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Letter to Madalena ... An Homage to the Value of Valuing
I know I am a few years too late, but this letter is to thank you and tell you how much I do so love you, you dear sweet woman. Common-law marriage is so common in Brazil, and I never formally married your daughter. So since Iím not with her anymore, what should I call you now? My ex-common-law mother-in-law doesnít sound right. How about just plain Madalena? I like that and I think you do too.
As far as mothers-in-law go, I have been pretty lucky over the years. I never had one who really hated me. You and I sure got along all right. Still, you were in a class all by yourself.
To a wild adventurer like myself your life may not seem to have amounted to much. You enjoyed such a simple little existenceótaking care of your family and going to Mass every week, living everyday dramas like making sure you bought food that was fresh, or planning a birthday party for a grandchild. But I deeply regret that you are no longer here on earth, Madalena. I miss you beyond words.
You see, you helped me to live while I helped you to die.
We never did dwell much on those black five years of my life when I was addicted to crack cocaine. During the year I lived with you and Margarete, we did talk sometimes. I didnít hide it from you, but we had more than enough to worry about with your illness.
You knew I was desperately walking a tightropeótrying to fathom what had happened to my life while struggling like the dickens not to fall down again. I was troubled, scared really, and you perceived that I needed a net. You set a very strong one for me even while you were afraid of your own death. So bless you, Madalena. May your own dear God bless you.
You know something? You used to blow me away. You did notócould notóapprove of my abject drug past, yet you always said I was the best thing that ever happened to your daughter. Why did you say that? Forgiveness? As a Catholic, I know you believed in it. But there was more, wasnít there? Much more. It was how you loved and valued. You saw a touch of yourself in me. There was much, much wisdom deep below your calm surface. How grateful I am that it flowed heavily into the turmoil of my own life.
You knew me better than anyone I ever talked to about drug addiction. Most people get it all wrong. They have their pet answers and righteously spout off all kinds of garbage. They mean well, I guess, but they just donít know. Not like you did.
You never told meónot onceósome tidy platitude about what being addicted meant. You never said that it was my own choice, or will power, or the disease of addiction, or that I was a victim of Satan, or any of the stock phrases people use to explain what they know blessed little about. You listenedónot as a cure or anything. You were simply interested in me. You didnít even know how much that meant to me either, did you?
The night you invited me to move in, you looked long and hard into my eyes. I didnít know what I was supposed to do, so I simply opened my heart and let you look in. I refused to hide from your scrutiny. I let you see my hunger to value again. Value something. Anything. My world stopped for a long time while you stared in, Madalena. Time became suspended. Then you nodded your head and smiled. What you saw was good enough for you. It was good enough for your daughter. I canít express the gratitude I still feel for that moment. Even today, tears well up when I think about it.
When someone like me falls, the crash is horrible. My philosophy is one of ferocious pride at being self-sufficient. It is a philosophy for living on earth. Competence, integrity and brutal self-honesty are my virtues. But this can make you pretty pigheaded about certainties. A is always A. Reason is always supreme. Rational self-interest, capitalism, romanticism and so much else are always so very obvious. You just think until you get it. Then no further introspection is necessary. Ever. Or so I used to think.
There I was in life, happily spreading the gospel of How Simple Everything Is. From the loftiest heights, I used to hurl down thunderbolts of absolute value judgments on what reality could be and should be. It didnít matter if my lightening burned people or left gaping holes where constructions of love should have stood. I was one of The Chosen. I had The Answers. I was The Savior of The Individual and Joy on Earth. I was virile and unstoppable.
Well, that kind of pride can shatter. When it does, what remains is not a pretty sight. I know, Madalena. My whole world collapsed and I didnít know why. But you know what humbled me?
Catholics have a perfect parallel you are intimately familiar withócrucifixion. I was crucified. Not for the sins of others like Jesus was. It was for my highest values, for my pride and competence. I loved too intensely, Madalena. I loved long and hard. I made what I loved real, whether it was writing music or making near impossible projects work. I did what others only talked about. This made people uncomfortable. That was my real sin.
It is very hard, even today, to accept the idea of group bloodlust. How can people do that? Donít they know what they are inflicting? Donít they have any criteria left, any standards? Donít they realize that one day they might be the one who is sacrificed to collective malice? Well, now I know how evil most mob actions are. That is one of the few things in life that has won my utmost hatred.
