My cousin, my grandfather, and my mother have all died. I cannot help but think of them sometimes, just as, I am sure, the reader cannot help but mourn the departure of his or her own family members. Difficult as it might be, reflecting on the deaths of others can help elucidate certain truths about life, about the importance of family, and about mortality.
Alberto was murdered on the streets of Caracas for flirting with the girlfriend of some thug. For so doing he was shot multiple times in the stomach. He didn’t die immediately; an ambulance managed to get him to a hospital before he succumbed to his wounds. When he arrived at the hospital, however, he was both unconscious and unaccompanied. In a brutally literal way this combination turned out to be fatal: the doctors refused to treat my cousin because they thought no one would pay for the operation. By the time Alberto’s mom, Mary, arrived at the medical facility Alberto had been left to die, bleeding out like slaughtered cattle in an industrial farm.
Some of us are lucky to live in countries where this sort of outrage does not occur.
Even though I was only five when it happened, I remember the story quite vividly. The reason, I suspect, is this: after Alberto died I saw aunt Mary collapse in tears into my mothers’ arms. It was the first time I had seen adults cry. I was horrified, and aside from that, uncomfortable. Typically it was adults who comforted me when I cried. If these roles were reversed it meant adults might be somewhat vulnerable after all, a thought I did not then wish to consider.
My grandfather’s name was Manuel Prieto Amor; people called him Manolo, or Don Manolo, if they were younger than he. He was dashing — blond, green-eyed, lean. Born in the Galicia of 1933, he lived only three years before his native country was consumed by a pitiless fratricide. Hundreds of thousands were to die in the Spanish Civil War, and thousands more would die in the subsequent purges of a filthy fascist dictatorship. The conflict gave way to hatreds and injustices from which Spain is still recovering.
Manolo grew in up the dilapidated society of post-war Spain. Such were the hardships his family endured that when he turned nine they sent him to Asturias, a neighboring autonomous community, to work in a coal mine. He took up smoking not long thereafter, partly because everyone smokes in Spain, and partly, I would hazard, to cope with the difficulties of being a prepubescent miner.
Manolo was never able to get a formal education, but that helped to ignite rather than destroy his love of knowledge. Even as he overcame incredible arrays of challenges he found time to read, slowly building up a respectable book collection. It was not easy reading: Manolo read history and science and philosophy, encyclopedias and treatises, novels and short stories, struggling through them, it is true, but finishing them nevertheless.
He had three children with his wife Carmen; all three were girls. By the time Manolo became an old man he was mostly excluded from the affairs of his family. The ladies did not include him in their conversations. In his 70s the solitude of his life was alleviated only by his books and by conversing with the men his daughters would bring home, including my father and, later, my stepfather. With them he’d complain about religion, which he thought was a farce; and about Jesus Christ, whom Manolo considered a charlatan; and about the state of Spanish politics; and about the days of General Franco.
He also had the young me to keep him company. I don’t recall much, but I retain memories of Manolo reading to me and teaching me arithmetic, and carrying me. He didn’t cook much, but he cooked when I visited his house. The old coal miner may have had black lungs, but no darkness ever reached his heart.
Inevitably his bones became brittle, his coughing deteriorated, his lungs began to expire, and his brain lost the lucidity it once had. As with all such processes it happened slowly, but when he told my mother that he could no longer remember what he had just read in the pages of his books his senility was brought to the fore — and so were my mother’s tears, which I was there to witness. Not long afterward he fell and broke his hip. Falls, we know, can be deadly at later ages.
Don Manolo did not recover. He died in his hospital room, in the artificially induced stupor of painkillers; he left this life without any real friends and without an inheritance to give his children. But he also left the world three daughters, of whom two remain. His grandchildren are still around: some in Spain, some in Portugal, others in the United States.
All his grandchildren are being brought up in a kind of comfort inconceivable to the child who toiled for Asturian industry. And that comfort, it must be recognized, originated with his sacrifices, and that of others like him. We mock our elders and their backwardness and their ignorance at our peril.
Milagros Laura Prieto, or Mili, as her friends called her, died three years ago. I was seventeen, and for that reason I have occasionally committed the selfish error of thinking that I was too young when Mami, as I called her, died. But then I look at my sisters. Andrea is nine. Valeria is eleven. That gives me some perspective.
