Dispatch 35 (January 11 to January 17, 1998)
Grief is gray, the deadening flatness that strips away
brightness and drains all that comes near. Grief is a mute button that blocks out
everything except its own presence.
In Ginas voice, in her pronouncement, I heard life
stripped of her. The person speaking to me sounded alive only in the sense that she was
drawing oxygen and expelling breath in her words to me.
"Oh God, Im sorry. Im so sorry,
"I know," she said softly. Her voice, tremulous,
was barely above a whisper.
how is your family?"
"Not good," Gina said. "It happened very,
Ginas breathing was shallow. Neither of us spoke. I
felt the colors of my apartment, the minutiae around me, fade into distance. Buying stamps
for bills and shutting off the lights to save on electricity seemed like the worst kinds
of life-wasting activities at that moment.
"Do you want me to come down?" I asked. "Do
you need someone to help?"
"Angies here," Gina said. "And Juan.
My dad doesnt seem to mind that hes here. Ill see you soon."
"Are you coming back?" I asked. It was still a
week until classes started and even before this, Gina hadnt sounded too certain
about her prospects for the next semester. I wondered whether shed want to throw
herself into another semester of school as her family pushed on without Ginas
"I dont know," Gina said. "This is
unexpected. Everything is different. Ill just have to see."
"Okay," I responded.
"I should go," Gina said. "Theyre
waiting for me. We have people over."
I put the phone in its cradle and stood by the kitchen
sink. The temperature in the apartment was normal, I was sure, but the air seemed frigid.
I felt a blanket of goosebumps cover my skin. I stood there next to the phone for several
minutes, remembering the few days wed spent in Harlingen, remembering the weak woman
in the bed whose strong spirit had reared Gina.
I remembered the womans kind voice, her words to me,
a stranger in her home.
I remembered the walk Gina and I traveling in the
dark of night to a church Id never seen. Ginas promesa had failed.
* * *
You live. Something comes along and it is horrible, a
tragedy whose shadow you believe youll never escape. Then the mailman brings a
letter and the president gets impeached and Dawsons Creek is new this week and
little by little, evidence that a world exists beyond your pain begins to assert itself.
And that is how we live, slowly breaking the shells of our
pain and suffering rebirth into a world that has continued without us during our break.
As I surfaced from the contact-grief, a few days later,
Gina called again. She asked me to come down. She needed a ride; in her panic and rush,
shed flown to South Texas on one of the many daily flights that run to the Valley
out of Austins Mueller airport. Now she needed to come back, to take care of things,
to decide where her life was going, if only geographically. It was a ride that she needed,
but my sense was that it was more than the ride she wanted. She could have flown back or
hopped a bus or had her father bring her to Austin. She needed me and I didnt know
why. But I did know Id be in my car soon, ready to bring her back, whatever the
I told her Id be there the next day.
* * *
The meditating miles. Empty stretches of road are the
real places to think, flying at nearly 90 miles per hour, more than 100 feet per second,
cranking up the music so loud that it can be blocked out, the blasts of bass and timbres
of treble a metronome, a hypnotism.
It all came together in one glorious moment on a cloudy
stretch of I-35 South. Life and death and love and lust and loss and Ginas eyes,
tears sucking life from them, the meaningless colors of skin and the language we share and
those we dont, the spinning hair on the dark dance floors of desire, the terrifying
frights and the out-of-nowhere confessions.
For one moment it came together, all of it fit as if
connected by the tiniest threads of the most perfect quilt, connecting together until it
made sense, every bit of it, the dense tapestry of Ginas heart and the soul it kept
warm in its folds.
Then it was gone, blown away by a wayward suns
shining in my face, disorienting, losing me in its glare. The answers were gone, leaving
behind sunburn of the eyes, dark spots where the vision of a soul had been.
* * *
The home was broken as surely as if the wrecking ball
of the city had torn a wall to pieces. When I arrived, Gina met me in the driveway. She
wore cutoffs and a white T-shirt, her hair waving lazily, unkempt, in the breezy cool air.
There were two cars in the driveway. I didnt want to
block them, so I parked in the street. Gina walked toward me as I got out, her steps slow
and unsteady. Was there a wobble there, a fight with gravity that could topple her, or was
that my imagination?
"Hi, Heather," Gina said. I met her on the passenger side, unloading my
overnight bag. Gina hugged me tightly. Before shed even released me, I felt
Ginas tears wet my cheeks.
"Gina, I dont know what to say. Im so sorry."
"Come inside," she said. "I dont want
to be out here."
I followed her in. In the living room, Ginas father
rose to greet us. When last Id seen him, he looked like a man at the edge of a deep
crevice, holding on. Today, he looked like someone whod fallen in, barely surviving.
His eyes were hollow points within dark circles. His features were drawn, a frown that
looked as permanent as the crevices of a mountain adorning his sad face.
"Thanks for coming, Heather," he said, quietly.
