By Yahaira Castro
All abuelas are bad-asses. Mine was the baddest.
We called her Mamá, but everyone else called her Doña Luz. She’d never even lived en la capital. No one from El Listin, CDN, or DR1 came to write her obituary when she passed away from the stomach and pancreatic cancer. She was just a wife, mother, and grandmother to nine kids. She’d lived her entire life in Andres, Boca Chica, under the shadow of the town’s sugar mill.
By the time I was born, her hair was grey with a broad, white mechón on the left side of her head. Her voice was a bit raspy, y cuando echaba dos o tres coños, it made everybody freeze. Once, when I was eight or nine, I grabbed an avocado off a table. The fruit had fallen from one of the trees in Mamá’s backyard. I rolled it around in my hands and squeezed until green mush burst out of the top. Stupidly, I put it back, and not long afterward, Mamá made a frustrated sound.
“Quien me cojio uno de los aguacates y le dio un apretón?” she yelled.
All the children gulped. Hands clammy, I stepped forward.
“Fui yo, Mamá,” I said.
“Fuiste tu?” she asked, surprised.
My cousins scattered, abandoning me.
Mamá nodded slowly. “Me gusta que me dijiste la verdad. Los aguacates no se aprietan. Okay?”
Today, I’m an adult with a teenage child and still can’t help but equate avocados with truth-telling.
Like many Dominicans born in the diaspora, I spent most of my summers in the DR and even went to junior high school there. My grandmother was my caregiver, and teacher, la que imponía la ley. Disappointing her felt like you were crushing your own spirit. Take the time my cousin and I started a business selling Esquimalitos. There were multiple schools nearby, and we figured we could make a killing off the kids. We sold Kool-aid-type icies and did well, but we grew bored. We were teenagers and didn’t want to be held down with the responsibilities of a business. Abuela saw what was happening, and before the clientele we’d built had moved on, she and my grandfather took over things. They did away with our product line and offered natural fruit varieties like pineapple and guanabana. The kids went crazy, and my grandparents sold at least a hundred a day. “Cuando comienzas algo, terminalo,” Mamá said. “Si no, entonces to conocen como irresponsable.” Her disappointment was far more blistering than an angry hand.
When Trujillo opened up schools for adults who hadn’t learned how to read and write, she was already an adult herself. Mamá went to one of them and eventually learned enough so no one could take advantage of her. She started her empire when a friend asked her if she wanted to join in on a sang. At the same time, my grandfather had been in an accident at the mill and was healing in a hospital en la capital. She asked her friend to give her the first number, which amounted to a little over three pesos. Mamá took the money and visited my grandfather in the city hospital. On her way back, she stopped at un mercado and bought as many viveres as she could carry. She made everything into frituras and put everything out on the tiny porch of the house the mill rented out to my grandfather.
A neighbor walking by paused. “Tu tienes una fritura?”
“Si,” she said. “Comprame.”
By the time I came into the world, my grandmother was doing well. I didn’t know her as poor. The family home was one she’d built once she could afford to leave the mill’s housing. The house was large, and the backyard was more extensive than most in that area. There was always at least one woman who helped with the cooking and cleaning. People who had business with my grandmother always went in and out of the house. She lent money at fair interest rates and owned a carnet down at the port. She’d been a landlord of multiple homes and ended up gifting each of her four children with a home of their own. Aside from selling yummy frozen fruit from her porch, she made cakes and donuts every afternoon to sell in a little vitrina painted light blue. They never lasted long. Maybe an hour, maybe two. She constructed a room on the side of the house where she sold second-hand clothes. The only time Mamá sat still was at night when she watched her novelas, y si no había luz, she sat in a rocking chair on her porch gossiping with passersby.
Years passed. I went to college, met my future husband, floundered in book publishing and then writing jobs, ended up in California for graduate school, and boomeranged back to the East Coast in 2004. I was still lost when my mother called me sometime in February or March of 2005 because something was wrong. Mamá’s doctor ordered tests to figure out what was eating away at her body. I was unsure of my place in the job market but clear on what I needed to do when my mom called. I put a ticket on a credit card and kissed my husband goodbye.
My memory is hazy about so many things surrounding that trip. I got to the house and found my grandmother frail. She hardly ate. Each meal could fit into the palm of a child’s hand. Something was wrong. My mom had taken over the household, and I took over shuttling my grandmother to her appointments. She was happy to see me. I kept her company. We watched whatever telenovelas she was into then, and if I happened to step out to see other family members, she made it clear that she’d missed me. “Adonde estabas,” she asked. “Te perdiste la novela de las siete.”
