Paging Dr. Jo

Long before I was twelve years old, I always said I wanted to be a surgeon.

I was raised by my mother—who spent a great deal of the time outside the house working. I am the youngest of four, with the smallest age gap between my siblings being 4 years, the oldest two are 8 and 9 years older than I. Needless to say, I spent a great deal of time playing alone but my grandfather was always around when my mother was not.

My grandfather had eleven children and unlike most of them I knew what it was like to be raised by him. I know my grandmother’s rendition of things and I know my grandfather’s rendition, I believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. However, their relationship and his relationship—rather lack thereof—with his children has no bearing on my relationship with him. I was once a fatherless daughter; he mended the broken heart of a little girl who for no other reason than circumstance had no one else.

My grandfather used to watch Spanish soap operas while I sat on his bed playing with my Barbies. He’d play Spanish guitar while I sat on his lap. He’d protect me from spankings—even though I would have choked me, if I were my mother. He called me, “La Negrita Del Pilar,” which translates to the little brown girl of the pillar. He also called me Johanna the bird (Johanna Pichon). I have a personal belief, which may be goofy, but so far has been pretty true in my life; that nicknames are a sign of true affection, of something bigger than us. This is not to say that people who call you by your birth name love you any less but those people who give you other names, have the potential to see you for more than what you are. They see the essence of you and are able to gauge something that you may not be quite ready to see. I have had some of the best friendships with people who refused to see me as just Johanna with the silent H.

People often said I was the light of his eyes. He was like my best friend. I know. . .who would have thought? He was an old man and I was just a kid, but this old soul of mine has been pretty keen since a very early age.

My mother always forgot I did not like peanuts, so when she would come home with candy, and brought a bag of yellow M&M’s yet again, I would appreciate the gesture. I ate the chocolate and grandpa ate the left over peanuts. He could care less; he’d eat the peanuts so mom wouldn’t get mad at me for wasting them. We weren’t the wealthiest of families so every little penny counted. There are days that I get the peanut M&M’s and discard the peanuts, just because that became such a normal part of my upbringing.

My grandfather moved in with us when I was 14 months old and passed away when I was 13 years old. Throughout the years the moments I spent with him are among the moments I cherish the most. Not everything was perfect but it was life and I was happy. Grandpa Felix made sure I was always happy.

He began to get sick over the years. Being the youngest, when I wasn’t home supervised, I was attached to my mother’s hip. I went everywhere she went. When my grandfather was very ill, I spent more and more time in the hospital with him and my mom. St. Joseph’s Hospital was one of my favorite places to be. It was almost like a second home. The nurses and staff were always so nice to me, and unlike anything I ever had at home, they always had ice-cream in abundance for me. The hospital became my new normal and the more time I spent there, the more I preferred it to my home.

Before the years that we spent accosted at his bedside, hoping for a change and for a miracle. I used to act silly just to make grandpa laugh. His belly jiggled like Santa Clause every time he laughed and I miss that. When I was little I spent my summers running free, without a care in the world. I climbed trees, I hated having my hair combed—I was a funny little hot mess. I did anything for a laugh. In many ways I am still the same.

Every Christmas I think of him, I mean, I think of him all the time. Sometimes if I am lucky and happen to be at the right place at the right time, something clicks and I can remember what he smells like again. He always wore Brute and Agua Florida (it was his aftershave), but not everyone smells the same, there was something about the way it combined with his chemical composition. His scent and his voice is something that has faded over the years but there is nothing quite like Christmas that reminds me of him. I love Christmas.

He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December of 1998; on the 19th of December he was given 15 days of life. He died 15 days later, January 3, 1999. I had the unfair advantage of knowing that he was leaving. I know that people often wish they’d know when they were going to die, but at that moment, I didn’t want to know. Losing him was as if I were losing my own life. He was one of the most incredible human beings I have ever been blessed to meet. I was so lucky to spend the greater part of my life getting to know him. I wish Jonathan had the opportunity of meeting him but I feel in some way, Jonathan has the mother that he has because of my grandfather.

Grandpa hated Tampa, and he’d say all the time, as he raised his crooked pointer finger, “Cuando llegue a Tampa caie en la trampa!” Basically, when you come to Tampa you fall in the trap. He lived for his little island of Puerto Rico. Coincidentally I only went to Puerto Rico when we picked him up (I was 14 months old and hardly remember a single thing about that trip) and when he passed away, we took him back to Puerto Rico to share the grave with his parents and sister; like he always wanted. I did not return to Puerto Rico for another twelve years.

Every island and body of water reminds me of him because he loved his little island so much. I felt whole when I was near him. I always dreamt of owning a beach house. There is nothing more beautiful than the thought of looking out and having that as the backdrop of my life. Every imprint that people make in our lives is much like those footprints that we leave at the shore. So what, water washes them away, but there is no doubt that they were once there. He has forever left his mark in my life.

