I inhale the thickness of the humidity that floats in the air within the coliseum. My friends and I prepare to go on stage. Here we are, on the pitch black side of the curtains which are heavy and steady. Not a single bit of light beams through. Waiting isolated in the dark, we know we are next under the spotlight that all the schools in Santa Cruz Bolivia are sharing that night.
We are participating in Tentayape, a dance competition where schools and institutes compete to be the best. Backstage, I am unable to distinguish between my friends. The dark makes me unsteady, and I don’t like it. I can only hear them; I can’t discern the features from their faces.
The curtains suddenly reveal all the lights; I encounter the crowd, but, most importantly, I catch sight of my mom. I see the excitement in her eyes as she hops out of her seat in the left wing of the coliseum, joy and pride emit from her face. She waves, and I wave back. The darkness fades.
I prepare to dance but I can see that she is overjoyed and so am I as this is the first time that she will see me perform. Little do we know that this will also be the last performance she will see before losing her eyesight.
My mom had been having problems with her eyesight over the years but she hadn’t given it much thought. “I’m just getting old” she’d say as she’d bashfully rest her right cheek on her shoulder and press her rosy lips together. Her face was decorated in freckles caused by the violent sunrays which had caressed her face in Bolivia. She knew what was coming but decided not to tell us… she knew we would worry, especially me. It wasn’t until her new prescription glasses served no use, and an MRI revealed to her a reality that she could no longer hide from plain sight anymore, that she finally told us
“It’s cherry-sized; I mean, it's not that big”, she said, as she pinched her thumb to the crest closest to the print of her index finger. Her voice pitched cracking mid sentence as her emotions bled through the canvas that she normally held up. She didn’t want to be weak; she refused to give into the shadows of the dark.
Doctors said it was a tumor that had formed due to an excessive amount of prolactin hormone and had latched on to the pituitary gland. It’s size had grown reasonably enough to affect her optical nerves. This news led my living room to become a panic room where my grandmother immediately grabbed her rosary with her stiff fingers caused by a lifetime of tailoring and began praying, as if repeating words would matter. My sister, the delicate one, contorted her face as tears dripped down to form puddles on her collarbones. Then there was me, who was 16 at the time, who simply thought: How is this possible? After finally being reunited, why did luck have this in store for us?
When I was 11 and my sister Cynthia was 15, my mom made the tough decision to leave New York, a place she’d worked so hard to get to. My sister Cynthia had developed an eating disorder that deteriorated her to mere skin and bones. The American kids had teased her about having fat panda arms, that even her walk was clumsy because of the weight that her legs carried, and that was it. My mom knew my sister needed to be taken out of that environment and decided to take her to back to Bolivia.
Unlike New York, the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, green and fresh. Its tropical skies are filled of feathered shades of emerald green, canary yellow combined with primaries of electric blue and ruby red. People there are different too; accents envelope you with hospitality as every slang of castellano camba is irresistibly captivating. I loved it there, but everyone thought it was best that Dad and I stay behind. The Tentayape festival marked the first time I’d been back heer in 2 years. The first time I’d seen my mother in 2 years.
Living with Dad accelerated my growth because as a 11 year old kid I lived in our apartment in solitude. Dad would either be working or arrive reeking of alcohol. I found it entertaining how he would deny his habit as he’d stumble barely balancing the weight of his own body. I preferred it this way. He wouldn’t bother me nor ask me where I had been all day. I didn’t really wanna share that I helped my friends from I.S.5 roll a blunt after school and smoke it later in elmhurst park after riding our bikes around. Mom was strict because she cared. Dad was lenient because he didn’t. I would cook for myself while Dad attempted to make ground beef in the blender. It eventually broke: the person operating it barely knew how to operate himself.
One night when he arrived drunk as a mule screaming and throwing things out of control, he reached to throw the Jessica McClintock perfume bottle that mommy had left behind but I snatched it out of his bare fingertips I fled to my room and hid it in my box of valuables next to my Gameboy, as it was the last evidence of her scent that had almost gone extinct in our Queens apartment. Chasing me he seized me by my mane and dragged me into the living room as the crumbs and staples on the carpet pierced into my face. With his belt he turned my olive skin into a dark shade of maroon and green. It remained on display on my legs and abdomen for only a few weeks as opposed to my anger which was permanent.
