The Occasional Triumphant

The tuba steps unsteadily forward for a solo

Category: WRITE CLUB

Change (For Arcadio)

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My grandfather, my Lolo, Arcadio DePaz Bustillo, died on September 26, 2013. I wrote this for a WRITE CLUB bout in December 2013.

A journal entry from August 30, 2013:
A day and a half of fitful deliberation and we were then in the car. 9:30 PM on a Thursday, pointed north on I-75. The interstate runs through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and into Michigan and to Detroit. To Troy. To Crooks Road. Connects us to cross streets and neighborhoods leading to my uncle’s house, to the second story bedroom where my grandfather–my Lolo–lies in a hospital bed, his lungs connected, I-75-like to a winding shiny tube connected to an oxygen machine, meant to get purity to him while the cancer inside him does what it does.

We drove through the night so Alex, my son, could sleep. We stopped just twice for gas, a handful of times to stretch our legs, and once so the Georgia State Patrol could write me a ticket for speeding. I had to drive fast, I wanted to say–I was in a balancing act between a sleeping child and a dying grandfather hundreds of miles away. But I didn’t say that.

Lolo isn’t the only one prone in bed. Lola–my grandmother–is next to him. She’s all but given up eating. All but given up. She’s holding his hand. That’s really all any of us can do. I propped Alex on the bed and he picked at Lolo’s watch and emergency bracelet. But at one point, he grasped Lolo’s thumb–grown swollen and stiff–and just held it and looked at his great grandfather in that way babies have of seeming at once a blank slate and a perfect being of compassion. He can be present and not prematurely grieving in a way I cannot.
*
I wrote that while getting myself very drunk on my cousin’s couch. It had been a pretty intense day. There is no journal entry after that. The next day, we went back to my uncle’s house to be with Lolo. The house was full of cousins, aunts, great aunts, children–and that hospital equipment. My mom and her sister had moved the oxygen machine into the hallway outside of Lolo’s room so it could be quiet in there where we gathered–the whole lot of us–around Lola and Lolo’s beds.

Lolo slept. He would occasionally groan uncomfortably and my mom would help readjust the wreath of pillows surrounding him. We all watched him sleep. After a while, someone produced a book of prayer. My mom, aunts, great aunts, cousins–pulled rosaries from their pockets.
*
I didn’t come here tonight to talk about death. Yes, I lost a grandfather, yes that’s sad, but my pain does not make me unique among you. I’d hazard a guess that everyone in this room has gone through some similar life-changing event–that we all have dead grandfathers, or dead grandmothers or dead dogs or dead careers and if you were to bring them up in conversation, we’d all nod and say we’re sorry for your loss, but inside we’d be thinking fucking hell, death awaits us all, buddy, what makes you so special, Grieving Gus? Chin up.

Okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t come here tonight to mock the bereaved.

Lolo was a doctor. He emigrated here from the Philippines in 1972. He’d been doing a public health study of these yearly outbreaks of cholera that would happen around Caloocan. He determined that it might be a cleanliness issue when he found that some of the ordinances for food handling hadn’t been updated since the 1800s. So he started revising them and had the sanitary inspectors distribute the new ordinances and there was almost immediate pushback. Calls started coming in from the municipal office asking him to just sign the health certificates. Then they started offering him money. Two pesos for each certificate he signed. That would have been a couple thousand more than his annual salary. He turned it down and went ahead with examining workers in the food service industry and started finding people who were spreading cholera. People got quarantined and medicated.
One day he gets called into the office of the Assistant Director of his medical school–all the Sanitation Inspectors are there.
“Dr. Bustillo, you know, we’re just receiving orders. I’m receiving orders, you’re receiving orders…and they told us to stop your project.”
So that was how the first study into annual cholera outbreaks in the Philippines came to an end. That day, he went home and went to his wife–my grandmother, my Lola–and asked if she’d like to get out of the Philippines.

