Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019


“Mi’ja, did I ever tell you why I got so sick?” Grandpa Tino asked as I drove him an hour east from Deming to the hospital in Las Cruces. My grandma was in critical care again, this time with pneumonia, after too short a recovery from having a lung removed a month and a half earlier. Grandpa and I were on that stretch of Interstate 10 between mountains, where the rocky Floridas slipped from view and the Organs had yet to reveal their broken-glass tops.

“No,” I said quietly. Mesquite and chamisa blurred past his window. I thought of cottontails sheltering beneath the low canopy, how they respond to threat, how my whole life I’d wanted them to relax on my approach, to know I come in peace, to eat from my hand and let me hold them. But, always, they scattered with my slightest movement. Gentle, gentle. I said, “No Grandpa, you never did.”

▴ ▴ ▴

By the time we reach the hospital, a nurse is giving Grandma a sponge bath, and the lung specialist has already made his rounds, so not only do we have to wait to see her, we also can’t ask the doctor how long she’ll be here, how she got pneumonia, what this means for her cancer, how to pace ourselves, to parcel out our energy and hope. In the hall outside her room, Grandpa thrusts his flip phone into my hands, begging, “Call El Psychiatrist, mi’ja. Tell him your grandma is sick again. Tell him I need to see him.”

▴ ▴ ▴

El Psychiatrist leaves for vacation tomorrow, so Grandpa is squeezed into a thirty-minute slot between two regular appointments. We’re a five-minute drive from the hospital where Grandma must have finished her sponge bath and is probably eating lunch. She’ll be tired when we get back. We won’t have much time with her before she takes a nap.

“Tengo miedo,” Grandpa says, sounding like a boy who’s woken from a nightmare. He sits on a black leather armchair in the corner of his psychiatrist’s office. The doctor sits across from him behind a cherry desk the size of my grandmother’s hospital bed. He writes with a fountain pen in what must be Grandpa’s file. Grandpa’s hands clasp on his lap and then unclasp and touch down on the armrests, then his knees and thighs, smoothing the charcoal khakis I ironed for him this morning. His hands are the color of moist adobe, his veins like the roots of young desert willows, threaded just beneath the surface in search of water, life.

I sit on a loveseat along the same wall as my grandpa’s chair, his tweed hat and windbreaker next to me. He casts these items toward me no matter where we go—the hospital, doctors’ offices, Golden Corral—as though I were a coat rack. I wish for that now, to be unobtrusive, part of the background. My khakis and gray turtleneck match the love seat. I could be camouflaged in the weave of the cushions. I cross my legs at the knee, my arms over my chest. I look down between the upholstery fibers, concentrate on a patch of foam where the threads have loosened. I squeeze into myself as though I might shrink small enough to slip through that hole and disappear.

“I’m so afraid she’s gonna die,” he says.

▴ ▴ ▴

“Did I ever tell you why I got so sick?”

On the way to Las Cruces, before the hospital, before El Psychiatrist, the sun sat two fingers above the Organ Mountains. It was too warm for December, and yet my Grandpa kept the minivan heater at 75 degrees. I wanted to crack a window, but I didn’t want to startle him. I wanted him to talk to me, to know that he could.

“I got separated from my unit,” he said, not really looking at me.

For most of my life, he’d tell me stories about Dolores, the Texas ranch where he grew up, about coming to New Mexico for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and meeting my grandma outside a movie theater. He said she had the most beautiful legs. As I got older and did well in school, he’d say I must have gotten my brains from Grandma since she finished eighth grade, and he only got as far as elementary school. Once I moved away from Deming, he’d ask if I had a boyfriend and if I was working. When I moved back to my parents’ house from El Paso right after Halloween, he seemed not to believe I was employed—how could I be here with him if I had a job? He, who grew up in the Depression and raised his children to get jobs with a pension, didn’t understand consulting, how I pieced together an eclectic practice serving nonprofit organizations around the country.

