She might die, my mother. She might die, and for a minute, more than a minute, more than once, I think, If she dies, I’ll come home in the middle of the school day and she won’t be here. No one will be here. Just my sister and she’s busy being José Mato’s yes-yes-yes girlfriend. And I’ll do what I want. Because there won’t be anyone here.
If she dies, I’ll be like the bad American girls at Miami Elementary, who smoke and wear Thom McAn shoes with no socks, like Peggy Kirkpatrick, who has no mother and has this neat little mystery about her.
She might die, my mother, but aren’t we lucky. Lucky she diseased strangely. Not as if she had cancer because cancer is not strange. Just deadly.
Lucky she will receive medical care. Exiliados, refugiados, inmigrados, no money for Catholic school, no money for medical care but a nice research hospital has taken on my mother’s strange case, her strange symptoms, her entire strangeness. Good teaching and research material, my mother. And aren’t we lucky.
Her lips, cheeks, jaw grew, big bigger, a balloon about to burst. How much of your breath can you blow inside a balloon? before it pops. A bomb. About to explode. Eyes shrunk, tiny yellow-brown eyes lost in her ballooned bomb-like face. Her feet, like elephant feet, and her hands. Dios, her hands—fingers, thick and browned and useless, nails ugly shards encrusted on the nail bed, like broken glass. After an explosion.
I don’t remember saying good-bye to my mother, not when she was carted off to the hospital. Or maybe she walked into the hospital herself. Drove there, probably. I don’t remember, not the way my father remembers saying good-bye to his mother. A mother he never knew, a grandmother I never knew, waving silent to him, lifted limp into the white ambulance.
I only visit my mother once at the teaching and research hospital. My father takes me. Jackson Memorial. A small table is next to her, yellowy white and metal and cold. I imagine Hemingway’s Catherine sailing past yellowy-white hospital tables, Catherine in her white nurse’s uniform loved by the wounded soldier, Catherine in her white starched headdress with pointed wings like the nuns at El Sagrado Corazón in my Catholic schooldays in Havana.
Hemingway was the greatest writer who ever lived. That is the opening line of my English paper for Mrs. Rosenwasser’s sixth-grade class at Miami Elementary. Mrs. Rosenwasser doesn’t start off believing in me but then she does. Or, maybe it’s Hemingway must have been a great man and in A Farewell to Arms he shows us that greatness. I don’t remember what I write exactly, but I try hard to come up with something different than the other sixth-graders and I get my A and Mrs. Rosenwasser believes in me.
Then Catherine, on her way to death’s door, no longer sailed past yellowy-white tables and wounded soldiers. The yellowy-white table now lay next to her and still she said Darling. Darling, she called her wounded soldier. Beautiful words on her way to death, and her wounded soldier on his way out to the falling rain.
My mother says someone—maybe a nurse, maybe a cleaning lady—came into her hospital room in the middle of the night and opened the drawer of her yellowy-white table and stole something, I don’t remember what. She heard and saw it with her tiny eyes, now colorless, now lost in her on-the-verge-about-to-explode swelled-up bomb-face. Someone stole something that was my mother’s.
She has two blue-purple dots now over the top of her ears where patches of hair are missing.
She sees me looking at the twin purple dots and touches the sides of her face and says, “Terapia.” Therapy, that’s all she says.
Surgery, Dr. Katims says. Robert B. Katims, M.D., the soft-spoken doctor who leans over her and smiles sadly. “Yes,” Dr. Katims says. “The head will be split open. To burst the tumor, in your pituitary gland, the head will be split open, and then the tumor will pop.” He touches her face. “Like a balloon.”
“I have two daughters,” is all my mother says.
So she comes home, my mother with her elephant hands and her purple dots and no surgery.
