2/18/17

Three years ago I sat at his bedside and watched him dying.

waiting for him to die.

waiting for his suffering to end.

Death’s rattle, that’s what they called it—  my older family members who had watched and waited for others to die.

I had never heard the phrase before, at least not that I can recall. But now I know the sound.

It’s inside of me now.

I prayed with my family, all of us gathered around his frail body.

I prayed not for me, not because I “believe” — but because he did. Maybe they did, too. I don’t care. It was for him.

Flashes of the funeral, the smells and sounds, the ritual

scrambled in my memory

It’s the feeling, the sensation, that stays. Details aren’t important.

 

He asked her if I was happy.

I think she told him I was.

It was his one wish for me. I’ve known that my entire life.

I’m selfish. I wanted his life for me— more than for him. I feel guilty for that, too.

I feel guilty that I couldn’t be and do more for her. Or that I didn’t.

The sadness had enraptured us both. And I held onto mine, alone.

At the time I thought I was doing that for her— that it was all I could do— to just not share it.

I still smell him. I still hear his voice— “mija” 

and I cradle it in my heart, in my head.

I see his hands— that I know have worked so hard, have scars, but are gentle and soft.

He wasn’t perfect, that’s not the point.

He was my warmth. My father. My protector. My support. My example.

Selfless even if he was wrong— it was the intention, the love, that we were left with. And it was all encompassing.

He was easier on us, I know it was harder to be his children. We got the best hand, my brother and I.

It is true. Time does help. The tears don’t flow daily. And I can sleep some nights.

But the emptiness, the void, still fills me.

It’s like a chunk of flesh has been ripped from my body. And yes, I can continue. My body functions as it needs to, as it’s designed to and utilizing its miraculous healing abilities— red and white bloods cells, regenerating growth to create a new layer of skin over the gaping wound.

And yet, it’s forever there. Not the focus but the reminder, the memory, of the former whole.

 

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The Photograph

The power of a name opens doors, closes them, and creates them. Names mean nothing without people, without some acknowledgement of the existence. I was moved by Lucy Lippard’s piece, “In an Image” (The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, 1997) in which she discusses the power of an oral narrative, that which gives root, plants a home and a history.  She says that the place is “the heart of storytelling… the imaginative act of bringing together self and earth, culture and nature… Once you start hearing the stories… you are becoming related, because the story is the umbilical cord between, past, present, and future”.  The place is its name and its story; and it can be contradicted by memory and photograph.

I have moved around a lot; inhabited multiple homes within various cities, states, and countries. In my “hometown” (a place I do not regard as home),  my sense of home lies in my family who tell me stories about my childhood, the relatives and the family’s history. Talks often veer to cuentos of the past — hardships endured or antidotes of brothers causing trouble or children misbehaving. Every time I would visit my abuelos, my grandmother always told the same story of how upset my mother was upon seeing a Polaroid of me caught in the act of climbing out of my round baby-chair on wheels (now since outlawed), balancing one chubby little foot on its front tray and the other midair, stretching for a piano bench. I am turned, looking at my abuelo, who, instead of running to save me from slipping and cracking my head on the piano I was attempting to scale, ran for a camera to capture the moment.

I never tired of hearing them or seeing the photograph of me, a me that existed before my current recognized self. That photograph is emblematic of my concept of my childhood, my relationship to my abuelos, and root for the formation of my identity. It has become the rationale throughout my life for my wild behavior —for my desire to claim fearlessness as my own (and feign arrogance to do so). It is who I am supposed to be. It is how my mother comprehends her relationship was starkly different with them than mine — I, the consentida she never was.

The interpretation of the image, that beloved photograph of me ascending the piano, holds alternate meanings for all people who were there, for those who were not, for those who know none of us, and me, who was present but only knows the image and the story— not the moment as acted out. I still hear my grandfather’s laugh; he was always the one in the corner of the house, snapping unflattering photos of his large familia. He captured the memories, created them. This picture captured how my grandmother justified her actions, imbuing confidence in my abilities—

           Ah, I knew mija could reach it! She does this all the time! 