This morning was different. He hadn’t asked me about myself. He’d been quiet most of the drive. I imagined him replaying images from the weekend—Grandma coughing, her breath gurgling, the ambulance, the hospital, again. This setback had rattled something in him. What else would make him talk to me—to anyone—about the war? He talked, not exactly to me. It wasn’t me that seemed to matter, but the telling.

“I’m alone in a field with trees all around the edges,” he said, looking straight ahead as though the highway, and not me, spirited him to Grandma’s sickbed. “I see something move in the corner of my eye. It’s a Kraut. German. That’s what we called them. I pull up my rifle.”

▴ ▴ ▴

El Psychiatrist’s office feels windowless, even though slats of afternoon light filter through the closed copper blinds next to his desk. The window faces a parking lot. Shadows pass. People whose grandmothers aren’t dying, who haven’t moved back home because they can’t handle sharing a town with the Bad Boyfriend who never really loved them anyway, people who aren’t listening to their grandpa tell his psychiatrist, “Dead people talk to me.”

There’s a black metal file cabinet with chrome handles in the corner opposite the loveseat. More file cabinets line the wall behind El Psychiatrist, folders and folders locked away, people’s stories, their fears, their prognoses and disorders. Two wooden doctor figurines stand on one of the cabinets. Each wears a white lab coat and a stethoscope. They smile. She holds a clipboard. He writes a prescription. El Psychiatrist doesn’t smile. He hardly looks up from the folder on his desk where he writes and writes, as though taking dictation.

“¿Quién, Señor Moran?”

I like that El Psychiatrist addresses my grandpa with respect, how calling him señor restores some dignity he must lose by having a witness in his therapy sessions. It’s always been this way. My grandpa has never been in a doctor’s office alone. It’s always been Grandma with him, asking questions, giving orders, filling out forms, keeping track. Maybe he’s the lucky one. Maybe each of us needs someone to bear witness.

Grandpa talks without looking at me. I want to stare at him, study him. I want to ask who among the dead talks to him and what they say. The men he killed in the war, some part of Grandma that’s already crossed over? A month from now, my grandma will be gone, and my mom will be the one on this couch. The psychiatrist will tell her that every day is an anniversary for Señor Moran. One trauma, un golpe, bleeds into the next and the next so he can’t separate my grandma’s death from the war from the psych ward from anything that’s ever been hard. My whole life I’ve had the sense that he’s never really here, that over breakfast he’s tethering a donkey to a post in Dolores; he’s running across a field, mortars lighting the night sky; he’s separated from his unit; he’s three years old and there’s a new baby and his mother is dead. He’s perpetually rain-soaked, swollen, held together with the stuff of earth, and over time, in drought, the memories turn to fine dust, become the air we breathe.

I don’t know what to do with myself, what I am supposed to do, so I study the posters on the white brick wall behind El Psychiatrist in his dark brown suit and tie. Mini El Psychiatrists look out from an oval at the top of each poster. In the pictures, he wears a lab coat like the figurines.

Are you depressed? Do you suffer from more than one of the following?

I say I’m back home because my grandma is sick, but really it’s my own sickness that has brought me back. I need to be someplace that isn’t El Paso, where the Bad Boyfriend has his house and his university job, his books, his dog, and our writer friends. I have an empty apartment, a Harvard degree, a dying grandmother, and nothing to lift me out of the pit in which I find myself. I should be okay, but I’m not, and I don’t know how to make myself better.

Difficulty sleeping or excessive exhaustion and sleeping too much.

I sleep ten, eleven hours a night.

I dream I drink a cup of dust. I scoop the bottom with a spoon, hold the cup in both hands and tilt my head back so I don’t waste it.

▴ ▴ ▴

“My rifle’s stuck. I can’t shoot,” Grandpa said, crouching in the passenger seat.

The sun was three fingers above the Organs. I held my breath while Grandpa spoke, afraid he might stop talking, that I might never know this part of him.

