Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Staircase Part 6: Abuela & The Keys

When I was satisfied that I communicated well enough in our limited improvised Spanglish I let Abuela go and I called my Mom. I described the windows, the air, something familiar that I knew was Cuba.  She accepted it immediately and proclaimed that she was named after me.

Named after me?


This whole time? And I didn't know?

Nope. She laughed. I laughed. We are happy to find each other and keep each other this time around.

After years of therapy I ended up in Cuba, in the soul of family. Real or not real it felt completely right deep down at the core of  my imaginative heart.

I kept teaching college, working extra jobs to make ends meet.  Here and there I wrote chapters of a novel I started calling "Finding Cuba."

Then a student of mine, Marvin Scott died.

A week after that, I found out I was pregnant with Zoe.

I didn't go back to therapy again.

I taught. I mothered. I had another kid. I taught some more.

I earned tenure and in between all of that I grew closer and closer to Abuela who now wanted me to call her "Tata," the diminuative of Marta.

In June, 2007, not knowing Abuela would not live to see the end of that year, I wrote a story about escorting her to her death.


My grandmother comes from a particular class and culture in Cuban history where women were not permitted much freedom.

Girls always took chaperones on dates, lived at home until married, knew how to embroider and play the piano.

Such a cultured and protected woman could expect a fine marriage with a Papi-style husband, one who works hard, cheats only when he's out of town, takes care of all the money, and -- of course! -- drives his wife wherever she needs to go.

After fleeing Cuba for New Orleans, Abuela had to take streetcars to work in a cafeteria where no one else spoke Spanish.

Later she carpooled to work with her married daughter to a job a downtown lab where she stained and read pap smear slides.

In all these years Abuela has never ever learned to drive.
Many times over the years she's gotten angry, gotten scared, gotten some backbone and threatened to go to driving school.

When Abuela was about 75, I offered to teach her to drive.

Heck, I taught my brother, I'm pretty relaxed, and hey -- this is Dad's car anyway -- why not?

Abuela said no.

Every time I came home for vacation, for holidays, for whatever, I'd shake car keys in front of Abuela.

"OK! Vamos!"

She would laugh and say "Ay! Si! Vamos!" but she wouldn't get up.

For years Abuela has continually refused the joy and privilege of learning to drive from me.

So about two years ago I started to threaten my Abuela.

Here is the story I told her.

I'll wait until she was completely deliriously old and frail, then I'll ask her to drive me somewhere.

If Abuela says she doesn't know how to drive, I'll make up some wonderfully accurate and descriptive stories about all the places in Cuba she's driven me.

Abuela will then feel a sudden burst of confidence, snatch the keys from me andwe'll be off.

Of course, when she actually does drive she'll kill herself, but that would be *fine* because her brain was expiring anyway.

Abuela and waves her hand at me, "Psssssht. I'm not afraid to die. I think it will be fun."

So when I went home this past week, I made sure to wave keys at Abuela, reminding her how much I love her.....

That November Abuela suffered greatly from back pain which turned out to be a massive heart attack.  On November 27, after talking to her from her hospital bed,  I wrote "About those Keys"

Abuela was in the hospital.

Cardiac ICU.
No, don't come down yet.
Just stay in Tallahassee, wait.

Great. So I did stay here. 

And I made up my own rules.

If I couldn't go down there, then no one could call me with bad news.
Not until after 5pm, after teaching, after lecturing, after I was a grownup all day.

Then, of course, I'd be ready to handle it.

On Monday I threw on my lucky dress, and taught my AMH 2020 class then took a field trip to FSU to lecture on Teaching College History.

On my way home, I called my mom and talked to Abuela

She sounded tired and distracted.

Of course, she's a celebrity in that hospital, probably getting foot rubs and extra morphine. 

Lucky her. 

I told her I loved her and that I'd see her when I drive down with the kids on December 18.

She laughed and told me I'd better bring down the keys, soon. She's ready to drive.

I think -- although I don't want to -- that I understood her, completely.
The next day I write about weather.

Forecast: Peaceful Waters

Mom loses her voice under stress.

Which is fine, because she has her blackberry.

This also fine because it means that people can't call Mom and constantly ask for updates on Abuela's conditions.

Being a PR/Media specialist, Mom has found a way to manage this situation.

She's issuing written updates to my father whose job is then to stick to his script and disseminate the statements by phone.

And of course, there is a protocol.

First, dad calls Abuela's other children, Milly and Vincent.

Then he calls my brother Winn.

