Three Skins

The Reasons Why I'm a Trilingual Sleep-talker

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The Hospital Room

We’d been sitting in the hospital room for days watching over Mamá, making sure she was comfortable. The seasons had passed us by in lighting speed and we were smack in the middle of the Christmas holidays.

Mamá was a hard nut even at 85 and it was difficult to see her look so fragile and helpless. She had fought an amazing fight. Kicked cancers ass all over Sunset Park, but after several rounds, she was weary and in need of a rest. Knowing that this was going to be the last time we would all be able to spend time with her we sat in her room for days greeting family that came to visit from all over the US.

Difficult rooms bring on difficult conversations. Not knowing that this was going to be one of those nights, I settled in to keep Mami company as she sat beside her mother. Inside that hospital room loomed a conversation that I’d been wanting to have with Mami for a long time. Nagging questions about the details of my life always were in the front of my mind. How did I come to live with her and her family for the first 12 years of my life? How was it that my birth mom allowed that to happen? And how was I allowed to move to the Dominican Republic with them?

“How did I come to live with you in DR?” I whispered to her, my heart pounding in my ears. After a few minutes Mami answered, “I will never forget the sound of you crying as your mother took you down the stairs the day that she took you back.” In the background Mama’s wheezing respirator filled the room and time stood still for a couple of beats.

Some doors down the familiar holiday music played in the nurses station. I never heard this part of the story described like that.

"Really?" I said, swallowing the knot in my throat.
"Your mother wanted you back, and I couldn’t do anything about it," she said sighing heavily as she looked up at Mama’s bed. She looked tired and soft.  She stroked my arm calming my heart. "Papi had decided to go back to The Dominican Republic with the family. We asked your mother whether we could take you with us, but she said no. So she took you back.” Staring down at her brown wrinkled hand, I said, "But I did end up living with you. I’m confused."

A memory of arriving in DR took me out of the hospital room. Running through Mami’s garden to get to the one story house we lived in. Mami scolding me for running barefoot and telling me to put on my jellies or else I’d have to go to my room. “Well, mi hija" she said bringing me back to the antiseptic smelling room, "she brought you to me."

We sat in silence for a while, the yule tide melodies filling the corridors and the night nurse popping in to check Mama’s IV. I put my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes. “Your mother was young and she didn’t have a place to take you when you were born,” she said. I kept my head on her shoulder and waited for her to continue. “I was home taking care of your sister Kelly when my social services contact called to ask me if I could take in a three-day old baby girl for a week.” I felt her face smile as she put her head on mine. “He said you were from near by and that it was just temporary. He promised that you would be back with your mother within a week.” I knew this story and had told it countless times. But this night, I was hearing it for the first time.
“You were the cutest baby,” she said.“We called you muñequa because you looked just like a little doll. I fell in love with you the first time I saw you.”

I lifted my head and looked at Mami and smiled. I was in the same hospital where I was born, listening to my story and filling in the gaps that I had so longed to fill. I was ready.

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The First Step - C.P. Cavafy

The young poet Evmenis
complained one day to Theocritos:
“I have been writing for two years now
and I have composed just one idyll.
It’s my only completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder of Poetry
is tall, extremely tall;
and from this first step I now stand on
I will never climb any higher.”
Theocritos replied: “Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done is a glorious thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it is a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done already is a glorious thing.”

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Everyone has a story

There were different times in my life I remember telling my story and how I told it. When I was 12, I used to tell it in a very matter of fact kind of way. Factual with no inflections of emotion. I used to recite, “when I was three days old my mom gave me away to a Dominican foster family to take care of me. And when I was three years old, my foster mom and family moved back to DR, she asked my mom if I could go with them, my mom said “yes” and they took me with them.” I remember my birth mom hearing me tell the story once and asking me not to tell it.

At 16 years old I would tell the story, but it was heavy and knotted in my throat. I would cry and be overcome, not able to continue. I would have that reaction for the next fifteen years.

Today I’m 35 and have gone back to recounting my story as I did when I was 12. More matter of fact, but with a lot more in between. There are no knots in my throat, but an understanding of difficult decisions that were made with some mistakes sprinkled in between.

Now I recite, “I’m a tri-lingual sleep talker. Ask me why.”

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We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.
George Bernard Shaw