I wish I could say I would never have a need to write this letter. I wish I would have never gotten that call from hospice in the middle of the night two nights ago. I wish I never received that email from the funeral home with the subject line: “Death forms for Zaida Gamez.” I wish I never had to contact the State Farm agent about your life insurance policy, or my human resources about bereavement leave. Yet, here we are.
To say that our 39 years together were a bit tumultuous is an understatement. My earliest memories of you are, to say the least, traumatic, with my dad serving as a referee up until the time of his death when I was six years old. It’s not that I think you were a bad mother, it’s that I think you never had the tools to be a parent. I can only complain so much; I met my grandmother, your mother, and can only imagine. I remember the stories of my grandfather gambling away his businesses, running off with women half his age, my grandmother leaving all the children to fend for themselves indefinitely to chase after him and you and your siblings surviving on daily rations of beans and tortillas. To top it all off, you also had to tend to an alcoholic older brother and his children until you decided to come to the US to work.
One thing I could definitely never take away from you was your willingness to work, whether it was in Mexico for Purina or in the U.S. for Dr. Scholl’s, or for my school district working in the cafeterias. I truly believe that if someone had given you a job at 80 years old, you would have taken it. You may never have been a loving parent, one that celebrated birthdays or holidays, or even told me you loved me, but you were an outstanding provider. Even when you were doing it on your own after dad died, I always had food on the table, clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and an education that, although I never wanted, you fought like a pit bull to give me.
I recall when I was in first grade and I was placed in ESOL classes without your knowledge. You stormed down to the principal’s office and read him the riot act and told him to place me in an all-English class so I could advance with everyone else and learn English, that you would take care of the Spanish at home. I was in an English class before you knew it. I also recall when I was pulled out of class in junior high because my school uniform was not appropriate because it had not been bought at the designated store, the store that was co-owned by the then-superintendent.
This was despite numerous Cholos and gang-affiliated students getting away with not even wearing school uniforms because the staff were too scared to approach them. Again, you went to the security office and had all the guards and the school resource officer looking down at the floor and just saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.” I could hear you from a mile away. They never made that mistake again.
I remember the summer between my junior and senior year, you had sent me to a summer camp at West Point because you wanted me to apply and go there for school, as opposed to enlisting like I wanted. Before leaving, I had heard that there would be no more French offered to us in our senior year despite our teacher’s willingness to work with us and our willingness to keep learning the language.
When I came back, I heard stories of a lady who had stood up at a school board meeting and raised hell as to why there wasn’t a fourth year of French being offered. The superintendent finally caved in, probably out of fear or just lack of will to fight for a lost cause. There was also a story about a school board member who approached that same lady after the meeting and told her she was proud that another son of the City of Eagle Pass would be attending the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point. You responded by saying that I was no son of Eagle Pass, I was the son of Daniel and Zaida Gamez, and no one else.
Don’t get me wrong, being your son and getting good grades definitely had its advantages. I never would have gotten into one of the best schools in the country (not West Point) without that. But I never got good grades because I was smart and it was just natural for me, I got them because I worked very hard, and I did so because I was absolutely terrified of you.
You had immense expectations of me, from as far as I can recall. I remember you slamming your hand on the dinner table in the evenings and yelling at me while I was doing my math homework while Dad begged you to leave me alone, but I had to get those problems right, I had to be first in my class, I had to compete in UIL, I had to have a math tutor so I could get straight As and become something you wanted me to, like a physician, an engineer or a physicist. Maybe it was your way of making up for your shortcomings, for not finishing accounting school and not becoming what you wanted, because you had to work to provide for the family.
If my decision to not go to a service academy or an Ivy League school was not disappointing enough for you, I’m sure my brief attempt at enlisting in the military was the cherry that topped the icing. All I remember was showing you my enlistment papers during my senior year of high school (I was 18 already) and I was out quicker than I was in after you paid the recruiter a visit. How that works when you are already 18 and the recruiter is a 6’3’’ 230 lb former Force Reconnaissance Marine is beyond me. Those were the early days of the war on terror, and I just recall my now former recruiter telling me that the CIA could use my mom to interrogate terrorists.
If your ability as a provider was unquestionable, your toughness was undaunted. Growing up in a small border town full of gangs and cartels, you are either prey or predator. But you would never believe the countless times someone offered me dope or a weapon to hide or offered to initiate me or the number of times I was going to be used as part of a jump party for an initiation, only to hear, “Do you know whose son that is?” That’s right, even the cartels in the area knew about you, and if the CIA didn’t want you, I’m sure the DEA would have.
I know at this point it seems all I can do is list all of the disappointments I have caused for you, so why stop here? I know when I told you in my senior year in college that I was going into law enforcement you weren’t exactly thrilled. I know because your response was “Now why would you want to do a thing like that?” with a face that said the same thing. But I knew you weren’t worried about the physical danger as much; you knew I could take care of myself. You were probably a bit disappointed because you thought I could do something you deemed “better,” like go for a graduate degree, or use my degree for something, but definitely not become a cop like my uncle.
