DEATH OF THE FATHER
“IT’S NOT SO BAD… BUT ALL THE FUSS!
(Statement of Manuel Domecq Núñez de
Villavicencio on his death bed, to his son)
In August of the year of 1977, Pedro Domecq González Núñez de Villavicencio and Gordon, 2nd Viscount of Almocadén had a heart attack. He was in San Francisco with his wife, Elizabeth Cook, and his granddaughter, Maria Fernanda Rodríguez Domecq who, at the time was 10. They had taken her to Disneyland in Los Angeles and then gone on to San Francisco. They had been out to dinner and, upon arriving back at the hotel room, Perico (as he was called) complained of indigestion. He took an Alka Seltzer, as was his custom in these circumstances, but the problem only got worse. Suddenly he gripped his chest, leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. Betty knew there was a problem. Probably, if they had been anywhere else but the U.S., he would have died, but an ambulance took only five minutes to arrive and in less than twenty he was in the hospital. Betty called her daughter.
When the phone rang, I was sitting in the bar (in our house) having a nightcap with my husband. I answered and heard the news: my father had had a serious heart attack, was in the hospital and the next day my mother was going to put my ten year old daughter on a plane to fly home alone. She gave me the arrival time so I could pick her up and promised to keep me informed of my father’s progress. All I remember was a hollow feeling inside. I loved my father; I think I have loved him more
than any other person in my life. If nothing else –and there was plenty else- he showed me that it was possible to be happy in this life with very simple things and that was what kept me going every time I was ready to give up.
My father survived that incident, although it was a bad attack and he had to spend at least three weeks in the hospital and then another month at Burlingame Country Club in a small cottage they rented before the doctors would allow him to fly and return to the altitude of Mexico City.
He had survived, but he was never the same again. “I wish I had gone then” he used to say. I think he meant that the waiting for the next time was not much fun. He lost most of his interest in the things that had occupied him before: the bird watching, the translations, loading his shotgun shells, painting bird pictures. Life seemed to have turned into a waiting game, trying to guess, perhaps, when the next “sablazo” would hit. (Sablazo is a Spanish word for being struck by a saber with force and it is what my father used to call the blows life dealt one; he called his heart attack “un sablazo”.)
After three and a half years of waiting, Betty figured it was safe to travel and they went to New York to see their son, Michael and his family. Again, the phone call came at night.
“Your father’s in the hospital again. His lungs filled up with water and he was drowning. We rushed him there in a taxi because your brother had gone out to dinner. He almost died,” she said in what sounded like a tired voice.
“Did you consider letting him go?”
“Yes, but he said he was afraid, he wanted to live so I had to take him. The doctors say he will pull out okay, but he is going to have to take care or his lungs will fill up again.”
That was when my mother learned to cook without salt thanks to a wonderful cookbook that I ended up adopting just because the recipes were so tasty. After a while, my father didn’t miss the salt either, and he would continue having his glass of wine in the evenings and midday on weekends so the loss of salt was not a tragedy. He got well, he even took up some of his hobbies again and all seemed to be going along smoothly.
Then my mother decided that she had to go to San Francisco again, I guess because they had some money invested there, and she took my father along. In Spanish we say “la tercera es la vencida”, which means the third time is the one that wins, and, at least for my father, this turned out to be true.
It was the 25th of February 1982, and once again the call came at night. My mother’s tone sounded emotionless.
“He’s not going to make it,” she said, her voice heavy with fatigue; “I saw an x-ray of his heart. Poor thing, it’s all limp and barely beating; it looked like a dying fish.”
“I’m on the next plane,” I told her and hung up.
