“Rest in peace” were the pastor’s last words.
If that well- worn phrase, so shamelessly dramatic in the mouth of that figure, had ever held any meaning, it was at that exact moment, as the grave diggers nonchalantly lowered Ana’s coffin into the open grave. The certainty that life can be the worst hell, and that the remains of fear and pain were disappearing forever with that descent, overcame me with paltry relief. I wondered if I wasn’t in some way envious of my wife’s final passage toward silence, since being dead, totally and truly dead, for some can be the closest thing to a blessing from that God with whom Ana tried to involve me, without much success, in the last years of her difficult life.
As soon as the grave diggers finished moving over the stone and placed the wreaths of flowers our friends had brought on the grave, I turned and walked away, resolved to escape the hands patting my shoulder and the habitual expressions of condolence that we always feel obliged to offer. Because at that moment every other word in the world is superfluous: only the pastor’s well- worn formula had meaning and I didn’t want to lose it. Rest and peace: what Ana had finally attained and what I also asked for.
When I sat down inside the Pontiac to await Daniel’s arrival, I knew that I was about to pass out, and I was sure that if my friend didn’t remove me from the cemetery, I would have been unable to find the way back to my life. The September sun was burning the top of the car, but I didn’t feel up to moving to any other place. With what little strength I had left, I closed my eyes to control the vertigo of loss and fatigue while I felt the acidic sweat running down over my eyelids and cheeks, springing from my armpits, neck, arms. It was soaking my back scorched by the vinyl seat until it turned into a warm current that flowed down my legs in search of the cistern of my shoes. I wondered if that foul sweat and my deep exhaustion were not the prelude to my molecular disintegration, or at least the heart attack that would kill me in the next few minutes. It seemed to me that either could be an easy, even desirable solution, although frankly unfair: I didn’t have the right to force my friends to bear two funerals in three days.
“Are you ill, Iván?” Dany’s question, through the window, surprised me. “Holy shit, look at how much you’re sweating . . .”
“I want to leave . . . But I don’t know how, dammit . . .”
“We’re leaving, my friend, don’t worry. Wait a minute, let me give a few pesos to the grave diggers,” he said, my friend’s words transmitting a patent sense of life and reality that seemed strange to me, decidedly remote.
Once again I closed my eyes and remained motionless, sweating, until the car was set in motion. Only once the air coming through the window began to calm me down did I dare to raise my eyelids. Before leaving the cemetery, I was able to see the last row of tombs and mausoleums, eaten away by the sun, weather, and oblivion, as dead as their inhabitants, and— with or without any reason for doing so at that moment— I again asked myself why, amid so many possibilities, some faraway scientists had chosen my name specifically to baptize the ninth tropical storm of that season.
Although at this point in my life I’ve learned— or rather have been taught, and not in a very nice way— not to believe in chance, the coincidences were too many that led the meteorologists to decide, many months ahead of time, that they would call that storm “Ivan”— a masculine name starting with the ninth letter of the alphabet, in Spanish, that had never been used before for that purpose. The fetus of what would become Ivan was spawned by the meeting of ominous clouds in the vicinity of Cape Verde, but it wasn’t until a few days later, already baptized and converted into a hurricane with all of its properties, that it would rear its head in the Ca rib be an to place us in its ravenous sight . . . You’ll see why I think that I have reasons enough to believe that only twisted fate could have determined that that par tic u lar cyclone, one of history’s fiercest, would carry my name, just when another hurricane was closing in on my existence.
Even though it had been quite a long time— perhaps too long— since Ana and I had known that her end was decreed, the many years during which we dragged her illnesses had accustomed us to living with them. But the news that her osteoporosis— probably caused by the vitamin- deficient polyneuritis unleashed in the most difficult years of the crisis in the 1990s— had developed into bone cancer, had made us face the evidence of an end that was near, and given me the macabre proof that only a perverse fate could be responsible for burdening my wife specifically with that illness.
From the beginning of the year, Ana’s decline had accelerated, although it was in the middle of July, three months after the definitive diagnosis, that her final agony began. Although Gisela, Ana’s sister, came frequently to help me, I practically had to stop working to take care of my wife; and if we survived those months, it was thanks to the support of friends like Dany, Anselmo, or Frank the doctor, who frequently came through our small apartment in the neighborhood of Lawton to drop off some supplies drawn from the wretched harvests that, for their own subsistence, they managed to obtain in the most devious ways. More than once, Dany offered to come help me with Ana, but I rejected his overtures, since pain and misery are among the few things that, when shared, always multiply.
The scene we lived between the cracked walls of our apartment was as depressing as can be imagined, although the worst thing, under the circumstances, was the strange power with which Ana’s broken body clung to life, even against its owner’s will.
In the early days of September, when Hurricane Ivan, having reached its full potential, had just crossed the Atlantic and was nearing the island of Grenada, Ana had an unexpected period of lucidity and an unforeseen relief to her pain. As it had been her decision not to go to the hospital, a neighboring nurse and our friend Frank had taken over the task of providing her with intravenous fluids and the dose of morphine that kept her in a startling lethargy. Upon seeing that reaction, Frank warned me that this was the denouement and recommended that I give the patient only those foods that she asked for, not insisting on the intravenous fluids and, as long as she wasn’t complaining of pain, stopping all drugs to thus give her some final days of intelligence. Then, as if her life had returned to normal, an Ana with various broken bones and very open eyes became interested again in the world around her. With the tele vision and radio on, she fixed her attention in an obsessive way on the path of the hurricane that had initiated its deathly dance devastating the island of Grenada, where it had left more than twenty dead. On many occasions throughout those days, my wife lectured me on the hurricane’s characteristics, one of the strongest in meteorological history, and attributed its elevated powers to the climate change the planet was undergoing, a mutation of nature that could do away with the human species if the necessary measures were not taken, she told me, completely convinced. That my dying wife was thinking of everyone else’s future only added to the pain I was already suffering.
While the storm neared Jamaica with the obvious intention of later penetrating eastern Cuba, Ana developed a sort of meteorological excitement capable of keeping her on constant alert, a tension she escaped only when sleep conquered her for two or three hours. All of her expectations were related to Ivan’s doings, with the number of dead it left in its path— one in Trinidad, five in Venezuela, another in Colombia, five more in Dominica, fifteen in Jamaica, she added, counting on her crooked fingers— and, above all, the calculations of what it would destroy if it penetrated Cuba through any of the points marked as possible trajectories deduced by the specialists. Ana experienced a kind of cosmic communication at the point of the symbiotic confluence of two bodies that know they are destined to consume themselves in the span of a few days, and I began to speculate whether the illness and the drugs had not made her crazy. I also thought that if the hurricane didn’t come through soon and Ana didn’t calm down, I would be the one who ended up going crazy.
The most critical period— for Ana and, logically, for each of the island’s inhabitants— occurred when Ivan, with sustained winds of approximately 150 miles per hour, began to pass over the seas to the south of Cuba. The hurricane was moving with a lazy arrogance, as if it were perversely choosing the point at which it would inevitably turn north and break the country in two, leaving an enormous wake of ruins and death. With bated breath and her senses clinging to the radio and the color tele vi sion that a neighbor had lent us, a Bible near one hand and our dog Truco beneath the other, Ana cried, laughed, cursed, and prayed with a strength that was not her own. For more than forty- eight hours she remained in that state, watching Ivan’s careful approach as if her thoughts and prayers were indispensable to keeping the hurricane as far away as possible from the island, blocking it in that almost incredible westward path from which it couldn’t resolve to deviate to the north and flatten the country, as all historic, atmospheric, and planetary logic predicted.
The night of September 12, when information from satellites and radars and the unanimous opinion of meteorologists around the world were certain that Ivan would chart a course for the north and that with its battering gusts, gigantic waves, and rain squalls, it would rejoice in the final destruction of Havana, Ana asked me to remove from the wall of our room the dark, corroded wooden cross that twenty- seven years before the sea had given me— the driftwood cross— and place it at the foot of the bed. Then she begged me to make her a very hot hot chocolate and some toast with butter. If what was supposed to happen happened, that would be her last supper, because the battered ceiling of our apartment would not withstand the force of the hurricane, and she, it goes without saying, refused to move from there. After drinking the hot chocolate and nibbling a piece of toast, Ana asked me to lay the driftwood cross next to her and began to pray with her eyes fixed on the ceiling and on the wooden beams guaranteeing its balance and, perhaps, with her imagination devoted to playing out the images of the apocalypse lying in wait for the city.
The morning of September 14, the meteorologists announced a miracle: Ivan had turned toward the north at last, but it had done so so far to the west of the designated zone that it barely brushed the westernmost point of the island without causing any major damage. Apparently the hurricane had felt remorse for the many calamities piling up, and had steered away from us, convinced that its passing through our country would have been an excess of bad fate. Worn out by so much praying, with her stomach ravaged by lack of food, but satisfied by what she considered to be a personal victory, Ana fell asleep after hearing confirmation of that cosmic whim, and in the grimace that had become habitual on her lips there was something very much like a smile. Ana’s breathing, strained for so many days, was relaxed again and, along with her fingers caressing Truco’s wiry hair, was the only sign in the next two days that she was still alive.
On September 16, practically at nightfall, while the hurricane started to disintegrate on U.S. soil and to lose the already diminished force of its winds, Ana stopped caressing our dog and, a few minutes later, stopped breathing. She was at last resting, I’d like to think, in eternal peace.
In due time you will understand why this story, which is not the story of my life (although it also is), begins as it does. And although you still don’t know who I am or have any idea what I’m going to tell you, perhaps you will have understood something: Ana was a very important person to me. So much so that, to a large degree, it is because of her that this story exists— in black and white, I mean.