A fter that he should call me, then other cousins.

The noon update, today: "She continues to deteriorate."

This is a particularly meaningful and appropriate analogy for a family who resides in South Florida and New Orleans.

I imagine Hurricane Abuela, once a category 5 storm with a well defined eye and winds of over 200 miles per hour, downgraded to a category 1.

Then a tropical storm.

Then a disturbance.

Then peace.

After that, I wrote about, well -- you know.

Happy First Day

I woke up at 3:50am with a beeping phone.

I rolled over Zoe and swatted around the floor of the dark room for a second before finding the blinking source of the noise.

One new text message from Tita, telling me to not wear perfume when I came down today.

I knew that, I remembered that, but I guess after five days of being at her mother's side for 24 hours, my mom just wanted to make sure that every single detail was in line.

texted her back "Thank you. I love you. Can you rest?"

She didn't text me back.

I couldn't sleep, so I roamed the house, took a shower, finished some laundry, packed the car for my ride to Fort Lauderdale to take part in exactly what I wasn't sure.

What I did know was that it was time to for the drive.

On Friday morning, during a tearful conversation, I asked my mom, "Isn't it time yet? I want to be there. Please say I can come."

Her response? A deep sigh, a sniff, resignation. "Almost. It's almost time."

That was enough for me.

My mind was made up. I heard what I needed to hear, and I made the decision no one could make for me.

Within hours I'd rented a car, arranged to cancel classes for part of the upcoming week, and took my brother up on his offer of a place to sleep.


At almost exactly 6am Saturday morning, I was all set in my rented PT Cruiser, about to pull out of the driveway when I decided to text my mom again. "I'm leaving now. No texting from the road. I love you & Tata. Happy First Day of December!"

See, we have this little (but fiercely competitive!) game of wishing each other a "Happy First Day" first. This game, which involves our extended family and friends, has gone on for decades.

When I arrived in Pompano Beach, dad and I grabbed lunch and then headed to the hospital.

Abuelo was happy to see me, and told me how proud he was that I was giving a speech in Miami. That was a lie, of course, but I understood. Mom told her parents I was coming down for work, that way they wouldn't think that I .... that I was here for ...

So I only spent about 10 minutes in the hospital room.

My abuela was suffering much worse than I'd imagined.

She was suffering so badly that I was only really allowed to make brief eye contact and touch her cold tense hand before being shooed out of the room.

I had never before seen Abuela unlaughing, rocking, seized with pain.

Gone, already, was her her twinkle, and her wonderful splendid shamelessness.

My father and I caravaned toward the beach where he keyed me in at my brother's rental house.

Alone with my thoughts, I had a nice hard run, unpacked a few things, checked email, and considered a shower.

Beep. A text message.

Before I checked my phone, I prayed..... Please God don't let this be a text telling me she's gone. Please, please not yet.

It was my dad telling me to stop by Publix and buy something for mom.

Hooray, finally, I was part of things.

I arrived at Holy Cross at 6:05pm and headed to the 4th floor.

As I walked down the corridor I could see my abuelo (Holy Cross Hospital's Volunteer of the Year) still in his work clothes and tie, eating potato chips and looking out the sunset out a large long window.

"Geez," he greeted me, "you are too much!" Then he hugged me and whispered in my ear, "You're my number one." Together we returned to the hospital room where my mother's sister, Aunt Milly, and my cousin, Samantha, were sitting with my mom, comforting Abuela.

Abuela's attention was on my mom, like a baby bonding with its mother. "Mari... Mari..." then she'd try to breathe, hold her chest, lean back, lean forward... the entire time focused entirely on my mom.

For a few minutes I sat behind my mom, holding her while she held her mother, then -- in order to keep the room peaceful -- I left the room with Abuelo and stood out in the hall for a few minutes.

A male Filipino nurse joined us for some small talk.

Abuelo told the nurse that Thursday, December 6, would be their 63 anniversary. Did he think that Abuela would be home for that?

The nurse looked at me uncomfortably, stammered a vague answer.

interuppted. "Abuelo, she can't stay in this pain for another five days..." 

He nodded his head, but I don't think he really heard me.

We returned to the room, and surrounded Abuela, gently.

She wanted to go, it was clear that she needed to go, but she couldn't.

Not yet.

Sam, Milly, Mom, Abuelo and I shifted turns so each of us held her cold hand, felt her anxiety, offered her a tiny drop of solace in the sea of pain that was drowning her.

Abuelo sat in a hard chair, saying a rosary.

