Graduation, Steps Away
In one month I will be walking with other Class of 2013 graduates at The Evergreen State College’s graduation ceremony. I can visualize myself shaking Dr. Purce (our College President)’s hand, my heart in my throat, tears welling up in my eyes, and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I’ll feel when I walk away from that stage knowing I have officially earned my B.A. degree. I can imagine hearing my family cheering me on, looking at my mama and seeing the tears of pride stream down her cheeks as my tears make her image blurry, looking at my husband beaming and feeling his love all the way from across the distance, and seeing my son Alejandro smile, knowing his mommy just did something big.
I feel something else too. Sadness. My heart is aching for the family members who can’t be sitting in those seats. When I look across that crowd, there will be three very important people missing…So this accomplishment, as amazing and fulfilling as it feels, also feels very bittersweet.
The road to graduation has been a long, winding road with wonderful yet distracting life events and devastating losses; many changes to my “plan of what to do when I grow up”; and becoming a stronger, empowered, analytical, articulate, information-seeking, more intelligent version of myself.
A Different Path
I remember the day that I decided to go to college back in 1997. I was content with my life at the time. My community work with young Latinas was fulfilling. My work life was fulfilling. As strange as it may sound, up until that point I had never considered a higher education.
High school was something I survived. Those years were some of the worst of my life. I was not an ‘A’ student — not even close. This wasn’t necessarily because I lacked the mental capacity. I was just overwhelmed with trying to meet those lower-level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, and self-esteem. With those needs not being met, I couldn’t even delve into the self-actualization need.
I don’t remember my school counselors encouraging me to be college bound, nor did it seem like a realistic or achievable path for me. My parents told my sisters and I to do well in school, but there was never a discussion about higher education. While other classmates were planning to go on to big universities, I was lucky to graduate and land a job that didn’t include flipping burgers. To me, that was success. I landed an internship at a public access television station where I was eventually hired and remained for ten years.
At that year’s Hispanic Youth Leadership Workshop, an annual workshop I helped coordinate, our keynote speaker was Dr. Sandra Madrid from the University of Washington’s School of Law. I remember how engaging she was during her presentation. She had the entire room charmed with her charisma and inspired by her passion. Afterwards when I thanked her, she asked me about my own career path and educational goals. I sheepishly said I hadn’t planned on going to college. She looked me straight in the eye and told me that I deserve an education. It was one of those moments where time stood still and a light bulb went off in my head. Just those words opened up the possibility, and I asked myself — could I be a college student? Could I have a professional career like the many strong women I’ve admired from afar?
Me – A College Student!
I enrolled at Centralia College shortly after that (1998), full of excitement. It meant I had to say goodbye to many of the community activities I was doing, including my beloved Latina youth group. But my friends supported me and gave me a wonderful send off. Had it not been for an unfortunate situation in which my identity was stolen, for which I had to drop everything and spend months visiting different court houses to clear my name, I could have finished my AA in two years. I was awarded a merit scholarship from the College President that paid for my entire tuition. I never had the chance to use that scholarship.
Years went by, and as they did, life evolved. I got married, changed jobs, and had a child — well two if you count our dog Bella. All the while, I plugged away at my degree part time, moving from community college (South Puget Sound Community College) to a four year institution (Brandman University, formerly known as Chapman University). I was working full time during the day and taking classes at night. It was a very tough schedule, especially when I couldn’t tuck Alejandro into bed at night. I always felt guilty leaving him, and I felt guilty when I spent so much time studying and finishing homework when I could be enjoying precious moments with Alejandro and with Andy.
My husband was steadfast in his support. He always reminded me that this sacrifice was only for a little while and that we are building a more sustainable future for our family. I never lost sight of that goal. That was what helped me through the mommy guilt.
