Monday, June 22, 2020

The Way Back (2020): A Review


Whatever the merits of The Way Back, which had the misfortune to be released just as the Covid-19 pandemic/panic closed theaters, it has a shockingly generic title. The title seems to fit, as The Way Back is a shockingly generic film, one filled with tropes, lazy characterizations and pretty bad performances.

Former basketball phenom Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is now a thoroughly dissolute man. Working construction, with an estranged wife and a terrible tragedy revealed as the film goes on, Jack's days begin and end with alcohol (he literally drinks a can of booze while showering). To say he's a functioning alcoholic is putting it mildly: given how much he actually drinks, it's a wonder he can even stand.

Nevertheless, his former Catholic high school thinks Jack will be the perfect coach to the struggling team for the remainder of the season. Jack reluctantly takes this apparently volunteer job (he still goes in to his construction job) and begins to slowly lead his ragamuffin team to victories. However, while it looks like his personal demons and alcoholism are put on hold, another tragedy triggers his own deep one and off the wagon he goes. Eventually forced out due to his alcoholism, Jack goes to therapy and rehab while his team wins one for their Coach Jack.

The Way Back (2020) - IMDbThe Way Back is the first film I saw in an actual theater as movie houses slowly started reopening (don't tell the relatives, who assume anyone going to the movies now will drop dead before the end credits roll). As I watched The Way Back, a certain cynicism took hold thanks to screenwriter Brad Ingelsby's solid determination to make it some kind of inspiring redemption tale. It is not a good sign when, what is meant as a climatic three-point shot that will get Bishop Hayes High School to the playoffs, I started shouting "MISS! MISS!".

The theater was empty, so it was all right.

The Way Back has a lot of tropes that almost make it play like a spoof of these "inspirational" sports films. The entire basketball team is comprised of kids from the Cliched School of Hip-Hop Teens. There's Kenny (Will Ropp) the ladies man who woos three cheerleaders simultaneously, Brandon (Brandon Wilson) the quiet player who is another phenom, Chubs (Charles Lott, Jr.) the jolly one who starts the team with a pre-victory dance, Marcus (Melvin Gregg) the tallest player who begs to return after being thrown off for being late. All the team players are stereotypical trash-talking, casually disrespectful young men who feel free to curse in front of the team's chaplain.

Most of The Way Back's subplot involves Brandon, but even that seems more like an afterthought, as if it was left over from a previous draft. We have a scene where Jack goes to Brandon's father to talk about getting recruited by universities and is instantly rebuffed. It's no surprise that at a climatic game Brandon's father shows up.

THE WAY BACK - Official Trailer - YouTubeBrandon's story, like Jack's alcoholism or the reason behind it, seems to come and go whenever the film needs an injection of drama. Granted, I rarely if ever drink and may not understand Jack's tolerance for alcohol, but I find it incredibly hard to believe one scene where he apparently finished off what might have been a twenty-four pack as he rehearses his initial rejection of the coaching position and still managed to sound relatively coherent and steady on his feet.

I get that The Way Back wants to say that Jack is finding both redemption and purpose in his coaching, but for someone who was that deep into booze, his almost cold-turkey abstinence seems a bit hard to believe.

I did not see Ben Affleck give a performance as his performance seemed to consist of looking sad or yelling a curse storm in front of the kids. Again, I've never believed Ben Affleck is an actor though an excellent director. He was flat throughout, and when he tries to be deeper or dramatic such as with his estranged wife he never convinced me Jack was a troubled soul.

The interesting thing in The Way Back with regards to the basketball games is that we mostly get the final scores and very few actual games. This lack of games, along with the thinnest of characterizations for our cliched team members, robs this viewer of a truly vested interest in Bishop Hayes' basketball team. It's as if we are asked to care about them without knowing much if anything about them.

The Way Back brings to mind that Ben Affleck had been originally cast as Don Haskins in Glory Road until he dropped out, Josh Lucas replacing him in the lead role. Perhaps he now wanted his own basketball film. Unfortunately, everyone seems to have gotten lost in The Way Back


Saturday, June 20, 2020

And Then We Danced: A Review

And Then We Danced (2019) - IMDb


And Then We Danced was surrounded by controversy and scandal in Georgia (the country, not the state) where it is set due to its subject matter. The mere suggestion that traditional Georgian dance could have any homosexuality either in its rhythms or performers is too obscene to even consider, at least openly. While And Then We Danced may not break new ground in gay representation, it does have strong performances and insight into another culture that makes it worth a look.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is still working to be part of his family's tradition of traditional Georgian dance. He faces several obstacles: the hostility of his tyrannical instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) who has a disdain for Merab's family, Merab's more talented but less driven brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) and now Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Irakli is a newer, more rebellious but talented dancer whom Merab takes an instant dislike to.

However, they soon become fast friends after Irakli helps Merab with his technique and shows himself a nice guy, albeit one who like David also drinks to excess. There's a sudden opening for the main troupe after another dancer is sent off when his same-sex attraction is discovered, and both Irakli and Merab find themselves on the audition shortlist.

Things between them culminate though when they go out of Tbilisi to celebrate the birthday of Merab's longtime dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili). One night, they stimulate each other, the next it is a full-on sexual encounter. Irakli suddenly departs, leaving Merab confused and conflicted, plunging into dark areas. What will become of Merab, his dancing dreams, and perhaps his own life?

And Then We Danced' Review | Hollywood ReporterAnd Then We Danced brought to mind other gay-themed films such as Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name in that there seems to be a common thread among so many of them. It is that of "young or youngish man, perhaps unaware of or unwilling to admit his true sexuality, is sexually awakened by a more assertive/open man that comes into his life". I can't say whether this is how things usually go when a gay man discovers his same-sex desires, but there it is.

Like Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name, Merab gives no indication that he has any homosexual desires or interests until Ikarli comes, and even that comes about slowly. He doesn't show any desires (romantic or sexual) towards Mary or any woman, but neither towards any man. Merab may even be closer to asexual, and Irakli's appearance at first seems more hindrance than lustful.

It's to writer/director Levan Akin that he drew strong performances from his cast, in particular from Gelbakhiani making his acting debut as Merab. There are subtle moments that slowly indicate that Merab may be finding in Irakli someone more than a friend: a smile when Irakli puts his head on Merab's shoulder, him smelling Irakli's shirt (again, a nod to Brokeback Mountain?).  Gelbakhiani has an almost innocent face, one that fills with conflict, even guilt, until in his climatic dance scene, where his dancing may not be "masculine" but it is authentic to himself.

And Then We Danced review – heady tale of forbidden desire | Film ...As Irakli, Valishvili has that devil-may-care manner that sets him out as more rebellious to tradition (for heavens sake, he wears an earring!). They work well together, showcasing the differences between the dancing goals of Merab (who wants technique) and Irakli (who wants joy).

This is not to say though that as I watched And Then We Danced, some things did puzzle me. I find that there is a sharp difference between love and sexual desire, and try as everyone did I did not sense that there was genuine love. Perhaps it is because I saw both men as people who were perhaps closer to "friends with benefits" than genuinely in love.

It is also due to how Merab exploring his same-sex desires after Irakli's sudden departure came across as almost dark, plunging metaphorically if not literally into a demimonde of drag queens and flamboyant men.

Other elements, such as Merab's holding and eventual returning of Irakli's earring as almost a talisman of love seemed if not a bit cliched somewhat predictable.

On the whole though, And Then We Danced dares explore a forbidden world, at least forbidden in Georgia. I think it's a bit structured in how it all plays but it works well enough.


Saturday, June 6, 2020

You Don't Nomi: A Review

You Don't Nomi (2019) - IMDbYOU DON'T NOMI

When released in 1995 Showgirls became one of the most infamous mainstream films to grace theaters. The first major film to be shown under the NC-17 rating (formerly the notorious X rating), Showgirls featured nudity and graphic sex scenes. It also bombed with audiences and critics, both of which savaged the film for bad acting, at times incoherent story and general sleaziness.

However, like all things, Showgirls has undergone a reevaluation. Said reevaluation and appreciation for Showgirls as both a cult film and perhaps a legitimate feature is the subject of the documentary You Don't Nomi. Does it make its case that Showgirls is not the cinematic disaster of reputation but perhaps a genuinely well-crafted film? Not to me, but You Don't Nomi does suggest that perhaps things are a bit more complex than one might think.

Using off-camera interviews with various film scholars, Showgirls fans and stars of the Showgirls musical parody, You Don't Nomi explores three possible interpretations of our notorious film. It could be a Piece of S**t. It could be a Masterpiece. It could be a Masterpiece of S**t. The documentary has its combatants make their own cases as well as explore their individual love for Showgirls. That love ranges from crafting a Midnight Movie presentation to one of You Don't Nomi's best segments.

