The Passing

The Passing

Undismissed guilt, put away the hangman’s noose, my mother was dying and there was nothing I could do.

How does a man find redemption for the sins of the boy? He doesn’t. So, I live with regrets. They linger like the smell of rotting debris; no matter how many times I try to disguise the scent, it remains. Regrets over being powerless, regrets over ignorance, and regrets over poverty. I should have stayed home and done more. I ran away because I was tired of our way of life.

I left home at 18. I visit but never stay. Leaving was an attempt to escape misery, something the poor are rarely able to do.

I was 20 when she died. What chance at life or happiness did she really have? Born into migrant life, an on-again, off-again education. And while still bright eyed and full of dreams, she marries a wetback. That’s what her family called the man she chose to run away with. Run to where, shattered dreams and migrant shacks? She bore ten children who she could barely clothe or feed. The children were the consequence of indulging in the one thing still not denied the poor—sexual intimacy, but none of us complain about our shot at life.

Earlier that day she sent for me. She needed money to buy cough medicine; some bureaucratic quack in the name of expediency prescribed it for her condition. An autopsy would later reveal she died of congestive heart failure, complicated by pneumonia. The hospital’s cruel response, “Why didn’t you get her here sooner?” We were children. We depended on her. We followed her lead. She endured the discomfort because she feared another bill she couldn’t pay. It was only desperation that made her ask for outside help. It was too late. So, I say she died of poverty.

She had reached out to me in a failed attempt to find relief. I had none to give. Mama is sick, all she wants is cough medicine to ease her breathing. And I can’t help cos I’m broke.

I’m not broke now, but it’s too late, and I’m left knowing her death could have been prevented if the times were gentler.

Often, I imagine what it’s like to slip away, to drown bit by bit as fluids fill the lungs. How horrible it is to suffer as she did. She must have anguished over what life would be like for those she would leave behind if she died; children who depended on her for protection. She knows that poor children, especially her kind, have few champions or heroes. In the end it would be children aiding children, clinging to any scraps the American dream would toss under the table.

The morning of that fateful day I went to her side. I walked into the same rundown house I ran away from. There, Mother sits in a chair huddled in a blanket, surrounded by the worried faces of children. She shows me the prescription and asks, “Can you pay for the medicine?” I have no choice but to look down into her tired brown eyes; I want to tell her the truth, instead, I say, “I’ll see what I can do.” It’s easier than saying no. She is silent and has nothing more to say. Maybe it’s to conserve her strength, or maybe it’s because she knows the truth. It’s as familiar to her as her kitchen. She knows what it’s like to open a pantry that’s empty, yet she needs to check one more time, just to see if there is something hidden behind an empty jar. She understands scarcity and the word no, it’s as common to her as mending worn-out clothes. Most of her life is plagued by rejection and disappointment. She’s grown accustomed to the word no—I can’t utter it. But she knows no relief will come from me.

After I left, she must have shed tears, not for herself, but for the children nestling at her side. I can imagine her gently caressing their hair, comforting them the way she used to comfort me.

The tender pecks on the cheeks would forever be gone. No time to get it right or explain why life is the way it is. She begins to slip into darkness and I’m not there.

On the night she passed away, it was up to my little sister to find a phone and call for the ambulance. Inside the howling hearse, Mom is scared, so my sister reads a Psalm to her. The one that talks about valleys, shadows and death. Mom believes in God and always travels with a Bible. So, my little sister sits as close to mother as she can and reads to her over the loud cry of the siren. She holds a tear-stained bible that marks her grief. Brave little girl. Scared, crying little girl. Mama knows she’s dying and needs to hear from her God, and there is no better sound than the innocent, angel like voice of her daughter. My mother, the one who held my hand in the dark, might have been reaching out for mine, and it wasn’t there.

I arrive at the hospital. I soon stare at the woman who bore me, fought with me, and loved me. She is unconscious; the white pillow that supports her head serves as contrast for the dark black hair that cries out—I’m still young. A plastic mask covers the beautiful brownness that reveals her heritage. Plastic tubes and wires make themselves part of her being; what surrounds her are expensive mechanical symbols of a wealthy society. There for her death, but not for her life.

The blue apron that bares the stains of flour and the scent of fresh tortillas, is replaced by a sanitized death shroud in the guise of the hospital gown. Then a crash-cart wheels into the room and we are ushered out. A little while later, the death masks file out in funereal like procession; mama’s struggle is over—death has won.

The nurse cleans her up, and says, “Take as long as you need.” What we need is unattainable—our mother. Instead, what lays before us are the remains of a frail body on a stainless-steel gurney with white sheets neatly tucked around it. No way to say I’m sorry, no way to say goodbye, no way to be redeemed. She has run out of time and so have I.