I have seen crowds clamor for my blood several times over the years, but the first was the most painfulóand it was a double feature.
I used to be a trombone player and assistant conductor in an orchestra. I did not behave according to group rules and, frankly, I was brilliant. I made powerful enemies out of the influential mediocrities, and I did not stand up to the bad side of the people I admired. I simply ignored what I despised. I tried to be part of an organization by being a loner. I have since learned that you just canít do it that way.
Once my enemies set their strategy in place and started working up the crowd, I suddenly had to face down a mob all by myself. Those who should have supported me then were more concerned about their own positions than with the benefits I had brought them. They simply remained silent. Try conducting a hostile orchestra. It is no fun. During one particularly tense rehearsal, amid flaring tempers, I simply walked out. Looking back, I now think should have stayed on. I would have won had I fought, but I was too hurtónot by my enemies, but by my friends and supporters.
During this time my marriage also fell apart. I married a woman who had courted me under false pretenses. She was my dream woman during the engagement, but revealed who she really was after the wedding. I later discovered that she had been coached by her mother, whom I had loved as a friend for years, and a couple of aunts. I found myself, an American, suddenly part of a Brazilian-Arabian community through that marriage. I was neither fully accepted nor left in peace. My life became a hell of constant interference.
I had two beautiful boys and watched helplessly as everything I wanted to teach them was undermined behind my back. Everything. Not only by my wife but by the whole tribe. I was extremely hurt by that, betrayed and constantly lied to by those whom I tried so hard to love. I couldnít stand it anymore. Once the mob started rumbling against me, I decided that the best I could do by my children was to set a distant example of what life could be and should be. I also decided to become a question mark in their minds, to make sure they looked for an answer someday. Then I walked out. I broke the bond, but it shattered my heart into millions of pieces.
Someday I might write more to you about all this. The details are not too important right now. What is significant is how I reacted.
I guess we all get crucified in life at one time or another. What do you do when a bunch of people gang up on you? When you canít stay and you canít leave? When they wonít listen to you but put you on trial anyway? When they donít hear you when you sayóno, screamóthat you donít hold anything against them, that all you want to do is follow some inner vision? When you canít defend yourself with words?
And then what do you do when they start taking away the things that are most precious to you? When they goad each other on? When they slap each other on the back for getting one more drop of your blood to spill and clamor and howl to teach you a lesson youíll never forget? When all they want to do is to punish and punish and punish? Damn them!
Well I know what I did. I also know that Iíll never do it again. I reacted poorly. I stopped valuing. I gave the crowds what I most loved, my classical music profession and my children. I was outnumbered, confused, beaten, tried and convicted.
I did not hand over my dearest values all at once. Actually I surrendered to those two mobs long before they started ganging up on me. To be honest, I tried to fake it. I tried to compromise for a couple of years. I tried to play it their way ... sneak my values in through the cracks ... hide the best within me and still make it count. I gave them my sanction to hold sway over my most precious loves.
But you canít do it that way, you know. Not when you are certain that youíre right and theyíre wrong. It constantly eats at your guts and doesnít give you peace. When you love long and hard and watch your passionate attachments gradually transform into mediocrity and evil, that is worse torture than anything a raging mob could ever do to you. You canít turn it off. It is with you night and day. A dull pain incessantly draining your enthusiasm and will to do better.
I took it as long as I could. I compromised. I settled for less. Then, when two crowds started gathering up against me, I threw in the towel. To hell with it all. I know something today that I didnít back then. My integrity, pride and all the rest went together with that towel.
You know what? Alcohol and drugs donít look too bad from that angle. Actually they look pretty darn good. I went and took a little trot on the wild side, Madelena. Nothing meant anything anyway, so why not let it all hang out? I could embarrass the hell out of anybody, anytime, anywhere when I got crazy. Now let them try to hurt me. Now they are the ones with something to loseóI just didnít give doodley-squat anymore.
Itís funny how most people, even mobs, run when they find someone who doesnít give a damn. They were right to run from me, too. I was one who no longer cared about my own life, peopleís little-bitty affairs, property or love or anything secular or sacred. Stay and play, quit and spit. It was all the same to me. Did I ever take that wild walk, Madalena. I didnít rock back then. I earthquaked. My middle name became trouble.
