One of the saddest days in my life started with the Land Before Time.
This movie hold a certain power over me that I’ve never been able to explain, in that I can’t explain how as a 25 year old guy it still makes me cry. I first watched it when I was a kid; since it was about dinosaurs it was pretty much mandatory for me. It starts off all warm and fuzzy and fun. A kid’s movie. Before the half hour mark, however, Littlefoot the little “long-neck” on whom the story is centered, tragically loses his mother in a battle against T-Rexes and earthquakes and poor, hungry Littlefoot is forced to embark on a long perilous journey in search of the heavenly Great Valley. It makes me tear up because even as a kid I understood what that movie was telling me about my own mortality – more specifically, my mother’s mortality. It’s the day I dread even more than my own death and that movie always reminds me that it could happen to my own frail mother at any day, any time, every time I watch it. What really gets me is the music by James Horner and that damned Diana Ross song at the end. That music and that movie always makes me feel…alone. This Sunday morning I watched it again; I shed the first of many tears that day, and for almost the same exact reason. Just 8 hours later, my grandmother would pass away.
The night before the hospital visit, I was told to pray for my grandmother. As an agnostic, I refused to give in to the power of self suggestion during a time of vulnerability. I should say “weak agnostic”, because although I didn’t pray to God, I was definitely in my bed talking to someone and hoping that someone was listening. I asked for a miracle to prove that He was real. I reasoned with Him; what better way to prove to me that he is real than by making my grandmother well? That would make me believe. Not that I haven’t had my share of strange experiences; said experiences made me an agnostic instead of an atheist.
The first happened in Mexico as a kid and I was playing with one of the neighborhood stray pups – Mexico’s streets are overrun with strays. I was so stupid I played with one of the dogs – this tiny, newborn pup – like a bean bag. Literally. I tossed it in the air to catch it a few times until I eventually fumbled and let it fall. When one of my cousins picked him up, its body was limp, eyes were rolled back and its tongue was sticking out. It let out a long, pitiful, continuous noise, the kind a kid makes when he’s been stabbed with an imaginary sword. Horrified at the idea that this dog was going to die because of me, I went into a quiet corner in the house and prayed. And I mean PRAYED. I damn near poured my guts out. I begged God to save this dog. I even went as far as telling God to save it even if it meant taking years off my life. I felt that awful that I was literally telling God to trade my life for the dog’s. When I was done wiping away my eyes I mustered the courage to see the dog. The last thing I expected to see was a healthy, scrappy, tiny little bean bag of a puppy running around as if he hadn’t just been dropped on his head. But that’s what I saw. I guess of course that means that I’m gonna go out in a freak skydiving accident at the age of 60.
The second sign was and encounter with a car full of thugs that would have ended in my own death. I had just finished watching a pay per view at my boy Ray’s house and I was heading home with my other homie Kin. Back in the day he was in the habit of wearing blue bandanas around. I learned a while back to avoid anything red or blue; now my favorite color is black. We waited for the bus to arrive in a bad part of town, at a bad time to be at said part of town, but it was pretty much the same routine every week. This time, however, a group of thugs driving by on the other side of the street rolled down their windows and yelled out, “where you from”? Kin thought it was best to agitate the scary men in the car by being a smart ass and yelling out “SAN FRANCISCO!”. Wanting to investigate further, they made a u-turn to park right in front of us and just as soon as they did, I see the car of Ray’s mom come from OUT OF NOWHERE and she swerves right in, landing right in the spot the first car would have had she not flown in like the fucking cavalry, just in the nick of time. We hopped in and bailed. Ray’s mom had never offered us a ride home. Not before then. Not afterwards. Just that one time. Just in time.
The third, which happened first in the actual sequence of things but I felt worked best for last; it’s easily the least believable one and it doesn’t even involve me directly. My mom sometimes tells a story of how she once heard singing coming from her room in the sweetest, most angelic voice she’d ever heard in her life. When she went into the room she discovered my little sister looking out the window of our third story house, talking to herself. My sister said she was talking to a voice – though she didn’t identify that voice as an angel. Instead when asked to draw who she saw, she only drew a glowing orb. Apparently, the voice had told her to take good care of me. My sister doesn’t like it when the story is brought up, but I bet you a cent it’s the primary motivation behind her decision to go into health care. Maybe she gets to be the one who prescribes me the happy pills.
Oh, and there’s this other totally weird moment when my dad cut a nasty gash in his finger making floral arrangements for a church, cupped some holy water to wash his finger, and later on could not find even the slightest hint of a cut – or even a scratch – anywhere on his hands. That one really kinda did it for me.
Flash forward back to the UCSF hospital, where I wait in a room with possibly the largest assembly of Mexicans ever gathered during that hospital’s entire history (my grandmother had thirteen kids; I don’t even want one!). The doctors come in to deliver the bad news and we realize right then and there that soon we’d lose a loved one. My dad, a man I’d never seen cry, had tears in his eyes. The sight of that alone made me lose my own composure. But that’s all he had; tears. My grandfather was the same way, just tears. My grandfather, in fact, pretty much made the decision before everyone else that we should cut life support for my grandma and end her suffering. That’s all he wanted. When she died, both he and my dad were calm as I’d ever seen them, and that was saying something. They were comforted in the knowledge that my grandmother was no longer suffering. Much more comforting, however, was the belief that she was with God now.
