by Amy Hardy
At 2:13 a.m. my cell phone rang. I sat up, startled. It took me a moment to transition from a dream to the reality of my dark bedroom. Dim light from streetlamps streamed through the blinds. I rubbed my eyes and reached for my old Samsung, knocking it first to the floor with sleepy, uncoordinated hands. Mierda, I exhaled and reached over the edge of my bed to pick it up, fumbling around for a moment until my hand was upon it. I squinted at the screen: Luis’ name lit up the display, also illuminating the portrait of María y el Sagrado Corazón on my nightstand.
“Hello,” I spoke softly into the receiver.
I heard heavy, staccato breathing and then a whisper, “mamí?” Luis’ tone instantly sent a chill up my spine. I sat up straighter, like a corpse with rigor mortis, immediately very awake.
“Luis… ¿qué es? Are you in trouble?” The sobering silence of six seconds passed by. I heard a shrill scream in the background. My pulse began to race.
“Mamá….” He was struggling to speak, “… something… bad is happening here…”
“Luis? What’s happening?” I stood up unsteadily, my heart pounding in my chest, “are you hurt? ¿Dónde estás?”
I could hear him sniffle into his phone, struggling desperately to remain strong but failing. He was hyperventilating. Panic crept through my entire body.
“Mami, there’s a guy here… with a gun…” he choked on his words, “I just…I’m hiding in the bathroom, but—” he choked again, “Just please know… te quiero mucho…” He breathed in again, gasping. My throat tightened and I could hear my blood pounding against my temples.
“Cariño…” I swallowed hard, “tell me where—” Gunshots stopped my words dead in their tracks. They sounded nearby. I didn’t even know where Luis was but my gut murmured: call the police.
“Luis, ¿dónde estás? I’m calling 911.”
“No stop! mamá, no…I’m downtown…it’s… it’s too late…just stay on the line with me…please don’t leave me.”
His tone made bile rise into the back of my throat. My trembling fingers had already dialed. An operator spoke: “911, what is your–?” I ended the call.
“I’m here, mi hijo,” I whispered, my voice shaking.
Luis gasped and held his breath, “joder he’s right outside, I can hear him…” he stopped, “mami I’m going to die,” he whispered almost inaudibly.
“No, Luis, NO,” I stammered, “stay quiet. Is there a window?” I breathed in hard, “Escúchame, look for a window! Climb out of there, pronto!”
“It’s too high, I’ll never make it,” he spluttered, “mamá I’m sorry I was such a little shit when I was growing up. You’re the best mom I could’ve ever had.”
The finality of his words hung in the air. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I held the phone in tight to my ear as if it would bring him closer to me. I wished I could reach through and pull him into the safety of my home. I wanted both to pray and to denounce my faith. I wanted to be there and fight the man with the gun off with my bare, maternal hands. I yearned to relive every moment of his life again: from the 18-hour labor to his birth and the first second I lay eyes on him and felt my heart burst with joy, to his rebellious teen years and when he finally came out to me at age seventeen.
“Luis, cariño, I’m so, so proud of you. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you so—”
I heard a bang, like a door being kicked in that made me jump, then horrible, offensive words and screams. Bone-chilling screams. Then gunfire, but not a normal handgun. No. Some sort of machine gun, a massive firing. I heard a girl begging for her life. I heard sobbing and then more shouting from an enraged voice.
“Dios mío,” I whispered as the undeniable scream of my son pierced my ears, followed by seemingly endless gunshots. I screamed his name over and over again, but Luis no longer responded.
A part of me died in that moment. I swear I felt myself rise out of my body. I looked down at myself, clad in a purple cotton nightgown, clutching my cellphone and then letting it slowly drop to the floor with a thud. I howled incoherently and sobbed with all my being, and then crumpled to the floor myself, hitting my head on my nightstand on the way down. When I regained consciousness, the first thing I saw was my portrait of la Virgen María looking at me sideways with her kind, compassionate eyes. It was as if she knew what I had experienced and wanted to be the first to comfort me with her divine empathy when I awoke.
Apparently, my neighbors reported screams coming from my apartment and the police forced their way in. They had dispatched a car anyways due to my hang up on the 911 operator. They found me on the floor with a gash on my forehead, helplessly bleeding a deep red stain into the carpet. In a surreal, semi-conscious blur I sensed movement around me. I sat up dizzily only to be assisted back down. But I needed to find Luis, to hold him, to see if by some miracle he was still alive. I fought the paramedics off in vain with weak, somnolent fists. And slowly I felt myself relax and slip away as one of them administered haloperidol.
Hours later when I awoke to the steady beep of monitors, I wondered whether I’d dreamt the whole episode. Maybe Luis was fine and would show up at my hospital room any moment and scold me with his beautiful smile: “Ohhh mamá, ¿qué hiciste?” My hope dwindled though as nurses and doctors passed by my room audibly expressing their shock regarding the massacre in downtown Tucson. Like a blow directly to my soul, I surrendered to the fact that it had, indeed, transpired. My son really had been murdered and I was entirely powerless, torn between fits of rage and bottomless despair. I wondered how Maria went on living knowing Jesus had been whipped and beaten and nailed to the cross.
When I saw a police officer through the window of my hospital room the next afternoon, I instinctively knew why. The tall, handsome officer rounded the corner and looked at me with big gray eyes.
“Miss Alvarez, I’m officer Benedict of the Tucson Police, may I come in?”
The dreaded potential of his unspoken words hung in the air between us. I nodded gently before tears balled up in my eyes.
“It’s about your son, Luis.”
I waited for the most horrible blow to hit me, a truck of anguish to slam into my being and send me cascading into an abyss. I whimpered and covered my face with my hands. Tears stung my eyes and snot welled up in my nostrils.
The officer put a hand on my shoulder, “Ms. Alvarez, Luis is in the ICU at Saint Mary’s hospital. He was shot, but he is alive.”
I ceased breathing and let my mind absorb his words.
“He’s not dead? He’s not dead,” I affirmed and made the sign of the cross, “Dios le bendiga, señor. Que mi hijo viva.” And I was weeping and hugging Officer Benedict.
I was released early the next morning. My sister Claudia picked me up with a change of clothes and we drove downtown in nervous silence. The cool air-conditioning caressed my face as we entered Saint Mary’s. There were hundreds of people in the waiting room, some sleeping on benches, some standing with paper coffee cups, and some in tears.
At the reception we were asked to wait for Luis’ doctor, who would come as soon as possible. After waiting for nearly three hours, a doctor called my name.
I stood up, straightened my shirt and together, Claudia and I approached the doctor.
“Ms. Alvarez, I’m Dr. Henschke,” he extended his hand, “Come with me, please.”
He took us aside to a private corner and asked us to have a seat.
“Ms. Alvarez, Luis sustained multiple gun shot wounds to the abdomen and legs. Overnight he was in critical condition but stable,” slowly, deliberately he drew a breath. “Unfortunately at 10:30 this morning he unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest…” His briefing proceeded in slow motion. The following, lingering words were a jumbled cacophony of sounds and syllables. “We did everything we could, but Luis passed away at 10:42. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
We sat in shocked, paralyzed silence. Finally, Claudia burst into tears next to me and grasped my ice-cold hands. The hospital clock read 11:27. Speechless, I stared in to the doctor’s kind, tired eyes and thought of Maria when she realized that Jesus was gone. Gone again. Gone forever. The scar of a dead son would last forever.