JULY 13, 2009
I’m asleep when the phone rings. I can hear it, but I can’t make out whether I’m dreaming or if it’s really ringing. I open my blurry eyes and reach for my phone. I can make out that the number on the screen is from Mexico. I rub my eyes with one hand and press the answer button with the other. Holding the phone to my ear, I hear my brother Aarón breathing heavily on the other end, desperately attempting to speak. “Se … se … se fue,” he cries out between gasps—“Our father died.” I say nothing, like the rays of the ascending sun breaking through the cracks in the curtains. What can I say? What am I supposed to say? My heart doesn’t provide me with any words to speak. Slowly I bring the phone down to my chest and stare up at the white and empty ceiling, listening to my brother’s cries as they break through the speaker. He’s dead. My father is finally dead.
The urgent voice of a woman comes through the speaker. “¿Bueno? ¿Bueno?”
“Sí, ¿bueno?” I say calmly, when I again put the phone to my ear.
“Who are you, sir?” the woman asks with concern.
“I’m his brother. And you … are you a friend of…”
“No, no, I’m a nurse here at the hospital. I was here when your father passed. He is also your father, right?”
“Yes. He … he was.”
“Yes—of course, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s okay. Please, don’t apologize.”
“Where are you?” she asks. “Are you coming? This boy needs someone to be with him. He’s in a lot of pain, and he doesn’t know what to do.”
In the background I can hear my brother still crying for our father, every new cry louder than the last.
“I’m in California,” I tell her. “I’ll be on my way as soon as possible.” I’m still in bed and haven’t made any effort to get up. With the phone pressed to my ear, I look toward the window and wonder how hot the day will be later. It’s been terribly hot all summer.
“California!” she remarks with surprise. “Oh, no. You’re too far! This boy needs somebody now. Can somebody come now?”
“I’m sorry … yes, of course. I’ll call his mother.”
* * *
Aarón called me at exactly 5:34 a.m. I was the first person he called, the one who was also the farthest away. He’d called me the morning before to inform me that our father had been admitted to the hospital. “What’s wrong with him this time?” I’d asked coldly, annoyed at having been awakened so early in the morning.
“The same thing as last time. He needs blood,” my brother said with urgency, as if he’d been speaking to a representative at a blood bank and was about to place an order for a few pints.
“So give him blood. What’s the problem?” I told him, with a direct voice, doctor-like. Little did I know that my father had run out of options, and filling him with someone else’s blood was no longer going to help. In the months leading up to this moment, he’d been battling cirrhosis and hepatitis C. Going to the hospital every couple weeks because he was losing blood had become routine. But even more routine was his drinking, something he’d been doing daily since before he was a teenager. My father had been an alcoholic. He’d drunk for most of his life. Now, at forty-eight, his cirrhotic liver had finally stopped working, and he was dead.
* * *
It was sometime in January that my father’s wife Cokis first called to tell me he’d been admitted to the hospital for losing blood. “He keeps vomiting and shitting it out,” she said. “He can’t hold it in.” When I asked why, she very matter-of-factly told me it was because of his drinking. I’d thought it was no big deal. My father would get the blood he needed and be on his way, which, as it would turn out, is exactly what happened. The hospital kept him overnight and nurses restocked his body with blood. The following morning my father stepped out of the cold, white halls of the hospital into the warm light of a new day—body reenergized and hope renewed.
“All right then,” I said to Cokis. “I’ll send money tomorrow for whatever he may need, and tell him to call me as soon as he gets out.” Money was all I could do for him. Every time my father had called to tell me about a problem he had, whether it had to do with work or the family or his health, I sent money. It would make me feel better, and my father always seemed to feel better, too. When I’d tell him that I’d be sending him a couple hundred dollars within a few days, he’d suddenly stop talking about his problem, because he no longer had any. “¡Gracias, hijo!” he’d say with excitement. I could see him smiling from ear to ear on the other end. I’d smile, too, knowing that my father was full of shit.
* * *
I’d debated whether to go to my father’s funeral, and at some point had decided not to. Surprisingly, it was my mother who convinced me. “Ve,” she said, “you need to go.”
“Why?” I asked her. “What would be the point? He’s already dead, and everything I needed to tell him I already told him while he was alive, like that I didn’t love him, or that I wished he was dead.”
“This is exactly why you need to go,” my mother insisted. “You need to heal, and you can’t do that unless you forgive your father. It’s the only way you’re ever going to close those wounds.”
I thought about this idea. People always talk about healing through forgiveness, about not being able to move on unless you forgive. And although I didn’t ask her, I wondered if she had forgiven my father. The grief I’d suffered at his whim was nothing compared to what he’d put her through. I couldn’t imagine the pain that she’d had to endure living with my father for the few years that she did.
