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Eduardo Santiago

Mami, Interrupted

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, confused.

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 Cuban family.

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 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

Cuban-born Eduardo Santiago is a PEN U.S.A. Emerging Voices/Rosenthal Fellow and the author of the novel Tomorrow They Will Kiss, published July 2006 by Little, Brown and Co. His shorter works have appeared in zyzzyva, The Caribbean Writer, The Los Angeles Times, and most significantly, Slow Trains a whopping 3 times! He lives in Los Angeles.

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