I expect to
find her in bed, but she’s sitting up on a turquoise recliner, her little feet
in hospital slipper-socks, half on, half off, dangling at the toes. Her legs
are hairy. Clear plastic hoses encircle her: one goes into her nose, shooting
something that resembles a rancid chocolate shake directly into her stomach;
another tube delivers oxygen into her nostrils. An IV in her left arm keeps her
hydrated, the one in her right arm, a synthetic opiate, keeps her calm. She’s
like a puppet that has gotten all tangled up in her strings, limp,
At 68 years of age, her gray hair starts above her forehead
and stops two inches back, the rest is a flourish of the reddish-brown dyes
she’s used for years, as if the woman she once was were receding into the
background, slowly creeping into the past. Her eyes, once so pretty
(pretty is what she was, not stunning, not gorgeous, simply, and exquisitely,
pretty), now bulge with illness and fear. Her lips quiver when she sees me
because she wants to smile and she wants to cry. She
also wants to hide. She doesn’t want me to see her “like this.”
The diagnosis -- complications due to Parkinson’s
Disease -- is simple and horrifying: she has forgotten how to swallow.
The prognosis: She weighs 85 pounds, and even with the expert care and the
feeding tubes she could easily starve to death. Mami had not been
expecting me. Our visits, even the good ones, are always a surprise. We never
tell her when one of her children is flying, for she dreads airplanes more than
death. And yet she fears death, not for the usual reasons that mortals fear
death, but because it will take place on foreign soil. It wasn’t supposed to be
like this. Her exile was to be temporary, a brief interruption.
“We’ll be back in Cuba for Noche Buena,” my father told her
year after year. “Castro won’t last long.”
But the Christmas Eves mounted into decades and the decades
into half a century. She reluctantly became a permanent resident and,
eventually, an American citizen. “The darkest day of my life,” she cried, as
she signed away her native country and resigned herself to a new one.
“This is not material,” I tell myself as I lean in to kiss
her. “This is your mother.”
But it is material. Like the brainwashed assassin who can’t
help but kill, I have been trained to write.
I am the eldest of four; the first three, all boys, are
exactly three years apart, born in Cuba when Mami was young and smart and knew
that it would be a lot easier if one baby was out of diapers before the next
one came along. The youngest is the little girl she always wanted -- born in the
U.S. ten years later, not an accident but a whim. Mami named her Susana after
Susan Hayward, an American movie star she admired in her youth.
“When Cuba danced,” my mother likes to say. She has divided
history into halves, the first being when Cuba danced, which was before the
Revolution. But she has never named the present half. When asked, she simply
dismisses the question with a wave of her hand, as if shooing away an invisible
insect. What is Cuba now? If she’s not dancing, what is she doing? Perhaps Cuba
is sitting like a wallflower at the dance, waiting for her moment. Perhaps
weeping? Mourning? Or is the current situation just too awful to name, to contemplate?
As the writer, I am also expected to be the keeper of
memories. The jotter of notes. Participant
and observer. Of all the children I am the least sentimental (in that
I’m not prone to bursting into tears at the slightest provocation). Yet it is
my profession to ask questions, to look for significance, to extract sentiment,
to feel the pain, to try and write into order the chaos that is a contemporary
We are not dysfunctional, we are simply scattered. There are
chunks and pieces scattered all over America, there are language barriers,
lapses in traditions, in our history. You can’t,
for example, say to them, “Just like that xposé on 60 Minutes last Sunday!” or
“As Oprah said yesterday...” We have very few points of reference, and the ones
we have mostly revolve around the family.
My mother’s in-laws speak English
only, and so do her grandchildren. To her grandchildren, she is a curiosity, a
nice lady who speaks funny and makes them eat strange things: boliche, cocido,
yucca frita, and lots and lots of rice. Rice of so many colors: black rice,
yellow rice, brown or rice with odd bits in them, chorizo, garbanzo, squid.
When she tries to please them by making burgers or hot dogs, they’re never
quite right. It’s all just so foreign. Like the hospital.
Kendall Regional Hospital is not in Little Havana, which is
almost quaint by comparison, with mulatas in tube-tops and giant pink curlers
and stretch pants so tight at the crotch that it looks as if their vaginas are
always swollen. No, Kendall Regional is in the Cuban suburbs of Miami and, like
all suburbs, it has a look all its own. My mother’s visitors are women her age,
their hair dyed American colors: Golden Ash, Light Auburn, Amber
Shimmer. They wear delicate, almost invisible makeup, except for the eyebrows,
which are plucked and penciled-in. Their dresses are comfortable and very well
ironed. They wear sensible heels and carry designer handbags, (not real, of
course, but I would never know and I wonder if they know). All of my
mother’s visitors have one question for me, “When is your book coming out...in
Spanish?” When I tell them I don’t know, they seem offended.
The days are hectic, with nurses, doctors, janitors, and
so many visitors. There are tests and therapies and meals in the downstairs
shop where the women behind the counter call me, "Cariño" and "Mi Amor," just like
American diner waitresses used to call people “Honey” and “Sweetie” before
Starbucks replaced them with surly, silent baristas. There are endless
phone calls from concerned relatives, “Todavia no traga.” No, she’s still not
swallowing. It seems so simple, we do it constantly. Why can’t she? With every
gulp of saliva, I feel guilty that I can.
The nights are worse. Sleep is impossible. People scream in
other rooms, maybe from pain, or from waking up from a bad dream. They scream
in Spanish: “Auxilio!” Help. This is the most common scream. The night nurses
come in every couple of hours to check Mami’s vitals, and they don’t do it
quietly. It’s three in the morning. On go the florescent
lights, IV alarms send out a sonic beep that goes straight to my already
inflamed nerve center. Voices are raised. People are called in. Mami is
sedated and sleeps through it. I’m not sedated and I wonder if I should be.
By the fifth morning I have what feels like a New Year’s Day
hangover -- I’m nauseated, jittery, and irritable and nothing seems real. Add to
that a wrenching sadness. My time here is over, I have
to go home to resume my life. My sister is flying in to take over, and a when
she leaves my brothers will arrive. Together. Since we
were children, Carlos and José Antonio have been a
unit, with Susana and me standing alone at either end. They’re coming together
because they’re a unit, but I also know they can’t face her on their own.
As I board the airplane, she’s still not swallowing. If this
is, indeed, material, I would need to find the significance, the metaphor; make
it universal somehow. Is it ironic or just plain sad that we came to this
country to keep from going hungry, only to watch helplessly as Mami starves to
death on a turquoise recliner? Are forty-plus years of self-inflicted exile and
the long list of political errors, miscalculations, superstitions, and fallacies
(don’t get me started on the Embargo, the Bush-imposed tourist restrictions, or
the Elian Gonzalez en-que-cabeza-cabe situation) just too much to swallow?
Could the answer be more tragic than that? Is this the
beginning of the end of a life that was not lived as an adventure, but rather
as a sentence?
As 2006 comes to a close and Fidel Castro lies in a hospital
bed somewhere in Havana, and my mother lies in a hospital bed somewhere in
Miami, it hardly seems like a fair race.
He lived his life to the fullest while she waited for hers
to begin again.
©2006 by Eduardo Santiago