That morning, sitting across from her at the kitchen table, I had newfound admiration for my mother. This woman who’d raised me all on her own without asking for anything from my father—not a cent—was showing me what real strength looked like. It wasn’t in muscles or in violence or in superiority; it was in meekness and humility, in simply saying I forgive you and moving on. Nothing gained, nothing lost, just moving forward with life and making the best of it for the ones you love. My mother loved me. Always. Unconditionally. Always. I’d been her struggle, her purpose, and later so were my sister Samantha and brother Roberto. She’d had to let go of any resentment and bitterness she’d felt toward my father if she had wanted to move on and create a better life for herself and her family, and she did. Fully self-made. Fully self-empowered. She knew her worth.
“If you don’t go, you will regret it later,” she said, “and you don’t want to live with regret, son. It will hold you back. So go. Go and make peace with your father. Go and put him behind you.”
The next day I’m on a flight to Chihuahua. I should be there by five p.m. By then my father will already have been buried. His funeral’s set to be at three, exactly one hour from now. This is a good thing, because I don’t want to be there among his mourners as he’s being lowered into the ground, among those who loved him, and those who hated him—too many lies and too many tears. Some will cry and ask God why, but most will simply stare out at a cold casket and think of how the man inside had drunk himself to death. Someone will also uncap a beer and drink it on his behalf. “For you, Juanito! For you, my good friend! And for the many!” The mourning soul will raise a bottle to the sky as if toasting with my father’s ghost; and then, as if holding the last beer on earth, will consume it in one long, savory gulp. “Ahhh!” will be the resounding proclamation of that quenched mouth.
* * *
Father, why can’t I cry for you? Is it that you haven’t left me yet? Is it that I still carry you with me everywhere I go? You’re buried inside me. You’ve been there for some time now, and all the while you’ve managed to keep a smile—that devious smile of yours. Tell me: How was it when you left? What did you feel? Did you know it was time? Did you think of me? Did you see my face? I keep thinking that you simply closed your eyes; that you were tired and just gave up—peacefully. No more beers. No more battles. No more pain. “Ya ’stuvo,” you said, “can’t do it anymore, it’s over—se acabó!” And so you left this world, and all of us, behind, to find our way without you.
* * *
Life was difficult for my father in the days leading up to his death, he was constantly vomiting and shitting out blood. The most difficult for him, however, had to be knowing he’d soon be dead, greeting every day as his last, killing every thought with a drink, trying to embrace his cruel fate. The condemned man’s worst suffering, Dostoevsky declares in The Idiot, occurs on the day of his execution: It is in those moments before the end that the soul shudders with terror and clings most tightly to the flesh. The blade falls apace, as it was designed to do, but time, against every law created for it by man, slows down, and the anguish that fills him is amplified. The condemned man cries for the guillotine to do its job—to kill him at once, to end his suffering. Thus, my father went; ready, determined to never return. He’d been readying himself for some time. The idea haunted him; and those last days were too much, too long. It was all just moving too slowly. His death just wouldn’t come fast enough.
* * *
I see you, Father, surrounded by golden lights and God’s children, clear of mind and heart, free and light—and drunk no more! But tell me, mi querido viejo, whom I miss more than my own legs before they became useless, when I see you again, will you receive me with open arms after I have written all of these terrible words about you, after I have told the truth? Because like you, I am not far from death: feeding a thirst that won’t recede, I drink and drink and drink.
* * *
The last time we spoke—a month before his death—my father sounded well. He did mention he was losing blood again, but he assured me that it was nothing. “I’m fine, hijo,” he said. If anything, he made the fact that he was vomiting and shitting blood seem like nothing more serious than a passing cough. “La pinche sangre nomás, hijo. I keep losing it, but otherwise, I’m fine—de veras. I’ll be back to my old self in no time.” My father was like that when he spoke of any misfortune: aloof and apathetic. The man didn’t care. “That’s how it is, that’s how God wants it to be,” he’d say. “¿Para qué chingarle más?” I could never argue with that.
* * *
My father hadn’t yet been buried when I arrived in the city of Chihuahua. As it turned out, his wife, my brothers, my sister Axcel, moved by good intentions, thought I might like to see him before he was stuffed in the ground forever. So they asked the owner of the funeral parlor for an extension, which he allowed without objection. So there was my father in a box inside the parlor waiting for me to come say my final goodbye. He couldn’t have left without this moment. That’s how I felt, like the whole extension thing had been his idea entirely, as if he’d been the one who arranged it, all for the purpose of fucking with me, his eldest son. “Just wait till he sees me,” I could hear him saying with a smirk on his face as he snuggled in his box, rubbing his shoulders against the side panels, “Mijo’s going to get a kick out of this!” See, my father was like that, too: he loved to fuck with your mind as much as he could, loved to torment you and make a mockery of every sensibility. Nothing was sacred to the man. And if you let him, he’d do it until you started wishing he were dead.
* * *
Outside the La Paz funeral parlor are dozens of people sitting and standing before the backdrop of a fiery-red descending sun. People who, with the exception of my brothers, sisters, and my father’s wife, I’m not excited to see. They’re mostly my father’s family (many of whom I’ve never met); the rest are friends and acquaintances.
