This story is by Sarah Ford and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Sonia’s first encounter with death was when she was 7; their dog was killed when they moved into town. She didn’t understand it, but questioned why Auggie didn’t move with them, and Daddy said, “He’s staying with the Montoya’s where he can run around on the ranch.” She never saw him when the family went to visit their compadres. No one ever said why. Mama and Daddy said they couldn’t have another dog now that they lived in town and their yard had no fence.
Later that summer, Mama got a call from her Tio Pablo, who lived up the street. Sonia had never seen her run, but that morning Mama ran up the street to see her abuelito. Mama came home hours later, eyes swollen, saying he had, “gone so fast he was still holding his coffee cup at the kitchen table.” Now, how can you go somewhere and still be at the table? Sonia was confused, and asked her oldest sister, Estella, about it. Estella was in college, so she was smart. Estella told her to “shut up and don’t make Mama cry with your questions.” Sonia stayed quiet all week, not asking anyone why Mama was crying with her family, the adults talking in Spanish and leaving the younger kids out of the conversations.
For two years, Sonia wondered why she never saw Mama’s abuelito. She knew he was “dead” and that “he was with the Lord,” but no one, not even her catechism teacher, could explain it to her. If he was truly with the Lord, she reasoned, shouldn’t everyone be happy they would see him again when they died? She buried it away, and went on with life as a kid in a small mining town. Swimming, school, baseball with her older brother Mikey and friends kept her busy, as well as spending time with her own abuelita. Her Grandma was short, soft, and didn’t know English. When Sonia was younger and had a bad cold, her abuelita came and took care of her. She put mentholated balm on her chest, wrapped her in flannel, and sang songs to her as she curled up in blankets.
In May 1970, one of the Montoya girls died “of the lupus”. She was young, one of Estella’s friends, and Mama said the family was devastated, whatever that meant. The older kids went with Mama and Daddy “to the viewing and rosary” while Sonia was home with her abuelita and Mikey. Estella had come home from college to go with their parents. When they got home, Estella was still crying. Thinking it would cheer her up to know she’d had a chance to see Bertha, Sonia asked, “how is Bertha?” Wow, the reaction was swift and brutal. “She’s dead, stupid, that’s how she is!” Estella cried out. “How can you be so stupid not to know dead is dead and you don’t get to talk to them again?” Understanding death was getting more and more confusing to Sonia, so she did what she did best. She buried it.
Life bumped along for the next few years, Sonia hit her teen years while her older siblings left home for college. Always feeling less than adequate, always being compared to her older sisters, and found somehow falling short of expectations. She flourished at school; she had good friends, and was learning how to play the clarinet. She was slowly learning about boys. Some were mean because you weren’t pretty. Some teased you non-stop. Mark was one of those boys. A year younger than Sonia, he was always pulling her hair, tripping her in the halls, or just being a nosy pest. He bugged, but Sonia didn’t mind, she liked him anyway. Sonia looked forward to the summer of 1976, yet she was going to miss Mark in the fall, since he was a year younger than her and would still be in junior high while Sonia started high school
High school took up all of Sonia’s time and energy. Bigger school, older friends, new teachers, and still trying to get out of the shadow of her sisters’ popularity. When she heard that Mark was sick, she got him a card. When she heard that he was in the hospital, she tried to get Mama and Daddy to take her to see him and they said no, the hospital was no place for kids.
There was a fundraiser for the family, and Sonia raised money at the walk-a-thon. One evening Sister Mary, from Saint’ Mary’s Parochial School, called Sonia to tell her that Mark was “with the Lord now, his suffering is over.” Now, Sonia began to understand Death. This time, Sonia went to Mark’s services. The words of the priest began to make sense to her, but the pain, the sadness of knowing she’d never see him again, took a long time for Sonia to understand. So, she buried it.
Sonia learned how to show the proper response to Death. When her abuelito died, Sonia was a rock for Mama. When her abuelita died, Sonia helped take care of a nearly inconsolable Daddy. Over the years, she thought she understood how to deal with Death. She watched how her family dealt with it, and absorbed the experiences. They were stoic in public, never showing a lot of grief, and “got on with life” as Estella told her. Sonia listened, saying nothing, and buried her feelings.
Daddy died unexpectedly. Everyone figured Mama would go first, she was the one with the poor health. Sonia’s rock was gone. Her special, strong, loving Daddy. The man who would do anything for his children, was gone. Death had come close to Sonia, and now she truly began to understand what it meant. It meant not ever smelling that wonderful mix of soap, aftershave, and cigarettes. It meant not rubbing that bald spot on top of Daddy’s head for luck before leaving home. It meant not hearing that special way he said Sonia’s name. It meant she had to be an adult and grieve “right” in public, and “be strong” at his rosary and military funeral. She did, and buried her feelings. She remembered how Daddy wore his heart on his sleeve all the time. When he laughed, you couldn’t help but laugh with him; his whole body laughed. When he was sad, his eyes would drive you to tears.
Mama was tough and strong during that whole time. Except she kept Sonia by her side during that hellish week. Mama relied on Sonia a great deal over the next 15 years, and their relationship was a good one. When Sonia met her future husband, Mama welcomed him in theory into their family. She essentially cut Sonia out of her life when they got engaged, and was a reluctant part of the wedding party. In time, she accepted Sonia’s husband and soon came to rely on him as much as Sonia. Those were great years.
Mama died of cancer quickly. She was diagnosed in November, died in January. When Sonia went to her bedside for the last time, she was already semi-comatose. But she opened here milky eyes when she heard Sonia’s voice talking to her, and said, “My baby girl.” Her last words. She slipped away later that afternoon.
Now, Sonia could rail against Death. She knew Mama was no longer in pain. But still, the pain! She would miss those talks early in the morning when she’d steal into Mama’s bed and cuddle with her. Knew the ache in her arms from missing those hugs would last a lifetime. Knew that her Catholic upbringing would help her. Remember the good, forgive the bad, and this time, not bury her feelings. She owned her feelings, accepted them, felt them, and it angered her sisters. For once, Sonia didn’t care. She grieved not only for Mama, but for Daddy. She refused to bury anything.
Sonia thought she’d caught the flu a few years later. Her skin hurt, which was unusual. She just wanted to stop the misery. After three days, she finally let her husband take her to the emergency room. She fell into a coma at the emergency room, and woke up two days later. She’d caught the doctor coming in to see her, and he said she had septicemia. If she had waited one more day, she would have died. All she remembered was the beautiful deep blue wall with the cracks in it, the golden light shining through, and feeling the peace that surrounded her. Was that Death, welcoming her? It was food for thought.
It took another week before she was discharged from the hospital, four months before she felt any energy. She lost half her hair three months out of the hospital, a side effect of the septicemia. It took time but now she has decided to treasure life, each glorious, maddening, blessed minute. Sonia’s not friends with Death, but she understands what it means to her.