It’s before dawn, but I can already hear my dad on the house phone.
The last time my parents were on the phone this early, it was because there was an 8.8 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile. The epicenter was 100 kilometers exactly west of Linares, the town my parents are both from, at the same latitude and everything. This proximity is somewhat remarkable, considering how closely Chile resembles a string bean that is a little too long to comfortably eat in one forkful. The earthquake happened at 3:34 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2010, a few hours after my dad’s 43rd birthday party.
My Tía María called, probably around 4 a.m. (Another somewhat remarkable fact about Linares’ geographic coordinates is that it has almost the same longitude as my hometown on Long Island, so the two places are always in the same time zone—barring the Chilean government’s tendency to sporadically abandon daylight saving time.) I slept through that call, but when I woke up, my parents were watching television reports about the earthquake on the Chilean television channel we subscribe to. Lots of grainy traffic cam footage of people running in the dark and buildings perched in the wrong ways.
This time, as I listen to my dad using the landline on the other side of the wall, it’s another call from my Tía María in Linares. I can tell he’s talking to her because he has this disarming habit of using people’s names in conversation—usually their nicknames. Everybody in our family has a nickname, or an apodo. Once, when I was probably eight, I tried to make a key to help me remember the birth names of all my aunts and uncles, because I never heard anyone use them; Tío Toño was somehow born Gilberto, Tío Pepe was José—and so on.
Now my dad is talking to my Tía María, otherwise known as Flaca. I’m sure my mother is sitting up in bed next to him, listening. His voice is even but panicky. “But Flaca, it can’t be so serious, can it? If she was fine yesterday?”
This phone call feels like the beginning of a Greek tragedy, or what I understand the beginning of a Greek tragedy to be—a sparse prologue before the chorus walks onstage and fills in the details. I should get up and ask what’s wrong. But it’s warm in my sheets, and my aunt is 5,000 miles away. I check my phone for any Facebook notifications and go back to sleep.
My mother woke me up a few hours after the phone call and told me in a hushed voice that my Tía María called in the morning and said that Mama Gladys (my grandmother on my dad’s side) was very sick in the hospital, and that my dad might be flying home to Linares that night. Then that day went by fast, like out the window of a car. My dad came home from work, and he had gotten a discounted plane ticket from his friend’s son who used to work at the airline, gracias a Dios, because plane tickets to Chile are expensive. I helped him pack a suitcase with clothes for two weeks, because that’s a standard length of time for a trip abroad, and trying to make a more precise estimate would have required some really unsavory thinking.
As my mother drove us to the airport, my dad was agreeable in the same way he usually is. I could tell he was scared, but he talked a lot so it would seem like he wasn’t—about being hopeful and que sea lo que Dios quiera, and things like that.
My family has a few saying-goodbye-at-the-airport traditions, and we took part in some them once we got to JFK. One of them is getting bad coffee and overpriced snacks at the Juan Valdez Café in Terminal 8, where flights to Chile depart. (The Juan Valdez Café is the only dining establishment to which non-passengers have access in Terminal 8.) Another is watching the departing person wind through the security line until we can’t see them anymore, waving intermittently, first us then them. Us then them.
We were about to do that last part of saying goodbye when my cousin Karen called. My mom picked up the phone, and I didn’t hear what Karen said, but I guess it didn’t matter, because the next thing I knew I was holding my dad while he cried in front of the Juan Valdez Café. Really wretched crying.
Then somehow the loudspeaker was saying that his flight was boarding, as if my grandmother hadn’t died and time hadn’t just stopped all of a sudden like an inconsiderate person walking in front of you. The ghastly task of “making arrangements” in Linares had materialized too fast, and my dad’s cheeks were still wet with tears when he followed the security line away. He was in a crowd of people, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone look more alone.
We watched him for a long time, and then we walked back to the parking garage without saying anything. I took a picture of the sky from the front seat of our car because I wanted to remember what this day felt like, and it was one of those days where the sky looked like how I was feeling. There weren’t any clouds, just a big swath of pale empty blue.
