A lesson in loss
Miguel and his family spend months at the hospital, at least to a five-year-old it feels like months; maybe in reality it is only a few weeks. When he is tired he sleeps on the plastic chairs in the visitor’s room with a cushion brought from his grandmother's sofa. The chairs are the same pale, lifeless green as the doctors’ uniforms.
His grandmother's two maids make huge vats of food that they bring to the hospital to feed the family who gather there each day. Even his uncles come from their offices to eat with the rest of the family at lunchtime. Assembled in the visitors’ room, they look like any typical Colombian family out for a picnic, his uncles telling jokes and going back for seconds, the teenage cousins fiddling with their gadgets and the women gossiping. He notices other families staring at them, but no one else in his family seems to notice or care. The maids make everyone's favorite food: hearty stews, beans, thick soups; all dishes typical of Antioquia, the region where his grandmother grew up. She oversaw the training of both of the maids to make sure they knew the recipes of her mother and her grandmother to the exact half teaspoonful measure of salt or spice. She never got round to teaching these recipes to her only daughter, who now lies dying a few doors away.
The illness has transformed his mother. She has lost her thick dark hair and now wears colorful scarves to brighten up her appearance. Otherwise, with the exception of her emerald eyes, she is devoid of color. Her eyes are starting to fall deeper into her face, encircled with skin so dark it looks like charcoal next to her white cheeks. But otherwise her eyes do not change. They still shine out from within the black circles as beautiful as always. When he becomes frightened by all the physical changes, when he feels he does not recognize his mother in the woman lying pale and lost in the huge hospital bed, then he focuses on her eyes, and there she is again in front of him, the mother who reads him bedtime stories, the mother who took him to his first day at school and waved him off on his first weekend away with the boy scouts.
The cancer has robbed her of her all physical strength. She used to be able to swing him high over her head. He loved soaring above her in a fit of giggles, so safe and free, but now she barely has the energy to read a newspaper. His father turns the pages for her and folds them to make it easier for her to hold. She dispenses with each page quickly. She says she only has the energy to read the headlines and look at the photos. She does not have enough time left to bother with the detail. His father jokes that she only ever looked at the pictures, anyway. He loves the smile that his father's jokes bring to her face. It gives her energy from an unknown source, bringing back the color and the light, if only momentarily. He wishes he could have the same power to bring someone back to life with a simple joke.
Though one joke frightens him. He is playing in the corner of the room and his parents do not realize that he is listening.
“I’m afraid that I’ll get eaten by worms. You know of all the crazy things, that’s what gives me nightmares. I’m such a fool,” his mother says.
“Well, don't worry about that,” he hears his father say, “we'll just burn you instead. Problem solved.” And there is that smile again. This time she even manages a spontaneous laugh and a playful slap for her husband—done before her body remembers that it does not have the energy for such mirth.
Miguel is confused. He doesn’t understand why she is afraid of worms. The hospital is clean; there is no soil anywhere. He checks the potted plants, but they are plastic, held into their pots by foam. He follows his uncle outside when he goes to smoke a cigarette.
“You won't burn her, will you?” he asks. “You’ll be careful with your lighter.”
As his mother gets weaker, the family spends more and more time in prayer. His grandmother leads the rosary three times a day at six-hour intervals in the visitors’ room. Miguel copies everyone else and lowers his head as his grandmother races through the first half of the prayer, not stopping for breath. Then he hums the second half with the crowd. He doesn’t know the words, although he isn’t sure if anyone knows the words or if they are all just humming along hoping not to get caught out. In the beginning, his father gets annoyed with all the praying and storms out.
“This is what they do at funerals. My wife is not dead. She is down the hall and can hear you.”
His father's lack of faith is a constant source of conflict with his maternal grandmother, but eventually as the weeks pass, he starts to join them for prayers. The women on their knees, with straight backs and eyes out in front of them, look like they are conversing with God as equals, but his father looks like a beggar, crumpled and desperate, with no other option than to bow down and beseech the kindness of a greater power. He hopes his father can make a pact with God and they can keep his mother here on earth.
Playing quietly in the corner of his mother’s room as she sleeps, eating and praying with the family in the visitor’s room, telling jokes to the nurses, making friends with the other children that visit, all becomes routine, normal.
