When I write from Narrm or Birraranga where sovereignty was never ceded, I do so as an uninvited guest, a settler. My own Blackness and Indigeneity doesn’t change this fact. So, I offer my respects to the elders of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, past, present and emerging—on whose unceded land this piece was written—and to any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folks encountering my work.
CW: This story contains mentions of suicide and mental illnesses.
Five-year-old me is scowling at whoever took the photo, fazendo um bico worthy of an Oscar. The left side of my face is twice its size, with three big blots of raw flesh exposed, purple bruises already forming under my eyes. While they were freakishly large back then, in the picture they are tiny and puffy from all the crying—the rapid swelling swallowing all my features like quicksand.
Mamãe is sitting to my right, tending to my wounds. Her mouth is wide open, all of her teeth on display, eyes watery with glee. She’s laughing.
The photo itself is ‘90s-terrible. You can see the ceiling but not our feet, and the flash’s turned our brown skin nearly paper-white. The camera was always loaded with film in case something deemed worthy of recording happened.
“Dalila! João Pedro! Pega a máquina!”
We rarely actually found the thing in time, and I’m not sure who decided this particular moment should be immortalised, but the photo exists.
I can hear my mãe’s laughter when I look at it, as well as that fucking Gonzaguinha song she’d suddenly bellow out in the most morbid of occasions.
“Viverrr, e não ter a vergonha de ser feliz-”
Her voice is far from angelic, but it was the words that infuriated me. What exactly were we supposed to be so unashamedly happy about?
“Mãa-ãaaae! Paa-raa!” I’d beg.
As a kid, o bico would come out whenever I looked at the picture. The little recollection I have of the accident is absolutely cinematic. Watching a bush of purple flowers go by as my face dragged on the asphalt in slow motion. The sound of my own guttural screaming. A handsome stranger delivering me to our front door in his arms.
Needless to say, I was quite the dramatic child—perhaps a side effect of growing up watching too many novelas. But I got hurt pretty bad that night, so why was my mãe laughing?
If I was a dramatic child, it was nothing compared to the emotional monster I became once I hit puberty. At the peak of my teen angst, Mamãe decided it was time to recruit professional help. The GP waved away my symptoms lazily. A sixteen-year-old girl with feelings she couldn’t control?
“Must be all the hormones.”
He sent us off with a script for the pill, reassuring my apprehensive mãe that it would take care of my mood swings.
No matter the emotion, I was always more prone to crying than anything else. Grades below an A+? Crying. An unrequited crush? Crying. Terrible haircuts (and they were always terrible)? Crying. Insomnia, fights with friends, first kisses, brand new pimples, A Walk to Remember featuring the incomparable Mandy Moore? Crying, crying, crying.
My mother’s response? Laughter, then,
“Viverrrr, e não ter a vergonha de ser feliz-”
After my first suicide attempt, I learned that being dramatic had little to do with novelas or hormones. Turns out it was a whole lot of trauma. Trauma that my brain had been trying to bury deep down in its secret chambers in an attempt to protect me.
The more I remembered, the worse the symptoms became. I couldn’t sleep until I could do nothing but sleep. I became afraid of people and, eventually, of the outside world. The mere idea of leaving my tiny apartment sent me into fits of panic. Though I began remembering things from my past, I’d lose whole chunks of my day to day life. I was losing control of the things my mind and body did. So, at nineteen, I tried to die.
Mamãe was eerily quiet that day. I couldn’t speak through the plastic tube in my mouth, so I tried to will her into singing that fucking Gonzaguinha song that used to make me so angry I’d cry, by doing so in my head.
I wanted so badly for the sound of her laughter to break through the repetitive beeping of the hospital machines.
I must’ve written thousands of words about my mãe’s laughter since then—there’s no sound in the world more beautiful to me. It’s loud, uninhibited, contagious, delicious.
She didn’t laugh or sing when it happened again when I was twenty-two. Or when I was twenty-four. She didn’t laugh or sing when it happened again four months ago.
My irmã also used to get upset looking at the photo. Uncaptured was Mamãe’s immediate shock reaction. Dalila and the downstairs neighbour used to give us little sisters dinky rides on their bikes, even though—or maybe because—they were explicitly told not to. I was on the handlebars of Marcela’s bicycle when the thing decided to fool the laws of physics by stopping and turning itself upside down. Bike on top of Marcela, Marcela on top of me.
When the handsome stranger delivered us to the door, apparently our mãe took Dalila into the kitchen, grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her, hard.
“Eu não falei!? Eu não falei!?”
Mamãe doesn’t like looking at the photo either, ashamed at the recollection of that brief moment of mild violence towards her filha.
But she still does it, the laughing and singing in the most morbid of occasions. Like, when she asks me how I am over the phone, even though she knows I’m having a rough time. Mamãe will catch her own insensitivity and laugh.
“Horrivel né!” she’ll say. Then she bellows out the song.
I don’t protest anymore. You see, it was only recently that I listened to the words that follow those two lines. I’ve come to understand that—though her voice is far from angelic—my mãe’s singing is a prayer.
When I was a kid, I started getting these sharp pains in my heart that made it very difficult to breathe. The only way to inhale was to make my tiny hands into fists and press them down hard against my concave chest. After thoroughly examining me, Mamãe’s cardiologist friend concluded,
“Não é nada sério, só ansiedade mesmo.” It was the first time I heard those words being used to describe me.
My mãe, of course, laughed, threw her hands up in the air and said,
“Ansiedade? Mas ela tem oito anos de idade! Ansiosa com o que?”
The irony that she was a psychologist who spent much of her time treating children doesn’t escape me. I think she was just relieved that there was nothing physically wrong with me.
Nothing serious. Just anxiety.
Twenty years later and I still hear those words constantly—from general practitioners, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, cardiologists, physiotherapists, teachers, friends, family, complete strangers, gynaecologists, social workers, ICU doctors, urologists, dentists, ultrasound technicians-
Every year or so, I get a new fancy word or acronym to go with it. I’m pretty much just collecting DSM definitions at this point—so many diagnoses.
I do cry less these days, thanks to the cocktail of antidepressants, mood stabilisers and tranquilisers they’ve got me on.
It’s an uncomfortable, achy feeling, not being able to cry. Kind of like being constipated. I can feel it there, stuck in the back of my face for days at a time. The chest pains never went away either, so I still have to curl my hands into fists, press them down hard where my heart is, just so I can breathe.
And because I can’t cry, like my mãe, I try to laugh. Loudly, unashamedly.
Every once in a while, I even catch myself bellowing out our prayer.
E não ter a vergonha de ser feliz
Cantar e cantar e cantar
A beleza de ser um eterno aprendiz
Ah, meu Deus, eu sei (eu sei)
Que a vida devia ser bem melhor e será
Mas isso não impede que eu repita
É bonita, é bonita, e é bonita
Glossary (new page)
Ana Maria Gomides is an Afro-Brasileira goddess, a chronically ill warrior princess, a queer icon, and a low key bruxa, so watch yourself. She was blessed by the ancestors with the perfect booty, but was once described as “dancing like a Brown girl who grew up with no friends.” Moral of the story being, you can’t have it all.
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