My father touches her cheek, and in a choked, childlike voice, says, “She’s still warm, she can’t be dead.” The disbelief wells up in the green eyes that must have enslaved my mother’s heart and made her stay with him, even though he drank too much and made too little. He is driven to tears. This is the second time I ever see him cry. The first time was when my grandfather died. He felt helpless then too. He grieved his father’s passing from a million miles away. He was in a country that didn’t want him. He was saddled with debt. He had a family he tried to support with a dead-end job that left little means at the end of a long week. All his misery and anguish must have been building up in his heart. I watched as he grabbed his shotgun and went outside into the darkness and pointed it to heaven and had each shell speak his mind to an absent God. The thunderous booms of the shotgun covered his cries, and when the gun spoke no more, he fell to his knees and cried. Now, my mother is dead, and I understand the painful helplessness that death thrusts on a soul.

But this night, this painful night, I shed no tears. There is no time; I have a pauper’s funeral to plan.

The funeral director was nice enough to accept what the county was willing to pay. Their service included a coffin made of pine covered in grey velour; I placed my hand on the coffin, I can still feel the course texture of the cloth. We managed a large flower arrangement of palm fronds and white lilies. We placed it on her casket, hoping to hide the shame of poverty that was the grey coffin. I am the second of ten, and at twenty I buried my mother.

Back then I believed in a God, so for the funeral I find a holy man to speak the words that are meant to comfort and appease. I don’t recall his words, but I can still see my little sisters cling to mother’s coffin, wailing as if somehow the intensity of their cries will penetrate the veil of death and summon back our mother. I stand silent as others pull my sisters off the anchor of their existence so mom’s coffin can be lowered into the cold ground. They resist, clinging to the one person who truly loved them. They cry out, “Please God, don’t take my mother.” They still expect some divine presence to change the laws of the universe and give our mother back to us. But mama never wakes; yet, their cries still echo in my mind.

With my sisters restrained, they lower the coffin. I watch as mother’s remains descend. There is a large pile of sandy soil beside her grave. I know that soon she will lie beneath its weight. I hear a thump rise from below signaling her arrival. I know that what will come next, is the pound, pound, pound of sand that will forever entomb her inside that wooden box.

My eyes are tearless, even though my heart swells with grief at the realization that her body will rest in the bowels of a grave that can never be warmed, even by a million eternities of sunlight. No longer would she share the warm embrace of mother and child.

Painful regrets are all that remain from Mother’s passing. But at least she no longer fears eviction or how to feed her children. She is in the one place the poor always manage to find peace—the grave.

The tearless angry boy that didn’t cry then, is the man who now weeps when he relives the hardships that befell his sisters after Mama died. I am the one who was absent while my sisters suffered humiliations dealt them by ravenous wolves; men who stole their young innocence while my sisters suffered in the secretive silence the poor are so familiar with. The memory shames me.

We buried Mama in a pauper’s grave; no headstone to herald her existence. I hear that the rich and the poor are on equal footing at death—it’s a lie. The rich are regarded, and the poor forsaken. I know we are all born to die, and from our first breath we begin to pass. But why can’t the passing be more pleasant for everyone?

