‘Not Being Able To Say Goodbye … Haunts You’

When activist Jorge Valdivia lost his brother to COVID-19, who lived his life to the fullest, Valdivia was inspired to apply to grad school.

A photo of the author in front of script handwriting.
Couresy of Jorge Valdivia. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.
A photo of the author in front of script handwriting.
Couresy of Jorge Valdivia. Illustration by Jessica Martinaitis.

‘Not Being Able To Say Goodbye … Haunts You’

When activist Jorge Valdivia lost his brother to COVID-19, who lived his life to the fullest, Valdivia was inspired to apply to grad school.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the Little Village neighborhood.

My summers were filled with the sounds of paleteros ringing the bells of the ice cream carts they pushed through the neighborhood. Little kids hid in between cars playing hide and seek or kick the can. The older kids sat on the front stoops of my house with a boombox playing high energy tunes like Freez’s “I.O.U.”

My older brother Mauricio was one of those cool kids from the neighborhood that everyone knew. He’d sit with his friends on our front stairs and watch me as I played with my friends.

That was then, and this is now.

In 2020, I lost my brother to COVID-19. Not being able to say goodbye to someone you love, to hold their hand as they take their last dying breath, is something that haunts you.

Mauricio wasn’t just my brother though. He was my cheerleader. He was the one person in my family that constantly told me he loved me and was proud of me. He motivated me and everyone else around him. And now, he was gone.

I was forced to grieve in isolation, unable to be with my family because we were so afraid of anyone else dying. I kept the TV on just so I could hear some noise in my apartment.

But watching the news, seeing daily death tolls rise and knowing that my brother was now one of those numbers, just made me feel worse. And watching how wearing face masks and COVID-19 were being politicized seemed like an insult to Mauricio’s memory and to everyone else we lost to this virus.

I fell into a state of anxiety and depression I had never experienced before in my life. But the loss of my brother, someone who lived life to the fullest, inspired me to do something I had started but never finished: apply to graduate school.

It’s not easy applying to graduate school when your mind is in a haze. I somehow mustered the energy and focus to submit my application.

I brought up my brother’s name during my graduate school interview and started to cry.

I don’t remember the question. Maybe she was asking who inspired me, maybe I was just being emotional the way I had been for most of 2020. Whatever it was, I remember thinking I had bombed the interview.

Weeks later, I got an email. I ran to my office and right before clicking open, I stared at my brother’s urn by my desk.

I said, “If I get accepted, I’m doing this for myself. I’m doing this for you. And I’m doing this for our community.” As soon as I read the words, “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted …” I started crying.

When we were finally able to hold a mass for my brother, a few of his friends gathered with us in my family’s backyard. We shared stories of our life with Mauri, as everyone affectionately called him.

One thing we all realized was that he had made it a point to always tell every single one of us that he loved us and was proud of us. It was moving to know my brother had cheered and inspired so many of the people he knew.

So here we are a year later. I’m a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The teenage version of myself, the son of immigrants who never quite knew how to support their children academically, never imagined this possibility for myself.

I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. And I now have a great new job that I absolutely love and a new apartment I’m slowly turning into my new home.

And just like the spring sun that’s slowly melting away any remnants of winter, I’ve slowly come out of the depression I was in last year. 2020 was the year I learned just how resilient I can be.

Today, I continue to discover new ways to practice self-love. And while my brother, Mauricio, may not be here physically to witness my accomplishments, I know exactly what he’d say to me if he were: “I’m proud of you. I love you, little brother.”

About the author: Jorge Valdivia, a Latinx LGBT activist, is the Director of Performing Arts, Film and Literature for the National Museum of Mexican Art and a cofounder of the Latino Writers Initiative.

Mariah Woelfel produced this story for audio. Follow her @MariahWoelfel. Jessica Martinaitis and Mary Hall produced this for digital. Follow them @jess_morgan and @hall_marye.