My first great loss was my grandfather, Tito. I think – because the prodigious memory I once had is lost, even for things in my long lost childhood, and now it’s hard to put them in order. Who died first? Was I 5, 6 or 7 when it happened?
So perhaps my first great loss was my cousin Fernando. I think that it was in the summer before I turned six and started first grade. Our nuclear family, along with Granny and my aunt Gladys, had spent a fortnight in Mendoza, staying at the house of my dad’s college friend Héctor, and I think when we returned we heard that there was something wrong with Fernandito. They thought he had hepatitis. Sometime later it was confirmed it was leukemia. This was the time before treatments.
Fernando was seven. At least, Fernando has forever been seven in my memory – which seemed very grown up when I wasn’t quite six. That summer – or perhaps it was the one after, I don’t know how long it took for the illness to progress -, his parents rented a country house with a pool in City Bell. I remember playing with him and the other kids in the living room. He had gotten a roulette wheel – later, I’d get one as well. I’m not sure why it was fun to play it, but it seemed quite special.
Ironically, one memory of this time is quite traumatic. One time, while playing in the pool, my dad thought it’d be fun if he put his leg on my head while I was underwater, making me feel trapped underwater. I’m sure it was just for a few seconds, but it was a horrible sensation – which is why I still remember this well over 40 years later. I think through my childhood this was my one big resentment towards my father.
Why am I going back to memories of the bad things? Should I not remember only the good times? Maybe it’s a protective mechanism. Maybe it’s my mind trying to warn me against idealizing my father and vilifying my mother – a far more conflictive person, very much like me.
My other memory of Fernando at the time was when he was at the Hospital de Niños in La Plata. The hospital had only one private room, at the front, with a window overlooking the Parque Saavedra and a door opening towards a long and narrow patio. I knew the room well. My mother had spent three months with my sister there when she got sick as a baby. I stayed with my aunt Gladys and we would visit them there. It was strange to see Fernando and his mom staying in a room that I felt as belonging to my mom.
At the hospital, we played Carta Alta – a game Fernando had invented.
If my memory doesn’t betray me, I learned of Fernando’s death while at school. I can’t recall if it was fall or winter or anything else. I can’t recall my grief when he died but I have grieved him ever since.
I think Tito must have died after Fernando, because I was spending the night my cousin Esteban – Fernando’s brother – when Tito died. I don’t remember Fernando being there. I do remember several things:
1- It was January 5th, the night before el Día de los Reyes, Three Kings Day, which was a big celebration back then in Argentina.
2- Fernando and Esteban’s parents, my cousins Barullo and Ana, took us to see the Three Kings Day parade on Calle 12 and they bought us bags of confetti and cans of foam. The latter were expensive and it’s not something that my parents would buy me, so it felt quite special.
3- I didn’t believe in the Three Kings (nor in Santa Claus). My mother claimed she didn’t believe in lying to kids (ha!) so she always told us they were make believe. My cousins told me to not tell Esteban they weren’t real and I felt quite grown up keeping the secret.
4- Esteban’s parents left water and straw for the camels. This was a new tradition for me – at my home we didn’t leave anything.
In the morning, after we got our presents, my dad arrived. He told me that Tito had died and I broke down – like I did last night, when I heard my dad died and I like I did this morning, when I woke up to the reality that he is no longer here. I remember him holding me in his arms as I cried and cried and cried. I remember the endless pain and desperation of Tito’s death which now blends with the pain and desperation of my dad’s own death. But I also remember the comfort of my dad’s arms and my dad’s love. Maybe that’s what my mind is doing, bringing him back to comfort me over his own death.
Oh, papi. Te quise tanto. Creí que te lo iba a contar hoy, cuando fuera a visitarte. Te quiero tanto. No sé como lidiar con tu muerte. Así que vuelvo a los seis años y a tus brazos.