“You’re going to be fine,” I serenade my mother as I hold her just like she held me so many times. We’re back in New York now, this time together, hustling so that surgery can be performed as soon as allowed. It isn’t long until she is scheduled and is prepared to be taken into surgery. I want to be there with her so that she can see me when she is going in. However, my father, or better yet “Casto”, his name, which is how I address him ever since the perfume incident, makes me go to school. He stays with my mom in my place as if she cares to see his face ever again, as deteriorated, drained, and oppressed as it is by the liquor.
Just as I am obligated to go to school I am also forced to wear a uniform a: white button down shirt, a tie that strangles me, and dress pants all forced so that everyone feels equal. I just feel pathetic though especially on this day when I should be with my mom for her surgery.Instead I stand up, repeat words that are meaningless etc until suddenly the words of morning prayers no longer seem meaningless, it is announced: “This morning we pray for Edward Serrate’s mother who will be undergoing surgery”. Turns out, my cousin had told the whole school about my mother's surgery just so that he could stay home and play PC games with people online which he’d never met. Now, he looked like the concerned one and I the one who came to school anyway, like it was no big deal.
The room falls still and silent with expressions and gestures from every single one of my classmate’s faces. Snickering can be heard from the other end of the room “Why is he even here?” they whisper. “He must not care for his mother's well being”.
After school, I make my way through Little India in Jackson Heights, and m finally feeling a little better I even exhibit the craters in my cheeks that are caused whenever I expose my teeth. “Mom is finally going to be better!” I think finally looking on the bright side while crunching through the auburn shades of fall scattered throughout the street.
Arriving at Elmhurst Hospital the quality of air becomes heavy and thick. Turning the corner I follow the lines on the floor that resemble the pulse lines that appear on the electrocardiograms from each hospital room that I pass by as they lead me to my mother's recovery room. I finally see her. She has tubes peeking out of her nostrils, bordered with the burgundy shade of a dried crust that blood leaves behind.
Her face is soaked with salty sweat that no one has bothered to clean despite Casto being there. She hears the crack crunch of leftover autumn on my soles as I arrive. She violently awakens from her slumber eyes fidgeting as she cries my name out furiously tapping the edge of her bed checking if I am there. Droplets of sweat pour past her freckles, she tells us “the last thing I saw were the curtains. I don’t know what’s wrong. I thought they were going to make things better”. She begins to get agitated and throws up blood as the wounds dilate from her nostrils leaking into her throat caused by her premature attempt to express herself. Casto is just there still mute and motionless as if someone has paused him.
A few weeks later she is finally able to come home with us but she still can’t see. Not trusting her surroundings she grasps onto me as if the ground is a bully waiting to hurt her. We all sit at the table with the exception of my sister; she has already eaten. We each have our cuñape and our cup of Nescafe coffee. She begins to tell us about losing the light and mentions to us what we look like to her at the moment, Dark... Black. She describes a darkness so obscure that it compares and overshadows the darkness I witnessed that night backstage, the night on which she saw me dance for the first and last time. I look at the the cuñape; it has freckles like mom.
As I am comparing the pastry’s burnt cheese to my mom’s face it slips between my fingers and lands in the pitch black coffee. It disappears then re emerges, floating until it is soaked entirely with the dark from the black Nescafe. I fish it out before it sinks… and bite it. Every bit of the pastry has been infected, drenched as illness is when spread. It is bitter. It is black.
The damage in her optic nerves can be perceived on her exterior features. Her right pupil involuntary begins to drift to the side as she can no longer control the calibration of her eye. The border that holds her iris is no longer connected in full circle. The limbus cornea’s ends reach for each other rendering them useless, like keychain rings when aged and pulled apart.
We are going out to eat for the first time since mom has been discharged.
She asks me “Do I look funny?” I hesitate “No, you look fine,” I tell her.
She runs her fingers through my dark locks, those similar to hers. She can’t see the shine but can feel the fourth day oils accumulated at my roots as it moistens her fingertips. Smudging the excess on her inner blouse she tells me “Anda bañate” indicating that it is time for me to wash my hair. Meanwhile, her hair falls in waves shiny with the Herbal Essence shampoo. It radiates as she unknowingly sits in front of a sun ray which strikes her right across the face. Her pupils no longer dilate, and she doesn’t look away. She can’t see the sun in her eyes, can’t tell that it is dangerous to stare at it like that. They don’t shut.
Her and Casto leave and my sister and I stay behind. We will meet them later at dinner but I am still sad to see her go. As she gets into the car, she looks right at me and so, on instinct, I wave like I did that night at the coliseum… except this time, she doesn’t wave back. They drive away, and as they do, trails of tears fall down into my craters. I shut my eyes to stop them, and all I can see is darkness.