|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Mexico City, 2004
I've seen a photo of my father as a young man, his best photo. He's twenty-six and wearing a light-colored linen suit that billows in the wind. He's standing on a beach of sand and pebbles next to a tall, long-limbed girl. In a few years that girl will be my mother. The photo captures a July morning in 1944 at the yacht club in Campeche, a city on the Gulf of Mexico on the country's southeast coast. The day the photo was taken British and Canadian troops occupied Caen. A month before, 160,000 soldiers had come ashore in Normandy. Nothing could be more remote from the beach in Campeche, the beach in the picture where my recently wed father and mother are embarking on what they suppose will be the best years of their lives.
The lives of the people in that paradise are almost over. All that's left is the wreckage of the faces in their first photo as a couple, the juvenile wisp of a smile, the plain-spoken phrase issuing from the trembling oval of a pair of lips. The smiling girl in the photo is now eighty-four and can hardly walk. She's lost her hearing and her sight is gone in one eye. A mysterious strain of emphysema has invaded her lungs though she never smoked. The young man who will become my father is now eighty-seven. He spends his waning days in an apartment near the Forest of Chapultepec, Mexico City, retelling old stories and repeating old names, among them the name of the woman in the photo, now only a murmur sealed in the glow of forgetting. These days his memory specializes in forgetting.
Nearly half a century has gone by since the last time my father and mother saw each other, since the morning in 1959 when my father packed his suitcase and left our house on Avenida Mexico across the street from the park with the same name. In time this will become my family's mythic homestead. In those days it was just a two-story house with a garage and a balcony, an art deco façade, ironwork over the windows, black granite baseboards, and cornices. I don't know the date of the morning my father left the house without saying goodbye to my mother or us or, in all likelihood, to himself. He put his suitcase at the foot of the black granite stairs, the one luxury of the house's interior, while my mother cooked or pretended to cook in the kitchen, pleading for the husband she'd lived with for fifteen years, and with whom she'd had five children, to go without trying to make a scene of his departure. My father hesitates to bid goodbye to the one woman he's ever loved and has now lost for good. He doesn't feel worthy or deserving of a farewell. He feels small in the eyes of a wife who now looks down on him after having once looked up to him. He doesn't want to face her or tell her goodbye because he doesn't want to see the look of relief in her eyes or hear the words of reproach on her lips. He won't tell her goodbye, he leaves the house in surrender that morning, fulfilling the last wish of a wife who has long since lost her respect though not her love for him. She's the kind of woman who loves a man long after she ceases to respect him. My father's departure is timid but decisive, by which I mean he'll never be back except for a night five years later when I come home to find him drunk with his forearm against the wrought-iron door and his forehead leaning against his forearm, waiting to be let in. My mother and my aunt look out at him from between the slats of the wooden blinds, shaken by this unexpected assault on the realm of their freedom, the cave where they walled themselves in and set to work after my father went away. I happen to be home at an unaccustomed time, and my presence solves the scene by inertia. I take my father's arm, move him away from the door where he's blubbering, flag down a taxi, and take him home. I ask if he has a wife, as if suggesting that it would be normal for him to have one, that we can speak as grownups, man to man, the two of us. He watches me stupidly and cries, leaving his face even wetter than it already was, dampened by shame and alcohol. I watch him stupidly and tell myself I should remember what I'm seeing so I can write about it some day.
I don't see my father again until his life is about over, the afternoon of the November day when he calls my office after thirty-six years of unbroken absence. He calls before lunch and says he wants to see me. That same night I go to see him in the place where he lives, an inn lost in the streets around the city's old jai alai frontón. It's a district of ancient buildings, fleabag hotels, and dry-cleaners that still use steam irons and obsolescent, semi-toxic chemicals. The inn where my father lives is called the Alcázar Arms. There's no light in the doorway because the bulbs have burnt out. I have no idea who this hunchbacked little man is when he greets me in the shadows of the entrance hall. I've lived a lifetime without seeing him, and he's spent a life not looking like the person I remember. He walks me through the shadows to his room, which deserves a story unto itself. He shows me some legal pleadings and asks me for money. The scene begins to fill the gaping hole his absence left in my life.
I'll leave for later the years I coexisted with that gaping hole and the meeting that began to fill it. Now, as I write in November of 2004, my parents are back together for the first time in half a century on the strength of a reunion forged by pneumonia and by me. Pneumonia specializes in the aged, and it went to work on the two of them in the weeks that followed. I played my part by finding them somewhere to be treated. It's called the Mexico City English Hospital. I hate the place. Here, fourteen years ago, my aunt Luisa Camín died the atrocious death of a terminal patient kept alive by machine, and my hatred is greatest on the well-lit, mercilessly bright third floor where the intensive and intermediate care units are. After months of not dying in intensive care, my intubated aunt was transported to a public hospital on a day in November, 1991. My mother is now in intermediate care. The month is also November, but the year is 2004. I situate myself in that time and look back from there to my parents' unlikely reencounter at the end of their lives.
