In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.
The First Book Without Them
I lost my father in November, and my mother, at the beginning of April. Three weeks later, A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship was published. My sisters wondered if I was going to cancel the upcoming book tour because I was grieving.
It hadn't even crossed my mind. If there was one value my parents had ingrained in me, it was to cumplir: you keep your promise; you do your duty; you pick yourself up; you go on.
But often as I walked to the podium in Madison or in Denver or Seattle, I looked for them in the audience. Of course, they weren't there. They hadn't been Stateside since 2002 when they moved back to the Dominican Republic to spend their last years in their homeland. A timely move it was. Within months of their return, Papi began showing signs of forgetfulness. Soon, the diagnosis was confirmed. Papi was suffering from Alzheimer's.
He sat in his recliner all day, listening to the birds outside, not saying much. Although he could not remember whether or not he had just eaten or what his profession had been for over sixty years, he could still recite the passage from Dante's Inferno, where Virgil rallies the flagging Dante to continue on his journey. It was a passage he often recited to his daughters any time we wanted to give up or renege on a responsibility:
"Up on your feet! This is not time to tire,"
my master said. "For no one reaches fame
sitting on cushions or dozing under blankets.
And he who consumes his life without glory
leaves behind such traces of himself
as smoke in the air or foam upon the water. . . "
With a father like this, could I even consider canceling a book tour?
A few years after my father was diagnosed, my mother followed. Her Alzheimer's was more scary to me, the writer, than my father's: she lost language altogether. She could still pull up phrases from old lullabies and sing along. That became her language, song. She also became amazingly tender and physically demonstrative, qualities that had never been part of her mothering. She'd pat a place on her bed for me to come sit, so she could sing to me or stroke my hair.
To give her affection a focus, my youngest sister gave Mami a life-sized baby doll, which she clung to that last year. "Pitousita," she christened it, the diminutive for the pet name my parents called each other, "Pitou." My mother would cradle Pitousita, singing to her, feeding her with a toy bottle, trying to wipe away tears painted on the doll's cheeks, then bursting into tears herself. My sister finally figured it out. My mother could not make her baby stop crying We managed to rub the paint off with nail polish remover, and Mami's own tears stopped.
In the decade following their move in 2002, I published eleven books. Even I, who inherited my father's workhorse genes, have to admit, that's a lot of writing. Was I frantic to finish these books before the narrowing aperture of my parents' attention completely closed?
Each new book marked a further decline. The last book of mine my father probably read was Before We Were Free, a novel for young readers based on the stories Papi had told me about his participation in a plot against the dictator. But Papi's lack of curiosity and real engagement in the content told me that his reading was already compromised.
By the next book, a collection of poems, reading was out of the question. The Woman I Kept to Myself sat on a shelf beside his recliner. Occasionally, he'd reach over and leaf through it, as if he were looking for a particular poem, never alighting on any one page. The activity of reading had been reduced to a mere manual one of turning pages. He, who had always been a voracious reader, and a proud one of my books.
My mother had a more conflicted relationship with my books. My first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, had caused a major rift between us. "That awful book full of lies," she called it.
"It's fiction!" I kept defending myself. It was painful that the writing, which I considered my calling caused my mother only pain. But how could I give it up? Like giving up breathing! Not to mention what I told her in one of the few conversations we had during those awful years, to pull the book would be to give in to the smaller version of her nature. We both knew she was much better than that.
Such was our loyalty and love for each other that we hung in there. By the time they moved back to Santiago, Mami had become my biggest supporter. In 2004, when A Gift of Gracias: the Legend of Altagracia was published, my mother ordered up a surprise for me. She commissioned a young artist to copy one of the illustrations in the book on a back wall of the house. (I didn't have the heart to tell her that this was probably an infringement of the illustrator's copyright.) Mami persuaded the bishop to declare the mural an official shrine to our national virgencita. A mass was said under a big tent in the backyard with over a hundred guests attending. Afterwards, as we were cleaning up, my mother fell into my arms, sobbing. "What's wrong, Mami?" I asked.
"Will you ever forgive me?" she cried.
"There's nothing left to forgive," I told her. She had given me what I always wanted: her blessing on my calling.
That book was probably the last one my mother really read. The next book, an adult novel, Saving the World, sat on her coffee table, with the bookmark in the same place for weeks on end. "What do you think of it?" I asked, hoping that maybe she had gotten something from the novel.
She shook her head in amazement. "Una maravilla," a marvel. I didn't ask her for particulars.
She made no pretense of reading my ensuing books. When I published The Best Gift of All, a picturebook about the legendary Dominican Santa Claus, la Vieja Belén, we read the story together. I pointed out the old-fashioned objects in the illustrations, naming them, as if I were teaching a child new words. My mother laughed, repeating the names, delighted to have "remembered" them. When I presented the book at Santiago's Centro León, I dressed up as La Vieja Belén, and took my mother along. She sat on stage in a rocking chair, while I read the story out loud to an audience that included eight hundred kids bussed in from local orphanages. When I was done, Mami and I danced together. "This is my real life Viejita Belén," I told the children. Mami giggled, delighted. We were now the best of friends.
My subsequent books ended up on that same coffee table, used mostly as coasters for her glasses of water or cups of cafecito. During her last year, I found her cradling my latest Tía Lola book, as if it were Pitousita, who was being changed into a clean outfit by my mother's caretaker. Did the cover appeal to Mami? Did she confuse my book for her baby? I had so many questions which would have to remain unanswered.
Neither Papi or Mami lived to see the publication of A Wedding in Haiti, though they both appear in several scenes in the book, which took place in their house in Santiago. Of course, they met Piti and Eseline and baby Ludy several times. Most recently -- after my father's death -- we brought Piti and Ludy down to Santiago to get the little girl her passport at the Haitian consulate. Afterwards, we stopped at the house, and Ludy wandered into the sitting room where my mother sat cradling Pitousita. The little girl stood in front of Mami's chair, gazing up at the old woman holding a doll. My mother came out of her fog and reached out to touch Ludy's face. Did she know who this child was? Even old familial relations eluded her. What was one more mysterious, baffling being in her unmemoried world?
As the book was going to press, the dedication read, "For all the Ludys." But at the last moment, I decided to add my parents, using their pet name, "For los pitouses." I'm very glad now that I did.
A few days after my mother died, I got a condolence email from one of my former college teachers: "My dear Julia, I'm so sorry! I've always thought of your mother in the terms of that old poem of yours (and how odd it feels to be writing that, to think that you've lived long enough to have written "old" poems) in which she follows you around, wiping away what you've written on the dusty furniture: and now the words of that poem continue to affirm her in my mind, after her own erasure."
So also with A Wedding in Haiti, where both my mother and my father live on, past their erasures, and one day, my own.
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