Where he always lived. Where he wanted all of us to live.
“Coño, qué frío.” I hadn’t felt cold like this since mom passed three years ago and I came to visit a couple of times. That was January and February, too. But it’s worse today. It hit below zero pretty much all week. When I left Chicago in 1985, I pledged never to return during Winter. I hated the cold weather, allergic to it, I would say. Three or four months, every wretched year, with asthma pump in hand, unable to do any biking or the other outdoor sports I thrived on. My only exercise was shoveling snow from the front of the house and clearing the slush and ice from around the car. And even doing that I’d catch a cold or get asthma.
And yet, here I am. Again. Getting off the train and walking down Chicago Avenue to the hospital, curiously — or fatefully — the same one. This time, it’s dad. Did they have to do this in January? Both of them? Really?
Not that they had a choice. For mom, it was cancer. Got it in August 2018 and by January was in pretty bad shape. From the four of us, I was the one closest to her. The one who went with her to work, or to the supermarket or sewing store, the latter to pick up telas or whatever. I would just stand around, kinda bored sometimes, until I looked up at her and she just smiled and held my hand, pulling me along, so warmly, it felt. “Almost done. Tranquilo.”
Dad was the stern one, toward me anyways. But I deserved it. He was the one who kneeled me in the corner one day. OK, maybe 3–4 times. The one who pulled out his belt, though thankfully just for the scare of it. He never actually hit me with it. When I would do one of my travesuras, he would snap his right-hand knuckles on the table real hard and give me that stare. And then I would see mom off to the side with a slight chuckle, as if to say “It’s all right, mijo, don’t worry about it.”
That was a rough stretch. In my life, I mean, not just with dad. He was just trying to straighten me out, as intent with me as with his siblings growing up in Puerto Rico for all of us, no matter the place or the decade, to acquire the right values and education. I never caught them arguing about it, but I can only imagine the conversations. “Alex is on the wrong track, Aurea. We need to be firm.” “I know, Frank, but don’t be so harsh. He’ll be back to how he was in Puerto Rico.”
Yes, in grade school, when I was a straight-A student and in heaven playing outside all 12 months with my countless cousins. All 12 months! Along the river behind the house in Bayamón, seeing who could throw or hit rocks all the way to the other side. Visiting abuelo in San Lorenzo and climbing those mountains. Or dad’s family in Arecibo, on the rolling hills of Barrio Esperanza.
Until 1974, that fateful June Jr. reminds us about just about every year. But what’s there to remember so much? I became a C student in middle school and first two years of high school. Four years with my dad on my case. I was angry at first, at life, not at them. I wanted so bad to stay on the island, so much so that I returned first chance I got, when I got married in 1988. Don’t get me wrong; I love Chicago. Best city in the world. Would still live there to this day, and more so now that my daughter Maydi lives there. But those winters.
Like this one now. I walked slowly to the hospital, first to keep my asthma from flaring, stopping at Stan’s to grab a coffee and donut — really to catch a break from the wind piercing my cheeks and slicing through my jeans. But also to capture the moment, because this might very well be it for him, I thought.
The day before, his urine had turned dark brown and his fever rose to 102.8. For a man 88 years old, with a heart condition, diabetes and having suffered a skull fracture and lots of internal bleeding from a nasty backward fall a week before, that sure looked like the kind of sepsis that would doom him in no time. Maybe even today. So I walked calmly, deliberately, allowing the moment to settle in, as the memories rushed through. I’m still wondering how the tears didn’t freeze.
I was a few hours late to hold mom’s hand when she died. Dave got that honor. He arrived a few hours earlier from D.C. to join the family in the room. What an amazing moment that would have been — to have been there, to hold her tight, to kiss her one last time, to hear her chuckle and see one last playful smile. I fancied that perhaps, were it His will, God would grant me that moment with dad.
When I got to the room to start my caregiver turn, two nurses were trying to contain him. He was furious, his full white hair pointing in all directions, eyes wide open, arms swinging, grabbing the side rails, legs ready to jump out. Definitely not the frail, dying man I expected to find.
There was no way to tell what he was trying to say, but at least he was trying to say something. Just the previous day, we heard he was mostly silent and unresponsive. He reached down to his groin area, legs squeezing together. “Do you want to pee?” To which he would nod excitedly. “Yes,” one nurse said, “but he has to do it on the pads.” Until he did, and then relaxed.
The fever had come down. That urine? Normal color. “We stabilized him overnight,” said the other nurse, as they played busily with buttons and tubes and set him straight on the bed and rattled off instructions I needed to have. He would live to see another day. And another. Three days later, the doctor team gave us the rundown. Every major organ was weak, and they hadn’t yet found the infection, but the antibiotics were containing it and they felt confident he would make it out of the hospital at some point.
The day before I flew back home, Jr. and I sat there looking at him. He looked so much like his mom, abuela Adelina, in her final days 30 years ago. She was such a matriarch. Dad always gave her all the credit for who he had become, the kid who at 10 years old would visit neighbors en el campo de Esperanza to read newspaper reports of the war, especially to moms and aunts with kids on the frontlines, groping, anxiously, for any hope of them still being alive. At 12, abuela figured he was the only one in the area who could administer the medicines for one of her aging aunts, which he did. At 15, he launched a wholesale start-up with his brothers, picking up fallen guayabas from the ground and selling them to a nearby guava juice maker. At 17, he was off to Chicago with two of his brothers, leaving both parents, another two brothers and five sisters behind.
