To feel pain, to feel joy.
Julio is one of those people who makes you grin simply because he exists. You think of him and the first thing you picture is the wide smile that stretches from cheek to cheek and lights up his dark brown eyes. He's really funny. Everybody loves him.
When I heard about the car accident I couldn't imagine what it felt like to be Julio, suddenly a different person carrying a great sadness. To lose two members of his family in the same moment. To feel so weak as he healed from his injuries, all the while trying to be strong for his grieving family. To become a person with mountains to face and nobody who could perfectly understand. The strangeness of being among friends who didn't know how to be there for him.
When we met we didn't live in the same city. We had mutual friends so when he visited we would make funny small talk between sips of coffee and mouthfuls of tacos. I didn't know him well. So when he moved to Portland more than a year after the accident and suggested we get coffee, I was excited but nervous. I wanted to get to know him, but I didn't know if I should ask about the tragedy. How could I know him without knowing what he'd been through? But isn't it painful to talk about?
To my surprise, Julio was the one who brought it up, only a few minutes into our conversation.
"Do you know about the accident?"
"A little," I said. I haven't known how to ask about it."
"You can ask me anything. It feels good to talk about it."
So we talked about it. Julio told the story from the very beginning. He told me about the collision with a drunk driver on the way to the airport, losing two people he's known his whole life, watching his mom recover, the way he decided to be strong for his family, and how he didn't want to be around most of his friends. He put his energy into school and kept to himself a lot of the time. Even with the little I knew about him, it was hard to imagine Julio being quiet instead of at the center of a circle making everyone laugh.
Deciding to be strong was a lot like feeling numb. Julio said that he didn't really cry for a long time, until one day he felt it was time to address the depths of what happened and what that meant. And finally, as he described allowing himself to grieve, I could picture him releasing himself to a mysterious ocean, to let the current pull him out toward a place where he could fully feel. There, he was tossed by waves and truly alive, even when he was choking on salt. It was real.
Surely every human responds differently to tragedy, and there's no "right" way to go through it. But I was amazed by Julio's perspective and the way he discovered beauty and even gratitude within the threads of unspeakable pain. He found deep meaning in some of the last moments his family was together and cherished the timing of kind words from his father.
Something that stood out to me is what Julio said about letting himself feel. Perhaps he was afraid of where sadness could take him, but he gave himself to its reality, and when he did, it unlocked the good stuff too. Instead of holding himself steady in a numb sort of neutral, he let go and felt the spectrum of emotions, becoming alive again. He considered it a good thing that he began to cry all the time.
I like to imagine Julio crying so good that he opened a big space in his heart for joy to enter in. And then, when given a good reason to laugh, joy poured in like water and filled his heart to the brim.