A Christmas Wish

A Christmas Wish

Frosted windows, Christmas carols, and children all nestled snug in their beds; while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads, but me, I never celebrated Christmas as a child. I’m not sure I really celebrate it now. I have no colorful tree or neatly wrapped gifts nestled beneath green boughs. However, I am keenly aware of its significance, cordial on the subject, and enamored with a season that centers on giving. Yet, confused over the controversy it seems to generate between those that lay sole claim to its meaning, and those like me who meld it into something of their own choosing, but there was a time when it didn’t matter at all.
Then migrant life brought me to Michigan, and I entered school. Besides learning my ABCs and tying my tattered shoes, I was introduced to Christmas and the gift giving Santa. The introduction was more of an immersion into a world of school holidays, but the holiday that stood out the most was Christmas.
I asked Mother about Christmas, she replied in a very kind voice, “We don’t celebrate holidays,” but I think it was more because she couldn’t spend what she didn’t have. Dad, on the other hand, didn’t have anything to say on the subject, “It no matta,” He would say, so I can only speculate that his childhood as a Mexican peon didn’t offer up holiday luxuries either.
Most children are introduced to Santa shortly after their birth. In my case, I was born into migrant life—Santaless. A childhood haunted by the cage of poverty; accommodations that offered infrequent meals and inadequate clothing.
I was five when Dad made the decision to take us out of the fields and put us in school. He chose to stay in Michigan with its snow drifts and howling winds. We landed in a cold hovel, very different from the warm migrant shack back in Texas. The new shelter, more than a shed, but less than a house. The walls were insulated with mannerless roaches that made intrusion a way of life. Most of the windows were covered in thick plastic, and in winter they accentuated its gloom. A small, fuel-oil furnace in the living room, water from the neighbor and an outhouse in the back, that’s what passed for Michigan low-income housing in 1957.
School, on the other hand, turned out to be great. There were warm rooms, running water and indoor toilets, which offered up a reassuring whirl and whoosh, guaranteeing my business would be out of sight.
In December, when the snow flies, I’m visited by a Christmas ghost, and I’m a child in school again. The hallways are noisy with pictures of snowmen, Santa, and Christmas trees. It’s the year I learn how to make a Christmas tree from a rolled-up newspaper. It’s a cheerful time, with the sugary smell of Christmas cookies, colorful cards, and red stockings hung out with care, as if Old Saint Nick would soon be there. Christmas, I like listening to the stories: singable songs, tales of shining stars and Christmas wishes, but outside of school, Christmas in Michigan means this little boy’s feet will be cold and wet. The worn-out hand-me-down shoes have holes in them. It’s the kind of memory that is scribed with a sharp quill, dabbed in indelible ink; leaving permanent, snowy footprints for me to follow when I relive the memory.
I dread the winter break that separates me from my school—my haven. I lament any unavoidable walks in the snow, but I have a plan. On Christmas Eve, I will wait until everyone is asleep, take my Christmas tree made of print and place it in the only window barren of plastic for Santa to see; it doesn’t shimmer or shine like all the other trees, but it shouldn’t matter: it’s Christmas.
When the moment finally arrives, I set my tree on the sill and stare out the window. The moon captures me in its light. My hopeful eyes are fixed on the heavens. I see a magic sky the color of a black bird’s wing, a dark blanket tinged in blue, speckled with shiny beams of light—each beckoning a wish.
My gaze finally lands on what seems to be the brightest star in heaven—my Christmas star. It glimmers with approval. I close my eyes and wish hard upon the star; shoes, I speak softly to myself. A pair of shoes to keep my feet warm and dry.
That’s what I love about children; even in the worst of times, they cling to hope. It’s Christmas Eve and not a creature is stirring, not even the roaches. With the magic of Christmas and a wishing star, surely Santa will find his way here.
I wake the next morning. My feet hit the cold floor, and I run to the window, but nothing rests under my newspaper tree. Had my ritual gone wrong? I believed with all my heart. Maybe Santa didn’t like my tree of shredded headlines from The Daily Telegram.
With no answer in sight, it remained my secret. I asked the star for a pair of shoes because I would never ask my parents for something, they already knew I needed. The disappointment thundered down like an avalanche, crushing my Christmas spirit. Feeling betrayed by Santa, I set him aside. The holiday now became an occasion of the well to do. I took the impending cruelty of future seasons personally.
Then, one Christmas morning in another time and another house, I step onto the porch and am greeted by a very large box. It’s filled with gifts. The presents are from Santa to us, but the box belongs to someone else. I don’t recall whose symbol of kindness was on the box. But I do remember how the porch came alive with voices.
“A doll,” shrieked one of my sisters. “A cowboy hat and guns!” shouted one of my brothers, but what really caught my eye is what leaned against the box: an orange, 24 inch, two-wheel bicycle with my name on it.
All those years ago, it wasn’t my shabby little tree or a wish that fell on deaf ears that kept Santa away. It was one of his helpers who must’ve been asleep on the job. With so many needy children in the world, Santa looks for helpers to pitch in. He whispers in their ear, and tugs at their heart, relying on them to do their part to lighten his load. The helper, imbued with particular grace, the kind of person who gives to those who cannot, or to those who may never return the kindness.
I’m still not sure if I celebrate Christmas, or even if I’m imbued with particular-grace, but when Santa whispers in my ear and tugs at my heart, I remember the little boy at the window, and I too do my part – a blanket here, a coat there, or maybe even a pair of shoes to a child in need.
That day when I was greeted with an act of kindness, Santa’s helpers restored faith and goodwill to a young boy’s heart. Santa made up for the earlier oversight in spades when he delivered, not with a pair of shoes that would be outgrown, but with a gift that would wheel me to freedom from the confines of a poor kid’s world.
Yes, the shoes were important for getting around on foot, but a bike: it was my wings. Now I could soar from my cage toward any adventure that awaited.