—May of 1997, I served as a translator to seven
American doctors providing their services at a
Never had I told a man he was dying.
And one day, I told three.
It was the minute afterward
that made me stutter,
want to tear out my teeth.
The young man crying for his brother;
Mrs. Gomez crying over her husband;
gray-haired son crying for his father….
Polite even then—
remembering to thank me, gracias,
that one succinct word,
the first I learned,
first I wanted to throw back
for its murderous civility.
Some say grace will come
in difficult moments.
It didn't with me:
shirt bunched under arm pits;
bangs stuck to lips;
Spanish grew garbled,
as if I chewed hot potatoes.
My sweaty face over their beds
was all they saw of their death.
Mr. Gomez couldn't see it,
see what cancer looked like.
Was it yellow, the curse of a scab,
or black, some venomous poison?
Did it smell down to the devil?
I wanted to ease the doctors' verdicts,
but I couldn't lie, couldn't say
you will live many more years,
many years as El Popo
has had spewing smoke.
Nor could I say, you will go quietly,
the way a boy slides a stone
into his pocket, or gently
as the white trumpet flower
closes at noon, escapes from heat.
Instead, I trembled
as Mr. Gomez asked for a favor,
for maybe two more weeks,
three if I could spare it.
I remember making my own deals
with God, hunkered over my toy box,
begging, I'll never doubt
if you keep Mother alive.
I, who had reneged,
being asked for something
I could not do. I'd asked God
because there was no one else.
Mr. Gomez asked me
because there was no one—
only death, hiding inside him.
I wish it weren't so cowardly,
would show itself as it is,
a bloody midnight-in-the-park brawl.
But that's not how it behaves.
It's more like the trumpet flower,
opening at dusk once the sun tires
of pulling corn stalks any higher.
Previously Published in New Millennium Writing