When I was hit with a shock as sudden as this, I found that my rational mind began working overtime to suppress my emotions. I questioned how they could be so…calm…about the idea of cutting her off from life support without exhausting every option and if it had anything to do with religion. I wondered if they didn’t believe in God, would they be saying this? In retrospect, it’s not a rational thing to believe at all. My rational mind may have been pulling overtime, but it was slacking off on the job. Maybe there really were no answers to all the pain. At least, not any that I was willing to discuss with anybody. The logical answer was put forth by a particular dickwad of a doctor who spoke to us in a tone best suited for a dog who just shitted on his carpet. The logic was, there was nothing they could do to save my grandmother from the damage caused by her heart attack. In addition to her heart she suffered from some sort of unknown stomach ailment that they think was microbial (but they’re not sure). This is adding more strain on her already weakened heart and the only reasonable choice was to pull the plug. Actually, it was quite logical. Stopping the life support was the right thing to do. But it was also the moral thing to do.
Ever since I could remember, my mother had never gotten along with my aunts. Let me rephrase that – she despised them. The beef stemmed from some incident between one of my aunts and my mom that pit a few of my uncles against her, for reasons I don’t quite understand. It was bad enough that I wouldn’t be allowed to see them; I met many cousins this day for the first time. Another aunt had run afoul of my mom more recently, which only added to the beef between the families. Much of this was the reason for which I rarely saw my grandmother. I loved my grandmother, but I was almost as saddened by the fact that I’d been kept away from her all these years because of my mom’s issues with my dad’s family as I was about her death. There was guilt, too. I could have seen here more often myself. Today, however, I saw my mom and my aunts hug and cry in solidarity; today they had made peace with each other, after damn near 25 years of mutual distrust and disrespect. This couldn’t be the miracle. It just couldn’t be. I held out for something better. I needed a definite sign that everything I’d just seen was God’s work. I needed to see that dad was right and that my grandmother was in a better place. I was determined to get my sign from God. I didn’t expect the signs to come so soon.
She didn’t die right away; it took hours, more than enough time for everybody in my enormous family to get their chance to see her and say good bye. Most of the time she drifted in and out of consciousness as she was administered painkillers for her stomach problems and weaned off the life support systems. I held out a sliver of hope that my miracle would happen. I watched the monitor next to her bed for heart signals, checking the numbers every now and then. Every time the damned thing made a beep, I looked at it again. Noticing the noise, the nurse came in to silence the intermittent beeping, which just made me more determined to look at the monitor. She must have noticed because right after fiddling with the monitor some more she whispered to me something that stuck with me the rest of the night. She said something along the lines of, “don’t look at the numbers. Focus on her.” If you’ve ever seen the end of the film “Pi”, you’ll be able to figure out the level at which that line changed my perspective. My whole life up to that point has been the numbers, logic, the science, this quest for knowledge for its own sake and my insistence of reducing things as complex as humanity and even the soul itself to a quantum – instead of seeing the humanity in people and enjoying that instead. It was about experiencing moments with people, moments that are unquantifiable by nature. “Don’t look at the numbers” made me see the folly in reducing humanity to numbers on a computer screen. Mind you, those numbers keep other people alive. They’re important, but they’re not the point. Don’t focus on the numbers. Focus on the people.
So I did. I cried with my uncles and for them. I felt their pain. I felt most of all for my dad. During her final moments, my grandmother looked up at us and around us, struggling to open her eyes, and shed thin tears. She knew her children were all there, and that she was loved.
The night before, one of my aunts said she had heard my grandmother taking to children. This may be meaningless to most people, except that right before my other grandmother passed away 6 years ago, she was also seen talking to children who weren’t there; she’d identified them as her grandparents. Both of them had the same visions; both could be attributed to hallucinations of a brain on sedatives and gasping for air. Sure, they saw the same thing…but that had to have been coincidence.
My mom recalls that during the funeral of a close friend, a moth flew into her lap. My sister recalls asking for a sign that my other grandmother was in heaven; yep, a moth. And surely enough, just as we entered the hospital lobby elevator to the parking garage I saw this enormous moth fluttering about a fluorescent light, right above me. On the way home I asked my family, “why a moth”? That was the only part of it that didn’t make sense. And you know what else? It just occurred to me right now; they’re “going towards the light”.
When I saw that moth, I smiled. I laughed to myself. I always figured God had a sense of irony.
Miracles happen; however they are usually small by our standards and many go unnoticed by us simply because we don’t acknowledge that they are extraordinary. Many miracles can be explained scientifically. Any miracle, really, can be scientifically written off, provided we know enough about God and the physics of existence to come to the logical conclusion. But I believe – emphasis on “believe” – that the fact that we are beings capable of philosophy a miracle in and of itself. Does out intelligence have a scientific basis? Of course it does. We evolved. Our brains are an organ that gave us an advantage over other animals and we just developed this brain over a thousand generations until one day it became powerful enough to become aware of itself in relation to the universe. It developed the ability to see the universe not literally, but abstractly. It enabled us the ability to know, as well as to believe.
My grandmother’s death was a bittersweet reprieve from physical suffering. We pray to God to keep our loved ones alive, even though they may want nothing more than to die with dignity. What about what she would have wanted? I’d like to think she’s better off now that she is free from pain, rather than shackled to it. Furthermore, I believe that instead of the miracle I was asking for, the course of events leading up to and after hear death revealed the hand of God more than a miraculous recovery ever would. Had she lived, had God granted me my wish, would I have believed it to be His doing? Or, would I have attributed her recovery to the hard working doctors of UCSF? It was the unexpected signs that let me know He was there. The signs that followed so soon after her death have no explanation other than coincidence. But “coincidence” is the numbers talking; what does the human element feel? I believe that when you can see that human element, you will see miracles. Or, to borrow a quote:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” – Matthew 5:8
It is only now that it all starts to make perfect sense somehow.
In memory of Zenaida Rodriguez AND Mama Reme…mis abuelitas.