That revolves around April Kidwell, an actress who stars as Nomi Malone in the Showgirls musical spoof. Again off-camera (all the interviews are as such), Kidwell tells her story. Starting from a Mormon upbringing, she came to New York to pursue a singing and acting career but was viciously drugged and raped. The emotional and physical scars started to heal when she was cast in spoofs of the two best-known characters in Showgirls star Elizabeth Berkley's oeuvre (Saved by the Bell's Jessie and Showgirls' Nomi) metaphorically saving her.

You Don't Nomi' Review | Tribeca 2019 | Hollywood ReporterYou Don't Nomi also allows for wildly different interpretations. One film critic waxes rhapsodic about the use of mirrors, suggesting there's some kind of artistic meaning behind it. Right after, another seems to mock such ideas, suggesting that such interpretations are downright silly.

Director Jeffrey McHale allows the film to kind of ramble and there doesn't seem to be a firm structure. One moment we can look at the problematic use of black characters in Showgirls, almost serving as "magical Negroes" whose whole purpose is to help our white protagonist. The next we go to the gay subtext and fandom for Showgirls. Another time we explore the filmography of Showgirls' director Paul Verhoeven and how certain elements in Showgirls were almost a running motif for him.

Granted, if that is the case one wonders exactly what Verhoeven finds so fascinating about vomiting, but there it is. Other, darker elements such as the brutalization of women in Verhoeven films are touched on but not deeply explored.

There are some fascinating elements in You Don't Nomi. One interesting take is how other cult films like Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest have certain similar elements with Showgirls. All these films are about strong women fighting to get to the top. They were done with total sincerity in their stabs at being serious drama. They also were all overwrought in terms of the acting. Still, at times it is hard to figure if You Don't Nomi was attempting a Showgirls reevaluation or a Showgirls mockery.

Despite not having actual new interviews with anyone involved in Showgirls outside archival footage, you sense that those involved in this fiasco at least are embracing its sordid reputation. The film mentions how Kyle MacLachlan broached the subject of Showgirls at a tribute versus hiding from it. Unlike Faye Dunaway with Mommie Dearest, Elizabeth Berkley has somewhat embraced Showgirls' infamy, down to introducing the film at a special screening. Whether she actually enjoys being collateral damage to such a notorious flop, one that caused her career great damage, we do not know.

Then again, can one every really Nomi?


Friday, June 5, 2020

Showgirls: A Review


Before reviewing the documentary You Don't Nomi, I opted to first watch the film which inspired the documentary's exploration of it. Showgirls, in all its figurative and literal naked glory, is tacky, tawdry, sleazy and at times flat-out bonkers. My late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. and I had hoped to see it together after having seen it separately but alas that was not to be. As a dramatic feature, Showgirls is hilarious. As an erotic film, Showgirls is devoid of eroticism. Despite its awfulness, I can see why so many enjoy its almost gleeful brazenness.

A drifter calling herself Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) has arrived in Las Vegas with dreams of being a dancer despite knowing nobody and having no resources. She quickly finds both a best friend in Molly (Gena Ravera) and a job as a stripper at Cheetahs. Molly works as a costumer at the posh Stardust Hotel, where Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) rules the Vegas Strip with her erotic stage show Goddess.

Nomi soon yearns to be in Goddess, but exactly in what capacity is unclear. Will it be as a mere chorus girl? Does our temptress have designs on Cristal's boyfriend, Stardust executive Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan)? Does Cristal have designs on Nomi? As Nomi and Cristal soon start a cold war, Nomi's ruthless nature leads her to shocking acts. With Nomi now as the new Goddess, she must make a final, fateful decision after Molly is brutally assaulted by Molly's idol.

Showgirls (1995)So much of Showgirls is so wildly misguided that any sane person would look at it with at minimum bemusement, at most with almost uncontrollable howls of laughter at how serious they were trying to be and failing spectacularly at it. I confess that within six minutes into the film, I started laughing at Showgirls, which is a strange thing given that it was meant as a serious drama.

At least I figure the cast of Showgirls did not deliberately play things for laughs, but director Paul Verhoeven opted to tell his cast to be BIG, almost cartoonishly so. Of particular note is Berkley, whose performance had an almost unhinged and desperate quality to it. Everything Berkley as Nomi did was so BIG, so exaggerated and almost insane that you wonder if either Berkley or Nomi were in fact literally crazy. Every reaction Nomi had no matter what seemed to be so massively intense that you felt she was attempting 3-D acting to literally reach out and thrust herself onto audience members. Everything from her dancing to her face in any situation both erotic and vaguely innocent had this hardness, this fierceness that became hysterical in every meaning of the word.

Berkley was so overdramatic and histrionic in Showgirls, where every aspect of her performance both dramatic and dancing had some kind of crazed intensity. It is a mesmerizing performance, but that is not a compliment.

10 Unintentionally Funny Movie Sex Scenes – Page 8
Not that just about anyone else in Showgirls left the project with any semblance of dignity in this ultimate fiasco. Perhaps one can give grudging respect to Gershon, who acted as if she knew Showgirls was utter trash and went full vamp camp, so hilariously over-the-top as our Vegas Queen. It's almost as if Gershon might have been the only one who was in on the joke and behaved accordingly, because her performance was anything but straight.

Kyle MacLachlan seemed at least willing to play all this nuttiness as if it were a legitimate drama, but I cannot imagine that the "lurid" pool sex scene gave him any hopes that this would elevate his career. Alan Rachins has extraordinary range, going from the uptight lawyer on L.A. Law to the hippie dad on Dharma & Greg with equal ease. As Goddess impresario Tony Moss though, he was another unintentionally hilarious figure. "I'm erect. Why aren't you erect?" he taunts Nomi when he examines her breasts. I figure the line was meant to be serious, but as written by Joe Eszterhas and delivered by Rachins, its end result is more laughter. Why the dancers would blanch in shock at Moss barking out "SHOW ME YOUR TITS!" when Goddess is a topless revue one can only guess at.

Showgirls (1995)Eszterhas was reportedly paid over $3 million for writing Showgirls, and one wonders what the actors must have thought when they were asked to deliver such lines as "You f**k 'em without f**king them!" and having conversations about eating Doggie Chow. There are so many odd turns and strange subplots that drift in and out with no sense of logic. We get bits about James (Glenn Plummer), a choreographer with an erotic and dance fixation on Nomi that is totally irrelevant to Nomi's actual story. We also get another subplot involving rival Goddess dancers that might have been more interesting than Nomi's actual story.

Add to that the wildly contradictory nature of Showgirls. One of the Goddess dancers is meant to be shown sympathetically by showing she's a mother with two small children, but she later deliberately injures her rival, making the stab at sympathy irrational. However, the worst element is with Ravera's Molly, the only actually decent character and only genuinely good performance in the whole film. One can quibble with how quickly she came around to any of Nomi's idiotic to criminal acts, but Molly's brutal assault bordered on sadistic. It was an ugly thing to see, and seemed to be there because Showgirls simply ran out of whatever passed as plot and they needed a last-minute suggestion that our wicked Nomi had some semblance of morality.

On just about every level, Showgirls is horrible. Goddess is what a Las Vegas revue would look like if the Las Vegas Motel 6 ever had a floor show. It is beyond laughable that Cristal Connors would be any kind of draw, that Goddess would be such a major Vegas Strip show (or perhaps "strip" show) and especially that Paula Abdul or a pre-Super Bowl Janet Jackson would even consider being the star of Goddess. The stage show Goddess pretty much reflects Showgirls as a film: it shows a lot of skin but is incoherent, unerotic and laughably bad whenever it tries to be elegant or sophisticated.

Wildly misguided and misdirected (again in every sense of the word), Showgirls is not the drama it imagines itself to be. Despite the bad acting, oddball story, wild leaps of logic and general sleaziness, I cannot condemn the film completely. There is something almost mystifying about Showgirls, like a ranting lunatic racing nude across the freeway. You are horrified, appalled, even frightened but you can't completely look away.


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Confessions of a Nazi Spy: A Review


Warner Brothers, for all its reputation as a studio that specialized in gritty urban crime stories, was fearless when it came to confronting the impending evil of Nazism. Confessions of a Nazi Spy is nowhere near subtle, but it is an interesting time capsule of a time and place where the growing menace was still, theoretically, far off.

Respected physician Dr. Kassell (Paul Lukas) is overt about his love for the Third Reich. As both a naturalized American citizen and head of a local German-American Bund, he routinely spouts propaganda supporting the Nazi regime and wishes it could work in the United States too.

Dr. Kassell also spreads Nazi propaganda at their behest, and said propaganda starts luring in disgruntled loser Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer). He turns to espionage to get some money from the Reich, and as "Sword" gets his Army buddy Werner Renz (Joe Sawyer) to betray his country.

