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The Anecdote of the Gloves

In the “tangible landscape of memory,” as Rebecca Solnit calls it, on one end is the primal scene of my father’s first instance with disease that keeps repeating itself in my life, and the life of my family; on the other end resides the “unseen bodies” that are at work, like strong winds that can be felt but not seen.

To acknowledge the unknown is part of knowledge, and the unknown is visible as terra incognita but invisible as selection – the map showing agricultural lands and principal cities does not show earthquake faults and aquifers, and vice versa (Solnit 163).

What, then, lies beneath?

My trip from Vermont to New York was common enough. I was on route to see my literary agent and, once more, go over a piece we were wrangling over (we parted ways because of it – so it goes, an unseen fault line). The first stop, as it always is when I visit New York, is my parent’s house in Garden City, L.I.

My father, then 82, was not well; that is to say, after 50 years in a wheelchair, taken there by polio, an acute, viral, infectious disease, now a new form reared its ugly head, post-polio syndrome, which, like the original virus, creates yet more muscular weakness, pain in the muscles – what’s left of them – and fatigue. Post-polio syndrome’s wickedness is that it crashes life’s party some 30 years after the original polio attack. My father’s case. To add to the picture, it had been recently discovered that my father also had leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow – and not unusual given his age and condition.

His immovable frame in bed brought me back to my childhood when he was returned home after spending time in an iron lung when polio first attacked and left him totally paralyzed. I stood at the edge of what then, for a 6 year old kid, seemed like a giant, cold, green cage with levers and pulleys. I held the metal bars at the foot of the hospital bed and peered through at the face I knew – the new man I didn’t. This was 1960, Córdoba, Argentina – the primal scene that changed everything. Fifty years later, in Garden City – GC, as we call it – he looked tiny, child-like, as if dissolving, though he was once 6 feet tall.

In another life, he and I rode his motorcycle to Villa Carlos Paz, sometimes running out of steam and having to push it up mountainsides. I wouldn’t again mount a motorcycle until I was 19. I didn’t return to Argentina until I was 50.

It’s amazing how age and disease reduce us to almost nothing, churn us into something else – the ill and the healthy together. How we whither, becoming smaller as if somehow Nature understands that’s what we need to pass on. Until eventually we’re nothing – so it appears.

Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), says that, “…things cannot/Be born from nothing, nor the same, when born,/To nothing be recalled.” Nature, he says, “ever by unseen bodies works.”

“You have to come with me to the doctor’s office,” said my mother. “I can’t do this alone,” she said.

My father had been through a series of tests that would determine his prognosis. He was hopeful that somehow science – his one touchstone in life (he was a man of science and mathematics) – would know how to bring him back, at least get rid of the leukemia and, though bedridden, enable him to live a bit longer. My father’s appetite for life was voracious.

“There’s nothing more to be done,” said the doctor, someone my father, a very loyal man, knew for 40 years.

“I can’t face your father with these news,” said my mother. “I’m going to ask you to tell him. I’ll be there but I can’t do it. You have to. I can’t. Not after all the life that’s between us.”

Emerging from Penn Station, in New York, I wasn’t sure how I would approach my father with his death sentence. I was lost, literally, in a search for courage. I was totally in the dark. Completely. I wasn’t sure, either, how this was to fit my story – or into a story – since we live by stories; but I was sure that I had to create a story in which the title character is told that he has an expiration date – and it’s near.

Deep in my thoughts – perhaps deep in my soul questioning father and son roles – just up ahead of me, on 31st and heading towards 7th Avenue, an old man in a gray overcoat dropped a black glove. I caught up to the glove, picked it up, and caught up to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Here, you dropped this.”

“Thank god my wife’s not here. You saved me,” he said, chuckled, thanked me again and we were off . I turned right on 7th Avenue, making my way toward the Flatiron District. My agent was on 22nd.

Not five minutes later, nearing 22nd, a woman trying to speak to her friend while balancing a shopping bag and a handbag, drops a beige pair of gloves. I thought it strange that I’d see the same thing so quickly. What are the odds? I picked up the gloves and faced her and said, “I think these are yours.”

She gave me a beaming smile and said, “Oh. Yes. Oh. Thank you so much.”

And we went our ways.

“Even when deprived of all but all the soul,/Yet will it linger on and cleave to life, –” writes Lucretius.

And, says Solnit, “A story can be a gift like Ariadne’s thread, or the labyrinth, or the labyrinth’s ravening Minotaur; we navigate by stories, but sometimes we only escape by abandoning them.”

That afternoon I abandoned one story, the one my agent wanted me to tell. I wanted to tell it my way, which I did. But what I didn’t know is that I was already in another story – aren’t we always in someone else’s story, after all?

On the return walk to Penn Station, a wind kicked up. It was overcast and chilly. I was thinking that it would be a good idea to slide into a bar and have a stiff one before heading back to GC. When a middle-aged couple comes out of a building and an elegantly dressed woman drops a pair of red leather gloves. The man with her, also quite elegantly dressed, didn’t see them.

The red gloves looked huge to me, bigger than they actually were. On this the third set of gloves dropped before me, I was certain that something unseen, some force was talking to me.

Here’s Lucretius again – he explains it best for me:

And as within our members and whole frame

The energy of mind and power of soul

Is mixed and latent, since create it is

Of bodies small and few, so lurks this fourth,

This essence void of name, composed of small,

And seems the very soul of all the soul,

And holds dominion o’er the body all.

I could find no reason or logic; I could not locate the language by which to describe the first dropped glove, then the second, and now the third that came with a thunderous roar from a place “void of name.”

When I got home I stood by my father’s bed. My mother at his feet.

