By Luis Pérez de Acha
Mexico City, January 20th, 2021
“How unfair, how wretched, how utterly hateful is the death that kills not us but the ones we love”. Carlos Fuentes
People’s children also die.
I had ruled out that possibility. Nothing made us think that our plans would be cut short with the death of Jorge, several months ago on June 24th. A sense of loss and defeat erupted in my life.
The future was put on hold. My achievements — personal, professional and familial — were pushed aside. Eight days earlier, I had been celebrating Father’s Day with a 19-second video sent from the port city where Jorge was vacationing with Javier, my other son. Jorge — my Yuyín, as I called him — signed off with a long, deep “byeeeee” which he decorated with an “I love you, pa.” An irrepressible premonition. Thirty minutes later, Javier sent a message to Gisela and Andrea, our daughters; Jorge had an accident, and it would be best for us to take a flight to where they were.
Total confusion. My wife, Gisela, smiling and cheerful moments before, fell silent. I was paralyzed and didn’t really believe that my third child was in danger of dying. I was reluctant to travel. Weren’t the Pérez de Acha and Chávez families linked in immortality? I gave in. Our three children took care of the logistics: Gisela and Andrea in Mexico City; Javier on a different parallel. One musketeer and two warrior women around our unfading D’Artagnan.
From then on, everything went quickly: the return home, suitcases, taxi, airport, tickets…. In just four hours, we were on a plane headed for a city on the Atlantic. My mind was full of thoughts and also empty: a Father’s Day that was not a celebration, youth on the verge of being consigned to oblivion, a death that was roaming in life.
Bewilderment and skepticism. I was dizzy, like spinning without turning around. The thunderous echo of his voice in my ears: “byeeeee, I love you, pa.” I watched and listened — without seeing or hearing — those same 19 seconds behind a curtain: the end of my son’s life. The minutes were incredibly slow and at the same time fleeting. I slept awake, read without reading, thought without thinking, and prayed without meditating. The dance of life and death in an endless loop.
We landed at the airport of a remote city. A cloudy afternoon embraced us by way of condolences. The atmosphere was somber and weary, to match our mood. Once again, suitcases and a couple of taxis to Hospital Santo Antonio. Javier met us out front on the sidewalk. Another jab. His face, looking worn from fatigue and pain, welcomed us. We intertwined our bodies and cried. We cried a lot and we sobbed noisily, hoping that our tears would be the prelude to a different awakening.
Night was falling, cool and dull like in any hospital. “Go up two stories, and at the back, on the left, you’ll find the intensive care unit,” were the directions we received. We arrived and rang the bell. Two minutes later, the doctor on call, also named Javier, came out: “You’re Jorge’s family, right? Go in two at a time. You’ll have to wear face masks, caps, gloves, and gowns, and wash your hands with antiseptic gel.”
In unison, Gisela and Andrea said: “you go in, mother and father.” Cold sweat, clenched jaw, and clumsy gait. I didn’t want to go in. I was scared. Very scared.
My mind was going crazy. I refused to go through the door. I sidestepped beds, IV poles, IV bags, and doctors. The nightmare was unbearable. My wife and I, holding hands, came upon Jorge. I didn’t cry. The disbelief blocked my feelings. There was Yuyín, sleeping and a picture of health, his face looking serene. “My teddy bear,” I thought ridiculously. Brief syncopated spasms begged for more life. As easy as waking him for the first day of school when he was little, but as impossible as overcoming fate. I gave in; I cried a capella, weeping loudly.
Another week passed in this way, with inconceivable days and eternal nights. Insomnia and silence were my allies. I begged to find the answers to pointless questions. At all hours, I wandered along the city’s waterfront walkway. The magical explanations never came.
In the afternoons, the visits with Yuyín lasted 15 minutes. I fell upon his throne with hugs, kisses and infinite chats. I caressed his face to learn it by heart, like a sculptor proud of his work. I prayed for a miracle not knowing what that miracle would be; I yearned for his death without knowing why. My last minutes with him were magical, with Beethoven’s Symphony №5 always playing on my iPhone setting the cadence of our hearts. Jorge, a lover of music, always said that it was his favorite opus for “tough life experiences” (ipse dixit). His beard was growing: his body was alive, but his soul was absent.
On Sunday, the 23rd, I went up to see him three times. A doctor told me, “You can take off your gloves.” His feverish body, uncovered, pulsated. Andrea and Javier checked the medical chart at the feet of their pomano, as the siblings referred to him. And outside the hospital they declared: “It won’t be long now; his vital signs are weakening.” I was deeply disturbed. I went back into the hospital and ran up to the ICU. I forgot about the Symphony №5. “No, Yuyín, don’t die,” I shouted in silence. His response, from a different place: “byeeeee, I love you, pa.” I quietly cried, and cried; I hugged him, and I hugged him. In this way, we sealed our final pact for eternity.
