To Live Without Air
My American friends who visit Bogota always ask "Where is the air?" and I don't tell them that I left my mountaintop city for air many years ago. However, I have always known one can live without it, in fact, sometimes life demands we do exactly that.
That is what death is about, I suppose. Death is about learning to live without air.
When first I came back to Bogota to see Papa, that very first day, I recognized him by his pajamas. His black hair was gone, so was his fleshy face. But the navy silk foulard pajamas, so very expensive, a luxury so out of place in the hospice where he is cared for by the little sisters, those pajamas only Papa would buy.
But he recognized me, he really did. Twenty years it has been since I left Bogota, running away from...well, everything...but still he recognized me. He seemed to be sleeping when I entered the room, but he lifted his head and stared.
"Surprise, Papa. It's me, Lydia," I said, and he said only "I know who you are." Even though I hadn't written I was coming, had simply stepped back into his life after twenty years and an occasional Christmas or birthday card...from me, not him...he knew who I was.
Then he asked. "Where is your Mother?"
"Mama didn't come." I was expecting this question.
He spat into a metal basin on the bedside table. "Your mother is a whore." I guess I was expecting that too. Maybe not so soon, maybe not first thing, but I know no one changes very much as we go about our business in this world. We learn to make do, we learn to think more clearly if we're lucky, but the pangs and hurts and yes, I suppose the thrills and the joys, are pretty constant in our spirits. And if love is eternal, probably hate is too.
My father isn't living with much air right now. What he gets is given him by a tank, feeding oxygen into little plastic tubes that attach to his nose. These tubes he pulls out periodically to puff on a forbidden cigarette. Drinking ruined my father's life, and smoking is finishing it.
Three months back in my native country, I am wondering if I ever left. California has melted into an irrelevant mist. I come daily to this little hospice to care for my father, to feed him, to brush the crumbs off his clothes after he's fed, to make sure he has clean clothes. I even know how to anchor the catheter into his penis. The nun-nurse showed me how. I don't talk to him at all, I just listen as he says the same thing over and over. What he says, by the way, is never "I am sorry I slapped your mother around," nor is it "I'm sorry you had to listen to me beating Felipe in his bedroom in the middle of the night."
No, he talks about the streets of Bogota, about growing up a bastard child, with seven bastard brothers and sisters, about how he...he, Silvio Cristo Diaz Alonzo, started from nothing, became a mechanical engineer, built his own home in Chico, the wealthiest suburb of Bogota, and how all of his family have left him alone to die.
"I am here with you, Papa," I tell him. "You are not dying alone."
He grabs my hand unexpectedly this day. "Why did you come?"
"I came because I didn't want you to feel sorry for yourself."
This gives him something to think about, I can tell. He is lucky enough to have a window in his tiny room, and he can see Montserrate, Bogota's holy mountain. Pilgrims climb to the church at the very top to pray and get healed.
"Would you like me to take you to the top?" I ask him.
No healings for Papa. My sister Consuelo will be disappointed. Should I, I wonder, tell Papa the latest about her? Perhaps he knows more than I think he does about this sister who has joined a cult, wears a veil, and hands out tracts on street corners in Richmond, California.
"Do you hear from Consuelo?" I ask.
"Yes." There is a sour expression on his face, but I know it means nothing. Even as a child, I would watch his face relax into a grimace, as if he was fighting heartburn or had tasted something really foul.
"She writes you?"
He was not talking. I had actually gone to see Consuelo before I left Oakland, wondering if perhaps she wanted to join me in this pilgrimage home.
Consuelo, how shall I say it? Consuelo has been born again. All her childhood memories have been healed, she tells me, and her life is devoted to Jesus. We live less than twenty miles apart and I see her at most once a year. And I go to see her, she does not come to see me.
"Felipe? Do you hear from Felipe?"
"Ah, stupid Felipe."
"And Mama, what do you hear from Mama?" He has, thankfully, quit saying "your mother is a whore" when I ask him this. He reaches for his cigarettes, and a thoughtful expression graces his face.
Maybe it's just gas, I think to myself uncharitably.
Neither Consuelo nor Felipe wanted to come with me. I think their choice—to choose not to remember—is mistaken. Mama, of course, remembers too much. Love and hate have short-circuited each other, and she is still paralyzed.
For me, memory is more real than my father's presence, it is like the bodies recently buried in a battlefield, only lightly covered with soil, oozing with pus and odor, with pain not yet extinguished. What did I come for if not to deal with memory?
