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Life in a Static Montage

A magical realism story about a matriarch

By Jennifer Vasallo Published 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 17 min read
Life in a Static Montage
Photo by Falco Negenman on Unsplash

It’s been said that when we die, we transcend into a peaceful place. One where pain is but a myth—a figment of our imagination, nonexistent. In all honesty, it sounds quite beautiful, and I imagine myself going here from time to time. I often wish that the weight of the world would lift off my back like a feather flowing freely in the wind, gliding effortlessly through the air, but I am here. I am in a place where I am neither here nor there, neither dead, nor alive, I am wandering, but I am breathing, sentient, but not, listening to the beeping monitors as it records the music in my heart. How I wish I could utter a word, any word into the universe, but sadly, utterances are something I haven’t mustered up the energy to do. It is as if I have forgotten to move; forgotten to dance; forgotten to write; forgotten to sing; forgotten to breathe without assistance, but it wasn’t always like this you know?

I was free. I would run, bare feet on the ground, chasing my eight brothers and sisters around. My father owned a paved, small, yellow house on a farm in an agrarian town. We had lush plants which grew all around us—papaya, mangoes, guava, coconuts, tobacco, and five different species of bananas were all in our charge. Every single day at dawn, my siblings and I would help papa on the farm. Papa taught us how to plant the trees, tend to them, pick, and shovel out the roots, how to hang the tobacco out to dry, and keep a bountiful production. Once our chores were done however, my eight siblings and I would race to the river that ran through our papa’s property. We ran as fast as our little feet could take us. It was a competition to see who would make it to the tire swing and jump into the water first. My youngest brother, Aurelio, the most athletic of the bunch, would usually beat us there, but every now and again, I would remind my brother that even though he was faster, I was his older sister and therefore the boss. While he never admitted it, I was his favorite and there were times where he would let me take the first turn on the tire swing. Every day the same routine. Go to school in town, chores on the farm, run to the river, rinse, wash, repeat. It was a routine we enjoyed and grew accustomed to. It was safe until it wasn’t.

My brother Aurelio, while athletic, was also daring. Aurelio, as the youngest of the boys, would like to show off his machoism. Aurelio had to be the strongest, the fastest, the boldest, the most competitive, papa’s “macho” (little boy) who lived up to the expected gender stereotypes, until he wasn’t. It was a day like any other, living up to the same routines—school, chores, running to the river—nothing particularly special about it. I wasn’t in the mood to race, but I made it to the river like I always did because time spent with my siblings was something I was always in the mood for. We were playing, the eight of us. Teresa, Luz, and Idalia were collecting rocks near the riverbank; Jorge II, Herminio, and Agustin were playing catch; Aurelio was jumping from our makeshift tire swing into the bank, and I was sitting down on the grass enjoying the rare but beautiful sighting of a white barn owl flying down from the treetops and perching itself on the fallen palm tree near Aurelio. As I was taking a moment to appreciate the inner silence of this moment in time, I could hear noises, like a rumbling sound that disturbed my solitary moment of peace. I felt uneasy, almost as if the sands of time had changed. I couldn’t shake the feeling, but my intuition was telling me to go over to where my sisters were collecting rocks and take them to where my brothers were playing catch in the distance. I made my way over and convinced my sisters to come along. The noises kept getting louder, and when I questioned my siblings about it, the white owl flew away and over our head, until I turned around and in an instance a landslide came running down from the mountains to the bank.

“Aurelio!”, I yelled

“Aurelio!”, I yelled

Until the seven of us realized that the tire swing was gone and with it my brother was too.

There were many of us, but we were tightknit like the woven palm tree baskets that mama used to make for the tourists, and when Aurelio died that day on the tire swing, it felt as if we all died too. Mama wallowed in grief, Papa worked longer hours on the fields, Teresa read books about miracles and the afterlife, Jorge II became a workaholic ghost, Luz started to sow and make her own clothes, Herminio kept busy building curing barns for the tobacco, Idalia cooked and cooked and cooked and cooked—Aurelio’s death was the end of our period of contentment.


Before the revolution, my brother Jorge II had a revelation. As instability was ravaging through our country, my brother prophesized on the 26th of July, that we would lose the family farm. Just a few days after this vision, the guerilla soldiers marched up to papa’s farm and claimed his land in the name of “la revolucion.” Jorge II did not want to face the Argentinian’s firing squad, so the next morning we packed our entire life into a couple suitcases and left for the city. Mama, Papa, and the seven of us piled up in a Spanish colonial house and waited for the right moment to make a move—timing was everything.

