Life without Oscar
Atlanta newcomer comes to terms with the absence of her son.
I had Lasik eye surgery on Jan. 7, 2015, coincidentally my son’s 17th birthday and his last. For the first time, I was able to see without glasses. It was life-changing, one of the best things I ever did for myself for all the reasons people say.
When Oscar was murdered six months later, I discovered an additional benefit: It simplified crying. No more distracted concerns about contacts floating away. No fogging up glasses or dramatically setting them aside to wipe away tears. No visual impairment blurring the concerned faces of those around me, or the hard edges of what had happened. When Oscar died, I had 20/20 vision to take it all in.
I had raised a child, through all his struggles, almost to a man, while raising myself to a woman, through all my own struggles. I’d seen light at the end of a very long tunnel, light enough to breathe, only to come out the other side to this apocalypse where Oscar was gone.
I realize now there was refuge in blurred vision. Taking off my glasses before bed signaled the end of the day, time to rest. That is gone. Now I remind myself to sleep in other ways. Now I manage the emotional flood of visual information I receive when I wake up in the morning.
I often wonder if I would have had the surgery after Oscar died. Just one of many what-ifs, and I usually end up on the “no” side. So, I feel oddly grateful to him for the gift of my sight, even as I ache to give it back.
Oscar and me
Over and over I have had to survive without Oscar.
Oscar’s father came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 16. We both worked at a family-owned restaurant in Santa Maria, a small town on the central coast of California just north of Santa Barbara. When I became pregnant I moved in with him and his close-knit family, who warmly welcomed me. Three weeks after Oscar was born, his father and I were married and applied for his permanent residency, which required him to return to Mexico for a period of time.
While we waited for his case to be reviewed, months passed. I juggled community college, my job at the mall, and caring for Oscar, with the help of my in-laws. It was heartbreaking to see Oscar separated from his dad for so long.
At the age of 18, I sent my 1-year-old baby to Mexico. Oscar needed to spend time with his dad, and immigration services said we still had two more months to wait. I kept up with work and school while two months became four, four became six. Ultimately I spent an excruciating eight months without Oscar that I never would have knowingly agreed to.
This was 1999, no cell phones for us. The small town in Mexico where they lived had one pay phone. Expensive calling cards and carefully orchestrated timing gave us just a few short, heartbreaking minutes together. I have a handful of photos from those eight months, some showing Oscar marked up by chickenpox. We made it through because we had to.
During the time they were in Mexico, I developed a passion for film and video production. I moved from my in-laws’ house in Santa Maria to Los Angeles, where I took film classes and found work as a production assistant. When the immigration application was approved, I went to pick up Oscar and his dad in Juarez, bringing them to our new home. However, Oscar’s dad made it clear his future was not Los Angeles. Leaving everything behind, I returned to Santa Maria with him — but our relationship ended soon after. So I resettled in a cute apartment near the local mall and the library. Oscar split his time between my home and his dad’s. For a special few months, I savored my life with him.
In fall 2001, I moved four and a half hours away to study communications at University of California, Berkeley. Rents and cost of living were high. The only way I could manage Oscar living with me would be in family student housing, which had a wait list. I took a studio apartment, and Oscar’s dad agreed to keep our son temporarily. It was depressing to be without my baby again, in a place where I knew no one, studying, working in restaurants, driving back and forth to Santa Maria whenever I could.
When my name finally came up for housing, I thought my dreams were coming true. I paid my $500 deposit and prepared to bring Oscar home. I had just one more year of school before I would become the first in my family to graduate from university.
But Oscar’s father had a change of heart and refused to let him go. Too much time had passed. Oscar was 5 and had been living with his dad almost two years. In Santa Maria he had adoring grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Resisting felt selfish and futile. Through mediation, I agreed to relinquish physical custody, keeping joint legal custody and a formal visitation agreement.
I can still see the family student housing with the swing sets in my mind, fading away, along with the life I’d planned for us.