Most of the time, I just sit by Papa. Sometimes I bathe him, sometimes I read to him—the newspaper, what is happening on the streets of America—he likes that, because he can warn me about being raped, or mugged, or hopefully, even axe-murdered, in the city of Oakland, where I live.
After I have finished the washing, the turning, the changing of linens, the freshening up of his water pitcher—I cannot seem to get him to drink enough—I will sit dream-like in the straight-backed wooden chair by his bed. He will ask me what time it is, even though he has a watch and a clock is in full view. I look at him and he looks at me.
At some time during the day, a priest will appear. This priest is not like the priests who used to come and counsel my mother. Mama's priests were American priests: I remember Fr. Luke from Chicago. He was dark, lithe, and had a scar on his face, and would listen to Mama very seriously and intently.
Papa's priest is a Colombian priest, a tiny eunuch with frail white hands, and a soft child-like voice, melodic and diffident. Papa would have despised him years ago, especially for his effeminacy. That is what priest meant to him, and he was always perplexed and threatened by the very masculine American priests Mama knew.
But he is happy to have Fr. Bernardo come and happy to go to confession every day, do you believe it? My agnostic, atheist father, is happy to listen to tender tales about the Good Shepherd from this little fairy of a man.
"Fr. Bernardo is a real priest," he will tell me happily. "He is what a priest should be."
And my thoughts come to rest again, in that stagnant pool of unforgiveness I suppose we all have, where our unsolved questions are asked over and over.
It was Father Luke my bewildered American mother had gone to see that day. She did not understand her husband, her marriage, and Catholicism Colombian style. Probably a holy day, Assumption or Ascension, and Tio Manuel had stayed at our home the night before.
Often he came over to talk with Papa. Manuel was Papa's favorite brother, and they thought one another very clever. They would talk and drink until three or four in the morning, until one or both passed off into sleep on the couch.
Papa left early that morning, and Mama left to go to mass—yes, it was a holy day, because Consuelo and I were not in school. And my memory presumes that Mama lingered after mass, for she usually did—to say a rosary, go to confession, or talk with her favorite, Father Luke.
Manuel was showering when we became aware of him in the house. Consuelo and I were in the living room, a CD was playing. We each had a couple of scarves and were doing our own prepubescent version of a scarf dance. Papa had recently acquired a CD player and some discs—classical discs, most of which we disdained, except for one—Ravel's Bolero. Now that was music to dance by, and Consuelo and I were taking advantage of our mother's absence, leaping on the furniture, twisting and turning, twirling and stretching the scarves and our bodies.
Manuel came into the living room, still in his robe, went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a scotch. I remember this, but it did not seem unusual. All grown-ups drank, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening. It was very normal. We liked Manuel best of all our uncles, and as soon as he settled on the couch, we were climbing on him, teasing him, treating him for the favorite he was.
But Manuel was sullen that day, completely out of sorts. Finally he pushed both of us away, and handing Consuelo his empty glass, he told her to get him some water. Still giggling, she took the glass to the bathroom to fill it. He rose from the couch, and following behind her, pulled the bathroom door shut.
I remember the quiet. I remember her face as she emerged. I remember my own guilty relief about something...that I had not been the temptation? I remember Mama's face, for she appeared shortly after that, and eyed us all apprehensively. Of course, I am projecting. That's what maturity tells me, that's what common sense tells me. But why, when years later, Consuelo told me what had happened, did I recall the day so precisely, remember the details so clearly?
I would have my turn, for Consuelo left the house while still a teenager. Then I found out that Papa also did strange things when drunk. While Mama worried herself sick about Consuelo, and my father's drinking took on a sullen seriousness that even I, at age fifteen, came to realize was very, very sick, I would wake up at night and find him in my bedroom.
During the hour or so it takes for Papa to visit with the priest and make his confession, I take a walk in Bogota's airless atmosphere. I am nine thousand feet in the air, surrounded by mountains. This is the poorer section of the city, and I see a few men—paisanos—who still wear the ruana over their suitcoats. I never saw my father wear one, although his father—my grandfather—self-made, illiterate, charming, and immoral even by my father's rather warped standards—would happily throw one over his shoulders at family gatherings.
In my childhood, I would only have been in this part of the city during Holy Week—when our family—aunts, uncles, cousins included—led by grandpa—would make a pilgrimage to this very hospice—to bring food and money—and to visit each patient personally. It was grandpa's tribute to his Catholicism, and his piety, lasting as it did for the few hours he was here, was very moving to me as I remember viewing it through my childish eyes. Is his ghost here with his educated son, I wonder?