But I didn’t come here tonight to talk about the unabated spread of cholera. I came here to talk about change. It’s actually odd for me to think of Lolo in the context of change, because if my family had one constant in my lifetime, it was him. He was the one always tinkling away at the piano during family gatherings, he was the one always cracking silly jokes, always painting or carving or planting or creating something. For Lolo, change was something he did, more than something that was done to him.

There around Lolo’s bed, laying there in my uncle’s house in Michigan, my mom, aunts, great aunts, cousins, finished praying the rosary–my Lola, who can’t speak–scrawls something down and hands it to Lolo. Her handwriting, which was once lovely, is now almost illegible. Lolo holds it close to his face.
“I love … is this in German?”
The tension in the room breaks and everyone falls about laughing. And it would be nice to say that the letting go got easier after that. It didn’t. It’d be nice to pretend that I didn’t sit my son on that bed and take a picture just to be able to someday show him that he did meet his great-grandfather before he died. To say you may never have to sacrifice your comfort and your country for your principles, and it will have been because of this man. To say this is who you came from, and for a few moments, he held you. To say this was our family, changing hands.

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Hope

This piece was written for a WRITE CLUB bout in which I was given the prompt “hope” versus “despair.”

We’d gone into the hospital expecting to be home for dinner. It’s just high blood pressure, they’re just being cautious, we’ll get a prescription and be on our way. I sat and held her hand and we watched reruns of the Cosby Show on the TV bolted to the wall there in triage. Nurses came in and out, taking blood samples, asking questions, strapping pink and blue paddles to her belly to monitor the tiny heartbeat inside her.

We had time to surf a couple times through seventy channels of nothing before a doctor came in to see her. She said the word “eclampsia” and it didn’t mean anything to me so I’m not going to harp on it. I’ll leave it there for you to look up later, but it’s just a term. We don’t need terms–I’m telling you about a thing that happened. And what happened then was they kept her overnight for observation.

We were moved up to the recovery floor, where women held their newborns and where she was connected to monitors and administered medications and put into a bed to be as still as possible. “Bed rest” is easy until someone tells you to take it, until someone puts you in a thin gown that ties up the back and has you lie in an uncomfortable adjustable bed and puts inflatable cuffs on your calves which hiss and puff as they fill with air and then empty again, to discourage blood clots.
A doctor came in to tell us about my wife’s blood. It was not the worst of her problems. The boy growing inside her didn’t weigh as much as they’d normally like at this point in the pregnancy. There had been fluctuations in the baby’s heart rate that were worrisome. The high blood pressure was an issue. All this stuff was symptoms of that thing. The doctor said they’d be monitoring all that and the best thing my wife could do right now was just lie down, sleep, eat, and not do anything. “Stay relaxed” she said and left us to the machines and monitors and bedrails.

Days passed like this, a grey routine of opiates and hospital food.

*

She woke me up around three. Her stomach hurt. I helped her to the bathroom, disconnecting her from the various machines around the bed and scooting her IV behind her. Nothing. She sat and clutched and groaned and nothing. I helped her off the seat and sat next to her on the cold tile floor, her one hand grasping her stomach, the other wrapped tight around the handicap rail. She wondered if food might quell her stomach ache, so I fetched some crackers. She ate two, taking long, deep breaths between each bite, her eyes closed, concentrating on tasting the salt. She handed me the wrapper and turned to the toilet and threw up. She clutched at the seat for a while; I called for a nurse.

We got my wife back into the bed and plugged in again. The baby’s heartbeat crackled back into the room and drugs were administered. Very little happened in the way of relief. The doctor was called.

