Remembering Papi on his birthday

Papi and I at my wedding in 2004, 4 years before he passed away.

Papi and I at my wedding in 2004, 4 years before he passed away. Taken by Debra Weisheit of Debra Weisheit Photography

This picture is one of my favorites of my wedding day. Papi and I share an affectionate moment, something that rarely happened. On that cold Miami winter day, Papi set foot inside a church since he’d left the priesthood, over twenty-five years before. He also wore a tuxedo for the first time ever, something he abhorred. He laughed and joked, reveling with family and friends. It was a departure from his earlier, more sullen self.

Today, he’d be celebrating his 83rd birthday.

Time’s crazy like that–it whizzes by at dizzying speed, leaving us wondering, how did that happen?

Happy birthday, Papi, wherever you are.

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Bye, Bye, Gallbladder

I had surgery on Monday to have my gallbladder removed. I’d been having “issues” with it for quite some time, and this past December, I found out why: it was functioning abnormally. It wasn’t the one, large stone I had in it. It just wasn’t working. And I was paying for it mostly with pain and nausea. No matter how bland I ate, the pain and nausea were constant. Every day. For hours sometimes. It wasn’t fun.

I scheduled the surgery for May 14 since I didn’t want to take time during a regular semester. Turns out, my uncle also had surgery the same day, to repair a hernia. So Monday became a family event. My mom was a bundle of nerves, repeating the same story over and over again. I wasn’t too nervous. Ironically, the thing that had me the most nervous was the idea of having a foley catheter put in. Forget surgery. Forget removal of an organ. Forget the anesthesia. Nope. It was the foley catheter. The nurse laughed when I asked about it, but thankfully, it wasn’t necessary. For some reason, that really freaks me out.

The last time (and the only time) I’ve had surgery, was when I was 9. My appendix ruptured and I had to have emergency surgery, twice. I don’t remember much about that surgery, only that I had recently been to the beach and gotten burned so much that, during recovery, my skin peeled off. And I remember I had my favorite PJ, a teal-and-white colored gown with some ruffles on the bottom and a pink bow towards the top. I think it made me feel like a princess; that’s why I liked it. I don’t remember the pre-op or post-op. Just my peeling skin and my princess PJ.

Since then, I’d only had an endoscopy once, ten years ago, and that was outpatient. No big deal.

This time, I was more aware of what was going on. I wasn’t nervous; I just wanted to be knocked out already and get it over with. It was done laprasopically, with a robot, and I really only have one incision (in the belly button) and another tiny puncture. They glue it now so there are no stitches or bandages.

I had to wait, though. Initially, I was scheduled for 8:30 AM. Then it got moved to 1, then 1:30 by the preceding Friday. I got to the hospital on time, got into the pre-op area on time, only to be told, once I was ready with my IVs and all, that we’d have to wait yet another hour. I read to pass the time (I started reading Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy), while my husband sat next to me and my mother tended to my uncle. Crazy day.

I don’t remember much after they said we were ready. I think I was dreaming. It was a dark, still sleep but I think I was still dreaming, though of what I can’t be sure because right when I realized I was dreaming, I came to, with the realization that a tube was being removed from my mouth. And I started having a panic attack. Panic/anxiety attacks are bad enough when you’re awake: the heat, pressure, the lack of air, the unrelenting beating of the heart against the chest. It’s like drowning and trying to break the surface, to get air, to breathe, to live. Imagine that, but still sedated, unable to move, arms and eyes unresponsive. Aware of what’s going on (like I have a tube shoved down my throat) but unable to react. It was horrible. In retrospect, it looks like the anesthesia wore off too soon, something I’m going to have to remember for any future surgeries (though, God willing, I won’t have any more).

Recovery in the post-op room was slow and painful. I felt neglected, in and out of consciousness, and vaguely aware of the gnawing pain in my throat (from the tube) and in my belly. I couldn’t speak to ask for medicine, and for a while, I was alone, the nurse attending other patients. I remember shadows and shards of those three hours.

