellow M&M’s yet again, I would appreciate the gesture. I ate the chocolate and grandpa ate the left over peanuts. He could care less; he’d eat the peanuts so mom wouldn’t get mad at me for wasting them. We weren’t the wealthiest of families so every little penny counted. There are days that I get the peanut M&M’s and discard the peanuts, just because that became such a normal part of my upbringing.

My grandfather moved in with us when I was 14 months old and passed away when I was 13 years old. Throughout the years the moments I spent with him are among the moments I cherish the most. Not everything was perfect but it was life and I was happy. Grandpa Felix made sure I was always happy.

He began to get sick over the years. Being the youngest, when I wasn’t home supervised, I was attached to my mother’s hip. I went everywhere she went. When my grandfather was very ill, I spent more and more time in the hospital with him and my mom. St. Joseph’s Hospital was one of my favorite places to be. It was almost like a second home. The nurses and staff were always so nice to me, and unlike anything I ever had at home, they always had ice-cream in abundance for me. The hospital became my new normal and the more time I spent there, the more I preferred it to my home.

Before the years that we spent accosted at his bedside, hoping for a change and for a miracle. I used to act silly just to make grandpa laugh. His belly jiggled like Santa Clause every time he laughed and I miss that. When I was little I spent my summers running free, without a care in the world. I climbed trees, I hated having my hair combed—I was a funny little hot mess. I did anything for a laugh. In many ways I am still the same.

Every Christmas I think of him, I mean, I think of him all the time. Sometimes if I am lucky and happen to be at the right place at the right time, something clicks and I can remember what he smells like again. He always wore Brute and Agua Florida (it was his aftershave), but not everyone smells the same, there was something about the way it combined with his chemical composition. His scent and his voice is something that has faded over the years but there is nothing quite like Christmas that reminds me of him. I love Christmas.

He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December of 1998; on the 19th of December he was given 15 days of life. He died 15 days later, January 3, 1999. I had the unfair advantage of knowing that he was leaving. I know that people often wish they’d know when they were going to die, but at that moment, I didn’t want to know. Losing him was as if I were losing my own life. He was one of the most incredible human beings I have ever been blessed to meet. I was so lucky to spend the greater part of my life getting to know him. I wish Jonathan had the opportunity of meeting him but I feel in some way, Jonathan has the mother that he has because of my grandfather.

Grandpa hated Tampa, and he’d say all the time, as he raised his crooked pointer finger, “Cuando llegue a Tampa caie en la trampa!” Basically, when you come to Tampa you fall in the trap. He lived for his little island of Puerto Rico. Coincidentally I only went to Puerto Rico when we picked him up (I was 14 months old and hardly remember a single thing about that trip) and when he passed away, we took him back to Puerto Rico to share the grave with his parents and sister; like he always wanted. I did not return to Puerto Rico for another twelve years.

Every island and body of water reminds me of him because he loved his little island so much. I felt whole when I was near him. I always dreamt of owning a beach house. There is nothing more beautiful than the thought of looking out and having that as the backdrop of my life. Every imprint that people make in our lives is much like those footprints that we leave at the shore. So what, water washes them away, but there is no doubt that they were once there. He has forever left his mark in my life.

I spent years working toward a goal that ultimately was part of a very large healing process. Medical school was a great part of what I believed to be the tapestry of my life.

My grandfather suffered from many ailments. He had Alzheimers and the days before his death, he did not remember anything, he did not remember anyone . . .he did not remember me. The man with the glossy eyes in the hospital bed across from my day bed was no longer the man who looked at me lovingly. I was a stranger to him just like I had been to others before.

I love my mother, I love my siblings and they all have contributed to the woman I am today, but my grandfather always saw me for who I was. I couldn’t hide a thing from him. He knew all along whom I was meant to be. But that moment, crushed me. It was admittedly one of the most painful experiences of my life. To be everything once and suddenly a stranger to someone was incomprehensible at my age then.

I took that pain and a lifelong appreciation of hospitals and thus the birth of what I once believed was my purpose. I began to live a life solely geared toward becoming a neurosurgeon. I never wanted anyone to feel the pain I felt, I wanted to cure the world, I wanted to cure Alzheimers, and I wanted to cure me. I believed somewhere along this journey that I would find something that would ease the pain I felt of being once so important and now forgotten. He has influence my life a great deal and somewhere around 28 years old I finally came to a realization. Becoming a doctor wasn’t going to bring him back.

