The Sign, At Last

In my mind he is still the dark haired confident dimple faced baby cousin toddler I fell in love with in 1976.

The last time I sat and talked to him, I think, was back in December, the week that Abuela jumped into the sky.

He was there, I am sure he was, in our circle of unmatching chairs under the big coconut tree in Abuela's backyard.

He was there, one of us, sipping wine, watching planes go by, telling meandering family stories. It is still odd and weird to me that he is bigger than I am, but I have forgiven him for that.

Three weeks ago, after sitting under the coconut tree in Abuela's yard on a warm late summer Saturday night, he was in a terrible burning accident on I-95.

Several surgeries later, he is still in the burn unit.

I can't be there, which doesn't mean I don't think about him every day. In a pause between grading and cleaning and all the little unmemorable things that fill my days, I tape three poster boards together write a happy greetings to him across them in my finest Melissa-calligraphy.

I notice a silence in the room, and feel my children standing next to me.

"Wow, Mom." Zack barely whispers, overcome with awe.

Zoe nods in agreement. "Mom, I can't believe you can write such beautiful words."

I smile, then remind her, in my best artist accent, "Zoe, your Mommy is an artist. You have seen her beautiful paintings ....yesssss?"

She shakes her head, "Who told you they were beautiful??"

I look up from my poster, shocked and almost hurt.

She is laughing.

Now that she has my attention, she reaches for a pen, "Can I add some color to this?"

I say yes, and step back, grab my pen and -- after weeks of self-imposed exile in the desert of silence, punctuated by only the tiniest clouds of laughter-- start writing again.

First Day, Last Day, and So On

For many years my uber-competitive super close Cuban-New Orleans-South Florida family has played a competitve ongoing game attempting to be the first wish each other "happy first day of (insert name of the month here)"

This changed, radically, when Abuela decided to jump into to the sky on December 1.

Since then, we've all limped along, hollow and determined, alternately crying, laughing and staring into the sky.

So today, I sent a new text message to my inner circle, hoping maybe I'd start a new trend.

"Happy last day of August!"

My mom replied "You got me!" then filled the rest of the lines with with news of where our Cuban-New Orleans family was dispersing to during yet another hurricane crisis.

She ended with "I miss Mami."

I texted back quickly with the words that ran across my heart, "Me too. It's like a love tatoo on my soul - welcome but not enough."

Then the tears came in their usual silent tidal wave.

I walked away from the children who were watching the Simpsons, and took off my glasses, blinded by my own tears as I tried to load the dishwasher.

My phone buzzed from its nesting place inside my bra.

It was Mom, texting me back. "You have the soul of a writer."

I know, I know, I thought.

She's been telling me that since I was four.

I don't want that soul today.

The words are too sharp, too bright, too much for me.

I reached for the strongest thing in the house -- Benadryl allergy pills-- and take two.

Hopefully the words -- and the feelings behind them -- will be just a little quieter, if just for one night.

Death by Boobs

There are three zones inside my bra, spaces not taken by the actual designated bra occupants.

Zone #1 is to my lower left.
That's where the cellphone goes.

Zone #2 is in the middle.
That's where keys (and sometimes money) go.

Zone #3 is to the right.
That's where lipgloss goes.

So today, at a birthday party for 4 year olds, my phone is in it's usual Zone #1 and I get a call.

It's not great news, a friend had a computer stolen. After a short talk and a text, I shut the phone off and return it to its warm nest.

The group of sweating parents keep scooting our chairs, leaning into the elusive shade, sweltering in the mid-day July humidity of a sunny windless afternoon.

I reach into my bra for my phone, which doubles as a clock, to check the time and gauge how much longer until I can dive into a cool shower and finish grading exams.

The phone stays dark, even when I hit buttons.

I click, tap, and shake it.


I turn it on, turn it off, blow on it.


Later, at home, I get one call. The screen works fine, I know who is calling, but I can't answer it.

The keys don't work.

It is quite dead, or at the very least, stunned and unresponsive.

This phone has walked with me through about 15 crazy months, but I am not attached to it because that is not my nature.

Already, I imagine writing its obituary -- Cause of death: smothered by boobs.

Circle and Chair

It's been a hard day, she finally said, after our conversation weaved through safer territory.

M* dreamed about Tata last night.

She came to her in a dream, young happy and vibrant, and told her to stand up for her.

And then she looked for me, to get me, and then turned around and Tata was gone.

She cried, and cried.

I listened to her painfully and bravely recount, process and release the story.

Not all of our conversations are this somber, this raw.

Sometimes we talk about children, books, random little things.

Other times our stories pull us onto jagged cliffs of memories and longing.

The mourning has not ended, it ebbs and flows, crashes and abates.

I cannot harness it, it is too big, so I ride it.

Last night, I dreamed about Tata, and she dreamed about me.

In our dream, I opened the sliding glass door and lead the kids to the backyard.

Tata was out there with a group of women standing in circle. I didn't recognize any of them, but I didn't mind that they were there.

Tata stepped away from the group that warmly surrounded her in her own dream -- her mother and sisters? her childhood friends? -- and walked towards me.

She didn't say a word, but her eyes were laughing, as she pulled a chair from the table, carried it to the middle of the yard.

Certain that she had my undivided attention, Tata sat down and playfully mocked me in a most-familiar way by making exaggerately feminine and ladylike gestures -- crossing her legs daintily, dangling her hands over the arm rests, fixing her skirt over her knees and brushing off invisible lint off her body.

As I smiled at my Tata loca sitting regally on her chair-throne right in the middle of my yard, she gestured Vamos! at me.

She cocked her head in a personal challenge, daring me to entertain her.

I shook my head.

