Happy Birthday, Papi

Today is my father’s birthday. Or, rather, it would’ve been if he were still alive. He’d be turning 82.

Next month, on Valentine’s day, will be the fourth anniversary of his passing. Four years. My son’s age–he was six months when my father left this world of conflict and pain and frustration.

My father wasn’t one to celebrate birthdays. He never really saw the need. In fact, one of his favorite anecdotes, about birthdays, went something like this: “When I was growing up, I never had parties or anything of the like. No. It was simple. I needed pants, so for my birthday, I got pants.” I wish I could remember the exact way his words that left his mouth, but now the memory melts into the idea of what he said: no parties, just pants.

That never stopped me, though. I do like parties and celebrating–always have. So on his birthday, I would either make him a card or I would spend hours perusing the greeting card sections at Hallmark (or Publix or Eckerds, now CVS), and then I would pen what I thought was a beautifully written sentiment. And it usually was, except it was in Spanish, and my Spanish, though good, wasn’t perfect. When I gave him the card on his birthday, then, I grew accustomed to him reading it, pen in hand, correcting my grammar in the greeting card. I have to say, though, it stung a little, and sometimes, I would fight the tears that threatened to overcome my eyes. It was a card, damnit! I’d think. Just a card. I wanted him to read past the errors (which weren’t that many!) and get to what I wanted him to know: that despite the differences and hardships and fights, I still loved him.

But love, for my dad, was different. I realize that now.

For gifts, oh that was difficult. What do you get a man who doesn’t want anything? The only thing he wanted were cigarettes–Winston ones in the red and white box. Some birthdays, that’s what he’d get. He’d already made it clear he wasn’t going to stop smoking. Not after he went months without smoking, after his leg was amputated (is it weird that I can’t remember which one right now?) and he was in temporary hospice. Not after all his doctors kept regañandolo because he was slowly killing himself. No, he wasn’t going to stop smoking. He was a man of stories, anecdotes to make his point. So for this he’d remind us that when his mother, my grandmother, was dying of breast cancer, and all she wanted was a cigarette, he fought everyone to give her one last “gusto”– “She was dying anyway; who are we to deny the dying?” That was his motto, I guess, and since, in his mind he was dying (though his “dying” lasted well over a decade), he felt we should heed his argument without question. So on his birthdays, we would sometimes relent and wrap up a box of Winston cigarettes in bright birthday wrapping paper, place a big bow on it, and present it as his birthday present. Those were his happier birthdays, I think, and in his later years would elicit a series of chuckles as he put on his shirt, grabbed one of the cigarettes and his lighter, and rolled outside of the apartment to smoke his birthday gift.

I think of him often. Not only as a daughter thinking about her dad, but as a kindred spirit who is just beginning to understand the workings of that man. I didn’t understand while he was living; I didn’t understand when, as a teenager, I saw him break things and scream and make my mom cry. I didn’t understand his pain and in not understanding, I couldn’t help him. My mom, I think, understood him. I am only just beginning to understand as I tread through my own journey of illness. And I wish so many times he were still alive and I could ask him questions. I miss him.

So happy birthday, Papi. We love you.

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Lost Treasures

Today I relished in a day off from having to drive up to work. No thirty-six-mile commute for me. Instead, after dropping my son off at school, I drove three minutes to the nearest Starbucks, where everyone knows my name (I have the melody from Cheers in my mind…) I parked myself there, with a venti Caramel Macchiato, and proceeded to rewrite the scene of my father’s death. I had decided that would be the scene I wanted to benefit from the manuscript consultation at Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference because it’s been one of the hardest to write. It will more than likely be one of the last chapters in my book, and one that is still raw. It’s been two and a half-years since he died, but I still remember every second of that day (though some parts have begun to fade along the edges and time has warped a little.)

