How Much Stronger Do I Need to Be? // Sandra Cortez
I was three years old when I was on a family vacation in Mexico. My brother, who was seven at the time, and I were running around chasing little chickens when I stepped on a board on the ground and fell into a well filled with water. My mother didn’t see me and said, “David where is your sister?” He looked into the hole in the ground and looked up and shrugged his shoulders. My mother immediately jumped up and began to panic realizing I had fallen in. While my mother and her aunt moved to action, I was at the bottom of this well looking around thinking “the water is so dirty” as I saw bugs and dirt floating around me, but I was calm. I remember breathing as though I was breathing in air and I looked up to the top. As I relive this experience I realize it must’ve been at least 15 feet deep of water I was sitting at the bottom of. On the surface, my mother wanted to jump in to save me, but her aunt prevented her from doing so because she said, “if you jump in and she rises up, you will kill her.” My aunt began to holster herself with rope and was going to scale down to find me, but as they did so, a miracle happened and I rose up with my hands together above my head (as if in a praying position) and they pulled me out of the water. When I was at the bottom looking at all the dirt and bugs in the water I remember everything went black and that must’ve been when I rose up. There was no logical explanation for me to have risen to the surface, other than knowing in my heart that it wasn’t my time to leave this earth and God brought me to the surface because he had a greater plan for my life.
Since then, I have experienced much adversity in my life. I was the youngest of four children and I grew up in a dysfunctional household where I witnessed drug abuse from my siblings, physical altercations, and experienced various incidents that were traumatic for me. I was raised in a Catholic home where we would go to church every Sunday and my mom would pray with me every night. I took great comfort in the prayer ritual my mother imparted to me because I feel that it set a foundation of spirituality in my life. She was a good hearted, kind, generous, and affectionate woman. My step father was a brute, he was aggressive, strict, and often misused his power. My biological father never took much interest in our lives.
I knew early on in my life that my life would be different from my siblings and I wouldn’t fall in their footsteps. I knew there was something greater for me in this life. At the young age of 13 I began helping my mom raise my nephew who was four at the time. At age 15 my second nephew was added to the mix, and although I had a mother instinct and was able to care and nurture them, it was stressful to manage, though it was expected of me. By the time I was 17 years old I had my first son and I was excited and ‘knew’ how to be a parent. I was well versed by this time on what a baby’s cry meant and how to care for another human being. I remember the day after giving birth to my son, I was in the hospital and he began to cry, so as I got up to attend to him, there was a nurse standing at the door just observing me. She saw that I had an inclination to properly attend to my baby and said, “Wow, you really know what you’re doing” and I told her that I had experience taking care of my nephews and she smiled and walked away. Even though I was in high school and had no job, I was prepared to care for my child. By the time I was 19 I had my second son and was in an abusive relationship with their alcoholic father and highly stressed. Their father was in and out of our lives and provided the greatest dysfunction I had ever known. The light inside me never failed me and I knew there was something better in store for me, I just knew it! I was confronted with this amazing responsibility of motherhood and doing right by my children. I wanted them to have the best life possible and I knew their father, or what he brought to the table was not it. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew exactly what I didn’t want. That time in my life was a huge turning point for me where I began a quest of self-discovery in who I was, not only as a mother, but as an individual, and human being.
I was terrified being a single mother and carrying the burden of providing for my children on my own because their father never provided for them. I remember feeling so fearful at the possibility of failing as a mother and I felt so alone. I recall putting my sons to bed and I would often sit in the dining room of our apartment and I would cry not knowing how I was going to pull off this parenting role. I had literally experienced an existential crisis and didn’t know which way to turn. I was forced to look at my life and figure out how I was going to make it better, things had to change. Years later I encountered a quote by Jim Rohn that says, “For things to change, you must change. For things to get better, you must get better.” Boy was that ever true! One of the most painful things I had to do was to learn about myself, I didn’t know who I was. My life had been about other people; caring for others and attending to their needs, I didn’t have time to know who I was, or think about what I needed. I was forced to exist at that point. I had to create my life and live my life based on my rules and choices, which was painful. According to Existentialism our choices brings about freedom. I began to design my life. Keep in mind I had no clue that’s what I was doing, it was as if something inside me knew and was guiding me.
