I KNEW IT WOULD HAPPEN EVENTUALLY. It had already to most of my friends. Mom had even told me what to expect before she died—before we even went to the Dominican Republic, the summer before I started junior high. Still, it was a shock to stand up from the toilet and see blood in the water. I yelped like a stepped-on puppy and stared, fascinated, at the clot of red dissolving like a wispy cloud fading into pink. I pulled another length of paper from the roll and wiped again. More blood.
Tucking a wad of toilet paper between my legs, I pulled my pants up, more or less, waddled to the sink and rummaged underneath for the box of pads Mom had left. My throat burned. I choked, eyes filling with tears. I wanted my Mother, not the box of Maxi-Pads she’d left me. I sat down hard on the cold floor, tucked my head into my rust-smelling lap and blubbered into my shoes. Not that I expected it to do any good; not like I thought anyone would hear me, or care.
There came a tapping on the door.
“Yessica?” It was Mami Luana, saying my name like it began with “Y.” What the heck did she want when I was obviously in the bathroom. “Yessica?”
“What, Mami Luana?” sniffing back tears.
Mami Luana poked her head in the door. “Is it your time?” she asked, presciently. How the heck did she know? Was I walking around with blood on my butt?
I nodded and sniffed.
“Ven aca, m’ija,” she said. “I want to talk with you.”
“Not now, Mami Luana.” I waved a pad.
“Oh, sí. Necesitas ayuda?”
“No, I think I can do it.” They were peel-and-stick, so far as I could tell. A five-year-old could do it.
“Well, don’t flush the paper you’ve got between your legs. Bring it to me,” she said, and withdrew her head from the crack in the door.
Gross, I thought. What does she want with used toilet paper?
I padded myself and zipped, wrapped my soiled wad of toilet paper in a covering of fresh, flushed the toilet, and straggled downstairs to Mami Luana’s room. She was sitting at her altar, lighting candles.
“Ven aca, mi amor, and sit by me,” she instructed, patting the bench at her side. Instead I sat on the bed a little behind her.
“Did you bring me el papel con tu sangre?” she asked, though she could see that I did.
I nodded and handed it over. Mami Luana set the wad in her metal burning bowl, said a few words of blessing, lit a match, and poof!, the paper went up in smoke, the blood crackling a bit as the fire seared through it. She smiled and turned to face me once again.
“Bueno. Your blood has returned to the spirit world, from which all things come.”
Bullshit, I thought. That blood came from my uterus.
Mami Luana considered me a moment, eyes flitting across my face like firelight dancing on a wall. Her eyes were kind, but they penetrated. I tried to make myself inscrutable. When her gaze returned to mine she seemed satisfied.
“You are growing up, m’ija, and there are things I need to tell you.”
My eyes rolled inwardly. Please, not the sex talk. I wasn’t ready for Mami Luana’s mortifyingly blunt explanations that made sex seem about as sexy as dismembering a chicken.
“Are youfamiliar with the espiritu que se llamen Oshún, o Mami Wata?”
Say what? This wasn’t the conversation I was expecting. I shook my head No.
Mami Luana nodded.
“Pues, Mami Watais the goddess of the water and the air—and also of life and the womb, because there is no life without water. Her sister is Yemaya, the goddess of maternity. Quiza that sounds contradictory, but it works out well. Mami Wata creates the children, and Yemaya cares for them. Now that you are a woman, you will want to get to know Mami Wata and Yemaya both.”
My interest picked up at the words, “Now that you are a woman.” Was it really as simple as that? Some blood on toilet paper and voilà? It was almost anti-climactic. But my lower abdomen was starting to ache, as if my womb was made out of metal and too heavy to carry around. I groaned and doubled over. Mami Luana thought I was groaning about the sisters.
“Mi amor, son ayudantes. They want to help you.”
“Please, Mami Luana, I’m not ready for any of your celestial visitors.”
Mami Luana smiled.“No ten miedo. There’s no reason to be afraid.”
“No,” I insisted. “Not now. Not yet.”
“Okay,” Mami Luana agreed, surprising me again. “Not yet. You are not ready yet.”
“Exactly,” I exhaled, relieved.
Mami Luana turned back to her altar and muttered a few prayers in Spanish. She poured holy water from a bottle into a bowl, then, with her thumb and forefingers, sprinkled cornmeal over the top of it. She prayed some more, opened a bag of dried shrimp with her teeth and added a sprinkling of their pink exoskeletons to the water. Finally, she took a little bowl of honey in both hands, held it above her head and blessed it, then poured the honey into the water, scooping the sides with her index finger. She stirred the mixture with the same finger, put it in her mouth and sucked it clean, then turned to face me again. Her face radiated heat like a small dark sun, compelling me to look at her. I was startled by the fierce tenderness I saw there. She took my hands in hers and held them in her lap, drawing my face uncomfortably close to her own and holding my gaze with a tractor-beam look.
