Wading in the Velvet Sea [January 19, 2019]
“I took a moment from my day
Wrapped it up in things you say
Mailed it off to your address
You’ll get it pretty soon unless
The packaging begins to break
and all the points I tried to make
are tossed like thoughts into a bin
as time leaks out, my life leaks in
You won’t find moments in a box
and someone else will set your clocks
I took a moment from my day
and wrapped it up in things you say
And mailed it off to you”
Up and down. Up. Down.
I can’t see the water. I can only feel its presence. Expansive and all-encompassing. So vast, it is the only thing I feel around me. It’s pitch black, and all I can hear are the waves crash. I am surrounded by a liquid emptiness.
The wooden raft I am on is the only thing that separates me from the bottomless pit of the deep sea. In the darkness, I can’t brace for the waves as they come, so I do my best to stay afloat. My raft just bobs up and down. Up and down. Up. Down.
In a place so dark and empty, you can feel your own thoughts. They envelope the world around you. My body bobs with my raft. Up and down. Up. Down.
Consistency. I need this.
I fumble through my pack for my flashlight. I don’t know how long it’s been, so I want to make sure I conserve power and only use it when absolutely necessary. Even though this isn’t an emergency per se, I can already feel anxiety and nervousness start to creep in. So this is more for me. To put me at ease.
I flash the beam towards the rear edge of the raft, searching for the right rope. My vessel is connected to a network of ropes. The tricky part is finding the correct ones when I need them. Each rope is marked with a different colored ribbon for easy access. The one I’m looking for has an auburn-colored ribbon tied around it.
I follow the rope with my eyes until I reach the end of it – where another nearly identical raft is tethered. I raise the light to illuminate what is sitting atop it.
A plush armchair. On it, my great-grandpa, Ofo, sits sound asleep. Eyeglasses still perched on his hooked nose, a Spanish cowboy novella resting on his potbelly. When I close my eyes and picture Ofo from when I was a child, this is the image I see. All is well.
I slowly scan the blackness among the other rafts until I find the ones I’m searching for.
My grandparents from my mom’s side, Tata and Wowomas, are both lying in their bed that is balanced on their raft. Their dogs, Happy and Yogi, are asleep at the foot of their bed. While my grandparents are both telling different stories, like dueling fiddles. Tata bringing to life fairy tales from her childhood in Cuba. Wowomas recounting adventures of the X-Men that he was making up as he went along. Both trying to fight off sleep. A familiar scene from when my sister and I would stay over their house.
I try to find my other grandparents, Vava and Wowo, and am only tipped off by the dim glow of a television screen off in the distance. My flashlight catches the faintest hint of their silhouettes resting on their recliners. From this distance, I can’t make out their raft. Just the television set, their recliners, and their figures. Their eyes are closed, but both are mouthing words to each other that I can’t make out because of the water crashing against my raft. They’re further out at sea, but I can tell they’re awake.
Just then, I hear someone call out to me: “Yo-ho!”
I flash my light in the direction of the voice and see an elderly gentleman in a row boat. He has on navy blue trousers, crimson red suspenders, and a straw hat. He is skinny and frail, but has an air of calmness about him.
“You best stay out of these waters, young man,” he cries out. “Storm’s a-coming.”
“But I don’t have nothing to steer with,” I reply. “We’ve just been floating here for God knows how long.”
“Then I’m ‘fraid I can’t help ya,” he states matter-of-factly. “Best of luck to y’all.”
He puts his head down and starts rowing away, exerting a disproportionate amount of energy with each stroke. I watch him as he sails off until he is out of sight.
I listen for noise from the clouds overhead but hear nothing. It feels cloudier than usual, but no rain. No thunder. Just stillness.
Suddenly, I feel a sloshing sound come from beneath me. Startled, I frantically dart my flashlight all around me, trying to find the source of the noise. Whatever it was felt large. And dark. And ominous.
When I hear a loud SPLASH! over to my left, I spin around, knowing that whatever had passed under me had now made its presence known. I shine my light towards the source and am horrified at what I see.