A year later, it was him joining a war — not combat, though. His Korea assignment was as a uniformed translator on a base in the states, honorably discharged two years later in ’53. He had promised to return to Esperanza to pick up the rest of the family, and that’s exactly what he did. Bought the tickets — the Chicago brothers pitched in — got the girls some dresses, and got everyone on a plane to the Pilsen building right next to the house we moved to in ‘74.
Life was good to him at the time. He maneuvered his way into the political process, becoming a close Hispanic-community ally to Mayor Richard Daley and dreaming of becoming the first, or at least the biggest, Hispanic member of the U.S. House of Representatives and bringing progress and growth to the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities he so fantastically adored and worked hard for, day and night. So many nights in fact, along with his insurance, loan brokerage and tuxedo businesses, that mom grew tired of spending so many of them alone with three kids. Frank Jr. was born in 1960, Lourdes in 1961, and me in 1962. So she pushed and pushed until he relented and we moved to Puerto Rico, where David was born in 1970.
Dad tried his hand at success there, as well, mainly with one big residential development in Arecibo he wanted to call Lourdes Village, but his investors backed out. When we returned to Chicago, he couldn’t quite get it going again. Former allies had moved on. Mayor Daley had passed and the new mayors proved tougher nuts to crack. The community had fallen on other hands, for whom Frank’s return was…unwelcome.
He tried his luck in New York and South Florida. Tried and tried again. Giving up was never one of his traits. Loan brokerage became the constant, what put food on the table. But on to the next project it was, day in and day out. To the day he fell, he was still on the prowl, spending his 80s going for a huge project in the Dominican Republic that had yet to happen.
And today, there he laid, moving restlessly and aimlessly, unaware most of the time of where he is or who we are. Except for those fleeting moments when my sister, always his girl, the one who took him in and cared fanatically for him after mom passed, would say, loudly, “Daddy, it’s me.”
How she could hold that voice so firmly is beyond me. And he looked up, suddenly, sharply, eyes wide open, hands clasping hers as if holding on to the love of his life, and vaguely mumbled, “Lourdes.”
What are we to make of all those dreams he held so dear? They drove him so hard for so long. “How are you, dad,” I would ask every time I called him from the island, as did Dave from Virginia. “On cloud nine,” he would say, every single time, no matter the hardships and disappointments, no matter the big business idea that had just fallen through. His voice, every time, was energized and resolute, never, not once, reflecting the bank balance he may have just glanced. Only mom kept us informed, and kept him grounded.
In his mind, though, he was flying, off to the next project, the one that would surely get him to that place he had long sought. And damn, they were all such amazing ideas, holding such promise, if only…if only they had worked out. If only one.
We did, though. The four of us became his shining triumph, and now his six grandchildren. Thank God I turned it around my junior year. Ended high school almost as well as Jr. had three years before. We both went to Holy Trinity, he the legend whose legacy I began trying to catch after overcoming my rebellion and getting on with my life. I could tell dad was happy for me at the time, relieved perhaps a better word, though he never quite came out and said it. But yeah, his smiles, hugs and palmadas gave him away. I was back, and now it was four of us he could be proud of when going to bed every night, hands on his chest, mom by his side.
No telling if this is it for him. It looks like he won’t get up from this one, but one never knows. Miracles do happen, and perhaps God will look kindly on this fine servant of His, this clean, brilliant, moral man who never stopped working for family, country and community, this dad who we never heard swearing or complaining or brooding. A true gentleman. A gentle man. Dreamer, yes, but if it was the dreaming that gave him life, shall we all dream on in his memory.
Because he never dreamed for the sake of the project or the money. He dreamed for us, just like the dream of moving his family from the poverty of Esperanza to the hope of the big city. He said it oh so often.
One of his latest dreams was to launch a Hispanic-market political magazine, counting on Jr. and me to run it. (We’re both journalists by trade.) “We can have María run a section, and let’s give Cano a role, too.” María, his sister and my godmother, I could understand. She’s a career journalist who had fallen on hard times. But Cano? A super dear cousin, mi pana, son of his brother Copérnico. “I know, I know, he doesn’t have any experience. But he needs the job and you guys can train him. He’s a fast learner.”
And so it went, project after project. And so it always was. When Copérnico got to Chicago and wanted to work for the phone company and venture into that brave new technology, it was dad who tutored him, taught him English, helped him pass the big test, which for tio would become the career of a lifetime.
There was always a family member he wanted so badly to help. The projects were simply vehicles he was trying to build, like space ships for everyone to fly high, vehicles that came to mind, one after the other, as I left the hospital one last time, in that below-zero weather, to fly back to San Juan, hoping to return and spend perhaps one more time with him, maybe more, maybe be there with Jr, Lourdes and Dave and hold his hand the day he goes.
“Papi, me voy. Bendición,” I said when leaving the room, holding his left hand, now noticeably thinner, bruised by needles, wrinkled by time.
And then the words I was not expecting, broken, yes, but clear enough to make out.
“Que Dios te guarde.”
His head bowed a bit as I walked away, looking back, walking backward. His hands began playing with the cables again, as a nurse walked in.
“Frank,” she said joyfully. “How are you?”
“Always on cloud nine,” I heard him say, deep inside his mind.
“That’s the only way to be.”