In one mortal frame lived a plethora of women both simultaneously and in cacophony. In what I have come to call a pathetic attempt to extract each voice at my beckon call, I sat with Chavo. In the stifling heat of a borrowed bedroom, the women she was and is revealed themselves to me in waves, each one of them coming forth and withdrawing at the whim of her years and senility. Her wisdom was embedded in every word, her voice a manuscript of time. She could not remain a life implied; I want to etch her into your mind so you can encounter one of many shapes beauty can take. I want to write her life so it doesn’t remain such a beautifully complex song that goes unsung. I’ll write her so no one can forget her in her final years when she often forgets herself.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“How old? What do I know? I ask other people everyday how many years I’ve been alive. No matter the number of years I’ve lived, they don’t amount to the years I’ve worked.” Chavo replied, Mm, I’ve worked more years than I’ve lived.”
I looked at Chavo without restraint. She often averted her gaze to stare into empty spaces, and it allowed me to shamelessly stare like a curious child. I stared at the deep creases that, like roots, spread outward from inert eyes, her toothless grin, and the propensity for an anxious hand to dance against her knee. Though she seemed at times to take on the characteristics of a child, like finding pain relief in wearing a pink hat her caretaker knitted for her, I couldn’t picture the child she was. I couldn’t conjure the image of Chavo playing and skipping without picturing a field beneath her feet uprooting yuca, picking coffee or driving cacao down to the earth with the stomp of her foot.
Everyone in the barrio agrees that Chavo is no younger than 100 years old. Her cedula, or her identification card, argues that she is 92. There was a time however when Dominican Republic issued documentation years after a person’s actual birth with an inaccurate date, sometimes three years after your birth, with spotty information laminated and immortalized. You had an actual birth date and a birth date issued to you by the government. If the date on her cedula was accurate, she was born into Dominican Republic facing the end of a U.S. military occupation that began in 1916 and ended in 1924.
She once had a thick rope of braided black tresses down her back, and a beautiful face to match. My grandfather told me that she was old for as long as he could remember but even he knew that in her time, whatever her time was, she was a dime.
“How are you?” I asked again.
“I just hope that God makes me well again so I can go back to work,” was Chavo’s reply.
Her life was work. Societal conventions and transcending bias was none of her concern but in a way she did. It was believed that Chavo had an undiagnosed mental illness that made her susceptible to fits that, at the time, were treated by being tied to a tree for the duration of the fit. There are still people today whose mental illnesses go untreated, and she is just one account of many whose lives have been affected by such circumstances. Despite her mental instability, she carried out various laborious jobs that were more often performed by men, she counted for me on her fingers, “chopping cacao, picking coffee, collecting platano, yucca, and batata…” She paused, “I’ve run out of fingers on this hand, or I can’t remember anything else,” she laughed.
She kept working and went on to have three children. Her youngest son drowned in a river as just a young boy. Her second son, Rafael had schizophrenia, and her daughter died well before her time due to cancer, but not before bearing two sons of her own. Her last words were frantically scribbled on a notepad in a hospital in Nueva York, “Take care of Mama.” Rafael had two sons as well. They did not inherit his schizophrenia, but were both diagnosed with epilepsy. Her son was mentally unfit to raise them, and she spent countless nights awake with them convulsing in her arms, their eyes rolling into the backs of their head. I wondered if her hands shook so much out of habit.
Chavo rambled on the edge of her bed, her soft-spoken words drowning in the sounds of the crowing roosters and rattling cicadas. She heard Rafael lost his mind, and that he’s working she said,“but how could he when he’s crazy.” She heard he died and he did die earlier that year. I remembered visiting her just before then. The house had no electricity for fear that he would chew through the wires and electrocute himself. He slept on the floor and pushed all the furniture into one corner of the living room. I watched him as he paced aimlessly in the dark. The pungent smell of urine burned my nose.
In her old age, she babysat barrio kids. One of them happened to be my mother. My mother said there are places saved for women like her in heaven, who have paid a debt they never owed, sacrificed more than they’ve earned. “If there was only one more fruit on the tree, or one platano left for cooking, or one more drop of refreshment left, she would share it with you, that was the kind of woman she was.”
I wondered if realities knife was dulled or sharpened by insanity, or did it both dull and sharpen.
I wondered if when the lines became defined, as they slowly or suddenly came into focus, if it bore down in a way her and her son couldn’t handle. I wondered when was the last time she looked in the mirror, brushed her hair, or her teeth, and recognized herself. I wondered if she liked when men looked at her, if she thought of herself as more than an extension of the earth, more than a patch of land for sowing and harvesting.
In a world such as this, the most precious thing a woman can find is peace. When Chavo remembered who she was, the smile that playfully graced the features beneath the heavy veil of soft wrinkling skin fell like ripe fruit perched too high on a branch. It fell too fast, too hard until it was no longer a mango or a nispero, but malo, covered in gusanos, unable to be eaten. The closer she came to her current reality the farther her eyes drifted. One hundred years were too hard to take all at once. She teetered between memories as they came in and out of focus, the heat making her skin stick the plastic table cloth on her undone mattress.
She grabbed my hands on occasion and surprised me with the strength of her hands. She raised her fists in the air and proclaimed, “Hay que trabajar!” Work was not something she dreaded it was her purpose, to do the work.
She’d been 100 years old for five years, they countryside waited for her to die, not cruelly but curiously wondering how long a woman could possibly live. There was what seemed like a bottomless wisdom she shared in a rhythmic ebb and flow. I swam in the depths of her magnanimity. She sat in her wheelchair and scanned each surface surrounding her with new eyes every few moments. They fell on me. Her wrinkled hands stretched toward the black halo of ringlets that surrounded my head. She pulled one and let it spring back toward me before her lips parted saying, “Hermosa.” When wisdom calls you beautiful with the weight of all its years on its bones, eyelids, and lips you become a new species. No longer a derivative life form, but one of no kind. I felt like a humbled phenomena, and for this feeling she gave me and the pain she has endured as a mother, as a woman, and a human being, I write her. Chavo is more than a life made beautiful by the words used to describe it. My only hope is that you will in your lifetime encounter women and men like Chavo, and if you cannot, I hope you find beauty in places you never thought to look before: in cataracts eyes, in wrinkling skin, in circumventing mental illness, in humanity, in helping others, in sacrifice, in selflessness, in a woman with strong hands, in a plot of land, in rotting fruit, and in so many other pieces of our existence.
A poem inspired by the
The Long Life of Chavo
There was no prophesy read to me.
I saw fate when it materialized.
My womb is doomed,
A tree that bears rotting fruit.
Broken mother that I am,
Dios me libre,
with my hundred year
old life, I cannot serve
my son sanity
at the starving table.
It sits idle, madness rocks the chair
in the dark oppressive corner.
The residual stench of my
departed son secretes from
the pores of this house.
But, the shadowy long figure
dragging his heavy naked feet
on the mud floors, along
wooden walls, under a corrugated tin roof,
madness, is absent.
I do not ache for him to restlessly
shift in his barren room
with humid sheets on the floor,
where he slept, when madness
wasn’t pacing or trying to eat electricity.
Dios me libre.
I could not prepare the food to heal his spirit,
and when he lay with more madness,
these hands could not stop the
violent convulsing of his children,
the eyes deep in their heads, or the tongues
in their throats. I ask the volatile silence,
how long I have existed in darkness, in this vessel.
My years on earth must outweigh
the flesh and wrinkling skin.