You know something even funnier? When you love like I did, when you cherish things passionately, you canít kill it all at once. You try but it just wonít go away. You have to find something to replace it, something that makes living worthwhile, something you can still feel aboutónot just feel good. Feel anything at all. Thatís what led me to booze. Not just drink, mind you. Benders. Stomp down drag out drunks. Everyday. All day. One day at a time.
After doing that for a few years, I got sick of it, so I stopped for awhile. It was hard and I had to go to AA meetings, but I did stop. Then I discovered crack cocaine. Eureka! Now I had found it! I knew that I had finally encountered the answer to everything I was looking for. Blind orgasmic rapture in a flash. Time after time. Just fire one up and the world could go to hell. I would still get mine. There was a top value for you. One worth fighting for.
There was also the devil to pay. (Did I just see you smile at me, Madalena?) You can start on a hard drug for all kinds of reasons. You canít help what happens next, though. Your troubles donít go away, they just get pushed over to the side. Then the drug takes over. And then youíve really got a problem.
People who have felt the kind of craving that comes from years of crack use donít joke about it. I sure donít. This craving (the "Jones" I used to call it with other junkies) is just about the most horrible feeling a person can experience short of blinding agony. It takes over your mind and body. No dichotomy there, it gets both of them. You canít think about anythingóregardless of how important it isóexcept how to make that craving go away.
You find yourself constantly dreaming about going out on the street, hooking up with a dealer, getting the drug, fixing it up, using it, and then the relief. Ah, the blessed relief! You tell yourself over and over and over, "It is going to be so good, so goddamn good." You tell yourself you are thinking about the pleasure. You tell yourself that. You keep telling yourself it really is all about the pleasure and nothing else ....
Over time the craving flows into that special top value of yoursóthat orgasmic flash you love so much. It infects the blast. It spreads slowly at first, then like wildfire, and it finally consumes you. What gets left isnít an urge for pleasure any longer, a need for a value. Itís a screaming obsession to stop the craving.
The aftermath to firing one up becomes nothing but a very short relief, then off you go into blind fear and paranoia before the craving kicks in again. So you fire one up again. And again. And again. And the craving gets worse until you canít think about anything else for more than a couple of minutes at a time. You constantly daydream about crack without wanting to and you canít stand time away from it.
I still laugh when I remember trying to explain all this to you, Madalena. Your innocence was so refreshing. Listening with ever widening eyes, your voice burst out with such incredible childlike wonder, "Michael, nothing like this has ever happened in my family!" Bless you so much, Madalena. No condemnation, no lecture. Just pure amazement.
Well, there is even a darker side to addiction. I still remember the bitter taste of the most evil emotion a man can feel on this earth. It is not one of the seven deadly sins they taught you at Mass: pride, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, lust or greed. Did you ever notice how those sins are basically emotions anyway? How can an emotion be a sin? I used to think that was a good question. But now I know.
I have been guilty of a far worse sin. I have been guilty of apathy.
Not just boredom. Pure apathy. Everything had betrayed me. Music. Wife. Friends. Everyone. They all had told me I was valuableóthat my love of life was inspiringóbut all they wanted to do was turn me into one of their pastimes. They never kept their word on anything, nothing that really mattered anyway.
Love turned into duty. Competence became unending sacrifice to mediocre ends. Friendship became an empty word. I got sick of it all. Now drugs had betrayed me too. Pleasure became craving and paranoia. My new top value became suffering. So I just stopped caring. Why bother? I didnít even struggle.
I lost it.
It wasnít just people. It was reality. It didnít matter what I did. The world was a horrible place to live in, full of traps that made me want something to love and admire and cherishówant it real bad, want it so bad I couldnít stand itóand then when I finally got it, I got pain and torture instead. So it was better to stop wanting. Just stop caring. Become a nothing. A zero.
During that time of apathy, I would get up because I couldnít sleep anymore. I would move because a muscle started getting cramped, otherwise I stayed still. I got to be indifferent to hunger, so I only ate when the hunger pangs became more uncomfortable than getting some food. The drug cravings had to be satisfied, of course. But that was about all. And even they started to lose their sting.