Months after moving into the city, my brother Jorge II married my best friend, Caridad. The wedded bliss that started with a kiss led to Cari becoming pregnant, and it was here where my brother, Jorge II, realized that our tiny island was too turbulent to raise a child. Jorge II, the rest of the siblings, and I had been saving the wages we were earning from the beachfront hotel, the restaurant, and the tourist marketplace, and when we put our wages together, we were able to buy three plane tickets to freedom. The problem now was trying to figure out who would stay and who would leave. To say it wasn’t the best conversation we have ever had is an understatement. After hours of deliberation and Mama crying hysterically over the possibility of an abrupt departure, my brother Jorge II, as the oldest male sibling, decided that the best course of action was to have himself, his pregnant wife, and I take the flight with the promise of gaining citizenship and bringing our family one by one. At first, Cari was not convinced. She wanted to give birth to her child in the same place where she was born and where her parents were born, but after many nights of emotional debates, she finally realized that the island where she was born no longer existed, and the rare opportunity of having a child born in gringolandia would make the pathway to a better life much easier. It was a realization that we all at some point would come to terms with.

Two days after the grand realization, Jorge II, Cari, and I went to the international airport. Once again, our entire lives were packed into a few suitcases, and we boarded a flight to The City That Never Sleeps. Once on the flight, my brother put our suitcases in the overhead compartment, and as he was doing so, I couldn’t help but stare out the window. For a brief moment, I was consumed by my thoughts. I was beginning to doubt my brother’s plan. I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. This wave reminded me of all those times we ran around without shoes, the eight of us on the family farm, and the happy memories we shared. The wave brought with it a bit of sadness too. The flight hadn’t taken off yet and I was already lamenting the tiny island where I was born, the family that I was leaving behind, and the memory of my brother and the makeshift grave that we made for the body that we never found. Staring out the window of the airplane in my pensive mood, watching the white owls circling overhead brought me a deep sense of inner peace, and I was ready to take off.

Before this day, I had never been on a plane. We lived a modest life before the revolution and didn’t travel much outside of our town, but as they say, “there is a first time for everything”, and today was that day. The plane took off and my ears were popping as the plane reached new heights. I remember talking to Cari and Jorge II about our plans for when we touched down in this new city, when midway through our conversation, I noticed that the day started to get dark. Within what felt like a minute or two, the plane hit some turbulence and the captain’s voice could be heard throughout the plane warning us to wear our safety belts because we were in for a bumpy ride. Lightning and strong winds, the plane shaking from left to right, ascending briefly, and then dropping fast. My heart left the cavity of my chest and made its way up to my throat. I really wanted to throw up, but I was too preoccupied with trying to put the emergency oxygen mask on that I barely had time to focus on anything else. The pilot finally caught his footings and regained control of this giant, flying tin can. That was my first run-in with death, and when we landed, I told myself I never wanted to experience flying again. From that moment on, I vowed that gravity would become my best friend.


Gringolandia became home. We settled in, Cari had her baby, and then two more, my sister Teresa and my brothers Herminio and Agustin were able to emigrate with the dollars we were sending home to them, and our promise was kept to our family. As for my sisters, Luz and Idalia, they were able to make it over here on a wave of mass immigration via boatlift with their children and husbands in tow. I married a man I had been friends with since the days we were back home on our tiny island, I birthed a son, separated from my husband, became my son’s sole parent, worked for a pharmaceutical company for 50 years or so, Mama and Papa passed away back home, I saw my son get married to the love of his life, had grandkids who I was head over heels for, and for the most part, I lived up to the dream that was promised when I came to my new home.

While I did experience all these joyful, monumentous milestones after leaving our tiny island, life didn’t come without its fair share of tribulations, too. Once here, my siblings and I were spread out throughout the east coast from the City that Never Sleeps all the way down to the Magic City. We spoke, wrote, and saw each other as much as we could, but the tides of progress were changing fast, and we were slowly drifting apart. My eldest brother, Jorge II and Teresa chose to stay up north and built their lives there, while the rest of us found refuge in a place that was warm and reminded us of home. I can’t speak for those up north, but down here, in the Magic City, we lived a life that often consisted of going to Idalia’s house, eating her delicious ethnic dishes, dancing to salsa and guguanco on the 24th of December, playing dominoes with a bottle of rum close by, and it was briefly reminiscent of the period of contentment—blissful even, but if it’s one thing that life has taught me, it has been to appreciate these moments before they are long gone.

