Death Waits For No One

Posted: July 7, 2011 in Fiction

“Of what import are brief, nameless lives…”

You’re on your way to Corpus. It’s your mom again.  And you think just once you’d like to visit the Shoreline without a hospital visit as the only stop on the agenda.  You’d like to smell BBQ lingering in the air and the sun on the back of your neck; the thick stratified harmony of Los Exitos hanging on your every ear like candied butter.  The crisp hopeful punctuation of a can of an ice-cold beer being opened would be good about now, like that one summer trip to Rio Frio with your cousins and how your Tio offered up a can for you all to share. You even ponder what it would be like to feel the arms of your most Preciosa around your neck clinging onto you like the many waves that cling to the sand upon receding again into the Gulf.

But that’s not today.

Instead, you anticipate the cold sanitation of a hospital waiting room and the audible ticking of the clock as it beckons your most foreboding thoughts. Your sisters are with you, Y Gracias a Dios, because you’re not really sure how long you can keep claws onto sanity without them. You hold onto it and it reminds you of the frightened kitten on that tree behind your neighbor’s house from when you used to play hide-n-seek on Fordyce with your cousins. Wouldn’t it be kick ass if I could hide like that cat, you used to think. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” never meant more than it does at this moment.

The hum of the road down Chapman is distinct, and for a reason. The hum-n-clap of the tires as they traverse the as-yet-to-be-finished roadwork create a multitude of rhythms and you spend your time trying to superimpose a beat onto it. But you can’t because the impending scenario scares you. It’s getting dark and your sitting in the back of the car, imagining how you used to fit yourself on the floor behind the seat.

At Spohn-Shoreline, it’s become one of those grim family reunions. One of those it-is-only-a-matter-of-time reunions that gathers even the remotest of your Tias and you all try desperately to get through the night by laughing a lot.  After the laughter subsides, as it always does, and before the silence takes hold an argument breaks out between the still Roman Catholic side of the family and the ever growing Evangelical side about which particular theology will guide your mother into the next world if and when she dies.  And it hits home just how much your family has grown apart over the last few years because it rapidly stops being about your Jefita and becomes more about who is right and who is wrong.  A nurse randomly interjects her ½ a cent by quoting John 3:16 and condescendingly emphasizing  “…he gave His only begotten son…”

From one ardent Evangelical Tio comes,

“Well the Pope is no one special, the Holy Spirit works through all of us who are saved in Jesus. We need to pray for healing!”

Your Tia, who’s still rocks it old school, fires back,

“The Pope carries the authority of Jesus himself through Apostolic succession, only he can rightfully petition God for healing, all we can do is pray for God’s will to be done!”

Similar Inquietudes ensue concerning all the big, big questions “Catholics and Christians” (one freshly born-again cousin insists on the misnomer) fight about: the Virgin Mary, more about the Pope, faith vs. works, the role of suffering, etc. ad nauseum etc.

And then there’s the waiting. The incessant waiting.

Times like these you find the strangest things to occupy your time, like taking really long to pick something from the vending machine: “You always get a damn Hershey bar, how about some chips?” you argue. Through this little inner litigation life’s endless minutia reveals itself and gets its due: “Oh look, a Payday!”  Or maybe you could get away for a bit and walk across the street to the Whataburger for a quick bite. But you talk yourself out of it. If anything should happen, and you know it will as soon as you leave, you’ll never forgive yourself for being so selfish.  And so you stay, making due with the growing emptiness in your stomach.

Speaking of Whataburger, a recent event recurs  and weighs heavy on your mind. The albatross of this guilt is an immensity. About two weeks ago, when it was your turn to watch her, you were hanging out with your fiancée watching TV.  From a distance the bell was ringing; from a distance your moms was calling. It was about midnight and you thought she was asleep. She asked if you had eaten, as any good mother would, even such a  mother as this: condemned to vast amounts of time on a hospital bed the government provided, healing from the fresh amputation of her right leg just below the knee. Open scabs, some of them bleeding, have formed pell-mell on her arms, the remnants of minor skin wounds that heal so very slowly, if they heal at all. And the emotional angst that inevitably arises has stolen the joy from her eyes. But still, the way she asked was not completely genuine. Her passive aggression shone through, she was hungry but she didn’t want to bother you just for her own sake. She wanted Taquitos: sausage, egg and cheese Taquitos from Whataburger. They are her favorite. But you wanted to be a good son and hold her to the higher standard of eating her diabetes demanded. So you said,

“No mami, it’s too late for that, maybe tomorrow. Do you want cottage cheese and peaches?”

Thing is, you too were not completely genuine. You were very comfortable on the couch watching TV, making out with your future wife during the commercials and, besides, you didn’t want to drive. It was late. “Tomorrow” never happened. And here you are two weeks later, possibly in the midst of your mom’s final hours on earth, and you’re not sure if she ever satisfied her Antojito. This thought fills you with shame, rage and disgust.

”Why didn’t you just go you dumb ass; you fucking selfish troglodyte. Eres Un Pendejo Bien Hecho!”