Allow me just a few anecdotes.
The first happened when Mami had been a cancer patient for about a year. I was fifteen at the time, and I had just landed my first job: I was a receptionist at a local parish. The office was about five blocks away from my house, so I could bike to work.
On that day, though, I was feeling obscenely lazy, so I asked Mami to give me a ride. She looked pale, so I feared she might be sick, but without any hesitation she said she could take me. At the time I was mostly unaware of her symptoms, such as they were. I did not know about her migraines, vomiting, and fevers; she was then living a life of constant drudgery and pain and terror of the future.
In addition to these torments, Mami had to put up with the struggles of going to the doctor, having blood removed from her body, receiving painful injections of biological necessities like plasma, and swallowing endless streams of pills. (When Christopher Hitchens got cancer, he noted that people do not fight cancer. Rather it is cancer that fights people, beats them down, and wins far too often.)
Mami took me to work under in such conditions. She picked me up afterward as well.
Second story, two years later. Mami had to fly to Houston to receive an “experimental treatment.” (Experimental treatments become available to people once all conventional treatments have been employed without success.)
Before she left, she came into my room while I was studying. I did not know she had only five months to live, and neither did she. I told her, “Mami, I love you, and I hope you get better soon so that we can spend more time together when you get back.”
She started crying, and I surrendered to that utter helplessness I had felt when I saw my aunt crying all those years before. She said, half-jokingly, “You know, Chris, leukemia isn’t contagious, so we can definitely spend time together anyways! I think you’d like Texas.” She had me on her mind even when it was she with the unfathomable pain that cancer inflicts.
I embraced her, then she walked out of the house, never to enter it again.
One final story. A few weeks after tumors spread to the rest of her body, preventing the functioning of vital organs and thus killing her, my stepdad plugged a charger into the iPad my mom had been using to watch soaps. After powering it up, he opened the Notes app, and he found some entries Mami had made in the weeks prior to her death. They were a series of epistles, each of them addressed either to my stepdad, my sisters, or to me. All the iPad letters contained an apology.
In them, Mami apologized for “not doing enough,” and for lacking the unimaginable strength that such an illness demands. She had, in other words, the audacity to be self-critical in the moments before her death.
In a way, I am somewhat grateful for this. She did not call me out on not visiting her enough, or on not calling or texting her, because if she had I am not sure I would have been able to bear it. And that’s because I had not given her anything like the attention she deserved, and that I owed her. She let me off the hook, I suppose, one final time.
In another way, I am astonished that a dying mother’s final words to her son would come in the form of an apology. She was essentially telling me, I’m sorry I couldn’t stick around to raise you, to help you with your girl troubles, and to see you graduate from college.
In the end it had become clear that she had been thoroughly, savagely, and viciously consumed not by tumors but by love. She had every right to complain about cosmic injustice, but she chose to focus her attention, and what remained of her energies, on other matters.
So it is that the most extraordinary people fail even to make the local news.
We all have dead loved ones, and each of us grieves and seeks consolation in different ways. I happen to be an atheist, so I do not believe my mom or anyone else is watching from on high, waiting to be joined in some heavenly paradise. Believing such things might be appealing, but it flies in the face of all reason and evidence. It is important to confront harrowing realities head-on, without the pretense that we can know more than that of which we are capable. This is not a call for pessimism, but for realism. The novelist James Baldwin long ago demolished the case for pessimism.
Baldwin was once asked whether he was pessimistic or optimistic regarding America’s racial problems. This was at a time when it seemed race relations would never improve, that some ancient hatreds were ineradicable, and that black Americans would remain in a state of permanent oppression. It seemed, surely, that no one person could bear the appalling reality of the situation. Baldwin’s response was rather terse; he said “To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter.”
As I browsed the notes in my books in search of inspiration, wisdom, and writing to steal, I remembered reading somewhere that it is not a good idea to finish an essay with a quote from somebody else. Normally this would seem like sensible advice. On certain occasions, however, it is worth deferring to those who are more eloquent.
The unnamed narrator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores once had to write a very difficult article, as I have just done. Reflecting on the experience, he said, “I completed [the essay] without stopping in less than two hours and had to ‘twist the neck of the swan,’ as the Mexican poet said, to write from the heart and not have anyone notice my tears.”
 Autonomous communities are the Spanish equivalents of states.