The dream was very clear. The Gardener’s small, dark green, paneled truck pulled up to the curb. My Mother got on the truck by way of a ramp that dropped down to the street, and  moved to sit in the front seat. I felt sad; I didn’t want her to leave so I grabbed ahold of the ramp to stop the truck from departing. The Gardener walked over and looked at me kindly. He was a very tall, thin man with a long, horse-like face that was terribly gentle looking. He was dressed in a very pale beige shirt and pants. I looked into his face. He smiled kindly. “Your Mother has to go now” he said, “and when she comes back she will bring you a big gift.”  I let go of the ramp and awoke.

There was a sweet sadness in my chest as I contemplated the blue sky visible through the window from where I lay on the bed. It had been almost a year since my Mother had died and during all that time I had felt her so close that she was more alive to me now than before she passed. I knew the dream meant that she was leaving definitely. The air around me felt differently; there was more emptiness and the warm glow that always accompanied my Mother’s presence seemed to have dissipated. I lay there for a moment remembering the night of her death.

MAMAI had seen to my Mother’s care for over eleven years, ever since the first signs of senile dementia appeared, for a time in her home with hired caretakers and then in the nursing home where she spent the last six years of her life. Her mind had gone slowly, almost gently, but definitely so that in the end she neither spoke nor reacted to the stimulus around her. She had become like a small child expressing only two things: her dislike or unhappiness, by lowering her head and refusing to look at anybody, especially me, and her love by climbing onto my lap and pulling her knees up until I hooked my arm under them, holding her as if she were a small child in my arms. She was so thin that her weight was easy to bear, and those moments were the sweetest and most intimate I ever remember having with my Mother: such a gift, but not the last one I would receive from the woman who gave me life. She didn’t ask much of me in those last times, rather she couldn’t, nor did I ask much of her. We sat together, in her room, three or four times a week, in silence, holding hands. Sometimes I would take her ice cream and feed it to her, others I would watch the television for a while just to be present; always I would kiss her and tell her I loved her. But there was one thing I did ask, not of my mother, but of the Powers That Be. More than anything, if it were possible, I wanted to be with her when she died. I did not want to think of her making that last transition all alone (and I couldn’t know that she would be alone, could I, for some say that a dear one comes for us to accompany us on that journey).

I will never forget the night she died. I didn’t know it then, but it was to be one of Life’s greatest gifts. I had been to see my Mother that afternoon and had, as a matter of fact, spoken with the doctor in front of her. She had almost stopped eating and they were contemplating feeding her through a tube. I looked the doctor straight in the eye and smiling in spite of the tears filling my own told him that I did not want my Mother force fed.

“There is no need for any measures except to make her comfortable; her quality of life is minimal and my Mother deserves to die with dignity. She has been a brave woman and I have watched her allow her own Mother to die without interfering. My grandmother took a bottle of sleeping pills when she no longer wanted to live; my mother knew this, and yet respected her wish, doing nothing to prevent her going. And then again when my Father was in the hospital, his heart barely keeping him alive, she was the one that lowered his bed at his request although they were both perfectly aware that the liquid in his lungs would bring about the end. If my Mother has almost stopped eating I have the moral obligation to allow her to go without interfering. I am certain you’ll understand this.”

Tears were rolling down my cheeks by the time I finished, but the smile continued on my face. The doctor nodded, smiled back, stood, shook my hand and left. I looked at my Mother. She looked at me. There was no sign in her eyes of having understood what went on and yet we were together in a complicity that transcended life itself, a complicity of respect; in my heart, I bowed down before the woman who had birthed me.

When I was about to leave, I hugged her frail body and whispered in her ear how much I loved her. I told her nurse that I would return that evening.

At 9 pm I called the residence. The girl attending my Mother whispered that she was sleeping peacefully and had eaten at least half the food on her tray. I was tired and hungry so I decided that it wouldn’t be necessary to return to the residence that evening. All was peaceful. I could go directly home after having a salad at the neighborhood restaurant where I often ate.

On leaving the restaurant a while later, I climbed into the car and headed towards my house. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my chest and a voice in my head said: “My Mother is dying.” Immediately the logical mind stepped in: “You’re just imagining it because she was so frail today”. I doubted. There was a moment of indecision while I waited at a red light and then I knew: I had to go and see. The residence was only five minutes away and it was 10:50 when I arrived. Strangely the door was still open and the man at the desk didn’t even look up as I entered so no explanations for my late visit were necessary. I hurried to my Mother’s room. She was awake, lying on her side, a bit of spittle with blood on the sheet under her cheek.