Our family lived north of the city, in an elegant suburb, and a beautiful house, which I left one October afternoon to look for my cat, Missy Foo. Missy Foo was my substance that year, with the fights getting more frequent and bitter, and the silences getting more oppressive, and the secrets getting larger. Success was wearing out. The kitchen appliances worked about half the time, the CD player was broken, and the wall-to-wall carpeting was shot. For years, when people came into our house, one could hear a faint gasp at its glamour, but the glamour had been gone for awhile. I had taken to barricading my bedroom door.
It was getting dark fast, and as I walked up and down Calle Ocho, I thought how futile it was, for when Missy Foo wanted to come back, she would come back. But I kept looking, for I needed that cat, needed her steel and velvet body to hold and coo over, her delicate Siamese beauty to ponder. Missy Foo was my constant, my sanity, rhythm, and ballast. Where was she?
Night was about to fall, and this was Bogota. A violent city. Women did not walk alone curbside in Bogota after dark. Common sense began to crowd out my emotional needs, and I ran toward my home, up the flagstone steps when I spied, slinking toward me, Missy Foo. Scooping her up, I cried with relief, and bolted through the front door.
Slap. Full across the face.
My timing. I had always prided myself on it, held Consuela and Felipe, even Mama, in secret scorn because they didn't understand timing. But my timing was off, the first time I ever remember it being off. Missy Foo fell to the floor, and I held my burning face, saying nothing, looking furtively at my father.
"I was looking for my cat," I said feebly, and I dived for Missy, ducked past him, and headed for my room.
He was not going to leave me alone—grabbing my arm, he slapped me again.
"Where is she?"
"Where is who?"
"Where is she?"
He was talking about Consuelo, who had left home two weeks before. None of us had heard from her.
"Who, who," I moaned. I had seen my mother in this box a thousand times, always viewing her predicament with sour detachment. Didn't she know about timing? Couldn't she figure it out?
"Where is she?" He had me by the shoulders now, and was using my body as a club to beat the wall with.
But suddenly a calmness came over me, and I looked him in the eye.
"I will never tell you. Kill me. Go ahead, kill me."
And he stopped. He stopped. Just like that, he stopped.
In truth, I had no idea where Consuelo was. She had wisely told me nothing. But my ruse, my pretense had put me one up with my father. Admiration and curiosity got the best of his brutality. For the rest of that year I pretended to know more than I did, pretended to be the stubborn non-informant, pretended I was stronger than he. He respected that, and he did not hit me again. Even Mama thought I knew something. It wasn't until she, Felipe, and I were all in the states, that Consuelo reappeared, coming by bus from Cincinnati, via Miami, via Medellin. She told us very little, and we didn't ask.
The priest leaves, and I go back to the room.
"Why did you come so late," he asks me.
"Late? Father Bernardo just left."
"I mean late. You have been gone twenty years. I would have sent you the money."
I pause. Twenty years have gone quickly, and I have never missed him. I know why I have not come back until now, but why did I come back at all? I asked myself that question. Why me? And only me?
"Where is your mother?"
"You have seen Mama for the last time," I say truthfully. "Mama did not want to leave you. But she did need to leave bedclothes that smelled of vomit, and other women's lipstick on your shirts."
He snorted as he turned toward me, and I notice his eyes. They are my eyes, deep brown, penetrating. I decide to go on.
We were sick of the fear, I tell him, we were all sick of Mama having to beg for the grocery money, Felipe being nagged to successes he was unsuited for, Consuelo was tired of being his princess and the perfect one in the family. We were tired of never knowing if he would be a devil or an angel. We were fed up, as the Americans say.
I am heaving deep breaths when I finish, and I go to the window to inhale Bogota's non-existent air. I stare up at Montserrate, its statue of Christ barely visible in the day's haze.
I haven't mentioned the beatings received by Mama and Felipe. I haven't mentioned the sexual advances that Consuelo and I had to defend ourselves against as soon as we began to become women. I remember these things but as I spoke I realized that it was my dearest hope, my deepest desire, that my father was too drunk at the time to remember those very same things.
Is that forgiveness?
I don't know.
Turning back to him, I see that he has lit a cigarette, and is puffing contentedly away.
"You are very beautiful." And he smiles a skeletal smile. "But you are not as beautiful as your mother." He pauses. "Does she have anyone else?"
"No," I say truthfully.
"You don't need to stay. I will die alone."
"We all die alone," I snap. "Put that cigarette out and put your oxygen on."
He is surprisingly obedient, twisting the butt in the cheap ashtray, and inserting the plastic tubes back into his nose.