My uncle survived Hurricane Maria. Despair over its devastation killed him.
‘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? Will they include my uncle and the others who have taken their own lives when they tally up costs and casualties? Will they make connections between these losses and the losses other families faced after Katrina and Andrew and other storms? 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? Will my uncle be counted among the dead?
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?
April Ruiz is a residential college dean and lecturer of cognitive science at Yale University. This story first appeared Oct. 6, 2017, in the Washington Post.
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