We sat together there for ages, the pain in her stomach getting worse. My helplessness became so palatable that it may as well be an entirely separate character in this story–a scared little boy standing still in the corner, gnawing on his fingers, watching this happening and acting as if by standing absolutely still, he could bring time to a full stop.
The doctor came in just as the clouds outside our fourth story window were beginning to go purple. She pulled her hands from the pockets of her white coat and put her hands on her own stomach as she explained to my wife that her liver had become severely irritated and had stopped filtering anything. As she gestured, palms up, shoulders bent, her eyebrows arched in sympathy, my wife’s head rolled to her left shoulder. Her mouth gaped open as if she were being tugged by the cheek and she made clicking noises from somewhere in her throat as her eyes rolled back into her head. Marianne? Marianne? The doctor raised her voice, trying to get her to come back. Marianne’s arm swung over her body and pinned against her jaw. A trickle of blood, orange with spit, dripped from her mouth. A button was hit somewhere and the room filled with nurses. Me and the little boy biting his fingers were forced against the wall, staring at the rush of hands and tubes around Marianne’s limp body. A nurse stuck a tube in her mouth to suction the blood from her mouth. Her lips were the same purple as the clouds outside.

“Okay, we’ve got to get her to the OR. It’s time to deliver this baby.” Her doctor looked at me as if to ask are you ready?

The bed travelled swiftly down the halls. I kept pace alongside. Marianne was starting to come to.

“What’s happening?” The doctor tried to explain that she had a seizure and was heading to the OR to deliver the baby.

“I don’t understand…” She blinked up at the ceiling, squinting, not focusing on anyone. I tried to hold her hand, but her limbs had gone limp and she didn’t seem to feel me there. The helpless little boy held fast to my shirt, tugging along behind me. I think he was trying not to cry.

“Where’s David?”
“I’m right here, honey.”
“Where’s my husband?”

The warren of corridors and elevators led us to a pair of wide metal doors. A doctor swiped a card, the doors swung open with a click and a hiss, and the bed was through. I was kept back in the hallway, watching Marianne, still unsure of what was happening, disappear around a corner. I was handed a paper gown, a face mask, and a thin blue cap to stretch over my hair. I dressed there in the hallway and paced. I wanted so much for you, son. I wanted good health and strong hands and I so wanted for your entry to the world to be good and happy. I had never thought to specifically hope against panic.

With a click and a hiss, the doors opened, and a nurse gestured me inside. Marianne lay on the table, arms straight out, crucifix-style, a blue curtain tied up between her face and the procedure below. I sat down at her shoulder, and she looked up at me–she’d started to come around. I held her hand. The helpless little boy held on to her other arm with both hands and sniffled into his paper face mask, tears flecking his glasses. Marianne nodded for me to come closer. I leaned in, our noses almost touching.

“I’m gonna have the fuck out of this baby.” She whispered.

I looked up. The little boy was gone. Someone on the other side of the curtain called “okay,” and there was a tug, a rush of pain, a tight grip at my hands and then a new cry entered the world.

Instructions on Living a Blessed Life

This piece was written for a WRITE CLUB Atlanta bout between myself and WRITE CLUB Overlord Ian Belknap. My prompt was “Blessed,” he was assigned “Damned”…the fun one.

Get born. Be born into middle-class circumstances; perhaps your father works for the phone company, perhaps your mother works at the Red Cross. Perhaps you all live in the suburbs of an industrial city in decline, let’s say…Detroit. Attend public schools, ride your bike. Be raised Catholic. That’ll help.

At a young age, let’s say 9, let’s say it’s 1990, move with your family far away from home–perhaps to the South. Perhaps Georgia. Perhaps to the sleepy hamlet of Conyers. They’ve got six Waffle Houses!

Find that your level of intelligence coupled with a natural sense of curiosity and a desire to read and read and read make the rigors of public school an easy ship to sail. Be socially awkward, but not entirely friendless.

Grow up. Move out of your parent’s house. Go to the first in-state college that accepts you and your HOPE scholarship money. Find that your level of intelligence coupled with the low standards of a public school education have completely fucked you out of ever developing any kind of study habits or sense of accomplishment. Drop half your classes. Squander your talents and your HOPE scholarship. Drop the other half of your classes. Move back into your parent’s house.

If you happen to have gotten laid at any point back there, that’s cool; it is in no way helpful to your current situation.