“I’m down low,” he said. “He’s getting closer. Pero nada.

“His gun sticks too.

“Now he’s running. Fast. With his…what do you call it? The blade?”

▴ ▴ ▴

“¿Qué pasó?” El Psychiatrist asks.

My grandpa doesn’t answer.

I rub my eyes. I glance from the poster to Grandpa to the psychiatrist. He’s looking at me. His eyes are huge and blue, his face long and bony like a mad scholar or a wizard. His head is so smooth, almost shiny, but not from sweat, more like the sheen on Grandpa’s shoes after my mom polishes them, which she’s done once a week since Grandma had her lung removed.

“Es que…” even in English I don’t know how to finish the sentence. My grandma has cancer, which is the same in English and Spanish. But she was home. She was fine.

“She doesn’t really speak Spanish,” Grandpa says, sparing me the embarrassment of my pocho accent.

“You can speak English,” El Psychiatrist says.

“Gracias,” I say, as surprised by his English as I was when he summoned me from the waiting room with “usted también.”

“She gave us a scare,” I say. I don’t want to talk. Talking means I am here, and I shouldn’t be. I don’t want to be the adult in the room, the one tracking prescriptions and appointments.

“What do you mean, a scare?” he asks, his shoulders as stiff and square as his photo on the Zoloft ad above the file cabinet. Zoloft. A Greek god. A superhero.

“She was strong when we brought her home right before Thanksgiving. The surgery went really well. She sat up in bed. She asked for coffee and her dentures. But then Saturday she couldn’t breathe, so they transferred her here to Las Cruces yesterday.” I speak in past tense, as though we have come through something, as though it’s over and she’s home. “And now she’s in critical care with pneumonia. But it’s just pneumonia.”

I don’t yet know that her pneumonia will become Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, that she’ll spend the rest of her life in critical care, that the rest of her life is less than a month. My grandpa is overreacting, I want to say. He worries too much. He’s a nervous person. But I don’t know what I am supposed to say, what I’m allowed to say. I don’t know what this doctor knows or how far back into Grandpa’s history I am supposed to travel. Does my grandpa reveal something new of himself with each visit? Or does he tell the same story, wrapping himself in memory until he is so tangled only the doctor and my grandma can set him free?

El Psychiatrist turns back to my grandpa and says in his Italian-aria Spanish, “Lots of people get pneumonia. Hay una epidemia ahora.”

▴ ▴ ▴

When I was in preschool, Grandpa Tino hardly ever drove. When he did, it was to Saint Anne’s for Saturday evening mass or to our house to drop off leftover calabacitas or beans “because Grandma says your mama’s working and doesn’t cook now that she has the microwave.” On these occasions my grandma sat on the passenger side, conducting with one hand where he should turn, when to slow down or speed up. With the other hand, she dangled a cigarette out the window of their tan Buick Skylark, leaving a trail of smoke that would eventually lead them back home.

My grandma would pick me up from preschool while my parents were at work. Sometimes Grandpa waited for me at their house with a glass of whole milk and a plate of Oreos from the commissary on a TV tray in the living room. He’d sit on his recliner, and I’d sit on the couch, and together we’d watch a baseball game, a Western, or Lawrence Welk. Sometimes the house was silent and Grandpa was nowhere to be seen. Grandma would head straight to the back bedroom. “There’s cookies in the cabinet, Michelley,” she’d say. “And drink milk. No Coke.” And I knew by the way she passed in and out of his room, like a note slipped through the door, that he was sick and I should not go to him or ask what was wrong. He was like a secret we hid, even from ourselves.

I’d look in their cabinets, opening and closing the metal doors with their magnet closures quietly so Grandma wouldn’t catch me snooping. Black olives, sardines in oil, Quaker Oats, Morrell manteca, Fig Newtons for Grandpa, Windmill Cookies for my mom, Oreos for me. I stood on the bottom shelf to reach the cabinet above the sink where she kept Grandpa’s medicines. Rising from the contact paper vines, a stand of brown plastic bottles.