Crack cocaine makes your heart race and your body gets really hot. So I stayed in cold showers a lot. At least I didnít stink back then.
Madalena, that is who I was. No lies. No hiding. No masks. That was the hell I had to climb out of. That climb was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life.
One night I was thrown out of my hotel, in hock up to my eyeballs, no money, no friends or profession left. I only had the clothes on my back. I wandered at random for a long while on dark city streets and came to a bridge. I literally thought that I would have to sleep under it. But there was one small fragile shred of self respect that had not yet snapped. One little whisper in my ear that said I could not ... that the Maestro would not sleep on the street like a homeless bum.
I think this came from the philosophy I had adopted before my soul fractured. You said it was God. Whatever. I will not argue with you. I will argue religion with anyone anytime anyplace, but not with you, Madelena. You can have your God and I will even bow my head in prayer beside you. You know that I donít believe as you do, but you have earned that from me.
Probably the hardest thing about coming back to life is overcoming self-pity. When you get crucified like I did, you usually finish the job off by spiraling down into a meaningless emotional quagmire. You wonder what you ever did to deserve all that. Hurt turns into resentment. That turns into hate. Then you start feeling pretty damn sorry for yourself. After a while apathy seeps in and slowly rots your soul and prepares you for the dying.
Well, I stopped at the dying part. I did not cross over into total acceptance when I looked at the bridge that night. I knew I had to do something. Anything. I would not let myself die. I would not give up this world. I would not comprise with death. I chose to live.
I started reevaluating. What did I feel about my music and kids? And the alcohol and drugs? Friends, family, women? What about anything? Did I want all that anymore? I honestly didnít know. It was way too early and I was way too fragile and, anyway, I was so very, very tired of all the false starts and hypocrisy. But life had to mean something, damn it. It had to.
I tried to look to my philosophy for guidance. I didnít get much there. Hereís a thought from a writer named Ayn Rand, whom I used to think was a perfect goddess. "Drug addiction is nothing but a public confession of personal impotence."
Hereís another: "Drug addiction is the attempt to obliterate one's consciousness, the quest for a deliberately induced insanity. As such, it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity."
I had to laugh, even back then. Nope. I couldnít go there for help. Not if I wanted to put my life back together. I probably would have gone running back to the warm embrace of my drug dealers if I had accepted that. I loved Ayn Randís writings dearly. I had read her biography recently and discovered that she had had to deal with some devastating inner conflicts herself. What a relief it was to know that we all have our demons, even great people, and that they can be faced.
Still, I couldnít think that I was an obscenity, of all things. Okay, I was many things, but I was not that. I still laugh when I reread those passages.
I decided to start from zero. Just with what I knew for sure. Not dreams or suppositions. Only what I knew. And there was one thing I knew for a fact. I had no idea of what I wanted from life anymore. None. I was all used up. Too many things had lost too much meaning.
But I sure as hell knew what I didnít want. I had a small list of that.
It was from there, Madalena, that my journey back to life started. Was that God? Was that self-esteem? Was that just plain old stubbornness? Letís call it God, but you know I donít believe that. You knew I would say that too, didnít you? Anyway, thank God I am bullheaded when I want to be. (Did I just see you smile again?)
I look back on that moment when I chose to live with such an overwhelming amount of tender affection. I see all the mistakes I have made since then, all the stumbles and falls, the redefinitions and new learning and bewilderment. I also see the pain slowly going away and new love springing up at places inside me that I thought were long dead.
Did you know that the sky looks like a blue upside-down bowl? That body odor is really unpleasant? That you feel better after you let yourself cry? That when you bang your thumb with a hammer, the pain goes away after a while? That going to sleep is pleasant and waking up can be exciting? That if you let yourself feel grateful for being alive when youíre troubled, you become serene? Of course you know these things. You never lost them.
I had to relearn all of them and so much more, one by one, every single day, one day at a time. I watched tiny specks of wanting to become something more than I was start to accumulate and transform into an echo of my former self. Then slowly this started congealing into a new self. I did that, Madelena. I lived it.
