The last time I was in my birth country, it was death that brought me. It was summer 2013, and my Abuelito, my father’s father, had spent weeks in and out of a hospital in Lima, Peru. He was in his early nineties, with a lifetime of survival from violence and health issues behind him, and so at first when his body began breaking down, it felt like another thing he would recover from.
My family in Lima and my father in Miami, who spoke to the fellow doctors in charge of his care daily, knew better. Their cycle of panic and hope and dread had slowly been exhausted; by the time my grandfather was rushed to the hospital in early June, a quiet knowing had spread over them all. Even from our hotel in Port Aransas, Texas, where my husband and I were celebrating our anniversary, I felt it. My father called just as we were sitting down to dinner next to a giant sea water aquarium. I watched the fish meander by as he told me it was time to say our goodbyes.
There is nothing that prepares you for the pain of mourning, but when you’ve spent your life apart from a loved one, what prepares you for not knowing how to mourn? My mom, my dad, and my sister moved to the United States from Lima when I was only four years old. While my childhood was spent with my grandparents, cousins, and aunts and uncles on my mom’s side, my father’s side of the family remained in Peru. We spent years unable to visit them while our immigration papers slowly made their way through the system. We got to know each other through charged-by-the-minute phone calls on birthdays and holidays, or vacations my grandparents took, bringing along a few of my cousins, to visit.
Which is to say, we didn’t.
What few memories of my grandfather I can truly call my own, I’ve held onto like the faded photo albums my parents brought with them when they left Lima. There’s an image of him going for a walk in the park with my father, a small, white towel hanging over his shoulders to wipe off his sweat. The sound of his laughter, so loud and deep it crackled. On one of his last trips to Miami, he petted our boxer, Chloe, with such gusto I can still see his hand slap against her wagging body. More than that, there is distance and silence.
In Spanish, to say I miss you we say “te extraño,” or sometimes more fittingly, “me haces falta,” which is to say “I lack you.” I lacked my grandfather and he lacked me, so when the time came to say goodbye, it seemed leaving our country twenty-five years ago had already done the hardest work for us.
There is nothing easy about migration. It is a search for a better life but in this way, it is also a death. How easily would you choose to leave this life? How quickly, if the decision were made for you? It is a line you cannot uncross, whether you are lucky enough to visit every few years or if you left knowing you will never return. Everyone and everything you knew and loved are gone.
In the four days my father and I were in Lima, there was little more than half an hour of sun. Autumn was closing its doors to let winter in through the window and the sky was perpetually grey. Life became muted. Light slipped out of it. No one—not a single pedestrian, or stray dog, or even the towering half-done buildings that stretched towards the sky—cast a shadow upon the earth.
When we first saw Abuelito, my father explained what was happening to him in a calm, medical fashion. He pointed out the dryness of his eyes, the long seconds it took for the color to come back to his skin and nails when he pressed against them. I imagined this is how he coped, by explaining the inexplicable. I watched my grandfather and watched the life leave and wondered where it was going.
“Vamos,” he would say, over and over. It was the only word that stood apart from so many others he tried to utter. “Let’s go.” He called my father’s name sometimes. He squeezed my father’s hand and opened his mouth when my father asked if he could hear him, but no sound came out. His silence struck me the hardest, because my grandfather had been an orator. He was known for these booming, long speeches after Sunday dinners or over video chats with my father. He always had so much to say, and in those moments I found myself regretting I didn’t do more to listen.
That first day, I wrote. What I want for him now is peace and a chance to reclaim his words, if only for the last ones that are spoken.
We had so little time with him that my father and I barely left Abuelito’s side. Cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings and friends of the family stopped by to pay their last respects, and we’d sit quietly in the background, or leave the room altogether.
On the second day my older cousin came in and sat at my grandfather’s side. She took his hand, leaned into his ear, and began whispering. I tried to look away, or at least, tried to make myself look away. I did not want to hear what she was saying so much as I wanted to have as much to say. They spent minutes like this, with their heads pressed together. Every few seconds, Abuelito would nod, just barely, and I’d search myself for words to offer him: words that would take up as much time. Words that would make up for the time we never had. Words to say, I’ll miss you. Words to say, I missed you. Meaningful words. Last words. Words I didn’t have.
Our third day in Lima, my father took me for a walk through our old neighborhood. He took my hand and we crossed Benavides Avenue, a street now as thick and congested as a highway, though my mother recalls playing in its loneliness as a child. He showed me the building where we used to live. It had a bright yellow exterior and a thick strip of maroon blocks of brick underneath the windows. From the ground, my father pointed to the third-story window of our first apartment. It sat empty next to another unit covered by a huge “Se Vende” sign. We walked along the side of the building as a young woman rode up on her bicycle and entered. She lived there and we did not anymore.
“That was your room,” my father said. “That’s where you slept in your crib with your cast.”
I nodded and remembered—not living there, but seeing a video of life there. It is a glimpse into a white-walled baby’s room. My left leg is suspended in mid-air, covered in a cream-colored cast, after my first series of hip surgeries when I was one. My sister in the living room, having spilled a basketful of plastic barrettes, tries to chew on them like they’re candy. After my parents’ divorce in my mid-twenties I lost track of where this video went, but it is the closest thing I have to memory of life in Peru.
On our last day, all four of my aunts and uncles arrived at the hospital, and for a brief twenty minutes or so, my grandfather was finally joined by all his children, together in one place. They told him, “Aquí estamos, Papá,” because by then we did not know how much he saw or heard, and they wanted him to know they were all with him. He slept, and then he woke, and then, as if he’d been saving all his energy for this moment, he spoke.
“Lo que yo más quiero es hablar.”
What I want more than anything is to speak.
We braced ourselves. We told him to go on. But that was either all he had to say, or all he could say.
His last words are a gift that have both haunted and consoled me. At times I think of them and am overcome by guilt: How do you make up for a lifetime of not listening? Other times I listen harder and realize he was also saying: What I want more than anything is to be heard.
These meanings are not two sides of the same coin. They are the life we could have lived together, and the ones we lived apart. They are a family carrying their same blood to separate lands. They are two ends of a phone call, coiled and stretched thousands of miles, longing to be close enough to whisper.