Maria Luisa

While it’s certainly true that my mom’s parents spoiled every one of their grandkids, I like to think I got the best of them. Being the first grandchild meant I didn’t have to share my Abuelo and Abuela Garcia with anyone until the next grandkid joined the party. Abuelo was my knight in shining armor; he was my protector and always played the role of prince in the reenactment of whatever Disney princess movie I decided to stage on a given day.

Abuela though? She was my BFF. She made me a quesadilla and Choco Milk every night before bed and served both just the way I liked them: the milk cold and the cheese Kraft American singles because grandmas don’t judge you for having shitty taste. She always let me borrow her favorite puffy vest, even though on me it was a weird floor-length frock that made me look like one of the three chipmunks. She applauded me when I insisted on performing daily dance shows to the Siempre en Domingo soundtrack, cheering when I made my grand, dramatic AF entrance to Veronica Castro’s Macumba and pretending to be wowed by every such performance then dancing with me for hours while the other tracks played. When I thought I was a dwarf from Snow White, she let me march up and down the yard with a shovel over my shoulder yelling “high home, high HOME!” It was years before someone let your girl know those weren’t actually the lyrics.   

During these shenanigans and a myriad of others, my grandmother always had a smile on her face. She was patient and kind and nurturing. She was the pacifist of the family, always wanting everyone to get along and doing everything in her power to maintain a sense of balance and harmony. She never raised her voice and generally just went with the flow. She was the embodiment of sweetness.

Then one day just over fifteen years ago, my grandparents were on a trip to Mexico when Abuela fell suddenly and severely ill. She was hospitalized in their hometown of Guadalajara, Jalisco and suffered through one test after another. She was grilled as to her lifestyle and dietary habits until at last she was diagnosed with cirrhosis. We were all surprised since she had never been a drinker but were relieved to finally know what was wrong. That was until the next wave of bad news came: Abuela’s liver was failing and she’d need a transplant to survive.

She was brought to a hospital back in the states and immediately placed on the transplant list. We waited. I remember visiting her in the hospital that first time and having to fight from gasping aloud. My sweet, vibrant, ever-smiling Abuela was sick. Her sallow skin stretched tight across her cheekbones and her tiny, shrinking figure seemed swallowed up by the hospital bed. Her abundant positivity wasn’t enough to hide the jaundice of her skin and the complete exhaustion in her eyes. It frightened me.

Then one day in a bittersweet turn of events, a family friend’s tragedy became my grandmother’s saving grace. Thanks to a direct donation on behalf of that family, Abuela finally had a liver. The transplant ensued and was an overall success; she’d need constant meds and would have to avoid certain foods for the rest of her life, but she would survive. We learned a lesson then that we’ve been reminded of a few times in the years that followed: Maria Luisa Villegas is a force.

A note of clarification: you may have noticed that I referred to my grandparents as my Abuelos Garcia earlier, but just now gave my grandmother’s name as Maria Luisa Villegas. My grandfather’s last name is Villegas and my grandmother’s maiden name was Torres, and they are indeed both the biological parents of my mother and her four siblings. Each of these five children list Garcia as their last name on their birth certificates. So where did the Garcia thing come from? Hell if I know. There’s a story there, clearly, but the versions of it that I’ve been given vary every time and are riddled with plot holes. I’ll keep you posted if I ever find out that I’m secretly related to a rich and famous family or, you know, El Chapo. Back to my story.

I don’t think any of us knew back then how formidable a force my grandmother would turn out to be. In the weeks and months following the transplant, we all began to detect some… changes. Abuela’s doctor mentioned this possibility prior to the surgery: there are studies suggest that transplant patients often take on some of the characteristics of their organ donors. In spite of the warning, I’ll be the first to tell you that I was wholly unprepared. To put it bluntly: Abuela is kind of bitchy now.

That sugary-sweet lady from my childhood? She gone. She packed her bags, said “Adios, pendejos!” and apparently went wherever that old liver of hers went too. The woman she left behind in her stead is feisty to say the least; Maria Luisa is a card game addict who will tell you exactly where you can go if she doesn’t like the look on your face. She once called me a dumbass when I told her I go to Temecula for the wine and not to visit the local casino. When I did accompany her to a casino, she saw me playing nickel slots and made a face that implied I was a stain on the family’s honor. I asked her what was wrong and she informed me that only idiots play nickels slots as she scowled.When posing for a photo with her last year, she kept staring at my head instead of at the camera, so I asked if she knew we were supposed to be taking a picture; she frowned and asked if I was ready to admit that that massive hair of mine was actually a damn wig. Oooook lady.