My family was fine after the earthquake, gracias a Dios. Chile is a developed country with a similarly developed “earthquake consciousness” and strict building codes, and all this meant that the earthquake was a lot less devastating than the one that had struck Haiti a month before. Still, hundreds of people died, and many more lost their homes to three minutes of shaking. In Linares, most of the damaged buildings were old. Dirt and some pieces of the ceiling fell to the floor of my dad’s already sagging childhood home, where Mama Gladys lived.
The churches in town didn’t fare too well either. The Iglesia Corazón de María, which was built in 1896, had one of its fat medieval-looking towers cracked off. The earthquake also left behind a newly headless statue of Jesus—you can’t really tell it’s Him unless you look for the stigmata.
But the church that is most important to me is the Parroquia María Auxiliadora de Linares, colloquially called Los Salesianos. It’s a tall building with a flattish plaster façade and two-domed turrets, and you can see it from the street where my dad grew up. My brother and I were baptized there, during our first trips to Chile in 1998 and 2000, respectively. My parents were too, along with their siblings and most of my cousins. And it’s where both sets of my grandparents got married. I can reliably say that every Espinoza who is related to me has celebrated a Catholic sacrament at Los Salesianos.
If you had stood in front of Los Salesianos on the day after the earthquake, it probably would have looked the same as it did the day before. But that would have required standing really, precisely in front of the church—12 o’clock and zero seconds—because the plaster façade was the only part left standing. The rest of the building folded into itself, covering the pews in heavy rubble. Later I found a blog post about the damage to the church on a website about Linares: “Its estimated state post earthquake is: DESTROYED. The walls 100 percent, the roof 100 percent, the furniture 100 percent.”
I don’t remember what the church looked like inside. I wish I did, but I don’t. I’ve been to Linares four times, but I can only remember the particulars of the last trip. That was in 2014, when I was 17, and by then they had started rebuilding. I am mostly able to describe the outside from looking at pictures of it on that blog.
And I guess I think of my grandmother in that same way that I think of this church, and of the earthquake. I know a lot about her. I know she owned an upholstery store in Linares and that she went to work every day, even when she was 83 years old and hadn’t turned a profit in a long time. I know she sent me the embroidered pillowcases that are on my bed, and that she went to mass at Los Salesianos each week. I know that she was warm and spirited and stubborn. I loved her, and I know that she loved me—the type of love that means more because it’s so challenging.
So I cried a lot when she died, obviously. And I cried because it was sad, but also because I had lost the opportunity to know her more. Not that it would have ever been enough, or that there was some quality time quota I missed out on. But I felt heartsick at having spent so few days out of our many-dayed lives on the same continent. Like how you go to church and realize it feels good to sit in that lovely space and sing hymns, but you really only end up going on Easter. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, I know. But when my grandmother died, I felt too far away to really feel the tremors.
A few days after my dad came home—after spending the designated two weeks in Linares, “making arrangements”—we sat down on our droopy olive couch and he showed us photos of Mama Gladys that he had scanned there, old ones from the 1950s. They were black and white, mostly taken in photography studios. In my favorite one, she’s young and smiling and doing a pinup pose, one arm bent behind her neck, even though she’s wearing a thick black sweater and a long skirt. There are a few other pictures where she’s older and at a family party, laughing.
Hearing my dad talk about those photos reminded me of a scene in this movie I like called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The dying girl dies, and afterward her friend Greg is sitting in her bedroom. He opens one of the books on her bookshelf to find that she’s carved out the pages into this delicate, scaly landscape; some swelling cinematic music plays and surely enough, there are a few other books with these landscapes lying around, even though Greg had no idea that book carving was one of his friend’s hobbies. I had never seen those photos before or heard my grandmother talk about her youth, but it’s likely that I will see more photos of her and hear more people talk about her fondly. Even if I already know about her, I think that’s a way of knowing her. I can always give my family in Chile a call, anyway—we’re usually in the same time zone.
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