Wednesday, February 21, 2007

RIP Agapito Cabrera: My Tata, My Friend

"Make sure you touch him, let him know you're there," my friend told me before I left to visit my tata, who was sick at the hospital. "If he's asleep, just wake him up and make sure he knows you're there."

I sat next to my tata, my grandfather, Agapito Cabrera, as he rested uncomfortably in his hospital bed. It was a Saturday afternoon, me and him, alone, together. I knew it might be one of the last times I would get to sit next to him. His short, solid frame made fragile by a thin hospital gown. Dark cheek bones and the proudest Mexican mustache I ever knew were reduced to pale flesh stretched ancient from the years, and a scraggly stubble of salt and pepper.

I hardly recognized my tata beneath the matrix of plastic tubes and wire, amidst the techno-mire of heart monitors and bed side remote controls. He feigned sleep in agonizing discomfort, every inch ached. I did my best to help him rest easier - shifted him this way and that, each shift met with a slight grunt of pain. Even in his state, he tried his best not to appear weak.

I could only hope to be so strong in perfect health.

At the same time I was saddened - here I was touching him, letting him know I was there, like I was told. Each time I touched him, it caused some measure of pain.

We couldn't say much during that one visit. The circuit of pain killers and meds kept him in a perpetual wooze, almost fitting for a man nicknamed "Boracho" (Dark humor was one of many heirlooms passed on through my tata's side of the family). Everything was regulated to "How's your Dad" or "How's work," simple guy-talk. His broken English and thick Mexicano accent punctuated each word. In his weakened state, it was a struggle for him to string those simple sentences together. I answered in soothing tones, hoping my words might medicate something.

After our brief conversation, some hospital food and a little more painful shifting, we got to a point where he was able to rest quietly. I sat there and read a magazine, making sure he wasn't alone.

If there's one thing Mexican families are good at, it's failing to leave one another alone. Usually, it's a bad thing - folks all up in your business, can't get a moment's peace. At times like these, when it's a tata and his grandson sitting alone, together in a hospital room, the bugging is a blessing.

I only pretended to read whatever it was I was reading, my gaze shifted more and more towards my tata. The handsome bastard. From him, I inherited a full main of jet black hair, skin dark as an olive, and this proud Mexican mustache on top of my upper lip.

As a child, tata chided me: "Never shave it, mijo. Let it grow naturally." My parents liked to remind me that my tata shaved his only twice in his lifetime: the first time by mistake, the second time when he joined the military.

I stared at my tata through a kaleidescope lens, as the details funnelled through slowly: as a child, his favorite saying to me was "Right on, cachaton." One night, on New Years Eve, after we had watched Dick Clark's ball drop, he offered me my first sip of beer. I was in fourth grade. He laughed when I made my bitter beer face.

On Sundays, my tata and my nana would pick me up after church and take me to McDonald's for lunch, the toy store after, and then to visit my nana's mom, who was in a nursing home. I always liked the toys best, but I remember those nursing home visits the clearest.

My nana would talk with my great-grandma for an hour, and tata barely said a word. I would sit there and play with my toy, oblivious to the Spanish conversation. My spoiled, pocho-behind did my best to ignore the generational exchange between ailing mother and aging daughter. As always, tata would stand by at attention and let nana do all of the talking. Tata was the strong, silent type, as my mom liked to say.

Back to the future, sitting alone, together, in that cold hospital room, tata's face was a telling frame of comfort, the first sign of relief in a long time. I leaned forward in my chair, inched my boday closer towards his. I inhaled his strength, big, long breathes. I swallowed slow, watching him, not wanting to disturb his restless soul. This was not how I wanted to remember him, but I knew I had to do something.

"Make sure you touch him, let him know you're there," my friend said. She was a family friend who grew up with my tias and tios and my father. Any time I saw her, she made it a point to ask how my nana and tata were doing . Now, she spoke from her own experiences with her grandparents, the guilt of watching them leave slowly and not doing enough to be there with them.

"If he's asleep, just wake him up and make sure he knows you're there."

Long years of Mexican machismo, of proud mustaches and boracheras and tata/grandson bonding, of pride and love and strong silence, all of that never made me a callous man. I thank goodness for that.

I reached out my hand toward his hands, which were folded securly at the top of his rib cage. I gently put my hand on top of his, betrayed my friend's advice to wake my tata. This would have to be a non-disruptive moment.

I let my hand rest there for a minute, not sure if tata was squeezing back on purpose, or if he was simply reacting to the touch. Either way, I believe he knew I was there. I believe he knows I'm there now. I believe it all, now.

Thank you, Tata.

Dedicated to Agapito Cabrera, my grandfather. 1924-2007. May you eternally rest in peace.


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