Updated: Feb 3, 2022
The bumpy road shifted to a smooth, black pavement as we approached civilization. We entered the town that my uncle Adrian lived in, and headed toward his house. As we drove, I marveled at the large houses that were up-to-date with the most current urban styles, each holding families playing in their green yards still shining with dew. An aura of tranquility surrounded me as I gazed upon the clean environment and the bright blue sky. If only that peace could have lasted.
It was September of 2019. I had been cooped up in a car for hours as my family drove from Iowa to Kansas. We were going to visit Adrian and the rest of my dad’s side of my family, all of whom are Puerto Rican. Most of my family members are military personnel, so they get rebased often. This causes our family to be split apart for long periods of time; they live across the United States, Puerto Rico, and occasionally throughout the world.
The houses around me gradually moved slower as we stopped at Adrian’s house. I got out of the car, and started walking up the stony driveway toward the large, white building. Spaced out windows looking into each room; a roof covered in glistening, black shingles; a beige driveway leading into an open garage--the house mimicked all of the other houses in true suburban style.
As I approached the house, my palms dampened with sweat at the thought of having to dance around the language barrier between me and my family. My primary language is English, but the rest of my family primarily speaks Spanish. While most of my relatives are bilingual, I can only fluently speak English; my Spanish vocabulary is minuscule, and it embarrasses me since I sound like a Kindergartener to my family. I tend to speak English; however, my family exclusively speaks Spanish with each other.
I walked into Adrian’s garage and opened the door leading into his house. Spotless, white walls and a welcoming breeze of AC greeted me as I stepped onto a patterned rug. The delicious scent of empanadillas drifted from the kitchen as I surveyed the living room, where three couches complemented a flatscreen TV. A small dining room sat to my left, set with wooden chairs and a wide dinner table. My family was scattered across the house, talking and catching up.
“¡Hola! Hello!” everyone cheered as we entered the house. My aunt Rosa walked toward me and started small talk.
“¡Hola chiquito! ¿Cómo estás?”
“Oh, muy bien,” I responded timidly, “¿Cómo estás?”
“¡Bien! ¡Bien!” she said with a smile, “¡Estás tan grande!” What is she saying? How do I say that I don’t understand in Spanish again? “Ummm. ¿No comprende?”
“Oh!” She chuckled as she made a hand gesture to clarify. “You are so tall!”
“Oh! Gracias. It’s nice to see you again!”
“Sí, sí, it has been so long since I have seen you!”
We continued to chat for a while, and I caught up with the rest of my family throughout the day. I spent most of my time sitting on the floor while the house boomed with excited, Spanish chatter. What everyone talked and laughed about, I’ll never know.
As the day flew by, the blue sky turned into a warm, orange sunset. Dusk fell on the house, and Mother came up to talk to me. Mother was my great-grandmother, but everyone in my family called her Mother. She was a kind, loving soul who deeply cared about her family. She enjoyed games like Dominoes, and she loved traveling across Puerto Rico. Despite her age, she was really energetic and full of life. Mother was the main reason we had all gathered there--it was Mother’s birthday today. My family wanted everyone to celebrate with her while we still had the chance.
“¡Hola chiquito! Thank you for coming!”
“Of course! I’m happy to see you again!”
“Me alegro verte chiquito! I am happy to see you, too!”
“How are you doing?” Mother didn’t respond for a moment. “Oh, sorry. ¿Cómo estás?”
“Ah! ¡Bien bien! I am well!” She added something in Spanish and laughed. I couldn’t understand what she said, so I just nodded my head and chuckled. She continued by asking, “Do you remember when you came to visit me in Puerto Rico, chiquito?”
“Yeah, I loved it! I’m glad I got to see Puerto Rico, and it was really nice to see you there!”
“¡Me encantaba verte allí! It was nice to see you too! I am very happy that you were able to see Puerto Rico!”
After that, Mother left to talk to other people, and I attempted to socialize. Half an hour passed, and my family brought a cake decorated with candles to the dining room table. It was time to celebrate Mother’s birthday, and we all gathered around to sing happy birthday to her.
“Cumpleaños feliz! Cumpleaños feliz! Cumpleaños feliiiiz. Cumpleaños feliz!”
Mother blew out her candles and made a speech to my family in Spanish. I couldn’t understand what she said, but the words were enough to make my family cry. After a few minutes, Mother realized my confusion and made a quick remark in English.
“Thank you all so much for coming! Mi familia means so so much to me, and it means so much to see everyone here again. My wish is that we can all see each other again in Puerto Rico, in my hometown.”
Unfortunately, not everyone had the opportunity to grant her wish.
The reason why my family had traveled across the country to see Mother wasn’t just to celebrate her birthday. A few years ago, Mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she only had so much time. A few months ago, Mother passed away in a hospital in Puerto Rico, where my abuela and abuelo said their last goodbyes to her. When I first heard the news, I had repressed my feelings in an effort to make the grieving process easier for my dad, who knew her much better than I did. I had only met her twice, so I didn’t think it would impact me that much.
Yet somehow, thinking about that vacation a year later, I found myself bawling as I finally processed that I would truly never see her again. Mother, who I barely knew, is somehow so close in my heart simply because we are connected as a family. Everyone in my family cares so much about each other, even though we rarely see each other. I regret so much from that trip. I regret not talking to Mother more. I regret not learning Spanish to weaken the language barrier. I regret not being able to grant Mother’s last wish. Yet I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see her at all in my life, and I’m so grateful that I got the opportunity to see her one last time--in Kansas.