I was born and raised in East Harlem near 110th and Madison. Both my parents were well known on the block; for a time I felt like royalty. My mom told me stories about how my aunts and neighbors fought over who held me next. Hugs, kisses, and constantly being called papi chulo was the norm for me.
Aside from my mother and father, no one loved me more than my grandmother. I was the first born son of her first born son, and was her favorite among her grandchildren. The feeling of unconditional love was blissful, like a pleasant dream. I slept peacefully those days because I knew I was loved.
But by the time I was 5, my parents separated, which led to a nasty custody battle for me and my younger sister that carried on into my early teens. I was plunged into a whole new world living in Jersey with my mother. A rotating array of new men replaced the constant affection and attention I got from my grandmother, aunts, and neighbors.
In the Middle of a Tug of War
It was tense in my mom’s house—her boyfriends always managed to amp up my anger. They tried to push their way in and take control. They’d demand respect without earning it.
I remember one of my mother’s exes standing in the hallway waiting as he stared at me walking toward him. At first I didn’t make anything of it, but when I passed him he demanded that I say “excuse me.” I was annoyed at his assertion of authority.
This bum was freeloading off my mother and wanted silence to watch TV and sleep as he pleased. He wanted my sister and me to blend into the walls and pretend we weren’t there.
When I went to my father’s house, his side of the family bad-mouthed my mother. I’d be watching TV with my grandmother, and when the phone rang and the caller ID showed my mother’s phone number, the negative comments about her being a pest and a nuisance commenced.
I love my dad, but all the judging and criticism by his family propelled me into an emotional tug of war between my parents. Who should I listen to? Who was right? Instead of talking to them about how I was feeling, I kept it all inside. To make matters worse, my mom suffers from physical ailments that affect her internal organs. She also has bipolar disorder and had difficulty keeping a steady job.
As a result, I stopped caring about school—or anything else really—and listening to or trusting any of the adults in my life. Bad influences at school led me into fighting, gambling, and skipping weeks if not months at a time. Inevitably this brought about my expulsion from not one, but two different schools and being held back two grades.
I Lose It and Lash Out
When I was 16, I finally lost it on my mom’s boyfriend at the time. He was a lazy, freeloading manchild. He’d wander around the house in his underwear even with my little sister there, and he always had an attitude. He claimed to be a sensei at a dojo, but his workouts only consisted of getting up off the couch. Worst of all, he’d lay hands on my mom, thinking he’d get away with it—and he did several times.
But on this one night, he was being aggressive with her and he came at me and I punched him in the face. I swung for above his eyebrow—when you hit there it swells up. I had that shaky leg feeling you get when you’re about to fight. Your whole body tenses up and you know you’re about to leap out of your skin, and you just go—all adrenaline. I blacked out and only saw red. What occurred afterwards was my immediate exile from my household.
I had no clue what to do. I just ran away with tears running along my cheeks. I headed towards the Hoboken Pier and perched myself on a bench facing the city across the water. I sat there for more than two hours thinking of lost days when I felt loved.
Before I could finish my thoughts, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I had a feeling I was about to have my second scrap of the night. To my surprise, it was my father standing over me.
“Dude, people are calling you, why aren’t you picking up?” he said. As I went to check my phone, which had over 100 missed calls and messages, my dad sat next to me.
“What happened with your mother?” he asked. I didn’t answer. Usually when I’m upset my response is to shut down and be silent, with rage boiling within me until more of my buttons get pushed and I explode again.
“What happened with this guy? I told your mother if he touches you I’m breaking his f-cking jaw, so what happened?” My father is a security guard at a psych ward; he’s huge and intense—even when we playfight, his hits hurt. My dad looked at me sternly as he stood up and towered above me.
“I hit him,” I mumbled.
“You’ll be staying with me from now on then,” he said. He put his arm around me and we walked home.
A Little Love Goes a Long Way
My father was living in a small apartment with my grandmother, aunt, and cousin. Even so, they welcomed me with open arms and made it work. I slept like a baby that night, not because I was exhausted, but because I knew I was loved—that unconditional love I remembered from when I was young.
Moving in with my dad was well received by my mother. Even though she won the custody battle, I wasn’t happy in that house and she knew it.
My father and I live in the Bronx, and I visit my mom in Jersey on the weekends.
When I’m there, we talk a lot and I understand better what she’s had to overcome physically and mentally. We’re in a good place now.
I also realize she was battling all this while putting up with my bullsh-t while I was living with her.
“I always tried my best to raise you and your sisters,” she told me recently. “Everyone around me was putting me down, I even went to therapy and it helped but the only thing that really worked was knowing I had to live and fight back for you guys.”
I learned that being treated poorly by her boyfriends and berated by my family were contributing to her poor health. “I felt small, ashamed, stupid, young, and alone,” she said. “I felt I did everything wrong. I wanted to run and felt they wanted me gone.”
Our conversations feel therapeutic as we talk, cry, and embrace one another. They have led to a change in my attitude and a new outlook on life.
I read more about philosophy, spirituality, and stoicism, trying to find deeper meaning to the life we live. I am graduating high school soon and strive to be a better person, and to help others. Most importantly, I feel surrounded by the love of my family again.