Día de los muertos: an offering for Maria Isela

by mymothersbrain

My mother once told me that her greatest aspiration was to be a mother. I grew up with a brother and sister, two and three years younger than me, respectively, and my mother was never embarrassed to shower us with hugs and kisses, even, to our mortification sometimes, in front of our friends.

We had another sibling, a girl, Maria Isela, a twin to my brother. They were two months premature. She took a few brief breaths after entering the world. The doctor and nurse must have been Catholic because, knowing the baby wasn’t to live, they immediately named and baptized her so that she would emerge on the other side ready for eternity.

When my mother realized the baby was gone, the doctor asked, “What were you going to name her?”

“Maricela,” my mother said.

The names were close enough to make me believe in God or fate or some other universal power when I first heard the story. And I heard it often, especially when we’d visit my sister’s final resting place, marked by an evergreen tree and a small marker that reads Maria Isela Terrazas. Yet just a couple of months ago when I was in El Paso, driving Mom across town and talking about her memories of all of her kids’ college graduations, I asked about Maria Isela.

“Did you have any other kids, Mom?”

“No,” she said. And though I prompted her gently, just a bit, that memory was gone. She no longer recalled the child she had so wanted and lost.

I confess that, I too, forget I have another sister. I am told I attended Maria Isela’s burial with my father; my mother was still healing and couldn’t be there. Though I was too young to remember this, it would have been a cool day toward the end of 1964, the grass yellow and crunchy beneath my feet.

There are so many things to remember when you’re a caregiver – even a long distance caregiver – that trying to keep absolutely everything and everyone in mind is impossible. Every time I’m in El Paso I vow to visit my baby sister’s grave but inevitably time is sucked up by trips to the doctor, the pharmacy, the bank, even to take my mother to visit the one sister she remembers. Also, I’m not sure it would be a good idea for my mom to go to the cemetery; if she remembers her lost daughter now, she might relive the pain as if the death had just happened, and I don’t want that.

But guilt does strange things to you. One night, after I’d put my mother to bed, I lay in the dark unable to sleep, the worries spinning through my mind. How long can my sister Angélica juggle her life and be Mom’s main caregiver? If we need to move Mom to a home at some point, how in the world will we be able to pay for her care? If we are able to somehow – miraculously – care for her at home, there are repairs her house must have. How are we going to pay for those? More immediately, where did Mom get all those hard candies she’d hidden under her pillow to eat in the middle of the night? Did I get them all? What if I didn’t and she chokes on one?

And right in the middle of obsessing over things I need to do and things I may have missed, I suddenly remembered Maria Isela. My little sister! How long had it been since I’d thought of her? Why, I hadn’t been to her grave in years, maybe even decades. And though I thought myself far beyond night terrors, I suddenly had a vision right out of Toni Morrison’s Beloved: my baby sister, a grown-up ghost, rising from her grave and moving along the Rio Grande, walking into the house, down the hall, past Mom’s bedroom and right for the one in which I lay. How could I have forgotten her?

I pulled the sheet and bedspread up over my head and lay there trembling. I cried. And then I feel asleep.

Come morning, I felt better. But I had to acknowledge that I need to let guilt go. In caring for my mom, I’m not deliberately ignoring other things and other people. Like other caregivers, I’m just doing the best I can juggling priorities. And that, just as much as the dead who’ve gone before us, is a part of life.

Today, on Day of the Dead, I offer Maria Isela the one nugget within my reach to give, the gift of love: Mom loved you. She loved you very much.