Let's go back in time. When he used to run up towards my house with his twin brother, stick in hand and tire rolling ahead. "Julieeeeee!!" He would yell. And if I was there, he'd come in, walk right into my bedroom and stare at himself in my mirror making faces. Or when I asked for a kiss and he would kiss me on the lips and his brother would give me his cheek. When Casilda and I took a day trip to Santiago with the two of them, both sleeping the whole way there, being crazy and playing in the lobby of the hospital, and then sleeping the whole way back. When he got blood drawn and didn't make a single whimper. Running through the white halls, saying hello to everyone, knowing exactly which room they had to go to in that maze of ugly curtains, rolly beds, and the smell of rubbing alcohol. When we read together in my gallery. When I chased them naked around their new home and they hid around every corner but their giggles gave them away. When he would ask me "¿Que es eso?" 101 times and still never repeat what I said back to me. His clear, hazel eyes that pierced your heart. His smile. And the last night there when he was hitting me over and over again, I threatened to leave and ran outside, he chased after me, sent his brother to find a belt, and together (with my help...), they tied my legs and arms up so I couldn't go anywhere.
But just a short year ago, this little man while stealing my heart was eating a chinola. He fell and started violently throwing up. A month and 4 hospitals later, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Treatments left and right, hair loss, weight loss, no appetite, surgery, constant health issues, hospital trips, and many phone calls later, he was declared healthy. The tumor was removed, no more treatment was needed and he was home. Not a week went by and he fell ill again, his stomach swelling up as it did before despite the sunkeness of his cheeks and he was put in intensive care. They said the tumor was back. Many confusing diagnoses later, I get a phone call from a crying mother, begging me to do something. They told her, in front of him, that there was nothing more they could do here. That they just needed to love him and give him something to ease the pain. I called a friend. We searched for options outside of this country. She reached out to so many. We went to visit them one weekend, and weren't allowed to see him. But We got to see her. We cried together, got copies of his records, and made promises that although we didn't know at the time, we couldn't keep. These few weeks were long. The battle rose and fell. Some days he was better. Then he was worse. I received photos and videos of his tiny swollen body that are still haunting my sleep. There was too much waiting time...
Because on Saturday, August 29, I was in IKEA with some friends. And I received the phone call I was dreading. She was screaming. I understood nothing. Then finally, the last thing she screamed was, "Julie, tell me he's not dead." And hung up. It was too late for me to go that day-the last bus would leave in an hour and I didn't have time to get back, pack and make it to the bus stop. More waiting. But at 5am, that Sunday morning, I was on a bus, headed home, trying so hard to hold it all together, wondering what more I could have done.
By the time I had made it, I missed the funeral and I missed the burial. I had always wondered if there really was a difference in an open casket or closed at a wake. There is. Denial is a strong thing when there is no closure. I didn't get to see him at the hospital. I was told he was getting better. And then he was gone? I couldn't, I refused to believe it. I was told of the screams, the hallucinations, and that his siblings passed out during it all. And that his mother at one point was screaming out, "Julie! Julie! Your little brother is dead. Come quick."
When I got in, I dropped my stuff off at my Doña's house and saw Francheska. She collapsed in my arms, sobbing. She loved him so dearly. When I was able to make my way to Casilda's, my heart was racing. I saw nothing but what was directly in front of me. I entered the front door and into the bedroom. She was there, sitting on a bench with people sitting around the room. She screamed out when she saw me, "Julie! Look!" Holding up a little blue, long sleeved shirt of his. I collapsed to my knees and hugged her. She rocked me, sobbing, and with half of voice, "He's gone Julie. He left us. I had such hope. I had such faith. We fought so hard. Why is he gone? Why did he have to leave us?" Over and over again. Her husband had to pull us apart to get her to calm down. I left the room, searching for his siblings through the blur of tears. I hugged each and every one of them and told them how much I loved them. I helped them eat. We sat in silence. And in tears. So many people. So much is fuzzy now...
The week was spent hosting visitors, cooking, cleaning, and whatever else that needed to be done. I didn't do much. Just tried to be there. It reminded me so much of the passing of a loved one back home. The pain but also the people, the help, the noisy kids, playing games late into the night, and just being distracted. Or looking at photos.
My bosses stopped by since they were in the area. I've been so blessed throughout all of it. The constant messages, the girls who took care of me that night I was waiting to get out of the capital, my family back home answering my doubts and sending love, the mass given for the family, the flowers left on my desk, the note and candle in my apartment, the neighboring volunteers coming for the event on the last day I was there. All of them. I was never alone. There was never a moment where a thought, prayer, or hug wasn't being sent to everyone. And I'm convinced that's what held the family up. Each day got a little better. Moments came and went as expected; the burial of feelings would come to a head now and again. But the love and support was there. And a new and handsome angel with a heart of gold is now watching over all of us. We all still wish he was here, but it helps to know that his suffering has ceased and that he will, without a doubt, do amazing things from up there.
Ángel Manuel changed my life. And although the anger comes and goes still, I will always feel blessed to have known him, loved him, and fought alongside him in the last little bit he had here on Earth.