But recovery since has been going well. I stayed overnight in the hospital. I kept liquids and food down, didn’t throw up, and began walking fairly quickly. I was released the next morning with a prescription for Percocet that wasn’t working for me. I’m weird like that. Drugs that work for others have absolutely no effect on me. The pain would get worse, actually. It’s frustrating, especially when I’d tell the nurses and they didn’t believe me, like I was just looking for stronger painkillers, looking for an addiction. Even when I stressed that I didn’t need something stronger, I needed a different type of medicine, they didn’t believe me. So I came home and took ibuprofen, 800 mg, and it’s been working.

Though I don’t like having surgery, there are a few perks that come with it:

1) no more pain and nausea and frustrations with eating

2) I’ve lost 5 pounds since the surgery

3) I can rest, and I spend most of the day in peace and quiet while my son’s at school. Hours of time just for me, to rest, read, catch up on Glee, grade and, most importantly, write.

But seriously, I hope to never have to do this again.

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.

I Don’t Remember — A writing prompt

I recently gave my class this writing assignment: Write what you don’t remember. It’s a nice twist to one of my favorite prompts (I remember). One of my students asked, “Well, if you don’t remember, how can you write it down?” The key to “I don’t remember” is that in naming what you don’t remember, you inadvertently trigger memories. Memory begets memory. It’s beautiful, really.

For example:

I don’t remember living in Queens, New York. I was five and though I get flashes of memories that walk me through that year, mostly, I don’t remember. What I do remember is the feel of the brick building that held my kindergarden class, where I got lost because I couldn’t understand the teacher’s instructions (since Spanish was what I learned at home) and instead of the playground, I was in the dark, cold hallway with my backpack and lunchbox. Alone. I remember being afraid. I must have cried, too. But that I don’t remember.

I also don’t remember where I lived, except that it was on a slope, and it was on an upper floor (third, perhaps?) because I remember the stairs with dark, wooden walls and the musky smell of closed spaces. I remember my Strawberry Shortcake comforter for my twin bed, though mostly because I have a picture of it with me right beside it: short, bobbed hair, black leotard and pink tights. I must have been taking ballet, though I clearly don’t remember that. I remember ballet in Miami, not in New York.

I remember my father’s fear, when he got mugged. I don’t remember how or when or why, except that I vaguely remember a story of him being taken by four men –or was it three?– and driven around, stripped of his wallet, money, and courage, only to be deposited back somewhere near our apartment, alive. He must have prayed, but I don’t remember him saying if he did. If he were alive, I’d ask him, but I don’t know that he’d remember.

If you’re feeling a need for a writing prompt, try “I don’t remember” — happy writing!

(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.

Mi Viejo

The previous post got me googling and looking up Piero and his songs since I couldn’t remember all of them. It had been a long time since I’d heard them and the more I remember my father, the more I remember tidbits of music; his life revolved around his music many times, and these songs usually trigger specific memories.

This one song in particular was beautiful. It is an ode to the aging father. It brings me to tears now, when I listen to it, not only because this was one of my father’s favorites, but because of the poignant words.

Here is a youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x36zzkUB2tc.

And here are the lyrics:

Es un buen tipo mi viejo
Que anda solo y esperando
Tiene la tristeza larga
De tanto venir andando

Yo lo miro desde lejos
Pero somos tan distintos
Es que crecio con el siglo
Con tranvia y vino tinto

Viejo mi querido viejo
Ahora ya camina lerdo (lento)
Como perdonando el viento
Yo soy tu sangre mi viejo
Soy tu silencio y tu tiempo

El tiene los ojos buenos
Y una figura pesada
La edad se le vino encima
Sin carnaval ni comparsa

Yo tengo los años nuevos
Y el hombre los años viejos
El dolor lo lleva dentro
Y tiene historias sin tiempo

Vejo mi querido viejo
Ahora ya camina lerdo (lento)
Como perdonando el viento
Yo soy tu sangre mi viejo
Soy tu silencio y tu tiempo

Yo soy tu sangre mi viejo
Yo soy tu silencio y tu tiempo

Yo soy tu sangre mi viejo