I started with these innocent children that I brought into the world and asked myself what example I wanted to set for them; what did I want them to see in me and in the family we were to create. The first thing that came to mind was raising my kids and telling them “I love you,” which was something I never heard growing up. Even though my mother was an affectionate woman, she never said those words until I was an adult and even then, I can count on one hand how many times she said those words to me. I was implementing these changes in MY family that would ultimately shape who my children would become as adults and men. I showed them affection, told them I loved them, nurtured them, gave them structure, laughed with them, held them accountable for their actions, and showed them responsibility. Most importantly, I resolved to never leave them as their father had. Every time my children’s heart broke, mine broke even harder. In hindsight, a lot of my motivation and drive to achieve things in my life was the result of anger (that I had to do it on my own) and fear (I would never struggle like that again). I was angry that their father never supported them and never acknowledged them or their needs, which made our life so difficult, but somehow we kept moving forward.
Within a three year period, my brother and his two daughters all died of cancer. His oldest daughter, Rachel died at the age of nine from Leukemia. Angelica died at the age of seven from brain tumors. At the age of 27, my brother also died from brain tumors just three months after Angelica. It was a rare occurrence and really heartbreaking. My brother’s death jolted me not to take life for granted. I witnessed my brother go in and out of jail and addicted to drugs. He lived such a sad and meaningless life.
I pursued my college education doubtful I could achieve a degree. I was the first in my entire family (cousins, siblings, and all) that would go to college, so I had no one that could cheer me on to tell me “you can do it!” I had nothing or no one to draw from. Again in my life I felt that light inside me that told me I could do it and I did. I eventually obtained my Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and now I’m in my Doctorate program ready to finish in 2016, all in the area of psychology. The quote by Lao Tzu says it best, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I never had any example that would’ve let me know that if I chipped away at it (one class at a time) I would eventually cross the finish line.
On November 2, 2011 my biological father died suddenly of a massive heart attack and two weeks later my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. All the adversity up to that point made me strong, but after my dad died and my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I felt numb. I questioned God “How much stronger do I need to be?” Because I knew (and still know) that there is a reason for every heartache and challenge. My mother sadly died on July 13, 2013. My strength served a purpose to help my daughter grieve for her grandmother. My daughter was ten years old at the time and she was very close to my mom and I didn’t know how I was going to help her get through this, but she did.
I’ve been blessed to have good jobs that allowed me to provide for my children and the strength to do the job of two parents, while working full time and juggling school on top of that. I attribute my blessings to doing right by my kids and continuing to move forward in my life despite the challenges we had faced. I also never forget that God was directing my path all these years. I feel that everything I taught my children about living a good life; being a responsible, caring, loving, supporting, and hard-working adults were the very things I received from them during this process. They were the support and encouragement I never had. They were my cheerleaders that believed in me and watched me take one step after another until I crossed the finish line. Our struggles and hard work were the examples to teach them that anything in life is possible as long as you stay focused and work at it. But one of the most impactful moments in my life was when my oldest son looked me in the eyes and said, “Mom, thank you for never leaving us.”
All my hardship has prepared me for this time in my life. I have been blessed with perseverance, hard work, commitment, compassion, understanding, and humility that have made me a good mom and therapist in training.
This is to all the women out there struggling to make a difference, fighting to overcome their hardships. It is not in vain and you are not alone. If you think you cannot possibly get through your current circumstances, I’m here to tell you you can and you will. Life’s challenges are there to cause growth and help shape our character. We have everything we need to get through today. Let the light inside you shine a new path and help guide each new step you take. Let the story of your life help inspire you, give you hope, and empower you to overcome every adversity. I believe in you, you can do it!
Written by Sandra Cortez