A giant sea serpent crests out of the water, its eyes yellow and glowing. Entangled in its gnarled teeth is a handful of ropes – my ropes. Clenched to the ropes like a vice grip, the serpent twists its head side to side like a dog playing tug of war before descending into the water again. My raft is jerked violently by the pull of the creature, but then abruptly stops and just coasts along. That could only mean one thing.
Suspecting the worst, I start reeling in the ropes from my port side. The second I pull on the ropes, I know my worst fear is realized. Because they feel lighter. Still, I keep pulling until I have confirmation.
When they’re all in, I had the confirmation I needed. There was nothing on the other end of them. The ropes had snapped.
The monster passes under my raft again, and I knew immediately it was coming back for more. I try to think of what to do. All connected like this, we are easy targets. In just a few passes, we’d be done for. It would be easier to navigate if we detached. I still had nothing to steer with, but my own two hands could get my raft moving at least a little bit. Besides, I’m not even sure if anyone knew what was even going on.
I start to weigh my options, and I’m in a cold sweat. My heart is beating out of my chest. Do I save myself? Do I help all the others? Do I try to face it head on?
I relax, realize what’s happening, and reach the same conclusion time and time again when I’m faced with similar situations.
Enough of this. It’s time to just open my eyes and wake up. And then it’ll all go away. Just get up.
I woke up as I normally would on Long Run Saturday. Once my alarm goes off at 6 AM, I normally reach for my phone and start checking all the normal stuff: my email, my bank account, my fantasy lineups, Instagram. Until I feel awake enough to roll out of bed and make myself a cup of tea. This is all normal.
But January 19th wasn’t going to be a normal day.
I woke up and looked at my phone and see a text message from my dad. To me, my brother, and my sister.
I was too groggy to take in the full gravity of it, but enough permeated through the cracks of my early morning fog to make my heart momentarily pause.
My grandpa, Wowo, had slipped while putting away a box of Christmas ornaments and hit his head on the wooden stairs to the basement. He broke the C1 and C2 vertebraes in his neck, fractured his skull, and suffered a concussion to boot. He was bleeding internally. The text from my dad was clinical, yet a touch optimistic and assuring. But it couldn’t be more clear that no matter how you slice it, this was pretty bad. He easily could’ve been paralyzed. Or worse. And he was probably going to need surgery.
I sighed deeply, awake enough now to process it all.
“Huh? What happened?” Gf slurred as she stirred in bed, waking up.
“My grandpa’s in the hospital. So this is going to be a thing now.”
Full disclosure: for the longest time I didn’t know how I was going to tackle…this. I can’t ignore this episode completely, because it was a monumental moment in my life. Especially during this time period with everything that was going on. It definitely has to be in here.
But also, the wounds are still too fresh. We are still living it in one way or another. And to respect my family’s privacy – especially my grandparents’ – I don’t want to bare all. I briefly mentioned it in one of my training notebooks, because it was a giant elephant in the room so to speak. And it altered my writing in a way that I couldn’t just ignore it. So I have to talk about it. But I can’t get too deep into it either.
When I wrote about my brother’s car accident, I was reaching back many years ago. Because there was some distance, it was easier to access that memory. But this happened too recently, and all the details are hazy because of it. Counter-intuitive I know, but things are harder to bring into focus when we are still affected by them. At least for me.
So I have to include this in my series. But what would I even say? How could I analyze an event that my subconscious is constantly trying to erase from my memory bank as some sort of defense mechanism? And more importantly, how was I going to weave it into the larger narrative of the Pittsburgh Marathon? How was I going to show you – the reader – how the dots in this tale connect? Because it all so clearly connects for me since I know this ends. But there are years of backstory left untold.
Whenever I write about somebody else, I try to follow this simple guideline: I can only speak my truth. My point of view, my story, my words. Which makes it even tougher balancing on this tightrope. Since I can only speak for myself and because a comprehensive narrative of the events of January 2019 would span countless pages on this word processing document – as pertinent as they may be to the tale – some things would have to be left out. The mystery of my family – and the place it holds in my life – will have to continue to loom over all this like a specter.
