My sister is one of my favorite people to walk this earth. Being around her gives me that I believe I can fly type joy. Her energy, her smile and her love are infectious. She is up there on my list of women I most admire, love and aspire to be like.
I call her Chiquita because she is that to me – junior both in stature and years. Chiquita has more nicknames than Sean Combs has aliases or stage names.
She is saved in my phone as Full Time Friend.
One of my tias calls her media libra because of her thin frame and difficulty reaching the three digit range on a scale. Another tia used to call her “my little french fry.” Our beloved, difunto Tio Jose used to call her calva because she was pretty much bald until she was three years old.
Sometimes my parents call her tesoro or baby bear. Yes – we have renamed our Dominican family after the American fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Mama bear, Papa bear, Negra bear (that’s me) and baby bear. Don’t judge.
I’ve heard some of her friends call her Jaytee, Jeanny or Mev. The acapella dance group she helped form in college nicknamed her Feisty Suga. Her residence life staff calls her grandma or Grad-ma now that she’s finished her first year of grad school at her (and my) alma mater, SUNY New Paltz.
She’s got a lot of nicknames because she is loved by many with a passion akin to that of a fat kid who loves cake. Just sayin’. To know her is to love her.
But like I said, I call her Chiquita.
I was hanging out with Chiquita two Friday nights ago, eating and watching TV like before I got married and she went away to college. Our parents were at a wedding so it was just the two of us in our childhood home and we reverted back to our 12 and 8 year old selves with ease.
I distributed a full first serving of white rice, zesty lemon chicken and God-sent lenteja onto my plate so that the lentejas and chicken sauce covered every crevice between the rice and meat. There was not a dry spot on my plate.
In case you haven’t realized from my description, this is a Dominican serving – not American fine cuisine serving. Un plataso.
“Just so you know, I plan on eating myself into a food coma tonight” I told chiquita as I placed plate one in the microwave, already thinking about plate two.
“That’s fine,” she responded from her seat at the four person kitchen table covered in that thick semi-sticky plastic that Dominicans use to preserve anything and everything. “I tend to have that effect on people.”
The microwave beeped and I stuck my fingers in the plate to see if the bottom was warmed up enough as I jokingly exclaimed, “You’re like a food Medusa!” The food was only semi-warm but I didn’t bother putting it back into the microwave.
Chiquita smiled and the beauty mark above her lip on the right side rose up, “More like a siren” she said very matter of factly.
“Word.” This is the last thing I said before I sat down next to her and started devouring my food, chomping and swallowing fast as if the food might walk away from my plate if I didn’t get to it quick enough.
“I’m a siren. I encourage people to eat until they die” she joked. We both chuckle. She hadn’t moved from her seat and she wasn’t eating, probably still full from being back at home for the winter break with Mami instead of at school upstate.
Midway through my second plataso, I started to slow down – not by choice. My body is constantly placing unwanted limits on my food intake. I finished up and Chiquita and I set up camp in the family living room.
Chiquita’s Spongebob in the ocean blanket spanned across the plush, sea foam gray, L-shaped couch. To our left were both our degrees hanging in way-too expensive frames – easily the most expensive items in the room after the couch and the television. We were facing the mounted TV.
“What do you want to watch?” I asked her.
“Whatever you want sis. I know you don’t get a lot of free time. I just want you to enjoy it.” she said with a soft smile. This was coming from the full time Music Therapy graduate student who also worked as a Resident Assistant and barely slept most nights. I flipped through the Netflix options on the TV screen and settled on Gilmore Girls because it felt like a throwback type of night and I used to love the Gilmore Girls.
The disappointment was real, but I shouldn’t have expected much from a remake. Most of the four, seasons-themed, hour and half long episodes felt like nails scratching a chalkboard or like a car honking me at an intersection when I can’t may a turn yet. The banter that I once loved so much was still there; but now it felt incessant and annoying. I don’t know what changed more – the writing or my taste.
We enjoyed ourselves regardless. We always do. We fast forwarded some of the most mundane pieces and chuckled over some of the dry-witted humor. We even found some gold in the Summer episode. We are diggers – Chiquita and I. We excavate through piles of manure and bad plots, chaos and tragedy and find a way to uncover some good.
I paused the show during the Summer scene in the cemetery after the grandfather died. Lorelai had just finished telling Rory she was not giving her permission to write their story and we used the dialogue as a springboard. We discussed my writing and our family. She shared her feelings around some painful memories and toxic relationships. I did the same in the spirit of vulnerability and healing.
“You want chocolate chip cookies and milk?” she asked mid serious convo as she got up to finally make herself a plate. You already know… I said yes.
It was a good night – full of fond memories, laughter and real conversation.
It is Wednesday night and I am reading Surrendering: When Pain is Transformed into Extraordinary Blessings by Kenia Nunez and her loss forces me to imagine what my life would be like without my sister.
I remember how I almost had to live this life without my sister and in a moment of gratitude and experiencing what I like to call a “love spurt” where the love flows so intensely through my body that I must take action – I Facetimed her.
We talk about nothing and we talk about everything. She tells me she had a tough day and I listen and think about how far we’ve come.
Tonight I think about her burned-black throat and the skin that stretched like spandex over her bones as she lay in the children’s cancer unit at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. I think about her weighing 67 pounds at 14 years old. I recall the night we called 911 because she was gasping for air. Then, I remember her body being healed but her insides being a wreck. How I would beg for her to talk to me and tell me what she was feeling. How I contemplated that maybe the chemo and radiation did more than just physical damage.
A lot of what I write is for Chiquita.
As a writer, you are supposed to visualize who is in the room with you when you write. Who do you write for?
I write for Chiquita. I write for the three-year old with no hair, the seven-year old with the squeaky voice and the fourteen-year old who got diagnosed with childhood cancer. I write to break the silence – to discuss the taboo, the messages and scenarios our family learned to hide in the back of the closet where dust and cobwebs tend to gather. I also write to capture sweet memories – to share personal stories of survival, of love and laughter that heals.
What I really mean to say is, I write BECAUSE of Chiquita. Because she is fierce with that little frame and big heart. Because she not only survived, but she is THRIVING. Because she looked death in the face and said, “nah, not today homie.” Because if she had the courage to do that, then I must have the courage to do this writing thing. It’s in my blood.