This past weekend I tackled the garage – again. I’ve been living with, pushing aside, stepping over, the remainders and reminders of your automotive obsession for almost a year now, and I needed to reclaim the space.
I’ve put together a decent set of tools for myself from all the ones I found; I’ve cleaned and sorted the hundreds of sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers that you had bought, used, and misplaced over the years; and I’ve saved those things that I’m not emotionally ready to let go of yet, even though I know I’ll never use them. But this week, it was time to actually donate some things that others will be able to use and appreciate. So I packed things up, and Addison came over to lift and carry, and off we went to ReStore. They were happy to have everything we delivered, and I’m happy to have some space in the garage.
I have one box that I intend to drop off in the dead of night at AutoZone with a big “FREE” sign on it – car parts and automotive tools that none of us can use, but someone can, I’m sure. And free is always a good price!
I actually handled it all pretty well until I got to the two big boxes of nuts, bolts, screws, and washers, and then I lost it. I could see you, sitting on the floor of the garage, sorting and organizing, each kind in its own compartment. There were so many different sizes and shapes; you could have put together anything at all! I kept the washers – I’m always looking for a washer for something – but the screws, nuts, bolts, all went into a box to be given away. It made me sad to think of you sitting and sorting and then never having the chance to use them.
While I was doing all of this cleaning out and organizing, I was remembering you and recalling all of the words that you added to our family’s vocabulary. Why was that what came to mind? I don’t know. It’s funny the things I think of, the odd little things I remember at odd times, so I will remind you and anyone who might read this of the small ways you changed us and the words we use all these years later.
French fries were “sa-sas,” later changed by Jason to “rah-rahs.” Peep-bo-be for peanut butter; an elevator was avivila; Winnie-the-Pooh was Wee-po-po – which led to your dad’s nickname for you of “Wee-po.” Jason and I have laughed over “berry bows” (who knows where that came from!), and “buh-lup buh-lup” for the toll booth. And, of course, there’s your famous swear word “Sandana,” said with feeling, and which we finally translated as son of a bitch. We just let you say it since only we knew and it seemed to ease your frustrations. Perhaps, though, my favorite memory of that type was you listening to your dad speaking Spanish to Grandma Ana on the phone, and mimicking him by saying “bleeka-bleeka-bleeka,” quite convinced you were speaking Spanish, too!
I love you, honey, and I love the memories I have of you. I’m just so sorry we didn’t have time to make more of them.
I’ve remembered a few things that I want to write to you before I forget them! I think about you every day, and I miss you. Sometimes I will do something, or hear something, or a memory of you will just pop up in my mind. Last night, it was the hot tub.
Before bed, I decided to soak in it for a short while. My back was hurting, and I knew the warmth of the water and the force of the jets would give me some relief. As I sat there, I remembered how badly you wanted me to have it fixed during that last couple of months of your earthly time. The heater wasn’t working, and I had ordered a repair. It seemed that was all you could think about – getting it fixed. You wanted to sit in its warmth and relax, and imagined the relief it would bring. I spoke to the hospice nurse about it, and she wanted you to first be assessed by an occupational therapist, since your balance had gotten so bad. With high hopes, you readily agreed to the assessment, even though you hated having people come into the house and “handle” you. The potential of the hot tub overcame whatever resistance you normally had.
Within a few days, the OT arrived. She first wanted to put a gait belt on you so that she could help you if you became too unsteady on your feet. You vehemently refused, saying that your walking was fine. It was obvious that it wasn’t, but her job wasn’t to argue with you, so she deferred to your wish. She followed you closely as you made your way outside to the deck. The hot tub sat empty of water, and the therapist stood by as you made your way up the two steps and climbed in. It was clear even to my untrained eye that you were too unstable to get in and out of it safely. She seemed sad as she delivered the news that you didn’t want to hear, and you responded in anger that you could be safe – if I’d just get it repaired.
The repairman had called me just a couple of days before to tell me the part had arrived, and to schedule an appointment to install it. I called them back the day of your OT assessment to tell them to hold off, and that i’d call them when I was ready to schedule. Pulling myself together, I then told you that the part wasn’t currently available, it was on backorder, and they didn’t know when it would arrive. You angrily insisted that someone, somewhere, must have it, and that I should call around until I could find someone who did. It was a hard conversation. I hated lying to you, especially since I knew how badly you wanted to immerse your poor aching body in the comfort of warm water. (As I write this, it has occurred to me that perhaps it was a subconscious desire to be in a womb-like environment, safely, comfortably cradled in warmth and safety. A fanciful thought.)
For the remainder of your lucid days, you yearned for the hot tub. It was the longest lie I’d ever sustained, and I hated every minute of it. It was something that was in my power to give to you, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep you safe if I had it repaired, and your safety was paramount.
I’m so sorry, honey. You couldn’t understand my fear and you didn’t think I understood your yearning, so the lie was necessary. It’s still a painful memory, and one that returns each time I seek the healing power of that warm water. Just know that lying to you was an act of love, not malice.
