Saturday, February 28, 2009

Queen for a day

In Puerto Rico, as in much of the islands of the Caribbean, there is this tiny bird, known here as the reinita, or little queen. Its English name is Bananaquit, and it has always been one of my favorite birds. It's one of the things I miss about Puerto Rico in Ohio (along with the ubiquitous lagartijos or anolis -- little green or brown lizards, which Magellan used to love to chase as a kitten when we lived here).

At my parents' apartment, my parents always used to keep a small bowl full of water because the reinitas and other birds not only drink from the bowl but also love to take splashy baths in the water. Sometimes they have veritable pool parties where a few of them come at one time and spill so much water out of the bowl that it soon needs refilling.

Two days ago, I rescued the water bowl, which my mom had taken off its perch on the balcony's railing and put away for fear of the dengue mosquito, which breeds in dirty water. For the past few weeks, if not months, there really has been no time to pay attention to the water bowl.

But a sign that things are slowly returning to normal, or to as normal as they can be at this point, is the fact that just as quickly as I set the bowl out, a reinita came and took her beauty bath. I captured some of the bath with my trusty digital camera, which unfortunately has its limitations and, thus, the picture doesn't do justice to the cheery scene.

But, if you click on the photo, you might notice that fluffed-up condition of the reinita (actually, because it's a relatively larger bird I'm thinking it might be a male, since the female, which took her own bath just now, is much, much smaller).

The tiny birds are strikingly beautiful, with night-black plumage, a bright-yellow chest and white necks with white stripes along their eyes. They have a curved beak, which serves their nectar feeding habits and they chirp loudly and commandingly in an unmistakable "I want your attention now!" kind of way (very Puerto Rican, if I may say so myself!).

I'm hoping that when my husband joins us next week and brings his good camera then we'll get a better picture of the reinita to share with you so you can fully appreciate the beauty and zest for fun of this tiniest and cutest of birds.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An island of contrasts

Puerto Rico is an island of contrasts, where colors play against each other giving even the most mundane view, like this one from my parents' balcony, some charm and interest.

But it's the bluest of skies that always takes my breath away, especially when contrasted against the pudgiest and most playful of slow-drifting white clouds.

One thing I noticed at the hospital over the past three days when I was there with my dad was the almost unfailing courtesy that everyone showed each other. People coming into and out of the elevators wished each other a good day and a brief stay at the hospital, and while there were, invariably, one or two people who were cranky or aloof or both, those were the marked exception.

Each and every time I come to my country I realize how Puerto Rican I am, from my taste in food and music (mostly boleros) to my love of high-heeled shoes and of dolling myself up for work to what has become a potentially problematic (only in the States, not here) custom of calling everyone (even strangers) "honey" or "sweetie." That's so Puerto Rican!

This time around, I've realized that there's a part of me that likely is invisible to those who know me at my small college on the hill, where I seem (mostly) like everyone else. But I am not, and am very proud of that. After so many years of living stateside, I have fully acculturated to U.S. culture, but I get more not less Puerto Rican as time goes by (despite my fondness for silence and my inability to relate to reggaetón). I've been so focused first on getting my Ph.D. and then on my job that I had nearly forgotten how much I love being able to reconnect with the part of me that makes me different, that makes me who I am.

Recently, my mom and I were checking her calendar to see when I had been here last and it seems my last visit to Puerto Rico was 2 years ago in 2007. I did not come last year, because I was finishing my dissertation and couldn't fit a visit in, so the last time I came must have been sometime during the spring or fall of 2007. I'm still not sure.

I'm glad I'm here now, not only because I get to be of use to my parents at a difficult time, but also because I feel at home here on this island of blue skies and contrasting colors and moods. This is where I come from. This is who I really am. Like my island, I am a living contrast between what is and what seems to be.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


OK, so the picture and the title of the post don't match, but this is the best I can do until I get some pictures of my own.

All is joy in our little Puerto Rican household today because my papi is out of the hospital! Yeiii!! Other than having a lion-like mane of white hair (very Beethoven, as my mom says), he's doing remarkably well for a man who had major surgery a week ago. Even his fantastic surgeon is impressed with my papi's survival abilities (and I think so is my papi, to tell the truth).

Meanwhile, back home, my husband is putting up with the 25-degree weather in Ohio (while it's 82 degrees and partly cloudy here), with the constantly feuding cats, with Geni's gourmand attitude toward her own poop, and with the ever pesky and increasingly more brazen squirrels.

In this latest squirrel-related adventure, my husband found our small, red bird feeder, empty and discarded in the courtyard of our apartment complex where he caught this photo shortly after a squirrel abandoned her post, sitting near the absconded bird feeder. Those squirrels are something else, I tell you.

We don't have squirrels in Puerto Rico, but we have changos and oodles of pigeons and I hope to regale you with some photos of the bluest of skies and the puffiest of white clouds as soon as I can.

