There was a piece of paper folded in half four times. It was white with dingy edges smeared with finger prints. I don’t know why I kept it. Why I placed it in a drawer of my bureau. Why, when I initially opened it, I only saw the list of methadone clinics and my father’s signature dated November 4, 2013 at the bottom of the page.
Last week I went back to this piece of paper. I reexamined the pile of my dad’s personal belongings. I opened his black book bag with its mountain of papers and a folder of 4 inch think print outs of prescription medication. I decided to keep it along with the bio-hazard bag with his cell phone from the emergency room. There were so many questions to be answered and I am not sure I was even ready yet to accept that he engaged in homosexual activities to feed his addiction.
This piece of paper, upon closer inspection, was not just a list of methadone clinics. I was too engulfed in the planning of my father’s cremation that I didn’t give it much of a look until that day. It was only a tentative list of places to go to when he needed to get a fix when he couldn’t buy the street serum. They were clinics with FDA approved medication he can take when he needed to wean himself off. That piece of paper I held was proof that four weeks before his death, he was trying to get clean. My father placed his name on the waiting list of a rehabilitation center. He made his last attempt to finally leave that shit behind.
As I held the paper and looked at the non-script signature that was listed on many personal documents, I wondered if he knew his time was coming. And I wondered if he looked back on his life? If he’d change anything? If he ever thought about his four children?
Once, my father sent me a text message during the summer of 2012.
“Tu tienes una hermanita”
A picture of a dark-skinned little girl about two years old, tight curls, a squished nose and deep-set black eyes filled my screen. That’s not my sister. She looks nothing like us.
I didn’t answer him back immediately. Instead I went to my mother’s house and for reasons that are quite unclear to me since I know all of her stories of the man she had four children with are filled with venom. I showed her the text and then the picture.
“Eso no es tu hermana” She shook her head as she examined the phone from over the frames of her glasses.
I wasn’t sure how I felt. If that comment was my mother being sarcastic with a hint of jealousy. Or if she was just informing me that she knew my dad well enough to recognize his DNA in another child’s face. Did she wear “I’m his only baby momma” crown proudly? Did she strut around her kitchen showing it off to me?
He had just purchased a cup of coffee and a butter roll. He walked to the stoop outside of the store and sat to eat his breakfast. He stayed in this position for 15 minutes before another man noticed that my father was not responsive to the conversation they were having. The ambulance was called and he was pronounced dead on arrival but the medical team cut his clothes and performed resuscitation procedures. I’m only guessing they did. I wasn’t there but why else would they cut his clothes off?
I met one of my father’s peoples. A smaller than average woman with skin so wrinkled she looked like she shouldn’t be able to walk she looked so old. Her voice was harsh revealing she smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. She was no taller than four feet nine inches. I was able to see the top of her head when I stood next to her.
“Nothing better happen to me tonight. Or I’ll make sure to come back and find you.” I looked her dead in her face as she slipped into the passenger seat. The smell of ashtray and stale cigarette butts began to sting my nose. I opened the window.
“No te preocupes. Tu padre era uno de mi major amigo. Yo te ayudo”
She showed me the abandoned homes he slept in. I followed her behind opened windows and unlocked doors looking for Juan’s personal belongings. I watched how she moved. I montiored how she looked over her shoulder, how she knocked on each door three times, whose name she yelled prior to entering. I made note of who was watching me from the streets. We walked through black alley ways of cat urine and rat shit. We entered apartments with the smell of roach infestation and opened closet doors to empty storage spaces.
We found black garbage bags filled with clothes that were miraculously clean. Pants were folded with creases. Leather coasts handled with care and placed at the bottom of the bag. Shirts were pressed and Jordans showed no evidence of wear and tear. My father never looked homeless and no one knew that he ever was. I didn’t even know.
When we returned to the car, Mirtha finally revealed that he was thrown out in the streets by the woman he used to live with. The mother of that little girl he called his own. She said he cried hard for days. Not for the lost relationship but he cried for the little girl. He mourned the little one that was not biologically his. He hurt for the little girl whose eyes and nose and tight curls did not say she was a Lopez.
She filled in the details of the woman possibly having HIV, and cheating on my dad and then eventually kicking him out to be with another man. I watched her baby sized hand with over grown knuckles move back and forth through the freezing air. They held another lit Newport. Again I wondered if he ever cried for his four children. If he hurt when we were taken from him?
This past January of 2014 was one of the coldest winters New Jersey has seen in the last 40 years. The Newark airport was buzzing with travelers and I was waiting in line with a bag filled with my dad’s ashes.
Puerto Rico is beautiful this time of year. The weather is still hot enough to go swimming in its beaches and the humidity is close to nothing. I’ve decided to return my father to his birth place but first I had to get through security with the remains of a man I never knew.