My husband and I got tickets for a flight the following day and, once on board the plane, I remember thinking all the time of what I wanted to tell my father when I got there, all the things I thought he might be interested in, how the Conservation Association he belonged to was doing so well, and the projects that had been approved at the last council meeting for the following year. Then suddenly I knew, I knew from deep in my heart: There was nothing left to say. My father and I had said it all. In that instant I accepted that I did not need for him to stay alive, to wait for me, to continue living. I understood that I was ready for him to leave and realized how blessed I was that there was really nothing left to say to him. From somewhere in the air, I closed my eyes and said goodbye with all my heart. When we arrived at the hospital, I practically ran to the room. My mother was standing by his bedside gazing at him as if she were trying to recognize him.
“He went 5 minutes ago,” she said looking up slowly from the blessed fog that deep change shrouds us in for a moment to protect us from the shock.
I noticed the strange waxen aspect of his face and, walking over to the bed, put my cheek next to his; he was still warm. “I’ll take care of her, so don’t worry” I whispered and gently kissed his cheek. Then my mother began to talk.
“It’s so strange. About three days ago his voice began sounding different; it wasn’t his and it came from somewhere else. I couldn’t recognize his voice, but he didn’t say much anyway. Only once, he said ‘I want to D-I-E’ in this strange voice, spelling out the word as if it were difficult for him to say it. And then today, I was just sitting here gazing out the window and he called to me.
“’Lay down the bed, I want to rest.’ You know, he had to be in a sitting position to be able to breathe due to the liquid in his lungs. I asked him if he was sure. We both knew that if I lay him down, it was the end. He said ‘yes’. So I cranked the bed down. And then I just held his hand. It wasn’t too bad, but it took about 10 minutes. After he was gone, I called the doctor. He asked if I wanted him to revive your father so he would still be here when you arrived. I said ‘no’.”
I walked around to the other side of the bed and embraced my mother. She seemed tiny and all bones in my arms. The admiration I felt for her in that moment was overwhelming; as far as I was concerned she was the bravest woman I had ever known. We sat together holding hands until they came to wheel my father’s body away. The following day we went for the ashes and flew back to Mexico carrying them in a plastic shopping bag. My father would have had a good laugh over that. No fuss.
ROOTLESS: THE BEGINNING
When I was 9 years old, I was torn up with all and roots and transplanted –as Harry Belafonte more or less said while introducing his song about Jamaica- with no one wanting my opinion about nothing, at no time and in no way. Children were to be “seen and not heard” according to my father, so voicing an opinion –even if I had had one- was not an option. Of course, I didn’t have one. I had no idea what “moving to Mexico” meant, or where Mexico was, or anything of anything. All I knew was that, while I was away at summer camp learning to ride horseback and row and swim and fish by inserting tiny frogs on a hook, and kiss a boy behind the watch tower, a decision had been taken that would determine my whole future and in its accordance we were loading up the car and “moving”. I had been moved before, from New York City to New Canaan, Connecticut, but that move was at 5 years old and –frankly- I remember nothing about New York even looking at the old photographs. Besides, I was moving from an apartment in the city to a beautiful, spacious house in the country where I had miles of woods and fields in which to spend all my infantile energy. It was a better deal. I had already experienced “countryside” because while living in New York, we would go to our place in Poughkeepsie on long weekends and in the summer. In Poughkeepsie we had two horses (I don’t remember, but there are photographs and my father often spoke of this experience) and I would ride sitting in front of my father, tightly held. At least, this is how it was until one of the horses tried to brush my mother off by rubbing its side against a tree trunk at full trot and then almost killed my father with its hooves when he went in to feed it. That was the end of the horses. We had a black poodle called “Peter” too, until my mother ran him over one evening coming into the driveway when he galloped out to greet her. That was the end of Peter. The dog was Peter because my father was Pedro or, as is the nickname in Spain, Perico. My mother, a good American who did not speak Spanish at the time, wanted to call my father “Peter”, but he would have none of it, so she called the dog “Peter” and then killed him. So much for love. This anecdote has a continuation. Many years later, while on a hunting trip with my father in Mexico, she shot a small parrot in place of a dove. In Mexican Spanish, a small parrot is called a “perico” (which there is not a nickname for Pedro) and my father loved to retell the story of how my mother was, for sure, out to gun him down. So Poughkeepsie melted into New Canaan and I had a black retriever named Brandy and a cat called Minnie, and the freedom to roam, investigate, get lost and found, and live as I hadn’t experienced previously at least in a conscious manner. There was to be only one thing I would remember that would mar my New Canaan experience and that was the birth of my brother, something not easily forgotten considering that, in spite of me, he survived childhood. I was six, I had been queen of the house since birth with no competition whatsoever, and then suddenly, competition appeared and it had a penis which, according to Freud, is the only thing that women really envy. I don’t particularly agree with Freud, though, and truly believe that if it had been a girl my reaction would have been the same: competition is competition. Now, most six-year-old girls probably would look on this event as a marvelous opportunity to play little mommy with a real life doll, but dolls were not my thing and –according to my mother- I wouldn’t even go near him, much less hold him, feed him, change or bathe him. There was an alien in the house and I was not about to abet it. Nevertheless, and in spite of my brother, my memories of New Canaan basked in the glory of love lost and ever longed for. I was convinced that nothing had disturbed the peace of those afternoons spent walking in the woods with my father, playing that we were fighting the Indians and protecting my mother, who was home cooking our dinner; or sneaking out to the kitchen garden with the sugar bowl to eat strawberries picked right from the plant; or earning 25¢ for filling a quart jar with blueberries from the field across the way (the “way” being a dirt road with no cars practically ever) and then getting to eat the blueberry pie which was my favorite; or playing in the carriage house with the wind-up Victrola and a 78 Caruso record I must have listened to 100 times; or helping my father cut the hay in the field; or climbing the apple trees to pick their fruit and eat it straight out; or watching the deer come into the orchard in winter looking for rotten apples under the snow; or rolling a snowball until it got so big it wouldn’t budge any farther and seeing how it had left a trail clean of snow behind its progress; or walking to the reservoir with my father to fish for sunfish and singing “Fishy, fishy in the brook, Daddy catch ‘em on a hook, Mommy fry ‘em in a pan, Brianda eat ‘em like a man;” My fate, however, was decided one evening even before I went away to camp, as I was to hear it over and again much later in life. My father had come home with the news that he would be travelling to Mexico frequently in the coming year because of the business he was setting up there. My mother, for whom it was a great frustration not being able to belong to the New Canaan Country Club because the parents of her ex-husband had blackballed her, suggested that they move there. They were sipping a martini when this conversation took place. My father stood up and prepared a second martini and by the time the glasses were empty, the decision determining my fate without my consent had been taken. So notwithstanding the fact that a plane trip to San Antonio and then a car trip from there to Mexico City had all the promise of adventure that a 9 year old girl could wish for, I must have had my misgivings about what I was leaving behind. Furthermore, according to modern psychology, between 9 and 10 is a very important time in a child’s development. It is when she begins moving out of the protected area of the family and forming new relationships outside the home that seem more important to her at this time than those in the home. Family relationships, and the home space, constitute a safe base to return to after each ‘dangerous’ sally forth into the world. So just as I was beginning to figure out “who” I was and daring to exercise that identity in my circle of friends at school, the security of the known was pulled out from under me along with my budding “identity”. It would take me a long, long time to form another one I could count on and call my own. Gone were the roots I had put down in my school, in my aunt, uncle and cousins, in my friends and my grandparents, in the first house that I had recognized as my home,in my unlimited tramping grounds, the carriage house and Caruso, the barn where jumping from the rafters into the hay was a daily game, snow and the change of seasons, blueberry pies, and the woods I wandered through with my father. I was being moved to a city -not as populated then as it is now- where there was only a dry season and a wet one, where I would attend a new school, learn a new language and be cared for by maids who prefered my brother because he was still “cute”, a place where feeling earthquakes was more possible than finding blueberries, where most children were not blond with blue eyes, where my parents would spend more time socializing and playing golf than taking care of their