AUGUST 7, 1999: I was just home; not sure what I was doing or if it was a weekend, weekday, evening or morning, but the phone rang, and since it was never for my ex I answered.
I could barely make out what my aunt was saying. You know how I said before that for the longest time I was the baby in the family? Even after my sister was born? Well I've always felt that way, and when I see or hear "the grown-ups" crying it shakes me to my core. My aunt is tough as nails- if you think The Jaded NYer is a scary female, you ain't met my Titi Gloris...
All I could make out through her sobbing was, "Mami's in the hospital."
My knees gave out on me just as the words were processed in my brain. My head began to hurt; those four words seemed bigger than War and Peace to me. What hospital? That primitive hospital in Los Minas??
"What happened?" I asked through my own sobs. Hell, if she was crying that meant there was something to cry about, right? If you knew my Titi Gloris, you'd agree.
My aunt went into some garbled explanation of a stroke and a coma. But, no, she's had strokes before. Coma? What coma? Do they know what a coma is in Los Minas? Would they know how to treat that? "She's gonna be alright, right?" I just needed my aunt to say yes.
"I don't know." And that killed me, because you know what? When she said that she sounded like a scared little girl worried about her mom, and I just knew.
Another stroke. A coma. What the hell? Then it hit me through my tears and vague knowledge of thoracic and neurological medicine- I should have spoken to her last month! Why didn't I call her back? What the fuck was so fucking important that I couldn't call her back?
My then-husband tried to console me: "What happened?"
"Nothing. My grandmother is sick. She'll be OK." I think maybe though I was talking to myself.
I needed to get busy. I needed to tell my guilt and fear to get lost- I had dishes to do. Grandma always told me not to leave dishes in the sink overnight. She also told me to never hold it in if I had to pee or my kidneys would fail, to always eat all the food on my plate, and to never close the door on family because they're all we've got.
So I started washing my dishes; turned on the stereo, popped in "Welcome to the Jungle" because at that moment only Axl's voice was going to calm me down, just as he has through a million other bad moments. I needed Slash's riffs to quiet the voices in my head.
Why didn't you speak to her last month??
"She's gonna be alright. She's been through this before and she's always fine."
You don't know that. You should have called her.
How do you think she felt when Papi told her you called but didn't speak with her? Huh?
"She's going to be fine."
Why didn't I call her back?
Because I didn't want to. And the knowledge of that fact right there eats me up everyday. I didn't want to call her back. She hardly knew what year it was anymore, and she'd call me by my mom's name or ask me about school when I'd been out of school already for a hot minute. I didn't want to deal with it so I didn't call her back.
By the time I went to bed I had convinced myself that she would be fine. I made plans to take a week off from work and go visit her and not even care if she called me by the wrong name or thought it was 1984.
The next day Titi called to tell me the worst thing I could ever hear.
"Mami died." She cried and cried, but as the eldest daughter she also had to make arrangements and inform me that the funeral was the very next day* and we needed to fly out that night. I tried to process my thoughts: I didn't have any money for a last minute plane ticket. I hated flying. I hated the Dominican Republic. And I didn't want to spend money I didn't have on a plane I didn't want to be in to travel to a country I didn't want to visit to see my grandmother's dead body!!!
"I have to go to Santo Domingo tonight," I told my ex. "My grandmother died." I was all business- just stone coldness, even with tears flowing. I didn't let him come near me to hug me or even touch me, putting up my hands as if to say, "Touch me and you join her" so he just backed off and left me alone. I composed myself enough to dial that fucking number I should have dialed last month. Papi answered.
"Papi?" I was sobbing by now. Again. It was just a few months ago they were staying with Mami in Rockaway, and just a few months before that they were a tunnel's length away in Elizabeth. Grandma on the porch, Papi in the living room watching "The Serpent and the Rainbow" for the millionth time. It wasn't even that long ago...
Now I was full on crying. "Papi? What happened?" I was half-confused and half-accusing. Underneath my question was the undeniably disrespectful implication: Why didn't you take care of her?
Then the unthinkable- Papi, the man who cared for all us kids as if we were his babies, who worked his ass off to feed and house us, who made sure my grandmother had all the medical attention she had needed throughout her life, who could command good behavior from all of us with just one word, the only dad I'd ever known- Papi broke down and cried on the phone.
"Yo no se, mami... yo no se."
I felt like shit. How could I have even thought of blaming the one person who had stood by her all these years. The NERVE of me!
He said it was her blood pressure; it just shot up and she never woke up.
Aneurysm, like on that ER episode. It just strikes and you never even feel it. I hope.
When the phone rang again later, I thought for a split second *she's fine!!!* but it was my mom.
"Raquel? What's going on? Nani called me all hysterical about Mami? What? Did she die?" I was so mad at her for saying it like that- just so crass and evil: What? Did she die? If you think me and my Titi Gloris are scary females, shiiit, let me introduce you to my mother...
But then I recalled that she was up in Lawrence with Mari visiting family; they didn't know.
"Yes," I managed to say, torn at having to be the bearer of THIS news. And THEN one thought just popped in my head- MARI! Where was she? My baby... this is going to kill her!
"What?" my mom asked, her voice doing that trembly-thing it did whenever she was on the verge of crying.
In July of 1999 I had called Papi to see how he was enjoying retirement; how he liked his new house, his neighbors, if my room was ready. And how Grandma was doing.
"'Ta bien. Alli 'ta sentada afuera. Te La busco?" he asked me.
"No, that's okay. I'll call her later."
And a month later I never called and she was gone and today, EVERY DAY, I feel like the worst person in the Universe, because all my life she always gave me everything I could possibly need, and my selfish ass couldn't even give her a lousy call back.
I never got to say goodbye...
*besos...closing comments so that I can mourn in peace*
Most of this was an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, in memory of my grandmother, Rafaela Bermudez Ortiz. something I needed to get off my chest before it eats me alive. Sorry to Mari or Minnie if I opened any old wounds.
*In the Dominican Republic, we don't embalm the dead, requiring the funeral to take place shortly after a person passes away.