But I had to relearn so muchóso many of the marvels of being aliveówhile going through the pain and chaos of detox. The cravings and cold sweats. The insecurity. The insanity. The very edge of holding on and not falling off into the abyss of self-pity again. It hurt so bad sometimes I could hardly stand it. It was devastating. But I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones. So many do not make it back at all.
The worst part for me was needing people. If anybody asked me how I overcame addiction, I will always say that before all else, I had help from others. I did the groups, AA and NA. I made connections with others who had my problem. I kept my mouth shut a lot and listened for a change. I let others help me. I had to. Nowadays I never argue with anyone who tells me you can do it by yourself. I know better and they donít know at all. I know for a fact that I wasnít able to go it alone. God knows I sure tried back then. (There you go smiling again .... )
Can you imagine what needing others will do to you if you are a rugged individualist from your head down to your toes? For all my right choices, for all the tenacity of spirit that was bringing me back to life, I still depended on others to complete my soul in places where I never needed them before. This fact constantly gnawed in my gut, but I dealt with it. I had to. I wanted to live.
It was at this moment that Margarete came into my life. I was residing in a boarding house and here this successful talented woman showed up out of nowhere. She had her own car and her own successful advertising company. She didnít need anybody and she loved me, of all people. She would even take me out and pay for everything just to be with me. She said that I was important to her. That I was the love of her life.
I fell for her harder than anyone ever should. I mean that. You should never fall for anybody like I did. A woman is a woman, not a savior of mankind. But I was so damn grateful.
Well, you saw what happened. I think I scared her off with too much intensity. She liked the flowers and poems and attention, but I donít think she knew what to do with me. All that pining and making every little thing in life boil down to her, her wonderfulness, her smile, her underlying intentionsóher, her, her. Maybe she thought I was crazy for real, who knows? I sure donít blame her for getting scared. We tried for a while, but, as you know, it was not to be.
That was when I first met you, remember? Your husband Francisco was still alive then. I can still see him lying in the bed, not saying anything for hours, then suddenly blurting out, "Please forgive me, Madalena! Please forgive me!"
I never paid much attention to what he said back then. I only had eyes and ears for Margarete. It was actually on our second-go-round that she told me the whole story. Itís funny how I can talk about this to you now. I never had the heart to bring it up when we were living together.
Margarete said that you had married virgin like a good Catholic and had lived your whole life around your family, especially her and her brother and two sisters. I could see that myself. She said that her father, Francisco, had worked all his life at one job and retired. But heóthis man who was her father and your husbandóhad secretly established another family over the years. He had kept a lover and had one other daughter.
When he retired, there was only enough retirement settlement to buy one house. So instead of getting you the house you had always dreamed about, the one he promised you all his life, he bought a house for his lover. Cash. And once the deed was free and clear in her name, she gave him the boot. She terminated their relationship.
That was the day Francisco went home to you, sat down on the sofa and never got back up. He went into a depression and simply would not talk coherently anymore. Margarete told me it took him two years to slowly kill himself that way. He just withered away. I knew him when he was bedridden and I know he died while Margarete and I had separated between our first try and second.
I can still hear him calling out to you for forgiveness. What pain in his voice ... Itís funny how life is when the blanks later get filled in. The memory of that pain in his voice means so much more to me now than it did when I heard it. It has a poignant tone in my mind that simply wasnít there before.
You nursed him, didnít you Madalena? You took care of him all the way up to the end. Not once did you ever doubt, not even for one minute, that this was your proper role in life. Did you ever know how contemptible he had been to you? How cowardly? How hypocritical? Did you ever figure it all out? You did, didnít you? Of course you did. I always suspected that. Iíll even bet that you had known about Franciscoís fling for years. And you silently accepted it and kept your peace.
This is where you and I should differ, but underneath we donít. You know that what you did was quite a sacrifice. My philosophy teaches that such sacrifice is evil. So what you did should be wrong. Before my drug problem, I would have said yes, it was wrong. Absolutely. But now I know better. You and I are the same. We just come from different directions. I see beneath your surface. I see that strong undercurrent of wisdom of yours.
You did not merely learn the doctrines of the Catholic Church. You accepted them. You put them in a form you could understand for living on this earth. You valued principles that made you a good human being. You didnít just talk about the ideas you believed in, you lived them. Every day. All day. One day at a time.
You even honored your husband when he did not honor you.
