Maria’s deadly grip

Her un­cle sur­vived the storm but not what it stole from him

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - April Ruiz is a res­i­den­tial col­lege dean and lec­turer of cog­ni­tive sci­ence at Yale Univer­sity.

‘Papi tiene muerte cere­bral.”

I don’t know when my cousin orig­i­nally sent the text, but it buzzed through to Con­necti­cut from Puerto Rico’s bat­tered com­mu­ni­ca­tions tow­ers last Sun­day at 6:27 a.m. My un­cle was brain dead. “Hay que de­sconec­tarlo.” The ma­chines keep­ing him in a state re­sem­bling life could not undo the dam­age that had been done. Soon, they would let him pass.

At 78, my un­cle had sur­vived Hur­ri­cane Maria’s winds and the floods its rains un­leashed. But the deadliest time in most hur­ri­canes is af­ter the storm passes. And for my un­cle, the dev­as­ta­tion of the is­land where he’d lived his whole life was too much to bear. A week and a half af­ter Maria made land­fall, he hanged him­self at his ru­ined home.

The mem­ory keeps re­turn­ing to me now that he’s gone. I see my un­cle in his gar­den, proudly in­tro­duc­ing me to what he has grown there: avo­cado, pineap­ple, caram­bola (or star fruit). We use a net to col­lect the fruit. His fin­gers, creased with age yet stronger for it, grasp the smooth edges and slice off a piece for me to try: “It’s good in juice.” I trans­late his Span­ish for my­self, putting my pub­lic high school and Ivy League ed­u­ca­tion to the most won­der­ful prac­ti­cal use, and smile.

I’d grown up far re­moved from Puerto Rico, in dis­tance and in spirit, on Long Is­land; his youngest brother, my fa­ther, had left for Florida, then New Hamp­shire, then New York, when he was in his early 20s to find work. When I was a girl, my fa­ther didn’t speak to me in Span­ish, for fear that I would be too ob­vi­ously Puerto Ri­can and be­come the tar­get of teas­ing by other chil­dren — or more overt dis­crim­i­na­tion by adults. Back then, only my dad trav­eled to the is­land for vis­its; we couldn’t af­ford for any­one else to go. His broth­ers and sis­ters were known to me in birth­day cards and phone calls, but I rec­og­nized them only in the pho­tos in my par­ents’ wed­ding al­bum.

Fi­nally, at 26, I made the trip my­self, to know my family in per­son. I can’t shake those first mo­ments there now: My un­cle gath­ers a few more star fruit, and we make our way back up to the house. He is not as nim­ble as he once was, nav­i­gat­ing the un­even ground be­tween the back porch and the river be­low. We sit to­gether, and he tells me how glad he is I’ve come to visit. His gaze is warm as we look over the trees. Family is the most im­por­tant thing, he says — and that is why he has worked his whole life to pro­vide all this for the peo­ple he loves.

The trees in the gar­den my un­cle cul­ti­vated over decades are gone now — stripped and up­rooted by Hur­ri­cane Maria, de­stroyed in a mat­ter of hours. The inside of the home he made for his family is soaked with rain, and there is no dry bed to sleep on. The ham­mock where he used to rest over­looks a brown, harsh land­scape, an ar­rest­ing change from the pre­vi­ous view: a hill abun­dant in green, over­flow­ing with life.

“Ev­ery­one is close to hys­te­ria,” my cousin wrote a few days af­ter the hur­ri­cane hit, when she fi­nally found a place next to a dam­aged cell­phone tower where she could send a few brief texts. These mes­sages were our first com­mu­ni­ca­tion since Maria plowed through the is­land; the sig­nal was not strong enough for a phone call. Things were get­ting worse, not bet­ter. Ev­ery­thing was de­stroyed. They needed wa­ter. They had no power. They couldn’t find enough gaso­line to go check on family mem­bers. When her texts paused, I turned to in­spect­ing videos and pho­tos on­line to search for the in­for­ma­tion her con­nec­tion didn’t al­low her to give me. I scoured each post and ar­ti­cle for glimpses of the places I had come to know and grown to love, re­ly­ing on those who could man­age to get in­for­ma­tion through as sur­ro­gates for what I could not learn from my family.