I sat for almost four hours. I had a six-page “draft” I had churned out about a year and a half-ago. But it was all telling. It was a synopsis of what happened, but not real writing. So I put it aside and started fresh from memory, choosing a starting point that wasn’t the beginning, and worked it. I ended with ten pages, the limit I needed for the manuscript consultation. I know I can expand it more, though I don’t know if I need to. We’ll see how the consultation goes. It’s a deeply personal piece, one that I hope can stand on its own (in narrative) and that will be a part of the bigger picture (the book.)

After I finished, I had a quick bite at Subway (the usual – six-inch turkey and provolone cheese with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper – I don’t stray from that either.) Then I  returned a pair of shoes, and sat in my car, not sure where to next. I had at least another hour before I could go pick up my little one, since he was napping at school, and then it hit me: Go to mom’s house. I had to go anyway, because she’d made some Abui yogurt and soup, so it was the perfect excuse to go and esculcarle for the music sheets my dad had written me.

It’s always the same when I go to my mom’s house: I expect to see my dad. Even though a chair now sits at the head of the dining table, which was his place, and since he was in a wheelchair, didn’t need a chair, there was a glass of water on the table and a small prescription drug bottle on that side. My mom’s taken it over, but it reminds me of him.

(Note: I keep saying house, but it’s an apartment. We just always called it la casita when referring to it among ourselves.)

Anyway, my first greeting was a large roach on its back, dying. I sprayed some Raid on it, which caused it to start wiggling, causing me to itch. I despise roaches. I emptied out a small, white trashcan my mom had and placed it over the roach, giving it privacy while it died and giving me comfort that it wouldn’t suddenly spring back to life and chase me. Ha!

I went into my old bedroom, where I last knew the music sheets were, and I started searching. I looked around, moved books and boxes, removed bags, and found nothing. I prayed – Lord, illuminate me, give me an inclination where these things may be – and then I looked up. On the uppermost shelf of the closet where things, only I couldn’t tell exactly what those things were. So I moved a chair, climbed up, and moved some more. Sure enough, all the way to the back and right was a stack of folders and a white box. I got them and saw what I’d been looking for and so much more: awards, certificates, letters, music sheets, pictures, my baby book, school years memories, and old stories and poems I’d written! There was also a folder with information, schedule, etc. of when I played the bells for the superintendent of schools back in 1990 representing Everglades Elementary. Cool!

I came home with my treasure, eager to sift through it. I discovered (and somehow, I’d forgotten) that I wrote short stories when I was in high school, the early years. I remember writing poetry (really cliched, love-struck, rhyming poetry) because poems plagued my journals. But in a notebook, there they were: typed short stories with character development on a side sheet, typed in the first computer I owned: a hand-me-down dot-matrix computer! Insane. They were better than the poems I wrote (though that doesn’t necessarily say much about my writing back then)!

The best part, by far, has been the letters written to my mom and me by my dad, back in early 1990 when he went through a health crisis. He went to Colombia to get better, believing more in the doctors there than those here. These letters now give me a glimpse into his desperation, frustration and, more importantly, love. His love for us. His affection. I don’t remember that, and I wish I did. I wish I remember his telling me he loved me and he was proud of me. I wish I remember that affection. I don’t, but I now have these letters as proof they were real.

What prompted the search, though, and which I found, was the song he wrote for me when I turned nine. He played the piano, and he wanted me to learn. He also wrote music and lyrics, mostly religious ones when he was a priest. (I have recently found his collection of sheet music with church songs.) Well, he wrote two songs for me, that I remember: when I turned nine and when I went to Colombia by myself (I was also nine, almost ten.)

Here are the words to my daddy’s song (in Spanish, of course):

Mujercita eres ya
nueve son tus añitos. (Repeat)
El señor, que es tu Padre,
no te fallará jamás.
Siempre fiel a su amor.
Conducir te sabrá
por senderos oscuros
y llevarte a la gloria
de la ciencia y la virtud.

So yep, that was it. Short, but sweet and spiritual.

(IM)mortality

Lately it seems as if I’ve been consumed with thoughts of mortality, and not just my own. I’ve come to the conclusion that part of being indoctrinated into adulthood comes with experiencing deaths. Sometimes, that indoctrination comes earlier, but regardless of when it happens, it’s impacting.

