|Stephen Rodriguez - NYC 2006|
When you love someone, really love someone, every piece of them is precious and important. You begin to examine each piece and love it as much as the total person – you might even reason that these pieces have chiseled this person into the one who you love.
When I met Mario he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. What made him especially breathtaking was that he didn’t know it. Later, when we became friends, I discovered he was among those who are gorgeous now, but grew up homely.
“I used to have ears that stuck out like this,” he told me, pushing his lobes straight out. “I was skinny and scared and wouldn’t talk to anyone.” It was hard for me to believe that this confident (and buff) man could ever be this way. Then he’d cap off the story by saying, “My brother Stephen was the outgoing one. He was the one everyone noticed.”
I had never met Stephen. Mario and I have now been married for twenty-seven years and I have never met Stephen. I, who actively sought to know every piece of Mario -the one who dug through his old journals, his old pictures, his high school yearbooks- had never met his older brother.
Anthony and Mario
Not long after Chev left for New York
Stephen, Mario and Anthony were born (in that order) to Angelo and Cynthia Rodriguez, one right after the other. By the time Anthony was two, Angelo decided enough was enough with the nine-to-five jobs and pursued his career as a stage actor. He was successful enough to live in New York City and travel the world. While he lived his dream (and changed his name to Chev Rogers), he met Alice, his soul-mate.
Cynthia remained in California and began the task of raising three boys on her own. After meeting a man named Al Warias at her work, Cynthia decided to remarry in 1964; Al became the German step-father who came in and “whipped the boys into shape” as Mario told me.
It didn’t work for the eldest son, Stephen.
Stephen had a will of iron and refused to be disciplined. Even worse, nothing seemed to motivate Stephen to play by the rules. He was always the kid jumping the fence, taking the illegal shortcuts, getting in fights, and cutting school.
Learning about Stephen was like watching a documentary. I had only stories, told to me by Cynthia, Mario, and Anthony. I had pictures, but they weren’t Stephen. I longed to hear his side of the story. I longed to meet him and see the man who was the missing piece of my husband’s puzzle. In truth, there was also another something: the more I knew of Stephen, the more he reminded me of myself.
The most memorable and longest-lasting reminder of Stephen is the scars on Mario’s hands and face from being burned by a floor grate. On impulse, Stephen had pushed a nine-year-old Mario against a floor heater and held him down, searing the mesh into his skin. It was Cynthia who heard the scuffle – then smelled the flesh burning. She came running and literally pulled Stephen off Mario. Cynthia told me the story of her horror – not about the fight, but that Stephen showed no remorse. He didn’t understand why his brother was “being such a baby”. It took two weeks for Mario's wounds to heal - the scars are still there.
The more Al and Cynthia tried to rein Stephen in, the more he rebelled. In an effort to recruit Mario over to his side, Stephen invited him to go and “burgle the school” one night. Stephen’s sense of excitement matched Mario’s complete fear.
“I told him no,” Mario said. “I asked him not to go. I told him he’d get caught – but he went anyway.”
The next morning, Al woke Mario up and told him that Stephen had been arrested and was in Juvenile Hall. In an attempt at tough love, Al left him in there for two days. Mario and Anthony were horrified and worried; after all, Stephen was their brother.
After this, Stephen was sent to live with Chev and Alice in New York. Two years later, Stephen left them to live with a family in Portugal. As the boys grew, so did the ocean of separation between them. By the time I came along, it was all stories. Memories. Old pictures.
|Chev (in costume), Stephen and Alice 1968|
Stephen was the missing puzzle piece.
Fast forward several years ahead. As Chev lay dying in a VA hospital just outside of New York City, he reminded Alice that he had THREE sons, not just two; he charged Anthony, the detective, to find Stephen. Chev died a few days later.
After thorough searching, Anthony found Stephen in the Midwest. He was divorced, but had two daughters. He seemed glad to be found and agreed to come and meet Mario and Anthony – at Alice’s apartment in New York City.
“I’m coming with you,” I told Mario, completely determined to meet this enigmatic part of the family.
Mario’s face told me another story: “It’s just us, babe,” he said. “It’s a time for us to reconnect as brothers.”
He flew to NYC to meet up with his brothers to discuss Chev, their Mom, the family... and where Stephen has been for the last thirty years.
|Anthony, Mario and Stephen|
New York City, 2006
Mario called me from Alice’s apartment and I became green with envy the moment he told me that Stephen brought his daughter, Anita.
“I thought you said it was a time for just you brothers!”
“Why does she get to be there and not me?”
Mario took a deep breath. “She says she came because she doesn’t know her father. She wants to know him, and this is the only way she could do it.” My envy dissolved into sympathy. The same could be said for me, but Stephen was not my father. How much longing did she have in her own heart to know him?
“You won’t believe this,” Mario told me. “She looks just like my mom.”
In a few minutes, Anita’s picture was in my inbox – and she was glowing with the same kind of translucent blonde beauty that Cynthia used to have. Later, she and Alice called me.
|Alice with Anita|
(who bears a striking resemblance to Cynthia, her grandmother)
A few months after Chev’s death, Stephen “went underground” again. Our contact with him became less and less, mainly facebook messaging. Once, when I posted a picture of a young Mario sitting on a split-rail fence, I captioned it: “Mario 1964. Just two years after Janet was born.”
Stephen commented: “Hey Mario. I recognize that fence. Who is Janet.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It was Anita who inboxed me last week, congratulating me on the birth of Harvey, our newest grandson. She also informed us that Stephen had just gone through a multiple bypass surgery on his heart and his kidneys were failing. Things did not look good, but she was hopeful that her father would get better.
Yesterday morning, Anita’s husband, John, called Mario to tell him that Stephen had died. Anita was too broken to come to the phone. It was a terrible feeling to lose Stephen. My first thought was that I would never meet him.
Alice and (our daughter) Alicia cried upon hearing the news. They had a connection with him that I never did – for that I was envious. Shirley called from vacation in China; we reconnected with nieces and nephews on Mario’s side of the family. Who were we? How can we grieve as a family?
Stephen was a private person and didn’t want a memorial service. Because of this, we are left to grieve in a disjointed and separate fashion; much like we related to Stephen.
My brother-in-law was an enigmatic man who I knew felt misunderstood by his family. I loved him for helping making Mario who he is today; but any more than that I did not know him.
For this I grieve; for him I grieve.
|Stephen and Mario on the split rail fence|