“I’m here, Mommy” I whispered kissing her cheek.  Her breathing was labored as if there was phlegm or liquid in her wind pipes so I sat her up and rested her against the pillows. The nurse looked in; I told her everything was all right, I was just making my Mother comfortable. She left again. I sat on the edge of the bed as close to her as I could without making it uncomfortable; taking her hand and resting the palm of my other hand on the side of her head, I looked into her face. In a voice as soft as I could muster I told her there was nothing to be afraid of.

It was a little past 11pm. The nursing home was absolutely still. My Mother’s breathing had become steady and whatever was in the way of it had disappeared. We sat there in silence. After a while, she closed her eyes and I allowed my gaze to rest on her beloved face; my breathing began matching hers. Inside of me everything was silent. I was totally at peace, no thought, no uncalled for emotion, no inner or outer disturbance that might have fractured that encapsulated moment. Towards 12 o’clock her breathing –the only sound in the absolute silence of the sleeping residence- became slower and more spaced out. At midnight she breathed one last time and then just didn’t breathe again. I waited for the “death rattle” I had heard about so often. There was nothing: just silence, and two women –one dead, the other alive- sitting, holding hands. As I sat waiting, making sure that she would not start up breathing again, I felt the room come alive with her presence that was no longer in the body, but all around, filling the space, extending outward and inward till there was nothing left but gratitude and joy. My Mother was gone and never, ever had she been more present.

“You made it Mommy, you did it; you really did. I love you so much” I whispered, feeling gratitude and respect fill my chest while the tears ran down my cheeks. They were not tears of sorrow, and I was smiling as if from one cohort to the other after a successful heist.

Now, as I lay on my bed remembering and realizing that the dream had announced the parting of that presence which had lasted almost a year, I wondered at the miracle of Life and Death, and the way in which we know for certain things that the logical mind cannot accept.

By the time things began happening later that day, I had all but forgotten the dream, so I could find no explanation for my sudden determination to spend New Year’s with my daughter in –of all places- Acapulco. As to why this idea was so strange needs some explaining.

My daughter at that time was married and had three children (she still has the children, of course) and I was not on the Favorite People list of my then son-in-law. I remember exactly when I fell from his good graces. My daughter hadn’t been married even a year when she threw him out of the house because of his drinking and coming home in the wee hours of the morning almost every night. Shortly after she asked him to leave, he showed up at my door saying he wanted to explain to me what was happening.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me” I said, not in an unkind way, “it is to my daughter that you owe an explanation, not to me.” And I didn’t allow him in. He never forgave me in spite of the fact that at later moments I stood by him in some very compromised situations, even sometimes against my daughter’s judgment which seemed to me somewhat harsh. Maybe because he’s a Scorpio, nothing since that first incident has ever convinced him that I was actually fond of him.

Given this situation and the fact that my daughter and her family always spent Christmas and New Year’s with her husband’s parents, my need to spend it with her had neither head nor tail. The strange thing was that I knew this but was absolutely helpless under the onslaught of this sudden obsession: I was even willing go so far as renting a house in Acapulco and inviting her and the whole family if necessary. Even my best friend looked at me quizzically when I explained the plan.

“I thought your son-in-law couldn’t stand you” she said.

“That’s right, but this is what I want to do.”

“You’re crazy.”

“That’s probably right too, we’ll see.”

I had no explanation for what was happening to me nor for what I was about to do, but that same day I phoned my daughter in Mexico and told her: “I want to take you and your family to Acapulco for New Year’s.”

Everything she argued to dissuade me was absolutely true, but nothing it seemed could move my decision a millimeter.

“I spend New Year’s in Acapulco with my in-laws and you don’t like them. You know how much they drink. It will be uncomfortable for you. Hector might not agree. If you come before Christmas, we will be going to my Father’s house for the Eve and you will be alone. No, I don’t think his new wife would want you there. Mother, it sounds difficult… But, ok, you come and we will see what we do if you don’t mind spending Christmas Eve alone.”

“Fine,” I was determined without having the vaguest idea what was going on inside of me. I didn’t like Christmas, I didn’t particularly like or dislike my ex’s new wife, I didn’t even like Acapulco… What in the world was happening? It was as if something had taken over my will and was directing the show without explaining to me or anyone else, its intentions. “Just do me a favor and ask Hector if it is all right for me to come to your house.”  I had never done that before either; I usually just announced my arrival and took for granted that I could stay at my daughter’s.

“Oh, it will be all right with him,” she brushed off my request.

“Well, ask him anyway, please.”

