Samba pa (Ta)ti

I met him late one night. It was dark and I couldn’t make out much of the details of his face, except for a furrowed brow as he worked under the hood of my Jeep. I offered kind words of thanks, but he acted like he barely heard me. When he was done, he gave his daughter a sweet kiss on the forehead and glared back at me with an I-know-what-your-intentions-are-with-my-little-girl look.

I was mortified, but he wasn’t wrong.

Not too long after, we became fast friends. We had a shared love for boxers, Santana, power tools, and milkshakes. We had so much in common that he began calling me junior. But like my nickname, I was always inferior to his every move. He beat me at Scrabble, at poker, at video games, at the punch line to my own jokes. He beat me at Monopoly, at building shoe racks and at painting walls. He exhausted me and riled me up at the same time. And right when I was ready to ring his neck, he’d look at me with kind eyes and say incredibly tender things like how lucky he was to have two daughters.

He wasn’t wrong, but I was lucky too.

For a little while, I too had two dads. One, clean-shaved cerebral puritan, the other a loud potty-mouth fur ball. One a musician, the other a philosopher. One couldn’t agree to disagree, the other (very literally) built a space for me in his home. But like parallel lines, they were never destined to meet. Until today.

Jose Angel “Tati” Garcia had the most extraordinary heart. Although his doctors would disagree, it was a perfect organ. He loved loosely with it. He felt intensely with it. He fired off quips with it. He, at times, told you to go fuck yourself with it, too. His heart came through his boombox of a laugh and his suffocating bear hugs. His heart came through when he would grant you mercy during a wrestling bout or a tickle fight or while biting your finger for no apparent reason. You would feel his heart skip a beat whenever he was with his wife and his heart burst with pride when he was with his daughter.

Tati was born with a heart defect, sliced open and miraculously saved as a baby. His heart withstood being raised by a single, young mother, while his dad, a political prisoner, rotted in a Castro jail. As a teen, his heart ripped when he was separated from everything he knew and sent to Spain by way of the infamous Peter Pan operation. Then, it was mended when he was reunited with his mother in Miami. Decades later he healed some of those scars when he was reunited with his father. He lived his life taking care of both of them and making sure they had everything they needed.

His heart grew exponentially when he met his match. He knew instantly that this would be the woman he would marry, so he did, quickly, not to waste anymore time. Together they had exactly one baby and became a 3-person unit. At times finishing each other’s sentences and laughing at inside jokes that were so inside a look would be suffice to set them off. He gave up trying to teach his daughter how to play tennis, so he took up learning how to dye her hair. And when it was time for his wife’s office Christmas parties, he was sure to bring his signature John Travolta moves. In every way he could, he spoiled them the only way he knew how – with his love.

He was beloved, not just by his parents and his wife and daughter, but by his co-workers. For many years he worked maintenance for City National Bank. He woke up every day before the sun, put on a blue collar button-down shirt with his name sewn over the left pocket and his navy Dickies. He filled his days not only with the mundane things of his responsibilities, but also with making sure that the entire office had everything they needed. Most of the time that included unsolicited advice. He was the office counselor, psychic, conflict mediator (sometimes creator), gossiper, HR manual expert, and go-to person for a good laugh. He truly was a Jose-of-all-trades.

Tati succumbed to his heart and heart-related injuries very early this morning. He is survived by his mom, his step-dad and his dad, as well as his wife, his daughter and his daughter’s wife. All of whom have the impossible task of going through our remaining days with now only the memory of this incredibly loving man.

 

tati

 

Drop me off in New Orleans

My nephew turns 18 tomorrow – coincidently the age I was when we first met – and in a few short months, he will take up residence in my favorite city, New Orleans.

I don’t know why I was so surprised when he chose the Big Easy as his college town, I mean, who wouldn’t. I guess I thought she was my city and my city alone to love. But it wasn’t until today that I realized that our love for the Crescent City was genetic when he asked me for my father’s (his grandfather’s) trumpet.

The first and only word out of my mouth was a resounding no.

And from the look on his face, I could tell that this wasn’t a word he heard often – and was especially not expecting it the day before his birthday.

I decided to interrogate him on his intentions, hoping he would say something ridiculous that would help my case in denying him his capricious ask.

“Why do you want it?”

“I want to learn to play it.”

And like the great flood from Katrina, the memories of my unrelenting nagging and begging of my father to teach me to play this unforgiving instrument came back to me. I remembered his notes on my sheet music, where he drew eight sets of three circles, representing the finger buttons, and shaded the ones I was supposed to depress to hit the notes Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do, all written in his meticulously neat, all-cap handwriting.