In the early dawn hours of Monday, the 24th, the doctor, Antonio, called Javier to tell him that Jorge had died. The miracle — miracle? — had come to pass. A heart-wrenching stage of mourning had begun, equally unimaginable and unbearable. With my mouth parched, I entered the hospital. The atmosphere was doleful. From afar I saw my son’s inert body. The gloom of unfulfilled years had settled in his eyes. I wanted to sleep like that too, in tune with him, and at peace with life.
I plunged into a bottomless spiral. I hugged him and kissed him anxiously, knowing that I would never hug and kiss him again, not ever! His body was cold, and his face showed melancholy. I convinced myself that this goodbye pained him too. I took his face between my palms. I furiously inhaled the last embers of his life. I frenziedly squeezed his hands, his chest, his feet, as if I were locking in his soul. I looked at the ceiling and wondered if, from above in that sanctum of death, he was watching us. I smiled hoping it was true.
The doctors and nurses shared our sorrow. They were the first witnesses to our grief. Eight days of forced coexistence were enough to build ineffable bonds of affection and understanding. They were behind us, in rough formation, like warriors aware of defeat but proud of having carried out their duty. Days later we learned that they had observed a minute of silence in memory of Jorge. At a distance, in space and time, our memories are with them. In Jorge’s face, I saw the last expression of our destiny: his and mine, my wife’s, that of Gisela, Andrea, and Javier; and my mother’s also. I cried, and cried, and cried…. I’m still crying. I mourn his life cut short, his unfinished dreams and my absent grandchildren; our unplanned trips and the tennis tournaments of a lost future. I mourn his music, his laughter, his complaints; his intelligence, sensitivity and beautiful songs. I mourn my jokes, his nerdities, some from the 18th Century and others from a distant future.
Hypnotic days. Walks without a destination, paperwork at the hospital, waiver of autopsy, removal of the body from the morgue, procession at the Prados del Reposo cemetery. The last farewell for a Jorge that was no longer a person; touching his clothes and peculiar socks, weeping and more weeping by an incomplete family, with an always eternal son as spiritual witness. Final prayers, everyone with their own personal beliefs and convictions. The terror I felt for my son on the way to the crematorium. No more Yuyín; no more teddy bear. Only ashes and memories, and perpetual love.
Jorge was affectionate; me, always cuddling and caressing. I kissed him hundreds, thousands of times; we shared hundreds, thousands of hugs. I’m missing millions more. His last embrace was spiritual: “byeeeee, I love you, pa.” But he left me the best gift with Javier, a few hours before the accident: “If I had grievances, I’ve already forgiven my dad.” An everlasting testimony of life. A teacher who, in his youth, molded his life like a work of art.
As María Elena, who also lost a child, told me, it’s like having him in the background all day and dreaming of him. I often wonder what could be worse than the death of a child: the death of another one. I’ve known parents who have lost three and even four children. Horror is experienced, I also believe, by those whose children are missing. In this way, my pain takes on a real dimension. During the first weeks of our mourning, Nuria alerted us: “I know that you want to die, but the good news — and it’s not bad news — is that you will still be here, and we need you and your testimony.”
My life and of my vision of the world changed in a structural sense; the same is true for my family. It’s not better or worse, just different. As the pain settles, the joy of the years with Jorge grows. It’s difficult to explain. When people ask my wife or me how many children we have, we always say four; he hasn’t lost his existential place among us. My Yuyín was not an anecdote: he is and continues to be a reality.
Life inserted me suddenly and forcefully into the fraternity of parents with dead children. It’s a privilege. Jorge’s death adjusted my spirituality. My suffering differs from cruel fatalism. The guilt-based religiosity of reward and punishment infuriates me. It’s inconceivable to suppose that my Yuyín has to pass through that filter. My pain has meaning: it is my offering of life, health and peace to the children of other parents; and for my children, too.
Sandro tells me that his mother-in-law, the orphan of a child as well, wakes up joyful in the morning: “less time to wait until I meet up with Jordi again.” I share her happiness for living like that. Tomorrow will be one less day until I enjoy my Yuyín.
As a child, Jorge would recite, “In life, brother, in life,” by Ana María Rabatté. In life, I love my family; in life, I hug and kiss them. I never want to say “I hugged them hundreds, thousands of times but I’m missing millions more.” That’s his legacy.
I miss my son. If fate had said to me at dawn on January 20th, 1992, “I’ll loan you Jorge for 27 years, five months and four days, do you accept?” My response would always be the same: “without a doubt.” The problem is that the deadline would arrive without any negotiation. There is nothing more, only hope and the eternal dream of meeting again in the Hereafter, in some corner of the Universe.