Love and Discipline


We have been living out of suitcases for four weeks now.  We are wandering the American West, burning and freezing.  Meeting hundreds of people.  But that is not why I am writing to you.

I somehow shredded my back in Colorado, at our friends' ranch.  Don't know how.  But I have been doing this journey in bad back pain.  And I have some kind of eye infection, so my eye is swollen and ghastly in the mornings and also hurts like hell.  But that is not the point, either.

I was fortunate enough to take part in the Aspen Writers Foundation events in Aspen.  Two weeks of awe, really.  One week of workshops taught at the Aspen Institute, and then a week of Global Story Summit during the Idead Festival.  Yeah, man--staying in the Hotel Jerome.  The authors with us (Cinderella was there) were astounding.  I can't even tell you all of them, but a few names will illustrate the wonder of it:  Reza Aslan, Ishmael Beah. Gioconda Belli, Darrell Bourque, Francisco Goldman, Andrew Greer, Colum McCann, David Wroblewski, Benjamin Percy, Ron Rash, Mona Simpson, Terry Tempest Williams, Tobias Wolff.  Eleanor Brown dropped by for drinks.  That kind of crowd.  But again, that is not the story.  Not all of it, anyway.

No.  What happened was that as we prepared to leave Aspen for San Diego, we got word that my brother Juan was dying.  Juan has been battling bravely against cancer for a while now.  Many of my FB and Twitter friends have formed Team Juan--over 100 strong.  And they pray for him and send great energies at the slightest mention of his struggle.

Juan took a dark turn and was in ICU in SD.  He was paralyzed and, at first, unable to talk.  We headed west with the doom over our heads.  But by the end of the first day, he was able to talk again.  What a fighter.  What a warrior.

I have wife and child in tow on this trip.  It was supposed to be vacation time for the kid, but every stop has involved work-work-work.  And now we sped to hospitals and dread.  And, inanely enough, One Book One San Diego celebrations.  Are you kidding me?  Jolly appearances and radio shows?  Really?

We managed to drive through Bryce and Zion just so Chayo could see them.  This was the fastest National Park vacation in history--an hour per park.  But I wanted her to see the spectacle.  The detour cost me 4 hours, but I took the risk.  Juan would have told me to attend to my child first--we have spoken of these things before.  And I did.

My back, my eye, my whole body, my soul were aching and bruised by the tiome we got to SD.  But I washed up and headed for the hospital.  It was terrible.  My brother was lost in hallucinations--he thought his heart monitor was a coffee cup and kept trying to drink coffee from his finher.  Then he thought there were cigarettes in there and he knew there were smokers in the family and kept trying to get cigarettes out of the same finger.  We held hands for a spell.  He saw a young girl come through the door, and a dog.  Interestingly, for all our superstitious Mexican ways, I was the only one in the family who thought he was really seeing spirits.  The rest of them seemed to think Juan was reacting to meds.  That's what it's like when you're the mystical hippie in the familia.

I was tired and weepy when I got back to our hotel room.  La Jolla.  Fancy.  Didn't even see it.

The next day was awful, yet full of pride.  Our father, for all his foibles, was big on discipline.  His will was forged in iron.  So is Juan's.  I never saw either of them in shorts, or jeans.  never.  Always well dressed and dapper.  I feel sometimes like my own sense of discipline is forged in weaker stuff...but I'm trying.  So with this ache inside ("I'm goin' to California with an achin' in my heart....") I went out to be media-boy for the City of SD.  I did radio spots for KPBS, the NPR affiliate.  Then we went to Logan Heights, my old hood, and did an appearance at the new library.  No library there when I was young.  We took Chayo to my old apartment, showed her my old Catholic school.  Man--there's a Starbucks in the old barrio.  Joggers!  It was a beautiful event--and the discipline comes in there.  You want to mewl and whine about your troubles because they are eating your lunch.  But people are counting on you.  So you deliver.

I did the epic Balboa Park event the next day.  I can't tell you how massive it ended up being.  As Juan improved through sheer will, I did my job.  Over 300 people were there. Mariachis.  Taco trucks.  A flash mob burst out of the crowd and dance an interpretation of my book--50 dancers!  I did my thing after that.  It was intense.  And I saw some long lost beloved people too.  My family came from their hospital duties and filled the front rows.

I will never forget Blanca, Juan's wife, telling me I had my responsibilities to meet.  "All of us must die," she said to me.  "Everyone of us has to die.  And every one of you have your lives to attend to.  Except me.  I am the only one who has to be here for the whole thing.  That is MY job.  You have work to do, and we want you to go and do it."

At one point, Juan looked at us all and said, "You're torturing me."  It hit me, hard--for a proud and dapper man, to be watched and prodded and fawned over in this terrible state was almost worst than the sickness.  He hated every second, though he loves us.

Before we left town, I went to him quietly and alone.  I held his hand.  He had been moved from ICU to a private room. His whole body had shut down, and here he was a few days later, looking to go home again.

I said, "You are my hero."  He said, "Still?"  I said, "Always."

People are counting on me.  I am going on.  There is no telling when, or if, The Call will come.  But I will be doing what I have to do.  And I will fly back to him.

When you start your writing life, you have no idea what is involved.  You can't know what discipline is required.  Sometimes, you have to stand up and walk.  No water?  Walk.  No shelter?  Walk.  No relief?  Keep walking.

But never forget to carry love with you.



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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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