In 1947, possibly 1948 if my own memory serves me, when my grandmother, Fulgencia Sanchez, née Zevallos, relocated from her birthplace of the Dominican farming village of Higüey, to the bright lights of Santo Domingo with her husband and two eldest daughters, she had, she confided in me once, visions. Visions of a new and prosperous life. Visions of becoming someone, anyone. Her father, Martin, had, gifted her with livestock, some modern amenities and a beautiful house which still stands today on Calle Padre Garcia. Her life, she told me once, had turned out far differently than she ever could have imagined.
But she was undeterred.
She, the headstrong, determined, devout feminist and devoted follower of God, did, much in the way, I like to imagine, a certain peasant girl spoke to Saint Catherine one day in a field, march with such a staunch commitment to progressiveness and a belief that her story would, inevitably, one day have to be told that she’s been canonized in my own world, if not in the world of anyone else.
We were never to refer to my grandmother as Abuela. Her vanity would not have permitted it (my own mother’s, when the time comes, if it comes, will not permit it either). She was Mami Uva, or Mother Grape, “uva” being a nickname that stuck with her from the moment her father laid his eyes on her at birth. Uva lived in a Section 8 apartment on Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens. She’d lived there since the spring of 1994, having moved there from a walk-up on Delancey Street to be closer to my mother, who was just about ready to give birth to my younger brother, and myself. We were never more than a fifteen minute car ride away; we moved from Jamaica to nearby Woodhaven when I was in my twelfth year for better public school options and, once I learned the route from Jamaica Avenue, I’d walk up to and around the Queens Center Mall to see her myself.
She’d cook. Always. Not once did I come by and not find a meal waiting for me, or a meal already in the stages of being prepped. My brother and I would inevitably find ourselves seated in front of the television in her bedroom for cartoons while we ate; she’d remove herself to the living room for her telenovelas (on this practice, she never budged; no amount of protesting in the interest of her comfort could persuade her). And, more often than not, she’d regale us with the story of her life.
She’d had nine children, losing two while they were still in the toddler stage to rather unfortunate accidents. She raised the remaining seven the best she could while my grandfather, she said, drank and ran around with cheap women (he was an odd man, she said; he eschewed technology, couldn’t fathom graduating to a refrigerator from an icebox, let alone driving a car when his legs could carry him just as well). She divorced him in the early 1970s and, still bearing that freshly liberated glow, she’d emigrated to the United States (prior to this, her intelligence alone landed her a job processing visas for the American consulate with no professional experience whatsoever and this connection expedited the matter considerably).
She found herself working as a seamstress and toiling in textile factories but still, it was preferable to what she believed would be a life sentence to mediocrity in a country still struggling to find its legs after three decades of oppression under an uncompromising dictatorship. She wanted nothing more than for her three youngest daughters (my own mother among these) to join her in Valhalla. On New Year’s Eve 1979, this became a reality.
The rest, as they say, is history.
My mother was the sixth out of this brood of seven, and the only one of her enormous family to choose to live in the United States full time. Looking back on it, she told me once, she’d always known that the duty of caring for my grandmother in her advanced age would become her responsibility. She never spoke of this with any resentment, for while the relationships between the fiery members of the clan went through dramatic highs and lows which sent them drifting ever further apart (and my mother was, more often than not, not on speaking terms with one or more of her brothers and sisters at any given point), there was room for a relationship unlike any I’ve seen between mother and daughter to blossom: They were best friends.
My mother had been a sickly child, prone to bouts of pneumonia and other maladies which left her lungs permanently scarred.
“One day, Alan,” my mother recollected, “I was… really young, maybe six or seven at the most, and a relative was visiting, maybe a family friend. I was passing through the house, just minding my own business, and I overheard him ask my mother if she was finally going to come to terms with the fact that I was going to die— that a child in my condition could not possibly make it into young adulthood. Your grandmother… oh, your grandmother!” She laughed, and it was a hollow laugh, metallic and slick with burgeoning tears. “Do you know what she did?
