My Abuelo In Stretcher Number Eight, or This Selfish Moment: Me Without Him
My abuelo is the one surviving in the stretcher number eight. His name is Fernando, but I’ve always known him as Güelo, or Güelito, a diminutive for grandpa. He has slanted eyes, round head, little hair and wrinkles that curve with his smile. He is a lawyer and an amateur writer with a big belly. That’s why we are here, in the stretcher número ocho, because of his big belly.
He lives in this small mountainous pueblito a couple of hours from where we, his family, live. Every Sunday we visited him, but since grandma died other things have died too. Sundays were mercado days, and when it was hot, all the kids in the family swam in the acequia that divides the town. Bueno, it was really a ditch and we couldn’t even swim because of the rocks, but for us, it was like a river. Other times, when grandpa felt like taking a dip, he would take us to the waterfall near the mountains that it was more like a freezing cold chorro that could have cracked our skulls in half.
He is now here in the city, away from his casa and he doesn't like it. Güelito is a man of traditions. Breakfast has to be big with eggs, chile piquín, and lots of corn tortillas, while lunch has to have beer, the one in the red can preferably. That’s why we are here, but mentioning the illness has become a family taboo: he just has liver problems.
I’m the only granddaughter in the hospital. Sometimes my cousins come, or my aunts and uncles, but it’s usually my mom and I. That’s what we women do in our family: taking care of them until our hearts explode.
I’m about to turn 29 and I don’t like the whiteness of these walls. They have become the perfect screen for a proyector playing clips of my life with him. I have no scar, but the sensation is still on the tip of my nose. I fell, or at least that’s how the family tale goes, in those stones near the river that is behind the national highway, just after the stalls that sell pan de elote. My only memory is that photo in which a five-year-old me is wearing pink shorts and a light blue shirt that reveals my tummy, while standing next to a dark brown pony.
I see the river on the white wall, full of big grey rocks and encircled by enormous trees that hide their roots under the clean crystal water. The bathing suit of my Güelo is navy blue sailor style with a white stripe on the side like a half-cut track suit. He probably bought it in the 70s.
He looks very skinny now, and small. I’m standing in front of him, watching him die. I creep over him, he’s still and quiet. I imagine him motionless, with no up and downs in his chest. “Hola, prietita," he murmurs with a husky voice, opening his eyes with a slowness that makes me feel alive and relieve. He’s still breathing.
I grab his hand. It looks colorless as if the blood was not running anymore through his veins, and dry as if his skin were giving up slowly, layer after layer. We smirk, with a little resignation, and exhale deeply, letting the silence speak for the years that will not come. There’s nothing else to say. I’m not good with promises or things I should’ve said a long time ago. We can only hold our hands tightly and wait.
Seeing people die when the sky is dark is frightening. It’s almost two in the morning and liters of blood are coming out of his throat. At first, he was just coughing, then, the first drops fell on his handkerchief. He always carries one in his back pocket and a comb in the pocket of his shirt. He is a man of traditions.
“I feel sharp tingles,” he mumbles. I observe his hands from the distance and imagine little ants walking through each of his veins, while I peek through the door like a five-year-old. I’m too scared to go inside my room at my mom’s house, where he stays when he is not in the hospital.
He lays back and closes his eyes for a few seconds when his torso abruptly jumps from the bed, my bed, while his mouth expels the red liquid. “Bring the trash can,” my mom yells. You can feel her vocal cords shaking, like guitar strings nearing the breaking point.
This is the second time I see my mom as a child. The first time was more than a decade ago when the phone rang on a Sunday morning that felt strange since before I opened my eyes. You know what they say: the muertos visit you before they leave. I don’t know if grandma visited me before dying, or right after, but that morning my mom’s gaze was lost and her angular face had no shape. She was gone. Her face was starting to look like that again as if we couldn’t get used to this, death after death.
I escape to the park while he reads the Quran. He is an atheist in a Catholic family that never goes to church, but he likes to read religious books and I like to believe in Guadalupe, the Virgin. When I was a kid, a golden medal etched with her image hung from my neck, and every time I felt I didn’t belong, I caressed it like a magic lamp.
I’m sitting on a bench, trying to talk to her. It always feels like a monologue. My mind travels to moments where I was happiest, to the future where memories will bring deep sighs because the dead were still alive. I close my eyes and mumble what I’ve been wanting to scream for a long time: I want you to die. I want me to live.
It’s five am and someone is knocking on the door. I can’t feel him anymore. My back feels naked, abandoned, unprotected, missing the eighty-one years that I carry in my genes. I stay on my bed, looking at the ceiling, maybe if I don’t move life will stop for a minute. Un segundo, un momento. I pray. Morenita, take my words back. I turn around and rest my cheek on the pillow, my eyes are wide open. I can still feel his belly brushing my cachete whenever I hug him. His abrazos are now long gone. It’s getting cold.
The door had a large glass through which I peeked every five minutes to see if they had arrived. Not every weekend los abuelos came to visit, but when they came it was the weekend. As soon as I saw the car parking in front of our house, I shouted: Mami!!! They’re here! Then, I ran out and jumped into my Güelo's arms, with my legs hugging his big belly.
Our corazones suddenly felt connected, the beat synchronized. Our arms intertwined and our cheeks caressed. “Mi prietita," he said. Then, my feet touched the floor again and in one big step, in a split of a second, I reached to her: impeccable, elegant, my grandmother. But that’s another story.
I’m still in my bed. There’s a crack, something has broken. Roto, cut into pieces. I cannot drop a single tear. It was just a few hours ago when I gave him a kiss on the forehead that was on a body so shrunken, so eaten by life. I grabbed his hand, stung by so many injections, and said the only thing left to say: Te quiero mucho, Guelito.
What followed, I can barely remember. Strangers grabbing my cheeks because no matter how old you are, you are still a granddaughter; lost relatives forcing me to remember the first time I met them; aunts and uncles fighting for his belongings. My mom as a daughter who is now orphaned.
I go up to my room, dressed in black, and sit on the corner of my bed where he spent his last days before my aunt took him to her house because he was going to be better with her. It feels empty. My feet are hanging as if I were on a swing. The video in my mind goes fast forward: the river, the hiking to the Stone Bed that it was just a huge rectangular stone, the blood, the injections, the silence of the waiting rooms, the plaza of his pueblo with the roasted corn, the antojitos, cotton candy and everything else that has his seal in my life. This selfish moment: me without him.
By: Chantal Flores