All Night in the Tuberculosis Room

By RENA J. MOSTEIRIN

Just before daybreak, the sky above NewYork-Presbyterian in Queens stiffens, and the nurse kicks me out of Abuela’s hospital room, because he needs to clean her. I don’t want to leave her room, and I don’t quite remember how to leave the hospital, but when I get out, the December night is a sharp blue and the cold air aches. As I stumble toward the lit deli on the corner I can’t even close my coat, my hands shake so much. I take off the mask. I see the air coming out of my mouth as a cloud of white, frozen mist. So this is God. God is the air going in and the air coming out and the sun coming up blue and the cold.

I am still holding the mask. I feel that I still need it, having worn it all night over my mouth and nose to keep the germs from coming in. Everything is glowing: the mask, my breath, my hands.

The man working the counter comes outside, muttering about it being too cold. He holds opens the door, gestures for me to walk into the light and follows me back inside. He holds a small garbage pail, he gestures for me to drop the mask. Just throw it away.

“How can I help you?” he asks. He repeats himself, because I can’t speak. I can see the yellow glow of sunrise in his face. Yellow omelets, egg sandwiches, golden bagels—these are the foods of heaven. Outside I was black and white, but somehow, in here, I am in color.

*

In the tuberculosis room, you must keep the door closed at all times. Wear a mask when you enter and throw the mask away when you leave. This machine will buzz all night, that’s the sound the laser makes. When air passes through this part here, the purple light that you see will kill the tuberculosis germs. We do this to protect you. Thirteen million people in the United States have latent tuberculosis infection. Are you sure you want to spend the night? Please do not remove the mask. The mask is light blue, for your protection. Press down on either side and the top of the mask will conform to the shape of your nose.

*

Once, on the bus, when I was a teenager, a boy teased me for wearing dark blue nail polish. “Your nails turn that color when you die,” he said. I spent the rest of the day sneaking glances at my hands and wondering what my whole body would look like, dead.

In the tuberculosis room, now, I am holding Abuela’s hand and I check her fingernails for the dying color. There is a flashing red monitor to the right of her head, there is the short, bright rhythm of the beeps, the hum of laser, and here are her hands. Some part of me refuses the monitors and the machines. The most reliable information source is her body. She’s here, even if she isn’t conscious. She’s with me, even if she’s dying, even if at this point she’s more dead than alive. She’s with me and I am with her.

             But her toenails are turning purple.               Maybe her feet have already died.

*

All night with Abuela in the tuberculosis room I am wearing a blue dress with this crazy loud pattern and hot pink tights and knee-high caramel-colored leather boots. Abuela likes when I dress up.

Abuela likes hats.
Abuela likes boxes of chocolate.
Abuela likes to pray.

Abuela’s best friend has a gay son who would paint and repaint all of Abuela’s saints on a regular basis. I always took it for granted that Cuban saints wore eyeliner and had coralline lips, like rare, benevolent Barbie dolls.

I disappointed Abuela by hating church, but my hat game is strong.

I sit here and eat sweet brown baked goods. Leftovers from yesterday’s Brooklyn baby shower brunch. Last night I danced at a famous venue in Manhattan where my brother’s band sold every seat in the house. At the show and at the baby shower all I could think about was my father spending the night in the tuberculosis room with Abuela. Now I’m taking my turn. I’ve been here all day and I’ll stay all night. I shove the food in under the mask. A nurse comes in and tells me that what I am doing is wrong, that I am taking my life in my hands. He doesn’t understand. Each bite knits some part of me back to the other essential pieces of myself. I don’t have religion, I have snacks.

*

My grandmother, called Marta by her friends, was born in 1924 in Havana. She married and bore two sons. She left her country when she was thirty-seven years old. Following the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba was no longer safe for her and her family. She spent the next fifty-seven years of her life living in exile in Jackson Heights, New York. Though her thoughts were always turned to the small island, she never set foot on Cuban soil again.

Despite having no formal education, my grandmother wrote poems and prayers, and she transcribed interviews with the saints, spirits, and political figures who appeared to her and her spiritualist group during séances. The group called themselves Rosendo. This name is red. Do you see it?

Now the hum of the purple laser fills the room with sadness. It might be her last room. I’m with her, all night, in case everything turns black, or the heat goes out again and we are all blue. All night Abuela’s machines beep and wheeze. I open my laptop to find early Celia Cruz because I believe this is what Abuela most wants to hear. If she can hear.

 

In one television appearance from 1967 that I find on YouTube, Celia Cruz is wearing an asymmetrical dress made of shiny material that bunches at her hip. In blackand-white television her dress appears silver, but Cubans don’t dress that way; we wear colors. The show was a late-night talk show, the kind with a musical number and go-go dancers in the background. Three quarters of the way through Guantanamera, the curtain goes up behind the Queen of Salsa and there are the professional dancers, only they aren’t dancing. The men stand with their arms crossed, and two of the women, realizing that the curtain is up, start to sway, but the rest of the go-go team won’t go. They don’t like Celia Cruz. They’ve never heard of Jose Martí, they don’t know anything about fighting down from the mountains. They don’t know anything. They are empty. They never make it to color.

