Friday, June 15, 2012

Sing a New Song, Chiquitita: Of Grandmothers and ABBA

What in the world can a 30-year-old bit of pop fluff possibly do with the death of my grandmother? I'll get there.

Last August, my 81-year-old grandmother fell ill. One thing led to another and she ended up spending close to two months in the hospital. There were the nights when she was barely conscious, knocked out by pain killers. There was the open heart surgery, done to replace a narrow valve. There were the endless days on an oxygen machine, courtesy of the fluid accumulating in her lungs. A domino effect of issues cropped up until she ended up on dialysis.

We convinced ourselves that it was a temporary measure. After all, the nephrologist told us her numbers improved significantly following the first couple of treatments. And her brother, who'd been put on dialysis because of diabetes, was about to begin his fourth year of the treatment. Surely my grandmother would be done with it by Christmas?

Since I was unemployed, I gladly shouldered a lot of the hospital time. My grandmother first came to this country in the 90s and she never learned any English. At most, she could say hello and thank her nurses. We knew she was alarmed at all the piling health concerns and being alone in a hospital would only add to that panic. No one escaped sleepover duty. Even friends cheerfully volunteered to spend the night at JFK Medical Center or a few hours in the middle of the day while my mother and aunts went home to tend to all the things that still need attention.

During the many hours I spent alone with my grandmother, we never really delved much into her earlier years. I knew the main details: Maria Dominga Ruiz; born in 1930; at the age of 23, married my grandfather, who was 56 and a widower with children older than she; four kids; etc. She herself was widowed at the age of 37. One would think that alone would spark endless talk between us. 

But my grandmother was never really chatty. Scratch that, she was never chatty about deeply personal things. I always wondered if she ever regretted staying alone after my grandfather passed away. I wished I had asked her how he'd courted her, what it was like to marry someone who had children your age. Alas, I thought we'd have more time. Even after all those health issues, I firmly believed my grandmother was a fighter. She was widowed in her late 30s and she picked herself up by the bootstraps and raised my mother and her 3 siblings to be respectful, loving, decent human beings. 

What exactly does this have to do with that ABBA song I posted in the title, you ask? When I was born, my mother and father were living here in New Jersey and my grandmother was living in Dominican Republic. My parents were thrilled to be the new parents to twin baby girls. Three months later, my twin sister, Wendy, passed away. The doctors told my parents it was SIDS-related. They also advised my parents to keep a close watch on me, that they could easily lose me too. I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child and on top of that being casually told, "Hey, it could happen to your other child." My parents were devastated.

My grandmother's heart broke for her family. There she was, stuck thousands of miles away, with no way to comfort and console her daughter. Eventually, she sent my mother a tape with the Spanish version of Chiquitita. For my mother, it became an anthem. Years later, it would become my younger sister, Jessica's favorite song. But I never truly listened to the lyrics until my mother told me the story of the tape her own mother, in a moment of desperation, sent to her. The final lines genuinely speak to me:
Otra vez quiero compartir tu alegria, Chiquitita
Once again, I want to share your joy. 

All I needed to know about Mama Minga is encapsulated in that single line. She loved nothing more than opening her home to her family and friends, cooking up a storm and spending an evening just being with loved ones. We will greatly miss our matriarch, our Chiquitita.