He Walked by Faith

For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

My brother was 15 years old when I was born. As a teenager who had been an only child for that long, I am sure he was just absolutely thrilled at the news that there was going to be a new baby around (LOL). I can only imagine what that conversation between him and my mom must have been like – LOL. But from the moment I was born, we were inseparable. He would hold me and play games with me and read to me. He showed me the ropes. We were a team.

It didn’t take long for my brother to realize that having a baby sister around might not be all that bad. After all, he quickly found out that girls love babies…and they love sensitive, cute guys holding cute babies. So my brother, with his beautiful brown skin, million dollar smile, and dimples to boot began taking me everywhere with him…and the girls would flock! “Oh Mike, your baby sister is so cute”, they would say…and oh would he lay it on thick. “Well you know, I take my sister off my mom’s hands to help my mom out. My mom does so much for us and I just love my little sister so much, it really is just a pleasure for me to spend time with her and help my mom out at the same time. They mean so much to me.” He would lay it on THICK…and the ladies would fall for it every time. I’m not saying there wasn’t SOME truth to what he was saying, but the REAL story is that I was a plant, on special assignment from my mother…sent with my brother because my mom knew that when we got back home, I would tell her everything I saw and everything that happened. I was really a secret spy. But my brother was smart and he knew that so he quickly found a way to buy my silence. He would take me with him, I would help him get girls, and if I remained silent and didn’t tell on him – he would reward me with my very own box of McDonald’s French Fries!! I was sold and mom never got another word out of me. He got the girls, I got the fries – it was a mutually beneficial relationship. But it was some of the best times that we had together – forming a bond – truly becoming a brother/sister team – a bond that would never be broken.

Growing up, my brother was the main man in my life and he didn’t take that lightly. He was like a superhero to me. Always so cool in his little white sports car or his blue stick shift Honda – the same car he would later use to teach me how to drive a stick shift. He taught me how to change a tire. He came to my basketball games and my plays and my concerts – not out of obligation – he was an adult by then and didn’t have to – but because he wanted to and because he loved and cared for me almost like a father would. He treated me like a princess. Imagine being in elementary school and getting picked up from the after school program in a limo. My brother would pull up in a stretch white limo right around the time that most of the kids were getting picked up and he would hop out in his suit, open the back door to the limo and pick me up. He worked for the limo company and he was on the clock – that’s why he would pick me up in a limo – but the people at school didn’t know that. I felt like a princess – I felt like a million bucks – and everyone would watch as I hopped in the back and we would pull off. Imagine being 6 or 7 years old riding in the back of the limo by yourself – I felt so special – and my brother taught me that I was special and that mom and I deserved to feel that way everyday of our lives. He taught me that I was beautiful and that I should love myself just the way I am. Everyone knows that going through the teenage years is rough…you feel so unsure of yourself and of your body and you become very self conscious about whether you are pretty or not or if you’re too fat or too short or…. But then I would get off from school and go home or go to my brother’s house….and those who know my brother know that he was a big guy….he was good looking but he had a playground as they call it or a little gut on him…but he would walk around shirtless all the time like he was built like the Rock or Reggie Bush or something… He had no fear, or as my mom would say, no shame…he loved and accepted his body and flaunted it…and the ladies loved him!! That was such an important lesson for me as a teenage girl struggling to accept my flaws…to love and accept and be happy with the skin I’m in and my brother taught me that. He felt it was his job to protect my mother and me. I couldn’t tell him that a kid pushed me on the playground without him asking what’s their name, who were there parents, and did he need to come up there…and when I started dating….man. By then he was a police officer so it would be nothing for him to come to my school, in uniform, to “check things out”. In fact, for my junior prom, my “driver” and “chaperone” was my brother, in his police uniform, driving me and my date around in a Lincoln – needless to say we went straight to the prom and came straight home that night (LOL)…but I guess things had come full circle…I was no longer the baby spy sent along to report on his activities – he was now the Police Officer, big brother spy sent to make sure that the only fun we had on prom night happened on the dance floor….and he couldn’t be bribed with McDonald’s fries. Well played mom, well played.

