Two days prior to my grandma, Tita, dying, she asked Carmen and I to give her a bath. “Escojeme una blusa para ponerme,” she requested. She wanted to get out of her pajamas and dress in her usually fashionable clothes. Perhaps it made her feel more alive, or she wanted to feel like herself before the cancer had taken over. When I pulled out the first blouse, she wrinkled her button nose and said, “No esa no.” Then I pulled out another blouse, and she wasn’t going for that one either. I thought it was so like Tita to be lying sick in bed, but still be meticulous about what she wanted to wear. Finally at about the fifth blouse, she nodded her head. Her blouses, like her spirit were bold and colorful, and I suspect that is how she wanted us to remember her. That day was a beautiful moment for Tita, Carmen, and I. Sus dos ninas, as she often called us, her two girls, were bathing her the way she had bathed us as babies. Here we were coming full circle with her, giving her all the love, gentleness and compassion she had given us our whole lives. I remember gently wiping down her body, imprinting every mole, every age spot, every vein in my memory, so that far after she was gone, I could still hold on to the image of her. We gently passed the washcloth over her body, noticing the frailty in her arms and legs, once robustly vibrant like the wings of a hummingbird. I vividly remember cleaning her vulva, trying to touch her gently, carefully. Her puffiness and her elasticity were gone. Lazy and unmoistened skin now held the residue of her memories. Her genitalia had been part of her gender, but I don’t know if she had discovered it as part of her womanhood. Tita was quiet, just following our movement with her eyes; watching us, perhaps imprinting every detail about us in her memory as well. It was the ultimate honor and sign of respect that Carmen and I could pay her for all she represented in our lives. It was also a moment my daughter and I would share for the rest of our lives, and perhaps a moment my daughter would remember when it comes time for her to come to terms with my death. I was proud of the kind of woman Carmen was turning out to be, and knew that TIta had played such an essential role in that.
A day later, Tita fell asleep and never woke up again. She had started to make gurgling sounds. She wasn’t swallowing saliva anymore, which was also a sign of the process of death. So the nurse handed me a liquid that I was to rub with a swab in between her gums and cheek. I remember massaging her soft cheek from the outside to make sure she was absorbing the liquid which would dry up her saliva and prevent her from choking. Her cheek felt just like it had all those times I grabbed her sweet cheeks and kissed her over and over again. I would call her, “mi gordis chula.” I didn’t want to be afraid of her or afraid of her death. I wanted to embrace every part of her – even the part that was dying. The muscles of her face had concaved and her nose and chin became very pointy. A week before, she had stopped wearing her dentures, they were too big for her mouth now. As the body weakens less oxygen is available to the muscles, the life force weakens, and more effort is needed to complete everyday tasks. About the same time she stopped asking for her glasses.
Prior to her passing, we had all taken turns visiting with her and saying our last goodbyes. Whatever the process of death was for her, we wanted to give her as much peace as possible by letting her know how thankful we were for all that she had done for us, and that we would look after each other. We also had the beautiful experience of having the Chaplin from San Diego Hospice come over and we all came together to pray, even the children. The Chaplin read a few passages from the bible, as we humbly bowed our heads in the presence of my Tita.
Then each of us spoke to her standing in unity, holding our hands in a circle, in her honor. My aunt promised she would continue to care for her husband (My Tita’s son) and told her that as long as she (my aunt) was alive, she would ensure my uncle was filled with love and joy. I went next. I assured her I would take everything she had taught me to live the kind of life she would have wanted me to live – full of compassion, full of joy and laughter, full of hope and optimism. I thanked her for all that she had provided for my daughter and me. For raising both of us to be strong, independent women with an untamed and adventurous spirit. I then assured her that I would always ensure Carmen’s well-being. Each of us, within the harmony of our family circle, testified to her love and released her to go in peace.
Two nights later, the whole family came together and drank tequila and sang old Mexican songs that filled the backyard with nostalgia . I cuddled with Carmen and fell asleep with her in her bed. Some time through the night, I remember awakening to my family’s drunken laughter as they warmly argued and told stories about Tita or some outrageous experience growing up with her. Like the time that she took off her four-inch stiletto shoe, and hit a police officer on the head with the heel, making him bleed profusely, because he was harassing her little brother and abusing his power. And how they ran down the street to quickly catch the bus, while my uncle, her little brother, was in a state of shock. I could hear Jose Alfredo Jimenez playing in the background, one of my Tita’s favorite singers, and my uncle’s slurred singing drowned by everyone’s laughter. Tita was in her room sleeping – she had been sleeping now, for more than 40 hours. I knew she wasn’t going to wake up anymore. My heart felt heavy as I thought of her in her bed, wondering if she could hear her family as they came together to grieve the inevitable. Our home had been a revolving door during my Tita’s battle with cancer, each of us caring for her the way she had cared for us. That night, I think everyone knew her transition was near. In Mexico, when people hold a wake for someone, it is an opportunity to celebrate their life, not to mourn it. Wake’s are usually accompanied by tequila, mariachi, laughter and food to comfort the heart. Tita used to say, “Las penas con pan son menos.” So that night we held a wake for my Tita while she was still alive, and I wondered if it made her happy to hear her family come together, her two brothers and sister, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. To feel the love and strength we had inherited form her.
I thought, when I heard them outside, of joining them, but I was consumed with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loss, like when your stomach feels like a bottomless pit, constricted by the pressure of agony, and all I wanted to do was hold my daughter, tightly – it was the only thing that made me feel safe. My heart knew this would be Tita’s last night.
The next morning, the hospice nurse arrived early and was explaining ways in which we could help make Tita more comfortable. Her temperature had been fluctuating from very cold to very hot, which was a sign that her body was beginning the process of death. The blouse Tita had asked to wear a few days before was made of rayon material and the nurse said because of her extreme body temperature it would be more comfortable for Tita to be in a cotton dress. The best way to get Tita out of her blouse was to cut it in half from the front. Sacrilege, I know, as that had been the blouse she had carefully selected. Tia Mary, my great-aunt passed me a pair of scissors, and as I began to cut her blouse, her eyes opened with a rapid flickering of her eyelids. Her pupils were grayish looking, almost opaque, and they rolled up until I could only see white. When I looked at the nurse, she told me it was time. A tear rolled from my Tita’s eyes. The tear of death. Lacrima Mortis. A single tear down her cheek at the last moment of her death, or life. The nurse said it was a reflex action. But research about this hasn’t been conclusive, mostly showing that the tear is shed by patients whose death is expected rather than sudden. I think it was a tear for us, for the final and most profound act of letting go. Later, we joked around and said she cried for her blouse, and that I would ultimately be responsible for that act of vandalism, LOL!
The day she passed, her upper teeth were sticking out over her bottom lip, so I rolled a towel and placed it under her chin, to support her jaw muscles and prevent her teeth from protruding so much. Once my Tita passed, I left the room, I didn’t want the last memory of her to be her lifeless body. That day we were allowed to keep Tita’s body all day at home. Those who wanted to, were able to come and see her body one last time. My brothers and my uncle ( her son) stayed with her, in her room, for a while. I could hear the old Mexican songs playing in the background disguising their uncontrollable sobs. In Mexico, men are supposed to be strong and stoic, especially at wakes and funerals, but not on this day. On this day, I was the stoic one. Keeping busy with the logistics and hosting the plethora of people that continued to stop by. The only tear I shed was the one that had rolled down my Tita’s cheek.