Variations in Breathing
Always, as she had circled the kitchen after her grandmother, trailing behind in the vanilla-scented culinary wake, Felicia had thought she could stay forever, wrapped Levitically in the genealogy of herself. There she was first her mother’s child, defined and named her father’s daughter by genetic quirks in eyebrows, chin, and the odd equality of her second two fingers. Her identity as a Ramirez was never questioned – the long straight black hair, wide hips, less visible predisposition to heart disease and colon cancer that she had traced in the midst of a frightening series of tests before she started her sophomore year.
It had been three years since she had stood content in her grandmother’s kitchen, surrounded by the humming cluster of aunts and cousins wrapping tamales and chattering so quickly the individual words faded into a confused buzz around her. Folded into a chair across from her grandmother, Felicia had studied the slim wrists, their swift curving hypnotic as a pendulum. Now she was almost home, obeying her mother’s summons from a few weeks ago – the command of necessity, impossible to evade.
“She needs you, Felí. It’s family, and she’s dying…”
“No, mama, you don’t understand. What about Juana and her kids? Can’t they stay with her?”
“She’ll be in hospice soon. It’s too upsetting for the kids – besides, I thought you’d want your chance to say goodbye. You’ve always been close, her little niña. She’s missed you since you went away… you’ve hardly been home.”
Her voice had sounded harsh even at the near end of the phone line. “She has a brain tumor with a terminal prognosis, Mama. She won’t miss much of anything soon.”
“Felicia. You were raised better than that, and you know it.” This was the ultimate reproof, the scourge of the dutiful daughter. Felicia had known it was too late to hang up the phone, stroll downstairs to smile at her roommate, say everything was fine at home, commiserate over papers.
“But the internship…” she had tried. Her mother’s silence had been potent, debilitating as ossification. Holding the phone in the instant before she surrendered, she had imagined herself frozen forever in a statue of bone, no pillar of salt or Grecian remnant lovely in her ruin, but a deformed hag with growths like the knobs on an old oak, something near which others crossed themselves before hurrying past.
It was the kind of fancy that her mother branded morbid and ridiculous, these brief visions of herself outside herself, metaphors caught in fleeting glimpses. When she was younger, she had thought her grandmother understood, although she had never said anything when Felicia shared these images, only nodding while bent over a pestle or saucepan.
“Here, mi chiquita, stir this,” she would say with the thick enunciation Felicia had learned to recognize as a sign of someone more comfortable with the geyser-swift flow of Spanish. She had always told stories in a gumbo-esque mix of Spanish and English, hard to follow till you were used to it. Turning into the parking lot, Felicia remembered the story of how her grandmother had made it to Lorain, Ohio from the slowly dissolving pink stucco of Puerto Rico.
“I made your Papi come here… he didn’t want to, liked his sugarcane job, but I knew our sons would never do anything more unless we left – we only had Julio then, but Angel was on his way. Men never like to admit that what they’re doing isn’t the best thing they could do, so they smoke their cigars or drink their beers and pretend it is. Machismo, you know. Orlando, your Papi’s brother, found out about the government paying money to people who wanted to work in the factories. I didn’t cook a single meal till Papi agreed to leave – a month without meals. He’s always been so stubborn, never even admitted I was right.” Sometimes the time varied: a month, three weeks, even two months, Felicia recalled. Listening over and over again, she had learned to say, “And then what happened?” to a story she already knew. She had learned to chart the variations, first as though she was in school with periodic squares for elements or neatly perpendicular graphs, then as Brahmsian explorations of the same basic notes – improvisatory trills with always the same crescendo.
In the parking lot of the apartment building she had never visited, the one with the tiny kitchen that her grandmother had adopted after Papi’s passing, Felicia realized she had not asked how much Nana had changed. A brain tumor – crippling, for sure, swifter than Alzheimer’s or the steady dementia of aging, discovered too late for chemotherapy or radiation on a woman too old for oncology’s image. Dying kids drew better funding, baldness more shocking on five-year-olds than a woman with eight years whose papery scalp already peeked through.