My childhood was defined by families in stages of separation. My dad and mother had endured difficult childhoods and became estranged from their families. They married after meeting in church and divorced eight years later, with three kids. I was the oldest. With my father in the Navy and often out to sea, and my mother struggling with mental illness, our living situation was not stable or predictable. We changed schools often and occasionally stayed with other families. During one six-month stint with a homeschooling family from church, the couple delivered their 13th child.
From an early age I mothered my little sister and brother — they were my responsibility. When I was 12, my dad told me I was old enough to choose to live with him. He said my siblings would follow later, but that I had to be the first to leave, to tell my mother. It was traumatic to abandon my sister and brother alone in terrible living conditions, even briefly, but I had no choice. It was our only way out.
As I finished seventh grade at Virginia Beach Junior High School, my father retired from the Navy and moved us all to Santa Maria, California, where we stayed with his old Navy buddy, his wife and four kids. They lived what we considered a “normal” existence, and it felt surreal to us. They owned a big house, drove a Suburban, attended Lutheran church, baked homemade bread and lemon bars. Back in Virginia, we’d lived paycheck to paycheck, sometimes eating white bread and ketchup sandwiches, while I cleaned houses and handed the money over my dad, who pawned things to get us through. In contrast, Santa Maria was heaven.
The peace didn’t last. My father and his friend’s wife began a relationship, and she left her husband, to become my step-mom, officially excusing me from my motherly duties. After moving around for a while, staying in motels and a campground, we finally rented a house.
High school provided my first taste of stability. For three years we lived in one house, and I flourished. It was challenging for me to let go of being the “mom” figure, but then I began to disappear into school, avoiding the drama of home. I joined band and multiple choirs and theater productions at school and church.
Things started to crumble in my senior year. There was another series of moves. It’s a long convoluted story, but it’s not my story. I left. I was 17 and planned to go to college, so I moved into a trailer, attended classes and worked two jobs. I was officially on my own, and it was tough, but I figured it out.
That is what I told myself when I gave up custody of Oscar. We would figure it out. What was most important was that he was safe and happy. He would be surrounded by a loving, stable family, and we would make it through.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, I moved to New York City and found work at a feminist organization. I began to process my experiences and conflicted emotions as a noncustodial, long-distance mom. I wrote an essay about it that was published online, and it led to an interview with Marie Claire magazine and an appearance on the “Today Show.” I started my own blog. I talked about gendered expectations around parenting, the stigma facing women without custody, the challenges noncustodial parents face. There is no one-size-fits-all family, I said, and our family had found a way that worked for us. It reached a lot of people, and still today I hear from parents struggling with these issues.
I did this for survival, to understand what had happened and who I was. Still, I grieved over my time apart from Oscar, with a pain that was only alleviated when he visited me during school breaks. Before he’d arrive, I’d grow anxious over how little time we had together. I would write lists of places to go and things to do, but it was enough just to relax together and be ourselves. I helped him with homework and reading. He enjoyed playing games and showing off how cool he was and uncool I was. Those long visits provided an opportunity for “everyday-ness” that we didn’t usually have.
But as he got older, Oscar wanted to spend more time with his friends. When he turned 10, he balked at the month-long visit we’d planned that summer. I had to recognize him as his own unique person whose growth and happiness I valued and supported, so we negotiated his trip down to two weeks. After that our visits were shorter but more frequent.
My child growing up felt like another loss, but we were still making our family work. I remarried and found my identity and purpose working for LGBT, feminist and racial justice causes. And Oscar was making good grades, had perfect attendance at school, competed in championship boxing and practiced hip-hop dance moves. He deeply loved his family and friends and filled every room with his magnetic energy, drawing people to him with his playful sense of humor, cool kid charm and big heart.
At that time, our story had a narrative arc that made it easy to tell. But kids don’t stay one age. Just when you think you’ve got it down, they grow up. The same goes for the rest of us. At the beginning of Oscar’s junior high school career, his dad re-married and brought a new step-mom and three siblings into the fold. I changed jobs, left my second marriage and started a new relationship. Soon after, Oscar’s grades began to drop, preventing him from playing sports, which had always provided a vital outlet. He started getting into trouble. He wouldn’t come home for days, then weeks, at a time. We were frantic, reaching out to his friends, trying to locate him. We explored various interventions but nothing seemed to work. It was challenging to find resources to help us.