My brother loved many things…but there was nothing he loved more than family. You hear people say all the time that a single woman can’t raise a man to be a man – and yes my mother had support from the “village” that it takes to raise a child – but my mother did an amazing job raising my brother into the man that he became and he loved her dearly….and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her.  One day my mom was driving, I was in the back seat, and a squirrel tried to dash across the street in front of the car and she couldn’t stop in time so she ended up hitting him. She burst into tears – she was distraught – and she called my brother who was at work at the Police Department at the time…and she said “Oh my God Tony I just hit a squirrel and he’s laying in the middle of the road dead and we cant just leave him there like that….” So my brother says “Ma, ma…calm down…what happened…who did you hit?” And she said “…a squirrel Tony, I hit a squirrel…Oh my God Tony you have to come get him….get a box or something and come get him out of the street Tony…I can’t just leave him laying there like that…” So my brother, now realizing what mom was saying says, “Ma – you hit a squirrel? The way you were crying I thought you hit a person… You want me to come and get him up out of the street? Do you know how many squirrels get hit everyday? Ma leave that squirrel there… It’ll be okay…” But, after some protest, he did go and get the squirrel out of the street. It was probably the 1st funeralized squirrel in America. But he did it – because he would do anything for our mother. He loved her and appreciated her…and in one of the last conversations I had with my brother he turned to me, almost in reflective state, and said “you know, Ma has been a great mother to us”…and we nodded in agreement.

A testament to the type of man my mother raised my brother to be was the way he stepped up and raised his children as a single father. You hear so much about deadbeat dads and fathers not being in the home. Statistics would lead you to believe that, as a man, if you grow up without a father then chances are you will grow up and won’t be a father to your children either – but my brother defied all of that. He stepped up and raised his children by himself. He was determined that he wasn’t going to just be a send the check and see them on the weekends dad. He was going to be everything to his children. He was going to be the type of father that his father should have been to him…and he did just that. He worked hard and bought a home for him and his children. He went to every cheerleading competition and football game and school program. His kids were his world. And when he took sick and could no longer live in his home because he couldn’t get up and down the stairs, he bought another house and continued to provide for his children. He never said this is too much, he never said I’m sick and I need to just focus on me…he stayed the course and gave his children all that he could until he left this earth. And he raised two compassionate, loving children, Leticia and Trenton, who stayed with him and took care of him until the very end. On multiple occasions the doctor’s wanted to throw in the towel and send him to hospice or to just keep him comfortable until he died, but each and every time his children said no – he’s not done – send him home and we’ll take care of him. And they did. And he loved being a grandfather to MiKayla – who called him Pop Pop. He loved her so much and every time the doctors tried to give him discouraging news all he would say is that he wanted to be here to see MiKayla grow up…and I believe he will watch over her and see grow from his spot in heaven. And he loved being a Godfather to his niece Madison. He cried when my husband and I asked him to be her Godfather and even from his hospital bed he would always ask how “baby girl” was doing and talk about all of the things he wanted to get for her and all of the places he wanted to take her and MiKayla when he got out of the hospital…but I guess it just wasn’t in God’s plan.

There are so many things I could say about my brother – so many things that he loved to do. He loved being a Police Officer and he was heartbroken when his illness left him wheelchair bound and he was forced to retire from the force. He loved riding motorcyles and continued to do so even when he could no longer walk until his illness progressed and he couldn’t ride any longer. My brother loved to dance and he loved to sing but he never knew the words to any song. To this day I don’t know why Roxanne doesn’t have to turn on the red light and I don’t know what happens after you sit on the dock of the bay wasting time…because he would only sing that one line from each of those songs. My brother loved to barbecue. We would have 4th of July barbecue cook-off competitions or I’d call him to see what he was doing and he’d be outside barbecuing in the freezing cold in December. He always dreamed of owning a barbecue restaurant and he was so excited when I married a man who loved barbecuing as much as he did. So when he partnered with my husband in starting a barbecue business our phone conversations went from “hi sis, how are you” to “hi sis, let me speak to David” (LOL). But I didn’t mind. I was glad that he finally found someone that he could talk about barbecue with endlessly – I mean I’ve never seen two people who could talk about ribs and pork and barbecue literally all day – and it brought a smile to his face whenever we visited him in the hospital and they could talk about how the business was going.

Throughout my brother’s illness and even more-so now that he’s gone, I’ve always tried to hold on to the scripture that asks us to Trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. Because try as I might I can’t understand why such a loving man, a hard working man, a faithful man was inexplicably struck with an illness at such a young age and taken from us at the age of 49. This was supposed to be the prime of his life, being a father, a grandfather, and a God Father. Realizing his dreams of owning his own business. Riding his motorcycle and taking family trips. This was supposed to be our time. But God has a plan for us all…and he knows better than you or I…and in this time I have to hold tight to that because in this time it’s all I can do. Throughout my brother’s illness he never said if…he always said when… When I get better….when I walk again…he was faithful to the very end. And so now I don’t say to my brother rest in peace. He spent the past 12+ years in a wheelchair…and now he has new heavenly legs…I doubt he’s resting. I think he’s probably doing like the song says and walking around Heaven all day. I believe that now he is better…and he is walking again…just like he said he would. I am so grateful for you my brother and all that you have been to me and to our family and I love you and I will miss you forever until I can see your smiling face again.

