I keep thinking about that Monday afternoon. It was so normal, so nice, and yet I can’t recall what he said, what he wore, what I told him. I certainly didn’t say, “I love you, Papá Chepe.”
The next day Papá Chepe woke my parents at dawn telling them he was having trouble breathing. Soon, mom and dad were on the phone with a 911 operator. They thought he was having a heart attack. Mom followed their directions and took 30 seconds to frantically wake up Lori and inform her that she needed to corral the dogs in a room and open the door so the paramedics could enter when they arrived. Mamá Toni stood and watched even though dad told her she needed to sit. The paramedics showed up and took Papá Chepe to the ER. Dad rode along and woke up tío Chuy with the news, soon the rest of our extended family would know. It’d be a few more hours — around 9:30, coincidentally during my pumping break — before Lori called me. I knew from her first sentence that something had happened. “It was scary, you’re lucky you didn’t have to see it.” Dad called a few minutes after. I was the last of the kids to find out. “He’s in ICU room 101, bed 6,” he told me after giving me the hospital information.
That morning, Papá Chepe had a heart attack and a stroke.
Tuesday was scary, but Monday was normal, unremarkable and beautiful. I keep trying to remember that afternoon, but even though it was just 9 days ago it’s fuzzy.
I had the day off thanks to the MLK Jr holiday and decided to spend the afternoon in Hacienda Heights. My mom had the day off as did my sister and they were happy to have me — well, Xavi — visit.
I arrived around 12:30 pm with a sleeping Xavi in tow. Daisy barked like mad but she didn’t wake the baby. VR jumped excitedly as he always does when I arrive.
I followed my mom to the backyard where Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni were having lunch. They always have lunch — their largest meal of the day — around 1 or 2 pm. I remember coming home from elementary school to Papá Chepe picking the brains out of a slow-cooked cow’s head. The skull freaked me out and he liked to tease me by slowly eating the eyeball.
But that Monday’s lunch was simpler, healthier and less gross to adult or kid me. Mom made pasta salad with tuna on a bed of baby spinach and tomatoes. It was yummy.
Xavi woke up and mom grabbed him first. She sat next to Mamá Toni who held a cracker close to him.
“Don’t give it to him! He’ll definitely put it in his mouth. He tries to put everything in his mouth.”
I remembered what Lori had told me a few weeks ago. Mamá Toni doesn’t quite understand that Xavi doesn’t eat solids yet or that he doesn’t have teeth. “You’ll have to keep an eye on her,” she warned.
Papá Chepe just watched as Mamá Toni asked to hold — well, dance/bounce — Xavi. Ever since Thanksgiving, she’s been awed that Xavi always bounces when she holds him up. “Mira, José, el sólo está brincando,” she tells Papá Chepe as if to prove that she doesn’t make the little guy bounce. It’s true. Xavi does love bouncing. He’s got some strong little legs.
Mom obliged and handed him over but sat close by since she worries about Mamá Toni’s strength. I snapped photos to send to Sean at work.
“We’re having a good time!” I captioned the first photo.
Next, “Mom doesn’t quite trust Mamá Toni’s strength.”
“Ti-lin-gi-lon-gi, ti-lin-gi-lon-gi, ti-lin-gi-lon-gi,” Mamá Toni sang just as she did when I was a baby.
After eating, I moved to the comfy porch swing and sat down next to Papá Chepe. We continued watching as Mamá Toni asked for Xavi every 5 minutes — “a ver… dámelo, traemlo aquí.” Mom would pass him over but sat close by for when Mamá Toni would tire after a few minutes. Eventually, I brought Xavi over to the swing.
I can’t tell you what Papá Chepe said or when he got up to take the dogs for a short walk or if that was before or after mom and I left to Costco.
I don’t remember if Papá Chepe said anything later as Lori and I showed Xavi the fish in his tank. I asked Xavi, “Do you remember when we went with Papá Chepe to pick out the fish?” I picked Papá Chepe in the family gift exchange but kept putting off buying the fish Mom suggested. Plus, I didn’t have a tank to store the fish and thought gift wrapping them would be risky. I always have excuses for my procrastination.