When I was a little girl, I wrote down everything. I had journals and I had a diary, until one day I took one of my diaries to school. A girl read about my constipated Christmas and made fun of me the whole bus ride. That day I stopped writing. I figured if I am going to be ridiculed for what I write, than I may as well never write. I began to think and keep to myself. I thought so much. Most of the times I’d be playing with my Barbies but my body language was just a fasad of what was going on in my little head. I overheard adult conversations and I kept to myself. Again, because I was the baby, no one told me much or addressed me very often while I was growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I ran around, I talked a hell of a lot but I learned early on to hide my feelings because, feelings were too intimidating in my family. I am freaking bursting with passion for everything. When I get excited. . . .I get freaking excited. . .I am intolerable, combustible, magnetic, I am free and rambunctious, I create my own rules—which I forget to follow sometimes, so I know for people who are pretty tame. . .I can be overwhelming.After years of thinking away in silence I began to write again. Writing gave me the freedom to speak up without apology, it felt good and gave me the strength to face a lot of my unresolved hurt from my childhood. Through the personal writing and blogs, I started writing book ideas and chapters for now hidden memoirs, screenplays, poetry, and just about anything I could write about.

But I still had that loose end. I used to revisit the last days with my grandfather and remember how he deteriorated before my eyes. They caught his cancer so late, there was nothing to be done. We watched him around the clock and did everything we could to comfort him but the unfortunate truth was that my guardian angel was going to be gone and by time he passed he had forgotten me.

A few years ago, I was driving home. I happened to turn on the Spanish radio and they were playing Puerto Rican folk songs on the Spanish guitar. This type of music only plays during the holidays but in this January morning it happened to be playing. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach as I smiled. I said, “te amo mi viejito lindo,” and I kept driving. My grandfather played those songs for us during Christmas. He had a 2nd grade education but played guitar like a savant. In that moment I got a tiny piece of calm that I had been longing for, but he was far from done.

That very same week I had one of those dreams that feel so real you wish they were, even though you know you’d be hurting everyone in the real world if you never woke up. In this dream I walked toward a tiny beach house on an island, I walked in and as I turned the corner, there he was. My grandfather was sitting down on the edge of the bed smiling looking at me as I said to him, “do you know who I am?,” to which he replied as if he were surprised that I would ask such a thing, “of course I know, you’re my little brown girl from the pillar.” I ran over to him and I hugged him and cried happy tears. In that moment I woke up hugging my pillow sitting up crying. I had never in my entire life had a dream like that. I kept crying for a few seconds after and felt this rush of relief come over me. Of course he would never forget me. Alzheimer’s forgot me, not Felix Vazquez. That dream was everything I needed to move on and realize that my bond with him was unbreakable and no matter where he is in this world, I’ll always be his little brown girl.

At 34 I learned a lot of things I didn’t know growing up. Grandpa was a Roman Catholic, we were raised Pentecostal but he never wavered from his faith. I found out that my nickname was a play on Lady of the Pillar which is the name given to the Virgin Mary in a statue in Zaragoza Spain. She was the patron of Spain and all Hispanic people, believed to have rescued the people of Spain. While those are very large shoes to fill, that nickname has profound meaning for me. I don’t know if I saved him in anyway, but I know that he saved me time and time again. I plan on visiting that statue some day.

Everything that has happened in my life, no matter how sad or tragic it seemed, has contributed to the woman I am now. I am no longer pre-med, I pass out every time they do a blood draw on me lol. Truth be told, if that is the life I wanted, I could have kept it up. Nothing is impossible. I had an excellent GPA, I learn things faster than most and I retain a lot of information. But an aptitude for learning anything doesn’t mean I should do everything. I don’t want to be a surgeon. . .I love writing, it is my passion and what I am meant to do.

Barefoot

Well if I were you. . .

Statements like those are among the most annoying and without reason. People use them to justify their judgement of others and to impose their own beliefs and choices on someone that is not them.

I pride myself in saying that I’m one of the most understanding people out there. Truthfully, I can be unbiased and listen to someone even if their choice, words or action impact me. It’s a blessing and a curse but I wouldn’t change that about myself. I can’t say that I was always this way but I am now, and that is what matters most.

