My father often talked about wanting to end his life. He felt trapped on Earth, in his body, but mostly in his mind. My relationship with him had always been a tough pill to swallow, but I was determined to understand his ruthless battle with bipolar disorder.
I took on the challenge of studying my father and his condition by photographing his daily endeavors. The intimacy in which the photographs occurred, speak to my father’s generosity in sharing his life with a public audience. He suffered greatly from emotional instability and granted us the opportunity to peek into living with and confronting a mental illness.
My father learned about and introduced me to Project Semicolon ; a “non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction, and self-injury.” We joined the movement, and I held his hand as he got his first tattoo, a semicolon on his left arm. I have no doubt that even on the darkest days my father fought relentlessly for his life. However, the ending to his story was traumatic and unexpected.
After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico became paralyzed for months. The government failed in its ability to help its people and chaos dragged on for much longer than it should have. During this time, calls were on the rise at Linea PAS, Puerto Rico’s only suicide prevention hotline. This brought attention to the island’s severe mental health crisis. During this same time, I noticed a major downfall in my father’s behavior due to the inaccessibility of doctors and medications, which he heavily relied on to survive.
When I was first informed that my father was in the hospital due to burn wounds, I wondered if his injuries had been self-inflicted. I later found out that they had been caused in an unforeseen accident. While transporting a propane gas tank in his car, my father lit a cigarette, and a small gas leak caused the cabin to catch fire. Witnesses say they saw him jump out of the window crying for help, but at that point, 64 percent of his body had already suffered third degree burns. I knew my father wasn’t going to make it. Not because he wasn’t strong enough to pull through, but because this would be the perfect chance for him to obtain the peace that he had long been searching for. With a broken heart, I told him to go find his freedom, and he gave himself permission to move on.
Shortly after, with his ashes in my suitcase, I traveled to Ecuador, his favorite country in the world. I carried his weight on my shoulders through a physically grueling hike to a volcanic crater in the Ecuadorian Andes. I spread his ashes overlooking the Quilotoa Lake and it was absolutely breathtaking. I have never felt more accomplished and at peace in my heart. I was given the opportunity to get to know my father through my art, and that has been the greatest gift of all.