*

Abuela taught me that Castro and his government betrayed the country and all Cuban people. “They went up to the mountains talking about God,” she told me, “but when they came down, Castro was the new king.” Under Castro there was only one political party, no freedoms of speech, press, or political thought. Religion was outlawed in communist Cuba. This was a devastating blow to Cuba’s devout communities.

*

I am wearing a paper mask over my mouth and nose.
This is to protect me from the germs.
I can’t tolerate this mask.
I shove food in underneath the mask.
Through the mask, I sing.
When I can’t bear the sound of my muffled voice, I take the mask off.
The nurse comes in and I put the mask back on.
My tears wet the top of the mask and it sticks to my cheeks.
You need to start making plans, the nurse says.
          Plans for what?
          Oh honey.

*

I do not have a plan but I have her séance notes, and I become obsessed with translating them as Abuela dies. Rosendo began in February of 1971. The spirit that flew to this group, that began the group and gave it its name, was imprisoned until January of that year. It is not clear who this spirit was exactly, but it’s made clear in her notes that this person died while imprisoned in Cuba. Rosendo, the person, must have been known by reputation throughout the Cuban community in exile, and news of Rosendo’s death would have reached the Cubans in New York through gossip. This is how my grandmother got most of her information about what was going on in Cuba.

In the ensuing years, Cuban patriots and saints came to Rosendo, as did Dr. Raimundo Menocal, the pirate Henry Morgan, Abraham Lincoln, and Alan Kardec, a French spiritualist writer born in 1804, among others. Dr. Menocal’s name is at the top of many of the pages I find in Abuela’s things. He was a famous Cuban doctor. During my childhood, I was made to believe that she visited Dr. Menocal in New Jersey every Sunday. Only after her death did I learn that Dr. Menocal died in 1917.

The famous Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Martí is mentioned often, sometimes simply as Martí. At times Martí is the inspiration; other times, he appears to be speaking. Generals Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez, men who distinguished themselves in the war for Cuban independence, appear as interlocutors. Marco Polo helps Nixon in China. Abraham Lincoln shows up to lend support. Though primarily, the writing appears to happen through the intercession of saints.

*

Abuela never channeled a spirit for me, but when my high school boyfriend killed himself, she talked. She told me things she could not possibly have known. Not secrets, exactly, but scenes from my life with Mike that no one could have told her about.

The last time Mike and I went to the beach together, we drove all the way out to the end of Long Island and walked all afternoon. Something happened on the beach that day. It was his final gesture of defeat. Abuela described it to me. She seemed confused. Like she could see the scene in front of her, but had no idea what it meant. I told her I didn’t want any more.

Had she already decided at that point that she wasn’t going to teach me? That she wasn’t going to pass her gift on to me?

*

I am grateful for the nurses at the hospital here at the end of the world. Some of them speak to Abuela in Spanish and, when she is responsive, it’s clear this makes her happy. She used to be very comfortable in English, but as she’s gotten older, it is deserting her. When the nurses say things to her in English, she just looks sad and confused. There’s a whiteboard that says she’s a Spanish speaker, and there are some nurses who pull out a string of phrases to make her comfortable. One such nurse grew up in China. We’ve had a few short conversations, and with each one I’m more impressed. Her native tongue is Mandarin, she speaks English perfectly, and to Abuela, she says gentle and kind things in Spanish, even when Abuela does not respond:

Hola mamá
(Hello mama)
Está bien
(It’s ok)
Estoy aquí si me necesitas
(I’m here if you need me)

*

The hospital lobby
is the best part
of the whole place:
leather couches,
glass rotating doors,
big-screen televisions
all soberly turned
to the news—like it matters
what is happening
outside.

The gilet jaunes in France are vandalizing their own best things. They wear high-vis yellow vests and write poetic graffiti:

Nous sommes rien
(We are nothing)
Nous voulons tout
(We want everything)

I feel you, gilet jaunes, from this hospital in Queens, where the heat goes out at night in the middle of the winter. My ninety-fouryearold Abuela, not yet intubated and unconscious, yells out, Frío! Frío! Too cold for a dying Cuban refugee. I grab the last extra blanket from the nurses. The next woman who asks for a blanket is told there are no more.

Frío was her last word.

 

Rena J. Mosteirin is the co-author of Moonbit (punctum books, 2019) an academic and poetic exploration of the Apollo 11 guidance computer code. She teaches creative writing at Dartmouth College and edits Bloodroot Literary Magazine.

Photo by author. 

All Night in the Tuberculosis Room

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