“Mi amor,” she began. “You have been through a lot this year. The loss of your mother and your father. Of your innocence and childhood. De veras, perdiste tu mundo entero.”
I blinked back tears. My throat constricted. I could hardly breathe.
But Mami Luana continued.
“Now you are ready to become a woman, and that is a passage that properly requires sacrifice.”
My heart jerked in terror.
“But I have consulted mis santos—Santo Miguel…y Mami Wata y Yemaya…y otras—y me dicen que ya, you have sacrificed enough. No additional sacrifice is required of you. Au contrario, they want you to know that you are not nearly as alone as you imagine.”
Now the tears spilled over and, to my embarrassment, snot burst some inner levee and began to run down my lip. Mami Luana took my face in both hands, wiped my tears with her thumbs, and pressed on.
“Escuchame!” she whispered. “No eres sóla. You are not alone! Tienes espiritus alrededor, tu Mamá incluyida. This feeling of aloneness no sirve. Y peor, es una mentira. It’s a lie. It’s a childish thing, and now that you are a woman, you must put away childish things.”
I pulled my hands away from hers and wiped my nose with a Kleenex. Mami Luana waited, took my hands in hers again, and drew my face close.
“This is Life you are living, Real Life; not some childish fairy tale of happy ever after. In real life people disappoint us and betray us and people even die. But the dead are not lost. They are just not here with us en este mundo de sal y lacrimas. And many times they can be of more assistance to us from the other side. If you would stop clinging to your cloak of suffering, you would feel them even now.
“Even now,” she emphasized, tugging on my hands.
I choked and pulled my face away again, reaching for more Kleenex, sobbing as I surrendered to the enormity of the loss she had articulated. Of the mother I loved, and the father I believed in, and the self I thought I was, but was no longer. I lifted my head and a ragged cry broke loose from my chest. It ripped me open with a cry I was mortified to think came from me. My shoulders shook and I slumped over sideways onto Mami Luana’s bed, crying. I cried and cried some more. I creid as if all the sadness I had endured in the last nine months would drown me in its rush to get out. I closed my eyes and it seemed as if my tears were gushing out under pressure, then filling the room, so that it became an encompassing sea.
Behind closed eyes I was swimming, flailing, in this sea of tears, struggling against the current and trying to keep my ahead above the chop in the water. I kicked and paddled, fighting to catch my breath between the incessant swells. I coughed and sputtered, inhaling saltwater. In my mind I saw a distant island taking shape above the horizon and I fought to reach it, but it seemed miles away. I was getting exhausted. My arms were wooden and my legs and abdomen were lead. Mami Luana let me cry, comforting me with gentle shushing that sounded like the wind.
Then I became aware of something else. Slowly another presence took shape in the sea alongside me and I was too exhausted to be alarmed. Dolphin-like; then human-like, whatever it was swam effortlessly, solicitously, alongside me; not saying anything. Not needing to say anything. I was aware of warm sunlight on my face and shoulders as I fought, and sputtered, and kicked toward the shore. I felt the presence alongside me suggest that I relax, that I didn’t need to thrash about so. That the water was full of salt, my own salt, and would carry me. This world of salt and tears, Mami Luana had said.
Weary, I did as the creature suggested. I had no choice, really; I relaxed. Oh what a relief, bringing more tears, but different ones. Tears of gratitude. Tears of surrender. I could fight no more. Then, suddenly, crossing the distance as if it was nothing, I was lying warm on the sandy beach with my head in my own Mother’s lap, and she was running her fingers gently through my tangled hair, saying, “Shh-shh. I’ve missed you so.”
Was it her? Was it really her?
I looked up into her eyes of love and gasped, “Me too, Mommy. I’ve missed you, too.”
That’s all I remember.
When I awoke it was in a darkened room, lit by candles. Mami Luana was still sitting with her back to her altar, watching me and smiling. She didn’t say anything for a while, and I didn’t either. I was exhausted, but strangely at peace. I wanted to hold on to that feeling.
At last Mami Luana broke the silence. “That was Yemaya who was with you in the water,” she explained. “She cares for children. And for others who are lost at sea.”
“It was Mom, too,” I answered, tears welling up in my eyes again.
“Yes,” Mami Luana confirmed. “She’s been waiting to get through to you.”
More tears spilled, effortlessly this time, over the lids of my eyes and down my cheeks.
“I don’t want to be away from her anymore, Mami Luana,” I whispered through a throat clenched tight. “Can you teach me not to block her?”
“Sí, mi amor.” Mami Luana’s eyes were wet now, too. “You are already learning. You just have to relax and become aware. She is always with you. She is here right now. Anyone who has lost someone never walks alone.”
I nodded and relaxed into the comfort of her words, falling asleep again right where I lay on Mami Luana’s bed, feeling as if I could sleep forever, safe as a fawn in a thicket, cradled at last in my mother’s love. Not gone! Not gone at all, but all around, soft as lamb’s wool, and just as real. I let all the cares and constrictions of my heart loosen and slip away. It was like being carried in the protective hands of God himself.