Like many others, I began writing in the wake of an especially difficult period in my life. I think I was trying to make peace with my experiences, and find meaning in them through writing.
I was in my mid-twenties, had been married for about a year, and was pregnant with my first child. It was around my sixth month when my parents knocked on my door very early one morning. I knew when I heard from them at that uncommon hour that something was very wrong; in fact, I knew it must be my brother.
Jesse was three years older than me, my only sibling, and I had adored him throughout my childhood as younger siblings do, amidst constant roughhousing and tagging along. When we got older, things got complicated. He enlisted in the navy, and when he came home again, he was different. He battled mental illness and struggled off and on with substance abuse. There were good times and bad times, but that last year had been an especially bad time.
“He really did it,” my mom said as she walked through the door, sobbing. He had taken his life.
Jesse had struggled with thoughts of suicide before. I worked in mental health, and had talked to him about suicide a few times. He had promised that if he had those thoughts, he would talk to me before he acted on them. But that was months ago, and those thoughts must have gotten so oppressive that he lost his resolve to give life one more chance.
I spent the following months trying to forgive myself for not trying harder to save him; for not noticing him turning away from life; for not paying enough attention. I tried to forgive him for not thinking about me and my baby during this precious time, for making this decision that would hurt all those who loved him so profoundly, for not being able to accept and manage his pain.
I learned a great deal about grace. Sometimes the road to peace is paved with compassion—both for ourselves and for those who break our hearts.
As my due date approached, I focused on planning for the baby—painting the nursery, freezing meals, nesting. Two weeks from my due date, the other shoe dropped.
I was taking a weekend trip to the beach with my parents. My husband had to work, so he stayed home. Then I got a call from a gentleman asking if I had filed paperwork for my husband’s legal residency in the United States.
My husband is from Mexico. He grew up very poor, with a father who was often absent and sometimes abusive. He caught animals in the jungle when he got too hungry, and made shoes from the rubber of abandoned tires. His mother had some health problems, and they struggled to pay medical bills. Rafael quit high school and began working as soon as possible. He worked at a coffee factory over 12 hours a day, carrying heavy loads of coffee to be delivered to customers around the world. Being uneducated and having no ties to the United States made getting a visa to go there legally impossible. So when a cousin offered to front the bill to bring Rafael to the United States illegally, he jumped at the chance.
A short time later, after running for several days through the desert, drinking water from animal troughs and listening to coyotes describe others who had gone before him and perished, he made his way to the east coast, and began working in the food industry.
We met years later at a Mexican restaurant where we were both working. I thought he was attractive and one fateful taco Tuesday, he asked me on a date. We got married two years later.
He worked hard, paid taxes, obeyed the law, but was still undocumented. Contrary to popular belief, marrying an American citizen does not make one a legal resident. There was no path to citizenship for Rafael because he had entered the country illegally. If he left the country in order to apply for legal residency, he would be barred from returning for ten years. That means we would have had to live in Mexico for 10 years with no means of knowing whether we would ever be allowed back in. That was simply not a risk we were willing to take.
“Why do you want to know if I’ve filed paperwork?” I wondered, as I spoke to the gentleman on the phone. “He’s been arrested,” said the voice of the federal agent. My first thought was “I’m going to kill him,” and my second was, “Who is going to hold my hand when I go into labor?” I knew that I had taken a risk in marrying an undocumented immigrant, and that I was experiencing the consequences of choosing a partner who did not have the legal rights of an American. But, that didn’t stop me from crying tears of panic and frustration as I spent the next day driving to the Correctional Facility downstate only to be told that he was being held by immigration and that even though I had paid bail, he would not be released and I couldn’t speak to him. I then spent several days on the phone trying to find out where he was, and whether there was a possibility that I could get him out before our baby arrived.
Five days after his arrest I was able to pay $5000 bail and pick up my husband from a federal prison way out in the middle of nowhere, thanks to the help of family and friends. He was quiet and disheveled and unable to say much except, “I’m sorry.” He had been arrested for an unpaid ticket from years before for driving without a license, because of course he couldn’t get a license due to his legal status. My anger dissipated long before we finally stepped through our front door to the sound of him sobbing into his hands. We were utterly grateful to be together again.
Just over a week later our son was born. At the last minute, we decided to name him Rafael too, which means “God heals.” It seemed fitting. My parents were going through hell but having their first grandchild was a little glimpse of heaven. We were uncertain of where our family might end up, but certain of our faith.
Because of the backlog of immigration cases, Rafael finally returned to court for his hearing over two years after the arrest. In order to cancel his order for deportation, we had to prove something called “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” for the American family member (me) if he was deported. We argued that moving our family to a country like Mexico, where rates of violence and poverty are high, would be a great hardship. This was not enough on its own, but I was also diagnosed with major depression. Without the support of my family and therapist, it would get worse.
We also spoke in court about the work I do at a nonprofit which provides mental health and suicide prevention education. I felt like I was finally getting to a place in my career where I could do some good. I could do my best to turn my sweet brother’s death into a reason for people to listen to me, to start to understand how to prevent suicide, (the second leading cause of death for young people), and to speak more openly about mental illness.
The judge was not allowed to tell us her decision until visas became available, but we were hopeful because after hearing our story, the Prosecuting Attorney had no objections to the cancellation of Rafael’s deportation. She said that if Rafael were deported, I would suffer, my family would suffer, and ultimately our community would suffer. I will always be grateful for her understanding. I will always be grateful that we happened to get a judge who was also compassionate and understanding.
A few years later, we received the judge’s decision to cancel Rafael’s order for deportation, allowing him to eventually get a green card and legal status. Our immigration story has a happy ending. Of course, not all stories do, and we are aware of many families similar to our own who have not been so fortunate. While I have learned a great deal over the last decade or so about the topics of immigration and suicide as policy issues, I think what I have learned about giving and receiving compassion is probably much more valuable. I learned the reality of that old saying—that we should be kind to one another because everyone we meet is fighting a battle.
As parents we all want the best for our families, regardless of our differences. If a person disagrees with me, I now try to listen to their experiences before writing off their opinion. If someone is suffering, I am more likely to provide a listening ear and less likely to dish out simple solutions or think that I would have done something better if I were in their shoes. I listen, because we all have important stories to tell, and those stories are what help us become better parents, better leaders, better problem-solvers, and better people.