I spent years working toward a goal that ultimately was part of a very large healing process. Medical school was a great part of what I believed to be the tapestry of my life.

My grandfather suffered from many ailments. He had Alzheimers and the days before his death, he did not remember anything, he did not remember anyone . . .he did not remember me. The man with the glossy eyes in the hospital bed across from my day bed was no longer the man who looked at me lovingly. I was a stranger to him just like I had been to others before.

I love my mother, I love my siblings and they all have contributed to the woman I am today, but my grandfather always saw me for who I was. I couldn’t hide a thing from him. He knew all along whom I was meant to be. But that moment, crushed me. It was admittedly one of the most painful experiences of my life. To be everything once and suddenly a stranger to someone was incomprehensible at my age then.

I took that pain and a lifelong appreciation of hospitals and thus the birth of what I once believed was my purpose. I began to live a life solely geared toward becoming a neurosurgeon. I never wanted anyone to feel the pain I felt, I wanted to cure the world, I wanted to cure Alzheimers, and I wanted to cure me. I believed somewhere along this journey that I would find something that would ease the pain I felt of being once so important and now forgotten. He has influence my life a great deal and somewhere around 28 years old I finally came to a realization. Becoming a doctor wasn’t going to bring him back.

When I was a little girl, I wrote down everything. I had journals and I had a diary, until one day I took one of my diaries to school. A girl read about my constipated Christmas and made fun of me the whole bus ride. That day I stopped writing. I figured if I am going to be ridiculed for what I write, than I may as well never write. I began to think and keep to myself. I thought so much. Most of the times I’d be playing with my Barbies but my body language was just a fasad of what was going on in my little head. I overheard adult conversations and I kept to myself. Again, because I was the baby, no one told me much or addressed me very often while I was growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I ran around, I talked a hell of a lot but I learned early on to hide my feelings because, feelings were too intimidating in my family. I am freaking bursting with passion for everything. When I get excited. . . .I get freaking excited. . .I am intolerable, combustible, magnetic, I am free and rambunctious, I create my own rules—which I forget to follow sometimes, so I know for people who are pretty tame. . .I can be overwhelming.After years of thinking away in silence I began to write again. Writing gave me the freedom to speak up without apology, it felt good and gave me the strength to face a lot of my unresolved hurt from my childhood. Through the personal writing and blogs, I started writing book ideas and chapters for now hidden memoirs, screenplays, poetry, and just about anything I could write about.

But I still had that loose end. I used to revisit the last days with my grandfather and remember how he deteriorated before my eyes. They caught his cancer so late, there was nothing to be done. We watched him around the clock and did everything we could to comfort him but the unfortunate truth was that my guardian angel was going to be gone and by time he passed he had forgotten me.

A few years ago, I was driving home. I happened to turn on the Spanish radio and they were playing Puerto Rican folk songs on the Spanish guitar. This type of music only plays during the holidays but in this January morning it happened to be playing. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach as I smiled. I said, “te amo mi viejito lindo,” and I kept driving. My grandfather played those songs for us during Christmas. He had a 2nd grade education but played guitar like a savant. In that moment I got a tiny piece of calm that I had been longing for, but he was far from done.

That very same week I had one of those dreams that feel so real you wish they were, even though you know you’d be hurting everyone in the real world if you never woke up. In this dream I walked toward a tiny beach house on an island, I walked in and as I turned the corner, there he was. My grandfather was sitting down on the edge of the bed smiling looking at me as I said to him, “do you know who I am?,” to which he replied as if he were surprised that I would ask such a thing, “of course I know, you’re my little brown girl from the pillar.” I ran over to him and I hugged him and cried happy tears. In that moment I woke up hugging my pillow sitting up crying. I had never in my entire life had a dream like that. I kept crying for a few seconds after and felt this rush of relief come over me. Of course he would never forget me. Alzheimer’s forgot me, not Felix Vazquez. That dream was everything I needed to move on and realize that my bond with him was unbreakable and no matter where he is in this world, I’ll always be his little brown girl.

At 34 I learned a lot of things I didn’t know growing up. Grandpa was a Roman Catholic, we were raised Pentecostal but he never wavered from his faith. I found out that my nickname was a play on Lady of the Pillar which is the name given to the Virgin Mary in a statue in Zaragoza Spain. She was the patron of Spain and all Hispanic people, believed to have rescued the people of Spain. While those are very large shoes to fill, that nickname has profound meaning for me. I don’t know if I saved him in anyway, but I know that he saved me time and time again. I plan on visiting that statue some day.

Everything that has happened in my life, no matter how sad or tragic it seemed, has contributed to the woman I am now. I am no longer pre-med, I pass out every time they do a blood draw on me lol. Truth be told, if that is the life I wanted, I could have kept it up. Nothing is impossible. I had an excellent GPA, I learn things faster than most and I retain a lot of information. But an aptitude for learning anything doesn’t mean I should do everything. I don’t want to be a surgeon. . .I love writing, it is my passion and what I am meant to do.

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