December 10, 2006
I think today is one of the most dramatic days of my life. It released a lot of tension that I never knew was there, and I think me and my family can move on from today better for it.
It all started during the 4pm news that my family watches on sundays. When the announcer came on and told us that Pinochet had died, I almost had a heart attack. At first, I didn’t believe him, since in the last couple years there was a big scandal when the courts discovered he was in fine health. He’s been using his health as a defense to avoid the courts for so long, starting all the way back in 2000 when he escaped from the his trials in London. Then, when I realized that he had actually died, I started to cry. The first thing that I thought was that I wished my mother could be alive for this moment, that she could cry with me, that she could whisper my father’s name, clench her fists, and feel it all release inside of her, just like I did. I would want to hug her and just sit there for an eternity, but I made do with hugging my now 13-year-old daughter. My how she has grown, and oh how her hair feels like my hair, like my mother’s hair.
I held her for a couple of minutes before pulling away, which is when today started to get overwhelming. First, after a couple more minutes of semi-silently watching the TV, punctuated by my occasional sob, Valeria, who is now thirteen, finally got up the courage to ask me something she’d never asked before. “What happened to grandfather? You talk about grandmother all the time, but you’ve only mentioned grandfather once or twice. What happened?” I swear I nearly broke down again. I never realized that I avoided the subject, that I had never, in thirteen years, told my daughter about the proud man who had fathered her father. I felt ashamed. So I started talking, and before long, I was talking too fast, describing his face, the way that he walked in the door and gave me a hug, the way that his hands would leave stains on the tablecloth, and how mother would spend hours cleaning it, only to have it dirtied again the next day. I didn’t realize that I had so much to share until I was asked, until the memories started to flow from my lips like water from a spout.
Then the incredible, and terrible, and unexpected happened. My little girl, as questioning and curious as any thirteen-year-old should be, turned to her mother and asked her, “Did anyone in you knew get tortured?” To my amazement, the answer wasn’t the “no” that I was expecting. Anita started to recount a story that she had never shared with me, although now that I look back, I don’t think I ever gave her a chance to, between talking about my mother and my father and my own fears and doubts.
Anita told of her sister Josefina, a sister that no one in her family had ever mentioned. She was hidden from us because of her condition. She was a writer for one of the leftist newspapers in the time of Allende, and in 1974 they finally came for her, taking her in the middle of the day from her apartment. They released her two years later, and Anita and her family almost didn’t recognize her when she arrived at their door, 15 kilos thinner, with scars running over her arms and back, a now-crooked nose, and thin raggedy hair. When they broke her body, they also broke her mind. She didn’t just have nightmares. She would have dreams so vivid that she couldn’t tell reality from imagination anymore. After a year of trying to deal with her on their own, Anita’s family took her to a small mental hospital, where she’s been ever since. Apparently, Anita has managed to visit her twice a year every year without me ever suspecting, and although she has never fully recovered, Anita says she’s definitely fit for visitors. Maybe Valeria and I will visit her aunt in a month or two.
This story, untold for all 18 years of our relationship (longer than Pinochet was in power), rocked me to my core. I didn’t realize, with all that I said about my father and my mother, that Anita could have had something just as horrible, just as unfair, just as destructive happen to her and her family as happened to mine. I look at my wife differently now, and I have no idea what my daughter must be thinking now. Andres, my eight-and-a-half-year-old son, will want to know about our stories as soon as he gets back from his friend’s house and hears that Valeria learned so much from us. Yet even with these worries, and the feeling that I have been an overbearing husband, this day has also been an incredible release, an escape from the memories that I had held bottled inside for so long. Maybe now that Pinochet is finally dead, the memories of my parents and Anita’s sister will have a place free of contempt in this world. I can only hope that my mother’s spirit is rejoicing, and is watching over us. It has been more than 10 years since she died and I don’t think I could miss her any more that I do right now. But at least I have a loving wife, and two wonderful children to focus on and raise. Thank God for that.