kids, and where I would for a very long time feel like a foreigner in an unknown land. There was only one thing that made the trip not only bearable but actually desirable to a certain extent. The week before our departure, my parents had thrown a going away party for their friends, among them a couple called the Foxmartin’s. I was supposedly friends with their daughter who came along, but truth be told, I didn’t like her at all. She was about a year older and tended to be very bossy –something I considered my prerogative especially in my own house. Besides, she had the biggest collection of “trading cards” I had ever seen. In those days, the rage was to collect trading cards, playing cards that had beautiful pictures on them and a blank side where the numbers and figures usually went. I craved that collection of cards, especially the horses. In comparison, my collection was paltry and I had very few “repeats” that I might trade for her “repeats” because she had almost all the cards that I had. Every time she would come to my house, she would bring her collection and show it off. She was odious. That night, though, we ended up going to sleep before her parents were ready to leave so they must have come up to the bedroom and carried her down to the car and forgotten the suitcase with the trading cards in it. The following morning, to my extreme delight, I found it. When her mother called and I was asked if she had left the suitcase, I lied and from that moment on I couldn’t wait to be off to Mexico with my stolen goods. Obsessed with the thought that I would be the Queen of Trading Cards in my new home, I didn’t notice how much I was losing with the move. So it wasn’t until arriving at our destination that I began to realize I had lost my friends, my school, my beloved house and grounds and my native language, and had moved to a country that had never heard of trading cards. Suddenly, I was the queen of nothing, and my life had turned up-side-down. From that time on, the sensation of being rootless only increased because, as fate would have it, I did not put roots down in Mexico either. My parents had not decided to stay permanently in Mexico at that time and, thinking they might want to return to the United States, they placed me in the American School. We joined a golf club where there were mostly American members, and they made mostly American friends in the beginning. So I was living on what would culturally be seen as an Island of the United States. I didn’t make Mexican friends, I didn’t listen to Mexican music, I didn’t watch Mexican movies and even the television programs that I viewed later were in English with Spanish subtitles. Yes, I learned Spanish because I had a class in school and because I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with the maids who had now substituted my mother who took to playing bridge, playing golf, attending the Garden Club, and working with the Junior League. My father worked more than before and was tired when he came home; our times together, the stories and the walks were gone. Weekends were for going to or organizing social events. I know now that we might be called “expats” for moving to a new country and trying to replicate the life lived in the original one. But I wasn’t old enough to have a life to replicate, so I lived on this half-baked replica of the States where nothing was the same, and nothing was different either. Rather it was like a faded photograph where the lines are difficult to make out. My father’s work took him travelling to South America and my mother often accompanied him, leaving us with a guardian, usually an elderly woman named Mrs. Lamb who I ran circles around. I missed my grandmother –usually the one in charge of caring for us when our parents travelled- and although I began immediately writing her letters, in those days mail took a week to ten days and by the time she answered I had forgotten what I had written. For the first time in my life I felt truly alone and that, instead of subduing me, sparked my rebellion. I became unruly, contrary and sneaky, and dedicated myself to growing up faster than my parents probably would have wished. But above all, I became rootless, incapable of identifying as an American but in no way a Mexican, other than having learned Spanish. When I returned to the States a few years later for a visit, I realized how foreign I felt there, just as I felt foreign in Mexico. I knew of none of the things my cousins were into, I had no bubble gum in Mexico, or Bobby sox, or moccasins; I didn’t dress as they did or think like they did or enjoy the things they did. I hadn’t gone to camp in the summer, or visited the beaches they had. They saw me as “Mexican” and introduced me as their “Mexican cousin” asking me to speak Spanish to impress their friends. But I wasn’t Mexican, I knew nothing of Mexican culture or customs and wouldn’t for many years. I was a fake, I was a neither-nor, I was rootless and it would take me a long, long time to discover the advantages of this strange new state and begin fully living the “rootless” life I had suddenly been dealt.