I get frustrated when people aren’t of the same mindset. Now, I do give room for differences of opinion but one thing that is truly important for me is to be heard and for people to know where I’m coming from. Sometimes, people can’t hear because they are too busy waiting for a pause in your sentence to tell you where they are and why you should do things in the manner that they choose.

I have a group of really close friends and honestly I can talk to most strangers without revealing everything about myself. Interacting with people has always been an interest of mine. BUT some people don’t know how to properly execute boundaries. I find this the most challenging in disclosing or the avoidance of disclosure about my parents. After a reasonable amount of time, people start asking questions. “Hey Johanna, so I never hear you talk about your dad.” To which I respond vaguely and say something like, “eh, he isn’t one of those types of dads that deserve to be mentioned.” That brings on the judgement, and sermons. The, you only have one dad ones, the but he is your father, he can’t be that bad. If I were you I would reach out. Well. . .thanks but no thanks. I don’t have the time in the day to be laborious about making people understand where I am coming from nor the interest. It drives me crazy when people poke their noses where they don’t belong and it above all else infuriates me to no avail. I can handle people like this, but not everyone can. People need to learn how to accept the answer to some questions. I know that I’m on a soap box right now because I’m the same person who loves to ask why. I love learning things and understanding people better but I also know how to pick up on social cues and drop things when someone feels uncomfortable.

That’s why the if I were you mind set is flawed. People like to claim they are taking a walk in someone else’s shoes without fully immersing themselves in the other person. If I were you, I would do A, B, and C. But really, take a second and look at the situation. We get into this habit of thinking that we know what is best for someone but truly, if we were them, we would be making the same exact decisions and choices that they make, exactly as they have made them. We would have the same fears and understanding, we would look into the mirror and see the same person. We wouldn’t be us, as them. We all are exactly who we are because of our experiences, our perception and every moment up to to the next hello. No sense in expecting a different outcome from someone who isn’t you. I think that the next time we are faced with a situation we don’t agree with or understand, it is best to take our socks off before we try to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. There is no other way.

Goodnight moon

A few years ago, I thought love was this construct that people tell you exists but was reserved for a select few. I had no qualms with being alone because quite frankly I had discontinued any efforts on the love front. Dating felt like an arduous task that was more daunting than pleasant. It was like this never-ending interview that at some point will either get you promoted or scrapped with a pile of resumes. I can’t say that I felt terrible when things didn’t pan out, because truthfully any little thing turned me off to the idea of certain people. Even if in that process I gave up something decent. But love isn’t like finding that tried and true black dress. Who in their right mind just wants someone that meets a need but doesn’t set your entire soul on fire?

Despite my own perceived pessimism about love, I did hold out hope. In the back of my mind and the recesses of my heart I knew that there had to be a love so powerful that it would make a believer out of the smartest skeptic. A can’t breathe, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t be without each other kind of love. A kind of love that doesn’t take years to develop, it’s the type that knocked me completely off my feet and while I was lying on the ground looking up at the dark sky. I realized there aren’t enough starts to name off all the things I love about him.

It turns out I was a hopeful romantic after all. I thought love was like lying under the stars looking for the same one in the sky every night. It seemed quite impossible but without any effort of my own, there he was, right under my nose. Nothing tedious or fake about him, or us. He is like that missing piece of my jigsaw puzzle that had gone missing while I was busy putting myself together. The piece I didn’t realize I needed, until he showed up and suddenly I know what it is like to feel whole again. He inspires me to complete myself and to appreciate the person I am. I know that I’m perfectly imperfect and still have some growing to do when it comes to loving myself entirely, but I do know that in my image, he can do no wrong. He is this perfect set of circumstances in one body. Everything about him, complements and strengthens the things about me that once felt weak.

I know in the grand scheme of things, we are but a spec in an indifferent universe, however in my gravitational pull, he is my world. . .my bright eyes, sunny skies and introspection.

Resist resisting to exist

I think that as people we often find ways to get in the way of our happiness and blame it on self preservation. I get it, no one wants to be hurt. But when you’re living on the sidelines, how happy can you be as a spectator?

