I still remember as the plane touched down at LaGuardia that Pixie's “Dig for Fire” was playing through my headphones. The flight attendant had asked me to remove them but I put them back on as she walked down the aisle. I doubted and still doubt till this day that my Panasonic CD Player would interfere with the plane’s navigation system. The batteries were held in by tape because I had lost the cover some time back. The music and contrasting vocals of Frank Black and Kim Deal on that track still reminds me of that day. I can still see myself sat by the window of that plane as it landed on that clear day , 19th February 1998.
My mother died on the evening of February 18, 1998.
I was in my senior year of college at University of Oregon in Eugene. She died in The Bronx. I was on the morning flight back East. I know I changed planes somewhere but couldn’t tell you where. I have no recollection of leaving Eugene, of the journey itself but I do remember landing in New York.
Much of that week I can still only recall in moments and even then, it’s as if I see them as if I am watching a film or TV show or something. Even with grief counselling and other forms of therapy, I somehow remain detached from the events of that week.
I remember that before I got home on Feb 18th and was told to phone back East as my mother had been taken to hospital that it was a beautiful day for February. I cycled home from work as it wasn’t raining that day. Eugene winters can be very wet and miserable so that day I just remember feeling at peace and enjoying the light. When the weather was nice in Eugene, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I often thought those hills around the town were like a protective barrier; keeping us sheltered from the world outside though sometimes it felt like it was keeping us prisoner. That day I felt safe.
Things I do remember are the friends who were with me in my apartment in the Eugene Manor as I waited for update after update. I remember speaking to my best friend in New York and asking her to visit my mother in the hospital. She talked her way in by pretending to be her niece. I remember my best friend and roommate held me as I collapsed when the phone call came that she had died.
I remember crying in Eugene. I don't remember crying in New York until I had a moment alone in the funeral home with my mother's body. Even then, I am assuming I did cry. I must have. It looked nothing like her in the coffin which made the whole moment surreal until I looked at her hands. Her hands bore the marks of the life she lived. She was never afraid to get her hands dirty or pop open the hood of a car and see what was wrong with it. They were hardened but had an olive tinge that made them look soft. She was always using hand lotion to make them feel as soft as possible. I inherited that from her. In my house, I am never far from moisturiser. It was then in that closed room that I realised how important it is to look at hands. Hands tell the truth, they never lie.
That week I was "home," I remember arguing with my older sister Elisa about the funeral preparations, whether it should be in English or Spanish. Elisa was a mess. She had been shopping for her wedding dress when my mother was rushed to the hospital. My sister lived in Miami and like me, would never see our mother alive again. What’s that saying about God and making a plan?
I remember trying and failing to be there for my little sister Kasandra. She was only 13. I wish I had been able to show more to her because I was 9 when my own father died. Now, as adults we have an incredible bond but back then we were just kids. Kids who had just lost their mother.
I remember we couldn’t locate my brother Joe. We hadn’t seen him for a few years.
I remember the neighbourhood took up a collection to be able to give my mother a proper burial because our family couldn't afford it. People talk about poverty levels and yet where I grew up, there were no statistics that covered how we lived. We lived by helping one another. It wasn’t charity. It was how we did things.
Friends and family I hadn't seen for years came to pay their respects. I welcomed friends and was rude to my mother's family who never looked for her in life. I remember asking them "why look for her now?" I’ll never be able to take that back.
Father Quinn at Our Lady of Mercy presided over the church service but only after we agreed to confession in order for us to be able to take Communion. "It would look bad" if the family didn't take communion." I remember picturing my mother rolling her eyes and trying not to laugh in his office. She used to joke that if she stepped into a church that the stain glass would explode. I also remembered how important it was to her for her body to be taken to Mass before being buried. She feared wandering for eternity like she believed my father did because he wasn’t taken to Mass. It’s why we light a candle for him each year, so he can find his way. I remember at the time thinking that perhaps her light would finally illuminate his path and that even if he never made it to Heaven, if they found each other then at least they would be in paradise.
She was buried in New Jersey which is the resting ground of many New Yorkers both in life and death. My dad is also buried there. At the cemetery, I forgot the words to The Lord's Prayer which was embarrassing and shameful as "head of the family." That was a role that was thrust upon me because someone had to” keep it together.” Elisa accused me of "being cold" and not caring because I wasn't crying. It’s hard to organise things with tears in your eyes.
I remember United Airlines lost my luggage on the flight home. I didn't get it back for two days. I remember looking at pictures of my mother when I got back home and for the first time seeing how beautiful she was. I had always joked she was a handsome woman but in reality, she was a beautiful woman hardened by the life she was born into and the life she led. Ronnie Spector once said that The Ronette’s look was inspired by the Puerto Rican girls in Spanish Harlem at the time. That was my mother. She was a teenager fresh off the plane from Puerto Rico. She had lacquered hair piled high in a bun on top of her head, black eyeliner in the corners of her eyes and wore skirts that “good girls” in Puerto Rico were not allowed to wear. She was on a different island now and Mirta Luz became just Mirta or “Murrta” as non-Spanish speakers would pronounce it.
I remember flipping through those photographs while listening to music by powerful singers to get over the lump in my throat and open the floodgates. Singers like Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Andrea Boccelli and Felipe Rodriguez, my mother’s favourite Bolero singer.
Most of all, I remember that when I went back to Eugene, life moved along without much input from me.
A few weeks ago, I was driving home from St Ives. I took the coastal road which I love doing when I have things on my mind. It’s a windy bit of road through a beautiful and desolate landscape with the Atlantic on one side. It is dotted with crumbling mining stacks and houses few and far between. Possibly the largest place on that road between St Ives and Pendeen is Zennor. On a sunny day, I put the top down, my sunglasses on and I feel free. I can easily get up to 60 mph on those roads in my little Mazda if there is no one else on it. She drives like she was made for them. I was listening to a mix CD I had made who knows how many years ago and “Dig for Fire” came on.
I had to pull over to the side of the road and cry. I could have skipped the song but I didn’t. I was back on that plane, touching down at LaGuardia. Images of the funeral flashed like bulbs. I remembered that I was wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses that day.
I cried because my sister Elisa would probably still be alive if our mother had lived. I cried because as of now she has missed 20 years of our lives. She never got to meet all her grandchildren. She never got to see the amazing woman and mother my sister Kasandra has become. She never got to say goodbye to my brother Joe or see the man he has become. She never got to see us now as a family. She never got to meet my husband or see my life as it is now.
I cried because 20 years on, I still miss her and that is okay. I don’t ever want to not miss her.
John Lugo-Trebble considers this more of a space to engage personal reflections and memories with connections to music and film.