We were supposed to be together today! We. Were. Supposed. To. Be. Together. Today.
I could just picture it. Spending the Easter weekend together. Going to church together. Eating lasagna and flan together. Cutting a cake together. Maybe going to the beach together. Just like we did three years ago. How were we to know it would be your last earthly birthday.
I want to remember everything about you. Everything.
I remember that you were the one responding to our cries in the middle of the night. Back then we didn’t know that Mom slept like a rock, we only knew that you came to save us from childhood terrors. You were the one who saved me from drowning when I stood up at water’s edge and subsequently fell into Pelham Bay. We almost froze on the subway ride home that day. I imagine that we would’ve frozen if subways were air conditioned back then. I remember our first car. A beige Rambler we called Beachcomber, because it would take us to all the beaches, most especially Orchard Beach and Ocean Grove.
And speaking of beaches, I remember all those beach vacations. Ocean Grove was our go-to place for three weeks every year. Breakfast was in our rented efficiency. Lunch was sandwiches and fruit on the beach. Dinner was at the Grand Atlantic cafeteria. We were on the beach all day and walked the boardwalk in Asbury Park all night. For church services we went to the Great Auditorium except for that one Sunday when we would drive to Atlantic City and hang on the Steel Pier all day. For one price we got to see movies, attend concerts, and of course, the diving horse show to end the night. We purposefully returned to Ocean Grove after midnight to elude the Sunday no car ban. You grew a goatee every summer and then returned to have all the viejitas in Haverstraw nag you until you shaved.
I remember the year we ditched going down the shore and got on a plane for another kind of shore, a beach of the warm, crystal clear variety. You always spoke about taking us to Puerto Rico but money was always tight, ministers and teachers made no money, something which hasn’t changed. We needed to go when we were old enough to remember the trip and yet young enough to qualify for children’s half fare on the airlines. New experiences were plentiful. We slept under mosquiteros, used letrinas, ate mangos and quenepas right off a tree. We walked next door to buy freshly baked bread and slathered butter and jelly on it before inhaling it. We body surfed at four different beaches and the car’s brakes failed as we were leaving El Yunque. There was no money for hotels, so we stayed with family in Peñuelas and Fajardo. Unfortunately, your family left Punta Santiago before we made it there, or else we definitely would’ve stayed there. We met family we didn’t know existed and got to see the land that the Rivera Melendez family owned back in the day.
Five years ago, we had a family trip to the island, just the four of us. It was a different experience. Dementia had a firm grip on your memories. You were having trouble with balance and used a cane to keep from falling. Your driver’s license had become just a form of identification. And yet, we still had a blast visiting family members and playing dominoes when it rained. We ate at Metropole, your favorite spot, and had mofongo at Raices, washing it down with a cold Medalla.
Despite having lived in Florida for ten years, circumstances brought you home, before you went on to paradise, surrounded by those who loved you the most. Your forward thinking and brilliant planning made the aftermath easier. Mom just had to follow the plan you’d laid out for her.
When your baby brother joined you in heaven, it left us bereft of the original Rivera Garcias. We came together as a family and returned to our old church in the Bronx. The United Church welcomed us all home as we paid honor to everything you all brought to our lives. Knowing that they are all with you, as you celebrate this milestone birthday, offers some comfort, even though we all wish you were here with us.
I remember you. I remember everything about you. Happy Birthday, Pop!
Love always, your Amapola