On a Thursday in late January 2019, I escaped for a burger and beer. Papi texted as the bartender handed me a pint of Steam. Abuela likely had a few days to live. Cheers!
His text suggested it wasn’t necessary to fly home. Anna my wife knew differently. My dad would soon lose his last parent. She urged I fly home to be with him.
Around midnight the next day I arrived in Dallas. Vic my brother who had already arrived and visited Abuela met me at the airport alongside Papi y Mami.
We planned to spend time by her side the next day. Vic had brought a book; I had my laptop. After gorging on Chuy’s fajitas and Shiners we retired around 4am.
Around 7am Saturday morning, a loud knock startled me out of bed. Papi announced Abuela had passed.
I was hazy, tired and in disarray. I couldn’t find my glasses. I wasn’t sure what was next. The soft sob I heard from Papi realigned me. I dressed, brushed and headed downstairs where I found Mami waking Vic up in the same vein.
The house was a dark grey. Silhouettes outlined familiar bodies and shapes.
I could tell Papi was anxious to head over, but I couldn’t tell if he was OK. I expected him to carry on in a matter of fact way, as he normally does.
Standing by the fridge where the trash can used to sit, he gave Vic a big hug. I was stunned to hear him cry as they embraced. It gave me peace to hear him that way.
I immediately went over to join the embrace. He melted in my arms as he cried his pain. Never had I comforted Papi. Never had I offered him my shoulder. As we held each other, I felt our lives exchanged. Now that he no longer had his parents, now that he no longer needed to care for his Mami, I would begin to care for him instead.
Abuela spent the last couple of months living in a hospice home just down from 3217 Appalachian Way. A friend from elementary previously lived there.
I’ll never forget the walk to the house where she laid. The street was quiet. Not a car could be heard. Birds sang peacefully. An unusual layer of fog clouded the way as if God himself set the scene for a solemn day.
We did not speak a word. We fumbled as we figured out who would walk where. As we paced, I wondered if I should place my arm around him in solace.
When we approached the house, my eyes focused on the green entrance door. Papi punched in the keypad code. We entered to face death.
Inside the staid house, a nurse fed another patient while the television played. Bright fluorescent lights glared. As we passed others en-route to her room, I felt no need for morning pleasantries and instead wondered how staff felt when they saw yet another family enter the house to say farewell.
I’d never seen a dead person. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Anxiously, I peaked around her bedroom doorframe to see her lying on her back, mouth agape.
I quickly glanced around at her pale mint green bedroom walls. Her lone crucifix crowned her bed. My eyes darted to acknowledge the nurses, but not to connect.
When I fixed my gaze on her, she appeared diminutive. The blanket neatly tucked up to her neck pinned her body to the bed. Her open mouth captured my stare. Its O-shape, left by her last gasp of air, suggested the path her soul took to escape.
We each approached her bedside individually. I grabbed her left hand — still warm — and said goodbye laying one final kiss on her pale yellow forehead.
Confusion reigned for the next few minutes. Four nurses crowded the room. Should we step out? Would we get a minute alone with her? Will we see her again?
The confusion forced us out of the room to allow the day’s proceedings to continue. We quietly walked home for a fix of coffee to dull the senses.
Minutes later a ghost appeared. My long-lost cousin Cindy who I hadn’t seen in 20+ years stepped into the kitchen. Had Abuela sent this gift to help us grieve?
Sadness followed for the next week, the next year.
For two years, I’d witnessed as her health progressively deteriorated and death neared. Of the countless gifts she bequeathed to celebrate past birthdays, Christmases, graduations…I thank Abuela most for the gift to experience her passing.