Many years after the drunken salsa nights, my brother Herminio lost his youngest son. Herminio became a recluse and never spoke about his grief. Instead, he became a shadow of the man that we all used to know, and just like papa, he became a workaholic ghost who ignored the living. Idalia met a similar fate, except the accident in question happened in the middle of the night and was caused by an owl who flew right into her windshield as she was driving. That night, her car spun out of control, she hit a banyan tree, and found herself being airlifted to the hospital. My sister was spared from the fates, but her memory would slowly deteriorate, and in time, I no longer existed. This was the beginning of the end of our story.

When my nephew passed away, it hit me, but when my sister passed, a part of me passed away too. She was the baby of the family and I loved her as if she were my own child. I practically raised her and cared for her while our parents worked the land and made their tourist crafts. I did not cry. I should have, but I kept all the tears bottled inside and was the rock that I was expected to be for my family, but when I tell you that I too died on the inside, I too died on the inside. I, unlike my brother and my father before me, did not drown my sorrow. I smoked my Parliament cigarettes and kept on with my life, but grief has a funny way of making you feel her.

I felt grief every single day thereafter. I became a walking skeleton that was going through the motions of life. To my son, daughter in law, and my three grandkids, I was abuela. I kept up the façade. Kept being the rock that I was expected to be, but when I got home, and was alone for all those hours with my thoughts, I took a drag from my cigarette and knew that something within me was not right. My daughter in law, Perla, was the first to realize that I was not my usual self. She pled with me time after time to see someone. To talk to someone, to see a doctor, to get a check-up for my physical health, but what she didn’t understand was that I didn’t know where to start because I was in complete and utter denial. I never told her that though. Instead, I snickered, sucked on my teeth, rolled my eyes, and told her that her concerns were not concerns at all. She had to be crazy, and it wasn’t until my son, Juan, and my grandkids started to tell me that I had grey spots on my back that I began to think that possibly my daughter in law’s fears were merited.


It was the day after Near Year’s Day, my family insisted so much that I finally caved and saw a doctor. I saw a doctor not because I thought that anything was wrong with me, but because I was as bullheaded as my daughter in law, and I was so determined to prove them all wrong. I wanted to show them that they had been pestering me for no reason, that they were totally and completely bonkers.

Do you believe in omens? I didn’t think I did until that day. Before I begrudgingly drove to the doctor’s office, my cafecito spilled on my clean white shirt. This was something that doesn’t usually happen to me. In my culture, wasting coffee, like rum, was sacrilegious, so while I was bothered by this blasphemous act, I chalked it up to the butterflies in my stomach and thought nothing more of it, but that wasn’t where the omens ended. As I was driving to the doctor’s office, I realized that the onyx protection necklace my mother gave me, of which I always wore, was nowhere to be found. I think I left it at home, and in the chaos of the changing of clothes, I may have well lost it in the process because come to think of it, I haven’t seen it in a few days. This is not like me. I don’t go anywhere without that stone, but the great cafecitio tragedy from this morning has me doubting its location. “I’m sure it’ll all be fine”, I thought to myself, but what if it isn’t? Two things that hadn’t gone my way today. While I am not the most superstitious of women, I figured, “well, it must not be that bad because my mother always said that bad things come in threes and two out of three is not too shabby. Maybe these were flukes, and I was reading too much into it”.

