Pops died on the day of my Tenderloin Arts & Education Advisory reunion, July 28th, 2016. How messed up is that? I flew up from Santa Ana the day before to facilitate the meeting at 826 Valencia, which kindly offered to host it at their new Tenderloin space on Golden Gate (thank you Bita). As I was getting dressed I got the text from my brother: The nurse is there and now says it could be tonight or tomorrow. A few days earlier the nurse said he had a few weeks left. Half sobbing, I text Michael Warr, Deputy Director at the Museum of the African Diaspora, and Patricia Zamora, Area Director SF Boys & Girls Club, to ask them to take over the meeting for me. Michael and Patricia are family; they responded immediately: We got this, sending you prayers and blessings.
I raced back to the airport but didn’t make it back on time. My brother called while I was waiting at the terminal. I answered, but there was no voice on the line. I knew pops had died. Finally, my brother said: Yo man…he’s gone! Then I heard him wail, a piercing, pained sound like I never heard before. Thinking of the agony of that sound makes me want to cry.
Okay, okay, not sure what to say to my brother. I’ll be there in 2 hours. The nurse says they have to take my dad’s body away now, but my brother tells them I’m coming and they have to wait.
Pops is covered with a light cloth when I walk in. I pull the cloth off of his face and torso, and see he’s wearing his favorite flannel shirt. The color has left his skin, and he’s cold to the touch. Just a few hours before I kissed him on the head and said “See you later pops. I have to go do a volunteer job.” His mind was already gone but I wanted him to know why I had to leave for a little while.
I took my bracelet off and put it on his wrist, a bracelet Joy made to protect me during the Year of the Dragon. I never took it off even after the Dragon year passed. Joy made me another one which she brought down two days later when she came to visit the family.
Cremation arrangements are made. My brother and I chose a local “Cremation Society” that seemed a good fit for pop’s: simple, no frills. The director asked my brother and I if we wanted to be present. There was a moment of silence: neither one of us anticipated that question. I eventually said yes, thinking I can’t leave my dad alone during those final moments. Totally irrational, I told myself, but I can’t.
The cremation facility in Santa Ana is just like the factory in Brooklyn my dad and I used to work in. Well, that he worked in for most of his adult life – I was only there in the summers after I turned 14. The director was there to meet us (my brother and mother both joined), described the process for viewing and cremation, then surprised us with another question: Would any of you like to turn on the switch to the cremation chamber?
The cremation chamber, one giant super oven essentially, had a few dials on the front and a digital readout: 1600 degrees. We visited with pops one last time, now on a factory floor, which somehow seemed appropriate. I gestured to the director that I wanted to turn on the machine. Then a young hermano came out – his nametag sewed on his shirt read Oscar – gently offered his condolences, and showed me how to turn on the machine.
Mami went back inside to the waiting room. Oscar lifted the table to match the height of the chamber door. A last chance to grab at pops’ flannel shirt and pull him off the table before he went in, but I suppress the surprising and curious urge. In my father went, and then I turned the knob and started the machine.
I’ve had some thoughts on “I should have been there” when he took his last breath. I’m glad my brother and mom were there; my brother described how he had his palm on pops’ chest, counting his last breaths until there weren’t any more. I knew it didn’t really matter as his mind was checked-out days before, but I still wish I had been there. My brother kindly said the same, perhaps reading my mind.
And then I thought maybe my pops dying while I was away, on a volunteer job of all things, was his last editorial comment on my quixotic life’s work to “Make the world a better place.” El viejo mio was not an idealist. All he knew, and respected, was whether you were working and providing for your family. Actually, he also knew a lot about baseball, especially Caribbean baseball players, and most especially Puerto Rican peloteros.
The best of the best, of course, was Roberto Clemente. Clemente was pops’ hero, as well as the hero to Puerto Ricans everywhere. Two weeks before pops died I found a great documentary on Clemente’s life on ESPN sports. I also found a segment on the 1971 World Series between the Pirates and Orioles; Clemente was voted MVP of that series. I set-up my iPad on the table next to his bed and played both documentaries for him. Ordinarily pops would only remain awake for a few minutes at a time, but once he saw Clemente on the screen and heard his voice, he was dialed-in and would remain alert for 30 minutes or more.
Clemente died while on a mercy mission bringing supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. This was typical Clemente; once he became a superstar he spoke up on civil rights and the needs of the less fortunate. Years ago pops argued that it was Clemente’s fault: had he been home with his wife and kids, on New Year’s Eve of all nights, he would not have perished in the sea with his body never to be found. Go to work, keep your mouth shut, don’t cause any problems and you might live to see another day.
I could understand why pops saw the world this way. He grew up a homeless kid in a small barrio in Puerto Rico. Food, a pair of shoes, a place to sleep – all of these things many take for granted were privileges he did not know on any given day. He was not a gifted ballplayer like Clemente, whose beautiful game took him to the highest stage of play and afforded him some comfort. Comfort matters like food and shelter, finding and keeping them, was all pops thought about. That and his boys – and of course mami, he cared about her most of all – and her daughters.
Mami was also a throwaway child, but she was the opposite of pops: always rebellious, always pissed off and protesting, always ready to tell everyone all about the injustices in the world. If pops was pro”Commonwealth,” mami was defiantly independentista. If pops said the island would not survive without the United States, mami would say the island hasn’t survived with it. If pops spoke of the virtues of service in the Army, mami would bring up the Navy bombing Vieques. For a time she was a single mother of three girls in Brooklyn’s barrio, and when applying for an apartment some landlords would look at her mixed facial features (Puerto Ricans come in all forms) and ask: Where are you from? Mami would reply: “I’m from Planet Earth,” and leave to apply someplace else. Always with an attitude, Mami has been unfailing in her support of my community development efforts (though she wishes I would also have a family of my own).
That’s all for now. Still processing. Still don’t know which parent is right. Love you pops. Gracias Michael y Patricia. Thank you Joy.