“¡Qué onda, raza?” I yell out of the truck’s window as we pull up. Immediately, everyone stops what they’re doing and turns their attention to me. The show has arrived.
“¡Es Obed!” my brother Danny announces when he sees my bald head hanging out of the truck’s window. His brilliant smile, revealing his crooked teeth, complements the spark of light in his eyes. He’s happy to see me, and so is the crowd cramming behind him as he walks toward the truck. They push and bump one another out of the way to get a look at me, fighting for my attention, calling my name. You would think I’m a ranchera music star or a telenovela actor the way they’re receiving me. I prefer to think of myself as Monseigneur the Cardinal of Bourbon, arriving at the Palais de Justice in Paris on the Day of the Kings and the Feast of Fools in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame. In the same way that Monseigneur the Cardinal, upon making his grand entrance into the gallery of the palace, took the attention of the crowd away from the morality play in progress, I, upon arriving at the curb of Funerales La Paz, this humble structure built for death scenes, take the attention of the crowd away from my father, who is in the middle of his last act.
While my uncle Chuy (my mother’s brother) retrieves my wheelchair from the bed of the truck, I open my door and hang out one of my legs, careful not to let the white rubber bottom of my Vans connect with the dirt and trash that has piled up against the curb. The crowd watches as my leg dangles in the air, lifeless and beautiful, like an ornament hanging from a limp twig on a Christmas tree. Danny is the first to lean in to hug me, and when he does, others squeeze in behind him, throwing their arms around us both. I can feel the touch of many hands on my back and shoulders and the heat of different breaths assaulting my head and face. I feel as if I’m caught in the tentacles of a huge, sweaty octopus. All the while I’m praying to my sweet Lord that none of them starts crying on me or fucks up my neatly pressed blue polo shirt. And when Danny finally releases his grip on me and all the others step back, I thank Him for having answered my prayer.
My uncle pushes my chair up to me and I hop on it. I throw my black Anaheim Angels cap on backward on my head, making sure my legs are neatly tucked between the side bars leading to the footrest. The white rubber bottoms of my shoes are still clean, their white laces showing evenly from underneath each pant leg. I take a deep breath, and turn toward the sea of faces before me. Ugly faces. Each a different shade of melancholy and all part of the same unbearable collective face of the destitute. ¡Que bella vida! Life doesn’t get more beautiful than this. I remember that I’m a Silva, too.
“¿Estás bien?” my tío Chuy asks me while tapping me on the shoulder and handing me my backpack. I tell him that I’m de aquellas!—all good, that he can leave now. And as he walks back to get into his truck, I pop a wheelie onto the curb, and without having to ask anyone, almost instinctively, there are more hands on me and my chair than necessary, lifting us both as one unit onto the cracked sidewalk—Obed has arrived, the one member of the tribe that all had been waiting for! Once on the sidewalk, I turn toward my tío’s truck and say goodbye to his wife and son, who are peeping at me and the crowd through its back window. I can see their lips saying Adiós to me as they raise their hands and slowly wave, and I feel as if they’re also silently praying for me. Que Dios me cuide.
I’m on my own, left to deal with what my father has left behind.
* * *
“I’m your tío Polo! Do you remember me?”
“And I’m your cousin Chuy! You probably don’t remember me.”
“And I’m your tía María!”
“And I’m your cousin Vero!”
“And I’m your tío Victorio!”
“And I’m this and I’m that.”
“And I’m so-and-so!”
“And I’m blah! blah! blah! blah! blah! blah!”
¡Chingada madre! Where’s the dead man? Come now, just lead me to the corpse.
I’m bombarded by a mob of excited Silvas who are all saying they’re happy to see me. “¡Eres lo máximo! ¡Eres lo máximo! And we love you. We’re all for one and one for all! There’s always room for another Silva.” I don’t feel one bit of happiness to see any of them, not at this moment. I feel dry—real seco-like, like a fucking fish out of water, like a dying rose petal. All I want is to get it all over with: to roll through the parlor’s doors, see my dead father, roll out, and shoot for the heavens with a bottle in hand. I want to get drunk already, really fucked up. But that will have to wait.
I sling my backpack over my shoulder, turn toward the parlor’s doors, grip my wheels, and the large group of grievers before me parts down the middle, as if commanded by Moses, making an opening for me to roll through into the parlor. I can feel every person fall in behind me as I pass them. They’re so close to me that if I stop abruptly, they’ll all crash into me from behind. At the door, Cokis is waiting for me with a smile and a tear, and somewhere close I know she’s hiding a bottle. “I’m glad you’re here,” she says as she leans in to hug and kiss me. Any other time she might have held me and not let go, but not this time; her arms release me and point the way. “Go in, there’s your father waiting for you, go and see him,” she says meekly, with her arms and hands stretched out in front of her like arrows. And see him do what? I think, almost blurting out the words. But there’s no need for such a senseless remark when my father’s dead and in a casket only a few feet away from me on the other side of the parlor’s doors.
Copyright © 2021 by Obed Silva
Copyright © 2022 by Héctor Tobar