When he was arrested for stealing liquor from a grocery store and sent to juvenile hall, we felt relieved. At least we knew where he was. But we didn’t want Oscar in the system. I knew that having a record would unfairly criminalize him, as it did many Latino youth, and begin a cycle that was challenging to escape. After he tested positive for marijuana, Oscar never visited me again in New York. Probation would not permit him to leave the state.
Oscar spent six months in Los Prietos Boys Camp where he excelled in everything: morning calisthenics, academic lessons, counseling sessions. He was well liked and earned the respect of the administrators and probation officers. In the last months of his life, he was back at school, applying for jobs, dating a girl whose family loved him, and talking about his future career plans.
It seemed he had rounded the corner.
Making sense of it
I was in Nova Scotia, writing a book about the grief of being a long-distance, noncustodial mom, when I received the call that Oscar had been killed. Just days before I had written in my journal about “the inescapable loss of irretrievable days I never had, that I will never have.”
Then suddenly, he was lost forever.
It made no sense. Santa Maria sees a handful of homicides — if any — in a year. If there was one thing I knew to be true, the town where he grew up was the safest, best place for Oscar. We’d bet our lives on it.
Yet Oscar was viciously attacked, shot and killed at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
News reports cited the extreme violence of Oscar’s murder, saying his death marked a spike in homicides that year. A year later, we had some answers. Twelve alleged members of the MS-13 gang now face murder and conspiracy charges for 10 deaths including Oscar’s, and attempted murder of 14 others.
You couldn’t ask for a better villain than MS-13, an international gang started by Salvadoran youths in Los Angeles in the ‘80s. It has almost become a household name, thanks to President Trump who exploits the gang’s activities in anti-immigrant rhetoric calling for racial profiling and deportations. It enrages me as an activist to see such actions taken in my son’s name.
When I tell someone that Oscar was killed, they are horrified. When they hear he was allegedly the victim of MS-13 gang members, there is a pause. They ask, “Was he involved?” For most people, there is only a yes or a no answer, and as I respond, I notice their attention has already drifted. They’ve categorized Oscar’s death as unfortunate but something we should have seen coming — maybe it was even Oscar’s fault, or mine.
As his mother, I naturally asked myself: Were we good parents? Could we have done more?
A couple of months after Oscar’s funeral, I went back to Santa Maria, needing to feel close to him and learn more about what he was going through during the last months of his life.
I reached out to the therapist with whom I’d signed Oscar up for weekly visits the year before. The day we found out Oscar was killed, the therapist’s assistant had called with an appointment reminder as we were racing to the airport. She was kind and extended condolences, but I never heard from the therapist himself.
He agreed to see me, but it was distressing, as I stumbled over my words and long pauses, waiting for him to say something, anything. He offered few words of sympathy and with audible frustration, he finally said, “No offense, but the parental structure wasn’t there for him. His father was in denial, you were on the other side of the country. The bond with the parents has to be stronger than the streets.”
I was filled with immense sadness. At first, to be blamed for Oscar’s death so directly, but mostly because this was the person who was supposed to help Oscar. I’d placed my son in the care of this person sitting back in his seat, sighing, with less compassion than anyone I had ever met, with such disdain and resignation. Oscar deserved better.
Everyone else I spoke to, on the other hand, was as grateful to speak to me as I was to them. Oscar’s death had been a huge shock to the Santa Maria community at large, and anyone who’d known him was affected. Oscar was widely loved, admired and respected, even among the authorities tasked with his rehabilitation. Probation officers, schoolteachers and administrators all spoke highly of Oscar’s commitment and hard work, noting how lucky he was to have had a family that loved him. His schoolteachers and administrators commented on how respectful and hard working he was. They acknowledged that gang activity was so rife in the schools, kids were forced to pick a side. They told me that Oscar had spoken of me with pride. The boys at Los Prietos Camp expressed how much he meant to them, and how they were inspired to succeed the way he would have wanted them to.
