I watched her pointto the incense dish from whichsomeone swept all the ashes up. Askingif she recognized us. Because thatis what the living want: thinkingit is a sign we have been loved.
—Paisley Rekdal, “The Wolves“
It has to come from the heart, the whole heart and nothing but the truth of the heart, the muddled, erratic, tempestuous heart we share. The heart that left you, Aunt Elida and my mother dusty and running after a pickup truck full of fresh sugarcane through Mexico, through Texas, wrinkled and faded dresses bordered in white, once bright, once new. Three tough sisters who once chased a very bad man away from abuelo’s three-room house, a very bad man who’d come to take your home and worse, a story left unclear exactly just what happened to this fool who tried to take advantage of you, the three sisters, on a day when your father and brothers were not home.
And the truth of the heart is that I know exactly what happened to this fool, that I would’ve done the same thing, which I could confide not in my mother or father—only in you.
And you’d say it wasn’t until you fell in love with Uncle Rogelio and drove off in his pickup without a plan to Chula Vista— a new borderland for you in California—that you found a gentleness, a freer spirit, that your other two sisters would not. During school, how often did I call you in tears, full of rage and rebellion, wanting to come live with you, sick of my mother’s strict rules, her bright-eyed, barbed-tooth plans for me, her would-be ballerina-astronaut-doctor plans for me. You always listened, no matter how late I called. You called me “your precious,” a name I now choke back, forgive these tears, I know this is not what you want.
I tell myself that you’d want no tribute, only truth, the truth of the heart, which you believed illuminates the truth of the brain, the great, beautiful brain that betrayed you. Its gradual webbing of interlacing tumors. Its malignancy that we’d seen in kind before, in the 1990s when a cluster of anencephaly newborns— those cases of neural tube defects which result in babies born with only brain stems and little more—struck the Rio Grande Valley, right across from neighboring Matamoros and its maquila industry, which Standard English calls “U.S.-owned factories operating in Mexico” but are really “duty-free bondage.” But how many corporations then would deny a link between these grievous birth defects and the xylene-laced soil, the open and untreated sewage canals of the maquilas, how these corporations ransacked the borderlands and the neighboring waters of the Gulf. You’d want names: General Motors, AT&T, and Fisher Price, all of whom denied wrong-doing, while promising to beef-up safety regulations and protocol in factories where women were not given protective gloves while touching toxic solvents, where women faced ongoing sexual assault and rape?
And you’d say shed no tears but bear witness—and so, my love, I do, to the cancers and autoimmune illnesses that began to sprout up in our family and others on the border because of the contaminated water and soil. And I am bearing witness to the webbing of tumors and subsequent surgeries that left you incapacitated and robbed you of your memory and motor skills and balance, your ability to reason, to tell time, stole you from us. And I am bearing witness to sitting down with you these last few years and you not recognizing me, how badly it hurt at first. And yet that’s how I then came to hear the truth, the truth of the heart, that you worried your young precious wasn’t going to survive school, that you worried about her getting bullied, that you worried about gangs and drugs and violence. And then you’d look at me sternly, tapping me hard on the shoulder, before telling me: go easy on her, hermana? Esperanza, understand? My precious calls me late at night and I’m worried she’ll crack under the pressure, and then what?
I remember excusing myself to use the bathroom of your home in Chula Vista, and holding my mouth as my body shook silently. I studied my face in the spotted mirror.
My mother. You thought I was my mother, when she was younger.
You called me her name in the language of sisters, a language I’ll never have, a language in which I learned you weren’t so sure that I would make it.
And it wasn’t that it was too late to tell you that I did.
And it wasn’t that for your last remaining years, I was stuck in time, in your memory, eternally a troubled, frightened, rebellious child who called you in the middle of the night.
No, it’s that it was my turn to listen.
It’s that I want to believe that I became your sister that you spoke to, and that your precious became my niece who now calls me for advice, love, understanding.
Tonight, I light a candle and say your name over and over: Olivia Gomez de la Garza Cisneros.
And I tell myself it has to come from the heart, the whole of this disbelieving heart which still can’t believe you are gone, as I reread the letters you wrote to me when I was in college. And I realize we share the same penmanship, the ornate curls of our introductions, the half-block, half-cursive script, the long crossing of Ts. And here is one in which you recall the Fourth of July in 1967 when you and Uncle Rogelio joined a large group of Chicanas and Chicanos marching in their brown berets and uniforms with fists thrust in mid-air shouting ‘Chicano Power.’ How you kept going, with your heads held high, when passers-by called you Unamerican. And how you dropped the label given to you at the time in the Rio Grande Valley – Latin American – and adopted Chicana/o, the “a” before the “o”, signifying a new order of gender rules. And how you decided to enroll in college, then a mother with three young children, majoring in Child Development and eventually working for Head Start as a social worker, Uncle Rogelio not only in full support, but taking an interest in your courses in Chicano Studies. Your life’s work was advocating for young Chicana mothers and their “difficult” children, a job my mother is still doing as an translator at schools, because both of you survived a girlhood that often ended only in “and worse” for many other young women of the border.
Towards the end, it seemed you forgot everyone, everyone except for your husband, and strangely enough, my father.
Mama often remarked on this. That you would forget her, the face of your own sister and confuse it with my own, but my father, you never forgot him.
I’m thinking about what it means “towards the end” as I finish this, though it is not the last letter I will ever write you. That you will be there in the future of my pages.
And I’m thinking of the morning I awoke to find three missed calls from my father, and how he’d sounded so strained on the phone at first, that it took a good amount of silence for him to tell me you’d passed away. That you’d been sick for so long and yet seemed nowhere near death, although the last I saw you, you’d talked to the dead, your eldest brother, my dearly departed Uncle Balani, as if he were in the room with us. Telling us that he was right there, next to you.
How I have no empirical proof of this, but in the heart, the whole heart and nothing but the truth of the heart, I knew he was there, in the room with us. In all the rooms with us, all the rooms we would ever pass through.
I want to believe that neither he nor you could never be taken from us, Tia Olivia, even when the doctors said your mind was beyond repair.
I want to believe that human life extends well beyond the borders we place around it.
And I’m thinking of how my father called not only to tell me of your passing, but that with a great urgency in his voice—I will never forget this—that my mother, your eldest sister, my Mama Esperanza was at work and had no idea you were gone. And that my father had called your siblings and other family members to tell them not to tell my mother that you passed away, that he had to be the one to tell her, in person, in his arms. That he did not want her to find out any other way. That he was at work too and would not be home until six that evening, and he’d tell her then, that I had to promise him I wouldn’t say a word to her. That it wasn’t until days later the full heart of such love stopped me in my tracks on Skillman Avenue here in my quiet stretch of Queens, that I had to find my bearings, leaning against one of the great, towering trees of the avenue, and wonder if this is in part why you never forgot my father’s face or his name.
There is so much more I want to tell you, but for now, my husband has fallen asleep again, wanting to stay up with me as I write late into the night, his head rising and falling against me as he tells me he’s awake. When he’s in between. When he knows he should be sleeping.
I am looking at him, thinking of the eternal struggle between the heart and the head.
Here is that living.
Here is that tree.