My patient was just sent home.
I spray his empty run down with the hose, sweeping the hose from side to side with precision, starting at the front of the cage and proceeding towards the back, methodically sweeping the disinfectant suds and previous patient's hair towards the drain at the back of the run.
My mind wanders and I am transported back to another place and time. I am outside, surrounded by vivid green, and it is so humid that sweat is trickling in thick rivulets down my back even when I am motionless. I am standing in Lucero's empty, stripped stall in my grandfather's yard. Lucero is secured to a nearby tree with a safety knot, within my line of sight so he can practice standing quietly tied as I finish cleaning his stall.
This is my favorite part: the part where I hose down the stripped stall. The concrete floor is scrubbed clean and now it's time to remove the soap suds. I start at the front of the stall with hose nozzle at the highest pressure setting, spraying from left to right and right to left, creating a tidy wave in front of the powerful stream of water that pushes the suds away.
Baldear. The art of using a hose. You may laugh, like I did at the time it was explained to me: because literally anything can be an art. ;) But my grandfather had quickly reined in my humor: he was serious. The term actually comes from Spain, like my family does, and it was, for example, the method that was once used to clean the streets of Madrid. My grandfather taught this skill to me, a pretty useful one that had been instilled in him by his dad when my great-grandfathers still owned their dairy farms and plantations: from an early age even plantation owners had to learn to do the grunt work of maintaining their property.
I thought of that, of the generation of men before me that had known how to do this, of the huge expanses of vivid green that was ours before I was born, and smiled as I finished pushing the last bit of suds out the back of Lucero's stall. The stall that sat smack in the middle of the last two remaining acres of all that land that used to belong to the Torrech family.
I smile again now in the present, remembering as I push the last bit of suds in the run towards the drain. I then coil the hose so I can put it away on its hook on the wall, and turn around to reluctantly return to 2018 and the veterinary ICU where I now work.
The back of my mind though, continues to tell me pictorial stories of volcanic mountains on every horizon, of pounding surf, of coqui tree frogs chirping in the dripping humid heat of dusk as I move throughout my day.
It’s been too long.
I bought the plane tickets two months ago.
I wrote this post, hit “Publish” turned around in my seat and told Carlos, “I need to go see the island.”
A huge grin spread from ear to ear across his face. “Let’s!”
Carlos is Puerto Rican too. He knows the island even better than I do from spending his waking hours wringing every last bit of fun and adventure that he could possible extract from his time living in PR. He hasn’t been back in the same length of time as myself: 10 years.
I text Mom, “If we wanted to go to the island...would these dates work?” Mom and the aunts have pretty hectic schedules.
Immediate response, “Let me double-check! 😁”
Two days later, the dates were confirmed, requested off at our jobs, and the plane tickets purchased.
I have postponed visiting the island for many reasons.
The first is that it means confronting that Lucero is not there anymore. Lucero was the last living link to my grandfather, and his death was doubly devastating because I lost the horse that was an extension of me and in the process lost my grandfather all over again. While I held my grandfather’s hand as he took his last breath, I did not get to say good-bye to Lucero. In fact, I didn’t know that he was sick enough to warrant euthanasia, and I didn’t know he had been euthanized until after the fact.
That level of grief is hard to describe. He wasn’t just a horse. My grandfather wasn’t just a grandfather. Lucero was the magic of years of fierce dreaming and wishing brought to life. I willed that horse into being with every ounce of my childhood imagination, and the spirited colt that was brought to me was every single thing that I both consciously wanted in a horse and that I didn’t know yet I needed. He was my first dream to come true, born of a fire stoked by my grandfather. My grandfather made him come true for me, as he made every other wish I asked for come true while he was alive. He was our magician, our sensei, and one of the last of a dying breed of human being.
Lucero was not a heart horse because he was an entity that was an extension of both Abuelito and myself. Owning, raising and training Lucero was crucial in shaping the person I would become, and it was because of him and through him that I got to know the amazing soul that my grandfather was. Lucero was the window through which I saw my grandfather.
I left Puerto Rico the same year my grandfather died, exactly 7 months and four days later.
Lucero was a bigger umbilical cord to ensure my periodically returning because, unlike my mother, I could not bring him to me in order to spend time with him: I had to go to him. Return visits to the island revolved around me being able to spend time with my horse. Our last trip to the island happened with the in-laws, and we went to Rincón on the other side of PR...I did not get to go home to see my horse, my house, nor my family during that visit. And then once Carlos and I were in school for nursing and vet tech, the span of years between visits to the island lengthened...and it weighed heavily on my subconscious that I had not gone back to visit Lucero.
His death was a blow that ripped me apart...mainly because I had not known of his passing: unlike our other family animals, he didn’t come to me in dreams to say good-bye. I thought he had died thinking I had abandoned him...and I will never be able to confirm that or change it.
The idea of returning to PR then became unimaginable.
Three different trips were still half-heartedly planned but something always happened that they got cancelled, and each time I felt no sense of urgency to reschedule. The island was itself and would always be there, alive and well, sandwiched safely between the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
And then Maria happened.
And I felt like the last bit of “me” that remained in that part of the world had been destroyed. My family was fine, but my land had been ripped apart, from stem to stern. The cities and roads and infrastructure had changed during my absence but the beaches and mountains had remained unchanging.
In the wake of Maria, even my beaches and mountains had become unrecognizable.
Nothing is quite as uniquely yours as a land where your family has lived in for close to 500 years, where there are streets and neighborhoods named after your great-grandparents. I might have been born on the mainland and my father might be Cuban, but half of my genetic code is 100% Puerto Rican, and nothing can change the fact that the entirety of my soul is 100% Puerto Rican.
“Yo sería borincano aunque naciera en la luna!”
And so after Maria I grieved all over again, this time because I had not gone back to visit before the storm. I had not seen the remaining familiarity before that, too, was changed.
But everything heals, including the trees and the land.
And in the middle of that healing and the current political environment on the mainland, we are returning to visit. To set foot on my island again, to touch and smell and see its beauty once more.
And to remember where I come from.
It is time.