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melissa nunez

“I’m thirsty,” he tells me. His voice once full of tenacious timbre, a kiskadee call leading the lost to his pulpit perch, now puling, hollow as his mouth, lips curved over the place his teeth once were. I lean in close to hear it.

His hands are constant frenetic motion up by his chest as if clutching something—perpetually on the brink of slipping away—close to his heart. His joints, pinzas abandonadas al suelo, won’t relax anymore, elbows always bent, fingers always clenched. When my grandfather first moved to the nursing home, he would spend his days in the hallways, arms extended to the sky, tethered by an invisible rope, and when asked by the staff or other passersby what he was doing he would tell them he was saving the world. He was keeping our planet on its axis, in orbit—solo su fuerza prevented us from floating away into empty space. Sigue luchando.

I hold the cup placed by his nurse on his bedside table to his mouth, offer him the thickened milky liquid prescribed to safely hydrate his bedridden body, but I can see in his eyes it does nothing to quench the drought in his throat. His eyes, once multifaceted as his aura—amber, pine, midnight blue—are the muted color of the walls, floor, the liquid in his cup. “Quiero agua,” he says, so I offer the cup once more. I smooth back his hair, perhaps his only vanity, or at least that professed by his daughters. Still full, but white and gray have overtaken the lustra negra that shone like his Sunday shoes.

“I’m itchy, too.” And he scratches at the scabbed skin along his arms the way I used to irresistibly itch at mosquito mordidas—sweet on my sangre like sun-ripened sandia from
roadside vendors—that plagued me as a young child, knowing it would only intensify the
sensation. His skin like the candy he used to keep for me in the freezer when I would visit after
school. A chalky film layered over the rich chocolate beneath. This particular suffering is
neurological, nothing a topical ointment can relieve. I slip my hand into his porcelain-stiff
fingers to quell the urge and try to think of something to say. I come up short. He is no longer the man of my memories and it feels impossible to share the images without compunction.

He was grandfather first, evangelist and church planter second. I knew he was to be revered from stories my mother and her siblings told: his hand like a fist around household amenities, curfews, and morality. “Get me my belt, Mother.” The only flash of the disciplinarian I had never seen now that he could no longer see me, my sister and I, our chatter, for the first time the source of his irritation. But that was my mother’s father. To me he was the man who would stop the car to retrieve the trash he had released into the wind rather than be called litter bug by his five-year-old granddaughter. Long walks along the golf course beside his home, “jello yellow” at Luby’s Cafeteria, hidden sweets he should have been avoiding due to his diabetes, nails long and strong—perfect for peeling oranges, and powerful prayer.

I have nothing to offer this man who once held me in his lap and now can fit in mine; his length and strength shriveled into a caracol curl on the hospital bed. I remember how he would sing in the early days of his stay: children’s church songs and old hymns. His voice would carry down the halls and never failed to bring a nurse or two to smile at the gozo, gozo, gozo en Jesús he still couldn’t contain. The voice that carried bendiciónes through telephone lines every time
we were too sick to visit. His voice that commanded us to “put attention” to the Lord. He doesn’t sing like he used to, cannot clearly form the words, but he can still communicate the song he’d like to hear by humming the tune. As I sing for him the guttural groans fold into my words, mezclan como leche y miel. The sound is still sweet.

Melissa Nunez is a writer from the Rio Grande Valley. She loves coffee, conchas, and cuentos. Her essays have appeared in eucalyptus & rose, Yellow Arrow Journal, and others.

"Dia de los Muertos is honoring our ancestors through the celebration of life y hermosos recuerdos."

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