I had to feed the kids, do laundry, and generally be a Mom (this is a dream, remember?), no time to stand around and play.

Maldita! I said to her, shaking my finger mockingly at her arrogance at appearing and commanding me.

She understood, immediately and completely, our heads nodding a unison of unspoken affection.

And then, after just barely enough time but more than I'd asked for or hoped for, Tata stood up and walked back to the circle of women.

Off she went, back to the magic of her now-eternal dream, leaving my chair and my yard and other parts of me and this world invisibly emptier and quieter.

Mother's Day 2008

(Subtitled: Death by Chocolate)

It is 11:30am on Mother's Day, and already I have filled 8 large bags with yard trash, done dishes and tried several times -- unsuccessfully -- to watch the episode of *Carrier* I Tivo'd on Friday night.

I call Abuelo while soaking Zack in the bathtub.

Abuelo answers on the third ring, sounding sad. Still, we find something to laugh about.

He and I have a long history of playing well together over the past 39 years.

We have had hundreds of hours of long talks about Cuba, money and God while soaking stamps, sorting coins, eating ham sandwiches, feeding ducks and fishing off short piers.

My Abuelo and I have always genuinely liked each other, and since Abuela left us, we have grown even closer in our grief.

Today I call to tell him to tell me Happy Mother's Day, and to report to him that since the kids haven't made me my surprise Mother's Day breakfast, I am refusing to feed them.

He thinks I'm kidding, and laughs.

"I'd bring YOU a big piece of chocolate cake & a glass of Coca-cola for breakfast," I tell him.

He laughs more. "Would you believe I had a piece of chocolate cake already today? And two Hersheys bars?"

I believe it.
I have known the man my whole life.
He is a sweet man with a sweet tooth.

Still, I pretend to be shocked.

"Keep eating like that, viejo mio, and you won't live very long!"

"I've lived long enough. I want to go see your Abuela now, and if eating chocolate speeds it up..."

We both laugh.

He speaks next. "I love you, Melissita. I mean it."

"I know Abuelo, I'll see you in a few weeks."

The kids grow impatient for my attention again, and I'm pulled back into my Mother's Day, washing the multiple Zoe-penned tatoos off Zack's milky white body, still hungry for my surprise breakfast.

Abuelo and I, both sniff a little bit while saying our goodbyes in Spanglish.

Later, while slipping a dryer-warmed robe over Zack's soapy smelling, shivering body, I make a mental note to mail my Abuelo a big box of chocolate.


It is about 10am.

I have already had a long day, and after a ten minute break sitting outside listening to Spring and soaking in sun, I am standing in front of the dining room table about to tackle a huge stack of essays.

My cellphone rings.


I consider completely ignoring it, but since Zack has had those symptoms lately, I can't take a chance of missing a call from his school.

I find the phone hiding under my gym bag.

It isn't his school.

It's my Mom.

I answer.


I have a new NAME for YOU! Tandalea!

(The name rolls off her tongue, ending with laayyy-yah)

Um, thanks lady, but I'm not shopping for a new name today...

Tandalea, (she repeats) don't you LOVE it?

Candelea? Princess Lea? Que lea? Que fea? I don't know.

It starts with a T like Tata. T-a-n-d-a-l-e-a, isn't it beautiful? That's your NEW name!

Mom, you already had a shot at naming me, you can't just suddenly revise it now.

She laughs. I didn't know about Tandalea back then... but now I do!

Fine. Whatever. Thanks for giving me something to write about today. Are you going somewhere?

Yes to a meeting. The airport meeting.

Well, have a very nice time, give them my best.

I will, I love you Tandalea!

I love you too, Tita Loca ~


Minutes later, while I type the story up, my phone rings again.

Again, it's my mother.

I answer the phone "Tandalea!" and she laughs. "What? WHAT!? What do you WANT from TANDALEA?"

((I keep asking what, interrogating her through her laugher. There are days when Tita's voice is ragged with grief.
Now that she's laughing, I'm sailing this kite of a conversation through every wind I can.))

Why do you DARE interrupt the famous and important Tandalea while she is trying to write?

When she finally is able to catch her breath, Mom reminds me that I haven't told her how Zack is.

He's well enough to be at school today! The Doctor isn't calling it asthma, but he gave me all these pamphlets and some websites to go to... oh, and I have to buy the nebulizer today and these ampules. We'll call the Doctor on Thursday to let him know how it's going.

You told me that yesterday.

I know. Actually, Melissa told you. Today I am Tandalea, it's like everything is new...

(Again, she laughs. Just like she used to.)

I love that name! It's like Condoleeza, so memorable.

Memorable, indeed. Now Tandalea really has to go grade voy!

Goodbye Tandalea!

I think, in that second after she spoke but before the phone went dead, I heard my mom laughing into her Blackberry, smiling into the sun.

Tata's Shoes

Last Easter
my Abuela
wore her shoes
to Easter Mass
in America
just like she has
so many times
since leaving Cuba
so many years ago
with an incomplete

This year
Tata's shoes
and some of
her other
favorite things
are in Cuba
without her
going to Easter Mass
on the feet of
we love.

And in that,
we find
the smallest

History: April 10, 2000

I walk into the classroom exactly one minute after lecture was supposed to begin.

They know, because it is the end of the semester, that I am always early. I have told them to worry about me if I'm late.

As I turn the overhead on, I can't lift my chin to acknowledge them.

That day, I had no "guess what" story, no quizzes to hand back.

Just a single sheet of overhead projector transparency onto which I'd xeroxed both Marvin's obituary and my letter to Marvin.

I flicked on the light, adjusted the focus, and stepped back, arms crossed, leaning on the wall.

Within about two minutes