Memorial Days…

This year will be the first year that we don’t go to Arlington National Cemetery to put flowers on my Uncle and my Father. While we may not be celebrating our Memorial Day in our usual fashion, today, and every day, we remember those who gave it all fighting for our country. We remember those who gave it all even when they were looked upon as second class citizens. We remember the women who had to fight the enemy and fight for acceptance in the military. We remember those who were fresh out of high school when they took up arms and gave their lives for their country. We remember the men and women who left behind spouses and children and families in the name of protecting our freedoms.

I grew up a “military kid”…not in the sense of moving around and living in a new state or country every few years, but as a kid who was constantly surrounded by the grandeur, the grit, the pomp and circumstance, the honor of the military. My father and Uncle were both Marines and my mom worked for the Marine Corp for nearly 40 years. I spent as much time on military bases as I did on suburban streets. It is this upbringing that has allowed me to always honor and revere the men and women of our military. Few will ever know all that they sacrifice to fight for our freedom. Today I honor the two soldiers who impacted my life the most.

Edward Leon Green was a US Marine and Purple Heart recipient. He fought in Vietnam. He received a Purple Heart for the physical injuries he received in war, but mentally he was damaged as well. He was never quite “the same” when he came back from war. I’m not sure anyone ever could be the same after what they saw and experienced. Nevertheless he was more like my father than my Uncle. He loved and cared for me like a father. He always looked after our family. He was a hardworking man of God until he was called home. I honor him today and I am grateful for the man that he was in my life.

My father, David Anthony Duarte, though absent from my life since I was 3 years old, I still go and place flowers on him every Memorial Day. He was a proud Marine. He loved the Corps. He rose through the ranks and became a GYSGT in a time where ascending the ranks in the military wasn’t easy for a black man (sadly, it still isn’t). I honor him for the man he desired to be. I honor him because when I got older, the hurt in me saw the hurt in him. Fight or flight often applies to our inner demons as well. Some of us face our demons head on. Others spend a lifetime trying to outrun the hurt. Thankfully, even in our inaction, people can learn from our choices. I am thankful for the lessons his life taught me.

On this Memorial Day, and every day, we honor all of those who paid the ultimate price, and the families they left behind. On this day we memorialize not only the fallen soldiers, but also the death of innocence, the death of “normalcy” the death of dreams, and the death of peace that war has taken from so many of our men and women who are still here today. On this day, and indeed every day, we remember you, we love you, and we thank you for all you have given. For those who have gone on, we will never forget you. In loving memory of all who have fallen.

Postmortem PTSD

In 2008 I became intimately familiar with PTSD. As the then fiance’ of a soldier who had just returned from Iraq, I was unknowingly thrust into the life of a caregiver to someone with PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). The thing is, even on the very day he returned home, I wasn’t immediately aware of my new role. The bus full of soldiers arrived to fanfare and welcome home signs. Then he got off of the bus and hopped in my car. He looked the same — just a little thinner, a little more tan, and cleanly shaven. But he was him — I thought. No limbs missing, home “in one piece”, I thought we had escaped all that war tried to throw at us. Boy was I wrong.

“Caregiver” was the term I used to describe myself in the opening paragraph, right? Funny thing is, I didn’t really consider myself that until recently — over 10 years later. Even through the nightmares and depression, the mood swings and the flashbacks. Even though he would startle easily and jump when he heard loud sounds. Even through the memory loss and the cold withdrawn behavior — I never thought of myself as his caregiver. I thought that with help and with time and with medication and therapy that much like the 394 days he spent deployed, this too would pass — perhaps slowly, but it would pass. What I didn’t realize was that the man I met and fell in love with on a cold November night was deceased.

My first encounter with death was as a teenager in the Young Marines. One of the guys in our platoon drowned. On the day of his services, we all got dressed in our crisp uniforms, arrived at the services, and marched to the front of the church to pay our final respects. Upon seeing him lying lifeless in the casket, I doubled over in anxiety and tears. I had of course heard of people dying before, but this was my first personal experience with the finality of a person’s time on earth ending. After that day, I don’t recall hearing about many people dying during my childhood. As a teenager I remember the passing of my Great Uncles Lou and Major. Each death was painful and left a void in our close family unit, but it was the death of my grandmother in 1998 that forever changed me. 2 weeks into my freshman year in college I received the call that she passed away. Within the hour I was packed and flying back home to Virginia — sitting for hours on a plane alone with my thoughts, my fear, and my hurt. I don’t think I ever fully recovered from my grandmother passing. I didn’t really have much time to mourn before I was on a plane back to school, back to classes, back to homework and exams. In essence, I was the soldier, unloaded from the bus, and thrust back into “normal” life, not realizing that normal was now….different…and the old me was gone.