Today, all is celebration and joy in our little Puerto Rican household. ¡Bienvenido a casa papito!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Puerto Rico bound

Now that my brother did his "shift" in Puerto Rico, and my sister completes hers today, I'll be on my way - si Dios quiere - before dawn tomorrow to take the baton, so to speak, see my papi and mami and get some very welcomed calorcito boricua, too.

I'll be there for almost three weeks (Wow! Not counting the years I was sick and living with my parents, I haven't been home for this long since college!) so I hope to have good news about my papi's progress, which seems to be viento en popa (my sister said he walked for the first time since the surgery today). And I also hope to get the chance to take plenty of pictures of my beautiful island to share with you as the situation becomes more stabilized, as it seems like it will.

These have been a tough 2 or 3 weeks, I can't even remember how long. Sometimes I've felt like the last thing I thought I could do was to walk into my classroom and pretend that I didn't want to crawl under my bed and cry and cry and cry. But teaching and meetings and prep work have all been effective, if exhausting, distractions from the difficulties and heartaches of my papi's illness.

As my last day winds down here and I get ready to teach my final class of the week, which is also the last class until we come back from spring break in March, I'm starting to look forward to a much-needed respite from the demands of my small college on the hill, which have been piled several layers on top of the demands of being an eldest daughter in absentia.

That absentia ends tomorrow so I'll finally feel like I'll be able to fulfill my role as it should be. Dr. S, meanwhile, has very generously volunteered to teach two of my classes next week, and I've already scheduled make-up classes for when we return, so it's time now to finally focus on my family. I'm hoping for the best!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Pileated Woodpecker has found us!

Today, as I was walking away from the kitchen and back into the office to do more class prep, my husband said with an urgent tone: "Look at the suet! Look at the suet!"

"Which side?" I asked, since there's a suet cage that hangs in front of each of the picture windows in our small apartment.

"The kitchen one!" he said, as he ran to grab his camera.

Last year, when I lived in the apartment now occupied by Dr. S, a Pileated Woodpecker, one of the most majestic birds I've seen, used to come to the suet cage regularly. So regularly, that when a student house sat for me, she saw the Pileated merrily having his meal at the suet several times.

Once we moved to this apartment, though, the Pileated was gone, and we thought he'd never come back because the back of this apartment is more exposed than the one where Dr. S now lives, which overlooks the woods, where this hugest of woodpeckers freely roams among the trees.

But we were wrong. The Pileated is back and I'm going to say that it's the same one who visited me before. It just took him a while to figure out where we'd moved. I like the sound of that story, and I look forward to my husband getting a better picture the next time the Pileated visits with us.

Monday, February 16, 2009

One step at a time

The good news today was that my father underwent surgery this morning and came out on the other side of oblivion, alert and asking questions of his surgeon. It's not a curative surgery, but a palliative one, as he likes to quote his surgeon as saying. And I'm in favor of anything that palliates these difficult times for all of us.

My brother was home with my mom for 11 days and my sister has been there since Saturday and will stay through Friday, and then I will go home this coming Saturday and stay through mid-March.

Now it's a question of taking it one day at a time, as my papi's surgeon says. And well I know that that's about the only way that one can take the recovery from such an operation. One step at a time, keeping the future in mind, saying to oneself, over and over again: "This, too, shall pass."

I'm looking forward to finally seeing my parents in the flesh since being so far away has been hard, but not harder than being there, in the trenches, so to speak. The spoon is always the one that knows how hot the soup is, my papi always said.

And I won't be sad to leave winter behind, hopefully for good at least for this year. By the time I get back in March, winter should be in its last estertores, God willing.

This past Sunday, Dr. S, my husband and I did a very wintry thing by joining a group of adventurous souls to do a moon hike through the forest near my small college on the hill. Up we went, hiking in the slippery snow (I slipped at least once) up a steep slope to watch the glorious full moon rise over the darkening trees.

On the way back, I saw these picture-perfect paws, probably of a raccoon, leaving its tracks behind in the piragüa crunchy snow, and asked Dr. S (who true to her artistic talent for photography always carries her awesome camera with her) if she would take the picture for me. And she obliged. And here it is.

I particularly like the paw print to the upper right hand side, which seems to be fully open and joyful.

It was taking steps that the raccoon left its mark on the snow, as we all did, crunching through it on our hike, like Arctic explorers. And it'll be one step at a time that my papi will come out of the ICU and then to a room and then back home. And then, perhaps, if I dare dream, he might get some normalcy back and enjoy whatever time he has left among us.

Friday, February 6, 2009

El que se va pa' Aguadilla...

This is Geni's bed. But as the days get sunnier and longer, the cats have claimed yet another space as their very own.

When she is exiled from her bed, Geni spends part of her day on the rug that used to be Rusty's, in the living room.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mi querido papi

Many, many years ago, I knew that something ineffable had changed in my life when first my sister and then my brother got married. I have a vivid childhood memory of this book my parents had around the house, Passages, about the different stages of life, and how to handle them. While I've never read the book, more than ever now I understand why such guides might have been useful to them.

