When the universe aligns itself, the energy it produces cannot be contained. Two events that are thousands of miles apart, collide during a single moment in time. Your mind doesn’t know it, but your heart feels it.
It’s easier for me to be tough and solid and strong and resilient over me being vulnerable and soft and sentimental and emotional. I’ve become very apt at managing my emotions and compartmentalizing when I need to. But sometimes I cry.
There are moments when emotions overtake my stronghold… my voice breaks, and it quivers, and tears swell into the wells of my eyes until they runneth over. They are a heavy liquid, winding downward, until my lips clamp together, and soak up the salty streams.
A lot has happened in the last two weeks. My fur baby had surgery, which got me all frazzled. But I compartmentalized my emotions. So I didn’t cry. I attended an inspiring Academic Senate plenary session with a keynote speech that moved me immensely. But I didn’t cry. I squeezed in two dinners with my sister and her family who were in Anaheim for Disneyland. My nephews greeted me with big smiles and even bigger hugs. But I didn’t cry. I hosted a board retreat for the 6 incredible women of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association. Some shared their recent traumas of loss, of family struggle, of pain, of sadness, of disappointment, of frustration. I felt their anguish. But I didn’t cry.
Seadrift had a sold out screening in San Diego. I had an engaging discussion with adult high school students at the CLC campus. I had a beautiful time with my Social Problems class. Then I took off and had a wonderful time at the University of Texas at Tyler with Professor Bob Sterken and his honors students. Later in the evening, over 100 students came to view Seadrift, and we had a lovely and robust discussion. Those students are brilliant and compassionate. They give me a lot of hope for the future. I then flew home early on Friday, November 15th to tackle the day. It was a big day for a lot of reasons. Bringing Seadrift to my community was a huge deal! I was elated that almost 300 people showed up for the screening. We had a dynamic, intellectual, and emotional Q & A session. I was touched by the praise, the critiques, and the standing ovation at the end. But I didn’t cry.
Now let me take you to the early afternoon of Friday, November 15th. The MiraCosta cafeteria is set up for a celebration. The decor is a gorgeous Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) deep blue and gold. PTK is the community college honors society. James Elliott, our keynote speaker, is international PTK president. The seats are filled with attentive students, staff, and faculty. James is a former felon who turned his life around and made incredible strides. He helped change Delaware legislation regarding prison reform and changed the policies and practices of the Coca-Cola Foundation regarding scholarships that were once not available to people with felonies. His talk had the audience in awe of his inspirational change making activism. His words moved me. I almost cried.
After his speech, we had a panel of MiraCosta, Palomar, and SDSU students who were formerly incarcerated. One of those students is my mentee, Ashley Gerdo. She was abused and abandoned by her parents. As a foster youth, she went to drugs to cope, and by 18, she was serving felony time. She made a choice to get clean and has been sober for 8 years. Two years ago, she came to MiraCosta to change her life. She is well on her way to reaching her dreams of becoming a NICU nurse. The other student panelists shared similar journeys. To hear about their most vulnerable stories of pain, trauma, addiction, poverty, violence, abuse… and how they overcame these dark abysses through education and with people who loved them and supported them and did not judge them for their past — one simply cannot listen and not feel something tug at their heartstrings. Everyone in the room was near tears. I almost cried.
As I listened, my colleague who runs our service learning program and our food pantry, Bea Palmer, comes and stands next to me. She whispers in my ear that her sister is one of the students on stage. Jimmy Figeuroa, one of my former students, a former Oceanside gang member, who went on to Berkeley and then law school, and is now a hometown hero for all the work he is doing to serve the community… he was at the event. He sent Bea a text that her sister was on stage, and Bea needed to come over right away. She continues sharing with me that she could not believe how far her sister had come given her broken past and poor decisions that led her to a life of crime and incarceration. Her voice was quivering, her eyes were near tears. I hugged her. I almost cried.
At the end of the ceremony, the moderator announces my name and asks me to come to the stage to give closing remarks. She says very nice things about me and shares with the audience about the work I’ve done for formerly incarcerated students. She mentions the fund I set up in the Foundation office to help these students for whatever they might need. It’s called the Transitions Fund, to help formerly incarcerated students transition into success. It’s been used for car repairs, rent, food, medical costs… things that life throws at you and you just need a helping hand. She then announces that PTK and an anonymous donor has a check for $500 to give to the Transitions fund. Delores Loedel, my faculty colleague and PTK faculty adviser, comes over to hand me the donation. I am so touched! I almost cried.
I began to thank Delores and PTK for supporting these students with this generous donation. At that moment, I am looking at the audience. But then I turn my gaze toward the stage. I see James Elliott. I see Ashley Gerdo. I see Robert Bennett. I see Ivan Chavez. I see Sandra Mora. I see Martin Montanez. And I start to cry. I try to get the right kind of words out to honor the beauty that I see in each of these individuals. I feel so much love for each one of them. They have been through so much. Yet here they are, in front of all of us, being the most authentic versions of themselves, sharing their broken pasts, their realistic presents, and their hopeful futures. I see Bea Palmer in the crowd beaming with pride for her sister Sandra. So I invite her to the front and give her my time so she can tell her sister how proud she is of her. She cries as she speaks. Her sister sheds tears, too.
When it’s over, we have wonderful laughs and hugs and cheers. We make promises to continue helping each other and caring for each other. We take photos with bright and big smiles. And then we depart. Later that evening, Seadrift happens, and then I go home. I am tired. Very fatigued. But in the last waking moments before I doze off, I remember that it is November 15th. It is the date listed on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website that marks the parole release of someone who is like a little brother to me. After serving 26 years of a 50 year sentence, getting locked up when he was only 17 years old, my 44 year old little brother was supposed to go home Friday, November 15th. I look at my phone, but I got no message. I wonder if he was delayed again.
With no alarm set, I open my eyes, and it is bright. It felt amazing to sleep in. I always sleep deeply on a day that I cry. It’s like the energy is zapped from me and poured into the exertion and release of such strong feelings. I reach for my phone to see what time it is. It’s 6:45 am. I have a message from 5:29 am.
I dialed the number and it is indeed him. He is home! Home at last. Free at last. A 44 year old man who completed 2 associates degrees while incarcerated is now home with his family. We talked for hours. This morning, I called him again. We talk for a couple more hours. In the hours and hours of our conversations, one of the most significant things he told me was the time of his release. He said he walked into the door of his parents’ home on November 15th at approximately 2:00 pm Texas time. That is approximately 12:00 pm Oceanside time. It is approximately the same time I was crying for my formerly incarcerated students. I realize now that at that moment, I must have been crying for him, too. Because in that moment, he became formerly incarcerated, too.