As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Vanessa Martir – Creative Nonfiction

When the Heart Breaks

“I’m a sin, sis. The Bible says I’m a sin.”

My brother, Juan Carlos, and I were sitting just outside my aunt’s first floor apartment in the hallway of a five story walk up on the grittier side of upper Manhattan. It was early March of 2013. We were chain smoking and talking about our family, our childhood and his heroin addiction. It was the day I told him about the secrets I was revealing in my memoir; about mom’s rape and how he found out when he was just thirteen that he was result of that rape. We traced his spiral to that day, more than 25 years ago, when he was in eighth grade.

“Sometimes I blame myself.” He stared off across the foyer, avoiding my eyes. His face drooped like a bloodhound’s and his bald head shone with sweat. It dripped down his forehead and dotted his nose. Carlos pulled out a rag and wiped his head and face. That was one of things that stuck out about him in his addiction—he was always sweating and eating candy; his pockets rattled with boxes of Nerds.

“I wasn’t supposed to be a drug addict, sis. This wasn’t supposed to be my life.” He looked at me then turned away quickly, like he couldn’t handle what I reflected back. We were quiet for a while. I stared at the geometric designs of the black and white brown tiles. Carlos emptied a box of Nerds into his mouth.

Finally I said, “I’m writing all of it in my memoir, bro.”

“The rape, too?” he asked without looking at me.


Carlos lit a cigarette and pulled on it so hard I thought he was going to burn it to the filter. Then he said, “Write it, sis. Maybe somebody’ll fucking talk.”

He died three months later.


Mom called me on my thirty-sixth birthday in December of 2011 to tell me my brother had been found overdosed on the street somewhere on the upper east side of Manhattan. I was on the bus making my way home from a teaching gig in Hunt’s Point. I imagined Carlos lying on the sidewalk outside a luxury building. Someone out for a morning jog found him, foam gurgling out of his mouth. I dug my face into my lap and fell apart right there on the crowded Bx12. A choking crying that lasted the entire ride across Fordham Road. When I spoke to Carlos the next day, he told me he did it on purpose. I cried for days but I didn’t go see him. I couldn’t watch him kill himself anymore.

Mom stopped talking to me after that. She later said that it was because I’d abandoned her. “I needed you to help me take care of your brother,” she said. But what about me? Mom’s always found a reason to punish me by denying me her love.

All I knew at that point was that after seeing them, I’d reel into depression. I couldn’t be a mother or a writer or a teacher. I couldn’t live this life I’d built for myself. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I had to choose myself. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but when I finally saw my brother that day in my aunt’s house, a year and three months after his overdose, when he said, “I’m a sin, sis. The bible says I’m a sin,” I finally understood his addiction, and I knew I couldn’t leave him again. My mind goes to an article I read a while back, “Five Unexpected Things I Learned from Being a Heroin Addict”: “If you know someone who’s using or has used, you should know that this isn’t as simple as them making bad decisions. They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.”


When I first noticed the sore on Carlos’s hand, it was just above his wrist, in the meaty part where his thumb and his index finger met. I knew he used heroin, he’d been doing it for years, had been in and out of rehab, but he always said he couldn’t shoot up. “It scares me,” he said.

I grabbed his hand when he reached for the cigarette I was passing him. “What’s that?” I searched his face, for what I don’t know. Guilt, maybe.

“Nothing. I cut myself.” He snatched his hand away.

“You cut yourself?” I stared at him with disbelief. I couldn’t believe he thought I was that stupid or that gullible. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”

“Ay Vanessa, please.” My brother only called me by my name when he was annoyed or just wanted me to shut the fuck up. When I heard later that he had to get it stitched shut, he didn’t answer my calls for days. When we finally spoke, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t have to. He knew I knew and I knew he was ashamed. It was an unspoken thing between us—he showed me his shame and I didn’t rub it in his face.

One time, when Carlos was living with me back in 2002, we were sitting in my room watching television. He was nodding out and when he caught me staring, he said, “It’s the methadone, sis, I swear.” I knew better but I didn’t push. Then later, out of nowhere, he said, “You know, sometimes when I’m high, I can see mom getting raped. I see it, sis. I see it happening.”

