February 24th 2009 was my 40th birthday. I was used to getting my 6 am birthday song call from Mami but since she was in the hospital I had just gone to work and didn’t think about it but she had not forgotten. At about 9:00 am I get a call from the nurses’ station, I freak out “what is wrong?!” I asked; the nurse replies “nothing, mommy wants to speak to you” and in her strained voice she managed to get out “happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you” then she became winded. I laughed and told her she was crazy. Later on I celebrated in the hospital with sugar free donut and apple juice. I was happy because that morning had started as the 38 other birthdays before with my Mami singing me her best wishes. It made my day even if everyone else, even my husband, had forgotten it was my birthday. Had I known it was the last time I hear Mami sing me that song I would have recorded it.
I know it’s was my 40th birthday and 38 would indicate that Mami had not sung to me for the first 2 years of my life. I could fib and say I was too young to remember. But the truth is that I was 2 years old when Mami came into my life. See, she did not give birth to me but she did give me life. I, along with my siblings, am the product of my father’s long standing extramarital “extracurricular activities”. One day my biological mother left and without skipping a beat Mami stepped in. Mami did something I know I could not do. In fact I do not know any other woman so amazing as to do it either. Mami took in my father’s little indiscretions and dedicated her life and love to us. Life with Mami may not have always been full of sunshine and bliss. In fact it is quite the opposite. For a long period it was a very excruciating relationship. But at the end there was nothing but love. Mami was there for me and my siblings when no one else was, even my alcoholic father. She was my Mami in every way that mattered. Now it was my turn to be there for her.
I could not even think about my marriage which was close to non-existent since February 14th. I had caught a few glimpses of my husband since the fight but I had not spent any actual time with him. He had come by the house a few times to shower and rest but it was usually when I was out or when I was busy doing something in the house and running out. The times we managed to end up in the same house at the same time we slept. Well I slept he passed out on the sofa. I knew this was wrong and that I deserved more but strangely though we were not really communicating which meant we were not fighting. We seemed to be just co-existing, taking up space near each other and at that time I just needed his presence around. Not because he made me feel better but because too much already had changed. My sons were gone, my mom was in the hospital, and my best friend who I normally leaned on had moved out of town. At that moment in time I just could not bear to have another person gone. Even if he was not really there he was.
The diagnosis was pneumonia; also her kidney functions had decreased and her H2O levels were low. The doctors felt it necessary to have her on oxygen 24 hours a day. Papi, my siblings and I spent countless hours by her bedside. But, because I was the one living at home and didn’t have any small children to tend to and I was more acquainted with her condition, the task of going daily fell to me along with Papi. My routine became work, hospital, home, sleep then wake up to do the same. Usually when I made it to the hospital at 5:00 pm I would relieve Papi so he could go home and rest. On the nights I had class I would run to school then run to the hospital before 9 pm if only for a few minutes to check up on Mami. If I was lucky Papi would wait around and rest in the visitor’s room so that he could give me a lift home. Papi would get up early and drive to the hospital every day and spend the whole day with Mami so there were nights when he was too exhausted. She could see it ordered him home to rest. I would take the bus home on those nights. Sometimes Papi would rest for a few hours then come back to get me when the visitors time was over at 9:00 pm.
I had not realized until after my mother’s passing how much weight he had lost. Mami was the best cook in the world (well in our opinion) and Papi, after 55 years of marriage, was so used to her cooking that he would rarely let anyone else cook for him. The hospital staff knew him by now so whenever they brought up her food they would bring a second meal for Papi. But still it was not the same. Papi had lost so much weight that one day he stood up and his pants fell to the ground. I felt horrible. I was neglecting him but I could not spare anytime to anyone else but Mami.