She gifted me a strength I carry with me today.

This photograph, this moment, shared on multiple levels, is what gives me my sense of place, my sense of home; it is not a geographical space. The cuentos and conversations that accompanied it were always familiar, but changed every time, shifting with the present and colliding with the past. New details emerged and old truths faded— the line blurred in deciphering which was which.

My name, my home— as named by this photograph, exists in the contradictions of memory, guided by the image, allowing me to see the outside from within— grounding and freeing.

Anxiety

You feel like vomiting.

Overwhelmed and blind.

A static energy pulsates through you, as if all of your nerves have received a low frequency jolt— electric— not in an excited and invigorating way— nervous, anxious. The definition of nervous; all synapses popping, pulsating in each thread throughout the body.

In the famous “Body Worlds” exhibit, plastinated specimens of the intricate workings of the human form are displayed. The entire nervous system exposed. Each strand hangs, composing the frame of the human body. Vulnerable. Connected to each limb, spine, toe, finger, stem and brain.

The finite host of infinite sensations.

Tingling. Rippling. Frantic vibrations from the flesh inward. The internal fury, invisible to the outside world, hidden by skin. No one can see the frightening lightening flashing. Silent screams— deafening, ear drums thumping.

Toads

I used to hunt toads when I was a kid.

Perhaps “hunt” isn’t the appropriate word.

I would spend lunchtime scavenging for reptilian treasures, excited to find one, like a four-leaf clover— only more abundant. Some were as tiny as my pinky nail, some as large as the size of my eight-year old palm. Gold slits iris in black beaded eyes. Mossy muted green, mustard yellow and charcoal swirled skin— slick and lumpy, a topographical map.

Third grade. Mrs. Wilde’s class.

The school had brought in these large stationary “learning trailers” to the yard; aluminum boxes, raised on cinderblocks with portable attachable stairs. The space underneath the trailers, maybe a foot high; warm, dark and damp— the perfect spot for nesting if you were a toad.

The boys, rambunctious eight, nine and ten-year-old boys, would crawl under the trailers, digging for the toads. They would emerge with handfuls and hurl them at the sidewalk, watching their soft little bodies explode in glee. They would throw them at girls they had crushes on, mixed with fistfuls of rocks, in some twisted form of foreplay that only translates to a third-grader. Or maybe we all can relate to the macabre game of controlling life and having the power to hurt, without understanding the ramifications of our actions— or choosing not to.

 

I remember one toad in particular.

I peeled him off the sidewalk. He wasn’t dead but his leg was maimed. I put him in my locker for safekeeping. The poor little guy, while I was in class, had jumped and attempted to squeeze his way to freedom through one of the slats at the bottom of the locker. He got stuck and hung by his mangled leg. It had separated from his body, leaving him limp, dangling by the limb, dead.

I feel like there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.  Trying to save something, someone, some tortured soul, and you just end up hurting them. Maybe we need to not play God and let nature be nature? Yet, almost 30 years later, I find myself still getting involved. It’s my nature.

Jar of Buttons

I would spend hours dividing them up by color, shape and design for no other purpose than to try and assemble some story. To create context to the individual yet collective tales, histories, that each one lived; a bright green one from my Aunt Cissy’s childhood shirts, a gold one from Uncle Jesse’s high school marching band uniform and a dulled off-white pearl-like button, maybe from my great grandmother’s housedress? I arranged them, wanting to weave these memories that didn’t belong to me in some sort of semblance.

I’d sew with my stubby little girl fingers, hundreds of these brilliant treasures, onto remnants leftover from the dresses she would sew for me. The dresses I loved and loathed. Embarrassed kindergartner donning handmade garments to school. Proud — of the love and hard work she painstakingly put into them, selecting patterns from JoAnn’s, choosing the fabrics carefully, thoughtfully. Ashamed — because I didn’t look like my classmates. I didn’t know if we were poor, or even what that really meant. I only knew I was different.

I still feel guilty for my shame. Especially now that she is gone.