I didn’t say anything. I was too blown away by his audacity. I thought he was coming up with another excuse for his addiction, another rationalization, and I was pissed at him for using mom’s rape as a crutch. I was so wrong. My brother was showing me the depth of his pain. He was trying to show me how fucked up he really was by this cuco, the ghost that haunted him relentlessly. I didn’t really understand until just before he died.


My mother endured the kind of poverty in Honduras that you only see in Save the Children commercials. She once told me a story of when she was eleven years old. She’s sitting on the latrine. It looks like the one I used on my first trip to Honduras when I was nine. I was a spoiled Americana who had only used a toilet that flushed so I didn’t have to look at where the stuff went. The toilets at home were white and eddied the business away. This thing was a black, bottomless hole where I imagined all sorts of vermin squirmed, waiting for an unsuspecting child like me to grab and chew on. The wooden planks of the shack were old and splintered, black in parts where the moisture had seeped into the grain and was growing mold. You could peek out in spots where the wood had warped. Mom is sitting on the wooden top, no toilet seat to protect her rear, but by this time she knew how to sit so the splinters didn’t dig into her. She’s grown immune to the stench and the frightening thoughts of what’s festering in that hole. She’s swinging her skinny legs, elbows propped on her knees, face in her hands. She’s scarred from mosquito bites and so many falls. She picks at a scab and wonders what they’ll eat that night. Tortillas y frijoles, for sure. The staple diet de los pobres. She hopes abuelita Tinita had scrounged enough to buy at least a piece of meat. Un pollito o una carnesita de res dripping in fat and juices. It’s been so long since mom ate meat. That’s when she felt the shudder in her stomach, like something is moving, slithering. Then she starts to choke. Something has lodged in her throat so she can’t breathe in or out. She kicks the flimsy wooden door of the latrine. Her worn-too-many-times panties and shorts are still around her ankles. Her t-shirt is still rolled up above her belly button. Abuelita, who is sitting on a stool in the patio shelling beans, runs to her and shoves her hand into mom’s mouth. Mom gags but nothing comes up. Tinita shoves her fingers deeper until she feels it. She grabs hold and yanks, pulls out a tapeworm two feet long. Mom falls back onto the dirt, sweating and heaving.

Mom told us stories of her childhood when she wanted to us to see how good we had it and when she was calling us ungrateful. Stories about how she ran barefoot to school in the morning because shoes were a luxury so the one pair she had were saved for special occasions. If she was late, she would have no milk for the day. It was powdered and tasted like chalk, bugs floated on the top of the yellow liquid, but they drank it because it was the only milk they had.

Then there was the story of la muñequita. The Catholic Church up the road gave Christmas gifts to the children in the barrio. They were donated by charities from overseas but by the time the load reached the barrio, the rich had taken their pick from the lot. So one year, Mom was given just a doll’s head. She had a mass of brown curls and big blue eyes. It was the only doll mom had.

A few days later, mom woke to find that abuelita had fashioned a body for the doll using rags she sewed together and stuffed with dirt. She made the doll a dress out of one Mom had outgrown. Mom slept with that doll for years. She cried every single time she told that story.

Hunger taught mom that life was brutal but she didn’t imagine it could be worse in this country. Nothing could have prepared her.


This is what I know: my mother was raped by her mother’s husband when she was just 15 years old. She hadn’t been in this country for two days when he started molesting her. She still had Honduran soil under her fingernails. My mother was blamed and has carried this shame for more than 40 years. No one ever talked about it, though Mom tried when grandma had open heart surgery a few years ago.

We were all there, our little family, all fifteen of us. I even brought my then three-year-old daughter with me. We waited for hours until abuela came out of the surgery. We had to hear that everything went well and she was okay. She’s the matriarch of the family; the glue in so many ways. Abuela.

We hugged and kissed her before she went in for the surgery. We held hands and prayed. Mom sent us all out of the room. “Ya voy.”

Mom was terrified that something would happen to her mother and they’d never get to talk about what happened. “Mami, we should talk.”

“We don’t have anything to talk about.” Grandma didn’t even look at mom. There’s no breaking that silence that’s spanned so many years, so many births and deaths. So much pain. It’s got roots now. Its roots are deep and they suck everything out of what it digs into. That silence bores into you like flesh eating bacteria. Sucks on you like leeches.

Mom was crying when she walks into the waiting room. She was quiet for a long time. We all knew why but no one said anything. No one ever says anything.

Until now…


Mom never talked about the rape until my brother died. I emptied my bank account two months after his death to take her on a cruise to the Caribbean, to escape and to be together in our grief. One day, she confessed, as we were watching the ocean, “I never got over what happened to me, m’ija. And my son didn’t either.” Tears sat on her cheeks. They didn’t roll. They just sat there, like boulders. Immovable. That’s how heavy they were. “My children paid for what happened to me.”

Mom stopped talking to me when I walked away from my brother. She didn’t speak to me for a year and a half. My family is adept at silence.

We reunited at my brother’s bedside, and that’s when she started telling me stories, filling in blanks and answering questions. That’s when I saw her sadness. When I saw her, not as my mother, but as a deeply scarred woman who tried desperately to save us from the pain she suffered. She thought silence could protect us. It wasn’t until my brother died that she saw what that silence had done. Silence is what killed my brother.


Mom told me she once caught my brother shooting up in her bathroom. He’d been in there for such a long time she worried something happened to him. When she knocked, he didn’t answer. She opened the door to find him leaning on the laundry basket, his eyes rolled back into his head, a needle sticking out of his arm. He came to when he heard her screaming.

“You think I never fought with him over the things he did?” She wanted me to know that though she stood by him, she fought with him constantly about his addiction. She just couldn’t turn her back on him. Ever.

That day she kicked him out. She watched him tripping over himself while he got dressed. “No se podía ni parar.” She breathed deep when she said this and I imagined the play by play on loop in her mind. He was so high he couldn’t get his leg into his pants without nodding out, his body hung from the waist, arms dangling. Mom couldn’t understand why he never fell.

When he left, mom followed close behind. She watched him from a few seats away as he slumped over on the train, nodding. No one sat next to him. People gave him a wide berth. Carlos didn’t notice. Mom took two trains with him, the L and the 6 (a forty minute ride), and exited on 28th street when he did. He had to hold onto the walls and nodded out three times on his one block walk to his apartment building. Mom didn’t turn around to go home until she saw him enter the building.

He showed up at her door a few days later, his head hanging. She let him in and offered him something to eat. She never told him that she’d followed him.


Carlos went to the Dominican Republic in 2001 to confront the man who was never punished for raping our mother. He had died just a month before my brother’s arrival. Magda, the oldest daughter, took Carlos to the cemetery and left him alone by the grave. I picture my brother crying and kicking at the dirt. The grass has just started to grow. He grabs the flowers someone had placed on the tombstone and throws them, “Fuck you and these flowers,” he screams. Carlos leaves. He never gets his chance at closure or redemption. That night he gets falling over drunk on a lethal mixture of Mama Juana and Brugal. When he comes back to New York, his first stop is to his dealer’s spot. He doesn’t unpack for days.


Over breakfast in Boston at AWP 2013, I asked my mentor Chris Abani how he took care of himself during his writing process. I was barely sleeping and although I was being ultra-conscious of my health, I’d taken up boxing and was eating healthy, there were days when the work tsunamied me and I could barely manage to get out of bed and be a mom.

Chris Abani laughed and said, “You can’t.” We laughed. “It will fuck you up, V. So, tell me, why are you writing this memoir?”

“For redemption,” I said. I took a bite of the green pepper and onion egg white omelet I’d ordered. It didn’t taste good anymore.

Chris shook his head and swallowed his lips in that way he does when he’s about to say some Jedi shit that I know is going to rattle my insides like a maraca. I grabbed onto the edge of the table and braced myself. “Redemption is easy, V. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.” It’s only now that I am beginning to understand what he meant.