She shot him down. She wouldn’t hear of it. And if she wouldn’t give up on me even as I lay dying without even being aware of my impending death, what kind of a person would I be to give up on her when she needs me and you and your brother now the most?”
In January of 2013, I finally qualified for laser eye surgery and I flew down to Santo Domingo for the procedure; it was cheaper there, and I’d be staying with cousins. Having worn thick glasses for my entire life up until that point, I very much looked forward to the procedure, to my recuperation and, most importantly, to the time I could spend with dear Mami Uva, who had flown down there for a short vacation earlier and who celebrated her eighty-ninth birthday during my trip there.
It would be the last birthday we celebrated together. It was while we were on the plane flying back that I noted a certain distance, aloofness and even dottiness in her behavior. Shortly after we returned to New York, my mother and I took her to a neurologist who diagnosed her with dementia, a mild case, at that, but the fear of seeing her lose all her faculties reigned supreme. The doctor prescribed her medication and my mother and I immediately noticed amazing improvements. I found myself spending every moment I could with her, watching novelas, meeting her for lunch and talking, talking to her incessantly, doing anything within my power to keep the gears in her mind whirring in between chauffering her to doctor’s appointments so she could be prepped for knee surgery which would, we were assured, relieve her of much of her arthritis pain.
My brother had enlisted in February. My mother and I found ourselves left to these tasks alone.
On July 13, 2013, I received a frantic phone call from my mother. My grandmother was missing. The police were summoned. Ater a bit of digging, she was located in Orlando, Florida, where she was staying with an aunt of mine. The aforementioned aunt has owed my mother a sum in excess of twelve thousand dollars for some years now; their relationship was pretty much nonexistent. When the police managed to get in contact with said aunt, the phone was handed over to my mother. My aunt proceeded to insult her and accuse her of abuse, citing the knee surgery as the primary reason why she and my uncle had taken her away. “It’ll kill her!” she claimed (this coming from a woman who hadn’t seen her own mother in about five years and who had never worked, as my mother and I did, in the trenches, privy to every minute detail of Uva’s physical health, which was, as one doctor put it, “the best I’ve ever seen in anyone, male or female, in her age range.”).
We were then served with a power of attorney which named my uncle as her official guardian and, a short time later, a restraining order. Uva was shipped off to the Dominican Republic shortly afterwards, brought back to the United States only when it was convenient, or necessary to do so, and with the exception of a couple of court appearances and an impromptu visit to her apartment on the eve of one court appearance when I sneaked in to serve her with our own guardianship paperwork, I did not see her again.
I would not see her again for another year.
Let me tell you a few things about my uncle.
1. My uncle owes my mother several thousand dollars.
2. My uncle decided not to pay her years ago.
3. My uncle attained this power of attorney although he does not possess sizable income or assets to justify having personal and financial control over my grandmother.
4. My uncle is also a convicted felon, a man with an extensive record which the police, Adult Protective Services and the court system failed to address.
It meant nothing to anyone; not the courts, not APS, not Section 8. Not my grandmother’s landlord. Not my mother’s own lawyers, who despite never bringing the case before a judge, still saw fit to liquefy her retainer. Not local city councilmen, not our Congressman, not the New York City Mayor’s Office. Not the media. Not even the bank, which, without my mother’s knowledge or consent, handed my uncle the reins to the joint bank account my mother and grandmother had for years (the same one, might I add, in which her Social Security cheques were being deposited into).
It meant nothing to anyone that my uncle had decided to deny my grandmother her medication and rightful heath care, and that he’d taken to illegally squatting in what is essentially government property. It meant nothing to anyone that there were hundreds upon hundreds of dollars worth of bills racked up in her name sent to collection agencies. It meant nothing to anyone, that is except my mother and myself. It meant nothing to anyone, and so we grieved.
I have viewed my grandmother’s case with the same eye as one would deadly human rights violations. You could say that, for a time, I was enraged at an extended family that knew perfectly well what was going on, but chose to look the other way, because it’s easier to ignore the elephant in the room, even when it’s practically stamping on your head and there’s no room to even walk out the door. Though I consider the majority of these people complicit in one way or another, that anger has subsided. I did, however, become embittered by a system which failed us, and that failed her most importantly, right down to the day APS made their first visit to her home, sending us a Guyanese caseworker who didn’t speak a word of Spanish even though we had specifically requested a Spanish-speaking caseworker, who did not come with an APS-appointed translator and allowed the very man who’d been accused of neglecting her translate anything she said for him.