I cannot ever agree with how you forgave that man, Madalena. His way is not mine and never will be. I have made blatantly horrible mistakes in life, but I have sought to correct them. Francisco and I both faced excruciating betrayals and tortured self-doubts. He gave up and I decided not to.
But you, I will admire you to the end of my life for why you forgave Francisco and took care of himóhow you sought the highest in life and lived it as you understood it.
But our year together was a test of my own sanity and resolve, Madalena. Nothing in my life, not even philosophy, prepared me for watching someone gradually be eaten up by cancer of the brain. When I moved in with you and Margarete, she told me that you had a problem. Still, you seemed so well. So full of life.
Then it started. Small things at first. Forgetting a word. A stumble where it shouldnít have happened. Knocking over a glass. Extra time getting up in the morning or leaving the bathroom. As it got worse, I tried not to accept it. I got very mad at first.
I remember feeling particularly angry at your other children and their families during all this. I could not figure out why they stayed away so much. You were not going to be around forever. The disease was taking you away, bit by bit, and they pretended that it was not happening. Now I know why. They were terrified. They didnít want to lose you and didnít know what to do about it.
The strongest was Margarete. She insisted on living with you. She knew that this was your last year. She had talked to all the doctors and knew all the facts. Still, the strain of seeing such a gentle lovely presence being ravaged so brutally was too much even for her. So she started spending too much time at her job, sometimes sleeping over for several days at a time.
You used to tell me that she was a good girl, that she wasnít the type to sleep around, that she really was working and so on. Well I believed you, but I still made sure. I never told you, but I had people keep an eye on her for a while. Now I can tell you with certainty that your daughter really is as good as you said. She just needed to stay away sometimes. She was even more terrified than her brother and sisters were.
The strain took a heavy toll on my relationship with Margarete. After about six months we separated againóbut kept living together. It was right then that I faced one of the strangest choices that Iíve ever had to make in life. You had grown quite fond of me, and I of you of course. But you were my mother-in-law and I was no longer tied to your daughter. Margarete and I had separated, but still, I chose to stay. All three of us then slept in different rooms under the same roof. We did this so I could take care of a mother-in-law who no longer was mine.
Fortunately my translating work could be done at home. Margarete was working hard, but she chose poorly and, despite promises, she simply was not being paid. I knew this predicament was eating at her inside. You used to be so concerned about her back then. Now I want to tell you something. I later helped Margarete receive all her back pay. Every penny. And even today, I still hold much affection for her. As I promised you, I will look after her when I can. That is a promise I intend to keep. We have remained good friends.
But what a situation. By all accounts of everything I had learned and seen in life, I should have walked away. It had been a few years since I had stopped using drugs, but I was still getting bouts of craving. I was desperately trying to get my life back in order. My heart was breaking once again over Margarete. And to top it all off, I had to face watching you slowly die. I felt completely alone and confused.
Here it was once again. And here I was once again. Love turning into hell.
And yet, I couldnít leave. I wouldnít. You were too weak. I didnít want to sacrifice my life for a person who was no longer my mother-in-law, but I couldnít help feeling that it would be a tremendous act of cowardice just to leave you there to fend for yourself. You needed help and your family was too scared to do anything about it.
So I didnít even wrestle with the idea. I made myself stop judging everything and everyone around me and did what I could for youówhile I could do it. There was no room in my mind and soul right then for anything else. The alternative was to let you hurt yourself or even worse ....
I forced myself to not feel anything. Good and bad ceased to exist. I did not reflect at all. I knew what had to be done and I just did it.
I hired a maid to help care for you. I was polite to Margarete, even when I was hurting inside. Did you ever see me watching you like a hawk in the kitchen so you would not blow us all up with the gas stove? I tried to hide it, but you knew I was there, didnít you? I talked to your children and their families without the hostility I felt burning inside because they avoided you. I tried to tell them how much their presence would mean to you, but their fear was so incredibly hard to penetrate. I did what I could to keep conflicts away from you.
Madalena, I was not prepared for this. I was a recovering drug addict. I had never seen a human being slowly disintegrate in front of me. I had no idea what to do. I needed help myself and here I was watching over you, caring about you, trying to hold back the dying and the surrender. I was lost.