So I won’t be able to write about how I helped bridge the gap between my grandparents and another family member who remained in the hospital lobby – staying out of sight to avoid triggering any conflict from ancient grudges. I understood both sides. I won’t be able to write about the conversation Gf and I had with my grandma, Vava, that spanned hours. It started with me scolding her and ended up with her opening up and having this tremendously cathartic moment. I won’t be able to write about all of the interactions in the hospital. How Vava was there 24 hours a day, and we popped in on occasion when we could to relieve her or to keep her company. How running became the only source of escape for me wherever I could insert my mandatory training runs into my now topsy-turvy schedule.
I also won’t be able to write about having this be the thing on my mind for months – even writing about it – while also visiting Wowo at the rehabilitation center only a handful of times. I won’t be able to write about – after responding to a text from Vava – her calling me by accident while I was on the toilet at home. It was months later, during spring break, and I was trying to coordinate a time to see them since I passed by their house a few days earlier and they weren’t there. I answered the phone as I normally would, but then realized that she dialed me by accident when I overheard their conversation. Because I definitely wasn’t supposed to hear that conversation. But I also completely understood where they were coming from. No, I definitely won’t be able to write about that.
I can’t go into detail about all of that, as relevant as they may be. I can’t give a full play-by-play without speaking for somebody at some point. So I’ll have to do something else.
I can only speak my truth. And if all I have are my thoughts, then that will have to do.
First off, I hope you don’t mind me speaking in English. Even though my first language is technically Spanish, I only seem to be able to convey my deepest and most complex thoughts in English. Which can probably be attributed to growing up in the American school system. And I also only seem to be able to convey my deepest and most complex thoughts by typing them out on a computer screen. Which can probably be attributed to whatever the hell it is I got going on in my head. So…here we are.
There’s a lot I wanted to say to you in the hospital. With so much going on, there wasn’t really a chance to. But isn’t that just a metaphor for life? We are all caught up in our own little worlds, and we have so much to say to the people that we care about that there is just never really a good time. Until it’s too late. So now that I have the time, it’s as good a time as ever.
I always knew this moment was going to come. Maybe I tried to prolong it. And still do. But I knew it was inevitable. The moment where I would have to reckon with the decision to cut myself off from the family. At the time, it was an indefinite hiatus. It had to be. But as we all grew and changed and I felt like I had forged myself into the person that I wanted to be, we slowly drifted a little closer.
You would think that moment had come when Ofo died years ago. People probably thought that me not going to the funeral was me grappling with the weight of it all. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I had made my peace with him every time I visited him at his first nursing home, the only time I visited him at his last nursing home (the last time I saw him), and especially when I visited him after Chucky left the hospital after his accident. There, I explained to him the decision I was making to cut ties with everyone in the family. I will never forget that conversation I had with him and his caregiver. That conversation is a big reason why he was one of the few people I remained in contact with during my absence.
After I talked to him though, I went to your house right after. When you opened the door and I realized you were alone, I knew the universe had placed the exact people in my path that I needed to see on this farewell tour of sorts.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a special connection with everyone in the family. But in that instance, I was thankful to get to talk to you. You see, Cuban households are predominantly matriarchal. The female is the one who runs the show and keeps tabs on everyone. For as ‘macho’ as the stereotypical Cuban male may be painted as, they only get second billing on the movie poster. They’re side characters.
And we had a special bond. When you’d come over our house on Saturdays, it would be you and me who’d pick up the large takeout order we placed for all of us. Pizza from one of the local spots (frequently since that was your preference) or Burger King (your next favorite) or Wendy’s or Taco Bell (much less frequently). It was you who taught me how to drive. You had the patience to guide me and a willingness to lend the steering wheel of your beloved car to a reckless teenager. No small feat. And then we’d get shakes at McDonald’s after the driving lesson to celebrate – your favorite part. And I mean, come on. We even share a name. You’re Armando the first, and I’m the third. So I was really happy to get to talk to you that day, because we never really had many heart-to-hearts.