To make a long story short, she asked him and he said “no” he did not want me staying in his house. My daughter was furious, and something inside of me knew I had expected that to be the answer. Things got more mysterious by the moment. Anyway, I planned to arrive in Mexico before Christmas, ask a good friend (who was in Acapulco) to loan me her apartment and do god-knows-what with myself (see friends, shop…) until the 26th of December when Hector was going to Acapulco to his parent’s house with two of his children while my daughter stayed in Mexico City alone waiting for her eldest son to finish his football training. Those four days I would spend with my daughter in her house and then… I had no idea. So I called my friend in Acapulco to see if I could use her apartment in Mexico City.

“Of course you can,” she answered delighted, “and why don’t you come and spend New Year’s with me in Acapulco seeing as you are not spending it with your daughter?”

The idea was tempting and it took me all of 2 seconds to say “yes”. I immediately made my plans, deciding to fly over on the 25th (after all I had no plans for Xmas so why not spend it on a plane), spend a night in a nearby hotel and arrive at my daughter’s house on the 26th after her husband had left.

Everything set, I called my daughter. Much to my surprise, in the interim all hell had broken loose. Her husband, in an attack of paranoia, was convinced that my daughter wanted to leave him and I was flying over to bring my daughter and her children back to Spain with me, and had kidnapped the children, taking them to his parents’ house and arranging with the police at the club ground’s entrance to not let my daughter through.

“I want a divorce” she told me over the phone, the anger and disbelief still heavy on her voice, “I hate him. I never believed he would try to take my children away. This is the end.” I listened while she explained how she had parked at the entrance to the club until her in-law’s chauffeur drove up with the eldest of her children in the car, and then stood in front of the car until it stopped. When her son got out (a boy of 14) she told him what had happened. He calmed her down.

“Wait here, Mother; I will talk to my grandparents and we will all be out in a minute.”

Sure enough, the eldest son managed to convince his grandparents that nothing was going to happen and they turned over the brother and sister. The ordeal was brief but the harm was lasting. My daughter wanted out. I explained to her about my travel plans and my going to my friend’s apartment in Acapulco for New Year’s.

“Do you think I might go with you, Mother?” she inquired. “The last thing I want to do now is go and stay with my in-laws after they agreed to hide my children and lie to me when I called to ask.”

It was difficult for me to absorb what had just happened. The circle had closed; my obsession of spending New Year’s with my daughter in Acapulco had just become a reality although all the planning had been done by the Universe and not by me.

“Of course you can come with me” I said, stunned at how Life had arranged such a turn of events. “I have never wanted anything so much in my life. And we’ll be together, and I can hold you, because what you are going through now is not easy.”

When I hung up, I got down on my knees. There was no other way to express what I was feeling. The gift had materialized, the gift was my daughter, my daughter asking for help, my daughter wanting to be with me, my daughter about to begin a new life and needing me there. A Mother for a Daughter: “Your Mother has to go now” the Gardener had said, “but she will be coming back with a big gift.” Yes, but only the biggest gift that a Mother could have.

It is two years later now and my daughter is divorced, making her own life and happier than she had been for a long time. I am packing my bags for in a few hours I will fly to Mexico, my daughter will pick me up at the airport and we will drive together to Acapulcodic-31-2011-077 to spend New Year’s again, while her children spend the holidays with their father. I think of Life and dreams, and miracles and gifts, and the strange way things have of happening without my having anything to do with them or even being able to control them at all. Nothing I could have planned would have equaled in love, closeness or quality those five days we spent together two years ago, bonding in a way that perhaps we never had before. Today I have a daughter: thank you Mother.


1939-6 Trip home SS Manhattan15042014 (4)My Mother was beautiful. She was a New York model way back in the 30’s. My grandmother used to take her to work so no man would tempt her away. My grandmother always talked about how beautiful my Mother was. “When she walked into a room” she would say, “everyone would turn around to look at her.” She was really beautiful. There was a photograph of her in a long dress, the clinging kind, sleeveless and with a v-neck, not a crease or wave, it clung to her body like a swim suit, her head is slightly turned, one knee just barely bent, she is looking at something off in the distance, perhaps just above the horizon, I can see the photograph in my mind as if I had it in front of me today. My Mother was beautiful. My Father said it too. He would look at her as she came towards him across the room; he didn’t have to say it. His eyes, his face said it over and over: your Mother is beautiful. My friends would say it: your Mother is really beautiful, the boys, they would say it. Fifty years later, someone I knew then said to me: your Mother was really beautiful: he remembered, fifty years later. She was that beautiful. I remember her back in the 50’ies when wide circular skirts were in, putting on a dress with a circular skirt. “Twirl for me, Mommy”, and she would spin around, the skirt flying out in a perfect circle around her, showing me her long, slim legs and the silk white panties that were worn then, up to the waist and with little legs that went down a couple of inches. She was beautiful.