▴ ▴ ▴

“Eso. A bayonet,” Grandpa said, turning to look at me.

I turned my face toward his, enough so he knew I was with him, enough to see his chin quiver, before turning back to my hands on the steering wheel, the interstate, the semi approaching in the rearview mirror.

“I think, Oh, Tino, you better hurry. You better get up.

“I put the blade.

“My legs feel heavy heavy, but I jump up. He still running, so I run. I lift the blade así.” He raised his arms into striking position, an imaginary weapon in his hands. He trembled. The semi passed us. A stunted yucca on the roadside stood like a prairie dog.

▴ ▴ ▴

If Grandpa was with Grandma when she picked me up from preschool, I knew that instead of going to their house, we were heading an hour away to Las Cruces and would probably have dinner there after his appointment.

Grandpa’s first psychiatrist was Dr. Schmidt. He kept a basket of toys for me under his desk where I’d sit linking and unlinking the cars of a wooden train set, rolling their black wheels past my grandparents’ feet on one side and the doctor’s, in his shiny brown shoes with leather tassels, on the other. Grandpa sat on his hands and bobbed his knees up and down. Grandma tapped the pads of her fingers on his thigh. Dr. Schmidt talked in a quiet voice like you do at church or a funeral.

“How are you sleeping, Mr. Moran?”

“He moves around too much,” my grandma said.


My grandpa nodded.

Visiting Dr. Schmidt was like visiting my grandparents’ other friends, except my grandma would talk with her white voice and smile the same way she did when her dentures were out, not showing her teeth. He never checked my grandpa’s heartbeat. He didn’t even have a stethoscope. His office was like the boring room at the Deming library where old people read newspapers at rectangular tables, and a special librarian stepped on a stool to pull the heaviest books down from the tallest shelves.

I didn’t know what kind of sick my grandpa was, how driving an hour each way to talk to a nice white man would make him better or well, what better or well might look like for him, for us.

▴ ▴ ▴

“Aim for the heart. That’s what they taught us,” he said, looking out the passenger window.

Alongside us ran the old highway and its tributaries of farm and county roads where my grandpa taught me to drive that summer between freshman and sophomore year. He showed me how to change a tire, how to maneuver across an arroyo in a summer storm. He showed me ghost towns, adobe homesteads built of mud, grass, shit, that stuff of earth, how they endured generations and crumbled slowly over time, only to return as dust, silt, or in the mud, grass, and shit of new adobes. He trusted me behind the wheel of his car, accelerating up to highway speeds, reversing out of his carport, taking the blind hill out of Spring Canyon. He never once raised his voice or reached for the wheel.

“It’s different, mi’ja. Killing someone like that. With your hands. You can feel them die.”

“I’m sorry, Grandpa,” I said, taking a hand from the steering wheel and putting it on his. “I’m really sorry you had to do that. It wasn’t your fault.” He didn’t flinch, didn’t pull away. I wanted to stay with him like this, protected, the sun forever four fingers above the Organ Mountains, Grandma alive, my hand on Grandpa’s, strong and still.

▴ ▴ ▴

Was Dr. Schmidt the first to prescribe Prozac? Haloperidol? It was an antipsychotic, marketed under the brand name Haldol.

Early in the new year, after she dies and before the out-of-town cousins go home, we’ll clear out and organize Grandma’s files—credit card statements, newspaper clippings, photographs, greeting cards, casino earnings, VA letters stuffed in shoeboxes and bulk-size Quaker Oats boxes she kept in the utility room on wire-rack shelving above the extra freezer. I’ll stack receipts for VA medication shipments on the area rug next to the big-screen television. Paxil and Xanax, older slips for Prozac and haloperidol.

Pills in the crystal ashtray too nice for cigarettes. Pastels, reds, tiny letters in white or black, clear capsules filled with candy beads.