I was the first one in the family to learn what was killing Mamá. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office as he examined the MRI scans I’d brought him. My hair was covered in a red and white pañuelo, and I was wearing a pink t-shirt. He didn’t seem very impressed with me as he made small talk while studying the scans of a tumor that nearly swallowed my grandmother’s stomach. When he discovered I’d gone to California for my masters, suddenly, the scans weren’t as interesting. I don’t know how I held back from roaring, What the fuck does me going to Berkeley have to do with my grandmother dying!
Surgery was scheduled, and more family flew in. I sat on one side of her, and my mom sat on the other. He counseled us not to tell her she had cancer. According to him, her spirits needed to be high. It was a pelota, he explained to her soon after. His tone was light. He even made her laugh.
Later, it took a hell of a lot of therapy before I forgave myself for participating in that lie.
We braced for a miracle that didn’t come. After the surgery, the doctor was vague when he spoke with us. Luckily, she had a nephew who was a doctor who cornered him for information. We learned she’d lost too much blood on the operating table. She didn’t have a lot of time.
When she woke up, she knew. She fucking knew what was wrong with her. She demanded to see the doctor. She unleashed a ferocious temper I don’t think he’d ever seen in a patient when he came, and I am sure he’s never seen since.
“Si usted me hubiera dicho lo que era, no hubiera gastado tanto cuarto!”
The day before she was released, maybe fifteen or so people made the trip from Andres to say goodbye. A cousin and I refused to leave before our turn. When everyone was finally gone, Mamá was exhausted. She gave us directives on how to lead a good life. Unfortunately, she was so tired I barely understood her.
Except for one thing. I heard one thing loud and clear. “Ayuda,” she said. “Ayuda los demas.”
That night, I asked my mom to give me something to help me sleep. I wanted to dive into a bottle, but taking a valium felt like the more respectful option. My mom and I collapsed on either side of her bed and fell asleep. Much later, a barking dog woke me up. It was a dark, black-out curtain kind of dark. The electricity was out. The fan was dead. The only sound was my mom breathing.
A peace came over me. Years later, it’s still incredibly hard to describe.
My grandmother was coming.
I haven’t told this story to many people. I told my family and my husband. I imagined people wouldn’t believe me because I’d taken a sleeping pill. I must’ve been dreaming! I was familiar with the Western world that didn’t believe in the supernatural. I was schooled in it. And yet, that night, a wave of incredible peace and infinite love exploded in my being. Instinct led me to pray. Seconds flew by when I heard Mamá’s voice whispering near my mom’s head. I couldn’t listen to what she was saying. I only recognized the distinctive rasp.
“Mamá,” I said. “Yo sabía que usted venía. Yo sabía.”
The whispering stopped. “Tu lo sabías, mami?”
The mosquito net was up, but somehow I felt my grandmother’s lips and only her lips against my forehead. And then, she was gone.
I don’t remember falling asleep. I remember laying there and feeling incredibly grateful for that moment. The only way to describe it is it felt as if my grandmother had walked in with all of heaven, and I—an interloper—got a chance to be in that space for a brief moment. When I woke up, though, that amazing high was gone. I was anxious, believing my grandmother had passed. I told my mother what had happened and she said nothing. She didn’t want to believe me because it was either too fantastical. Or, if it was true, then Mamá was gone.
I called the hospital. The doctor was releasing her. My grandmother was still alive.
By the time we got there, I believed it had been a dream. But then a niece who stayed behind, greeted us with, “Mujeres, a noche la Doña no dejaba de hablar.”
My grandmother had gone to the house. She was upset about the broken toilet. We needed to fix that right away. And she’d seen my grandfather crying, and she was worried about him.
The toilet was definitely broken, but no one staying in the house remembered talking about it in the hospital. And to my knowledge, no one asked my grandfather if he’d been crying. He was a stoic, made to be a super tough man. If he were going to cry, it would’ve been alone at night.
We brought her home that morning, and before the next sunrise, she was gone.
It’s taken me nearly twenty years to write any of this down. My memory of those days, especially that night, is no longer as sharp. And, I haven’t come close to experiencing that feeling of pure and blissful peace. What’s still true after all these years is I miss my grandmother as much as this corner of the universe would miss its sun.
After she died, I took on a job in higher education and managed to do the thing Mamá told me to do: help people. I gave my brown students a haven in a primarily white-led institution—their words, not mine. Before, I’d been lost, but my grandmother’s mandate gave me direction. I left that field just recently as I stepped into the Great Resignation. Whatever comes next, I will remember everything she taught me along the way, especially the last lesson.
Yahaira Castro is an aspiring Dominican-American writer and producer. She was born in New Jersey and received her B.A. from Rutgers-New Brunswick in History and a Masters in Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.