All this nefarious activity eventually attracts the attention of the FBI. One of its top agents, Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) is convinced that "Sword" is part of a Bund Society. Eventually Renard tracks down Schneider, who gives up his German contacts through flattery versus force. Some of the Nazi agents are caught and tried, while others, like Kassell, are repatriated by the Gestapo most unwillingly. This bungled Fifth Columnists all fall into the hands of American justice.

Buy Confessions of a Nazi Spy - Microsoft StoreConfessions of a Nazi Spy is less than its daring title promises. I think it is because it is so overt in its storytelling that today it veers a bit close to kitsch. Of particular note is the ending where Renard and a fellow agent discuss the trial. To the growing swells of America the Beautiful, both wonder out loud about the greatness of our system.

Again, subtle it is not.

One thing that I kept wondering was whether having so many accented actors made Confessions of a Nazi Spy a bit too outlandish to believe, even if the story was based off news articles detailing such activities. You had Lukas and Lederer with strong accents as these nefarious accomplices, but then you had the very light and pleasant manner (and more American-sounding) Werner Renz. It did make me wonder whether director Anatole Litvak might have been better served to have Americans as the spies.

I think it is because it would be too easy to accept "foreigners" or at least foreign-sounding people be part of a conspiracy. It might also perhaps have helped if perhaps Lukas' Dr. Kassell had been more a dupe than an overt agent. It is a bit too easy to believe the foreign Schneider was already sympathetic, but perhaps if the one seduced to the Fatherland's worldview was a more "all-American" type, it would have made it more plausible to go undetected.

One thing that wasn't thought of then that might be thought now is how Confessions of a Nazi Spy could feed suggestions of disloyalty from naturalized citizens. It might be that having non-native born Americans implies that all non-native born Americans are suspect, a mindset that sadly led many Japanese-Americans to internment camps. To be fair, the film is not responsible for such acts and focuses on German versus Japanese agents. However, is it that far of a stretch to see how "foreignness" of the Germans in the film might make the "foreignness" of the Japanese suspect?

As a side note, Confessions of a Nazi Spy went off into curious territory. There was a whole subplot about Kassell's private life with a wife and mistress that seemed to be from a whole other film. What Kassell's bed-hopping has to do with anything one can only guess at.

Berlinale | Archive | Annual Archives | 2013 | Programme ...
A final issue is the similar-sounding names. You have Schneider meeting his German contact Schlager (George Sanders) and pretty soon one can be forgiven for trying to figure out who is who. Seeing Sanders here one wonders where he goes, along with who gave him such an awful haircut.

If there is a saving grace in Confessions of a Nazi Spy, it is the surprisingly small but effective role of Edward G. Robinson as the shrewd FBI agent. It's nice to see Eddie on the right side of the law for a change, and in his quiet but firm manner he makes Agent Renard a formidable figure. He rarely if ever rages, and certainly not in his confrontations with Schneider. Here, the scenes between Robinson and Lederer are excellent: how the ego of one is manipulated by the other into delivering said confessions.

This cannot be said for most other performances, which seemed to border on camp. Lukas seemed to be almost cartoonish as Kassell and at times Lederer too seemed to be overdoing the "I'm EVIL" bit. A scene involving Ward Bond as an American Legion member disgusted by the Bund meeting is surprising but effective. Also to the film's credit, it does show that some Germans were appalled at the Nazis behavior and condemned it.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy feels a bit of a slog given its running time, and it probably would qualify as propaganda now. Still, strong performances elevate it and offer a view of a time when Nazis were seen as a nuisance versus the menace they really were. 


Monday, June 1, 2020

End of Sentence: A Review


For longtime readers, I think you are aware I am coming out from a very dark place. I am in double grief: I lost both my job and my mother back-to-back. It's been a devastating time, and as such I simply was too overwhelmed to watch anything, let alone review any film.

One thing Mom imparted with me, however, is that "life is for the living". Yes, we should grieve but to stay in perpetual grief, to turn her home into a museum or mausoleum would appall her. As such, I am slowly reemerging. There is no set time to stop grieving, no "end of date" where you cease suffering. It lessens but it never truly ends.

That brings me to End of Sentence, perhaps the oddest choice for which to finally emerge from my embargo due to mourning given the film centers around the death of a mother. However, with strong performances and a simple yet heartfelt story, End of Sentence will move one deeply as the strangers known as family navigate troubled waters.

After his wife's death, widower Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) will honor her final wish to have her ashes scattered on a lake in her native Ireland. She also wanted Frank to scatter the ashes with their son, Sean (Logan Lerman). This is easier said than done given Sean was just released from an Alabama prison for auto theft and Sean harbors many resentments against his very quiet, passive father whom he always calls "Frank".

Circumstances being what they are, Sean agrees to go if they can wrap all this up within five days, allowing Sean the chance to go to Oakland for a new job and life far from Frank. Sean never bothers to hide his disdain and seems to go out of his way to disrespect and belittle Frank, who constantly swallows up the abuse.

As they attempt to endure each other, Sean picks up the beautiful and mysterious Jewel (Sarah Bolger), whom he insists travel with them. Reluctantly, Frank goes along with this, and on their way to honor the deceased's wishes secrets are revealed, side trips are unexpectedly taken and father and son learn to understand each other. In the end, both Frank and Sean are released from their own pain and see things from a wider perspective.

End of Sentence, written and directed by Elfar Adalsteins, does not reinvent the wheel. In certain ways, it is a very simple and almost predictable story: surly son and emotionally restrained father reconcile with a pretty young thing thrown in for good measure. However, the simplicity and straightforward nature of End of Sentence allows us to focus on the Fogles' metaphorical and literal journey.

This is a movie that slowly works to win the viewer over, and a major credit goes to the three principal actors. John Hawkes truly is a national treasure, and End of Sentence is another in a catalog of exceptional performances. Hawkes' Frank is not an unemotional man, but rather a man who fears emotion. Over the course of the film we see how his emotional restraint served as a coping mechanism to his life, lending his characterization a deeper, more poignant element.

It is easy to like Frank, to sympathize with him. It is a credit to Hawkes as an actor that he displays Frank's emotional struggles, his doubts and fears, with his body and face more than his line delivery. Seeing Frank slowly change is a beautiful thing, and John Hawkes makes Frank a fully-realized person versus a character to play.

The mind does boggle at the idea of Logan Lerman as a hardened criminal, even with tattoos. At times it seems Lerman is trying too hard to be the unpleasant, angry Sean to where you think he is "acting" versus "being". However, he does have an excellent and moving moment in his final scene with Bolger, which perhaps indicates that Lerman may have untapped skills. End of Sentence has not won me over to being a Logan Lerman fan, as I have disliked most of his films (and him in them). However, at least after End of Sentence I'm not going to automatically write him off.

Sarah Bolger is excellent as Jewel, giving her a complexity that makes her both sympathetic and treacherous. She reminds me of another Irish actress, Saoirse Ronan, not just in looks but in exceptional acting talent. Bolger takes what could be a cliched role (the beautiful but potentially duplicitous woman) and makes her into a flawed figure, one who can care about and take advantage of the same people. She is a survivor, a complicated and contradictory character whom you wouldn't mind seeing a whole film about.

I've no objection to End of Sentence II: Jewel's Journey.

It is not hard to fall in love with End of Sentence, despite what could be at times a predictable story. A beautiful soundtrack, the lush Irish countryside and two exceptional performances plus a surprisingly strong turn from Logan Lerman all make this a very worthy watch. End of Sentence will move the viewer and show that sometimes the wounds we carry can be healed through those simple acts of love, understanding and forgiveness. 


Saturday, May 23, 2020

I Never Thought It Would Be Today: Thoughts on My Own Grief Observed.



Wednesday, May 6, 2020 was meant to be an ordinary day. My mother, Socorro Aragon, was going to have a simple CT Scan with Contrast, then after resting, we would go to her church where she would pick up the weekly grocery giveaway and give her tithe. She had more tests and appointments scheduled, all of which I would drive her to.

I enjoyed driving her to and fro. It gave us a lot of time together, more now with the lockdown in full effect and my employer, the City of El Paso, having officially furloughed me on Tuesday, May 5 even though I had not been at the Library for over a month.

We woke up early as the appointment was at 9:30 a.m. She could not have breakfast due to the test but she, like always, made me a little something. As I ate my egg burrito, I saw her: hair all perfectly made, with a nice short-sleeve blue blouse with frills on the ends. She felt a bit bad about not having any makeup, wondering if it would affect her test. "I didn't even put cream on me," she said.

"Don't worry Mom, I'll bring some with me for you after".