Oscar was special. He moved between worlds with curiosity and grace. He was bilingual, bi-coastal, and a part of many different social circles. There are people who never knew Oscar who have cried tears for him and there are beautiful children in the world who have been named in his honor. None of us knew Oscar completely and might not ever know all of his worlds. We all loved how he made us feel, and we admired, even envied, the way he carried himself, so stylish, so cool, so comfortable with love. He brought us all together.
Accepting his absence
As shocking as Oscar’s murder was, as devastating the loss, the experience of it and its wake has not been an entirely unfamiliar feeling. Everything in my life prepared me for this, and nothing. All the losses, the endless reinventions, knowing there is nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other, that somehow I’ll come out the other side. And missing him. I really know how to miss him.
One of the most public grieving moments I had was running the 2016 NYC Marathon, which had long been a goal of mine. A friend made me a shirt that says “Oscar’s Mom” on the front, and on the back had his image, an infinity sign and the years of his birth and death: 1998-2015. “Oscar’s going to be so proud when he sees you!” someone shouted as I ran. Despite an injury I’d gotten the week before, I still made it through, hobbling with the assistance of my loving partner, in the bitter dark cold, one of the last to finish. As I crossed the finish line, I was cheered on by the announcer: “Go Oscar’s Mom!”
Less public was my last race before I moved to Atlanta, the October 2016 half marathon in Staten Island. That morning, I did something I’d never done before, grabbing Oscar’s photo out of my wallet as I left the house. He is holding a lightning bolt pose in front of a sign that says “Just Enjoy the Game.”
It started raining from the start, and soon it was a torrent. I have a fear of running in the rain — I never do it except when running major races that I cannot avoid. As I slowed to a walk in the downpour, shoes soggy, 11 miles to go, I sobbed. Overwhelmed by the moment, I clutched his photo, initially saddened that the corners were curling up and regretting having brought it. Then I allowed all the grief inside to spill over and out until I felt myself letting go as a calm came over me. This is it, I thought. Me, in my body, walking in the rain. Whether or not I wanted it to be raining. This is what’s left. All these drops, and the feeling of them. Just enjoy the game.
There is a story in which Oscar’s death is the end of me, and another in which it is the beginning of the life I have now: A bereaved mother, newly living in Atlanta, introducing myself to people who do not know me as Oscar’s mom and experiencing all kinds of newness that brings with it a sharp edge.
The practice of wishing Oscar were by my side is one I know well. “Oscar would have loved this,” has been my autopilot since his birth. I always held a space for him, energized by the prospect that “maybe one day I can show him.” The practice of accepting his physical absence is unfamiliar. To feel fully, leaning into a moment, with only myself to show for it, feels wrong. And yet, somehow I feel closer to Oscar when I allow myself do it, to let go of the struggle. Oscar wanted people to be happy, to have fun, and Oscar’s legacy is love. So I’m trying new things. I don’t want to be the same because it would be as if he didn’t matter. I connect with people differently, I see the world with new eyes, and I’m going to try to love it with some of Oscar’s heart.
ABOUT THIS STORY
This story was borne from a Facebook message posted by a new acquaintance. I knew she’d experienced a tragedy, but I didn’t know the details. Something about that post prompted me to contact her and ask her to write this story. I’m glad she said yes. It is an inspiring story about the power of love and perseverance.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rebekah Spicuglia is a writer and bereaved mother. For 15 years, she has worked infilm, public relations and strategic communications for nonprofit social changeorganizations on a wide range of issues that impact people of color, women andLGBTQ communities. Rebekah is now program manager for Family Storyand newly living in Atlanta after more than a decade in NYC.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Alyssa Pointer is a staff photojournalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She graduated from Western Kentucky University and has worked as a visual storyteller in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky. No matter her surroundings, she strives to create impactful images of the people and places within a community. She loves challenging her visual perspective with daily assignments and finds the most joy in working on long term projects.