I’ve never been the type to shy away from profound growth and goals. I know what it’s like to work overnight, go to college on no sleep, maintain a high GPA and then come home to a wild toddler needing all of your attention. In the trenches of it all, it felt insurmountable but when I walked across the stage and became a first generation college graduate. Those years of hard work seemed minute in comparison to the pride I garnered for myself. I did that. I can do anything. Everything I have ever done has been for my son. So long ago I was a baby raising a baby, as so many people put it. Yet here he is, not adhering to any stereotype and the greatest contribution I have made to this world so far. But what now. . .

Last fall when he started his last year of high school I went through every emotion possible. From pride to fear. I asked myself, what about me. What was my life going to become post high school. When my life and every waking second wasn’t spent taking care of the child that has grown into an incredible man. Over the months fear turned into excitement.

While I’m fully aware that being a parent is a lifelong commitment I can recognize the work I have put in. My son hasn’t, “needed,” me for some time now I just didn’t want to admit it. I have just been afraid to let him go. I guess I just didn’t want him to feel abandoned and unnoticed. It’s not for the lack of trust because he has been nothing short of perfect and honest even when the information he shares is painful. I overcompensated because no one was there to catch me growing up, I had to be my own safety net and as a result I tried to jump in and rescue him every time he was about to fail. When I was pregnant, my parents left me at the doorstep of his fathers house like the Sunday paper. Coming from those feelings of utter disbelief, I have done everything I can to make sure he never feels that pain. A few months ago he had a talk with me and the long and short of it was his request for me to loosen the reigns. He told me that he understands I don’t want him to fail but there are times I make the decision for him and never let him learn from his mistakes. He wants to make a decision and if it doesn’t workout learn how to figure out things on his own or reach out to me if he wants help. I was impressed with the maturity of his conversation and was taken aback because my job is almost done. I sat there and looked at him in admiration because he is far from the person I was at his age. I had a strained relationship with my mother and couldn’t discuss anything with her. I feared that my son would be emotionally inept as I was as a child and would cope on his own time when people weren’t around. I was afraid that I would be the negative parts of her that never heard her children, or showed up because other things took priority. I love you was a foreign concept in my home after my grandfather passed away. All of these things, my experiences as a child molded the parent I am and to my amazement I am the mother I am not because of the sum of life’s infractions but despite. Despite all I have been through I am out on the other side and I haven’t hurt him or damaged him. I’ve loved him unconditionally and he knows it. Jonathan is an incredible individual and I’m proud to be his mom. He doesn’t need me, because I have done my job and that pays for itself in leaps and bounds. He wants me to be present but he can fend for himself. He has great relationships with people and he has a bigger heart than anyone I have ever met. So while the idea of high school being over was an emotional ride before, it is now this incredible dream to see who he will become going forward. I know, he has the makings of a person that can change the world and I can no longer stand in his way.

My son in many ways has taught me how to get out of my own way. In our home we have this saying, “it’s not if, but when.” We don’t think things will work out, they always will no matter the circumstance. He has helped me resist resisting to exist. He has posed the statement, “you need to put yourself first.” For once, I am willing to. Not because it required his permission but because it includes his blessing. So while I am happy and excited for his future, I’m ready to see what this new chapter in my life brings.

I like your new picture

47 days ago was just a regular day. It was New Years Eve and I was either preparing to spend the evening at my brothers house or I was already there with a drink in hand. I was playing WWF for the millionth time and I finally gathered the courage to say something to someone I had been eyeing for quite some time. What a concept right, on the eve of a new year I sent what may as well be the most important message of my life. It was kind of silly and lackluster but what ensued there after has been proof that my message was meant to be written.

Since that hello we’ve been attached at the heart. Since that hello, I am the happiest I have ever been in my 34 years of life. Saying that out loud feels crazy, because I am a very happy person but on the same note I was like one of those sad clown masks that hid behind happy just so that people wouldn’t approach me. . .but this is anything but fake. I am beaming from the inside out.