I wasn’t as upfront with you with what I was planning to do as I was with Ofo. But I also think you knew. I didn’t need to spell it out for you. You knew what was coming. And in your own way, you supported me. Like a verbal version of that incognito whistle and salute from “The Hunger Games.” You saw where I was coming from. And that it actually might be the best thing for me. And I just want to say thank you. Because I hope to one day have the strength you showed on that day. But also the strength you’ve shown throughout your entire life.
Your advice to me was: “Take care of Gf, because she is your life and the only thing that truly matters.” This advice informed many of the decisions I have made since. Because while your words may be cliché and simple to most people reading it, I know that when you said it, it came from years of experience and hurt and wisdom and pain. It was the words of a truly learned person.
There was a distance for many years, but we have slowly gotten closer in recent times. Of course, not to the point that we see each other every weekend like we used to. But going to P.F. Chang’s last year for your birthday is up there with some of the best times we’ve ever had together. For me at least.
But I knew this moment always lingered over me. And you ending up in the hospital was that moment. That I would have to reconcile all the time together we missed out on over the years. The distance that still exists to this day. Because of me. Even when we see each other now, it’s this elaborate dance we each put on, not to let our defenses down and get too close to get hurt again. Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It’s literally everybody else too.
In the hospital, I had to come to grips with the fact that one day you would be gone. And I would have to live with all of these feelings. But it’s my cross to bear. Self-inflicted, but a burden nonetheless.
I did what I could to help at the hospital. But I could’ve done more. Much more. I was happy to help you and Vava with whatever you needed. But I know you wanted me to be there more often. But I’m just not that guy. It’s hard for me to give in that way.
Instead, here is what I can give.
I’ve noticed everyone in our family has this intense fear of dying. Maybe that’s why so many of us live into our triple digits. We’re just too stubborn for our own good. But it’s a fear that resides within us that propels that stubbornness and unwillingness to let go. The last time I saw Ofo – and I knew it was going to be probably the last time I would ever see him – I showed him photos of my newly furnished apartment. He had only seen photos of it when all I had was two lawn chairs and an air mattress. I showed him pictures of my cats, of Gf. I told him I was promoted to assistant manager at the restaurant I worked at. But most importantly, even though it wasn’t much, I told him that everything I had was because of him. Anything I would ever achieve would be because of him. Everything I would teach my kids. What would be passed onto future generations. It’s all a credit to him. So in that way, he didn’t need to be afraid to die. Because he was never going to die. He is immortal.
I can’t be there for you all the time. I can’t do the everyday maintenance other people are so good at. I’m not wired that way. But what I can give you is this. I can explain how you will live on forever.
You and Vava have always been so content with your lives. No matter what is going on around you, your home is your sanctuary. You surround yourself with the familiar and you don’t deviate from your ways. It takes an incredible amount of assurance in oneself to be able to do that. When so many people are trying to make wholesale changes in their lives, you both have stayed the course. You’ve taught me how to be comfortable and accepting of the person you are – faults and all. And that will live on.
You also are a paragon of a devoted husband and father. When you told me to take care of Gf – that she is the only thing that mattered – I knew this wasn’t coming from just any random schmuck off the street. You walk the walk. You and Vava give each other strength. It’s a companionship that is so rare these days that I hope to emulate. Maybe it won’t be going to the movie theatres every week like you guys do, but I hope to be that weird old couple going to concerts when I get to be your age. And I don’t want to put words in his mouth – and though I’m sure you’ve made plenty of slip-ups along the way – but the job you did as a father to my dad was exemplary. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes – and I know that you do because we’ve talked about it before. But dude seriously, look at everything my dad built. The kind of lives we lived as a family. That’s all because of the work ethic you instilled in him. You’ve taught me how to be a good partner. And hopefully one day, a good dad. And that will live on.
Related to that, you spent most of your time commuting to a job that stressed you the fuck out. Sure, work was your social outlet. After all, how many stories did I hear about Nelson, Muhammad, Joe (and Emma)? But let’s be real: you didn’t like the actual job. Your talents could have been better served elsewhere. But you had to be almost forced into retirement. It takes a certain kind of courage to wake up before dawn everyday to schlep into New York City during rush hour to work at a job you’re not one hundred percent sold on. You’ve taught me that nothing is ever going to be handed to you. You are going to have to make sacrifices and work your ass off to get the things that you want. You’ve taught me strength through struggle. And that will live on.
But on the flip side, I really wish you weren’t so stressed. I know you say that the things you are doing are working, but they seem to be just bandages. You might think everything is fine, but it’s helpful to poll those around you to gauge exactly how you are coming across. The last time I saw you – which was months ago – you were bitter and angry and had all this pent up frustration. And I get it. I really do. But I was really happy to see you. And I wanted to have a good time. And I left there telling Gf, “Well, let’s give them some more time to cool off before seeing them again.” But it’s not just about the good things you’ve taught me. I try to learn from the family’s flaws. Because as your grandson, I’m naturally predisposed to these tendencies. So the bad things might be just as important in this respect as the good. Through your errors, you’ve taught me to value my own mental health and seek opinions of how I’m being perceived by those around me. And that will live on.
And this whole incident? What better lesson to take from it than to not take anything for granted? That anything could be taken from us at any moment. All the sacrifices you made – coming to this country, raising my dad, commuting for hours everyday – could’ve all been wiped out in an instant. And if that lesson didn’t sink in deep enough, this happened on the same day as Chucky’s accident for crying out loud. The irony of you slipping while taking down ornaments from your precious Christmas tree that you put up every year is an absolute gut punch. And it’s not fair that something that gives you such pleasure and is so innocent is what caused your accident. It gave me a newfound appreciation for life. Through this, you’ve taught me to live a more purposeful life, because this life is ephemeral and we have to live everyday to the fullest. And that will live on.
But it’s the little things. I don’t know how I remember this, but there’s this old VHS – one of the many that my mom has from us growing up. But there’s this one where we’re in our basement and I must be five or so, which means that Chicky must be two. You’re sitting on the floor with your back leaning against our futon as my sister and I take turns charging at you to climb on top of you to do I don’t even know what. And you’d pick us up and tickle us and we’d be laughing until we couldn’t breathe. Your face was beat red from laughing yourself as you play-terrorized your grandchildren. But we couldn’t get enough of it. In that moment, nothing else existed. For us, our reality was getting tickled almost to the point of suffocation. And for you, it was getting to play and laugh with your grandkids. All the other stuff melted away. I’m not so eloquent as to try to attribute a particular lesson to this scene, but the image of you laughing. It was a laugh that emanated from the depths of your soul. That image. In my stories, in my thoughts, in every action and intention. That will live on.
Early on when I started running, I adopted a mantra. I had heard it on a podcast, but it comes from a Native American chief. It goes: “Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.” This is the part I would chant when I run. But there’s more to the whole thing.
I found these words at the perfect time in my life. And as time goes by, I wanted to do this thing where I pass on these words to someone that I think could use it at that particular time for whatever reason. I’ve only done it a handful of times, and it’s met with mixed results. Oftentimes total ambivalence. But I feel like it’s worth it to keep trying.
So Wowo, live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
And when it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
Everything I have – and everything I will ever be – is because of you. Maybe I don’t see you every Saturday like I did when I was a kid, but just know that at no point did you lose any significance in my life. It’s just an unfortunate part of life made more complicated by our family dynamics.
Thank you for everything, and I will try and make you proud.
I lived with Vava and Wowo for a few months in 2011 when I was struggling to find a place to call home. It was an incredibly stressful period in my life where I was trying to relearn how to navigate these complex relationships in my family tree while simultaneously trying to get my shit together.