At 7:25, Abuela called her daughter's names, and then called for Sam.

She didn't call me -- not by name -- I figured I was next so I stood before her, joining the circle.

Abuela took a deep breath, looked right at me, then at Sam, then she didn't breath again.

A tangible explosion of love and peace shot through the room, filling us all, expanding through the room and to eternity.

At 7:25, December 1, 2007, Marta Carmen Polo Fornias slipped out of her suffering and into heavenly peace.

Happy First Day, Abuela!

And then this
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known"
Corinthians 13:12

It's about 8:15pm on Wednesday December 5 , and I am home in Tallahassee after a long drive from Fort Lauderdale.

I am surrounded by love, hugs, coloring pages and candy canes, all things that make me thirsty.

I open the cabinet, grab my favorite aqua cup, the one with the Mickey Mouse insignia so subtly and artistically etched on it, then cry.

This was HERS, I sob to the unlistening sink and the empty 2 liter of Sunkist.

Wave after wave of sadness and guilt wash over me.

I stole this cup from Abuela.

I did.

She had a set of 8 that my mother bought her at Downtown Disney a few years ago. One day I poured myself a "to go cup," stuck it in my car, and never returned it. 

Every time I've used it, I've thought, "nope, not going to give it back... not until I get myself a set..."
I always loved that set, and each of the countless times I've been to Downtown Disney I haven't made a single sincere effort to buy myself Mickey Mouse cups. 

Maybe I didn't really want my own cups. 
Maybe I just couldn't be honest. 
Maybe the truth was just too ugly.
What I wanted was Abuela's cups.

The cups aren't that old, and maybe they aren't very special looking, but they mean something to me.

I imagine that other people -- maybe people who aren't descended from refugees? -- have heirlooms like great-grandpa's rifle, great-great-Grandmother's teapot, lace curtains, WW2 letters, tiny silver spoons.

We don't.

So instead of things, we have traditions.

We lie. 

And then, of course, tell stories about our lies.

For example, my abuelos lied to their children when they were leaving Cuba in 1960.

Instead of saying "tell everyone goodbye, we are OUT of here!" they told the children it was just for a vacation.

This is forgivable.

Tearful goodbyes or packing sentimental things-- baseball gloves, love letters -- were red flags that have jeopardized their safety.

Just a small lie, but a memorable one nonetheless.

Years ago, my abuelo's sister -- Tia Fifi ( stayed at with Abuelo and Abuela house while recovering from a heart attack.

During her month-long visit, Tiafi's son Eduardo had a heart attack.

She kept trying to call him at home, but he wouldn't answer.

Because, of course, he was in the hospital.

Finally someone -- I won't point fingers here -- told her "Oh! Didn't you hear? Eduardo is in the Keys."

For awhile, every time someone was sick or dying, we'd say, "Oh? Visiting the Keys?"

Lies, lies, lies.

One year while I was home from graduate school for Winter Break my mother confided in me that she had three tickets for the Orange Bowl -- don't tell your father

Later that same day, my father pulled me aside to show me the three tickets he bought for the Orange Bowl -- don't tell your Mom!

When the three of us were together, Mom would rant about how she wished we could go to the game, how we couldn't afford tickets, how there were no tickets to be found.

Dad kept making speeches about how he wouldn't dream of going to the Orange Bowl and missing other games on TV.

Keeping their secrets and watching them lie made me physically ill.
This went on for a painful long week until game day, when they both broke it to me there really only was only one set of tickets.


They laughed.

I cried.

We still see that as a positive family experience.

And then there's last Saturday, December 1.

I guess we couldn't tell my abuelos why I was really driving down.

Imagine "Melissa is coming here to say her last goodbye."

That's too deep.

Too real.

Too honest and painful.

So when I got to the hospital, Abuelo asked, "Where is it that you're giving a lecture again? University of MiamiOn Cuban History? That's something! " I stammered, said something vague, changed the subject.

When I sat next to Abuela, my mom elbowed me, and I dutifully looked the woman right in the eyes and let out a string of lies.

"Aren't I lucky to be here, now, giving a paper? What a wonderful coincidence that they brought me down right now, and I can see you?" 

Abuela pulled her hand out from under mine, narrowed her eyes.

I could hear her thinking all sorts of curses for me.


And worse.

She knew why I was there.

And now that she no longer sees things, "through a glass, darkly" I just knowAbuela forgives me for lying to her on her last day on earth.

It was, after all, a cherished and unbroken family tradition.

And after that, I stopped writing for awhile.