My first experience of loss came by way of my godparents when I was about ten years old, but I don’t remember much about what I felt. I remember I cried, and I remember the facts. They died in an airplane crash in 1990, returning from a trip to Colombia. Their plane ran out of fuel over New York and crashed by Long Island. One of them died instantly; the other died in the hospital. I also remember my father sitting me down at our dining table to tell me what happened. But I don’t remember feeling the gut-wrenching pain that comes with loss. Or the sleepless nights pondering what happens when you die. Or the feeling helplessness because I, too, would be gone from this earth some day. At ten, death was merely an abstract notion for me. I knew of heaven and hell thanks to the Bible stories and weekly preachings at the Catholic church we went to, and because my father also took it upon himself to educate me on those important facts. I remember hearing a little bit of purgatory, but mostly I remember heaven and hell. I knew I wanted to go to heaven, but even that was an abstraction.

Then, years before my grandmother died (she passed away in 2007), she had a near-death experience. She suffered heart ailments; all her family had. She had been orphaned at a young age, left to the care of her older siblings because her parents had both died of heart attacks. Her siblings also had weak hearts, so it was no surprise that she did, too. It must have been 2002. She had been taken to the hospital because she was suffering a series of heart attacks. My cousins, aunts, and uncle crowded the waiting room of the intensive care unit. We brought sleeping bags and camped out on the cold floor. My aunt, a devout Catholic, and my husband’s uncle, a pastor, engaged in friendly discussion about the true meaning behind the Eucharist: does the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ, or is it simply metaphorically speaking. It was then that we nearly lost her, twice. Twice, she flat-lined, her limp body lying on the hospital bed, her children, nearly all eleven of them, gathered around her holding hands, chanting a prayer – I don’t remember which one. I think it was Psalm 23. Behind the closed door with the small window, we cousins peaked, eyes wide open, tears collecting, ready to react for when we heard the final news. But twice, she came back. The doctors told her children not to touch her, to leave her. She couldn’t let go, they said. And she didn’t.

Later, she told us, in confidence, what she saw. She said she saw a tunnel, and a light. And alongside of that walkway towards uncertainty was every single person she loved and had loved. Her children were there, but not the adults they were now. They were children. And we were there, her grandchildren. Age didn’t matter. We were all children. And then she said she was afraid. She saw beasts come to her. Horrid-looking beasts. I can’t remember her exact description, but I remember her stressing they were horrid. They didn’t look as angels should, beautiful, angelic, glowing, but when they spoke to her, they did so in a soothing voice and said, “Be not afraid.” And she said she wasn’t. But she didn’t want grandpa to know, so we didn’t tell him. Instead, we muttered amongst ourselves trying to figure out what that meant. Did that mean the “light at the end of the tunnel” was real? It made death a little more tangible, but not less fearful.

Then my father died and that threw me into another realm of death. I thought I was ready for his death; I had been so many times. And yet the permanence of this death really struck me. I wondered again what it must have felt the moments before he left. He, who had been a priest and had believed in all the mysticism of the Church, and he who had preferred to never again set foot inside a church or take communion or follow any of the church mandates. He who had loved and hated and pained. He who had caused pain and admiration. He who had told me to always check myself every night to see if I’d been a good person that day. Did he do that when he died? Did he get a chance to repent and to make peace with his life? Did he have regrets? Or was I the one left with regrets? Those that are left behind on this earth, are we the ones that feel regrets and guilt?

I think about this every day. The fact that I am not immortal, something that we tend to forget in our younger years (unless we’ve been one of those who’ve had a youth too closely intertwined with death), has become a glowering reality. Maybe it’s because I have a son now. Maybe it’s because I haven’t finished all that I’ve set out to do. Maybe it’s because I still feel like a work in progress. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to feel decay. I’m young, and yet, at the same time, I’m not.

I’m not in a hurry to find out what happens in those moments right before death. I can wait, really. But still, they fascinate and frighten me all the same.