Felisa was my stepmother. She was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer a few months ago and wasn’t responding to chemotherapy.
Back in October of 2010, when my father passed away, I saw Felisa for the first time in about ten years at a small family meeting where my big sister was letting the family know that we had decided to remove daddy from life support.
It may have been ten years before that when I visited Baltimore (I lived in California from 1995 to 2003) and my dad and Felisa. My dad had been undergoing radiation and chemo for throat cancer. A few years later they separated.
A few years ago, I asked my dad why they had split. He was always a proud man. I think the stress of it all was too much. The illness, the recovery, his health, continuing the same habits that cause throat cancer. That’s a lot of weight for a relationship to bear.
When we were kids, my big sister and I would go stay with our dad, Felisa, and our stepsisters every other weekend. Here’s a pic of my sisters. It feels incomplete to me because my little sister (my mother and stepfather’s daughter) isn’t in it. I don’t know if she’s ever met my stepsisters. Hm.
We are Family
This story I’ve written about before, but it seems appropriate. It was on a weekend visit at my Dad and Felisa’s:
I remember when the song “We are Family” by Sister Sledge came out. We had the album at home. Vinyl, baby. Big ol’ album artwork with their fuzzily lit photo. I have a distinct memory of that song. (Flashback commencing…)
I was about ten maybe. I could figure it out if I just looked up when that song came out. Me and my big sister, she’s four years older than me, were visiting our father and stepmother. We used to go every other weekend to stay with our father, stepmother and my three stepsisters. Holy crap. That song came out in 1979! So I was at least seven.
We all went to visit some family friends. BBQ of some kind, I think. One of the families was white and they had two boys, who were cool but whose names I can’t remember. We were all out playing in the grass — tag, freeze tag, jump rope, whatever — and the radio was playing. An argument broke out and the two white kids got upset and called us a bunch of niggers. Oh man. My sister and stepsisters were pissed and we were shouting names back. My father heard the commotion and walked over.
“Hey hey hey. What’s going on?”
So we told him that the brothers called us niggers. And he told us not to worry about it. He had my sisters and me hold hands and we all ran around in a circle singing, “We are family. I’ve got all my sisters and me.” until we all got tired and fell down in the grass laughing.
I definitely procrastinated in visiting Felisa, but I’m so glad that I visited when I did. One last time. My three stepsisters were there and some of their kids in their late teens and early twenties that I had never met. One of their husbands. And her prodigal stepson, of course. It’s a shame that it usually takes a death in the family to reconnect to relatives, but I’m still thankful to be part of an amazing group of people.
Felisa had a big heart. When we visited she took us into her home with open arms. I loved her cooking. And you never knew what animals would be in the house. I think she would exasperate my father sometimes because she was the kind of person who would go out to the mall for something and come home with a rabbit or a puppy or something cute and furry. There was Rasha, the Shetland Sheepdog. Rasha’s nose was always dry. They had a Doberman Pinscher puppy, but he got too big and would grab food off the counters so they eventually had to get rid of him.
And a little black puppy with curly hair. I remember spending an entire weekend trying to think of names for him. I suggested Poco because it means “little” in Spanish. I was vetoed. I think they named him Pepsi.
One weekend we went there and they had a rabbit. It would run around the house and poop everywhere, but the girls loved it. I would watch it and see that it would shred newspaper in its cage. So one morning I went down to the cage with a newspaper and I started ripping the newspaper into shreds and tossing it in the cage.
Felisa came into the room and started laughing. She said, “What in the world are you doing, Gary?”
I told her I was helping the rabbit pad its cage. She said, “He can take care of that himself. Go wash your hands and get ready for breakfast.”
She used to like horror books and movies. There were always horror novels laying around. I remember reading a few pages of one about a man whose plastic contact lenses melt in a plane crash. He gets eye transplants but they’re from a serial killer or something like that. I didn’t make it far before getting too creeped out. I didn’t sleep well that night.
I remember sitting in their living room — one wall was all mirror and the others were wall paper that was a photo of a tropical beach with palm trees — and watching movies. I saw “Squirm”, the one about the worms (even before MST3K riffed it). And one about ants.
I used to draw a lot and one time she sat with me and said that she used to be interested in calligraphy. She picked up a fat marker and wrote our names and beautiful, flowing lines. So for Christmas that year I got her a calligraphy set. Not the kind of thing she would ever use, but you know.
Food, fun, play and love. That was Felisa and her household.
The funeral was yesterday. I do not like funerals, but what can you do. Apparently, the world hasn’t started revolving around me yet. I didn’t realize that she was from Dundalk. The little church off of North Point Rd. Her extended family lives all around that area and are apparently cousins with the Gardners.
That’s how it was. Back in the day when communities were smaller and had history. There were families or clans. It was always fascinating to go to school or look in yearbooks and see who was related to who. Whom.
So slowly we all move closer to being the elders. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready.
It was good to see all of Felisa’s extended family. To see my stepsisters together and all the support. To see how a quiet woman can leave a lasting impression on so many lives and a legacy of beautiful children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Her family was there when she passed. They said that Kali, who moved to California in the past two weeks with her husband and kids (military family), was Skyped in. Felisa couldn’t really talk at the time but she was aware. They said that she smiled. Smiled again and then she was gone.
Goodbye, Felisa. Travel well.