When an opportunity came for me to go to school full time, I jumped at the chance so I could start taking day classes. I started at The Evergreen State College in Winter of 2011. I was pregnant at the time with my second baby. It took me a while to get used to the new, self-directed, interdisciplinary, seminar-heavy program format of my new school. But I found that I really loved it and the way I was able to discover so much about so many different subjects, discuss interesting topics and learn from my fellow scholars, be an active part of a learning community, and be in charge of my own educational experience. I value my experience at Evergreen and what it has taught me about myself both as a scholar and as a person.
Life took an unexpected turn last summer (2012) and it nearly derailed my path to graduation.
On August 14, my step-father David Baltazar died suddenly of a heart attack. Although he had a stroke earlier in the year, he had recovered very well and was living a healthy lifestyle. Nobody saw this coming, and of course there was no preparation for what to do in case he passed away. All of us were absolutely devastated — especially my mama. My family, David and mom’s friends and church community, and I wrapped ourselves around my mama like a cocoon of support.
David’s loss was felt by so many who loved and adored him. Seeing the church packed full of people who loved him the day of the funeral was a true testament to the beautiful person he always was and to the many people whose lives he positively affected. He was the best father possible to my sisters. He was an active, loving grandpa to his many grand kids. He was a generous friend. He was a true soul mate and partner to my mama. He was a genuinely honest, hardworking man that depicted true integrity. I know I will always love him and be grateful that he was in our lives.
I took a week off from school to help with the funeral and then I finished up the quarter. My head wasn’t in the class at all, so I was grateful that it was almost over and not as ‘brain intensive’ as my statistics class or I may not have passed the class.
The weeks that followed felt surreal, but we all tried to gather ourselves up and take the next steps we needed to take in our own lives just as David would have wanted. He always told us to focus on the good in life and to continue moving forward rather than focusing on the negative and the pain. More than anything he never wanted to see us hurt. Mom took David back to Mexico so that he could remain with his mom and brothers and sisters. I got ready for fall quarter. Then I received a phone call…
…And we all fall down…
My baby sister was on the phone and what she shared knocked me to my knees. My sister Esther, the mother of four children and stepmother to one, the grandmother of one child, sister, daughter…had committed suicide. 32 years old. Beautiful person inside and out. Needed. Loved. It was the cruelest, most unfair, most unfathomable thing I could have ever imagined.
That moment was followed by many other awful and painful moments. Calling family members. Making arrangements. Holding onto the youngest victims of this ordeal. Trying to make sense of what can never be understood. Seeing my sister in a way I never thought I would see her. Enduring hurtful comments from people who meant well. Watching my family fall apart…and continue to fall apart.
Every time I thought about Esther and the short lifetime we spent together I just couldn’t understand…I couldn’t and I didn’t want to believe she was out of my life. My sisters and I always had this bond. Since our childhood, no matter what we went through, whether we were fighting or at different places in our lives, we always loved each other fiercely. We protected and fought for each other. This is the Salazar Sister bond…
The pain and the weight of this loss, coupled with the loss of David, has been enough to break our family up into pieces and I don’t know if we will ever be the same. This brings me to the third missing family member from my graduation, who unfortunately I cannot talk about. It is far too painful because it is still happening now. This person is a very important part of my life who has chosen a path that I hope one day she can come back from…
I am heartbroken. These deaths and the amount of damage done. The unfortunate collateral damage and innocent victims that didn’t deserve any of this. The portrait of the family we once were is something else I mourn everyday.
How Do I Move On?
We are all still trying to put together the pieces of our lives. For me, I didn’t know what end was up for a while. I was emotionally raw. I was hurt, angry, emotionally debilitated, full of regret for the moments I didn’t get to have and for not being a better older sister and protecting Esther from her own demons. I didn’t want to be around people for a while.
I am so grateful I had my youngest son with me when I took the train to Oregon right after Esther’s death. Chasing after this active little one was what kept me grounded in reality and pulled me back when the pain became too overwhelming.
So this is where I was faced with a choice.
