“Oh no, it’s the floaties.”
That’s what I said to myself a week ago today as I stood in my kitchen putting away groceries. I knew very well by then that those these squiggly little spots in my peripheral vision were harbingers of a terrible migraine that would level me within 15 minutes or less. It was time to find the drugs, turn out the lights and get into bed but quick. I called my mom to tell her I’d have to postpone our usual Sunday night chat because I was headed straight for Migraine Town. She told me she loved me, to go and get some rest, and asked that I call her in the morning: my abuelo, her father, wasn’t doing so well this week. We agreed we’d chat soon.
I would be lying if I said I knew what was coming, though perhaps I should have: my abuelo was almost 90 years old and in failing health. In the last few years alone he’d suffered several major falls and began to show signs of dementia. So when my mother told me he wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t sense an ending. It seemed like another one of the bouts of illness that had become my grandfather’s norm as of late. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
What I do know is that a few hours into the absolute worst migraine I’ve ever had, I was tossing, turning, and crying relentlessly. The pain in my head was so sharp and terrible, the kind that makes you clutch at your hair and turns your breath jagged. I even wondered if it might be an aneurysm, a side affect of watching entirely too much Grey’s Anatomy. Then quite suddenly, I was sprinting toward the bathroom as though possessed. I emptied the contents of my stomach violently, retching and convulsing harder than the time I took double-digit shots on an empty stomach in my twenties. It was 12:37 AM when I could finally stand again and made my way to my kitchen for a glass of water. The light from the clock on my stove felt so offensively bright that I dared not look at my phone on my way back to bed. If I had, I might have seen the 22 missed calls from my brother.
He was gone. I knew it before my brother picked up my call and confirmed. I was only half present as I talked to my mom, who seemed calm and at peace. She’d spent the day with him after all, as had each of her siblings. When he did pass that evening, my parents, brothers, and all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered at my grandparents’ home, holding hands in a circle to say their last goodbyes. It’s a thing we always do at Thanksgiving and Christmas, except to give thanks. It was a fitting way to honor his life.
And I was in Portland, pacing. I went from one room to the next, making tea that I’d let go cold and changing in and out of different sweaters. My cousin Alexis called me, my very best friend in the world, and said she was sorry through tears. I told her she shouldn’t be, that I should be the least of anyone’s concerns. But I knew that she knew what I was feeling: a guilt that got heavier and heavier with every passing moment. Guilt at being so far away, at not being there to see him one last time.
That day, I went to a beautiful park in Portland where I strolled around for hours, stopping to lean against a tree and sob my heart out a few times. I probably looked like a girl fresh off a bad breakup to passersby. A week later, I feel better, but then the guilt comes back and slaps me. It hovers when I’m looped into the preparations I’m too far away to help with, or when I think about how infrequent my visits to him were in the end.
Everyone keeps sharing photos of him, a gesture I appreciate but that brings me immediately to tears. I look at the sheer delight in my tiny eyes and sob as I so vividly recall how much I idolized that man in my youth. He played Cinderella with me hundreds of times, pretended to enjoy my dance parties, let me ride the family dog, and cried along with me whenever I got my shots. He let me feed the ducks at the pond at his job, always turning a blind eye when I gave myself a piece of bread for every two I gave to the birds. He made my childhood sweet, and he did the very same for each and every one of his grandkids.
In just a few days, on my birthday, I’ll be boarding a plane home to San Diego where I’ll stay for almost three weeks, opting to stay down there for the services and then Alexis’ wedding in early November rather than fly back and forth. I have tried to pack at least four times now and keep putting it off; I’m not quite sure yet how to pack for a birthday, a wake, a funeral, a wedding, and regular life all at once.
I’ll speak at the funeral, of course. It was sort of an automatic assumption as I’m the oldest grandchild and one who makes a living with words. I’ve tried to write something about twenty times and failed, which is why I’m writing this. I return to writing when I’m faced with big feelings; I hope this little but long-winded exercise will bring me the clarity I need to honor him in a more brief but heartfelt way. I want to do right by the man, but I’m still trying to find my way.
I look back at the night of his passing and wonder, woo-woo as it sounds, if my body felt him leaving this earth, if all that pain and terror was a physical embodiment of the suffering he went through on his path to eternal peace. I’m trying to find comfort in that thought, in the idea that he is now up in heaven chowing down on a smorgasbord of pan dulce, bean burritos, tacos al vapor from La Especial, McDonald’s oatmeal and chicken wraps, quesadillas from Super Antojitos, and Little Caesar’s Pizza, washed down with Mexican Coke–no ice. He’s probably watching highlights from Chivas games on repeat with a steady stream of mariachi music in the background and regaling Jesus and la Virgen de Guadalupe (or as he called her, Lupita) with tales from his youth, of epic soccer matches, and the wonder that was Italy when he visited once upon a time. He’ll ask the mariachi to play Guadalajara! and will sing it for a crowd in a show of Jalisco pride, then dance to El Mariachi Loco. He’ll be the version of himself that we all remember in our brightest memories, full of zeal and pep and stories we’ve heard a hundred times. I’d give a lot to hear one of those stories now.