In the living room, she would dance with my Father. Round and round, floating in his arms, perfectly in tune with each step, her head slightly thrown back, tilting from side to 1958-2-jan-helens-house-4side as she followed his perfect rhythm. Beautiful. I used to brush her hair. I used to watch her put on her makeup. I never tired of looking at her. There seemed to be no one else in the world; the whole space was taken up by my Mother’s beauty. There was none left for me.

I was not beautiful. I was intelligent. My Grandmother said I was intelligent. She had said that about my aunt too, my Mother’s sister: my Mother was beautiful, my Aunt was intelligent. My Grandmother did things like that: she labeled people, situations, happenings. Opinionated. My Grandmother was opinionated and her opinion was that my Mother was beautiful and my Aunt was intelligent. I discovered later that my Mother was also intelligent. My Aunt was screwed-up, her life was shitty, she was not intelligent or beautiful. Her daughter was not the favorite granddaughter, I was the favorite maybe because my Mother was beautiful and my Grandmother couldn’t stop looking at her either. It seems that no one could.

I was not beautiful, and that would not have been a problem if I hadn’t wanted to be beautiful. However, I not only wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to be more beautiful than my Mother, but I pretended that being intelligent was more important because from very early on I realized that there was no way in God’s world that I would ever be even half as beautiful as my Mother. So on the outside I poo-poohed physical beauty and sang the glories of intelligence, but when I looked in the mirror, I would have given every iota of intelligence to look like my Mother or better.

My Mother was also thin. She looked to me as if she had the perfect figure. My Father drooled. He said there were Breast-Men and Butt-Men and he was a Breast-Man. My Mother had big breasts and a tiny waist that showed them off. I had a big butt and no breasts and, until I was about twenty, no waist of which to speak. I was so ashamed of my “bee-stings” as my Grandmother called them, that when “sex raised its ugly head” (which was what she attributed adolescent evils to) I was quicker to take off my panties than to unbutton my blouse. There was no way I could be beautiful, not with my Mother around and there was no getting rid of her. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway; she was installed in my head from very, very early on. I had to be intelligent so I worked at it very hard. My Mother, when I was an adolescent, informed me that “Men prefer dumb women”, that was not encouraging, but I had no choice: I couldn’t be the beautiful one. To make things worse, I didn’t even like my Aunt, who was supposed to be the one who had gotten the brains (and all I could see was that she had gotten the neuroses) so I had to find another model to be intelligent like. I might have chosen my Grandmother, who was almost my favorite person on Earth after my Father, but my Father insisted that she was common: “I could never understand how such a lady like your PERICOMother could come from someone so common” he would say.  That didn’t leave many people to choose from, so I ended up wanting to be like my Father: intelligent, and, of course, a man. I don’t have to explain the problems I faced on that front; most girls from my times wanted to be their Fathers. Even my Grandmother, who thought my Mother was the most beautiful thing alive, considered that she did not “deserve” a man as Good as my Father. “Women are devious” she stated without a shadow of a doubt in her voice: “Boys are much better than girls, more up front” and considering that I was her favorite, it was hard to figure out.

Anyway, as anyone can guess by now, at the age of 15 I was one hell of a mess inside while trying desperately to keep up external appearances so no one would catch on. It was around that time that, one evening at home I suggested we order Pizza Pie for dinner.

“Don’t be stupid” my Father said, fulminating me with one of his you-are-the-lowest-form-of-life looks; “ ‘Pizza’, in Italian, means ‘Pie’ so Pizza Pie is redundant” and he launched into an explanation of the origins of pizza, or something like it. When he finished, I assumed a smart-aleck look on my face and, with a wink at my Mother, asked: “Can we at least order the pizza-pie now?”

I thought he was going to go into melt-down under the heat of the rage that invaded him: “You… YOU have the sensitivity of a rhinoceros” he growled and left the room.

I was fixed. That was it. Not intelligent, not beautiful, not a man, not a figure worth commenting on (no bust, all butt): a rhinoceros. Straight and simple: the rest of the ride was downhill until about the age of 50.

By that time, I had forgotten about the problem of not being beautiful, or at least moved it into the darkest corner of the subconscious, and had taken up trying to look at least decent and clean with the wrinkles that had begun to appear on my face and the slight hang that the skin under my chin insisted on having. I had given up on becoming a man all together when I married and had two children, not because I liked the role, but because it was inevitable: it is hard to be the man when you have married one and installed yourself in a house with him and are confronted every morning with the fact of who has the “hardware”.