I knew you were worried I would end up like him, with the mental aspect of the job taking its toll on me, and you were absolutely right. It wasn’t until many years later (at this point I was in corrections) that we were having a heated conversation about why I had decided to get into all this and I just blurted out for the first time in my life that it was because I was tired of being the smart one in the family.
I was tired of being praised as the straight-A student, the one with all the answers and high expectations, and with teachers fighting over me. I wanted to be tough like my uncle, I wanted to be feared, I wanted to have stories to tell, I wanted to have a history, and boy, have I built quite a history. Your response was that I had chosen the wrong figure to emulate. That although you loved my uncle very much, he carried a gun not because he was tough, but because he was constantly afraid of everything he had done and he lived in a permanent depression. I should have tried to be more like my other uncle who started his business from nothing, who started his family and provided not only for them but for others as well, who was kind and compassionate and, although he had his vices too, he did everything in his power to control them. I gave my notice to the DOC one month later.
You weren’t always right in everything you did, but I know now you had good intentions. I know going through my cell phone while I was in college and calling my friends to tell them to stop drinking with me was wrong and for them, confusing. Especially since, at the time, I was training for amateur boxing, going to school full time, working a job that ended up being about 30 hours per week, and trying to maintain a serious relationship. When I told them of your passing, they said that you loved me without a doubt and that they never held what you told them against you. It would be wrong for me to hold it against you.
When you called the police on me for a welfare check simply because I hadn’t called you or responded to your phone calls (all 30 of them) within an hour well, that was just embarrassing, as I ended up knowing most of those guys. All four times.
But it wasn’t all bad. I’ve had some very good memories seared into my brain. Like when you told Dad to teach me how to box when I was six years old so I could fight back when that bully was beating me up at school. And then I did, and he moved on to another kid, and his mom was crying to you while waiting for me at school, you told me on the drive home that I should do something about it. I felt like I was in one of the Godfather movies. I also remember pretending we were Chicago Cubs players and playing catch with you. You were Rick Sutcliffe and I was Jody Davis.
There was also that time when The Lion King came out in movie theaters, we happened to be in Mexico that summer. You took me to watch the movie along with a good friend of the family. As I was driving back from hospice after seeing you, I couldn’t help but play The Lion King soundtrack. It made me cry, but it made me think of you. I will always think of you when I see that movie. I recall watching the Cubs during the playoffs with you at your place in 2015 because I was a couple of weeks away from major surgery and I was afraid to be alone at home.
I recall you finding out through my cousins that I had been part of a pin-up calendar for my rugby team and you just had the time of your life with that. I’d never seen you laugh so hard. I remember taking you out to celebrate your 84th birthday, having you facetime with family back home and you tried your first mimosa ever. Two months before we shared a glass of Rumchata for my birthday, another first for you.
When we went to see you before you left us, my old boxing coach was there and he said goodbye to you too. We both recall how you sat ringside for my fights and yelled for blood, probably just like you had when you were a kid and your dad had taken you to see my dad, your future husband. My coach admitted to me that he had had numerous conversations with you and you had expressed that you just always wanted me to be alright. I hope you understand I will be, eventually.
I know you had to leave me because it was your time because it was not fair for you to be in any more pain. I still wish I had you around longer, for you to scold me, to comfort me, to cook for me, and more than anything, to know that I’m not alone. Just like dad said when he lost my brother two months before I was born, that God had taken one son but had provided another, I have lost one woman in my life but have gained two.
After a year and a half hiatus of not dating, and thinking I never would again, I’ve met the most amazing girlfriend, and she comes with a daughter that I love very much as well. She was there when I last saw you because she has been nothing but supportive, and I want you to know that you have nothing to worry about. I also want you to know I have an army of friends who have contacted me, from the very first friend I met in kindergarten to the family that moved in down the hall from you last year. The pharmacists at Walgreens also paid their condolences and offered their support. You were truly loved, and I am not alone.
I know we both had differences as far as our faith and what religion meant to us, but I don’t think anyone can truly answer what happens to us after we die until we die. Regardless, I hope you are with Papa, and Abuela and Abuelo, Tio Tono, Tio Ray, Tio Roberto, Tia Elsa, Tia Delia, Tia Consuelo, Tia Celia, Tio Jesus, Tio Ruben, Norma, Juvenal, Roberto, Luis, Andres, Lala, Rodolfo, Rudy, Hector, Abuelo Ismael, Pime and I hope my friends David, Craig, Phil and Mike keep you company as well. I hope you can keep watching over me. My crazy days are over; however, you never know. Although, please no more welfare checks. And if you can, make sure I don’t mess up your recipes too badly.
Thank you for everything you did.
Some people say, “You only go around the world once.” But Nader Gamez can tell you that it can be done a few times. Nader has a wide background of experience in his upbringing, describing himself as “Basically a Chicago street thug combined with border town Texican and a side of Madison Midwesterner.” He graduated with a BA in International Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a minor in drinking.