▴ ▴ ▴

Children teeter-totter in a picture frame on the shelf behind El Psychiatrist’s desk.

“If I could trade my life for hers, I would,” Grandpa says while the doctor depresses a two-hole punch onto the papers in his hand, then straightens and lowers them onto the open brackets of a manila folder.

Poor self-image. Feelings that you look old or unattractive.

Sometimes I am—ugly. And I guess sometimes I’m beautiful. I don’t really pay attention.

That’s not true.

I examine my face every night and morning, squeezing blackheads between blunt fingernails and scraping away the hair-like sacs clogging my pores. I guess I’m thin, but not like a model. I have my Grandma China’s long legs, a soft belly, and gentle curves. The Bad Boyfriend once said I have an Audrey Hepburn neck. He was drunk. But I think he meant it.

▴ ▴ ▴

I think the tremors started when I was in kindergarten. He’d talk about his childhood, about basic training, the ship that took him to France. I stayed away from him then. Instead of sitting on the couch while he rocked on the recliner, I’d sit in the kitchen with my mom and grandma.

“He can’t remember what he had for breakfast,” my grandma said.

At home, my mom told my dad, “They think he has Alzheimer’s.”

He couldn’t stop trembling. They told my grandma he had Parkinson’s.

We didn’t know the side effects of Haldol—muscle spasm, stiffness, shaking or tremors, restlessness, mask-like facial expression, drooling. This was my grandpa those years I was in preschool, kindergarten, first and second grade. I wondered: Why does he move like that? What’s wrong with him? We didn’t know that years of Haldol would cause tardive dyskinesia, that the chances of getting TD go up the longer one takes an antipsychotic, that for some, for my grandpa, TD meant the stiff, jerky movements were permanent.

We didn’t know that the drugs he was given to treat TD might cause depression.

He went crazy. No one in the family said it, but what else could we call Grandpa sitting on his living room recliner, rocking back and forth, not talking, staring at a blank television screen?

Grandpa squatting and turning the television dial, a machine gun rat-a-tatting past Bonanza–Braves–Ricky Ricardo–Big Bird. He lands on a laugh track. I think he’ll go back to his chair. But he turns the knob again, Colonel Klink–Jeannie–Get Smart–SWAT. He turns the knob again. And again. He does this all afternoon.

Grandpa marching along the fence like he’s on patrol, from one end of the front yard to the other and back.

Grandpa running after high school kids in a green Mustang. “Slow down!” he yells, scooping a fistful of dirt and hurling it toward the street.

Grandpa locking himself in the bathroom and threatening to swallow all of his pills. I wasn’t there for that part. No one told me the story. Over the years it broke apart and scattered. I’m trying to sweep up the pieces, to reshape them into a story that heals us.

▴ ▴ ▴

I don’t know if my grandpa came out on his own or if my mom broke the door in, if she found him passed out or standing in the tub fully clothed. I don’t know if an ambulance was called or if his stomach pumped, if he really took the pills or just turned the prescription bottles over the toilet and flushed.

I only know that after that day, he got worse before he got better. He ended up in the VA psych ward in Albuquerque. I don’t know how she did it, how she made them listen, but my grandma made the doctors take him off every medication. She made them start again with nothing, just my grandpa and his memories.

▴ ▴ ▴

Irritability and frustration. Feelings of anger and resentment.

I wish I were pissed off. I miss October, miss the surge of leaving the Bad Boyfriend alone in his house with the broken bedroom window and the panting swamp cooler, his yard-sale furniture that’s covered in black dog hair. I miss November, the first day back in my parents’ house, one day before my grandma’s diagnosis, unloading my books, lighting a candle, hoping by the time it was out, I’d be over the Bad Boyfriend, I’d be well. It’s almost Christmas, and I still can’t breathe. I feel I am underwater, but my lips crack and I’m always thirsty.

