Sitting beside Rita’s bed, Cecilia takes a red bead from a bowl on the stand next to the wicker rocking chair. She rocks back and forth. She guides the thin piece of leather through the hole in the bead.
Deformed by years of crippling rheumatoid arthritis, her misshapen fingers and hands can string the beads and it surprises me. Making the strings of beads and selling them at a shop in the El Centro and another shop in Cancun is how she makes what little she can to survive. She refuses money or any financial assistance from me even though I have been married to her daughter Rita for thirty years.
She slides one bead after another. She doesn’t look up or talk to me. She hates me for marrying her only daughter and taking her to America so many years ago, and now for bringing her back to this island to spend her final days.
Cecilia can speak English, but when she speaks to me─which isn’t often─she speaks in Spanish which is not my native language. I have difficulty understanding when it is spoken quickly. Cecilia knows this and exploits it as a way of showing her disdain for me.
For now she is silent, threading the leather through the beads. I want to tell her I am sorry, sorry that her daughter has been brought back to die on this island, but I already told her it was Rita’s wish to return here.
There is a warm, fragrant sea breeze coming in through the open window. It pushes the white lace curtains into the room. They flutter like the whisperings of children heard from afar. Through the open window I can see but not hear the gentle waves washing slowly over the huge rocks along the nearby shore, a shoreline of thin strips of private beaches and rocky crags below a line of homes owned by mostly American expats and seasonal residents. I also spot the outline of Cancun’s shore miles away across the stretch of bright turquoise Caribbean waters separating it from this island, Isla Mujeres. I rented this house for the final weeks of Rita’s life, and aside from Cecilia, and Amelia who assists in caring for Rita and occasionally cooks for us, no one comes here.
Looking at Rita asleep on the snow-white linens dressed in her favorite baby blue night gown, she seems much younger than her age. Her body is small, thin and frail. The few strands of gray hair among the black stand out almost as a cosmetic fashion statement, not as a sign of her age. Her face is free of wrinkles and Amelia has light pink lipstick on her lips.
“She always want to look pretty for you,” Amelia said in broken English as she applied the lipstick while I sat by the bed holding Rita’s hand.
“Gracias, Amelia,” I said, “Muchas gracias.”
“The time is near, yes?” she asked.
“Yes it is,” I told her. “Si,” I added, uncertain what to say next.
Now, standing at the window, looking at my dying wife, at the head of her anger-filled mother staring down at the beads she is stringing on the leather strip, I feel the need to escape. “I’m going for a walk,” I say.
Above me and to the east, thick white clouds fill the horizon of dark blue sky. It is September, the time of year for battering storms and ferocious hurricanes. I haven’t listened to the radio and Amelia said nothing about an incoming storm. If she had known, Cecilia wouldn’t have said anything even if a hurricane was about to blow me out to sea.
I adjust the white ball cap on my balding head and walk the road headed toward the southern tip of the island. The breeze is much stronger and warmer then felt through the window in the bedroom where Rita lay. The ever-present aromas of fish, salt water and the scents from the palm trees and ferns that surround the nearby swampy lagoon assault my sense of smell. They are rich and exotic smells, like walking into a tropical hothouse. What few insects there are buzz briefly around my head, then are carried away by the breeze. Within a few yards of one another large green iguanas sit in the middle of the road bathing in the sunlight, then scurry into the lush grass along the road as I near them. At the roadside entrance to El Garrafon Park I walk along a line of parked taxis and mopeds.
“Ride, Senor?” A driver asks lazily from inside his taxi.
“No, gracias.” I walk faster.
From the road I spot the tourist-filled water along a small stretch of the park at the bottom of a hill. Brought there by ferries to scuba dive and see the bright colored coral on the seabed, a hundred or so tourists are standing in the water, each wearing goggles, bobbing their heads in and out of the water like strange sea birds to view the coral and whatever aquatic life they can see around their feet. I once did this same thing with Rita, but that was years ago, long before hordes of tourists were brought to the island by ferry from Cancun. In those days, Rita and I didn’t just stand in the water near the shore. We swam and went scuba diving as far out and as deep as we could. She swam here, marveling at the coral and the sea life from the time she was a toddler.
When the tourists came en masse she no longer wanted to swim at this part of the island. During our visit five years previously, we found a private alcove with a very small sandy beach on the eastern side of the island, a place she knew also from her childhood, nearer to the southernmost part of the island, Punta Sur. There in the water a few feet out I was dashed against the rocks by a very rough wave and climbed out of the water, scratched and bruised, and found Rita sitting on her towel, her head in her hands.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
“Just another headache.” She looked up and gasped at my injured side. “I told you the undertow and waves were rough here. You could have drowned.”
Going past the park and entering Punta Sur I am glad to put those things out of my mind, the early days of her illness as well as the tourists here now. Only a few of the tourists are walking among the paths that wind their way all the way to the narrow rocky tip of the island. I take one of the paths stopping only to look at the recently carved statues placed along the way, including one of Ixchel, the Mayan Goddess of Childbirth and Medicine. The statue’s black painted eyes do little to ease my concern for Rita. Standing on the very tip of Punta Sur looking from high up out over the vast bright blue waters I know the days of simply being concerned about her are over.
On the way back to the house a small light brown mongrel with a stomach bloated from starving or disease or carrying a litter follows close behind me. There are small packs of these dogs, abandoned yet harmless, that roam the island being fed and kept barely alive by well-meaning tourists. This one gets no nearer then a few feet from me and stands cautiously outside the door watching me as I close the door. Inside the house it is very quiet.