So I did what I could. I improvised.
When I saw you dragging your foot behind you, holding onto the walls and pretending like nothing was wrong, I would hover near just in case you fell and yell out, "Come on Madalena. Get that useless old foot moving! Force it! Force it!" You would smile and mumble something pleasant while I would look the other way to hide the tears of anger and frustration.
I tried to keep you laughing, and what a wonderful laugh you had, Madalena. I saw how the strong pain medication you took knocked you silly every day. Then I would yell out, "Hey, Iím the junkie around here! Are you getting high? Youíre making me jealous, damn it!" How you laughed.
There were so many zany moments. I could not ignore what was happening, but I would not let you go to where I wentóto the self-pity and the apathy. I would not let cancer kill your soul as it was killing your body. So we joked and clowned. Even Margarete, when she was around, would look wide-eyed at me after one of my antics and chuckle out loud before stopping suddenly, turning and putting her hand over her mouth and running from the room.
One morning you could not get out of bed. Struggling to talk, you asked me, "Am I going to die?"
I remember saying the standard, "Yes. We were all going to die." But I also remember the rest. I asked, "Do you believe in God?"
"Yes .... "
"And donít you know that He loves you, that He has a special plan for you?" And I watched you close your eyes. It didnít matter what I believed at that moment. I was able to watch you shut your eyes in comfort and not fear. And then I walked out to hide my own tears again. Would there ever be a right thing to say, to do?
You had your moments too. You wouldnít use a bedpan in any form, shape or manner. You would entertain no discussion about it. How that put a strain on the maid. She had to support you on your way to the bathroom all the time. Then came the day when I had to do it because you were too weak and too heavy for the maid to carry. One time she was not there to help, so I had to lower your panties for you. How mortified with shame you were at that moment, Madalena. I know you saw me avert my eyes, but that did not help much.
Something changed inside you at that moment, something in the way you trusted me, like my presence was now a deep comfort. But I also felt something break within you. A last shred of denial. I think it was at that moment you knew you were on a road that led to where only you could go. There was no turning back. You were dying. You started fading fast then.
It was right at the end when you gave me the greatest present I have ever received from another person in my entire life. You were almost gone. You could hardly breathe and it was loud and labored. You were under heavy drugs most of your waking hours, so I never really knew how aware you were. But there was a special moment you gave me that I will carry to my grave, a moment for which I will love you forever.
I was sitting over you, fixing your pillow and cover. Your eyes were going back and forth, then stopping then back and forth again. All of a sudden a slight flicker of clarity appeared. I looked into them as deeply as I could, trying to draw them out more, and then time stopped. I felt awe. I whispered, "You are so beautiful, Madelena. So very, very beautiful."
I saw you start to fade again, then there came a savage inner struggle. Your eyes became radiant and lucid. After an eternity, you said, tremblingly, "The ... name ... of ... my ... lord ... and ... master ... is ... Francisco." There was another timeless moment while you stared steadily and strenuously into my eyes, then you relaxed and went away into the oblivious world of pain medication, the drugged world from whence I had escaped. I donít remember you ever being aware of anything after that.
Madalena, I cried long and hardóas I had not cried in yearsónot right then, but later that night. I had just witnessed you on your deathbed, literally dying, struggling to simply breathe and doped out of your mind. Yet you still had your highest value on your lips.
I knew I had been before a miracle, so I prayed that night, Madelena. I prayed to a God I did not believe in to please let there be a Heaven. And to please let you in, because if anybody ever deserved to be there, you did.
I remember walking around in a daze for almost a week. I remember turning you over to the hospital and your family. My job was done so I didnít feel the need to go to see you there. You died that week anyway. I later went to the funeral. Everybody kept weeping and saying how much you were missed.
I, too, grieved your loss, Madalena, but you never really died for me. My blessing is to carry an unwavering love and gratitude toward you in my heart forever.
You see, I no longer rely on the support of others to complete the splintered soul of my past. I used to need other people on that level and now I donít. You showed me what is possible to one who chooses it. You showed me what can exist in this life. What love can be mine. Through you I have seen the immortality of what we all can be and should be on this earth, Madalena. I have been humbled and exalted before a miracleóand it has made me strong.
I have beheld the face of an Angel.
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