Two days later — a full week af­ter the storm made land­fall — I heard from her again. Ev­ery­thing had descended into more chaos. The help that Pres­i­dent Trump and Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency of­fi­cials touted on the news had not ar­rived. Cir­cum­stances were too dire for even the hope of sta­bil­ity on an is­land long ne­glected by those in power, even be­fore the hur­ri­cane’s de­struc­tion. With sad­ness, my cousin and I began to con­sider re­lo­cat­ing our family, step by step and per­son by per­son.

Her fa­ther had never trav­eled away from Puerto Rico, not even af­ter my fa­ther moved to the main­land. My un­cle re­mained on the is­land he loved, raising a family in a val­ley an easy drive from all he held dear: the moun­tains where he spent his child­hood, the rivers where he and his broth­ers swam, his mother’s grave on a hill­side. He cer­tainly would not leave now; his roots would not be torn up.

In­stead, my un­cle fur­ther planted him­self into the ground, into the wreck­age of the only place he had ever known. As he watched his family strug­gle in ways he had worked his whole life to pre­vent, he set­tled into de­spair. My cousin con­tin­ued to send me dis­jointed texts from the side of a high­way: There was still no power, she would try to find enough gaso­line to check on our aunt, she would tell ev­ery­one I loved them, she wanted to cry.

And while his neigh­bors fran­ti­cally or­ga­nized es­capes from the ruin that had be­fallen their towns, their com­mu­ni­ties and their fu­tures, my un­cle made a pri­vate de­ci­sion un­char­ac­ter­is­tic of the steady pa­tri­arch we adored.

Nine days af­ter seas and rivers rose, dev­as­tat­ing ev­ery­thing in their wake, he hanged him­self.

No one knows for sure how many min­utes he dan­gled, sep­a­rated from the earth that had nur­tured him for nearly eight decades. He was found and some­how taken to a hos­pi­tal nearby, a place crowded and desperate, as so many other hos­pi­tals are since the storm. My cousins still can’t main­tain a re­li­able cell phone sig­nal long enough to ex­plain all the de­tails to me, and with all they are fac­ing there, I haven’t pushed. What I do know is that as the doc­tors re­al­ized they couldn’t save him, my family stood watch­ing the foun­da­tion upon which their lives were built crum­ble. It would take two days for ad­di­tional rel­a­tives to learn the news and ac­quire the gaso­line nec­es­sary to make their way to his bed­side and say good­bye.

Three days af­ter he acted, at 5:58 p.m. last Mon­day, I re­ceived the text say­ing that my un­cle had died. Ac­cord­ing to his son, he passed hours be­fore they were to take him off life sup­port, re­mov­ing the bur­den from his chil­dren, as he had done in so many other ways be­fore. When the mes­sage ar­rived, I had no way of know­ing how many hours had passed since it had been sent — no way of know­ing when my un­cle had ac­tu­ally left us.

The spotty com­mu­ni­ca­tions mean some of my un­cle’s family and friends will be un­aware for some time that they have lost him. With many roads im­pass­able and bridges washed away, my cousin won’t yet be able to scat­ter her fa­ther’s ashes in the moun­tains where he and my fa­ther grew up, as he wanted her to. And here I sit, un­able to con­sole them, devastated in the com­fort of my dry liv­ing room.

When fed­eral bu­reau­crats cal­cu­late the dev­as­ta­tion in Puerto Rico for re­ports and charts and head­lines, when they quan­tify what Maria took for their next “good news story,” what will they say? When they tally the costs, will they in­clude my un­cle and the oth­ers who have taken their own lives? Will they make con­nec­tions be­tween these losses and the losses other fam­i­lies faced af­ter Ka­t­rina and An­drew and other dis­as­ters? Will they see Puerto Ri­cans as U.S. cit­i­zens with lives equally worth sav­ing? Will they spare a glance for our fam­i­lies and know the depth of tragedy we have en­dured?

My cousins and I hope there will be a time when the de­bris is cleared away, roads re­laid and bridges re­built so that we might visit the hills where our grand­mother raised our fa­thers. We hope to be able to drive up the windy paths, win­dows down, and smell the rich, warm fra­grance of trees re­born. When we do, we will fi­nally com­mit my un­cle to the place he was born, so that he may never be sep­a­rated from his beloved is­land. And I will won­der. Can his ash feed the re­growth of a land de­pre­ci­ated, a peo­ple dis­re­garded and a spirit de­spair­ing?

No one knows for sure how long he dan­gled, sep­a­rated from the earth that had nur­tured him for nearly eight decades.

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