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer less than a month ago, a surprise at her age. There were two lumps on her left breast, one on top of the other. As such, she would require surgery, then chemotherapy and radiation. She was not looking forward to this. Still, she was forever optimistic about her prospects.

As we chatted, I observed her: a bright smile and sparkle in her eyes. "Mom, you look beautiful", I told her. She immediately but cheerfully dismissed such things. "Ay Ricardo, como te sales" she said in Spanish (loose translation, "Oh Ricardo, how you exaggerate".

I fussed over her, making sure she drank the liquid required for the test, packing the medication she needed to take afterwards, bringing some water and chips for her to drink and munch on after she finished.

The Texas Oncology Center we were sent to was clear across town, so we left early. I played the Sirius XM Escape station for her as the easy listening music was her style. I would take glances at her as we drove to the Westside, and I could see her reading her Bible, lost in the Word.

We get there a little before nine. Obviously I couldn't go in, but I walked with her to the door, both of us wearing our masks. She took with her a jacket, saying "Siempre hace frio adentro" (It's always cold inside). She gave her name to the waiting nurse at the door, who took her temperature. "You have your phone?" I asked. "Si", she replied. "OK, just call me when you're done".

Despite the mask I could see she was happy and smiling, her eyes again bright.

I waited outside, reading a magazine and seeing more people come. Soon the Sun was starting to hit me hard, so I went back to the car to drop off my bag and maybe take a walk around. I casually noticed the fire truck and ambulance pulling up but didn't give it much thought.

I then got a call on my phone, marked "Possible Scam". I opted to answer it just in case. The caller mentioned something about "Socorro Aragon", and I was briefly puzzled as to why they were calling my cell phone. It was coming from the Texas Oncology and I was more puzzled as to why they didn't realize she was already inside.

It was then that the voice became more frantic, telling me that I had to go inside immediately.

I went in and my daze started to grow and grow. The physician in residence looked stunned and confused. The details are now a bit muddled, but from what I remember she told me my mother had an immediate reaction to the dye, her heart had stopped and had lost consciousness. She was being rushed to Sierra, less than five minutes away. I was, if I remember well, given the option of riding with the ambulance or going in my own car. I went in my own.

Inside, I was handed her purse which also had her jacket and bra. Outside, I was handed her shoes and got a quick glimpse of her. The paramedics were working feverishly to get her heart started again, and that quick glance just hit me into an almost paralyzed state. Still in a daze, I drove to the hospital.

Finding parking, rushing to the emergency room, still having to have my temperature taken, I was made to wait in the deserted emergency waiting room. I called one person, then another, the first one asking if he could call me back, the second I had to cut off when I was allowed inside.

Between filling out forms and trying to remember if she had a living will I could see the emergency staff huddled as they tried desperately to revive her. Eventually, the doctor came up and said they did everything they could but after half an hour could not restart her heart. Nodding my head, they finally stopped.

"Time of death: 10:15", I heard.

My mother was dead.

I then was allowed to go inside.

Perhaps this is my projecting, but her expression was the beginning of my falling apart. It looked to me as though she was stunned at what had happened. Again, this is probably my reaction, because I was not expecting this.

It was a simple, routine test, one that as far as we both knew, had no risks.

I closed her eyes, not wanting her to see this. I hated the way she looked now: her blouse and hair a mess. I held her hand, feeling the warmth of life slip slowly into the coldness of death. I just needed to hold her hand, to let her know I was there. I just didn't want her to be alone.

For an hour I cried, snot coming down all over me, yet I could not let go of her hand. "Mommie, Mommie, I love you and am so proud of you," I said. I caressed her hair, kept looking at her, thinking.

So much drifted into my mind: our long life together with trips and hopes for others, her deep love for our fractured family, little private memories.

Despite my growing grief, I knew we needed to take care of many things. The first thing I did was call my cousin Sylvia, whom I consider the smartest person and probably the most capable person in my immediate circle. It took her an hour to get there, and she too grieved with me.

I could not have done much if anything without her. She was slightly divorced from things, and had a more rational look. We contacted the coroner's office and the attending nurse helped us there. We knew we also had to contact the funeral home.

In that respect Mom was very realistic and prepared. After my grandmother's death Mom had paid for her funeral, even having foresight to buy the adjoining plot. Many times she would say, "Ricardo, ya tengo 77 anos, ya estoy vieja" (Ricardo, I'm 77, I'm old), so the reality of death was not lost on her. Mom had picked out her casket, made the arrangements, and was even a bit grumpy about not being able to prepay the flowers on the casket. She also had been very clear: no open casket.

Eventually, once assured that the funeral home could come and collect the body, we went to the funeral home, masks on. We were attended to and fortunately they had all the documentation as when we called we had set the appointment at 2. They treated us very well and I made the decisions on the memory book, the prayer cards, the newspaper announcements. Sylvia took a hands-on/hands-off approach: sometimes asking specific questions, sometimes saying she was there just for moral support.

There were about two things I disagreed with Sylvia on. First was on the date for the service. The first date offered was Sunday, May 10, but there was simply no way I could hold her service on Mother's Day. The fact that both Mexican and American Mother's Day fell on the same day made such a date simply unacceptable and unbearable (in Mexico, Mother's Day is always May 10 no matter what day of the week it falls).

The second was on the tithe. Mom had made out her monthly tithe check the day before. She had it in her purse but had not placed it in the envelope, which she was using as a bookmark. I wanted to honor her wish to give her last tithe to the church she so loved. Sylvia thought otherwise.  As I am furloughed she at first thought it was a waste of money. However, here is where I think the Holy Spirit worked on her even if she is not a woman of faith. She got around to seeing the tithe as an unofficial honorarium for the pastor.

I had to call her church, Nuevo Pacto El Paso, to see if the pastor would be available to speak at her service. The pastor's wife, a pastor herself, answered. When she asked for the name, I said, "Socorro Aragon". Rocio de la O was the first to say what I heard many say in the days after, "No, no mi hermanita Socorro/Socorrito, NO" (NO, not Sister Socorro/Socorrito, NO!). The pain each of them expressed was in a strange way comforting. It made me feel a little at peace knowing how much she was loved.

By the time we, or I, had made as many decisions as I could it was close to five. It was my Longest Day, and yet still more to do.

Sylvia's partner Bertha brought some food, as I had not eaten. It took me days for me to even open the lunchbag, the water and chips still there. I could eat only a bit of the steak and didn't even try to take the potato.

I opted to first call all the people on her cell phone contact list, alphabetical order. It was both painful and therapeutic to repeat the same story, but it made it hard to hear each of her closest friends and sisters in Christ wail their lament at the sudden and unexpected death.

Yes, my Mom was 77, and yes, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, something she kept private from many people. However, the fact that it happened that day, so quickly, with no warning, I know sent many into disbelief and agony.

I had many more phone calls to make the next few days. I called my cousins, other sisters, friends both of hers and of mine. It got to the point where I was becoming physically exhausted by it all, let alone emotionally exhausted. There was one person whom I held back and back on calling: my Mom's only living sister Alicia.

I think a part of me just could not bring myself to call her about this, especially since my Mom was younger. In a strange fate it was my Tia who called me. "Esta tu mama?" (Is your Mom there?) she asked. I had asked my cousin Sergio, her son who was in Ohio driving a trailer, not to tell his mother. I think this should have come from me.

My Tia and I talked, and while I can't remember exactly what was said I do remember quiet sobs. I have no insight into my Tia's mind and heart, but I know that perhaps it was better that my Mom went first. My Mom is extremely loving towards family and perhaps if my Tia had died first it would have been far more than my Mom could have endured.

The night of my Mom's death, if I slept two hours it would have been a miracle. I was numb, overwhelmed with so much. I had a terrible sense of guilt, repeating to myself that it was my fault, that if I hadn't been insistent on her having the test, if I had made her miss the appointment, that if I had told her not to take it.

I do find that maybe people do carry this burden of thinking they could have done something, but again the Spirit came to me and gave me insight. Mom many times had said that she didn't want to die slowly. She had told me and many of her friends and family that she wanted to die quickly. The Lord Jesus Christ, in His Grace, granted his daughter her wish. That she became immediately unconscious means that she knew nothing of what happened, and in a sense she died peacefully, if to me chaotically.

Mom was a woman of deep faith, deep faith. One of my final memories of her are of her watching the YouTube broadcast of the Nuevo Pacto service, her hands raised in worship. My own faith at the moment couldn't match hers. I struggle and stumble through my almost-daily Bible readings, and I rarely if ever watched online Services. It complicated matters that my work schedule had me work every Sunday without exception save for vacation requests or Easter (and there had been a rumor that the Deputy City Manager who oversees Libraries wanted us to be open on Easter too, though last year this did not come to pass).

It got to the point where I had to look up the times for my own church, Cielo Vista, because I simply did not know their hours anymore.