The Bad Boyfriend is gone; my sadness is not. Years from now, when I am learning Spanish in Mexico, I will tell a friend, “Yo estaba deprimida.” He will say, “No, you mean you were sad. Depressed is super sad, more sad than you could ever be.”

I will have my own medication then, five milligrams of Lexapro. I will learn the words to tell my own story—recuerdos, trauma, sobreviviente, abuso sexual.

If I were my grandpa I would ask me to leave the room. But he doesn’t. Or maybe he can’t. Illness exposes, breaks us, and in the breaking we give ourselves to others whether we want to or not. So I sit. And wait. And wonder about the German my grandpa killed with his hands, the one he told me about this morning in the car. Will my grandpa ever be at peace?

“Aumentamos el medicamento.”

El Psychiatrist’s eyes are on me again. I nod as he rips a page off his prescription pad.

Grandpa scoots to the edge of his chair and stands up, motioning to me for his coat and hat.

“With the Paxil it’s very important that he take it every day. If he skips a dose, he’ll definitely feel it.” I scribble paxil—more on the legal pad and then stand up, my hands full—Grandpa’s fedora and jacket, my backpack, the legal pad, my keys. I don’t know anything—milligrams, what time to give him which drugs, which doctors to call, how to order his medications or special shoes from the VA. We don’t know anything.

“When do you want to see him again?” I ask.

“I’ll be back from vacation in five weeks,” he says, extending his arm to hand me Grandpa’s prescription.

“He’s going to Argentina, mi’ja.”

“That’s nice,” I say, nodding and smiling without showing my teeth. My hands are full, so I motion toward the loveseat with my chin.

“He’s from there.”

“Let me get an appointment card for you,” El Psychiatrist says, setting the prescription on an armrest. “Please excuse me.” He steps out of the room.

“Are you hungry, Grandpa?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

I unload my arms onto the cushion with the hole. I hand him his hat, which I know he will hold until we are outside because it’s rude to wear a hat in a building.

His face twists. His eyes search for a spot to focus on. He looks up, then down at the floor like he does when we say grace for meals, as though pulling God’s blessing down to earth. He sways. His face jerks. He seems to always be saying yes, not yeah, or uh-huh, but a thoughtful, methodic yes…yes.

Grandma China will be dead in less than a month. Grandpa Tino will live five long and lonely years without her, and the night he dies, the sadness will lift from their house.

“You understand the things I said, mi’jita?”

I nod. “Yeah, Grandpa. I understand Spanish.”

I should have said no. I shouldn’t know these things about him. Or if I do, I should offer him something in return—a doctor who touches his hands, a friend who knew him before the war, before the breakdowns, someone who knew him when he was whole, who saw him break apart and loved him anyway, someone to seal the cracks in him with spit and masa, who could sew the fissures with her own hair, with fibers from her own muscles. Isn’t that what we all want? Someone who can love through the breaking.

“Oh,” he says, looking toward the door, “I hope you’re not disappointed in me.”

“I could never be disappointed in you,” I say. And because he’s still not looking at me or maybe he didn’t hear, or what I’ve given doesn’t feel like enough, I add, “You should hear what I tell my therapist,” and I kind of laugh. What I tell my therapist, and will tell and retell, about my own memories, the battles little girls fight—to keep older boys from touching us. Neighbor. Brother. All I’ve done to be well—journaling, limpias, therapy, meds. How it can all fall apart when a boyfriend is bad, when a grandmother is dying. There are some things I don’t ever want my grandpa to know.

I hold Grandpa’s windbreaker open for him. He steps into it like an out-of-shape boxer. I take his hand to lead him out of the doctor’s office. Tremble. Tremble.

We are the color of adobe, weathered earth, fired clay.

Michelle Otero is the Poet Laureate of Albuquerque. Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Mexico Magazine, Brevity, and The Best of Brevity. She is the author of Malinche’s Daughter, an essay collection based on her work with women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault as a Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico.