She Goes Walking
by Nicholas Rodriquez
She goes walking to remember. She goes walking to forget. She meanders to make her one-room confinement bearable. And during her “house arrest”, my mother escapes reality to breathe in tropical air, or to wave at the naked bathers in yesterday’s river. “Hola,” she repeats as she paces up and down the hallway. In the short term, my mother is a girl again, inhaling the rich earth of her past. On good days, she chases a rooster around in her head, or she just crows like one. On dark days, her limbs take over, and she becomes a stranger in her own body.
Ever since my mother, who we affectionately call Pachi, started forgetting herself, she prefers to stay in motion. At first Pachi had the strength to open glass jars or the front door. So, my father had to be vigilant to his wife's every move. The way she watched over her eleven children. Now my family looks after Pachi on a regular basis.
Once a month, I visit on a Sunday to relieve my father, the pastor of a Pentecostal church, of his care-giving role. During my visits, my mother will not be confined to a chair, the room, the date or the hour. And every time Pachi takes flight, I fear for her safety. At 68, her frail body cannot withstand a careless fall.
One spring, my mother wandered off to nearby Route 20. There she stood—a faded Puerto Rican goddess—teetering on the curb, waving at baffled drivers, who probably mistook her for a ghost (all silvery hair and translucent skin). Thank God I grabbed her before the light turned green. Pachi told me she just wanted to see the sunset and cried all the way home.
She walks less and less with each passing month, and she forgets time and place. Or sometimes, her sofa becomes a park bench or a horse. And why confuse her? Let her climb the mango tree of her youth, where she first kissed my father. Let her vintage coffee table dissolve into a canoe. She belongs to the river now anyway. Let her dining room door swing open into her past. Who cares if her kitchen curtains summon her? Nos vamos. “Let's go," they sing. Once, I discovered Pachi talking to herself in the bathroom. Not recognizing her aging reflection, she stood there giggling, whispering girlhood secrets to the mirror.
As my visits and Pachi’s disease progress, she begins stumbling into the furniture she's convinced has been rearranged to confuse her. Upset, but undeterred, she climbs over the chairs we’ve placed to limit her space for safety. And as she conquers a chair or a table, she hums a Caribbean lullaby to comfort herself. “Soy libre y puedo caminar el mundo.” She tells me she’s free to travel the world. “Okay, just let me come with you.” I reply, as I coax her down from the sofa.
Another Sunday, after my mother tires of turning the lights on and off in the den, she sits solemnly in her favorite recliner, and I ask her to guess the day I loved her most. I expect no reply for I’m sure she’s forgotten that perfect summer day when I was five, and we took a bus ride to Pennington Park. My mother never wore make up, but her skin glistened that morning, and her silky black hair flowed in the open bus window. Her Frida Khalo resemblance is still fixed in my mind’s eye.
I remember the outing because it was the first time Pachi asserted her independence. My father told us it was unsafe to travel outside the projects alone, but my mother defied her husband that summer. She even had exact bus fare and red lollipops in her pocketbook. My brother Manny was there, too. The three of us were so carefree with no father to scold us. On the grass in Pennington Park without papi, my mother was beauty personified.
On our last Sunday together, Pachi no longer has the strength to climb stairs or burn the house to ashes. Still, I beckon her to come down from the attic before I put her to sleep. But my mother is restless this particular evening. She sits straight up in bed and her blank stare meets mine. So I whisper in the dark, “Speak my name one last time, without the American ‘h,’ the way you always pronounced it in prayer. Call me home the way you did for dinner, and secret visits to the park, when English was ours to conquer. Recognize me."
And as I rock my mother to sleep, she whispers, “Ni-co-las.”
Fulbright Scholar and Juilliard graduate, Nicholas Rodriguez, directs the Inner City Ensemble and the Trenton Education Dance Institute. Nicholas is also the Assistant Director of the Passaic County Cultural & Heritage Council. His first play A Cherry Tree Dies in Washington Heights was a finalist in Pregones Theater's Asunción Playwrights Project. ‘Nicolas’ was born in Paterson, NJ.