This same caseworker came back with a grin on his face: “The old lady is fine. Batty, but fine. Why can’t you people just get along?”
Why do we pay taxes in this country? We do it so we can have, hopefully, a safety net, so we can utilize the services available to us. The roads are paved. Bridges don’t fall into a state of disrepair. Our police see that crime stays down. Our courts deliver justice. Our elderly are taken care of.
What safety net existed for Fulgencia Sanchez, who suffered in silence?
What safety net was there for my mother, who grieved openly, who wrote letter after letter and practically lived with her mobile taped to her ear, only to be met with cold indifference?
As Marge Gunderson says near the end of the Coen’s Fargo, shortly after witnessing some rather catastrophic events engulf her tiny Midwestern town: I just don’t understand it.
I just don’t understand how such an intelligent, proud, passionate and loving woman could see her life end on a coda as sad as this one.
I just don’t understand how a daughter can be left heartbroken, how families can tear each other apart without fear of recourse, how I can find myself writing this. How I could feel alone even if I lived within the beating heart of the world.
I just don’t understand how we can be expected to pay taxes into a system in need of such an extensive overhaul.
I just don’t understand it.
She wasn’t perfect.
She was stubborn, even hot-headed. She was stuck in her ways and in her habits. She was loud and sometimes, not a very good listener. But that loudness was paired with a distinct boldness. That brashness was coupled with a relentless practicality and a mind so sharp and so attuned that you could gladly listen to her talk for hours, about anything and everything, even if she’d just annoyed the hell out of you with her taunting during a game of dominoes or a round of bingo. Her heart was soft. She loved me fiercely, loved me perhaps even more than my own mother. She encouraged me to write and to read. She adored my singing voice and, more often than not, asked me to sing to her while she cooked and cleaned. She adored my mother, who brought me into this world, adored and doted on that sickly little girl who, she was once told, wouldn’t live to see her quinceañera.
It doesn’t matter how old I am. I’ve heard this story many times.
“Your mother was just a girl then, Alan. She was…I don’t even know how old any more. But I’d taken her to a doctor’s appointment, so he could check out her poor lungs. The bills were sky high and we were so poor…and it was hot. The heat was at its peak. And your mother, tired and in so much pain and dying from the heat, turns to me and asks, ‘Mami, can I have a milkshake? It’s so hot. I’d really like a milkshake.’ And I said, ‘Yes…I’ll get you a milkshake.’ And they only cost a dime, just a dime. But I looked through my pockets, my wallet, my purse…I looked everywhere. And I didn’t have it. I didn’t have it. It hurt me to have to tell her that, to see the look on her face. But I knew then…that something had to change. So I’ve done everything I can and she’s grown and she’s happy. She has two wonderful children. I have two beautiful grandchildren. But I still feel such pain over that milkshake.”
We brought Uva home. She’s been with us a few months now. She goes in and out. Some days, she knows who I am. Others, she doesn’t. That’s another story, though.
I tell her how much I love her. She sees it, she knows it, though she can’t articulate it. She’s been too ravaged by that terrible year without care, by failure. In a way, we are fortunate that she’s ignorant of these facts. When she smiles now, it’s a child’s smile. Guileless. But children have a way of smiling with their whole bodies. You should see how she smiles.
I miss her warmth and her touch. How deeply my emotions run. How little I still know of the extent of her comprehension. It hurts. It could’ve been easier. But I love her, even if she forgets who I am some days—the boy who sang to her, who took her for lunch after a hospital visit, the boy who lit a cigarette in her house once and dared to smoke it openly just to see what she would say (“Think of your mother’s lungs,” she said, and it was instantly snuffed out and discarded). I wonder if she sees me, somewhere in her mind’s eye.
Sometimes, I cry when I think about it.