Buried

A funeral is a time for as much kindness as can be mustered. The lens of guilt and loss is firmly in place and allows for only loving remembrance. The love is real, but it’s only one side of the coin.  During a funeral, when a coin is flipped, it always comes up heads.

My father died last month at the age of 97. In the last years of his life he slipped into dementia, to the point where he eventually recognized no one, not even my loving sister, who visited him at least once a week in his nursing home.

Sophy and I booked a flight to Massachusetts to attend the funeral. During the flight and the days after, Sophy would look at me and say, “Mi amor, it’s all right to cry. You need to cry.”

I didn’t shed a tear. I didn’t feel sad my father was gone. If he could still have expressed an opinion I don’t think he would choose to live in such a reduced state. Maybe I’m missing something—a bedrock truth of existence that all life is sacred. In my heart I believe there’s a time to go and it was my father’s time.

In the days in Massachusetts leading up to the funeral, there were moments of connection with my family and just as many moments of separation.

The day of the funeral, at the memorial service, my sister got up and delivered a simple and heartfelt remembrance. My brother Rich, a writer, gave a finely crafted and humorous review of my dad’s life. Instead of writing anything down, I decided to wing it, although I was nervous about getting up to speak, even though I had a good idea of what I wanted to talk about.

When I walked up to the lectern, the nerves vanished—all of the people there loved my father; he was a loveable guy. As I began to speak I began to fill up with emotion. It felt like there was a bellows in my chest filling up and pushing out air. I said something along the lines of:

“As you can see from all the stories about my dad, he had a lot of courage, flying airplanes when he was still a kid and jumping off the barn with a parachute made of a grain sack and iron chains, breaking his leg. I remember him telling us that when he worked for the airlines in Venezuela, after World War Two, he would drive to work with a loaded .45 on the seat next to his, to fend off rebels if necessary. But there was one thing he was deathly afraid of. Water. He’d never go into the water above his knees. Years and years of my childhood passed and in family photos, my dad is wearing the same brown plaid bathing suit. It never wore out because it never got wet.

Years later, when I was in my 30s, the whole family was vacationing on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. My brothers and I spent whole days on the beach. Usually, the Caribbean Sea is very gentle, with hardly any waves at all. While we were there, a huge storm in the region ended up creating beautiful rolling breakers, perfect for body surfing. The first day, we body surfed for hours, getting great rides but also getting trashed, where you ended up rolling and tumbling underwater, getting ground up in the sand.

The second day—and I don’t know how he got the courage to do this—my dad came out and body surfed with us. This from a guy who never went beyond knee deep in the water. He surfed beside us, because he wanted to be with us, and he wanted to share our joy.”

Then I came to a part where I said, “…on that day he showed us he loved us.”

My voice broke and I guess I did cry, if only for a second.

Blind Eye

Sophy and I got up early to drive to the Tijuana border crossing.

Maybe it’s Trump; maybe it’s Mexico. The linea—the slow moving line of cars crossing from TJ to San Ysidro—has shifted from being tedious to an experience that is horrifying. The number of deportees is on the rise creating an even more desperate situation. There are still Mexicans of all ages hawking Chiclets, serapes, burritos, and ugly souvenirs of all description. Now the crossing is like a scene out of Bombay, with people parading their afflictions.

It’s possible to feel repelled and sympathetic at the same time. One young man was walking down the line of cars, showing his naked lower leg and foot swelled to a monstrous and misshapen size. To me it looked like elephantiasis. This boy—I doubt he was even 20—should be in a hospital somewhere, not walking barefoot over hot asphalt. When he came abreast of us I handed him some peso notes and wished him “Bueno suerte” (good luck). He looked back at me with an exhausted expression, but one without emotion of any kind. This poor guy was staring into the abyss.

Moments later, we came upon a man standing with his back to a concrete divider. Barefoot, no shirt, his hair ragged. His only garment was a filthy pair of sweatpants. The sweatpants kept falling down around his knees and his penis was exposed to passersby. He struggled to pull his pants up—really struggled—because he had no hands—they were both chopped off at the wrists. Sophy burst into tears and I was left wondering where the most basic human services were. Why wasn’t there a hospital van making its rounds, picking these people up and giving them medical care?

The Tijuana border crossing is the busiest in the world. Why is Mexico content to present this picture to the world?

Something has to change in Mexico. A foundational change.

Black Eye

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I’m sitting in a Japanese fast food joint on Santa Monica, reading the LA Times, when I look up to see a street tramp at the door – the kind you only see in Hollywood. She’s in her 50s, a former beauty, dripping with costume jewelry and wearing a black slouch hat.

She heads straight towards me, asking, “Can you spare some money so I can get some soup?”

Closer I can see she has a huge shiner under her right eye.

I pull out my wallet. “Yeah, I can spare a few bucks.”