I finally arrived at the doctor’s office, and is it just me or does it always get colder when you are sitting in a sterile lobby by yourself waiting for the nurse to call you in for your turn? It was a bone chilling kind of freeze, the type that you feel during a blizzard in the City That Never Sleeps, and although it was cold, my palms were sweaty I figured I was going to be there for a while, so I went out to my car. The automatic double door of the lobby opened, and the warmth from the Magic City sun hit me all at once—it felt comforting to defrost and walk for a bit. I made it my way through the parking lot, grabbed a sweater that I kept in the backseat of my Volkswagen Bug, and looked up at the blinking parking lot light to find a white owl hooting from atop the light post. A beautiful but rare sight to see, a white owl hooting during the day. I made my way back to the building and in through the double doors. I put my sweater on and waited my turn. In the lobby the news was blaring “thirteen U.S coal miners are trapped after an underground explosion” …. ”Blanca”, called the nurse and it was my turn to go inside. A routine questionnaire occurred once I was in the room, my weight was taken, my pressure was too, and a few moments later the doctor welcomed himself into my room. As any doctor would, he asked what brought me to his practice in the first place. I had explained to him that my family had been pestering me for years to see someone about the grey spots on my back and my weight loss. The doctor asked if I had loss the weight rapidly or over a period of time and I confessed that it all started that day where part of me died when Idalia died. The beginning of the end, I told him. He asked to see the spots on my back and something in his demeanor told me that he didn’t have happy news. My palms started to sweat again. He asked me to please have a seat and then began to ask me a series of questions. I replied to all with the best of my knowledge and then he said, “I have a suspicion. I would need to test my theory with lab reports and imaging”. I couldn’t take this mystery. I asked him what his suspicions were, and he said, “I believe it’s cancer”. This is where the rest of the conversation becomes foggy. I don’t remember anything else past this point because all I heard was a beeping in my ear and an impeding sense of doom. I felt my heart beating in my chest faster and fast. I remember the cold sweat gliding down my face, and muffled silence. I left that appointment with very little hope and no idea how I was going to tell my family the news. I vowed that day to never smoke a Parliament again.


January turned to February; February turned into March. Time kept moving, my appointments kept going, but my condition was worsening, and I kept losing weight. I too was disappearing, but for me, it wasn’t like papa and Herminio who became ghosts, I instead was hit with the skeleton curse. My flesh was drooping, and my muscles were in constant pain. I was throwing up everywhere from the concoction of medicines that I was taking to “keep me comfortable”. It was too late for me to receive chemo and I knew my days were ticking away. I felt guilty, but my life was no longer in my hands. My son and my daughter in law became my wardens.

May turned into June; June turned into July. I was losing my sense of self. The pain medications were stronger and stronger, I was hallucinating and talking to my dead sister Idalia and my living sister Teresa. The pain medications had me higher than the Beatles in the late 60s, but at least I was comfortably numb. While I didn’t know it at the time, Teresa had passed away just a few months before my diagnosis. My family kept the news from me because they did not want me to suffer any more than I was already suffering. July was particularly difficult. My memory was in and out, I was confined to bed for most of the time, talking to ghosts, feeling, and not feeling all at the same time, watching my son, daughter in law, and grandchildren mourn me while in the land of the living. It wasn’t until...

August: I found myself in the hospital. My body gave out on me, and I slipped into a coma. I don’t remember how or when it happened. It’s felt like I was breathing and then I wasn’t. I went to sleep, but I wasn’t. It was as if I went into a dreamworld reliving my memories in a montage. Everything was organized from beginning to end. My childhood and the memories of my brother; my early twenties when I fled my tiny island amid a revolution; my mature adulthood and the memories of my nephew, sister; my diagnosis and the agony I felt through it all. I can only describe the coma the way that Kurt Vonnegut once did: “everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt”.

I woke up in the hospital, on a day like any other, and I was surrounded by my family. My son, my daughter in law, my three grandchildren with tears dripping from their eyes. They were all equally happy to see me open my eyes. My grandkids hugged me gently as I smiled at them with my eyes. I couldn’t muster up the energy to give them an actual smile, but I know that they saw my love for them in my eyes. While I was disoriented, I was conscious enough to take a few looks around. My daughter in law was sobbing, and I was trying to assure her that I was fine, once again, only with my eyes. My son, my only child, the joy of my heart, held my hand with a heaviness on his face. While he was trying to be strong for me, his face told me that he had been crying quietly for days. The room was sterile, like any hospital would be, but at least there was a window with a beautiful flamboyant tree that was dropping its red flowers with the breeze. I looked at my family members surrounding me, looked outside once more and noticed the white owl that had been following me throughout my life. I stared at the owl for a minute or so, and when the owl stared me in the eyes, I welcomed it like an old friend, and knew it was my time to fly.

Short Story

About the Creator

Jennifer Vasallo

Educator by day, writer by night. Millennial. Lover of literature, films, taking pictures, surrealist art, cafecito, cultura, travel, making memories, and my familia. Join me on this wild ride we call life from my perspective🖖🏼

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