I had another two weeks before fall quarter started and only three quarters left before graduation. All I wanted was to curl up in a ball and cry until I had no tears left, but being a mom, being a wife, being a sister and a daughter, I knew I had an obligation to pull myself up. I also thought about Esther and David, and the way they supported me and were proud that I was seeking a higher education. I kept hearing them telling me to move forward…only a little bit left to go…don’t give up…
The Final Stretch
I’m so glad that I did not give up. School was a welcomed distraction for me. This particular year-long program, with these classmates, and this particular professor, were what I needed. My classmates and I have grown into a close-knit learning community and although I did not divulge my recent losses to more than just a chosen few (including my very understanding professor), this group unknowingly became an important support network for me.
There were many difficult moments during fall quarter as I was learning how to adjust through my grief. My emotions were always just beneath the surface. I did a great job of wearing a mask of strength most of the time, and then there were moments that came out of nowhere that broke that fragile facade. I remember feeling the wind knocked out of me and being unable to control the tears during a photo lecture that included pictures of dead corpses and the writing “I just want to die…”
But I stayed. I stayed and I pushed myself to focus on learning and moving forward. I focused on the life I want with my family. I focused on celebrating all of the special moments with the people that I love. I focused on everything I could besides the pain.
My Love, My Hero…Excuse me while I get sappy…
Through it all, my husband Andy has been my rock. If you have read my chronicles about my educational journey, then you already know that he has moved mountains and supported me every step of this educational path by accommodating my schedule, watching the kids, letting me sleep in when he could tell I was exhausted, holding my hand and pointing out my positive attributes when I felt so stupid and unworthy of being in a scholarly environment. He reminded me again and again that my education is part of OUR DREAM and that I am worthy, and I have everything it takes to succeed…
When David and Esther died, this wonderful husband of mine held me up when my legs could no longer hold me. He let me fall apart and was always there to gently catch me and share his strength. His unconditional love and support knows no bounds and I give thanks every day for allowing me the opportunity to know and love this man. I could not have ever dreamed up a more loving, supportive, amazing partner than Andy Breaux.
Without him, I would not be where I am.
Walking With My Head Held High
This journey is like any other journey worth taking; no part of it has been easy, it was riddled with blood, sweat, and tears, and the heroine of the story found herself at a crossroads at which point she nearly gave up. For my part and what I can control, this story has a happy ending.
I can say that I am unbelievably grateful for all I have in my life and for still being here. This accomplishment is not just for me, it is for my ENTIRE FAMILY. We need to celebrate and to remember that life — although it is unfair and cruel and horrific at times, can also be stunningly beautiful, warm and loving, and fill your heart with so much joy that the bad parts melt away and all you can breathe in is sweetness. I still believe that life is a gift. That may sound cliche, but when you see the dark side of life and witness its destruction, you can also appreciate the light and the beauty in the people and the blessings you have left.
My Reasons for Finishing
I did this so that my children can know that their mom put her mind to something and was able to accomplish it with hard work and determination.
I did this so that my mom, my sisters, my nieces and nephews can see that seeking a higher education is worth it and if I can do it, they can do it too.
I did this to feel better about myself in the sense that I no longer see myself as a poor student, but rather one that is accomplished, capable and intelligent.
And of course, I did this so that I can enjoy a satisfying career that makes me feel like I am making a difference in a field I love, which, I learned this past year is in the field of student success at the college level.
Life is too short to be miserable. I am determined to make each day count which means coming home each day feeling inspired, productive, challenged, and excited about my work. It also means enjoying precious moments, every day, with the people who make life worth living.
I am genuinely excited about my future – about my family’s future. My husband and I talk about setting aside more funds for the kids’ college, upgrading our home so that one day his sister can come to live with us, about simply having more options to do the things we love with our family.
Through it all, David and Esther have constantly been in my heart. I keep their love and their memory and their support close. When I walk down that aisle at graduation, I know they will be walking with me, with arms on my shoulders, and hands in my hands. I know I will feel them.
I will honor their memories by loving the people in my life, by continuing to go after my dreams, and by remembering the beautiful things they brought into this world — and those things never die.