I never joined a Community/Care Group, and the Men's Group met at 6:30 on Wednesdays. I had finagled to leave at 6 on Wednesdays, but the drive from work to CVC was well over half an hour. After a while, and after once accidentally showing up at some kind of children's/teen event, I pretty much left.

Mom's faith was such that she would ask her sisters to pray for me. I think she thought I was not a Christian, or at least one whose faith was almost none. I never really walked away from God or faith but I find it hard to believe. Perhaps there is enough evidence to indict me on the charge of being Christian, but nowhere near enough to convict me, as the saying goes.

It's strange that despite my Mom's death not once have I been angry at God. I'm the type to think that if I have a flat tire, it's a sign that God hates me and wants me to be miserable. In all this though, I've never thought God was punishing me. Yes, I hurt. Yes, I feel guilt. I don't think however that I have asked God, "Why?". I too have that realism about death. "Vivir es una enfermedad mortal" (Life is a terminal illness), Mom would say. Again, she knew death would come one day.

I just never thought it would be that day, that specific day, that May 6, 2020, that simple day where we had plans and that was going to be routine and remarkably uneventful.

I don't think any of us are ever ready for when our parents die. It does not matter whether it comes quickly like it did for my Mom or whether they linger on in pain, as it did for my Grandma. We are never emotionally prepared because a little part of us still thinks that he/she will come back. It is our parent, our Mommie, our Daddy, that person who even when they don't love us or care about/for us we still have an attachment to.

My Mom made a couple of curious though perhaps imminent statements shortly before her death. Earlier in the month, she said that she had dreamed about her mother. I can't remember if it was the same time or not, but she also said, "Todavia estrano mi madre," (I still miss my Mom) and my Abuela has been dead for twenty-eight years.

How then could I not miss my Mom, who has been dead less than a month?

I think here, again, the Lord granted Mom something beautiful. Death is not beautiful for us, but I think for Mom it was. It was quick, it was painless, and she now really is worshiping in the presence of the Lord she so loved. She is also reunited with all those she so dearly loved: her mother, so many of the brothers and sisters she missed, and especially my cousin Jose Cornejo.

Jose was, I think, her favorite nephew whom she had lost contact with for decades. She longed to see him and again, thanks to Sylvia, she reconnected with him when Sylvia found him for her. They talked often, but Mom resisted going to California to see him. Jose was also battling cancer and I think she wanted to remember him as a happy, mischievous child versus the withering old man she imagined.

For months I begged her to take that trip, and for months she resisted. Finally, in late 2018 I flat out told her, "Mom, this literally could be your last chance, either for him or for you". She finally agreed and we went to see him in December of that year. It did her such good to see her Pepito once last time, as it did for him to see his beloved Coyo (his name for her stemming from inability as a child to say "Socorro").

Less than three months later, Jose would be dead.

My Mom was devastated, but she took comfort that she got to see him one last time, hold him, hug him, tell him how much she loved him, and that she saw him in good spirits and relatively good health. After his death, his cousin on his Dad's side sent us a picture of him when he was younger which Mom put in a cabinet in the living room.

Every day afterwards until her own death, she would sit down and turn to his picture and blow him a kiss, often asking him how he was. I don't think this makes her bonkers. She wasn't expecting his photo to literally reply, but I think it gave her a sense of comfort and peace.

When we went to California, I had to sneak a picture of Mom to him (Mom thought it was silly to give him a picture of herself). It is my favorite picture of Mom: she is standing next to her beloved roses wearing a blouse that seems to match the bright colors of her roses. When I called my niece Nina, who took care of her beloved Uncle Jose in his final months, she told me she would place the picture her Tio had next to that of her mother (another cousin also named Sylvia).

"Is that a picture with roses?" I asked. She said yes, and it did warm my heart that despite my Mom's to my mind irrational concerns Jose kept that image with him until his death. I too have a copy of it, and I put her picture next to his, as I think she would have wanted to be next to him.   

Sylvia came by the next day to craft a beautiful tribute video. I did wonder why she insisted on keeping her mask on inside the house when A) I was the only person inside and B) we were more than thirty feet apart for most of it, as I was on the opposite end writing her obituary. She might have had two masks on, something that she has done recently and which she encourages me to do whenever I go out.

I do know that I could not have gotten through those first days without her. Sylvia's natural efficiency and planning carried me in my overwhelming grief, confusion and fear. I think at times I put too much on her, unintentionally shifting a lot of responsibility on her. I know I pushed her to the edge when another cousin in California sent another tribute. It was the straw that almost broke the camel's back (or in Spanish, the drop that caused the glass to spill). I also could not have gotten through without her sister Veronica. Vero also takes great precautions: she won't set foot in anyone's house and wears many scarves despite the heat.

Vero however, took over the calling of mourners and set out an excellent schedule for visitation. Sylvia commented that it was hard hearing me repeat the same story over and over again, constantly breaking down. However, part of me felt a little relief and release at being able to let this out. Without them I really would have fallen apart, perhaps beyond repair.

I also relied heavily on a fellow furloughed employee, Susan. She was adamant on the day of my Mom's death that I not try to do everything in one night. I had to find the clothes she would wear, causing me to fling mountains of clothes onto the bed (Mom was a fashion plate and very much a girly-girl). I was looking for the burial plot papers, looking for a good wardrobe choice, insurance papers, but again Susan said it didn't have to be done all at once.

She demanded that as soon as we finish talking that I go straight to bed. Eventually I did, and as I said sleep came hard for me that night.

I think I picked out a nice outfit for her, opting for no shoes. I remember the polka-dot blouse, Mom loved polka-dots. I made sure that it was all color-coordinated, she would want nothing less. I did hate the fact that her room was such a mess, and worse that I was making more of a mess trying to put things together, organizing her various blouses and blazers and coats.

Mom was clear: donate everything to Candlelighters, and I fully intend to honor her request. Will I keep any of her clothes? What would I keep? I certainly can't wear any of it, but perhaps the shoes she was wearing the day she died. Somehow, as irrational as it may be to keep them, I can't bring myself to let them go.

I know I will keep a few things: sentiment runs strong in me. A couple of Walt Disney World raincoats we got the first time we went there, her Minnie Mouse ears, a few jackets. There would be no logic in keeping all her clothes, which was against her wishes. There also would be no logic for me to stay in my room.

Mom was adamant about this too: she did not want me to keep her room exactly as it was. The last thing she wanted, she would say, was for me to turn her room into a museum or mausoleum. The idea that I would be in perpetual mourning, that I would try to keep her alive by keeping things as they were at her death appalled her. She believed Life was meant to be lived, and to try to keep things static was unacceptable.

"No me llores mucho" (Don't cry a lot for me) she would say. She understood that I would cry for her. She was my mother, my Dearest Mother she would say, and we both know it is natural to grieve your parent. However, to stay forever in grief, to not move on, that is something she would not have wanted.

I'm not sure how I'm doing on that front. I sometimes am stumbling through days. I've hit that point where I don't want to get out of bed, but I do. I do have fleeting thoughts of using up all her leftover pills or flashes of guns, thoughts that flee from my mind as soon as they come.

It, however, is not her death that causes this quick hysteria and flights into death fantasies, though it contributes. It is the fact that my life has been forced into a standstill. I have nowhere to go. This house arrest is brutal. A couple of times, after I have the boxes I need already in my shopping cart, I wander the Walmart just to get out of the house. I should walk the paths of the nearby park, but I worry the El Paso Police will sweep in and either cite or arrest me if my feet touch the grass.

My despair is compounded by my furlough. It is compounded by the City's firm insistence that the Libraries (along with the rec/senior centers, museums or other quality of life facilities) won't reopen "for years", and the fear that the City may never reopen them (or worse, that it does not want to reopen them). It's despairing to think that the City, which I loved working for all these nearly 13 years with great joy, seems to be fighting furiously to keep me unemployed because "they have no money". Other Texas cities at least say they are working to reopen the libraries, but El Paso seems dead-set against even considering that option.

It may be paranoia, it may be the grief, but knowing that you have no job and fast-fading prospects for one compound my misery. I am thoroughly alone. As much as my friends and relatives are with me, they can't stay with me (and some relatives are so terrified of Covid-19 that they refuse to set foot in my house). I am unmarried, have no children, no brothers/sisters. Despite what might be thought, we all need that human touch.

Charlie, the Men's Group leader at CVC, often says we were not meant to live this life alone, yet I am, I am so thoroughly alone. I am beset by so many forces on so many sides. During the early days of the furlough at least my Mom was here for company and moral support. If perhaps I were working when she died at least I would have had the distraction of work and the sense of security of a job.

