In 2013, I sat in prison serving a lengthy sentence with no outside support–no visits, no phone calls, and no money for commissary–only monthly letters from my brother, who was also incarcerated. Without love from family and friends, I had started to lose hope and my heart began to turn cold.
“Robinson!” a corrections guard said firmly through the cell door window. Anxious, I disregarded the TV and jumped up from my steel bunk. When I got to the door, the guard held a letter in one hand, and a bundle of mail in the other. “What’s your state number?” he asked. Because of mail deprivation, I stuttered when I confirmed my number. After the guard had handed me the letter through the trayslot, I quickly returned to my bunk.
“Who is Natalia Torres?” I thought. The sender’s name and New York address didn’t ring a bell. I had no idea who this person was. Out of curiosity, I peeled off the tape that kept the envelope sealed, pulled out the letter, unfolded it, and read “… you may not know who I am, but I know who you are. I am your father’s sister…” Confused, I had pondered why she reached out to me.
My father was a deadbeat. “That man doesn’t want anything to do with you,” was my mother’s expression after I’d begged her to meet my father. When I first met him as a teenager, his nonchalant words were “I don’t care.” I never saw or heard from my father again.
As I continued to read, however, my interest grew more, and more, and more. Something was digging into my emotions. “…Call me as soon as possible…I love you!” Suddenly I realized, those words were causing an emptiness inside of me to growl.
Fueled with excitement, I wasted no time to call her. “Hola!” she answered with an enthusiatic New York accent. Thanks to my Mexican soccer mates, I understood her hello; however, I wasn’t fluent, so the Spanish ceased almost immediately. However, the conversation was as if we had known each other our whole lives.
Sooner than later, our bond had grown to be inseparable. For months we spent countless hours on the phone, wrote each other every week, and it wasn’t long before she visited me. “You don’t have to be nervous. Everything is going to be okay,” she assured me as she grabbed my hand.
While my Aunt Natti and I had built a relationship my father and I remained strangers. Understanding of the situation, my aunt never antagonized the cold silence between my father and me. “Forgive him,” is what she told me. I did just that.
My Aunt Natti was a relentless teacher too. In her efforts to teach me Spanish, she had challenged me to write, read, and speak only in Spanish. Eventually Spanish became my second language. Before long, Bachata and reggaeton filled my music playlist.
Having been the proud Latina she was, my Aunt Natti also taught me my Dominican heritage and culture. Until then, neither my mother nor I knew I was half Hispanic. “I thought he was Indian,” my mother said when I shared the news.
Years later, the beautiful woman–inside and outside–who had become my best friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After suffering from severe migranes, my aunt’s doctor recommended a MRI. The results determined she had cerebral cancer with a short time to live. As much as she tried to prepare me, I wasn’t ready to move forward without my Aunt Natti. Her daily words of wisdom turned into months of motivational speeches.
By the end of 2018, God claimed the soul of my Aunt Natti. It felt like my world had been shaken by an earthquake. “One of my mother’s wishes was for you to get your freedom and have a successful writing career,” her daughter said before I drowned in painful tears.
From her warm welcome to her tragic goodbye, my loving aunt had helped me unravel my true identity. In addition to adopting the family’s last name, Torres, I unearthed passions and attributes–writing to name one–that were rooted deep inside of me.
People are placed in our life for a reason. They come in our best and worse circumstances. When I think of people like my aunt, the lyrics “…he may not come when you want Him, but He’ll be there right on time…” plays in my head. In my case, it was my Aunt Natti who God sent to deliver what I so desperately needed. She gave me love, hope, and purpose.