I spent the better part of March, April, May and June of 2013 in the hospital with my brother. No one but my family knew. Not even my closest friends knew how bad it was. How do you tell people “my brother is dying” when you can’t even say it to yourself? Fifteen years of drug abuse had finally caught up with him. The doctors didn’t know how he had survived that long; twenty years after his HIV positive diagnosis, most of that time spent abusing drugs, heroin being his drug of choice. In February he started getting these 104 degree fevers every night. He’d sweat so much that when he woke up the sheets were drenched through to the mattress. Repeated hospital stays and tests revealed nothing. The fevers continued. Once they even sent him from the emergency room to an oncologist saying it was leukemia, but the doctor found no evidence of that. Finally, mom took him to Cornell Medical Center and that’s where they found the infection in his blood. By that time the infection had damaged two valves in his heart. At first the cardiologist thought it could be treated with medicine. He was released with the medication and strict orders, and sent to a rehab for a month. He was out for a week before he was rushed back to the hospital. His legs were swelling and he couldn’t walk a block without getting winded.

We got the news on a Thursday. The medicine wasn’t working. It was the strongest stuff they had. My brother needed surgery, a double valve replacement, but he’d destroyed his liver with the drugs so even if he survived the surgery, he wouldn’t survive the recovery. They gave him a few weeks to a few months to live. He died four days later.


As children, my brother and I were inseparable. We climbed trees together and wrestled and played house. When I came home in the second grade and told him I was being bullied, he mushed my face and said, “Don’t you dare be a punk.” I came at him, all fists and flared nostrils. “Like that,” he said, laughing. “You go at them like that.”

When I was nine and Carlos was twelve, mom sent us to El Faro, the supermarket on the corner, to buy milk and eggs with the food stamps that came in little booklets of colorful bills that looked like Monopoly money. On our way home, we walked by Wandy, the giant foot bully from the block, who was sitting on the stoop of her building. She said something to me but I ignored her. Then she said something to Carlos. “What you said to my brother?” I pushed the gate open and walked toward her. “What you gonna do?” She laughed mockingly. I didn’t give her time to react. I threw myself on top of her and wailed on her with my fists. She was still hiding her face in her arms when I walked away. I brushed past my brother with a smirk. “That day I knew I didn’t have to worry about you,” he said, when he reminded me of that fight one day that I visited him in the hospital.


I can’t tell you if there was anyone in the maternity room holding mom’s hand when she had her son. I imagine her cursing this country as she pushed him out. She got quiet when she saw her baby’s face, so much like his. Ese desgraciado. That’s when she knew she had to love him more, con pena, to defy the evil that brought him into this world.


It wasn’t my brother’s heart that gave out, it was his liver. His heart kept going. It kept beating. I can’t help but see the metaphor here—my Superman, Juan Carlos, who was all heart, wanted to keep going.


The Vikings believed that every man dies three times: first when his body gives up, the second when he is buried, and the third when his name is said for the last time.

I think my brother first died when he took his first hit of heroin. And he died again when he grabbed that needle and injected himself. He died every time he took a snort or wrapped a belt around his arm. He came back to life for short spurts when he was sober and trying to get his life together. He came back to life those last few months I spent with him, even though he was often in and out of consciousness because his body was so full of toxins from the years of drug abuse and his failing liver. He was the most alive in that hospital than I’d seen him in years.

He died on June 24th, 2013, but I will never stop saying his name: Juan Carlos Moncada. And, I will never stop telling our stories. My grandchildren will know about him and their grandchildren will know him. They will know him as my daughter calls him, “Tio Tio”; my Superman, the man who taught me about love and heartbreak and the costs of silence. 


Vanessa Martir

Vanessa Mártir is a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, Relentless, and chronicles her journey in her blog: A five-time VONA/Voices fellow, Vanessa now serves as the organization’s Workshop Director and the newsletter editor. Her essays have appeared in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010).

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