The Light and Shadow of Life

By Vilma Reyes, PsyD UCSF Magazine

Watercolor painting of a windswept field and forest with the shadow of a house in the background.
Illustration: Eglės Lipeikaitės

The saying “Todo tiene solución, menos la muerte” (“Everything has a solution, except death”) was instilled in every fiber of my being by my courageous parents, who always found a way forward. I am the product of the best of them – their persistent love, sacrifice, and generosity. From my mother, I learned “Se pone mas agua a la sopa” (“You can always add water to the soup”) as she shared her heart, her home, and her cooking with our large family. From my father, I learned to find humor in life, to marvel at the depth of the universe and the mind, and to trust in the benevolence of people.

When I was 11, terrorists attacked our family farm in Huacho, Peru. As my family ran away to hide, we saw men with rifles on the roof shooting at us and later heard bombs reducing our house to rubble. We miraculously survived, and my parents fled with me and my three brothers to the U.S., where we sought asylum. To this day, I am in awe of the courage and optimism that experience called for. Over 30 years later, I still recall the shock and horror, as well as my father’s strong hand holding mine, reassuring me that we would be OK. Light and shadow – the chiaroscuro of life.

It is no surprise that since 2009, I have devoted my career to child-parent psychotherapy, a method that restores a child’s sense of security through the parent-child relationship. I am honored to have learned from Dr. Alicia Lieberman, the developer of this model, at UCSF as well as from all the families who have entrusted me with their care. Their stories of overcoming and thriving after experiencing frightening violence and injustice teach and humble me. They echo a similar thread: Relationships are the greatest buffer to mediate harm.

The only thing my father could not find a solution for happened last year, when COVID-19, meningitis, and cancer took down this mountain of a man. To his dying day, he was steadfast with humor and optimism, dreaming of a farm he wanted to buy for his grandchildren. You will still find my mother living in the mountains, her skin weathered, her eyes brimming over with stories, boleros in the background, and plenty of hot chicken soup for anyone we bring to her home. I lean on the wise words of my parents, and my career mentors, as I now embark on the great adventure and honor of parenting my two young children with my wife. Light and shadow – the chiaroscuro of life.

Vilma Reyes is an associate clinical professor and a psychologist in the UCSF Child Trauma Research Program.

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