On Christmas Eve I gave him an IOU. On New Year’s Eve I kept my promise and took Papá Chepe to PetSmart to pick his Christmas presents. He only had one fish left in his tank at home. I took Xavi along. We waited for a while to be helped. The lone employee in the fish/amphibian section was busy with a couple of kids and their parents and barely looked our way. It didn’t take long for Papá Chepe to make up his mind. I kept Xavi entertained by looking at the fish in the tanks, but he was getting fussy. Xavi cried the whole way and I felt flustered. I tried to explain to Papá Chepe that the baby was just hungry. Nevertheless, he was happy with his fish and even insisted on paying me back $6 since we went over the gift exchange dollar amount. I stuffed the money in the diaper bag.
Back to Monday afternoon. Xavi, Lori and I played in the living room while Mamá Toni watched on. She asked for him again. Then it was feeding time. Xavi fell asleep, it was a little after 4.
“Right now that he’s sleeping, you should leave,” mom suggested knowing that Xavi wouldn’t fuss. I put Xavi in his carseat. Lori helped me with the Costco groceries. I said quick goodbyes to everyone including the grandparents. Mamá Toni asked why I was leaving so soon and I said I had to pick up Sean from work. I gave her a hug and a kiss and did the same with Papá Chepe.
Papá Chepe’s condition has improved slightly since last Tuesday morning, but there’s still many reasons to worry about the future. He battled pneumonia and a fever. The stroke left him unable to move his right side and his tongue. He was in ICU until Monday morning. Members of the extended family take shifts day and night in being by his side. It makes me happy that he’s not alone through this scary time.
Sean and I went on Thursday night to visit. Xavi stayed in the waiting room with my cousin Liz as Sean and I walked in to the room. The scene was sobering. Tío Beto made room for us to go to his left side where I could hold his hand. Papá Chepe gripped my hand and I spoke softly to him. After being there for a little while, tío Beto told me, “you have a good touch. His blood pressure has gone down since you’ve been here. It’s normal even.”
We were there again on Saturday. Every chair in the small waiting room was filled with my aunts, uncles, cousins and my cousins’ kids. I guess that’s what happens when you have a big Mexican family (see above for a photo of some of the grandchildren and great grandchildren). It reminded me a little of the time he had open heart surgery ten years ago. I waited for my turn to visit in the cafeteria where another dozen or so family members were eating, doing homework, playing iPhone games.
Around 5:30, I went in to see Papá Chepe with my 17-year old cousin Star. It was her first time seeing Papá Chepe and she couldn’t hold back the tears upon seeing him with an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. His forearms were bruised from the IV tube needles and machines around him whirred as they monitored his vitals. I comforted her and thought about how I was about her age when Grandpa Bartolo passed away from cancer. Curiously, Star was born just two days before Grandpa passed. When Star’s little brother, David, joined us, I pointed out a get well poster Alexis made featuring several family photos. “Papá Chepe has all these people and more praying for him,” I told them.
Later, Sean went in with me to see Papá Chepe when visiting hours resumed. This time, Papá Chepe was a little bit more alert and turned to me as I spoke. He held my hand and his eyes fluttered. I sang to him just as Lori asked me to, played a video of Xavi giggling, and talked about how even our babysitter and her prayer group are praying for him. I told him, “te quiero.”
I hate that I can’t remember more of that Monday. I should be okay with that, but I know that it might be the last Monday I see and hear the Papá Chepe I’ve known my whole life. Still, it was just one day in hundreds of great days I’ve spent with Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni. With Papá Chepe, I’ve had the chance to record his life stories through StoryCorps. On those days when I miss his voice, I can go back and listen to the CD or mp3 from our interview. On the days when I miss dancing to La Marcha de Zacatecas, I can watch our wedding video and recall how surprised he was when the emcee announced I was doing a granddaughter/grandfather dance. Papá Chepe hammed it up.
And on the days when I miss his smile, I can look at pictures from that Sunday afternoon in early August when Sean and I introduced him to Xavi, his 33rd great grandchild.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but can only hope that Papá Chepe isn’t scared nor in great pain, that he has competent and caring doctors and nurses, that he knows his family is by his side and when we’re not, we’re thinking and praying for him. I hope he knows we’re taking care of Mamá Toni and will continue doing so. Most of all, I hope he knows just how much we love him.