Now, I have neither. My sense of worth is all but shattered, and I have voices shouting at me that if I want to go back I want to kill people. I don't want to kill anyone. The closest person in my life is dead, and I can't draw on her wisdom or moral support. I have no wife, no children, no immediate family, no job. What then am I living for?

It is easy to slip into total despair, and I understand all those tragic people who commit suicide, who are so overwhelmed with emptiness and no hope that death is about the only hope they have. Death through their own hand is seen as that release: to no longer worry about things, to go out quickly versus seeing your whole world crash slowly, even if it means "saving just ONE life".

Despite my friends telling me they will miss me and feel my absence, part of me knows they would go on. I understand that desperate despair, that awful, frightening temptation, yet I still hold on. I can't give an answer as to why; perhaps the closest that I can find is that somewhere within me there is a sense that my time has not yet come.

It does not take away the awful tension headaches, the heavy sleep, the impending sense of dread, the rising anger at the endless messages sent about how "we're ALL going to die!" from this pandemic and how their fears are killing me in other ways, the sense that you cannot answer and scream at even those you love and who love you that their sense of doom is smashing your future or your hopes.

I have awful choices: to get a cheap job as a security guard despite my Master's Degree or leave El Paso, a place I dearly love, to leave my home. If at least the City said "we hope to reopen the facilities soon" or "we're working on a plan to reopen", if there were any sense of hope, but there isn't, or at least it appears that way.

All this compounds the grief I bear, I bear alone. I am overwhelmed.

I am working my way through Psalms, and find David often despaired. That brings me some hope, and at times I'm full of worship and faith, and other times so empty. I cry out to God, knowing His ways are True, knowing He has no need to offer explanations or reasons. Charlie warned me that the Enemy would use my Mom's death to question God, but it is the double, triple blow of her death, my career's apparently imminent death and this overwhelming fear that I see around me that does not make me so much question God but feel inept.

Mom never prayed to not have suffering, but to have the strength to endure it. I know she would not have wanted to endure surgery and months of chemotherapy and radiation, but she would have endured it if it was the Lord's will. The Lord, again in his Infinite Mercy, granted her prayer request of a quick death, but had He willed for her to have surgery and treatment, she would have endured through the pain. God was merciful and loving in her death, and I know He did not cause this , any of this, let alone caused or created it to inflict pain, sorrow and misery.

I, however, don't know if I have the strength to endure all this. Mom would say "No hay enfermedad que dure cien anos, ni paciente que lo suporte" (No illness last one hundred years nor a patient that can endure that for that long). Pain is temporary. Physical pain is, emotional pain lessens, grief fades into acceptance. As we go through it, it is intense and punishing, but perhaps my faith is just strong enough to know that I will endure it. It is an awful process, one that causes me to pray for strength to endure not day by day but at times hour by hour, minute by minute, to have enough to get through to the shifting from day to night.

Sometimes I do pray in thanksgiving for waking in the morning and lasting to the night. Other times again I fight not to stay all day in bed. I do know, however, that Mom never wanted a defeatist as a son. "No eres hecho de crystal" (You aren't made of crystal) she would often say. I do fight to remember that I will not shatter, that I will get through. That is what probably keeps me alive even when I don't want to go on, when I see nothing before me but desolation and despair.

Perhaps knowing that I would disappoint my Mother so very, very much if I did take my own life is what keeps me alive to see as many sunrises and sunsets as the Lord has decreed. I don't judge those who have killed themselves. I understand their desperation, their sense that they are helping those whom they know. I think many suicides think they are doing good for those they leave behind. It is a terrible temptation, but like all temptations one that finds in those vulnerable a great sense of appeal.

That is what temptation is: something that appears good but that does lead to destruction. It does not matter what that temptation is: sex, food, money, death. None of those in and of themselves is terrible: even death is good as it is the natural closing event with the hope of things unseen. However, the temptation comes when it is presented as something for yourself versus something that comes from God. The lure of speed, of pleasure, of release, of comfort, of want: all can overwhelm us. We are all tempted and capable of succumbing, and those who do kill themselves fall into that temptation of false release from pain, despair, hopelessness.

Again, perhaps despite my overwhelming sense of grief and agony, I keep going. I've been down several times, and Mom was at heart a very optimistic and hopeful woman. I would dishonor her if I failed to follow her example. It does not take away that temptation, that fear, that lure of a fast solution, but perhaps that love that transcends time and space will keep flowing to me to allow me to go on one more day.

Dear Job: so close to my heart. If memory serves correct he never did get a firm answer as to his miseries despite having cause. Susan, an atheist, said that God caused Job's miseries. No, I said, God allowed miseries, painful awful miseries, to come to Job. There is a difference, a hard lesson I have learned. God does not cause miseries and pains. God allows them to happen. He could easily step in and fix all our problems. He could have stepped in and stopped the Holocaust, 9/11, this pandemic, my lost job and lost mother.

Yet, is that His job: to spare us pain? To give us perpetual paradise? To never let us suffer? God, I don't think, would be such a parent, one that would spoil us to where we would not be able to confront hardships, let alone know how to handle them. God is our Father, but just as we cannot expect our actual fathers or mothers to remove every stone from our path, why do we expect our Heavenly Father to do exactly that? God does not inflict pain. He asks us to trust Him to endure the pain of life.

I find that hard. Why lie? It would be wonderful to say, "Oh, I firmly believe that God will carry me through and my faith is unshaken". My faith is very much shaken. My faith has been for most of my life as a Christian built around circumstances: if things were going great, God loved me, if things were going badly, God disliked or even maybe hated me.

Now I'm facing the greatest set of crises in my entire life, dwarfing all those petty moments that I thought were a matter of life and death. How have I responded? With constant crying out to God, sometimes in anger, sometimes in despair, sometimes in grief, sometimes in misery and sometimes, surprisingly to me, in hope and adoration. I claim no great insight in God's mind, but despite my awful and contradictory faith I do see His Grace and Mercy. It is an Awful Grace because it is born from pain, sometimes almost unendurable pain.

At times I am positive that God will carry me, and I have seen the Holy Spirit work in these awful, awful days. I used to feel such awful guilt about not having children, knowing that Mom wanted to be a grandmother. It wasn't for lack of wanting children, but I just never had success with women, never found someone interested in me, let alone interested enough to build a life with me. However, the Spirit has been a true Comforter there: it showed me that through my cousins, Mom did serve as a grandmother. My two youngest nieces Janina and Cynthia have taken Mom's death very hard, as they were close to Mom.

I have been released from that guilt, from that burden and sense of failure. That is God's Mercy coming through.

It does not take away the exhaustion of it all, the sorrow and grief coupled with the despair of the future, but it's a little something that I hold onto.

Eventually, the visitation was set for Tuesday, May 12. To placate my cousins continued fear that the older Mexican women who insisted on coming would hug me and automatically inflict Coronavirus on me, I wore a long and heavy coat inside the chapel as an added layer of protection. It is an awful time to not have had the chance to let my Mother have her family and friends grieve her collectively, to have to set out a schedule, but such is the state of the world.

Before Sylvia arrived to set up for the video tribute she crafted, which was quite beautiful, I had a few minutes alone, completely alone with my mother. They did do a beautiful job on how they prepared her body, though to be honest I don't think she would have liked the amount of lipstick on her. I always thought of her as a beautiful women who never looked her age. Many of my friends who knew her expressed surprise that she was seventy-seven. They told me they thought she was at least a decade younger.

It helped that she took great care in how she looked and that she was still active and mobile and lucid. Another of my final memories are of her ostensibly moping the living room floor with music playing on the radio. I walk in and see her moving to the rhythm joyfully, then she pulls me in and we have an impromptu dance.

That is the type of person Socorro Aragon was, and how she would like to be remembered: joyful, happy, smiling, loving life, loving shopping, showing me the endless blouses she picked up at bargain prices from thrift stores and J.C. Penney's, one who loved life, good music and had a joie de vivre. For the longest time she said she wanted enchiladas, and on the last Sunday of her life we were able to go to a nearby restaurant once the restrictions were lifted for her to enjoy them.

It was the last time she drove too. I had been doing the driving exclusively but that day I told her she should drive, and drive her Explorer. I joked that I hoped she remembered how, to which she responded "No seas payaso" (Don't be a clown/don't be silly). God even in that way blessed her too, by allowing her this tiny treat before calling her home to His presence.

As I was with her, admiring how well they did her nails, lightly caressing her hair, I took advantage and slipped into the pocket of her blazer two objects which I got from her wallet: my cousin Jose's prayer card and a picture of my graduation photo. She carried those with her in her wallet and as silly as it sounds, I wanted her to have them with her in eternity.

It seems strange but in all this time, I still don't have the courage to go through her purse and empty it out. I've gone through her closets and drawers, packing almost everything away, saving the scarves for my cousin's wife and daughter as they too wear them for protection. Yet for some reason, the purse she had on the day she died is still somehow something I can't empty out. It feels almost disrespectful.

