I’m at a bit of a standstill right now. Events over the last few weeks have sort of interrupted my life, and I feel like I’m failing at a lot of things right now (apologies now to all the people whom I’m failing). I’m having a hard time figuring out how to stop failing and move on. Tonight, while pondering what to do to get myself moving again, I realized that the best thing I could do would be this: to write.
I’ve been working under a bit of a shadow on and off for the last few months, cast primarily from the failing health of two people who are incredibly important to me. My grandmother (for whom I’m named) has been fighting health issues for a number of years, ever since she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. This spring and summer, her health declined, and my family (particularly my mom and her siblings) were searching for answers to get her the help she needed. Luckily, doctors were finally able to locate and treat the problem, and we were fortunate that her recovery was speedier than it has been in the past. And, the best news, is that 4 years after being diagnosed and treated, she is still cancer-free!
Unfortunately, while my grandmother’s health was failing and then she was being treated, my grandfather began to deteriorate. While fighting a battle on one front, another one emerged.
Eight days ago, after a rather sudden and intense illness that landed him in the hospital for almost a month, my grandfather, Ricardo Daniel Barrera, passed away. He was just shy of his 89th birthday, which would have been on Thanksgiving this year.
My grandfather, who for my whole life I have called Cardo, was diagnosed with diabetes 56 years ago. He had lived with that disease for as long as I’ve been alive, and for a lot longer before that. But he really did more than live with it; through his own determination and resiliance and the strength and love of my grandmother, he managed to thrive. Up until a few months ago, my grandfather was the healthiest 88 year-old diabetic that you could ever imagine meeting.
Cardo lived an amazing, full life. After immigrating to this country from Ecudador in his twenties, he rose from a clerk in a Manhattan company to become a vice president. He and my grandmother traveled extensively, circling the globe five or six times.
He eloped with my grandmother when he was 22 and she was 16 (!), despite the protestations of her protestant Dutch parents about their daughter marrying a Catholic from South America. They had nothing when they got married, but over 60+ years of marriage they built an amazing life for themselves and for their family.
They had five children, of which my mother is the oldest. My youngest uncle was only a few years older than my brother, and the three of us grew up together. Upon passing, my grandfather leaves behind 14 grandchildren (ranging from 42 to 6) and 7 great-grandchildren. In another two months, two more will be added to the role call. My mother’s family is very close, and so for the last month, my uncles, aunts, and cousins have been arriving in Virginia to be with each other as we struggled to figure out what was going to happen to my grandfather.
On the night before Cardo died, I was lucky enough to sit with him in the company of one of my cousins. He was in and out of consciousness, and, he was having difficulty making himself understood. At one point, we asked him if he wanted us to put some music on, and he didn’t respond. About 20 minutes later, he opened his eyes, sat up a bit and said, “Music!”
That was the last thing he said to me and my cousin, and it was very fitting. My grandfather loved music, and he passed that on to all of his children, grand-children, and great grand-children.
When I was a child, my grandparents took my brother and I on trips on the east coast — to Pennsylvania and Florida. When I was thirteen, they took us on our first trip to Europe, a six-week journey that spanned Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and France. When I was sixteen, they took me and another cousin to Hawaii for two weeks. It was the first (and only) time I’ve been back to the place where I was born and which I left when I was three years old. They went on trips like this with almost all of their grandchildren.
Absolutely nothing mattered more to my grandfather than family. Nothing. If he had his way, our entire extended family would have lived together in an extended community. (We would have driven each other crazy.)
I have a memory from when I was a child: I’m maybe 5 or 6 and I’m at my grandparents’ house on Long Island and someone has died. I’m not sure who, either my great grandfather or my father’s father.
I’m sitting in the living room, and someone has given me a stuffed rabbit, which I am hugging. Elsewhere in the house, I know that there are adults who are grieving and crying. I’m very scared by this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say or feel. All I feel is alone. And at the time, I remember realizing that this thing called death was unavoidable. That at other moments in my life, it would mark days of grief and sadness. Sitting there, I tried to figure out how to solve this problem. What was I going to do when other people died? How could I make sure it didn’t feel this bad? How would I know how to act and what to feel?
And what I remember thinking is, “It’s okay. This isn’t how it will always be. I’m young, and in the future when people die, I will be much, much older. I will be an adult, and I will know how to get through this then because I will be an adult.”
Last Saturday morning, after getting the call from my mother that Cardo had just passed away, I got in the car and drove from my parents’ to my grandparents’. And on the way, I thought about that memory. I’m much older then I was when I sat on that couch, but I wasn’t sure that the years had given me any more wisdom or strength.
Then I got there, and I found my family, and that’s when I realized that what the years had given me was what Cardo had given me — all these people who love me unconditionally and who, through that love, would help me to know how to grieve. And they did.
And now my grandfather is gone, I’m not sure where the last month went, and, as I said, I’m having trouble figuring out how to dig down and just keep doing what needs to be done. All I really want to do is curl up with a book and read under the covers for, oh, a few months. I feel drained and sad and a bit at loose ends.
And I’m reminded of another memory. This also took place at my grandparents’ house on Long Island. The whole family was there, probably for Christmas. And I was upstairs, in my uncle’s old bedroom, reading. Cardo came to find me. I remember all that I wanted to do was read, and I thought that certainly he would get that. There couldn’t possibly anything wrong with wanting to read. But instead when he found me he said, “Mija, there is a time to read, and there is a time to be with people. Right now is the time to be with people.” And then he took me downstairs to be with my people.
I miss you, Cardo.
Cardo holding my daughter, Madigan, in May of 2005.