Guelo died at around 9 a.m. on Saturday, exactly a week before I was planning to make the six-hour drive South to Weslaco to see him.
I was hoping he would hang on. Just a few more days. I thought I could catch him before things got worse.
Instead, he passed, just a few short weeks after he'd had the stroke, the scary morning when my grandmother and my aunt couldn't wake him up, after so much of the family had gathered around, expecting the worst.
Instead, he clung to life, surprising everyone.
Until Saturday before last.
He was 92 years old. He was my great grandfather.
I got the call that afternoon while I was in San Antonio. My parents were at my brother's college orientation at St. Mary's. Mom called and told me that Guelo had died. Even over the uneven, digital translation of two cell phones, I could hear the shaking in her voice. She told me that the funeral was going to be later in the week and that I should look into getting time off from work to go.
I did that.
After some scrambling at the newspaper, I managed to get enough advance work done to secure the three bereavement days I'm entitled (the thing about work sometimes is that what's supposed to happen can't always happen in your favor without a lot of pushing. It's not anybody's fault. It's just that it's work, you know?). I was finally able to leave.
I think it might have been on the day of my trip that I got another surprise: the family (represented by my great aunt Mary and my grandmother) wanted me to deliver the eulogy.
I freaked out. Mom said I didn't have to write anything or to worry about it: They'd have the text ready for me when I arrived. All I'd have to do was go up there and read it.
I kept thinking, "why me?" It wasn't that I didn't want to do it. I was honored. But I kept thinking that surely there were people in the family who knew Guelo better than me. I tried to keep up, in my limited Spanish, but I never felt like I understood him. Not all those years in my little shorts running around the dusty back yard and alley, playing with kids I barely knew. Years later, I still didn't know where he came from, what his life had been like, where he'd been taken in life before he became "Guelo," my great grandfather.
What I did know was this: He was a great, blocky man. His hands were segmented and dark and when as a child I first saw the comic book image of Thing from The Fantastic Four, I immediately thought of Guelo. Guelo lived next door to my grandmother in a small house. He had lived there for as long as I'd been alive, and as far as I knew, he'd been there for as long as land existed. He always wore a hat, a tan one. He wore lots of guayaberas, long before trendy white guys started wearing them to frat parties. Years after my great grandmother died when I was 4, he met a woman named Victoria and they lived together for a long time, until Victoria died, too. I always admired the Hell out of him for that. He must have been in his mid-70s by then. In the last years of his life, he was less coherent. He didn't remember me by sight. He didn't call me, "Oye, boy!" anymore. The forceful energy was gone. But Guelo was still here, always imposing, always a presence.
I drove on a Tuesday night, just after work and some packing. By the time I got to Weslaco, it was almost 2 a.m. The neighborhoods were silent and dark to my grandmother's home, the one I've come to again and again. When I come home, that last 10 miles, the ones from the highway, are autopiloted. I don't think about where I'm going; my heart just takes me. I think we all have a place or two like that -- our hearts or our guts or our scars become compasses to them.
I made my way around 1st Street and there was Guelo's house, right next to Grandma's. The home was dark. A wreath hung on the front door, the entrance we hardly ever used. We always came in the back door, seemingly thousands of dust-covered, frantic kids, through the kitchen, across the linoleum, to see Guelo and, when she was alive, Abuela.
I saw the wreath, and I came around the corner toward the back entrance, knowing this time that Guelo wasn't there. That he would never be there again.
That was the anvil. The one inside my chest, hammered at.
Until then, all week, when I'd told friends or co-workers about Guelo's death, I was greeted with, "Oh, I'm so sorry," or "my condolences." I brushed them off quickly. "Oh, hey, it's fine. It wasn't unexpected." I was so casual about it, fooling myself I think. I was thinking that Guelo was old, he'd been sick for a long time, and nobody was really surprised. It sounded cold coming from my lips, but I let it. I secretly worried that I wouldn't be emotional when I arrived.
When I was 4, and my great grandmother, Guelo's wife, died, I didn't cry. I couldn't. I didn't understand. I remember people leaving the house, bawling, holding each other, and all I could do was ask why.
"Abuela died," Marisa told me.
I was looking up at her. I didn't cry. I didn't know how or why.
All week, I was scared to death it would happen again. An emotional block.
There, on the corner, driving in at 2 a.m., the lump in the throat was there. The tears wanted to come.
I was home.
And I didn't need to have worried. The grief was there, instinctual and hard-wired, unavoidable.
My great grandfather was dead. And I wanted to cry.