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.

I 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.

I 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!

Both Sides of the Moon

In the million minutes since
your heart stopped beating
and you jumped into the sky

I've seen you laughing,
teasing, flying and dancing
between the stars
waving and winking through the clouds,

languidly resting on the invisible side
of the moon.

Thank you for bravely going first,
for making it look easy and fun,
inviting us to dance with you
on both sides of the moon.

The Struggle is Real (Advice on Writing)

(For my students who are struggling with their projects. Originally Published 9.25.14)
I sit here having finished two wonderful books (#79 and #80, if you're the kind of person who "counts" these things...) and the last thing in the world I want to do is write about them. 

I'd rather do ANYTHING than write. 

 I'd rather read 4 more books (too bad none sound good).  

I'd rather do laundry (no, no, no, no). 

I'd rather make dinner (but I picked up pizza). 

I'd rather do anything.  but write.  

Except write. 

 I once read that if you can do ANYTHING but be a writer, then definitely follow THAT path.   

I get it. I hate writing. I really do. I hate HAVING to write something, even if is something I assigned MYSELF on a topic I LOVE. Crazy right?  

More than that, I  hate NOT writing. I never  know what I'm going to write next (seriously!) so I  sit in silence (I do!) waiting for whatever story is coming next like a stranger with no watch waiting for a train.

Not a single one of my students who is writing something for me has asked me for writing advice (not. one. thanks*), so I'm going to give it away to you for free, hidden here in plain sight.

 Look away if your eyes are sensitive to the truth. Seriously.

Here it is.

Writing comes after thinking. 

 You can't put something down on paper or in a computer until it exists, and where it has to "form" is in your head. 

 In order to do that, you have to clear your mind, which is not an easy thing in the world of a thousand shiny things and a gazillion  beeps and bings.   

After that, concentrate on one thing -- telling a story that makes sense. 

A story is a bunch of facts that turn into a shape and come together into an invisibly tangibly weightlessly solid mass.  

When you have something to say, something that comes together  you are ready to write. 

The first ten thousand attempts might not work.

Keep trying. 

The struggle is real. 

Claim Your Ancestor #23: From Mr. Carman to a Sicilian Orphan

Florence Fordham was born and married in England during a time of great religious turmoil. 

I'm pretty sure she was Catholic because her name is Fordham and Fordham is a Catholic University, but that could be a leap. 

Another reason I think she's Catholic because she and her husband Mr. Carman came to the Dutch colony of New York before the colony was under the British flag.

Perhaps her family was fleeing economic and social persecution in an England where one day the Catholics were up, the next they were down. 

Perhaps he was a great businessman, coming to an international trade center to get rich. 

It's hard to say whether his plan was to get rich and stay or get rich and go back, but if he was Catholic he had a good reason to stay in America, especially in tolerant, prosperous and diverse pre-Revolutionary New York. 

Over the next 100 years her sons and grandsons leave Queens, NY and move to Cape May, New Jersey. 

Florence's great-granddaughter Phebe Carman marries into the LaRue clan who hail from colonial New York and Pennsylvania, showing me that if they are not Catholic they are also most certainly not Puritans and actually they could be Jewish or French or both.

I think Mary Mollie LaRue, Florence Fordham's 4 Great-granddaughter officially broke with Catholicism when she married Puritan-descended Hayden English in the frontier town of Hardin, Kentucky.  

Usually persecution holds a group together; for example - treat all the Irish-Catholics the same and they will stick together and be proud of their heritage (hence the in-your-face St. Patrick;s Day Parades).

At the same time that parts of my family were moving South and a little bit West, a huge evangelical millenialist burst of religiosity burned Jesus into hearts across America. Called The Second Great Awakening, this movement injected fervor into older sects and gave birth to utopian communities, abolitionism, Mormonism, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

I think these prayer meetings, camp meetings, come-to-Jesus and eat casserole social meetings, allowed people Mary Mollie to let go of the Catholicism that caused her ancestors so much persecution and instead she joined an American movement.  American pioneers were filled with independence yet often tolerated little diversity. Ask Joseph Smith. 

50 years after Mary Mollie dies, her great-granddaughter seems to bring Catholicism back into the family marries Achilles Soldani, the orphaned son of Sicilian immigrants who was sent out on the orphan train and was living in Avoyelles Parrish.  

But I could be wrong. I should keep looking for more clues.  

100 Book Project: Book #103 - Love in the Time of Cholera

If I had read this book sooner in my life, I would not be sitting here writing this right now.

I don't know where I would be or what I would be doing (seriously, it's raining and dark, what are my options?) but I would not be writing about this 100 book project because I would not have started this project because I would have planted in my soul that I had already read the best book ever written and therefore had no room in my heart for another book.

If I had read this book sooner in my life, then I might not have cried so hard in The Book Thief  or tiptoed so slowly through 100 Years of Solitude.  I would not have hugged The Fault in Our Stars so hard or held my breath during The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

If I had read this book sooner in my life, other books would have seemed irrelevant, juvenile, meandering.  That is because I connected so deeply Florentino in this book, a romantic who sets his heart on one woman (very Gatsby and Daisy) and stumbles through 50 years waiting for her.

The plot alone is good enough; the setting is a feast of Caribbean ethics, architecture and small town drama.

My kindle told me this book would take me 6 hours. It was wrong, this book filled 6 days of slow reading, a sentence here, a page there, three pages then a sigh. I wanted to know how it ended (desperately!) but not so much that I wanted it to end.

When I finished the book I feel so moved I had to talk to SOMEONE so I reached out to my beleaguered students before lecture on Friday.

Has anyone read Love in the Time of Cholera?

Panic crosses the room.

 I can see a blonde whisper to her guy-friend who sometimes disappears for a week at a time and probably depends on her for her notes "Did you? Were we supposed to?"

I pop the bubble of anxiety.

It wasn't assigned! Its part of my book project. Hasn't ANYONE in this room READ this book? Please?


It's really good, it's amazing, it's smart and funny and so painful and beautiful. And now that it's over I feel empty. 

I want to pull my kindle app out and read quotes but that would be a little much, so I contain myself and wait for SOMEONE to talk.

A students finally speaks.

 It is a grown up, from the middle front row of veterans and parents and survivors of a longer road to the college classroom. "Have you seen the movie?"

I gasp. There's a MOVIE?

She smiles and nods. Others nod.

Watch the movie.

I can't help myself. I need to know, so I ask. Is it.... dirty?

The class giggles.

She nods.

I need to know more. I just need to know, so I ask. And.... were there Latin lovers?

She nods. Watch the movie!

Other students agree. Watch the movie.   Fine, I will, I tell them, but you all should read the BOOK. 

I love the raw brutal romanticism.

I love the suffering. I love the whimsy.

 I will not summarize this book for you, but I will give you my most favorite quotes.

Then I'm going to watch the movie.

  • “his examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning...to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.” 
  • “Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.” 
  • On suffering after being rejected: “Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you can, because these things don't last your whole life.”  
  •   “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” 
  • “Amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches in the leg that is no longer there. That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was.” 

I don't know if I'll read another book for a few weeks.

Probably not until after I read semester papers and exams and write reports.

Maybe I'll get myself a book for my birthday.

I think by then, I might be  ready.

If not, this book was so great, I will be quite pleased to end my 100 book journey right here and rest awhile, completely satisfied.