“You have been out walking,” Amelia says with the mixed inflection of it being a statement and question at the same time as she comes out of Rita’s room with an arm full of linens.
“Yes I have. How is my wife?” I take off my ball cap and toss it onto the sofa.
“She is sleeping. Cecilia has gone home until tomorrow.”
I want to say “good” but only nod.
“Your wife’s mother, she not understand why you are here,” Amelia says in a hushed tone as if she will be overheard.
“This is where Rita wanted to be,” I say. “She wants to die here.”
“Her mother only interested in her daughter living here. To live is what makes difference to her, not the dying.” Amelia glances over her shoulder, at the closed door to Rita’s room. “Rita and I played together when young girls.” Then Amelia smiles broadly. “That mother not agree with any man ever, so you are in good company.”
“Thank you for that.” I head into my wife’s room. “I think there is a storm coming, Amelia. You can go home. I can take care of my wife.”
“Si,” Amelia says. “A storm is coming.”
Inoperable seemed at the time like a word a person used when talking about a car they couldn’t get to run, not the inability to remove the tumor from Rita’s brain. After all the tests, the scans, the MRIs, the countless neurological exams, it was the final word every doctor, surgeon and brain specialist used: inoperable. Rita took the news much calmer than I did, thanking them all for giving her some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it wasn’t light at all. She saw the prognosis of eventual death as the eventual ending of the medicated headaches and nausea, periods of confusion and increasing lack of coordination. Three weeks before, when coming to Isla Mujeres, she needed my help and the help of a flight attendant to make it down the plane’s aisle and into her seat. She said very little the entire flight from Virginia, but stared out the window almost the entire time.
“Home again at last,” she said as Cancun and Isla Mujeres came into view as the plane began its descent.
I took her hand in mine. “Are you sorry you left the island?”
“No, because the island never left me,” she said.
Those first days upon our return went by fast, too fast, and Rita wanted to see as much of the island as possible. At only about five miles from one end to the other and much less than that from the east side to the west, in the past we had easily walked it from end to end. This time we didn’t venture far beyond the ubiquitous taxis to return us quickly home when she became quickly exhausted or was confused about where we were or what we were doing. The throngs of tourists in the narrow streets in the El Centro shopping district overwhelmed her. It led to our quickly retreating to a bar along the waterfront just to find an escape until I could get a taxi to take us home.
The first visit with her mother also didn’t go well. When we arrived by taxi Cecilia was standing in the open door of her small house on a side street leaving El Centro heading south as if she were guarding it from would-be robbers. Although she took her daughter in her arms and hugged her tightly, she said nothing to me. Sitting in her small living room I realized that nothing had changed or even been moved since our previous visit five years before. She and Rita spoke to each other in rapid-fire Spanish.
I looked at all the photographs on the walls of her and Rita. I was reminded once again that there were none of me, or of me and Rita, or of Rita’s father.
Within a week Rita suffered a seizure and became confined to her bed. Most of the time when she was awake she knew where she was and what was happening around her, but she slept a lot, as if preparing for eternal sleep by taking frequent naps. On several occasions she awoke very confused and in a state of panic until either I or Amelia or Cecilia could calm her by gently rubbing her hand and talking to her in gentle, reassuring, soothing tones. More than once during the night she woke to grab my hand and ask, “Am I on my island?”
On this night with only a single lamp on, nearing midnight the room is full of shadows. With the curtains tied against the frame of the window I can feel the strong warm winds of the storm as it crosses the island on its way to the entirety of the Yucatan. Rain falls in vertical sheets. It is a storm, but not a hurricane, but the lamp light flickers on and off occasionally. Standing at the window in the darkness, it’s almost impossible to see where the beach along this house and the waters of the Caribbean begin. In the distance I barely make out the lights from homes and hotels along the shore in Cancun.
“I want to go home,” Rita says from behind me. I turn and see her trying to sit up. “I want to go home,” she repeats.
I go to the side of her bed and try to gently urge her back against the pillow. “You’re home sweetheart. I brought you home.”
She is looking straight at me, her face half illuminated in the light of the lamp, the other half hidden in shadow. In her features there is an awareness. She knows what she is saying and as if suddenly punched in the stomach I now know it also. “Are you sure?” I ask her.
She covers my hand with hers and squeezes it gently. “Yes, my love, I’m sure.”
Ending her life for her had not crossed my mind until this moment. This room, this house, was not her home. Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women, was. I had brought her back to it, but it was not enough. I slide my arm around her back and slip my other arm under her knees and lift her from the bed. She’s so light. It’s as if the life that was leaving her was carrying with it her weight. I carry her out into the hall and to the back door and then out onto the small wooden deck overlooking a small flight of stairs and beyond that the beach and the sea. At the bottom of the stairs I see in the darkness the dog from earlier that day, its eyes gleaming like shiny marbles from its small head.
The force of the rain drenches us. Rita’s long hair hangs like dark dripping moss from a dying tree. Before the final step I hear a creaking of wood beneath my shoe, then the wood gives out and my right foot and leg up to my calf goes through it almost throwing me off balance completely. Holding tightly onto Rita I squirm to pull my foot and leg up through the hole. It is the feeling of the dog’s sharp teeth sinking into my flesh just above my sock that propels me out of the hole and sends me lurching forward with Rita in my arms. We land in the soft sand as the rain batters us. I feel the place on my leg where I was bitten and feel the thickness of blood. The dog is nowhere to be seen. I pick Rita up and carry her to the water and pause only momentarily until walking into the waves with her.
“Thank you,” she says.
I lay her body on the water. She floats for several minutes, then disappears beneath the surface.