There was a Family Hour before the visitation where the casket was open. Due to the limits on people we had to split the family in two. I'm not proud of my initial actions. At first, I had ordered certain family members not to come. I was holding on to things in a misguided idea that I was protecting my Mom.

However, Mom many, many times was clear: she did not want anyone forbidden to come. We had fights about that. I should have honored her wishes immediately, but I had told my Tia that I did not want certain people to come. A couple of days after Mom's death I had a long, long conversation with her, about three hours. We talked about my Mom, the tribute, and so much. One thing that particularly hit me hard was when my Tia softly asked if she could touch her.

I immediately said yes. Why would I object to such a request?

However, it was something else that happened that immediately caused me to both repent of my own sin and showed how God does work all things for good. My cousin, one of those I forbid from coming, called. My Tia puts all her calls on speaker, so I could hear my cousin. I could hear the pain in her voice and hear how hurt she was about my banning her.

It was then that I told my Tia that everyone was welcome to come. I was wrong, terribly and awfully wrong to have tried to stop anyone. The Lord worked wonders in my anger. First, He gave me time to repent and stop from causing my Mom's spirit great pain. She would not have rested in peace if I had gotten my way. Worse, I would have regretted that to my own dying day and would have caused pain for others, something my Mom would never have done.

The family issues that caused so much misery in life faded, particularly with my Mom's embrace of Christianity. She truly lived out that idea to "forgive as you have been forgiven". It took time, but my Mom forgave my Tia and my cousins for years of hurt. It was my Mom who built up relationships, restoring them and rebuilding burnt bridges. I mostly stayed out of it, but I see my Mom's gentle nature and acceptance of things gave her peace.

Yes, sometimes my Mom and my Tia would get mad and argue. Mom would hang up on her and say, "I'm NEVER talking to your Aunt again!" At that point, I would laugh and say, "Oh, Mom, of course you'll talk with her again. Why even bother telling me otherwise? In a few days you'll call her or she'll call you". Needless to say, that's exactly what would happen.

In the end, I found Mom's way was better. She forgave and found peace. I forgave and found peace. The Lord even allowed my foolishness to come to good use: thanks to my initial ban, I found out that my cousin had looked into whether the funeral home offered Virtual Services. I'm surprised Sylvia and I didn't even think about that. The Virtual Service allowed my California relatives and others to see the Prayer Service, so something good came from my awful actions.

I felt for my Tia. I pretty much left her alone, though my cousin insisted on staying with her mother, fearful of what would overcome her. I did see my Tia touch her younger sister. I can only speculate on how hard it is to be the last, to have outlived all your siblings, including two younger ones.

Once their half hour was up, they left and in came Sylvia's side, where again I left them pretty much alone. I also allowed my Mom's best friend for close to fifty years to come. Most of my Mom's friends and church sisters accepted that it was a closed casket, but Lily was in near hysterics. "Please, I want to see her, I want to see her", she kept pleading. I figure Sylvia was coolly tolerant of my granting Lily permission to come before the casket closed, though not thrilled with it. However, like Mom I am simply too much of a soft touch.

The Pastor's wife spoke, and I think Sylvia was a little anxious about how we were pushing the limit of people inside. It was a lovely message about Mom's faithfulness and her hopes that I be a Christian. As I said, there isn't enough evidence to convict me of being a Christian, though perhaps enough to indict.

Nuevo Pacto was so special to and for her. She so loved her sisters, and had been there for eighteen years. It was a special, beautiful thing for her. She so longed to go back in person, talk and laugh with all her sisters. She so enjoyed the "Ladies Night" and loved the parties and baby showers she would be invited to.

It would be wonderful for me to have had that connection to my own church. It is hard though when you have to work every Sunday, when you can't find a space for a Community/Care Group, when the Men's Group is almost beyond your schedule. I do miss that connection to the Body.

It was so wise and prudent of Mom to have everything arranged, and I cannot tell you how much that saved us both in money and grief. As I said, Mom was very realistic about death, about its inevitability. By arranging as much as she could, we were spared in having to make every choice. We also saved so much money, money that right now we simply don't have.

The final cost of her funeral was about $3000. When they were showing us the costs now, it would have run up to almost $7000. For a moment Sylvia and I were worried we would be asked to make up the difference, but it was explained that everything was covered save for things that couldn't be prepaid (the prayer cards, the memory book, the flowers). It ended up costing about maybe $700, and I should say it ended up costing Sylvia that much.

Like Mom, I am not fond of people paying for me. Many times Sylvia and Mom would duel it out to see who paid for their meals. I asked Sylvia if she really wanted to put it all on her card. "You're on furlough, you're on furlough", she kept repeating, dismissing my concerns by insisting I had no money. Same for the burial and nameplate, which ran into I think $1200.

I feel awful about the high cost, but she insisted, and I hope my other cousins do help her out financially.

Mom, in that respect, was both wise and forward-thinking. She spared me so much, and I hope others talk to their parents and/or children about their own funeral plans. This is a road we all have to walk, Mom would say, and to her enormous credit she did not fear death. She feared a slow death, but the Lord was gracious unto her in that regard.

Talk to your families about your funeral. If possible, plan and pay for it ahead of time. After my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr.'s death, I was convinced to pay for my own, something I am paying for even now. Once I am off the furlough and back working, I will buy my own plot. It must have been a simply awful burden for Fidel's parents and sisters to pool their resources in a terrible time of grief to do all that, and if I could spare kin from that it is something I should do.

Mom is next to my Grandmother. I know it will take time to put my Mom's nameplate on the grave. I expect to see it there when I go on what would have been my Mom's 78th birthday in July. That should be enough time, I think.

I have been to her grave exactly once since her burial. My Mom's best friend from elementary school had sent $100 that she had originally paid for flowers. The florist hired had not been able to complete the order and returned the money. I could not find a florist who could make a floral arrangement for less than that which could be done without a glass vase. A wreath struck me as silly given I could not leave it at the grave, so I opted to buy three dozen roses and place them on a vase that Mom put up (after having many fights with the cemetery) for my Abue.

I placed the two white dozen and one red dozen roses there and had a long talk with both Mom and Grandma. Again, yes, it might seem absolutely absurd to bonkers to do all that, but it gave me a beautiful, calming sense of peace. Cemeteries are quite peaceful places, sad places but peaceful ones, especially if like Mom & Grandma you are under lots of shade and have a nice, soft breeze coming to you.

In that time, I told Mom about her friend, how fortunate I was to find her thanks to a lovely Mother's Day card she had sent with the obvious expectation that Mom would see it. I could not find her phone number anywhere and despaired that she would not know about Mom's death. Thanks to that card, my cousin George could drop a note at her home, asking her to call me immediately. She did, and again I heard the devastation in her voice. Many times Mom had expressed a desire to see her physically and not just talk to her on the phone or exchange notes. For some reason or another they could never work out a schedule.

It's a shame they didn't get that chance to see each other, and I think this pandemic has caused so many moments like that. I know many if not all of my relatives are absolutely convinced that death will immediately strike them if people set foot in other people's homes, and I agree this is not the time for keggers. However, I also see how important that human touch, that interaction between people is. All those embraces from Mom's friends, from my friends, were balms unto my heart and soul. I cannot live in perpetual fear of coronavirus. I can take the precautions of masks and gloves, of social distancing (a phrase I despise), but I cannot go without an embrace, a held hand.

I especially cannot go without it now, when the only person who could do that is gone. My relatives won't touch me because they are so afraid, a handshake would be tempting fate. Yet they might forget that they all have people they can embrace: spouses and children, both of which I do not have.

This is not to condemn or ridicule them. As Susan has pointed out, if it makes people comfortable and brings them peace to wear a mask under another mask while outside that is good for them. Perhaps I appear more "reckless" because I sometimes think I have little to live for: no job, dimming prospects for one, no wife, no kids, no mother. I know they love me, that they are concerned for me, but they cannot carry my burden, my grief for me.

That is something I have to do alone, though I should as they say, "let go and let God". I can see where people would say God should bear my sorrows, but part of me thinks I have to carry them. Right or wrong I am not strong enough in faith to see or think otherwise.

Now that it has been almost three weeks since my Mom's death, coupled with my unemployment and growing fears of it, I can at last allow myself time to pause and reflect.

So much of my time has been spent on clearing out my Mom's things, and part of me despairs at seeing what I see as semi-organized chaos. I hate seeing the endless boxes of shoes and blouses and blazers and coats, of hair extensions and hoses and hats and caps. I see endless hangers (oddly though, hardly any wire hangers, mostly plastic ones). I hate seeing so much clutter on the dining room table and living room, so many scraps of material for perhaps an addition to a blouse or blanket that she never got to.

