There’s this one character, a woman, who has been tainting my stories with her presence for years now. And I say presence, because although I prematurely named her ‘Lucy,’ there’s been little more I can sense from her. She’s often standing near in front of a blue, wooden, one-room house. I know she’s in the Dominican Republic, having recently escaped something or someone or herself from the U.S. That’s all I got. In her defense, I haven’t quite bothered to explore more, or to ask her for more beyond that, and I can’t understand why. I’m not sure what it is that I fear.
So she remains standing, leaning on the white-rimmed doorway, welcoming me to something I’m not yet ready to enter.
I wanted to write today about characters, building characters and how they come to us. What does it say about what we’re trying to be and experience through our words?
I mention Lucy, because our character’s humanity (in a way), their essence and how we talk to them, has been a topic I’ve been thinking about when it comes to our characters.
A little over two months ago, our son, Max, was diagnosed with being “on the spectrum.” The doctor who evaluated him said he was “slightly” on it. Almost six weeks since then, I still have no clue what that means.
I had an inkling for many months before, but everyone around me said it was all in my head. The pains of growing up with an autistic brother, who went undiagnosed well into his teens, had delved a hole in my thinking. So much that I had forgotten about the real, unique beauty of it.
“He’s just too spoiled,” my mother said, suggesting I needed to wean him from nursing once and for all. “I was like that,” my husband replied, suggesting I just needed to give him some time to develop. But the angst was still there.
It wasn’t until he started school full-time in September that I spoke to his teacher, and she also agreed that an evaluation would be best to make sure we had all our bases covered. He wasn’t adjusting well at all to school. “But you’re gonna have to push for him to get the services he needs,” she warned me.
It’s been a month since we finally got our first evaluation. He’s been observed by psychologists, therapists and a special education teacher, who all agree he’s a candidate for more services. He’ll start out with some occupation therapy and speech, and “we’ll take it from there,” one case worker said.
We’ll take it from there.
Last month, my husband’s childhood friend lost his daughter to a rare disease. At the wake, the family displayed a poem the young girl had written, about her battles and being diagnosed at the age of 7-years-old. No one knew what she had, she wrote, but that she kept on fighting.
After several years of going in and out of the hospital, surgeries, her injecting herself with some medications at home, she slowly succumbed to the disease at 18. Not even two full decades. My husband was torn. He received a text message from his friend the night she passed with a “her light went out.”
“She passed away this morning at 4 a.m.,” my husband told me over the phone early Sunday morning. He went to work that day, as he was doing on most Sundays since starting tax season. It was a little after 9 a.m. I was jolted from my sleep, briefly enjoying a rare morning where both my kids were sleeping past 8 a.m. “Who told you,” I asked him, wondering how his friend was doing. “He sent something over the phone, but my phone was off…”
The thing about this young girl is that, although she spent many years sick and battling something she didn’t know would eventually take her, she was always so jovial. That’s how everyone described her. That’s how I remembered her as a little girl. She was in school with my daughter for a few years. They event went to the same Girl Scout meetings, camps and a few events here and there. “I looked up to her,” my daughter said, remembering how this girl went on to become a camp counselor and she wanted so badly to follow her footsteps. “She was always just so nice and smart. It’s so unfair.”
Her essence was short-lived, but impactful… just imagine if she would’ve lived way more years of her life.
The humanity of people comes in different forms. They’re felt in different forms also. There are those I believe come equipped with something special, unique and vibrant about their living. You’ve probably met a few of those. The art of writing is that we can create a few of those through our writing. And it might be that only you see something, which is fine, because I don’t think we’re meant to see that in everyone at all time. Not to say not everyone has it. Like this kid I met many, many years ago named, Nelson.
Nelson worked at a local pharmacy near my mother’s house in Inwood. I only know his name because of his obituary. The first time I saw him there was one random day, when my mother asked me to pick up a prescription for her. We didn’t speak beyond him asking whether I was “dropping off or picking up” and me responding with “picking up.” He asked for a last name, I told him, he reached for a bag from somewhere behind the counter and that was that. I saw him again a few weeks later. I was getting out of the A-train W. 4th Street station. He was going into the station as I was exciting. I remember thinking how strange it was that he was going the opposite direction so early in the morning. I made a mental note to ask him – if I saw again – what he was doing there.
I saw him again a month or so later on Dyckman St. We were both rushing to wherever we were going, but I noticed that he sort of smirked when he saw me. I’m sure he was probably thinking the same thing I was thinking: “Again?”
I would see him one last time at the pharmacy. He asked for whether I was “picking up or dropping off” and I told him I was picking up. Only this time, after I again gave him my mother’s last name, I asked him about that one morning I saw him around NYU. He said something about a sister’s friend. I don’t really remember.
I would found out he drowned a few weeks later. My then-boyfriend-now-husband, Luis, came over one summer day and said, “You remember that guy you said you kept seeing?” I knew immediately who he was talking about. “Oh yeah, I haven’t seen him in a while,” I responded. “He lives in my building,” Luis said. “And I think he passed away.”
The shock wasn’t so much that he had died, but that he was so close to me really for so long, and I had only recently saw him at random points. By then, Luis and I had a daughter and visited his place frequently, so much so that almost every neighbor knew about us.
“What do you mean he lives in your building?” I asked. He replied that he sort of remembered, but didn’t quite know if it was the same guy, but that after I told him he worked at the pharmacy on Dyckman, he overheard people talking about his death and he was able to put both stories together.
I visited the pharmacy a few days later to make sure it was him. There was a picture of him behind the counter. It hit me. I would never get to randomly bump into Nelson again.
During that time I was writing a story about the ocean. I had visited the Dominican Republic not long before his death and had become so fascinated with the length of the water. How far and wide it stretched, how old it was and how much it held in history and stories and breath. I weaved Nelson character into that story and vowed to publish it one day.