Despite my love for all things theatre, it has always been so hard for me to detach myself from the character I’m playing. I grew up being super introverted and theatre was that escape into exploring another part of myself. In April of last year, I was rehearsing “Everything I Know” from In The Heights for an upcoming performance when my vocal teacher kept insisting to “put more emotion into it; channel the most important grandparent figure in your life.” I was frustrated because I was really channeling everything I could into that song, but it just didn’t seem to come together. It’s such a beautiful song with such meaningful lyrics, but I just couldn’t quite relate.
Fast forward a few months later, when I heard an unusual early knock on the door at 7 AM one early August morning. Thinking it was someone selling something or maybe a wrong address, I looked at my phone, saw the time, and turned around and went back to sleep. Even though I tried to brush it off, something about the occurrence left me feeling uneasy. I woke up a few hours later when I heard my mom coming in the door and rushed to her to ask who it had been, but upon seeing her sunken face I knew something was wrong. Our closest family member had passed away.
To everyone who knew her, she was our grandmother figure. She and her husband raised every family kid in Cuba while the parents were off at work. To all of us who knew them, they were safety, they were shelter, they are home. I remember feeling so hopeless and thinking of the last time I had the chance to see her. It was sudden, and none of us were ready, and I couldn’t help but feel angry.
I had lost family members before, but this time it was so different. I really understood what it meant to have lost someone now. I couldn’t find a way to just “move on” like everyone suggests. I started finding so many things that reminded me of her, but music became my healing ground. One day in my room with my music blasting on shuffle, “Everything I Know” comes on and I’m singing along like I had with the other songs, but halfway through the song I broke down crying. This was the emotion my instructor had been referencing; I had just never known it before.
It’s been exactly a year now, but I still can’t help but feel a piece of me is missing. Every time I pass her building, when the family gets together for dinners, as her favorite song plays in my shuffled playlist; she is everywhere. As the year mark got closer, the past couple of weeks were harder to get through. I still keep trying to move on, but she’s so present all around me. Fittingly, I stumbled upon a TED Talk on grief the other day that changed everything for me. Nora McInerny says, “We don’t ‘move on’ from grief. We move forward with it.” She explains that we never refer to people we’ve lost in the past tense because to us they’re very much still with us in so many different ways.
I didn’t know how much of me was made of her, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand, but having you here is something I’ll forever be grateful for. This one’s for you, Tía.
Everything I Know, Everything You Are
Lyrics taken from: "Everything I Know" by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Every afternoon I came
She'd make sure I did my homework
She could barely write her name
But even so…
She would stare at the paper
And tell me
“Bueno, let's review
Why don't you tell me
Everything you know.”
I still remember the time you lived two houses down from me,
when I was nine-years-old and Princess had run away only to make her way to your front yard.
You’d ask me to bring over my instruments every time I had a new musical obsession,
listening patiently to me strum the same three chords on the guitar
or play the same five songs on the keyboard as if they were Mozart’s latest composition.
You’d play back the one song you remembered from your time in the city,
your fragile fingers wrapped tightly around the chords, your eyes smiling when you got it right.
You’d tell me, “Don’t you ever stop playing.”
I remember that same year when I was jealous of the attention you were giving my brother,
and upset that you thought I had gotten “too tall.”
I wrote your name on your Christmas card instead of “Tía” and gave it to you smugly.
You sat me down and for the first time I saw you upset with me.
You said, “Don’t you ever do that again; now let’s keep playing.”
In this album there's a picture
Of Abuela in Havana
She is holding a rag doll
Unsmiling, black and white
I wonder what she's thinking
Does she know that she'll be leaving
For the city on a cold dark night?
And on the day they ran
Did she dream of endless summer?
Did her mother have a plan?
Or did they just go?
Did somebody sit her down and say
“Claudia, get ready, to leave
Behind everything you know”?
Everything I know
What do I know?
I heard stories about you from my mother.
Most times in disbelief of the ways you silently exhibited your strength:
You became the greatest mother without any children,
and the hardest working woman without a job.
When they took him from you for standing up for what was right,
you rose to the occasion.
Exhibiting resiliency and courage far beyond your time.
I look at your pictures: happy, smiling, a young and beautiful girl filled with joy.
I look at your pictures: serious, brave, ready to stand up.
I remember you now: caring, compassionate, quiet.
When the time came,
you took one last look,
and left behind everything you knew.
In this folder there's a picture
From my high school graduation
With the program, mint condition
And a star beside my name
Here's a picture of my parents
As I left for California
She saved everything we gave her
Every little scrap of paper
On the day I went and looked through everything you knew,
I found little possessions filled with many remembrances.
Despite the closet filled with notebooks and folders I gave you,
I find your certificate of naturalization safely stored away in a bag of pan cubano:
a reminder of the merge of two lives lived.
I find a stash of unfilled Lotto tickets,
a reminder of the hope of help you wished to give us.
Packing your life into boxes, I found everything we gave you.
Every picture, every invitation, every note, even the Christmas card with your name on it.
You saved pieces of us I didn’t know existed,
and I found pieces of you too difficult in memory for you to ever recount to us.
When I’d ask you to look through memories, you’d say maybe someday.
Someday came without you there.
And our lives are in these boxes
While the woman who held us is gone
But we go on, we grow, so...
Hold tight, Abuela, if you're up there
I'll make you proud of everything I know!
Thank you, for everything I know
I packed up your life into boxes that now live with me;
I keep every memory safely stored away,
a reminder of who I strive to be.
You’d hope for me to be your American Dream,
telling me you’d soon see me on TV.
When you saw me on stage for the first time,
You told me not to forget you when the time came,
but I can only hope you will be the one to not forget about me.
I look out at my audience now,
I look around my table now,
I look around myself now,
with empty seats I’m wishing you could fill.
You were not perfect, and neither am I, and of that, you made me well aware.
But that, you said, is why we need
to keep sharing,
to keep growing,
to keep learning,
to keep playing.
Thank you, for reminding me to keep singing.