Your mother turned 69 yesterday, my father 83 on November 5. I’d like to believe he, Elias, will live to be 100. That I can mine the DNA from his frail bones for years to come.
But each time I see him, I see him slip away, slow and almost imperceptible. His cataract eyes have that watery, faraway look, a silver film over intense black. On his birthday I meant to peer into those crystal ball eyes. How are you today? Are your legs strong? Will they carry you further?
But it was a festive party, enchiladas with red or green, flour tortillas Mom made, a big pot of pinto beans. Between forkfuls, I admire Mom’s choker, a spiky thing made with narrow triangles of oyster shell, bones from the sea. She takes it off, tells me it’s mine.
“I wore it so I could give it to one of you,” she tells my sisters when they chime to me, “Hey, wasn’t that Mom’s necklace??” I shrug. I didn’t mean to covet it before anyone else had a chance to.
Mom is generous. What is Dad?
I still remember, and now bones on my mind, sitting in Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, staring down at my knobby knees while Dad listens to Father Cassidy’s homily. (And now, my mind catches the word “homily,” jumps to “hominy,” which in my family we make into “posole,” white kernals like big teeth. Everything goes back to food. Plain, hearty food. Not much meat in my lineage, is that why my bones are fine and my teeth achy when I drink anything cold?)
But back to the church. Dad and I go alone. Mom gave up faith after I was born and a priest slammed the confessional window in her face for telling him she was going on birth control. Dad picks a middle pew. Not too eager to please. Not a laggard, either. That’s Dad. Middle way. He sits rapt. He’s a pious man, comes from penitente stock. I stick my feet out in front of me, notice my shins have downy, light brown hair. I’m eleven. I still wear hand-me-down dresses. Brunswick patterns sewn by Mom. Old-fashioned dresses with big white bibs front and back, rickrack along the bottom. I like how my kneecaps move to and fro when I lift my legs up and down.
Then I see it. My right knee is bigger than my left. Something round is in there, like a marble or a golf ball under my brown skin. For the rest of Father Cassidy’s meandering sermon I am engrossed in this discovery, a moveable part in my leg. I’m like the Barbies I sneak out of my sister’s Barbie Doll case. Discrete joints, elbows-knees-and-shoulders. I can move me this way and that, pose me how I wish.
Up to now Dad is in his dreamy place above my small world. He can see over parishioners’ heads to Christ hanging on his crucifix, to the chalices and gold and white cloth. Now Dad looks down to where I am. He notices me popping my knee. I place his big, warm hand over the lump, show him how it rolls around under my skin. Suddenly he, too, gets engrossed in my bones. “What’s is it?” he asks in an urgent whisper, and I am alarmed by fear I hear in his voice.
Bones. It turns out to be a benign tumor. The kind of bone tumor common in horses’ knees, according to the orthopedic surgeon who eventually removes it. Bones. Who we are deep inside? Strong yet permeable. Small and obtrusive. Innocent, tainted, scared.
What was Dad thinking that day in the church? If I ask him today, will he remember? I am a writer, frantically seeking to capture memories from my 45 years. Who will help me see his gentle strength when Dad is gone?
It’s good to get cracking. There are deposits to unearth.