Sometime in October, 1969, I thought I’d developed a nagging stomach virus. For several days, I’d been nauseous throughout my days at work and into the evening. I never vomited, but just felt sick all the time. And boy, was I tired! I craved naps and usually took one as soon as I got home. After about a week of this, I made an appointment with my doctor.
Dr. Bruce Julien had been my gynecologist for about a year. His offices were on Miami Beach, which made him easily accessible from my job at Jordan Marsh, which was then located across the street from Trinity Cathedral – just a quick drive across Biscayne Bay. Before examining me, he asked me a bunch of questions about my symptoms, then looked at me and said, “Could you be pregnant?”
I was stunned by the question, so stumbled for a bit before saying, “Well, yes, I suppose I could be. But I don’t think I am.” Your dad and I had been married for eight months by now, and I really wanted to get pregnant. My disappointment each month when my period started was immense. And, I had just had a period – although, as I told Dr. Julien, it was much shorter than usual. At this point, he directed me to get undressed, cover myself with a sheet, and he’d be right back. I did as I was told, and he soon returned with his nurse. As he examined me, poking and prodding, all I could think of was how embarrassing it is to be a woman. Within a few minutes, he looked up over my knees (vaginal exams put women in an awkward position), and said, “You are.” “I’m what?” I asked. “Pregnant,” he replied. “About eight weeks. Baby will be here sometime in late May.”
(Son, I know that if you were here, you’d be saying, “Oh, mom, I don’t need to hear all of this crap about periods and vaginas and stuff. Chill.” But it’s part of your story. Our story. And I’m telling it because I want you and the world to know how wanted you always were. Right from the start.)
After I got dressed, Dr. Julien gave me a due date – May 22, 1970 – a prescription for prenatal vitamins, and told me he’d see me in a month. Still unbelieving, I floated out to our ’69 VW, imagining how I’d tell your dad the exciting news, and how happy he’d be. I was ecstatic.
I quickly came down to earth as I encountered Miami’s rush hour traffic. I was suddenly paranoid and extremely protective of the miniscule life I carried inside me. Cars were following too closely and going too fast! I was terrified someone would crash into me or cause me to go over the side of the bridge. I was white-knuckling the steering wheel all the way home, imagining all kinds of things that could happen to cause harm to you, my baby.
I finally arrived at our apartment, and hurried inside. Your dad had to work that night, and I had to wake him up, fix dinner, and then see him off to his work. But first…
I hurried up the stairs, into our apartment, and sat on the side of the bed. “Eddie,” I said, “it’s time to wake up for work.” He groaned and rolled over to look at me. “Did you see the doctor today?” “Yes,” I said. “What did he say?”
Nine months ago today, you left this world and moved into another. I wish I could say that writing this on the nine-month anniversary of your death was something I had planned, but it isn’t; it was purely coincidental or serendipitous. I seldom mark the 2nd day of any month, usually realizing a day or two later that it has come and gone. But today was different. The realization of the date, and the significance of nine months came as I was preparing a cup of tea. The fact that this realization was also within 20 minutes of the time of your death also seems odd; perhaps it’s all more than a coincidence. I don’t know. And, really, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is this: For the past nine months I’ve been promising myself that i would write your story, but I’ve never known exactly how to start. I thought I might do it as a series of letters, and that might be the best, perhaps the only, way I can do it. It only matters that I do it. And maybe it only matters to me, but I have a strong determination that you be remembered. I will write your story, Martin. As l carried you in my body for nine months, as I have carried my grief for nine months, I will carry you to the world for as long as I live, and I will leave a legacy of words that tell of you – the real you, not a faultless, glorified version, but a real human being. Someone who loved and is loved, someone who could leave me exhausted and exasperated; but also someone who could make me laugh and who was never embarrassed to show love for me and for all of his family.
As I wrote that last sentence, I remembered this about you: When you and Jason were in high school, I drove you there each day. As the two of you got out of the car, you never failed to give me a kiss and say, “I love you.” At a time of life when most kids are embarrassed to even admit they have parents, you didn’t care who saw you kiss your mom as you began your day. I’ve always treasured that long-ago memory.
I will close this, my first letter to you in many years, with that precious memory. I love you, son, and I hold you in my heart.
On May 27, 1970, I brought Martin home for the very first time. As his father drove, I carried my precious bundle in my arms, excited and happy – and a little nervous – to begin my career as his mom.
On January 21, 2021, I brought Martin home for the very last time. As his baby brother drove, I carried my precious boy’s ashes in my lap, sad and tearful, missing him, but still his mom, still loving him, knowing that there’s little left for me to do.
December 30-31, 2020
After Martin’s bad fall on December 30th, I was afraid for him to be by himself, afraid that he’d call for me in the night and I wouldn’t hear him. I slept directly across the hall in the family room so I could get to him quickly if he needed me. He was on full time oxygen at this point, but he was prone to take it off if it became bothersome. I slept poorly for about 4 hours. When I got up, he was groaning with every exhale, so I called hospice for direction. We increased his pain medication, and I called Ben to let him know that I needed him there. He arrived, followed soon after by Briana and the kids.