That same sense of the inevitable passages of life struck me again more than a decade ago when my sister had her first child, and then my brother had his family, and, of course, almost 15 years ago when it came my time to marry. More recently, this past December, I was forcibly struck by the fact that my nephews and nieces are either teenagers (the eldest a junior in high school), or on the brink of leaving childhood behind.

But the greatest change that faces me and my family now is my father's passing. This week, he was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer, a diagnosis that my bruja sense had already warned me about but that comes on with the force of a blow to the stomach, nonetheless. We never know how long we have on this Earth, and my father didn't want to know his prognosis so all is like before: we know he will leave us, but we don't know exactly when.

My father, a brave man all his life, is taking the news (quite literally) in stride, one day at a time, and enjoying being out of the hospital and re-settling into his routines, now divested of any extraneous work other than what he wants to engage in. If he is being so brave, we can and will do no less. We will follow his example and handle the very worst of news with aplomb and courage and good humor.

These past few days I've been thinking a lot about when my father is no longer among us, and I derive some consolation from the fact that he will forever remain with me because there is so much of him in me. This most complicated and maddening of men was the one who helped raise me (along with my lioness of a mother) to be a person to be reckoned with.

A man who mused about the difficulty birds faced in flying because of the exertion on their wings, my father was born with the soul of a poet. But while he was still a boy in school, a famous Spanish poet read his verses and recommended that he pursue a non-literary career, so my father put away his poetry and a little piece of his soul went with it. I wish I could travel to that moment in the past and tell that young man not to listen to the arrogant son of colonial conquerors who had no way of appreciating his Puerto Rican sensibilities.

My father taught me by example to be (or at least to aim to be) uncompromising in my standards, demanding of myself and others, fierce and loyal as a friend but fearful as an enemy, unabiding in maintaining my integrity, honest and ethical to a fault, loving to and protective of my own, and, most of all, dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others, specifically for those less fortunate.

My father is also a true patriota, like no other man I know, past or present. He has dedicated all of his life to working ceaselessly through education, through his books, through advocacy, through mediation, and through his pen (well, more like his typewriter and then his desktop), his only weapon, or fusil, to envision and reform a patria that would not kneel before the United States. While his dream of our patria's freedom will not be realized during his lifetime, he can rest assured that in a country where more than 100 years of U.S. colonialism (on top of 400 years of Spanish colonial rule) have fostered widespread corruption and lies told shamefacedly and internecine violence, he has stood as a model of truth and of not ever selling out. His example lives now and will continue to live on in the future, passed on by those of us who have been shaped by it.

In the two years or so when I was in the midst of creating my Monster, my father was a tireless research assistant, who flagged books and articles and read nearly every leaf of my 345-page creature with enthusiasm and interest and who engaged and debated my ideas in his unique and greatly appreciated way.

My father is and has been a warrior all his life, and this space is too short to tell of all the things he has taught me, of the humor, of the love, of the stories, of the kindness, of the strength, of the sacrifice, of the beauty, of the ideas, of the sights, of the opinions, of the certainties and uncertainties that we have shared and that I have seen through him and because of him.

In my life, he is and will always be a pillar of strength and love. We have more days to come, days to make the most of, especially because we don't know how many. As I ready myself for one more passage, admittedly one of the most difficult of all, I am again inspired by his example, and pray to God that just like my father has lived mostly on his own terms, let Death be kind and allow him to walk through this last threshold on his own terms, too.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Welcome February!

February finally arrived, and did so today with some promise. Not the kind of promise of this gorgeous Oregon rose, which my husband and I saw last year when we traveled there, but promise there was, nonetheless.

The temperatures reached the mid-40s, the thick stalactites hanging from the roof outside began to crash or drip into oblivion as the ice quickly melted under the warming sun, and we both felt the giddy hope that spring is almost around the corner.

The best thing about February is that it's only 4 weeks long and in almost exactly four weeks, my husband and I take off to Puerto Rico for a well-deserved, and long-awaited break. In the meantime, I'm trying to stay on top of three classes and everything else I do on a daily basis, the bulk of which is work.

After battling a darned cold for a week, today I finally felt well enough to get to the gym and spent about 40 minutes (there's a lot of 4s in this post!) on the treadmill, which helped rev up my endorphins, putting me in a good enough mood to face the end of the day, when temperatures again will dip into the low 20s and everything that melted will refreeze into huge, slippery chunks of ice. Ugh.

Although January dragged on forever, it also went by in a blur of busy-ness, and I missed the second anniversary of this blog, which was born on January 21, 2007.

Meanwhile, as I get ready to settle down for the night to work on class prep and grading, my prayers and thoughts are at home, in Puerto Rico, where my dad and mom are going through a difficult moment because of my dad's frail health. This is one of those times when I wish I had a clone that I could send to Puerto Rico to help my mami, instead of having to stay all the way over in this middle-of-nowhere, hoping for better news with each phone call.

But, as I've learned with my own bouts of illness, when one can't do anything to change a situation, then all one can do is hand it over to God and pray and hope for the best. I'm definitely praying for better days to come.