The next morning I wake up alone. He didn’t come home. As per usual he messed up and was too afraid to face the consequences. I am not sure why because I stopped fighting over his drinking a long time ago. I guess it was the new reason that was keeping him away. I get up because my mom is calling down to me for help. I look at the clock and say to her “It is 7 am woman, what the hell is wrong with you?!” She smiles that sly little, crocked smile and says “el pernil (pork rump) is too heavy for me to carry, put it in the oven for me. It has to cook for 4 hours and the kids will be here by then.” Knowing my mom she has probably exaggerated their arrival time but I oblige. Then I turn around and grab her tight and smother her with kisses and say “feliz cumpleano mi vieja” (happy birthday my old lady) to which she responds, in a correcting tone, “young lady if you please.” We laugh and we go check her sugar, dispense her medications and then I make her breakfast. Cheese omelet, wheat toast and coffee is on the menu.
Papi (father) comes down and joins us in the dining room. First he complains about the gabbing women that aroused him from his sleep and then ask me for a cup of coffee. I asked if he would like breakfast and patting his belly he responds, “No I am watching my weight.” I look at my mom and we just laugh. We sit at the dining room table and talk like we had done, I am guessing, a least a thousand times before. She was so excited. I hope the kids show up early because I know how happy she gets when they are around.
Sure enough they got there. Not at noon, more like 5 pm, but still they made it. The food was reheated. The kids ate, ran around, made a mess but most importantly they surrounded her with love. The look of happiness on her face is worth every sticky fingerprint on the wall. But as the day goes into evening I can see how tired she is. About 11 pm the kids all kiss her good bye and pile into their car for the trip back home. I had long since retreated to the semi-quietness of my room. I am annoyed at my husband. Not that he had stayed out all day because, quite honestly I always feel more at ease when he is gone, but because he had not had the decency to call Mami and wish her a happy birthday. Mami loves him. She would often take his side declaring I was being too mean to him. If only she knew half the truth. I would never tell my parents the drunken, mentally abusive hell I was living at home because it was not ones problem but my own.
I go up and kiss the kids and my sister goodbye. I walk back down to the basement and before I make it to the last step I hear my niece call out “Titi grandma wants to go to the hospital” I did not expect to hear those words. She voluntarily wants to go to the hospital. I can hear the urgency in my niece’s voice. I run up and find my Papi (father) standing by Mami. He is nervous. It has been over 20 years since Mami was diagnosed with diabetes and the successive various array of complications stemming from it. It has been 10 years since Papi donated the kidney that took her off dialysis and most likely saved her life. But Papi still gets nervous whenever she has an episode. I tell my niece call 911. I ask Mami what she is feeling, she can hardly speak. She is lethargic. I am not sure if it is fatigue or her sugar. I check her glucose level. It is high. It could be all the excitement; at least I hope it is.
It has been 10 years since the transplant and her levels had started to increase in the past few months. The doctors had told us that any transplant recipient could not expect the organ to work like an original healthy one forever. Ten years, at least she had ten free years. I was prepared to hear she would have to start dialysis again. That in comparison would have been a blessing to the actual final prognosis.
I get home I walk into the kitchen to find Mami sitting in her chair as was customary when she is working in the kitchen. She is resting her head down on her left forearm. She never rest on her right arm because of the fistula, the reminder of those terrible days when she was undergoing dialysis treatments before the kidney transplant. She has a peeler in her left hand and a bowl of poorly peeled potatoes in front of her. I ask “are you okay” she replies “yes”. She lied. She always lies when I asked her that because she never wants to be taken to the hospital which is what I would have done if she admitted to feeling ill.
I keep nagging her, questioning about what she ate, how much, did she take her medications and had she checked her sugar levels. Finally, she admits to have been feeling ill for days but did not want to go to the hospital because tomorrow is her birthday. She will be 71 years old. Last year’s party was a blast, the big 70. The house was full of family, laughter and love but this year we were just having a quiet event with a few siblings and the kids. Mami is preparing her famous potato salad. She does not want to miss spending time with her kids and most importantly her most beloved grandchildren. I say okay but I kept an eye on her. I tell her to go to her room and rest, she obliges. She will do anything to keep me from calling the ambulance.