How did we get here? How did these two bodies end up being treated for pneumonia on parallel floors half a century after the rupture of a union they couldn't leave in the past?
Emma, my mother, enters the hospital through the emergency room to be treated for advanced pneumonia. She can hardly breathe, her nails are beginning to turn blue, and her oxygen-starved eyes bulge from their sockets. After two days of fevers and phlegm, her young doctor decides to admit her. Jos? Luís López is slight of build, his olive skin smooth and his chin beardless as Montezuma's. Like Anton Chekhov before him, he's a doctor with a taste for French literature. He believes in universal health care, is willing to settle for modest earnings, wears his hair slicked back from his forehead, and has an exquisitely diffident Mexican soul. From the first day of her internment, the veins and arteries of Emma's hands bristle with needles like purple pin cushions. I remember eating mouthfuls of rice and ground beef wrapped in corn tortillas from those hands, bite-size cones perfectly formed between her nimble fingers. Two days after she's admitted, not a single vein or artery in Emma's hands and arms remains un-martyred by the needles and tubes injecting her with analgesics and antibiotics. Under her age spots are blotches of discoloration, meadows of stagnant blood beneath the yellow skin of her hands. I stare at them while listening to the doctor. He tells me how weak her hands are and explains that they wouldn't tolerate another needle. They'll have to open a vein in her neck and insert a catheter to feed her.
Sometimes my sisters spend the night with Emma, but the one who usually stays with her is Ceci. She's worked for Emma since arriving in Mexico City eighteen years ago, fresh off the bus from the mountain village of Ahuehuetitlán in the mountains of Oaxaca. Ceci has looked after Emma since Emma ceased to be an older woman and became an old lady of sixty-five. From that day to this she's kept house for Emma, who at eighty-four is fighting for breath in the hospital's intermediate care unit with Ceci at her bedside. Ceci grew up in Ahuehuetlán with the couple she calls her parents but are in reality her grandparents. Now eighty and ninety respectively, Socorrito and Rafael have raised ten children and seven grandchildren. I know nothing about this flood of offspring typical of the old towns in rural Mexico. The one who knows the whole story and tells it to me is my sister Emma, who has her mother's manic gift for recalling the details of stories, people, and how they got along with one another. Unlike my sister, my memory is less an archive than a series of insights, a migration of butterflies. Most of the time my memories come to me in dreams. They stick up like rocks in a river, stepping stones to the distant shore where Emma and Héctor used to live. I don't look up or ask where they lead because these stones help me cross the river of forgetting. Forgetting pulls everything into its placenta except the stones protruding from memory.
Héctor is admitted to the English Hospital when Emma has already spent three weeks there fighting for breath. He gets the same diagnosis of pneumonia from the same discrete Dr. López Zaragoza after house calls two days in a row. López held off admitting him because I made him promise not to subject Héctor to a long-drawn-out death in a hospital riddled with catheters. Héctor lives near my house in an eleven-story building on Gelati Street, so named for Colonel Gregorio Vicente Gelati, who died in the battle of Molina del Rey while resisting the American invasion of 1848. The building stands on the site of the battle, which at the time was a cornfield at the foot of the Castle of Chapultepec. From the balcony of his apartment Héctor can see the towers of the castle sticking up through the trees.
Héctor's guardian angel Rita Tenorio lives in the apartment. She was born in Zitátacuaro in the state of Michoacán and has two beautiful daughters who live with her: twenty-two-year-old Gabi and eight-year-old Lupita. Like me, they're the progeny of missing fathers. Gabi had a son named Diego at a very early age, and his father left for the United States four seasons ago. There's been no news of him since then. Gabi does housework for me just two blocks from Héctor's, but she sleeps with her mother, her sister Lupita, and her son Diego in my father's apartment where Rita rules the roost. Rita's sister Delia has also moved in after her husband left her in Zitátacuaro with four kids. Thus my father, the absent father par excellence, finds himself surrounded by women with missing husbands and young Diego. Fate has chosen to leave Héctor's sunset years in these tender and loving hands. He's become the surrogate head of a surrogate family that bears him no grudge and will keep him company until death.
Chance has decreed that when Héctor goes to the hospital he gets a room on the east corner of the third floor directly under the room where my mother lies in intermediate care one floor up. There's nothing magic or symbolic about this convergence because I was the one who put the two of them in the same place. But it wasn't my decision that consigned them to symmetrical rooms one on top of the other. This unexpected coincidence winks at my despondence.