While my nephew continued to give me reasons of why he wanted his grandfather’s trumpet, I poured over music books and opened folders like a mad-woman…until I found it. Exactly the way I remembered it. He wrote it on the back of my sheet to “Spanish Eyes.”

“This is how he taught me,” I showed him.

I saw the excitement on his face and we both ran to the closet where my mom hides things, my dad’s trumpet being just one of those many things. I’m not sure who she hides it from. Would-be thieves. A cleaning lady with severe musical inclination. Me. My nephew. We all know where you keep it, Nola. (Yes, her name is really Nola.)

He stretched his tall body to pull down that black case I spent my entire childhood coveting. And when we opened it the horn was just as golden as I remembered it. I pulled it out and put my dad’s old mouth piece on it. For a moment I could smell him. I could taste him. And I tried with all of my might to blow through the scale he taught me, while the buttons stuck and my notes got louder with the frustration.

“Tia, it just needs a little oil. I need to open it up and clean the pistons,” he said.

I looked at him and handed him the trumpet. It was always his.

Just like New Orleans will always be ours.

Days go by

One month ago today I was wheeled out of the Georgia Aquarium by two very nice people.

One was a woman named Halle. And although she didn’t do any of the actual “wheeling” she was sympathetic about the symptoms that landed me in the wheelchair. She was also very consumed with the fact that I had only seen two out of the dozen or so exhibitions before my visit was cut short. She was so horrified, in fact, that she insisted on offering me an entrance voucher that I could use for a future visit.

Between winces, I let her know that I had no plans to return. Ever. And she nodded her head and smiled even though I was being unreasonable.

The other was a man named Met – as in I “met” you today, the day your back spasmed so intensely that it numbed your leg and rendered you  paraplegic. I was flat on my back when Met arrived at the scene of my demise. I watched him as he opened and set the locks on the portable wheelchair he brought with him and in doing so, I became hyper-aware of his slim figure. The difference between him and that chair was at most 100 pounds, quite possibly the same difference between us.

When he helped me into the chair it was as graceful as accommodating the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man into a baby seat, but he didn’t once complain or, worse, call back up. And it would’ve been less embarrassing if he would’ve taken a running start to push me, instead of having to incline his body so steeply that he could’ve been a back-up dancer for the Smooth Criminal video, but nonetheless he got me rolling.

He was soft spoken and reassuring. He even tried to make small talk about CSI: Miami when he discovered where I was from. And when I reduced his favorite TV show to an hour-long waste of time, he found it in his heart to forgive my rudeness.

I meant to send them thank you cards. I even meant to send a letter to the Georgia Aquarium commending them on their quick response to my collapse while attempting to crawl through the tube inside the penguin exhibit (because looking at them through the wall-to-wall glass was simply not good enough). I never got to writing those letters. Not because I changed my mind on their merit. And it wasn’t due to a lack of time, as I was confined to a bed for 48 hours after the incident. It was because of the calendar date it happened. It’s the time of year I always want to move on from as soon as possible.

One month ago today was Christmas Day.

To the world I roll my eyes at their Secret Santa’s and scoff at their candy canes, but at home I listen to holiday music ad nauseam and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” because I secretly love that stupid holiday. And right as the big day nears, I skip town on my yearly Christmas vacation. From London to New Orleans to Montreal to this year’s southern militia tour, these adventures bring me joy, not only because I love to travel, but also because I am not home to remember that my father is missing.

Well, he’s not missing exactly. I know where his remains are. They’ve been interred in Woodlawn Cemetery for a decade now. He passed a few days before Christmas ten years ago, which is exactly the amount of time I’ve been running from his memory.

Only this Christmas, the son of a bitch found me in Atlanta. Haunting me with this terrible back spasm – the same kind that would attack him and leave him paralyzed for days. The same kind of pain that would force him to find comfort in all sorts of mentholated ointments and pain pills – the same scents and brands that were now spread throughout my hotel room.

In a moment of weakness, while my loving partner was on her third run to the local Walgreens, I spoke to him.

“Sorry I made fun of your Craftmatic Adjustable Bed,” I said loudly and across the room where I imagined his ghost would be sitting. “I get it now. Back pain is the worst.”

I didn’t get a response. The television didn’t turn on. The lights didn’t flicker. The toilet didn’t flush. Although, I think if any of those things would’ve happened, I would’ve busted out of that room screaming despite the back pain.

The only special thing that did happened was that I finally allowed myself to miss him. And, in a very strange way, I was able to spend Christmas with him one more time.