She strokes the brightness of light
—Her first memory, birthed amongst white pillows--
Sensually into hollyhock; a cloud of petals against plush, cumulus sky,
The stemless flower floats, protected by the curve of a weathered horn.
Empowered, the fleshless ram cuts canvas, looming
Above an untouched desert that she can feel in shapes and colors;
(And to paint, she must feel). ‘OK,’ she signs, perhaps smiles.
Copyright Xiomara A. Maldonado 2008
Forty-five minutes into the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I can't breathe well enough to adequately fill my lungs. Tears drip down my upper lip into my mouth, and sadness cripples my voice. I feel the way I felt the morning high school administration interrupted my Algebra class to hold an impromptu Assembly and tell us that the "small fire" in the Twin Towers is actually a terrorist attack: anxious and overwhelmed by fear of the unknown.
During that Assembly, I breathed deeply to fight back tears and numb the thought that my aunt may have been on the train as it pulled into the World Trade Center station. I prayed for her safety, and, in English class after, my best friend and I held hands while jets frightfully roared overhead.
My family was fine that day... physically. Unlike the many families who suffered the loss of beloved family members and friends, I did not have to deeply bear the heartache of such a tragic event. I know, however, that September 11th, 2001 traumatized me. My depression certainly worsened that year, fueled by the truth of the saying "Tomorrow is promised to no one."
When I was in the third grade, my maternal great-grandmother passed away, and I remember feeling deeply saddened that Mita was no longer with me; but 9/11 hurt me in ways I could not recognize until I was in college. Throughout my lifetime, I had felt the pressure of inevitable death, but after the attack on the WTC, I became even more fearful of facing the day when someone I loved would pass the realm of living into the unknown. I lived every day in fear. Fearful that my time with my family was limited, and I wasn't making the most of it. Unfortunately, this fear pushed me in the opposite direction from what one would think it would push me. Instead of drawing closer to my family, I grew distant from them. Besides relying upon the excuse of getting caught up in the annals of my daily life, I subconsciously thought I could deal better with my fear of death and its consequences by isolating myself from my loved ones.
It was not until a decade after 9/11, though, that I faced the seemingly unconquerable pain of losing another family member and the realization that my self-induced isolation would leave me with many regrets about the way I conducted my life. On March 10th, 2011, my beloved maternal grandfather, Primitivo Mendez, died. I suddenly understood why he had been so angry with God when his own mother, Mita, transcended. Death may be a fact of life and it may be explained biologically; but it is emotionally incomprehensible.
However, I was less angry with God than I was with myself.
Firstly, I felt that my grandfather's death was my fault. During a memorial service for my college friend, Aliyah, the year before, my friend mentioned how, with the birth of her son, she knew there would be three deaths in her family; and there were-- the passings of Aliyah, her grandmother and her dog. This conversation stuck with me, giving me the illusion that the birth of my son had somehow caused my grandfather's death. Although my therapist has mostly convinced me that such thinking is ludicrous, part of me still wonders if he'd be alive if I had never gotten pregnant.
Secondly, I felt extremely guilty for isolating myself from my family while I was in college. I missed out on so much valuable time with my Abuelo. Of course, I had my excuses: I was too busy with school to make the trip downtown; I was too depressed to do anything other than nurse my wounded soul; I was too young to know any better; I was too scared of having to communicate in Spanish. Ultimately, though, there is no excuse for not making the most out of the time that we have with our family.
My grandfather was a funny man, full of stories and compassion. He called my mother China Fea because he insisted he and my grandmother found her in a garbage can in Chinatown. My mother believed him because they often found good games in Chinatown's trash. He had a mind for business, working several jobs even while owning a record store in the Lower East Side and ultimately buying a taxi medallion. He cared deeply for his family, even if he would only gruffly acknowledge an "I love you" with a swift nod of his head and slight smile.
I live now in my grandfather's apartment. His records still take up all the shelf space in the closet, and his canes are there too in a corner. His picture sits above the dirty dishes in the sink, and his record table holds his forlorn mail. Every day, I am reminded that I only have my own apartment because he is gone. Every day, I wish that I still lived in my parents' house and that he still lived.
My boyfriend said earlier today that the first year after his father passed away was the hardest, that years pass by quickly, but even five years later it feels like just yesterday that your loved one has gone away. He said that one good thing comes out of such an event though: that you learn to appreciate the family you do have. I think he is right; but I still worry that I am not doing enough to show my family I appreciate them, that I am still not making the most of my time with them. I don't know that my parents and my sister and my grandmother know that I mean it when I say I can't imagine my life without them, that I don't want to. No matter how much we may get on each other's nerves, no matter how long I may delay visiting them, I love them and don't ever want to be without them. I don't know if they realize that I still live every day in fear of losing them... because the next moment is unknown to us, and I am often scared of what the future holds.
Having a child really is a game-changer. Suddenly, it makes sense that my parents and grandparents became so angry when I did not call on time or come home at the appointed hour. Just as much as I hate the thought of losing them, they loathe the idea of losing me. I believe that someday my son will experience feelings similar to mine. Equis will one day understand the vitality of showing his loved ones just how much he cares. I just hope he doesn't have to feel as badly when he visits my grave as I do when I visit that of my grandfather's.
In the end, it is important to remind ourselves that every moment is precious, that even though society often dictates that we should spend most of our time working to make money and completing other endless errands, our family is precious. Family should always come first.
Read poetry inspired by my grandfather and his passing: