When one has not seen a person in a very long time, it is easy to understand how life and death is the same, how there is absolutely no difference except the story one tells. My son just phoned me to say that Boris died yesterday. Her image immediately popped into my mind as I remember her from the last time we met around ten years ago. If he had called to say she had just closed an important business deal, the same image would have appeared, so it is possible to say that Boris is no more than an image in my mind and that image can neither live nor die, it is forever attached to my memories of her, which have no more to do with her real life than my knowledge of Barack Obama has to do with his. So what follows is a mental invention of a woman named Boris whose life in my mind could be nothing but a total creation of my own projections and imaginings. And nonetheless, I am compelled to spend this time in her (my memory’s) presence as a way of closing a circle.
When I met the man who would be my husband for thirty years and the father of my children, Boris was married to his younger brother and already had three children. I was nineteen, she was barely twenty. They lived with my future in-laws while he studied medicine and she struggled to bring up her offspring – the youngest of whom was barely months old- with the help of her mother-in-law and the family maid. All I ever knew of her family of origin was that her mother had been an opera singer of sorts and continued to move in those circles; I believe she knew Guissepe di Stephano, an opera singer known as one of the most exciting and unpredictable tenors of our times.
If memory serves me, it was at her mother’s house where I was invited for a dinner party of sorts, that Boris introduced me as her brother-in-law’s “novia”, a term which in the Mexico of the ‘60s was much more formal and serious than “girlfriend”. I remember immediately denying that there was any such relationship between us, an act which led to our breakup later that evening when I told my future husband that I could not imagine him as the father of my children. So much for my imagination! A month later we were planning our wedding.
Boris’s story up until the time I met her, as my future husband told it, was not unusual for young people in Mexico although for me –having been brought up by a liberal progressive American family- it sounded like something from the Middle Ages. Boris had met Pepe when they were both fifteen. They had initiated a relationship that included sex (something definitely frowned upon at that time) and Boris got pregnant (something even more frowned upon). When Pepe told his father, my future father-in-law insisted that he make good and marry the girl; abortion was absolutely out of the question. Therefore at the age of 15 and pregnant, Boris married, and moved in with her in-laws. It seems that contraception was not permissible either, because by the ripe old age of twenty she had three children and was to bear two more before she reached thirty.
My husband (we were married shortly after he finished medical school) and his brother who had graduated at the same time, decided that their future would be much brighter in the north of Mexico where their maternal relatives numbered something like two hundred and seventy, given that their mother was one of twelve and all her siblings had followed the example of their original family except her (she limited herself to five). My husband and I moved to Hermosillo, Sonora, a town relatively close to the border with Arizona and sharing the same desert-like climate. My brother-in-law and Boris with their three little boys arrived shortly after and stayed at our house until they were able to find their own place. I remember only two things from their stay with us: discovering that my brother-in-law was a heavy drinker and that my husband felt it was his duty to care for him when he was on a binge; and that, when Boris’ youngest offspring aged barely over a year old peed on one of my new dining room chairs, I was not supposed to say anything about it no matter how upset I was. Boris, at the time, was pregnant with her fourth child.
Once they moved into their own place, I saw little of her. I guess she was busy with so many children and setting up house while expecting yet another one. Somewhere along the line I had been informed that Boris had had all her children at home with her husband and her father-in-law attending her and that she had never taken so much as an aspirin for the pain. So when my brother-in-law called and said that she had gone into labor and would my husband go over to help with the birth, I was excited that he asked me along to help. I had already been invited to witness a C-section before we were married and, far from fainting –as he feared I would- was fascinated, so I was well prepared to be first nurse to my sister-in-law.
I remember the birth perfectly. Boris was fantastic. She worked rhythmically through, only occasionally snapping at her husband for not speeding up the process or for having caused it in the first place, I wasn’t sure which. I was standing alongside of my brother-in-law watching when the head crowned. Even today, the memory of it takes my breath away and brings tears of awe to my eyes. A moment later, the head was clear and my brother-in-law manipulated the shoulders slightly to help them slide out more easily. A minute more and I was handed a slippery, white baby that had its eyes open and was breathing without any need of the traditional spank I had heard about. With the help of Boris’s sister, we washed the waxy white coating on the baby’s skin in the warm water of the basin, wrapped him (it was another boy) in a soft baby-blanket and placed him next to his mother. She smiled. Her face looked extremely tired and she probably was disappointed. They had hoped for a girl, but that pleasure was not to be hers: her fifth child would also be a boy.
My husband and I moved back to Mexico City shortly after that night, and then went on to Framingham, Massachusetts where my first child –a boy- was born. When we returned to Mexico almost a year later, Boris and Pepe were still living in Hermosillo. I remember my husband mentioning that his drinking was getting worse and worse. The marriage was not going well, but Boris got pregnant once more and gave birth to her fifth boy child. A few months later, they were divorced and Boris moved to a Guadalajara, a city closer to Mexico City. Later I learned she was having a relationship with an older man who was kind and generous, which apparently helped her out quite a bit with the raising of five boys. As far as I know, she did not marry this gentleman and their relationship eventually ended. A few months after Boris had moved to Guadalajara, my brother-in-law was killed in a car accident. He was not the driver and was the only one killed of the three occupants.
I seldom had news of Boris after that. I always imagined her life was hard. I wondered occasionally if she felt guilty after her husband’s death and how she was doing bringing up all those boys. Then tragedy struck again. She and her children went to Acapulco for a vacation with her sister. What we all heard later was that the sister was out walking after dark along the beach with her youngest nephew, then aged five, when a giant wave swept them both away. The sister’s body was found the next day washed up on a distant beach; the child’s body never appeared.
I remember thinking at the time how absolutely terrible it must have been for her, her son and her sister, and then never having been able to see or bury the body of her small boy. I don’t remember calling her, though; we had never been close, I had never actually met her last child. Her divorce, the life she chose after it and the sudden death of their second son had estranged her from my in-laws and therefore from the family in general. Years later, when she had moved back to Mexico City and was no longer in the relationship my in-laws disapproved of, she once more became part of the family festivities at Christmas and New Year. And even later, when she remarried the very gentle man who remained her husband up until her passing, I was invited to her house once or twice. The last time I saw her, I believe, was during a visit to Mexico City after I had already moved to Spain, around ten years ago. We met for lunch somewhere downtown. She looked about the same as I had remembered her from always, a bit heavier, some grey sprinkled in her hair, but the smile, the buoyancy, the apparent love of life was there still. It was only the wrinkles around her eyes and something in the depth of them that suggested she had lived a hard life. If I remember correctly, we talked a lot that day, about things that I’ve now forgotten. Since then, once in a while, I would receive an e-mail with some forwarded video or message and it would make me think of her again, think of her as sometimes I think of myself: as a survivor, as a victor.
Then today, the last message:my son’s voice announcing that Boris had died and my need to mark that news with the writing of this piece. Now, I have no proof she died; I have no proof she lived. It’s nothing but my story anyway. As Byron Katie says: “Until you know that death is equal to life (…) it’s always going to hurt. There’s no sadness without a story that opposes reality.”
Goodbye, Boris; thank you for being a part of my life and for coming back for this last visit on the day when I had decided to write the 100th piece on my blog.