Life had not gotten any easier given all the “nots” (and you can spell that with a “k” if you like) that had accumulated: not beautiful, not thin, not intelligent, not a man, not a good mother, not a good housewife, not a successful writer… not, not, not. It’s a wonder I could even live with myself, as if I had had a choice.

Surprisingly enough, after years of psychotherapy and alternative systems that taught you how to hate your father out loud and how to feel superior to your mother then aged 75, at 60 I believed I had undone most if not all the knots and was living a pretty decent and peaceful (if not gloriously happy) life.

Then Chus came along. Chus is short for María Jesús, and María Jesús was only 30 to my 60, had long wavy black hair to my eternally straight, thin blond stuff, and seemed much surer of herself than I had ever felt in my entire life. Chus and I had what I term “our little encounter” when we were thrown together to staff a weekend workshop of the most recent therapy on the market. There I found a plus that gave me an unexpected status: I was a good organizer. Chus had everything else, but she was just about the most disorganized, flighty, unstable person I have ever met and she was supposedly in charge of the event (even though she kept telling everyone that she wasn’t and disappearing to prove it). I was flooded with a sense of my own superiority and set about showing it with how-can-you-be-so-incompetent looks in her direction at every chance, until finally I just took over the whole shebang and set about organizing so that we could pull the event off.

Everything went smoothly in the end, mostly because there was a marvelous team and there wasn’t much to organize as long as someone was willing to coordinate the energy and creativity of the rest. Chus and I did not fight, and ended up hugging and giving each other a big kiss and congratulating each other on the success. It was therefore a surprise when she phoned me about a week later and said: “I have done a worksheet on you and I want to read it to you”. In this therapy, when there is a conflict or resentment, we write our judgments about the other person, question the veracity of the thoughts and judgments and then turn them all around to ourselves; it is very effective. We made a date for the following day and met at the park bench we had agreed upon. Chus read her page. Her judgments about my controlling nature, my power struggles, my unpleasant looks were right on and I could only nod in agreement thankful that we had already solved those issues on our last meeting. On question five, however, one is supposed to list the “disagreeable” things that one thinks about the other person, and I was in for the surprise of my life. Chus was a little uncertain about reading her list, but decided to go ahead and do it just as it was written on her sheet:

“You are controlling, demanding, bossy, old and UGLY” she said turning slightly red on pronouncing the last words. I had no problem with the first four, there was no doubt in my mind that I was all those things, and many more as my ex husband had delighted in confirming during our rather painful divorce (is there any other kind?). But no one in my whole life, not even me, had ever used the word UGLY to describe me. Even “rhinoceros” was not UGLY. And now, there it was.

For a moment it hung there, suspended in the air between us; it echoed in my ears and everything stood still. Then suddenly it burst forth, broke out and entered my chest as if it were an enormous, beautiful, free bird opening everything inside of me for the first time.

“Oh my god!” I gasped. “I’m free.” I felt the wings, I felt the beating of those enormous wings, ugly-ugly-ugly-ugly, taking off inside of me as if my heart would burst with love and joy and freedom. I looked at Chus who was still gasping at how she had dared say such a terrible thing to me, and cried: “Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I finally heard it, that most feared word. What a gift, thank you, thank you…” and I was crying and laughing and hugging her.

“I’m sorry…” she began to stammer, but I stopped her.

“You just gave me the greatest gift I have ever received” I said, knowing that there was no way I could explain or she could understand. But I understood, finally, after 60 years of trying to be more beautiful than I was, of trying to always see myself in the mirror as beautiful, of fearing that someone would find me not-beautiful, of struggling in an ever losing battle, with the frustration and impossibility of being what one is not, I understood: it was so clear, as crystal clear as the tears of joy streaming down my cheeks: She had said I was Ugly, and nothing had changed in or on me; she could have said I was Beautiful and nothing would have changed: I just WAS. What she saw or didn’t see had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. What I saw in the mirror or didn’t see had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. I was what I was what I was and someone at times would see me as beautiful, and others at other images8k7044mftimes would see me as ugly and others wouldn’t even see me, and NOT ONE CELL IN MY BODY, NOT ONE BREATH IN MY EXISTENCE WOULD CHANGE, EVER. I was just me, and in the moment I heard the word “ugly” that knowledge became an experience that expanded like the wings of the UGLY bird that nested in my chest forever. That, whatever it was, was Being Beautiful. Yes Man!!!