Héctor has a young psychiatrist who for months has tried to help him deal with the cosmic anguish brought on by his failing memory. The solemn young psychiatrist has fought this war against time with battalions of medications whose proper doses and side effects are a matter of theory because the prescribing physician is too young to have tried them on very many patients. Along with his anxiety, the drugs have erased what remains of Héctor's memory. When Rita hands the doctors treating his pneumonia the list of drugs my father is supposed to take, they grimace respectfully and keep their opinion of such witchcraft to themselves. The mix of fever, hospital, and drugs produces visions that begin the day he's admitted, and my father's reaction to these treacherous apparitions is unforgettable. He raves and mutters in his delirium, then abruptly sits up. Supporting himself on one arm, he points a trembling index finger toward a spot on the diminished horizon of his room. His arm is shortened by arthritis and Parkinson's, but the dreams his arm pursues were once as limitless as the horizon he imagines. Those dreams are lost and shrunken now, and he longs for places that are no more than glimmering shadows in his receding memory.
I'll visit Emma every morning in the intermediate care unit, then I'll go down a floor to see Héctor. They haven't been this physically close since the day they broke up.
Emma suffers through the worst days of her respiratory crisis connected to a catheter that pumps antibiotics into her chest. The mask over her face supplies her with oxygen and expectorant. Her appetite is back, and she's begun to chatter incessantly, to complain and tell stories. She never forgets a story. My father on the other hand doesn't remember a thing. He just asks if I'm taking care of his properties in Chetumal, the land he deliriously assumes might be taken away from him. Then he stares straight ahead, raises his finger, and asks if it's raining. He's looking at the vertical bars of the forlorn chart hanging on the wall in front of his bed.
I begin to joke with Emma, telling her that her husband is on the floor below and she's on the one above, that life is full of surprises. She doesn't find the fact that gives rise to my joke particularly amusing, but it doesn't keep her from repeating a sentence she used over and over for years: "Poor man." I also tell Héctor his wife is right over him in intermediate care. "Emma Camín?" he says. He nods his head and remembers: "She was a beautiful girl in Chetumal."
The pneumonia runs its course, and so do their hospital stays.
Ceci is radiant when Emma is released. She's slept at my mother's bedside for fourteen of the sixteen days she's been in intermediate care and ten of the eleven nights when she was allowed two visitors at once. On the floor below, Rita is happy because Héctor hasn't lost his memory and is asking for Diego.
Héctor leaves the hospital a day before Emma, accompanied by his new family of Rita, Delia, and me. My siblings can't get used to the resuscitated ghost he's become. Strictly speaking, our father, the father I speak of and remember, exists solely in my mind, my sister Emma's, and, to a lesser degree, in the memories of my younger siblings Pilar and Juan José. Luís Miguel, my youngest brother, has no independent recollection of Héctor, but he's visited him regularly since his reappearance. He wrote a poem that says it all. The first lines are:
Three times I wanted to embrace the shadow of my father who still lives in this world
Emma gets out in the company of Ceci and Ceci's four children. She chatters away, issuing instructions for dinner, a meal it's still too early to be planning for.
In The Woman of Andros, Thorton Wilder recounts the fable of a man the King of the Underworld lets return to the world of the living on one condition. He must carry within him two beings: one who lives and one who watches. He sees his parents on an ordinary day and concludes they're the living dead because they can't see how lucky they are; the joy of being alive is more good fortune than humans can bear.
It's not like that for us right now, nor for Emma and Héctor when they get home and are surrounded by the things they love. Back in my own house, I sleep all night and don't wake up until dawn. Then, on a walk through the woods of Chapultepec, I feel grateful for the damp and invigorating mist under the eucalyptus and cypress trees, and an old thought comes back to me. It always seemed to me that the old must have a secret they keep from the young. I've often considered writing a novel with that secret as its guiding theme. Uncovering it has been my life's mission in a way: wanting to grow up and cease being the child forbidden to know the adult secret, the enviable secret of the grownups who rule the world. Now, as I walk through the woods, it occurs to me that the secret is obvious. The adults who guard it so zealously aren't trying to fool anybody. They act out of shame because their secret is as obvious as the years that are gone before we know it. In the end nothing is left but the years themselves and the dry-eyed gaze that looks back on them. Life rushes towards an unscalable wall and ends in death. It's the secret the old learn gradually, and there's no way for them to pass it on. Or to teach those unable to hear for the simple reason that we all must learn it on our own. Nobody learns to die from someone else.
That may be so, but in the meantime ...(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Adiós to My Parents"
Copyright © 2019 Héctor Aguilar Camín.
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