I remember applying to MFA programs in creative writing, because my grandparents had proposed the idea of pursuing my wildest dreams in hopes that it would counteract all the negativity surrounding my life. I remember filling out all of the applications, studying for the GRE, hunting down college professors for recommendations, all of it. I remember abandoning my pursuit once I realized that their proposal had a list stipulations attached to it. And with that, I drifted off to my next residence – the next pit stop on this world tour of shame. But not before spending a night or two sleeping in my car at the Vince Lombardi Service Plaza off of the New Jersey Turnpike with all of my belongings crammed haphazardly in every available nook and cranny of my Toyota.
But my time spent living at their house was mostly positive in spite of everything that was going on. I remember the incredibly long conversations we would have at their dinner table – conversations where I lost track of time completely. I remember when someone keyed my car door how Wowo was ashamed and angry that someone in his neighborhood would dare do that. I remember staring at a photograph of them they have in their basement – with my dad as a teenager wearing a t-shirt from a local pizzeria. I felt like this photo had many of the answers I was looking for. Answers that maybe would reveal themselves to me by putting myself in my father’s shoes, living in that same house. I wasn’t any closer to understanding what had happened to all of our lives in that time. So I just stared at the photograph, a photo in which Wowo is smiling so deeply that it seems to radiate from every muscle in his face.
But it’s crazy that in such hectic times, we remember the most trivial of details. It’s the little things. Take for instance my Brita water filter pitcher. I remember bringing this pitcher with me – one of the relics from when I lived in off-campus housing near Rutgers. I didn’t need to bring this pitcher – certainly my grandparents would be able to provide me with water at their residence after all. But when you’re moving from place to place like a refugee, you create this weird attachment to the things that you own. Because they are the only things that are familiar and give you comfort. So the Brita pitcher came along.
This was the first time my grandparents ever interacted with such a contraption. Normally, they would just fill their water pitchers at the sink and then put it in the fridge. But with a Brita, you fill the top part at the sink and then it slowly gets filtered through and passed along to the base of the pitcher.
Of course, anyone who has owned such a pitcher knows that the top part holds much less water than the base. So if you fill that top reservoir, the pitcher will only be about one fourth of the way full. Enough for just a few glasses of water at best.
Wowo had figured out that if you fill the top part slowly – letting the sink run at barely above a trickle – in order to match the speed at which the water filtered, the pitcher would be full of fresh water. This was a lengthier process, but the plus side was you didn’t have to refill the pitcher as often. He oversaw the whole routine and went out of his way to continually fill the pitcher and prided himself when the thing was damn near overflowing with water.
Of course, this would only be prolonging the inevitable. Eventually, the pitcher would run out of water. For a longer period of time between refills, you would have water to drink. But that didn’t change the fact that eventually you are going to have to refill it again. I mean, it makes sense. You are going to run out of water at some point.
Was it efficient? Definitely. It was the smartest, most logical thing to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are still going to run out of water, because it’s bound to happen. Humans drink water. And eventually, it runs out. It’s just natural.
So I wonder what would be the best use of his time. He gets the most water in that pitcher. There’s no doubt about it. But part of me wonders if there’s another way. It might not be as smart or efficient, but you wouldn’t have to spend your time carrying out the aquatic version of watching grass grow. Because after all, at some point you are going to run out of water. That much is true. It’s a fact of life.
What if you could be doing something else in that time that you spend filling up the pitcher? Perhaps something even – in an ironic twist – that will make you thirstier and force you to drink more water? But what if it made you happier? As illogical as such an idea might sound, perhaps it would be worth it.
There would be no way of knowing. You can’t answer the question until you are completely out of water. Only then could you truly determine if it was worth it. Until then, it’s anyone’s guess.
In my eyes, it all boils down to personal preference and a deep knowledge of oneself. For some, watching the water slowly fill the pitcher is the way to go. Methodical planning to prevent the water level from dropping too low is how they prefer to spend their time. Other people aren’t wired for that. “Why would I spend so much of my time filling the pitcher when it eventually is just going to run out anyway?” they reason. Who knows if there’s even a wrong or a right way.
But the truth remains that sadly, we are all going to run out of water at some point. It’s a natural part of life. But how you live your life between refills is up to you.
I had already my choice. Now, it was just about understanding why.