We ride to la botánica in Little Havana for her cure: a supply of ceramic roosters and Afro-Cuban rag dolls and that gooey yellow-orange corojo paste she puts on the bottom of our shoes that comes from the Cuban Belly Palm and then on to the mechanic’s auto shop in the air-conditioned-less car. She won’t leave my sister and me alone in the house. “¿Las niñas, solas? No.” For the first time, she stands up to my father when we appeal to him to make out a case for us: We are smart enough, old enough, to be left alone.
She drives slowly, carefully—by now, she has lost sight in her left eye. I sag hot against the window. I eat something sweet. A Three Musketeers maybe.
She says, “Ay, Bebi, dame un poquito.” A little bit, she wants a little bit.
I break off a little bit of my something sweet, put it near her mouth and when her lips are at my fingers, I pull back. Like the shock of the turntable on the Hi-Fi—don’t touch the needle barefoot especially if on a terrazzo floor, especially with wet hands. Or the burn of the just-percolated drops of Cuban coffee spilling on my fingers as I pull the cafetera off the stove. Quickly now, I pull back.
My mother’s mouth tightens closed again. “Te doy asco,” is all she says. I disgust you. Not a
chastising A mother should not disgust a daughter, but an affirmation of disgust of a daughter, for
Once she said, “For hours, they would have me sit in a big chair that zoomed up, down, went round and round.” For hours she sat in silence in a tiny space behind a curtain and a team of medical students, then two, then three, then Dr. Katims would point at her elephant feet and sightless eye and her hands and her mouth and her hair. Her once-liquid black hair was now wild about her, not like I imagined Catherine’s beautiful hair pin-curled under her nurse’s cap then flowing behind her, beautiful in death even. Not like Ché’s or Camilo’s or Fidel’s hair, waving high from olive-green tanks in those days of long ago in Havana. No, my mom’s hair was now like I imagined Rochester’s mad wife would have—Jane Eyre’s Rochester—the wild, useless woman locked in that third-floor attic.
Dad breaks down and hires a cantina to deliver our dinner every night. The frozen TV dinners—meat loaf, green peas, peach cobbler—are fun at first. For a whole month, they are fun. And for the second month, not so much fun. And for this third month, even though Mami is home now, a cantina. But aren’t we lucky? The cantina is owned by other exiliados and we get to pick: fried bistec with chopped onions and parsley—of course with chopped onions and parsley; how else are Cuban beef steaks eaten?—chicken fricassee, masas de puerco—messy, greasy chunks of pork. Smashed and then re-smashed green plantains. Platanitos verdes. Or fried sweet and ripe and mushy. Platanitos maduros. Desserts of flans or arroz con leche. Sweet egg custard, or soupy, milky rice pudding, cinnamon powder sprinkled prettily on top, the way Mami used to make it, almost.
It rains hard on the cantina man. Through the dusty screened window of our $100-a-month duplex, I see him. Through the beam of his car’s headlights, I see him, the rain hard on him, the man turning our cardboard box of food this way and that, checking if he has the right order, the right plaintains—verdes or maduros, the right people. And my mom behind me says, “Pobrecito.”
Poor man. And I, along with my mother, feel sorry for him.
My dad, once the boss at the béisbol stadium for the Cuban Sugar Kings, now the bank janitor in Miami, tells his boss about my mom’s sickness. The boss asks my dad if he has life insurance on my mom, and my mom says, “Qué cosa, éste país.” What a country. Being practical about death. And not just that, when someone dies, she says, everyone eats. They get together and eat. And the dead are buried below the earth, not in pretty white marble boxes above ground facing the sun, like in Havana’s Cementerio Colon with the Virgin Mary and statues of angels sporting giant, bird-like wings that look as if any minute could take off in flight.
But I understand death. Death and rain and Catherine. I do. There is “Leader of the Pack” and Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” on Rick Shaw’s Top 56 Hit Parade, and those songs are of death. Death and love lost. And James Dean and Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and Ritchie Valens, didn’t all of them die? Died young and in accidents. Car, planes. That is romantic, isn’t it? Like Catherine. And she might die, my mother.