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Issue Date:  February 17, 2006

When it hurts to be human

Family loss makes a young poet reach beyond clichés


Until my senior year of college, I was used to happy endings. My writing was stocked full of them. I wrote of romance, great inspirations, extraordinary leaps of consciousness. There was no room for loss in the rhyme and meter of my poetry. It wasn’t that it didn’t exist; it just didn’t seem to fit.

That changed when my grandmother died of congestive heart failure in April 2003. There was nothing particularly special about my grandmother, anything, that is to say, that would set her above the other progenitors who came before me.

It could have been the timing. Mima, as her Cuban grandchildren called her, died while I was concluding my final weeks at Pacific Lutheran University, and about the same time that I was completing my last writing project. Unlike other writing assignments, however, the happy ending never came to this one. Mima was too powerful a loss to forget so easily in a jumble of clichés and trite one-liners. No matter how many drafts, no matter how many rewrites, looming in the back of my mind, like some annoying fly that wouldn’t leave me alone, was the memory of my grandmother and the reality of her death.

A good two weeks after the funeral, after two weeks of complete literary silence, it occurred to me what this was all about -- my faith, my writing. They don’t seem to make much sense if they only account for what is good and dainty in life. Maybe they mean more when they can stay alive through loss and make sense of all the ugly stuff. Maybe the fact that loss doesn’t have a rhyme or fit in a meter is all the more reason to write it down. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a point, a moral, except for what just is.

It took God the life of his only son to show us how the mundane can be wrapped into an endless variety of verses, that birth and death are all a part of the divine order of things. During the Christmas season we reflected on the Nativity, one of the greatest examples of God’s intimate connection with the human condition. Why not write a poem about it? About finding love. About losing it. About discovering life. About facing death. About caressing and nurturing age. About letting it go.

Christ lived the greatest poem of all, by threading God into the very essence of his humanity. He was with us in birth, in singing and dancing, he was with us in celebration. But the most magnificent part about his story is not the clothes he wore (since he had only rags on his back) or the power he wielded (since he left this world having no army and having seized no throne). Rather, he was there in the pain and suffering, when it hurt to be human. He was there in the darkest moments, when we wondered if there was even a point to being alive at all. Such a faith brought weight to all that makes us human and suddenly gave poetic meaning to all that is humankind.

Buried in birth and death, gain and loss, is the rhyme I’d been missing all those years. My eyes had seen it all along, but it took my heart and some very real faith to make me see the greater picture: that our lives deserve each and every word we use to try and capture their meanings, regardless of the endings they have. Because regardless of the ending, it’s still life we’re talking about.

In the weeks after we buried Mima, the displaced dirt over her grave was still unsettled, but I finally took my pen to paper, and it was as if all the ugly stuff that was packed away in my soul was finally given a face and a name. Life was full of everything, and it was worth every bit of time I used to write about it. I wrote about Mima coming to the United States on a boat from Cuba, Mima wondering if she’d ever return home, Mima trying to pronounce the name of “Puyallup,” our town in Washington, Mima trying to live in Puyallup. We are the only Cuban family in such a place; I wondered what Mima thought of that.

Before she died, Mima had suffered the realization that she’d never return to Havana as she once hoped, that her family, most of whom were scattered across Southern California, would never have the chance to bid her farewell. I watched her as she scrambled to understand a town that had about as much in common with Cuba as an Oklahoma tavern has with a disco club in West Hollywood. With all of that, and the fact that she suffered acute memory loss, Mima was not the quintessential saint; she was the quintessential human being. And if there was anything left of her as she closed her eyes in the flickering candlelight, it was the crucifix, the symbol that seemed, in some strange and mythic way, to seal everything that she’d been through, as if it had been there the whole time, on the boat, in her wandering shoes, as she fought to peel through the Alzheimer’s for just a brief memory of her Cuban childhood.

The lesson is bittersweet, for all of us who have the pleasure (and pain) of experiencing a heartbeat. Bitter, because nothing is worse in the human condition than our awareness of loss, pain and suffering. But sweet as well, because we never do this alone. God had too much heart to leave it so. His flesh and blood walked the earth and learned what it meant to shed a tear. And by doing so he gave such immutable suffering the meaning it needed to make us grasp it.

It took me 21 years to learn that lesson, and when I did, the poetry continued, but this time without the clichés. And there was no rhyme. Just words.

Mario Penalver, 25, is a first-generation Cuban-American residing in Puyallup, Wash.

National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006

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