Your brother hasn’t arrived yet, still en route from New York, and you’re strangely thankful that he decided to move so far away and that it‘s been so long since he‘s visited, because you just know your moms ain’t giving up the ghost before seeing him.  He was the brave one and the one she most worried about.  Even if most of his courage was spent getting in trouble, you still admired him. Because he was older, he’s the one who taught you how to shave. How to use foot powder for your stinky feet; to light a match for your doubly stinky shits. Explained what that off milky substance was that shot out of your Pinga when you jacked-off. And how to score points with the chics: dance with them Hound, just dance–they’ll love you for it!  He’s the first one on the floor and the last one off it. You’ll never forget the time he taught you how to look at a chic’s tits without getting caught and how he made you promise never to tell anyone. A magician never reveals his secrets he said; or the time he gave you your first hit of weed: “just one, Hound. And don’t tell Mami!”  Nambe I won’t, you  said. It was him who showed you all the shit your dad would’ve taught you had he been around.  His audacity has always mystified you. He moved out of the house early and never looked back. Lived in more towns than you have fingers. And you’ve lived most your life eager to shed a pound of your “brains” for even an ounce of his temerity. You can’t wait to see him.

And then there’s the waiting, the incessant waiting.

It’s not like you didn’t expect this. All of you did.  Diabetes is insidious like that. It’s not like a car accident or, Ni Lo Mande Dios, a murder. It’s not even like cancer where one is diagnosed and then you have to do all sorts of awful shit to get better, whether chemos or curanderos. No, diabetes sneaks up on a motherfucker. It’s doom-ish that way, revealing itself only after years of living out your hardened (hard earned?) habits. All that shit that makes you, well, YOU!  When diagnosed, one has to NOT do what by this point in your life comes so naturally you might as well be asked to stop being Tejano. And being asked, no; being forbidden to be Tejano has been asked of your people one too many times.

Intensive care has a plethora of rules: visiting hours end at 8pm.  No kids under fourteen. No more than two visitors at a time. Quiet please. Wash your hands before entering. Don’t breathe too heavy! Your two oldest sisters go first and that first moment without them is hard. You’re not alone to be sure.  Your lovely is with you and your cousins too; as are sundry Tios and Tias. You’re not alone but that don’t mean your not lonely. The anticipation of seeing her crawls cold on your back, the fear is setting in. You tell yourself it can’t be any worse than at home.  But even if this comforts you for a time, that solace quickly abandons you as your sisters return, signaling that it is your turn to go in.  And because they love your fiancée, she’s allowed to accompany you even before other member of your family.

Psst, KKshhh, beep.beep.beep…Psst, KKshhh, beep.beep.beep…

Instantly your tears fall.  It’s nothing like at home.  At home she talked and looked at you.  Here, she’s but a shell of flesh with not even the strength to open her eyes. Much less look at you, talk to you or console you. Tell you she’s OK; that she doesn’t feel any pain or that she’s not scared shitless. And really, that’s all you want to hear. That is all you want to hear; hear it from her and no one else. You get closer and touch her hand, paying desperate attention to every wrinkle of it. Caress her forehead and do your best to comb the shambles her hair has become with your fingers. You kiss her and for the first time in your life: No response.

Your lovely hugs you and tightly, wanting to take your pain into herself or at least share the half of it.  Embraced, you both sway in the coldness of the room; encompassed by silence. Silence and:

Psst, KKshhh, beep.beep.beep…Psst, KKshhh, beep.beep.beep…

Just then, you catch a glimpse of her eyes opening.  You abruptly pull away from the shelter of your Preciosa’s arms.

“Hola Mami,” you say. “You look good.”

Her eyes cut toward you but she can’t speak, tubes all up in her nose.  Her eyes roll around the room until they rest again upon you. They’re cold and distant and blinking a lot, as if she don’t recognize you or that she can’t believe her surroundings; where she’s ended up. Or maybe she’s trying to figure a way to speak to you with just her eyes.

“We’re here, Mami. Both of us”

Her eyes darting between you and her, you can only hope she’s comforted by the fact that you’re not alone in life, with only your sisters left to care for you.

“Maybe, she wants your permission…” she suggests. Permission for what? you ask.

“You know, maybe she needs to know you’ll be OK if she’s tired and can’t fight anymore.”

But you can’t bring yourself to even entertain the thought. And so you just hold each other; both of you holding her hand.

Your very own Nurse Ratchet enters and hardly taking the time to look at you, she bids you both to leave the room so she can do her thing. You bet that she probably doesn’t even remember the theological bitch-slap she tried on your sparring Familia not two hours ago. It’s getting late and the whole family is tired. And besides, visiting hours end in thirty minutes so people rush to see her, no longer paying attention to the rules. Four and five people are up in the room but you hang back, wanting to give them space. Eventually, those that can’t take the sight of her leave sobbing out the room until only your sister remains.  You stare at them, sis crying and talking to her. And because your lovely loves her and feels a special connection with her, she goes to comfort her. You hang back, wanting to give them space. Your timid non-assertive self, the very nature you got from your mom, who always seemed to heed the rules, doesn’t allow you to simply go in; disregarding the 2-person limit. You want to, desperately want to, but you don’t want to piss off the doctor or nurses.  And so you hang back, wiping the tears from your eyes; thinking you’ll see her again tomorrow anyway, when your brother is here.  We’ll see her together, you say.

“Tomorrow” never comes. And your mother, the only tangible, palpable God you’ve ever really known, passes on into the next world over night.

Death, it seems, waits for no one.

  1. Melissa says:

    What a well written story. You really have a way of putting the reader in the place and time. That’s what it takes to be a great writer. This is Junot Diaz great.

  2. Thanks Melissa! I wrote this right during the time I discovered Junot – the style is all him! It’s directly in the vein of his “Edison, New Jersey” from Drown! I wanted to write in that “you” tone – First-person-whatever, my English eludes me right now. Thanks for commenting! This is one of the most personal stories I’ve written, where I cried the whole way through =)

  3. Melissa says:

    It honors her memory well. Im sure she’d be very proud of your writing. Thank you for sharing this private part of your life with us.

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