These comments and quirks seem innocuous enough, they’re funny even and make for great stories. Other times she’s borderline mean and challenging to deal with. I’ll admit that this has been an adjustment for me. There are days when I look back and miss the old Abuela, the one who never angered and was my hero and champion.

Then I feel like a fool.

I remind myself that several years ago, Abuela was hospitalized for pneumonia but insisted that there was something else wrong with her. Doctors brushed her off but kept on running tests. Then they found it. Cancer.

It was lymphoma and it was aggressive. Doctors feared the thing would kill her. I kept it together for a while as family poured in, distracting myself by explaining to a waiting-room full of people how transplant patients are at risk for this type of cancer. I rattled off facts that I didn’t even know were lodged in my brain. I’m a consummate know-it-all, I find comfort in answers.

My bravery evaporated when I found myself alone in an elevator; I broke down and lost my mind as I sat in the corner hugging my shoulders like a child. I felt a crushing guilt over having the gall to ever be annoyed by Abuela. This was the same person who’d made my childhood extraordinary with not a complaint, my real-life fairy godmother. How could I ever have taken that for granted?

We all tried to be positive, but our fears and emotions got the better of each of us at one point or another. It was harder and harder to stay strong when she lost her hair and dwindled in size, when the chemo’s effects hit her head on and the pain wiped her out for days. It gave me flashbacks to the weeks leading into her transplant and I feared we would indeed lose her this time.

Abuela however never once faltered in her assurance that God would help see her through. She spent the entire course of her treatment praying and reminding the rest of us that no one was helped by our tears. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she beat the disease, and beat it good. That monster gave her all it had and put her through hell, but she demanded survival and achieved it. She did so with a hearty “I told you so!” for good, Abuela-like measure, too. Of course she did.  

Abuela has been cancer-free for a few years now and remains a no-nonsense card-dealing hustler; if you’re not trying to play for cash then you’re just a waste of space in her home. A few years back, she fashioned little wood boxes for each of her grandkids as gifts, decorating them with paint, glitter and decals and filling them with a couple of dollars in coins. When we’d each opened them and thanked her for the kind gesture, one of my cousins stood up and made to leave the table. Abuela’s hand shot out and stopped him dead in his tracks as she snappily informed us all that these boxes were to remain at her house. These “gifts” were the end to any excuses not to play cards when challenged. She was fed up of our tired “Oh I don’t have any money on me!” bullshit. These boxes were her insurance policy.

Abuela also keeps a photo of me in her wallet with some spare cash tucked behind it; whenever she has to dip into that fund, she says she needs to “borrow from Vanessa.” When I greet her, she kisses my cheek and holds my face in her hands every time like my presence is the greatest gift she’s ever received. When I visited her for Mother’s Day last week, she told my parents and I all about her midnight snacking tendencies, how she starts off saying she’ll have something light and healthy then ends up making a few quesadillas with chicken and mole. She says she uses American cheese in the quesadillas because one of her grandkids used to love that stuff, so she keeps it in the fridge at all times in case that grandchild decides to visit. It was a shot to the heart.  

I look at Abuela now and see a woman who though strong-willed ultimately deferred to others for such a huge part of her life. One day she awoke to the realization that her voice needed to be heard, and she’s been giving it to us ever since. I see this trend in my mother, who played a similar easy-going role in my childhood and in her 40s and 50s suddenly decided she’d had enough of that. I admire them both for exploring the assertiveness that perhaps was there all along.

I am starting to see it in myself, now. I feel less afraid, more emboldened in my thirtus. I’m sassier. More outspoken. Stronger. Bitchier. I am the granddaughter of Maria Luis Villegas: survivor, dancer, lover, and fighter. So really, I suppose it was only a matter of time.

Cancer or not, Abuela is  always fly

Cancer or not, Abuela is always fly

Abuela would like the world to know that she is a princess. Tiara in play in case you forgot.

Abuela would like the world to know that she is a princess. Tiara in play in case you forgot.

Abuela was telling us about the time she went to a casino in Paris rather than join the rest of her family in sightseeing. She'd seen plenty of museums in her life, but never a Paris casino.

Abuela was telling us about the time she went to a casino in Paris rather than join the rest of her family in sightseeing. She'd seen plenty of museums in her life, but never a Paris casino.