Knowing my own history all too well, this is something new for me. I don’t do things the way others do them and throughout my life I struggled to show people I cared about how I really felt. Most relationships in my past didn’t go well because I couldn’t reciprocate my feelings back. I would be 5 months into a relationship and they would tell me they loved me and my immediate response wanted to be thank you but it is unkind to thank love. Past relationships would tell me all the million ways they loved me and then would look at me as if it were my turn to list my reasons. I used to think I was broken and that I just couldn’t love people but eventually they would wear me down and I’d love them in my own way. I am an extremely passionate and loving person, but trying to force things out of me is like finding out what happens in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s damn near impossible to make me say or do something I don’t want to. These past relationships made me feel bad for being the way I was. There was a time that I fought back and said, maybe love and expressing my feelings will come easy when I meet the one I’m meant to be with. It was hurtful to him but it was the truth. Everything I could learn in a book suggested that love was not in that room standing in front of me. Love had to feel different and easy and for fucks sake it had to feel loving.

Love is without condition. It is not because I told you, you tell me. Love is avoiding sleep because thinking about that person matters more than functioning properly the next day. Love is examining every part of their face and body and caring for every inch of it. Love is wanting nothing but their happiness over yours. Love is this terrifying feeling of them never understanding how much you love them. Love is also patient. Love is a good morning beautiful. Love pokes fun at your silliness and praises your perceived imperfections. Love listens when you are ready to talk, and tells you they will be there in those moments that you’re not. Love doesn’t obligate you to be out of your comfort zone. Love is so many things that I have yet to list. Love is him.

Somewhere in between day one and 47, I found all those types of loves in one moment. I was watching a movie with friends and Maya Angelou came on the television and said, “Love is many things. It’s varied. One thing it is not and can never be is unsure.” It was in that moment that I knew I was sure about my feelings. I am a natural skeptic and an intellect that questions everything. I need to know the why and the how but when it came to my love, there was nothing more certain for me than that of an I love you. It was very clear to me. I won’t say it didn’t seem crazy, because it did given our circumstances but crazy was never unsure.

So after many years of doubt and worry I now know with my whole entire heart that I was right. When you meet the one you’re meant to be with, all the uncertainty and past behavior will cease to exist. My heart isn’t reluctant with him. It does not cower behind humor to hide its feelings. I’m out in the open completely exposed and in love. It’s the most amazing feeling and the most beautiful thing I know I will ever experience in life. I love you comes out so easily, because it’s true. He matches me in every way. He does not make me feel like too much when I go off on a tangent. He loves back unconditionally and without exception. 47 days ago I would have never imagined we would be where we are today. I wouldn’t change a thing about my love but the most important and beautiful thing is, I don’t have to change a thing about me. I am loved for all of my idiosyncrasies not despite. He is my happiness. . .the love of my life.

Je t’aimerai pour toujours mes yeux brillants.

Love Shouldn’t be Blind

We are all different, but there are some of us who feel a bit more peculiar that others. I am one of those people. Being different makes me happy, even if it makes me stand out. That is why I feel that the phrase, “love with your heart and not with your eyes,” makes no sense. Of course I want to be loved and appreciated for everything I am, my character, my heart. . .but I also want to be loved for everything that people can see without looking within.

I feel as though we are constantly reminded to ignore looks so much that we negate the possibility that anything that is not normal can be beautiful. Flawed smiles and imperfect teeth, round bodies or thin physiques become the subject of apology and exception. We have become conditioned to love despite and not because.

When we first meet people it is impossible to take a look deep into their soul without first acknowledging and embracing what we see as a whole. The way they frown, the way they squint when they are thinking deeply. There are so many visual characteristics that we pass up when we apply the notion of loving blindly.

For a very long time I wanted people to give me a long enough chance to realize that I am more than the sum of my looks. I was loving myself despite. I was wrong. I don’t want exceptions to be made for me. I stand tall at over 67 inches, I have child bearing hips and my hair doesn’t fall perfectly in the morning. There are days where my smile is the quickest and easiest place to hide because all the things that make me who I am are hidden inside of a body that people are trained to accept, not love.

I was one of the many who missed out because I learned with exception. This is no longer acceptable. It hasn’t been for a long time and I realize now how damaging that perception has been to my own decision making.

One of my favorite things of getting to know people is memorizing the curves of their face, the pigment in their eyes and cementing the way my heart feels when I see them. The way their thoughts are emitted throughout their body. All these idiosyncratic things about them that I would not know if not by body language.

If I’d carry on ignoring the things that people closet because they aren’t perfect, I would miss out on the beauty and profound touch of the human condition.