Several more years went by before death struck my inner circle yet again. My 26 year old nephew took his own life. I arrived at the scene to see his body covered in a sheet as the blood leaking from his head spilled onto the concrete — his mother screaming in horror in the background. Five years later, my sister Renee lost her battle with Cancer – we visited with her just 2 months prior to her passing. A month later, I lost my ride-or-die, my partner for life….my brother at the age of 49. After receiving the call from my mother that he wasn’t doing well, I rushed to the hospital just in time to hear the long, deafening beep….to hear my niece cry uncontrollably…to hear my mom cry out. Sounds you never forget. The feeling of knowing that you were seconds too late to say goodbye.

While each of these losses took pieces of my spirit that I’m not sure can ever be replaced, the day I lost one of my closest friends just months before her 37th birthday was probably the hardest. A heart attack took her life just one night after she was sent home from the E.R. because “they couldn’t find anything wrong”. She left behind a husband and two children — close in age to my own children — and a pain that, to this day, I still can’t shake.

Whew….well, if you’re still reading after all of THAT, allow me to tie it all together for you. You see, as a military wife, I could probably recite to you and for you, numerous facts and statistics about PTSD in the military and PTSD in our Veterans; but it wasn’t until January 26th, 2020 that I realized that I, too, am living with PTSD. January 26th, 2020 was the day that the world learned that Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and 7 other people died in a helicopter crash. I was never a basketball fan, let alone a Kobe Bryant fan. In fact, if you asked me on January 25th, I probably would have said that I didn’t like him. All I “knew” of him was his arrogance, his issues with Shaq, his selfishness on the court, and the rape allegations. I knew nothing of the man he had become. Yet upon hearing of his passing I found myself kneeling on the floor of my room, bawling. For several nights after the passengers on that helicopter died so tragically, I didn’t sleep worth a damn. I woke up in tears. Maybe it was the pain of knowing a woman lost her husband and child. Maybe it was the pain of knowing that 3 children lost their father….or the pain of seeing a life taken at only 41 years and 11 years…or maybe it was a combination of all of the above, but Kobe’s passing stirred up something in me and the loss felt as painful as if I knew him personally. His death brought forth Regina, and my brother and sister, and my Uncles, and the Young Marine rushing to the forefront of my psyche and for days weeks I couldn’t shake it. It brought forth the “death” of my husband as I knew him and the loss of youthful foolhardy feelings of immortality. I felt the pain of the trauma — all of it — and I am was not okay.

If you asked me about PTSD at any point before now, I would have associated it most heavily with soldiers and military warfare. I would have talked about people who had been violently raped or assaulted. I may have even mentioned people who survived natural disasters or escaped death. What I can almost guarantee is that I would not have associated it with the sometimes frequent trauma of everyday life. We experience the death of relationships, the death of hopes and dreams. We watch clips and sound bites of people being gunned down by the police or children running, screaming, from gun men shooting up their school. We watch the stock market rise and fall, we face life-threatening illnesses (ahem – corona virus), and we listen to stories of women being snatched off of the streets for human trafficking. We lay to rest the idea of how we thought things would look in our lives…. Hell, it’s a miracle if we aren’t ALL walking around suffering from PTSD.

On January 26th I realized that I suffer from PTSD resulting from all of the people I’ve lost. I realized that I live most days in fear that it will be my last. With every kiss or hug goodbye, I linger just a minute longer not sure if it will be our last embrace. I answer the phone every time my mom calls, fearing the day that I will no longer be able to hear her voice on the other end. Lord knows I never thought the last time I spoke to my brother would be the last time. People take pictures for the ‘gram. I take pictures wondering if it will go in my obituary. Every conversation with my children ends in a life lesson because I want to make sure I teach them all I can, while I can. As a self-certified control freak, the not knowing how or when I will be called home blankets my life with a layer of anxiety that always hovers close by like a shadow. It’s not okay. In truth, many of us likely walk around suffering from PTSD due to tragic events in our life or just because of life itself — hell, it’s tough — but we likely don’t label it as PTSD…just like we often don’t label anxiety or depression. Our own dysfunction becomes our norm — so much so that we can’t imagine doing it or living any other way. We subscribe to dysfunction so often that “normal” feels wrong.

Whatever your trauma, whatever your “dysfunction” , whatever your fear, I pray that you find the strength to work through it and release it. Much like the soldiers who return from war, the old us might be “dead”, but that doesn’t mean that the newest version of you can’t be even better. We all have work to do and traumas to overcome. Let’s get to it.