By Nikolas Reda-Castelao
So, a few days before Christmas in 2009, I remember this incident. The centerpiece of chaos germinated in an olive branch flown over the country by American Airlines. We invited my abuela, on my mother’s side, to come visit us in Dallas for the holidays, imagining that perhaps we could have a semblance of togetherness, for once. We had not seen her in years, as she lived in California and would forever be chained by circumstance and a genetic saboteur that kept her in her bed there, not sick and not hurt, but miserable and broken. She would stay with us for a week and everything seemed fine. We were wrong.
At the time, I was under the delusion that my grandmother was tender and dear. My mother made attempts to warn me, giving concerned and exasperated sighs instead of saying her name. When her name came up, it sounded like a prolonged armistice that whispered peace above the wailing welts of a wasteland. It sounded like a begrudging Camp David, and war was the measure of how loud a cough was. But, she came. And, for seven days, she made no ruckus, spilled no salt on our earth, and seemed to know how to be decent. Really, I should have been more surprised.
Then, a few days before the inaccurate marking of when Jesus, Bringer of Peace and Absolver of our Sins, was born into our terrible world, she did something. When she was cleaning, she snatched some of our childhood photos, precious heirlooms caught in old leather photo albums with tiny teddy bears holding balloons on the front. This is all hearsay to me, romanticized realities down the hall that I’ll never be able to know for sure. My mother caught her. When she caught my abuela doing this, she violated the room with such a vehemence of vile words. To say that those photos are the most precious things to my mother is an understatement. She hoarded memories like dragons of old with gold, she hoarded them like Solomon with wisdom, she hoarded them like my abuela did with malice.
Christmas is a time for family. It is by accident we celebrate Christmas. It cannot be intentional, for my family is not Christian. It is something my parents clumsily bequeathed from their Catholic households. We do not have Christian values. We do not believe in Christ being the Son of God. We do not believe he brings peace. Historically speaking, Christmas brought pain. Christmas brought anxiety and materialism and anger and two belligerent matriarchs using words to set the other on fire. But, as I was in the other room, listening, trying to understand what could have possibly happened.
My Spanish was marginal at the time. I understood curse words and insults and disgust and hate. Spanish was the language of passion in the house and the only passion expressed between my mother and her’s was that of vitriol. They roared. But my mother roared harder. And she won. My abuela, she knew this, and so she went quiet and she returned to her room, which was my room, and she wept. Or at least, she made every performance of weeping.
When she returned, I could understand her, when she muttered in Spanish, “Where am I? What is all this?” Every sentence following was a tributary of that. She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t know what was happening. She couldn’t remember that photo or this one, or even her own name. She grasped me on the shoulders, her eyes as red as hell and cracked as the lake Lucifer waits on, and she asked me, “Niko?”
I shattered. I was a buoy in this oil-spilled ocean of her mind, gently being eaten by the death. I responded to her, as calmly as madness can allow, in Spanish, “Yes! I’m Niko! What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know where I am! I don’t know what’s going on! I’m terrified of what’s happening to me!”
I was terrified of what was happening to her. I somehow ushered her back to her bed, waited patiently, like a mother with her sick and wailing infant, until she promised she would go to sleep. So she fell asleep and heart hushed and I went to my mother, pleading with her to tell me what happened.
She told me to not pay any attention to her. I cried that she couldn’t remember where she is or even who I am. My mother responded, so coldly, “She’s always doing shit like this.”
I remembered her eyes, those belligerent and apoplectic eyes whose hue I no longer remember as I write this, for I learned not to look into them. They seized me and did the cruelest things to my heart as I walked away from the battlefield. I could help no one. Five minutes later, they started bombarding the sanctity of the household again. Presuming, of course, that there was one to begin with.
My abuela once got in an argument with my mother and clutched at me and started using me to berate my mother and used me as a shield. I saw my mother’s skull clench so hard that it shattered the reality around it, and I could see how forsaken family was. I could see how the most violent person in the room was also the most justified and the victim was the cruelest player in this game. My mother, knowing my abuela had nowhere to go, began demanding that she leave. “Andante! Andante! Puta, Andate!”
That word, for me, would forever represent the rebel yell a soldier hears moments before he’s about to die. When I heard that word, I buried my soul deep down in coldness until it was all over, whatever violence was had. Somewhere in my youth, I forgot to resurface it.
I think she accidentally snatched it from the photo albums and took the AA dove and the snapped olive branch back to California, where my memories were. It was really indecent of her. I should not have been surprised. She is broken, and so she breaks things, and so now things are broken.