He hugged me, and unlike Ginas tight embrace, this hold was weak, defeated and very
Gina led me to the room Id stay overnight. We passed
Sandras room, where rap music bled through the closed door. I put my bag in the
closet. Gina closed the door and we sat on the twin-sized bed facing each other, like
confidantes at summer camp.
She told me what happened.
* * *
"Mom was weak when we brought her home," Gina
began. "You saw her. She was in bed and couldnt move very much."
Ginas mother had stayed in bed for several days
after the surgery, the family taking care of her until she felt she was strong enough to
move around the house. She began to cook meals, watch TV and go with Ginas father on
errands. Throughout it, she never complained of pain or nausea.
But a few days after the surgery, she began coughing and
sneezing more often and it was becoming clear that she was sick and whatever was wrong
wasnt going away.
Miguel had taken Ginas mother to the hospital. The
doctors gave her antibiotics, told her to take it easy. She rested in bed despite protests
that she was feeling fine. By Christmas, most of her illness was gone and despite a
nagging cough, she helped set up the Christmas tree and cooked tamales and cookies with
By New Years, her flu symptoms were back and she was
in bed again. The next visit to the hospital, a day before Ginas flight brought her
back home, revealed pneumonia. Ginas mother was in the hospital, having survived a
cancer scare and now fighting another kind of threat, when Gina arrived.
When she got there, her mother was weak and tired, but
speaking. Gina said prayers with her. She cried in her mothers arms, terrified at
every change in her mothers breathing.
"We were all there, the whole family, and she spoke
to each of us. She spoke to us one by one. My father was last, and I was right before
him," Gina said.
"She knew?" I asked.
"No," Gina said. "Or maybe she did. She
told us she was feeling better, that she would be home soon, but maybe she knew. I wish
"What did she tell you?"
" Gina sobbed, her flat hand
wiping big tears from her face. "She said I needed to take care of the family, to
watch after them until she got home."
I reached for a green box of Kleenex on the dresser and
handed it to Gina. She took two, wiping her eyes and blowing her reddened nose.
"Then she said something else," Gina said.
"She said I needed to be happy. She said, youve never been happy, Gina.
Youre not happy in your skin.
"She told me, you have to let happiness find
you. Dont hide from it. Not from happiness, not from amor, not from amor de la
Gina broke down again, her sobs overtaking her. She fell
to her side, lying down leaning into the pillow.
"Gina," I said, trying to hug her as she lay
there, shaking. "Gina, I dont know what that means, what you just said."
She looked up to me, her face swollen. "It means
love of the soul. "
Ginas mother had spoken to all of them, and although
not a word of endings had been spoken, it was the summation of her words for those she
loved. An hour later, her lungs filled with fluid and, as the doctors struggled to drag
her away from Death, she was overcome.
She was gone, her family left alone with words they hadnt know were goodbyes
to comfort them home.
* * *
Gina slept soon after, the early evening grief taking
away the concept of night, day or bedtime. When I passed Sandras room, the music was
gone. I went to the living room alone. Ginas father Miguel was outside. I could see
him smoking a cigarette, looking off into the expanse of the backyard.
I sat on the couch in the living room listening to the
sounds of the house. I heard nothing, not even the hum of an air conditioner or the cheeps
of bugs outside. It was cotton silence, the muffling of cries and loss through pillows,
through cushions, through the softness of still, cool air. The walls of the house seemed
to lean inward, losing their support, unable to stand on their own any longer.
It was an oppressive feeling at its center point. There in
the living room I thought the ceiling might dip atop me. This strong woman, the one
whod imparted pieces of herself on those around her even as she lay dying,
wasnt here to prop up the spirits of her house.
And despite Ginas strength, her spirit, her passion
and the love she had for her family, I didnt know how long it could stand, there
without its pillar.
* * *
"Love of the soul."
I didnt know of such a thing. I doubted Gina, for
all her spirituality, knew it either. The phrase floated in my mind as I tried to sleep
that night. I heard Ginas every turn as she twisted her sheets in the other bed.
The thinnest slices of moonlight slid through the blinds
to illuminate the far wall. Amid the shadows, the light and dark, I thought I saw a dance.
It started to coalesce, what was there on the plaster and what Id seen on my drive.
The tapestry of images was back, filling my mind with sound and color.
I closed my eyes and the moonslits were still there,
wrapping around the firing neuron spots behind my eyelids. Ginas mother, or at least
her words, formed their own sparks and music.
I thought about the soul, the one Id never believed
myself to possess. The one buried so deep in agnosticism I wondered if it could even have
survived the crushing weight of disbelief Id placed upon it.
I thought of love. Could I love this misshapen, malformed
thing Id neglected and betrayed for so long?
It didnt matter, I thought, drifting off into sleep.
It doesnt matter. Love is love and the soul, even withered, forgives
Not my voice. The voice, I thought, must be hers.
"Love of the soul," she said.