Through the double glass doors, she glimpsed her mother fidgeting by the buzzer, pressing the button for Felicia’s entry before she even rang.
“I’m so glad you’re here. She’s been asking for you – always with the questions: ‘Where is my niña? When is she coming?’”
“I’m here, Mama. You knew I would come.”
“Yes, you’re a good girl… you know your place, who your family is, not like some people these days. And don’t look so angry; you look like a pit bull with your jaw clenching like that.” Reaching up four inches to grip Felicia’s chin, her mother tugged to illustrate her point.
“Mama, you wanted me here. Please just let me go do what I’m supposed to do.”
“Felí, are you still upset about your internship? You’ll get it next year, don’t worry.”
Leaning over her mother, Felicia pushed the elevator button, feeling slightly savage. “Mama, it isn’t the internship -” she tried as she heaved her suitcase onto the elevator. “I’m just…”
“Too selfish for your own good, is what I think,” her mother supplied before the doors rolled shut.
“Probably, Mama. But it’s better that way.” It was strange, she thought as she watched the floor numbers light, how selfishness had rooted beside duty, a wild individuality hard-edged as skyscrapers erupting through the years of sacrifice and saying yes. Shuffling up to the door, she knocked, quick and sharp, on the carefully stained wood beside the crucifix. Jesus’ face, she had always thought, was slightly crooked, the angles wrong from nose to chin, a harlequin grimace for his mouth.
After talking to Lucia, the hospice nurse, learning how to bathe and dress someone so frail, skirting the edges of her grandmother’s condition with cautious phrases like “palliative care” and “comfort,” Felicia asked how one decided to work with people so close to the unavoidable. “There’s no one else,” Lucia had said, her smile sharp-edged, “and I guess you do what you have to.”
“Felicita?” Nana’s faded voice asked from the bed, Felicia bent slowly, murmuring the calming nothings of a mother, and Lucia left without any more words.
Three days after opening the door to 421 for the first time, Felicia wondered if there were parts of the world that did not smell like Lysol and cilantro. Even her suitcase had picked up the odor, an ineffable parasite accompanying her even when she was not emptying a bedpan or turning Nana’s tissue-paper form to prevent bedsores. Sometimes she stroked Nana’s scalp or pressed a kiss to her hand, which clenched around her fingers automatically, newborn reflexes not yet gone. This time Felicia simply flattened her own fingers against the arthritically knotted ones, noting the matching fingertips for a long, photographic moment before she moved to clear away the medical detritus: institutional sheets and pillowcases to wash, disinfectant perched on an overstuffed armchair. Beside the side-rail of the newly installed hospital bed, a heap of towels blocked Nana’s view of a photograph of the grandchildren – 29 at the last count, a concrete interpretation of the command to be fruitful and multiply.
Nana, Felicia remembered, believed that she had seen her family in a dream, seen her sons in a row behind her before they were born. Julio first, then Angel, arranged in a row with Miguel last, and her girls grouped around her: Nilda, Maria, and Cristina. She had named them, she said, waking in a near-delirium of panic and ecstasy, her breathing so loud in the dark that it woke her groggy husband. “‘Go to sleep,’ he told me,” Nana had said. “‘You won’t remember it in the morning,’ but I did. I told him so, and it was the way I saw it.” Except that she hadn’t seen Cristina’s death of AIDS before it was more than the gay plague, how she became her family’s idol after her death. Listening to her uncles and aunts talking about Cristina, Felicia had wondered about the convenient memory of survivors – the unconscious erasing of Cristina’s runaway trip to California or the $500 of rent money she stole from her father before she left.
“She was beautiful, like you, niña,” Nana always said. Slowly, Felicia folded the towels and hung them in a precise row on the bathroom door, then moved to prepare a sponge bath. Nana’s breathing fluttered in and out, and Felicia realized she stepped in rhythm to it.