One day his aunt comes with his two cousins to pick him up after school. She hugs him tightly as she says hello. Her face looks different. Her eyes are heavier, swollen, she is not wearing any makeup. She tells him that they are not going to the hospital for lunch, that she is taking him and his cousins to the mall for hamburgers and to play in the arcade. Miguel asks when he will see his mother.
“Later, darling, you will see mama later. She wants you to be out having some fun.” But they don’t go to the hospital that evening. Instead, his aunt takes him home with his cousins for a sleepover. She lets them stay up late watching videos and orders pizza for dinner. His uncle comes home very late, after Miguel and his cousins are in bed. The door is slightly open and he can see his aunt and uncle embrace, his aunt holding her husband close, rocking him back and forth.
Miguel is frightened and cannot sleep. He lies in bed focusing on the small slit of light coming in from the doorway. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t seen his father and mother all day. His aunt and uncle seem so different, they are behaving so strangely. It is like all the adults are lost.
In the morning, his grandmother comes to the house. Seeing her immediately makes him feel more secure; she is always in control. She tells him that they are not going to the hospital, they are going to the funeral home. She explains that that is where they take people when they have died and asks if he understands what that means. He nods. He has seen people die on TV, they become still and their eyes close and people are sad. His grandmother explains that his mother's body is asleep at the funeral home but her spirit has gone to be with God. She explains that the spirit is the part that makes a person who they are, it is the part that loves, it is the part that speaks and laughs and creates and remembers. His aunt leaves the room in tears and his grandmother helps him to get dressed.
The funeral home is not a house. It is a big official-looking building with a steep marble staircase and shiny wooden doors. His uncle carries him up the steps, and on the second floor he takes him into a big, dimly lit room filled with fold-out chairs. People sit whispering in small groups. A ghostly murmur hovers in the air. In the corner of the room, hundreds of flowers are crowded together, like a secret garden hidden in the middle of this cold and polished building, their perfume overwhelming. In the middle of the flowers rests a long wooden box on two stands. He sees his father kneeling down next to the box like an abandoned child, scared and alone.
His grandmother nods for him to go to his father. Miguel walks over tentatively, terrified of what will happen next. His father reaches for him, clings to him with all his strength. Suddenly Miguel, too, is crying, uncontrollably.
The rest of the day is a blur. He doesn’t understand the resignation of the adults. To him death is like the bogeyman; it sneaks in during the middle of the night and steals your spirit away from inside of you, squeezes it into an empty jam jar and leaves behind the empty body. He doesn’t understand why his mother had waited at the hospital for death. He’s angry that she didn’t hide away somewhere safe.
The next day, hundreds of people gather in church to pray for his mother. But even the prayers of hundreds do not bring back her spirit, so they take the box that contains her body and bury it. He remembers at school they had planted a bulb in the ground, too, and a few months later it blossomed into a flower, so he believes that they are storing her body safe in the ground until they are able to recover her spirit from death. Then she will reappear like the flower, her frozen body warm again.
Only months later will he realize that death is a permanent separation, and he will mourn her again, crying in his grandmother’s arms for hours.
On his fifteenth birthday, his grandmother presents Miguel with a letter. It is from his mother, written shortly before she died, a note really, scribbled in a lazy script inside a card with a picture of some red roses on the front:
“I've been going over and over in my head what I want to say to you in this letter. It is my only link to you in the future and I could write a novel if I had the time. But I know my time is nearly up, so what to tell you, son? What is important? Walk through life with your eyes open. Be conscious. Make your own decisions and believe in yourself. Live life passionately to the end. Death is just the moment when living stops. If you have lived, then Death can hold no fear for you. But some people stop living long before Death, some never even start. That is the real tragedy. I wish I could tell people how nice it is to die of cancer because I now see Death up ahead and I know that I am living. Cancer, with all its indignities, has shown me my beautiful life—which I will squeeze and hold onto until the end. Live your life like that, son. Every day look Death in the eye and rejoice in your glorious life.”
This story first appeared as a chapter in the novel Dancing with Statues, and also appeared as a short story in the anthology 'Short and Happy' published by S and H publishing.