Instead of celebrating your milestone birthday and welcoming you into our chapter of the AARP club, we your loving family, are left with memories of great times spent together. Pictures documenting our childhoods and those of our children. I can’t help but smile. Although I’m really sad that I can’t teach you the super secret AARP handshake or laugh when you get your card in the mail.
The Santos cousins
You were such a bratty kid, seriously did you have to be such a tattle tale?! We schemed how to do our dirt without you finding out. And then what happened, you grew up to be the bossiest of all of us. That’s saying a lot because we’re all a bit bossy, but you put on the mantle left by our grandparents and made it into an art form. And yet, you had the biggest heart (I guess it went with the big mouth). There wasn’t anything you wouldn’t do for us and we loved you right back.
So many memories swirl through my mind. As a kid you refused to give up your bobo. When someone would take one out of your mouth and hid it, you reached into your pocket and pulled out a backup. I remember laughing until I got smacked for encouraging your behavior.
When you bought your first decent car, you came straight to my house, so we packed up my kids and drove out to Sesame Place. You were always up for a road trip. We ended the night at a Procol Harem concert when we returned home to learn that I’d won tickets. So there we stood, swaying and singing ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. I can’t hear that song without thinking of that night, or you.
Debbie’s 30th birthday
And then there was the night you had a run in with some unfriendly Jersey cops, while on your way home from my house. The late night phone call started with, “I’m ok, but I need you to come get me from the police station.” I’m not sure if you learned your lesson about paying your tickets when they impounded your car, but I remember driving you home to Queens. You made me walk you inside telling me that Kentucky wouldn’t yell too much if I was there. I’m sure you got the lecture once I left, but he was supportive and got your car back for you the next day.
I felt honored when you asked me to stand up for you when you married your Kentucky. I also remember the tongue lashing you gave me when I cut my hair short just a couple of months before the wedding. You really should’ve told me that you had a hairstyle you wanted us all to have for your special day. Yikes. I got through the scripture reading without tripping over the words and we all had a great time cruising the New York harbor. Seriously, how cool was that.
With her Kentucky
You put off having kids right away and would borrow mine for the weekend. You learned the hard way that the little one was a pain in the ass when she refused to take a bath because I forgot to pack Q-tips.
Once you became a mother you changed. We saw a patience that none of us knew you had in you. First your blonde mini-me, with highlights women pay hundreds of dollars to have. Then your little boy who gave us hours of laughter, as he channeled the spirit of a younger Tommy, with his commercial singing and story telling. I won’t get maudlin now, but they are great kids and your Kentucky has been doing a great job as father and mother to them. You would be proud of all three of them.
Naturally, life isn’t a rose garden and our family has seen its share of pain and loss over the years. We knew you were working the morgue at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11. We thought nothing of it, you were doing your job. Your phone calls now included the things you saw while there once you gave me an update on your life and the kids.
And then you got sick.
We had so much hope that you would beat the odds. Hope that the cancer wouldn’t spread. Hope that the doctors at Sloan Kettering would save you.
And then I got the phone call on a Friday evening. I guess Tommy drew the short straw. “They’re transferring Debbie to Calvary on Monday.” I already knew what that meant, after all didn’t we spend time there in the recent past. “Aw Tommy, why are you telling me this,” was my response. I saved my tears to spare him from further distress.
When my sister called to check up on me, I knew I had to get out of my house. So, after alerting my vacationing kids in San Diego, we went to see a comedy show at the Apollo Theater. Yup, we did. We ate chuletas at a soul food restaurant on the corner and then laughed, to hide our tears. Many years later, I met the writer/actress of the show and let her know that her show that night saved me from myself. You would’ve loved her, she is as funny and irreverent as you were. (Thanks again, Rhina) Afterwards I went home and drank until I fell asleep, similar to when Danny died. Not my proudest moment. My cowardice took over and I could find no dutch courage at the bottom of the bottle.
By Wednesday you were gone and those left behind had to deal with the loss.
The FDNY opened up their purse strings to give you a proper sendoff. Paramedics and EMTs from everywhere came to pay their respects. There was even a group from Ireland, who were in town for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and asked if they could give you their salute. Bobby and Noreen worked on the services and the music while my Pop and Victor worked on their messages. The Damas from San Andres kept us fed and caffeinated.
I admit to dragging Val down the aisle of the church to stand before your coffin, basically because I was scared to do it alone. As long as someone was with me I could tamp down my grief. Keep it all under control. And what was the first thing out of my mouth? “Debbie would never wear that shade of lipstick.”
You’ve been gone eight years now and I still feel the loss. There is a void in my life that wasn’t there before. Your loss made us a stronger family. We make it a point to schedule family gatherings to ensure everyone could be there. We celebrate your life every year and maintain strong ties with the Rodriguez Family, almost as if you left your mother’s side of the family to us in your will. We tell each other “I love you” regularly and we mean it.
And then there were nine
When it’s my turn to join you in paradise, remind me to teach you the super secret AARP handshake, after all you’re fifty now even if we can’t have a party, we will celebrate you always.
I miss your smile, Prima.