Take on a job in a factory mixing industrial cleaning fluids. Pretend this is acceptable. Half-heartedly take some community college courses. Blow your paychecks on records. Ignore the fact that all of your high school friends have moved away. Ignore your community college courses. Finally say “fuck this bullshit” and move back to your college town, vowing to do better.

Do marginally better. Focus on writing. That’ll help. Take writing workshops and work jobs you hate and drink heavily and fail to notice you’ve dropped out of school again and have become a townie. Holy shit! Stop being a middle Georgia townie! Move back into your parent’s house. Fuck.

Go back to school. Get a job. Get engaged. Move out of your parent’s house. That’ll help. Get married. GRADUATE COLLEGE. Luck into a job in, say… public radio. Realize that though your path to this square foot of happiness you have managed for yourself was fucked, it was an intricate game of Jenga. Pull one wrong piece away and BAM, you’re still drinking shitty beer in a college bar in middle Georgia with other sad people who have found themselves living in middle Georgia. Rejoice, for you are blessed.

//

There is nothing wrong with me… There is very little that is actually wrong with me. I may talk a neurotic game, but the truth is I have not worked my way through even a fraction of the kinds of hardships my esteemed opponent has, the bastard. Yet, through high school I always thought of myself as the black sheep–the dangerous, angsty, problematic one in my family. I mean, compared to my younger brother, I was a heathen caveman.

Nick–my brother–is a talented guy. It’s December 1989, we’re kids in the backseat of dad’s minivan–we’re driving around Warren, Michigan where we live. Christmas carols are playing on the radio. We arrive home and as the rest of us pull off our coats and boots and sweaters, Nick goes to the living room and sits down at the piano. He begins to play. He plays the carols we had been listening to on the radio. We all crane our necks and go to the living room to watch in amazement because Nick is four years old and he has never played the piano before. I had dropped out of piano lessons just a few months before. At the time I was mostly relieved that the pressure for me to succeed had disappeared with a few bars of Good King Wenceslas.

Mozart followed soon after. Then Beethoven. Generations of dead Viennese took up residence in our house as Nick dropped hammer and nuance across lesson and recital and competition and audition. His talents earned him two concurrent academic careers–one in public school, the other in private lessons, and woe betide him should he let either slip. Competition days were especially gruelling. You walk into a room alone to sit at an instrument in front of a row of judges and you either let the hundreds of hours of work you’ve put into those few minutes sing…or choke on a bundle of nerves.

To be blessed with musical talent…any talent… is to spend your life repaying that debt by working your hands to the bone in service of this thing that people mistakenly call a gift. You can walk away from it, sure, but the best among us show reverence to our blessings.

A year and a half ago, my brother came out of the closet. He said he hated to reinforce the stereotype of the gay church organist, but there you go. He moved out of the house he and his wife had bought together and moved in with me while he figured out his next move. He kept his head up and went to work—he plays organ in a Catholic church. So he’s kind of like a mole or something. It may strike you as foolish or contradictory or even traitorous for a gay man to give his talents to an organization which condemns him for who he is…but if your first language is Bach…what are you gonna do? It’s not like you can go be an organist for Delta. Not a lot of pianist positions in the dental industry.

In the middle of all the turmoil kicked up by my brother’s revelation about his sexuality and his impending divorce, our mom was angry and confused and trying to make sense of this. She told me once in a scolding tone of voice that she was disappointed that Nick was taking the easy way out. I argued with her, no—there’s nothing easy about what he’s doing. He’s taking a sledgehammer to this comfortable life he’s built. Knocking holes in the walls of his house–his marriage–destroying the certainty of a comfortable future. That’s not the easy way out. There really is no easy way out.

Further Instructions on Living a Blessed Life:

Fuck up. People who never fuck up are assholes. And liars. If you have to “go off in search of yourself,” when you find whoever that is, kick their ass up and down the street. Burn everything to the ground that you’ve managed to build on top of a lie and make sure that bruised and bloody dick of an “authentic self” you’ve found builds something spectacular in the ashes. And if you possibly can, have a far more talented younger brother. That’ll help.