I clean up the kitchen, have a snack and retreat to my room in the basement. I had recently moved back home. My husband had not worked since 2001 leaving me with the entire financial burden of the house bills and caring for the two boys. Now that my eldest boy has moved away and my youngest is in his first year of college upstate I no longer can afford or need to maintain a big house. The move took whatever savings I had left; even cleaned out my pension savings to update my parents’ house. We originally moved into the house when I was 3, now 37 years later it finally had some semblance of the new century.
I was tired of seeing my mom go up to the second floor to use the bathroom. She would always get so winded so now there was a brand new bathroom on the first floor. Mami could nap in the back room and use the accommodations on the first floor throughout the day instead of tiring herself out making trips to the second floor. I also had the basement finished so that I could live in it. I sit in my room and do some classwork. Mami was feeling rested after her nap so I go up and take instructions as to what was needed for tomorrow’s birthday meal before heading to bed. About 1:00 am the phone rings. Half asleep I answer, it’s him. He starts by apologizing for falling asleep he doesn’t know why he was so tired. I think to myself “yeah, sleep, more like blacked out” I don’t even let him finish talking, I do not respond, I just hang up and turn off the ringer.
Saturday, February 14, 2009:
I was in a foul mood, again. I had another fight with my husband, again. It’s not the first time we have fought but this time was different. It was not about his drinking. He was in town only one day after having spent 2 months in out of town with our son. I say our son even thought I did not give birth to him because I helped raise him from a very young age. He grew up with my son and as such I could not love him any more if I had given birth to him.
I was happy to see my husband. So before heading off to school that Saturday morning I decided to help him unpack and his airline reservation confirmation fell to the ground. As I picked it up for him I saw on the contact information a woman’s name and address. I asked what it meant and he tried to give me a story about how she is a friend of our son who had helped him book the ticket. Sure it sounded like a plausible story if I hadn’t recognized the name and knew quite well this was not just a regular friend of our 21 year old. She was a few years older than me and had taken a “motherly” interest in our son. In the beginning I thought it was nice and it made me feel good that my son had someone like myself looking out from him since he was so far away from home. But, then I started calling my husband up a lot. Oddly enough she never called me.
After his admitting that she had helped him purchase the ticket online it was also revealed that he had stayed at her home while in Florida because our son had lost his apartment. I tried not to sound like a suspicious jealous spouse but, why was this the first I was hearing of the living arrangements? He had been in Florida for two months. He claimed he did not want me to get jealous. What is so funny is that after 16 years this was the first time I have ever demonstrated any type of jealousy. In fact I would not even call it jealousy but more anger at being kept in the dark and being made to feel as if I was the reason for his lies. I also felt like an idiot. For months I thought he was out taking care of our son. Now I come to find our son was the furthest thing from his mind.
You would think that after 16 years of disappointment and mostly solo parenting I would have figured it out sooner. This early morning revelation lead to the most heated argument, up to that point, that we had ever had. It culminated in my taking the bus to school and his running off in a hoof of indignation. To add to my annoyance he preceded to call and text me throughout the morning, while I was in class, to plead his innocence. By noon when I finished up my classes he was too drunk to speak coherently on the phone. I went home. Happy freaking Valentine’s Day to me.
In the end, due to aphasia brought on by a stroke, my mother was not able to articulate her words properly but none-the-less she made sure she was understood especially when she refused further medical treatment. My beloved mother died on the 13th of May 2009. The last days, all 13 days, of my mother’s life are seared into my brain. I can recall every day, every action and every emotion as if it had just happened. Those 13 days are forever engraved in my memory and heart. Those 13 days are the sources of my greatest sorrows. Some may think it too short a time span, when compared to the entirety of my mother’s life, to base my life altering decisions. But, for me it was not only the end of my mother’s earthly life but also the end of my old life which, like my mother’s, was too often beset with heartache. The day my mother died was the day I was forced to let go and live.