I'm in pain to see newspaper ads or flyers for vacation spots she wanted to go to. Sometimes, when folding a polka-dotted blouse I get a quick sniff of the scent that reminds me of her and I either want to or do start to sob, if at least briefly. I wasted too much time staring at her work name-tag when she was a Nurse's Aide, a job that she loved and was so proud of.

My mind quickly shifts to the day before her death, May 5, 2020, when I was forced to turn in my badge to a somewhat sympathetic officer, and the double shot of May 5 and May 6, 2020 threaten to overwhelm me in a depth of despair that I fear I may never emerge from.

I find more and more pictures, always of her smiling: with her work friends whom she loved, on a trip somewhere, when she was young and beginning her naturalization to citizenship. The ones I find of me or of us when I was a child, celebrating a birthday are the hardest for me. I start weeping again, even now, reliving those happy times when your Mommie was your security, sure that she would never leave you and would love you forever no matter what.

Making it harder is that I know I have barely touched the surface. There are boxes of papers that I know I have to go through, which right now I am leaving for much later for a variety of reasons: time, energy, emotional fortitude.

I know many people think I have all the time in the world to go through everything. After all, I'm not working and you're getting unemployment. Here's the thing: I can't spend all day every day going through her things. It is exhausting physically and emotionally. You do need time to rest yourself. As Susan said, I can't do it all in one night. I still need to function: pay bills, clean, keep clean, make my bed, do the dishes and laundry.

I simply cannot go without making my bed. If I am still in my pajamas at 10 a.m. I feel I'm falling apart. Despite not going anywhere I still get dressed, even if it is a slightly used shirt. It would be wrong of me to just shuffle through the days, either not clearing her things or doing nothing but clear her things.

I imagine that family and friends may be horrified that I drove all the way to Downtown El Paso for an extra-large mocha frappe at the Coffee Box, and worse that I met up with Susan there. Perhaps they think I have a death wish, putting my life and theirs at risk for immediate death for some coffee. I don't think they realize I do it because I need human interaction. I need to help a business that has always been good to me stay afloat. It was wonderful to see the ladies at the Coffee Box again, who still remember me and remember my usual.

I am helping them keep their jobs and business which they need to live. It would be useless to survive this pandemic and have nothing to live for, which perhaps is why my despair and grief is doubled at the prospect of not having a chance to return to work, to see the place where I was happy closed "for years" per the Chief Financial Officer of the City of El Paso. I am happy that their jobs and business was spared and am genuinely concerned that so many, fearful about the coronavirus, would let the jobs and businesses die so long as they themselves "live".

It is true: man does not live on bread alone, but man needs bread to live (metaphorically). I'm sure many will tell me I'm risking my life, their life and perhaps civilization itself if I opt to go the movies when they reopen. However, to be permanently hunkered down within these walls for fear of what might happen? My fear of unemployment, of poverty, of potentially losing my home trumps the fear of a virus that may or may not hit me.

This is not to mean I walk around without a mask when I go outside. I even wear gloves and carry hand sanitizers wherever I go. However, I will not and could not wait until there's a vaccine to emerge into the sunlight of life.

If I learned anything through these awful days, it is that life is unpredictable, with no guarantees or total security. Mom lived wisely: living every day but living out her life. She made plans, she had hopes and dreams, yet she knew that they may not come. She hoped that they would come, that she would get to see Italy or go back to Walt Disney World again.

However, I think she also accepted that such things were not guaranteed or promised to her. If things had gone as I expected them, I would have been this week in Houston, planning to see the Houston Cheaters and stopping by the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. Instead, I filed my first unemployment claim and placed roses on my Mom's grave.

How could I have expected that a few months ago?

Now, I see so many paralyzed with fear and terror about this virus. It is serious, it is scary, but having lived perhaps the worst month in my entire life, it's an odd thing that this pandemic is the least of my concerns.

Mom lived her life trusting in God. Her trust, her faith were rewarded and redeemed on May 6, 2020, even if it came as a crushing blow to me. I'm thankful that one of her final memories are of me telling her how beautiful she looked, and of her in the Word, drawing strength from her faith. Mom never prayed for a life free from pain. She prayed for strength to endure it.

Perhaps that is why I do not fear Covid-19 the way so many do. It's an awful way to die, and having seen death this close this soon I cannot imagine the agony of those who could not be with their loved ones as they were ravaged by Covid-19. However, as someone who has had dark thoughts enter his mind, as something of collateral damage of both the virus and the fear of it, I do not fear to such a crippling degree.

As I think of all that I have lost this awful, awful year: job, parent, a lot of hope, baseball, I again pause to reflect. People have been very kind with gifts of food and money, and I am grateful even if at times I also want to flee. Every day is a struggle: as I said some days I simply don't want to get out of bed, others I'm zipping about. I shudder at all the cleaning, and how unorganized my home looks. I fear for the future.

Most of all, at the moment I feel such awful exhaustion, as if I really can't go forward even though I need to.

Mom was very clear: she didn't want me to cry a lot for her. Maybe my crying is both for her and my job, the utter devastation of a one-two punch that has left me all but dead. Simultaneously wanting and shunning company, feeling the need for companionship and desperate to get away from loud crowds, even those filled with friendly faces.

A lot of things are still raw, still painful. Scripture says that every day has enough trouble of its own, but I feel as if at least three days worth of troubles collide with each other the same day: Covid-19, my lost job, my Mom's death. I was blessed with a wonderful Mother. These were the happiest years, ones that had the least amount of struggle or strife. If we got mad at each other, it was certain that before the day was over we would forgive each other.

These last few weeks of her life were probably the happiest she had. She had her enchiladas. She had the chance to see The Call of the Wild via video on demand, which she had wanted to see before the pandemic hit. She was at peace with her family. She was at peace with her God.

It's painful to know she isn't here. It was all so sudden, but that for her was how she wanted to go. Many times she told her sisters that she wanted to die quickly.

I'm sure I repeated myself often, but I just wanted to let myself explore all that I am undergoing. No one goes through life without some kind of pain, though many pains afflicted me simultaneously. I am so tired.

I hope, trust and pray that Mom was proud of me. I think she is. I was always proud of her. I think that perhaps keeps me going, keeps me alive: the sense that I cannot disappoint her. I know in time I will laugh again, and there will be days when she does not occupy my mind.

It's strange that when I went to be furloughed, she both laughed and was enraged at my all-black ensemble. "Now I know how you'll look at my funeral," she declared, and demanded I change. To please her, I put on a white shirt with the black pants and black tie. I told her that it did feel like I was going to a funeral. I never figured I would literally wear the same thing to her funeral less than a week later.

Despite this my Confession of Grief, I have still kept things too personal, private and painful locked away. She was not a woman who liked to talk about herself. I am so tired.

I don't think "time heals". Time helps us endure, helps us move on but a little part of you will always hurt. The death of a parent is always hard. Add to that the death of your job and it makes it harder, yet I pray the Lord shine His face upon me. I pray that God search deep within to continue granting me his peace.

Mom's favorite Christian song was "Dios Siempre Tiene El Control" (God Is Always in Control), and she would sing me bits of it. I've heard that song often, and it has brought me some peace, especially knowing that for her these weren't just words set to music but Truth Eternal. It is hard, very hard, to see through the storm, especially when you are seeing the windows rattle and you fear everything will crash upon you.

I miss her. I miss my job. I miss the life I had a few months ago. I pray that God not spare me pain, but help me endure it.

Forgive my long ramble. I pray to emerge from this awful Dark Night of the Soul, and I figure some people's lives are harder than mine. In time, I will renew myself, review films and television. I thank you for allowing me this extended time to grieve for so much that I have lost in the course of one month.

I'm reminded of King David when his first child with Bathsheba was dying. He wept, he prayed, he would not eat. After the child's death, he cleaned himself and ate, puzzling his servants. David was realistic about it all: as long as the child lived there was hope, but now with the child dead why should he continue fasting? I don't think it was callous of him, or that he did not mourn. Instead, he accepted the will of God.

I pray too to accept the will of God, despite what I fear is an awful toll on me, and that all this come for His glory. I am so overwhelmed with exhaustion and grief, with anxiety and listlessness.

I want my Mom to know that I love her, I miss her, I'm proud of her and that I pray for strength to endure, to make her proud, to live up to her expectations of great things. She never lost her faith or her optimism. I pray to follow in this example.

Yes, I rambled, repeated myself and perhaps at times sounded incoherent. I'm just so glad to have been able to finally speak this peace, and to pray that soon, this double agony of a lost parent and a lost job is at an end. I again pray not to be spared pain, but through the Grace of God, to endure it.

To My Mother, Socorro Aragon...Amor Eterno.