I dig out three dollars as she tells me I have gorgeous eyes – the prettiest she’s seen in a long time. She sits down at the table next to me.  When I hand her the money I see how filthy her hands are, dirt worked into the creases of her skin and black grime under the broken nails. She wants to shake hands with me but I can’t bring myself to do it.

She notices me looking at her black eye. “You can see it?”

“Yeah, it looks like somebody hit you.”

“My boyfriend – my former boyfriend.”

She dips into her purse for a bottle of makeup and starts dabbing it over the shiner, saying. “This helps.”

I say, “Time will help.”

She tries to shake hands with me again. Jesus…

She starts talking about her former career, all the important people she knew, that she was a model and an actress – that she worked in Basic Instinct.

Then she says the one thing guaranteed to get me lurching towards the door.

“And I sold a screenplay!”

(2006)

Short Time on Earth

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One morning, when I was working at my desk, Sophy came in to my office. “Something’s wrong with El Rey. There’s blood on his ass. We have to take him to the vet.”

I figured it was no big deal. The week before we had brought him to the vet because his paw was bleeding from a thorn.

“Give me an hour and we’ll go. I need to finish this.”

An hour later I walked out to the yard. I called El Rey’s name. Instead Valiente came wagging her tail. There was no sign of El Rey. Valiente and El Rey were two puppies we’d rescued from the bushes in the hills outside our home in Mexico. They were now close to two months old.

I looked around and found El Rey under the trailer in the shade. I coaxed him out and saw it was much worse than I imagined. There was a balloon-like mass coming out of his rectum, the size of a tennis ball. El Rey’s eyes were forlorn, and his withers looked shrunken. He had been fine the night before.

Sophy walked over and I said, “Baby, this looks bad.”

We got El Rey into the car and set off. In an attempt to reassure myself, I told Sophy about a passage from Green Hills of Africa. “Maybe it’s not that big a deal. I remember Ernest Hemingway was writing about being in Africa, and he had dysentery so bad, that part of his lower intestine was coming out of his ass. Every morning he had to wash it with soap and water and then tuck it back in.”

Sophy looked out the window, worried. “Rey must have eaten something that won’t come out. He’s pushing and pushing.”

We decided to take him to a different vet. Of the five Mexican vets we’ve used, none have been satisfactory. It’s another example of the Rosarito Curse: too many people faking it until they make it. Problem is, almost none of them make it.

We parked and I carried Rey inside. Sophy spoke in Spanish to the vet, a burly mustachioed guy with grey hair. He motioned us back to the examination room and I placed El Rey on the stainless steel examination table. He lied on his side, weak and scared.

The vet took one look at the red balloon protruding from El Rey and shook his head. He said something in Spanish to Sophy and from the look on Sophy’s face it was clear it wasn’t something I wanted to hear.

“Honey. It’s the anal ring. Once it comes out, there’s nothing we can do.”

That hung in the air for a second.

I asked, “There’s no operation?”

“No. It would just keep coming out. El Rey’s suffering. We’re going to have to make him sleep.”

Instead of sorrow, I felt a rage. I kept it inside.

I leaned down and looked into El Rey’s eyes. “Oh, El Rey…”

What the vet did next baffled me. He took his gloved finger and pushed the red balloon back inside El Rey. Rey didn’t wince or yelp, but he looked distressed.

The vet walked away and came back with a needle. He injected El Rey.

I asked him, “Do you speak English?”

“No.”

I pointed to the needle. “Morte?”

The vet nodded. “Si.”

Sophy walked out of the room, not wanting to see El Rey go.

I leaned down again and looked in El Rey’s eyes and said, “It’s okay, Rey. It’s okay.”

The look in El Rey’s eyes had a question for me: Why am I leaving this world so soon?

(2016 Mexico)

Grinder

 

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The family and I were in a sprawling mall in Tijuana on a Saturday evening, killing a couple of hours until a circus tent opened—not a metaphorical circus, a real one.

I was walking around the mall in lock step with Mexicans, probably looking just as hopeless, slack-jawed, and without a clue. You could tell by the clothes, jewelry, and haircuts that these were for the most part working Mexicans, which meant they labored hard for twenty bucks a day.

No one at this Tijuana mall is on a shopping spree. Instead, the mall is a kind of mirage laid out for the underclass. I was sure that one day out of the week they mill around from one store to another, not buying much, inevitably ending up in the food court, where they buy a cheap burrito or some fast food from Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Subway. There aren’t enough tables to seat the mob so clumps of people stand holding plastic trays, waiting for a table to open.

The mall feels like a holding tank for the dispossessed. No one has to round up the powerless lower class and bus them here. They round themselves up and after a few hours at the mall they’ll return to their cinderblock casas with mattresses on the floor.

These people aren’t going to rock the boat. Most of them accept their fate—this is how high they’re going to fly.

And next weekend, they’ll head back to the mall and stare at all the merchandise on display, maybe examining a price tag or two, and settling for a lousy meal at the food court.

No one’s going anywhere.