We also called Jason to let him know that Martin was not going to be with us much longer. Soon after, Jason emailed his flight itinerary to me, and I was relieved and thankful that he’d join us at Marty’s bedside on New Year’s Day. I prayed he wouldn’t be too late.
Briana and the children spent the day cleaning, doing laundry, and preparing meals for us. It was such a comfort to have all of them there, to know that I could stay by Martin’s side and not worry if something was needed – that loving, willing hands would take care of it all.
After dinner, Briana and the kids left to prepare for a New Year’s Eve observance with close friends, and a couple of hours later, I sent Ben on his way to be with his wife and children as we all said goodbye to 2020. I had a strong feeling that Martin wouldn’t leave me until the New Year. Ever since he had joined the Navy in 1989, he had called me from wherever he was in the world – both at midnight in his time zone and again at midnight in mine – to welcome the New Year. He would hold on, I was certain. I tuned his television to CNN and, as the ball dropped in Times Square, I welcomed the East Coast New Year with my boy, missing his ability to share it with me.
Wanting to be closer, but fearful that he’d fall on me if he tried to get up, I made a bed of sofa cushions and slept on the floor outside his room. I was close enough to respond immediately if he needed me, but at a safe enough distance that he wouldn’t fall on me if he tried to get out of bed.By that time, it was a new year on the West Coast as well, and I was thankful to know he had survived the most awful year I’ve ever known.
January 1, 2021
I knew upon waking that he wasn’t going to last much longer. Jason’s flight from Illinois was delayed due to weather, and all I could do was pray that he’d arrive in time. Ben and his family arrived later that morning, and we once again took up our vigil, interrupted only by text updates on Jason’s travel progress.
The hospice nurse arrived in the afternoon to assess him. When we discovered that he hadn’t voided his bladder since the previous day, she began to probe his abdomen. With a heartbreaking moan of pain, Martin rose to almost a sitting position and a few minutes later, we discovered that he had emptied his bladder. Although it was obvious it hurt him when the nurse probed, he seemed to relax more in his sleep. Briana, who had been cleaning, cooking, and making sure we all knew when food was ready, left those duties to join the nurse and me to help with personal care for him. He seemed much more comfortable, though his breathing was still labored despite the oxygen. Via telephone, hospice continued to coach me on administering his pain medication and clearing his mouth of secretions.
Finally, Jason’s flight arrived and Ben left to pick him up. He stopped at Ben’s to shower prior to coming to the house, in case he had any COVID contamination from his flight. I was so thankful to have all three of my boys together, especially knowing that it was for the last time.
Jason had brought his old Navy uniform, since it was our plan to bathe and dress Martin following his death and before the funeral home arrived. I appreciated Jason’s thoughtfulness; he knew what it would mean to his brother to once again, and for the final time, wear the uniform of the Navy that he had loved.
Not wanting to sleep on the floor again, but wanting to be close to him, I moved a small recliner into his room – possibly the most uncomfortable recliner I’ve ever tried to sleep in! Nevertheless, I managed to sleep for a couple of hours, holding his hand throughout the night.
January 2, 2021
I can’t really say I woke up because I hadn’t really slept, but the morning found Martin’s condition unchanged. I must have made coffee at some point, and I think I took a shower and changed my clothes. I know I’d been wearing the same clothes for a couple of days.
The house felt full of love with Jason, Ben, Briana, Addison, and Drew there to wait and watch with me. We had another visit from the hospice nurse to evaluate his condition, reaffirm that I was giving his meds properly, and to tell us what would likely happen as he approached death.
I’m sure we ate, drank, talked, and prayed, but so much is a blur to me. Late in the afternoon, I told Jason and Ben that we needed to make a list of who would need to be called – his dad and other family members and friends, and who would call each one. We decided to sit at his bedside as we made our lists, and we pulled our chairs to his bedside – Jason on one side of me and Ben on the other. As we talked and planned, Martin suddenly opened his eyes – the first time in two days – and looked at each of us in turn. It was obvious that he saw us, that he knew we were there, that he knew he was loved. He then closed his eyes and took four more breaths before going into eternity and becoming a beloved memory.
After calling hospice, I called my priest who said she would come right away. We made our other calls, and by the time Mother Esme arrived to anoint him and administer last rites, we had bathed and dressed Martin. We took turns sitting with him until the funeral home arrived and we could begin to wrap our minds around the hole that he left in our lives.
This has been painful to write, but necessary for me as I process a month – and the rest of my life – without my oldest child. I’m grateful to all of you who have traveled this journey through my writing, and appreciate your expressions of love and kindness.
When a loved one dies, we often make the mistake of whitewashing their lives and elevating them to some kind of sainthood. Martin was no saint; there’s not a person in this family who would ever attempt to paint him as one, nor would he want to be remembered that way. He was a human being. He made mistakes. He fought and argued with me, his dad, his brothers – but we all love him and we know he loved us. We remember him as he was. The most important thing is that he be remembered. He leaves behind no children, so it’s up to us who knew him in life to carry his memory forward, to tell people that Martin Jacinto Cerezo lived, that once he touched our lives and our hearts.