He looked up at me with his incredible blue eyes, as if pleading yet knowing.

“This is it, viejo,” I said. “This is it. It’s hard to say so I’ll be straight,” I said. And he grinned. “There’s nothing more we can do. Nothing more.”

On the final day of his life, the woman that took care of him came into his room; it was a resplendent day. And she said to him, “It’s such a wonderful day.”

And he said, “For you. For me it’s not going to be a good day.”

When he left us around 10PM, my mother instructed one of her grandchildren to open a window.

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Exile on Mainstreet: Lost on the Boundaries

I was an exile before I had time to reason.

I was an exile before I understood the feeling of banishment.

I was an exile before I could gain insight into the morphology of political systems that are always already expelling one’s consciousness.

Exile first arrived, unannounced, quiet like a lion in the bush after his prey, through family – a father out for weeks making napalm, a mother ironing the family clothes with a revolver strapped to her side, a machine gun parked in the front yard, gun fire, deafening rockets overhead, sleepless nights, whispers and apprehensive glances.

To a small boy hiding beneath stairs the powerful surge to push him out and away is not that; it’s more immediate, more frightening, more resolute. Textured hostility. A bully in the schoolyard. The authoritative forces that expel a person from his place are far from one’s life; they are nebulous and foggy and distant from one’s dreams and desires. Which is why exile is so profound.

Exile, says Edward Said, “is a condition of terminal loss.” In the modern age exile has become a “motif of modern culture,” he says. “Even enriching.” Listen: “We have become accustomed to thinking of the modern period itself as spiritually orphaned and alienated, the age of anxiety and estrangement.”

My anxiety and estrangement began in 1960. My family came to the United States, on this first trip, because my father was stricken with poliomyelitis, a virus that left him paralyzed from the neck down. No one could help in backwater Argentina. My father was 31 years old. He passed away at 82. He spent 51 years in a wheelchair – and he was highly accomplished. He spent 50 of those years in the United States – as we did.

Our anxious and estranged, final move to the States came in 1966 – there was no hope in Argentina.(Ten years later, Argentina experienced a Military Dictatorship that lasted until 1983 and a Dirty War, which was part of Operation Condor – there would be nothing left, eventually, and the country has yet to recover.) My father and mother were hedging. History says they were right. Our age, says Said, “with its modern warfare, imperialism, and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarianism rulers – is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration.” We were just that, my family.

I became intimate with displacement – sensually, instinctively – before I knew of the concept. It happened the day my father was brought home from the hospital, after spending time in an iron lung, and the nearly lifeless man stretched out in a green hospital bed was no one I recognized, not intimately.

In an instant, I lost my home, I lost my country. Displacement is very real, a life-force, an elaborate gild. It leaves a scar – and you leave something behind, too. I was 6 when my father took ill. I was 11, almost 12 when the displacement was complete.

I had to learn how to adjust, how to adapt to survive. I didn’t have a guide – and I was lost, though I can honestly say I didn’t know what loss meant. (And I have learned, over time, that loss is a permanent condition, something I’ve embraced and find acceptable and where I find creativity.) I had to begin a process by which I learned to adjust to what was far away, pushing what was near far – as Solnit says in her second, of three, “The Blue of Distance” chapters. This was an instinct. And in this instinct, there is a cost that lies dormant, waiting its due. Again using Solnit’s helpful language: I did not imagine myself like this, “in this way”; I had to “lose [my] past to join the present, and this abandonment of memory, of old ties, is the steep cost of adaptation.”

In Solnit’s second “The Blue of Distance” chapter, which happens before the fourth chapter, “Abandon,” I’m beginning to understand how essential being lost is to identity formation – and in my case, how being lost in exile begins, first, by a strange and complex mechanism of denial about one’s identity followed, in time and with much experience, with acceptance.

Exile takes a person’s dignity away, says Said. In Solnit’s hands, using the history of the conquest of the New World and the biography of Cabeza de Vaca, we learn how castaways, “strays and captives,” feeling (my italics) that “they were far from home, distant from their desires, and then at some point, in a stunning reversal, they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” I feel this. I am this. Solnit continues:

For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time; for others the dreams of home must have faded by stages among the increasingly familiar details of their surroundings. They must have learned their surroundings like a language and one day woken up fluent in them. Somehow, for these castaways the far became near and the near far.

I have laid awake at night longing for the habit of stepping out of my home, at Segunda La Valleja 1120, to meet friends to play soccer on the quiet streets. I’ve experienced liquored moments where I’m fighting to go home, un-accepting of this gringo life. And it all began to fade and I became a stranger to two places – in two places.

Ten years ago, on my 50th birthday, I returned to this now foreign land, Argentina. Immediately the people saw me as un porteño, a person from Buenos Aires. I’m not. I was born in Córdoba – but the Córdobes has a specific accent, very specific tones to his castellano. I lost that when I woke up one day and I was fluent in another language. When I went to Córdoba, I could hardly understand the language. And when I made an emotional walk up the hill to Segunda La Valleja 1120, it looked smaller, less than what I remembered – the palace of my dreams no more. I felt the same displacement as when I first saw my new father in his hospital bed that displaced his own bed.

I felt the exile. I was there, en el barrio Cofico, but not. I was born here, on one of the hottest days, approaching midnight, but I’m not from here. I live in the almighty States but there, according to my NATURALIZATION PAPERS, I was an alien.

The loss I feel is because I’ve had to learn to live in the shadows – an alien, sometimes even to myself. And what I’ve done – and continue to do, I suppose – is to make the shadows, the edges and boundaries of our tenebrous life significant. That’s something, I guess.

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