Throughout my life, the only constant was my grandmother, Delia. Bravely, she took on the role of guardian and caregiver while my mother finished Officer Training School and other responsibilities, thousands of miles away from me. Fort Huachuca had been proven to not be the best place to raise a child, and after a few months one year old me was taken out of the desert and back to tropical Puerto Rico. My father couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of me, so grandma was my last and only hope. Knowing what happened recently to Private Vanessa Guillen, we were blessed that my overarching and outspoken mother returned back to us in one piece, completing a stellar career that saw her become a Ret. Colonel and a tried and true traveling and entrepreneuring single mom.
Death, or rather the possibility of dying, had always played center stage in our family’s modus operandi. Be it because my grandfather had almost died in Korea due to hypothermia – tropical people aren’t built to tolerate minus 0 degree weather nor wool – or the fact that as both maternal grandparents grew up losing loved ones was common place. Tuberculosis had taken at least 25% of Delia’s 16 sibling’s plus their parents. All she knew was that death was inescapable, tinting her complex old soul with the color of heartfelt sorrow.
I always wondered what living without those she loved had done to my grandmother’s psyche. At times she would have heated arguments with “voices” that, according to her, whispered sure fire plots to damn her soul to hell with the occasional outside of the box solution to her every day problems. There was an ethereal quality to her conversations, a dance between good and evil, as she tried to make sense of the arguments presented by the demons within. When both sides had rested and reached a resolution, she violently pounded pots and pans with her spatula, casting away the demons that haunted her.
I didn’t know what to make of her connection to the afterlife and feverish belief that we were all living in sin even after my family convinced me she was being treated for paranoia. Years later, Bipolar Disorder was added to the list of reasons why my grandmother was acting out, maybe even schizophrenia. I still ascribed to the possibility that the conversations she heard were real because the advice she gave me after each episode transcended her 8th grade education. Someone else was speaking through her, to me, until the doctors found the perfect combination of drugs and psychotherapy to permanently exile the voices to whence they came.
I miss the breaking of the silence by the cacophony of metal against metal. Her voice screaming “¡Librame Dios! Satanás, ¡aquí no te quiero más!.
Coming to terms with her own mortality has been easy, but she still feared for the eternal damnation of our souls. Maybe her need for penance, and desire to acquire mercy and grace on my behalf led her to become a part time cleaning lady and caregiver for the old and infirm. As I entered Pre-Kindergarten, a friend hired her to work for a Federally funded hospice-esque program tasked with visiting folks that lived in squalor and/or extreme poverty, dutifully forgotten by their next of kin and the society that they had so diligently served. Most were disabled or bedridden, near the end of their days, deprived of any human contact.
Lawyers. Accountants. Teachers. Janitors. Officers of the law. Gay. Straight. Black. White. Catholic. Protestant. Desolate, in equal need of love and compassion.
The “viejitos” as my middle aged grandma or “viejita” called them lit up whenever I visited with my dolls and books during summer breaks and holidays. The fact that they could feel happiness emblazoned in my mind as a sign of hope in the face of adversity; a constant reminder that dignity, above all else, is owed to those who have already paid their dues to society. That the elderly are not trash or disposable, can feel joy as readily as sorrow, and deserve a chance to live well until the day Charon helps them cross the River Stix or St Peter receives them at the pearly gates of heaven.
Day after day. Week after week. She cooked, cleaned, bathed, humored and visited her clients, making sure they didn’t go without. With a stocky build and strong hands, she would raise beds, adjust positions, and move furniture like a general going into battle. Her resolve never wavered. I’m sure that in many cases she held them and prayed until the funeral home took away their bodies and prepared them for viewing. Such was the nature of the beast, of being the angel and herald of the grim reaper. None of the loses made her reconsider her line of duty. Not one made her resolve waver.
I always wondered if those recently departed became a part of the chaos of the mind, of the internal monologue that mired her distrust of people to the point she had to retreat to the solitude of her bedroom every night to pray for eternal salvation and glory. Whenever one of us felt we had cheated death, we thanked her magical spells. They had worked on us before, and they would work on us again.
Later in my upbringing came stories of how she instantly felt the unexpected departure of her favorite sibling, Melmin, and it all started to click for me. Delia wasn’t devoid of the supernatural. The voices were justified. Mom recounted how grandma got them all out of the car and back into the house seconds after she felt a disturbance in the sibling bond. My grandfather’s car pulling into the driveway a few minutes earlier confirmed her worst fears. Death had become her…
“No hay mal que dure mil años, ni cuerpo que lo recista.”
Whether I liked it or not, my exposure to the subject matter, and the parade of funerals that followed, helped me make peace with the finality of death. Learning first hand that we live on in the hearts of others, like those viejitos lived in mine, made all the bed pan cleaning and decluttering of my youth worth the hassle. Welcoming death as a friend and not treating it as an enemy gave me great relief and joy. I finally understood why true contentment at the face of death was possible; it was the proverbial end to everyone’s suffering.
As my mother grew weaker an aisle across from Delia’s master bedroom, I wondered if grandma knew that they were both near death’s door. That her beloved Layo would get not one, but two new guests at the VA National Cemetery for his 10th anniversary there. She must have known her eldest daughter wasn’t doing well because she skipped ahead in what I wholeheartedly believe was an effort to receive her. During my darkest hours of despair, when I clench my pillow and cry for my mom, I like to imagine my grandpa holding his wife’s and beloved child’s hands as they frolic around the Champs-Élysées, the beautiful place where my heroes feast and toast, eternally celebrating their victory over life.
Rest well. You’ve all earned it!