IF – A WORD THAT FLOATS effortlessly from the lips and fades along with its forgotten promises and takes with it a myriad of possibilities and a wealth of potentially better memories. It has cast its shadow over every misfortune in my life: if I didn’t take that year off in university or if my father hadn’t died when I was eight years old. If my mother had remarried she may have had enough money to visit her father before he was on his deathbed . . .

My mother, my sister and I caught an evening flight from Toronto to Lima. When we arrived at Jorge Chavez airport the three of us went tiredly through the terminal, past the other sleepwalkers, and into the dark night that smelled of diesel exhaust and the salt of the sea. An overpriced airport taxi wound its way through the slumbering city to my grandparents’ house. A houseful of somber spirits awaited us. Family reunions shouldn’t happen under such circumstances.

My mother hugged her sisters. My grandmother eventually shuffled out of a back room, groggy and still dressed in her nightgown. Many tears were shed, but none by me. I recognized these people solely through pictures in albums back home, and I was faced with the stark contrast of a happy instant captured in a photograph and the grim reality of passed time. All the colours seemed faded – in people’s hair and clothes, on the walls and dusty ceramic tiled floor. My grandmother walked over to me and put her arms around me. She began to cry.

“You’re so big.”

No girl likes to hear that, but I knew what she meant. I leaned down and patted her on her back. “Gracias.”

“You look just like your mother. Your room is ready upstairs.”

My sister and I collected our things and followed my aunt upstairs. My younger sister and I shared an uncomfortable bed that was worn in the centre from too many guests spending too many nights. We were too tired for that to be anything more than a minor nuisance.

My sister was gone when I awoke. I stepped out of my room and into a different world; a louder, busier city, with mountains peppered with brightly coloured shacks, with traffic and smog and people. The sky was cloudless but a distinct layer of haze floated over everything, taking away the crispness of the morning. I looked down into the garden and saw my sister kicking a tattered soccer ball around with our younger cousins. She eventually noticed and waved me down. I envied the way she easily embraced these strangers as friends and family. I wondered if I could let them in so easily.

My grandmother still set a place for my grandfather at breakfast. His newspaper was left folded beside an empty coffee mug. My aunt put the butter within reach of the empty seat, going through a routine that was now disturbed. Even though it was my first time in the house, I could sense it was out of sorts without my grandfather, as if the sun they all revolved around was about to go out. I remembered how our lives spun out of control when my father died – without that light, that warmth, that hold. 

The house became a gathering place with family trickling in throughout the morning to meet us. Aunts, uncles and cousins came together. In a way I was glad we weren’t the only reason everyone was gathering. I felt like we were being stared at and scrutinized enough as it was. When the house reached a critical mass we all left, in groups of five and six, and crammed into taxis that wouldn’t have had enough seatbelts if they had them. We went to visit my grandfather.

I had not been to a hospital since my father was sick. It had been a stale and sterile environment that sucked the life out of him as much as the cancer did. These hospital grounds were a contrast of cold concrete and palm trees and green areas of vibrant plant life, an intersection of two jungles. We were only allowed into my grandfather’s room four at a time and for some foolish reason I thought I could sit in the waiting area and pass the time unnoticed. But my mother’s reunion with her father was long overdue, and my sister and I were ushered down the corridor alongside her.

The sullen walk brought back memories: those initial trips to St. Joseph’s hospital in Toronto, the mix of anticipation and disappointment, the joy of seeing my father, and then the sadness when told he wasn’t quite strong enough to come home. I listened to the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, a reminder that he never got strong enough.

We entered the quiet room and stood together at my grandfather’s side. My mother raised a hand to her mouth, trying to hide the shock of realizing what the years had done to him. The tears my mother had shed in silence when we were little girls came flooding out now.

She squeezed both our hands and the three of us stared at my grandfather, watched his chest slowly heave and fall. We stood and stared at him long enough to become familiar with the creases in his face, his unconscious frown and his sparse hairline. Even asleep he looked troubled. My mother finally decided we should let others have their time.

My mother leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone for so long, Papi.”

My sister placed a kiss on my grandfather’s shiny forehead. I balanced myself on his large arm, leaning in to follow suit when my grandfather’s eyes fluttered open. He stared at me incredulously, a look of absolute recognition in his eyes. His confused gaze froze me and then he slowly raised a hand to my face and caressed my hair. “Mi hija?” My daughter. It must have been like waking from a dream to look back many years. In my face he saw my mother’s, as though through children time could be fooled. My mother turned back, but he was staring at me. He took hold of my arm.

“Maria, you haven’t been gone that long. You’ve cut your hair . . .”

That was all he said. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep. 

My mother was elated that my grandfather had awoken momentarily. She spread the news amongst her siblings and it clearly lifted everyone’s spirits. I was a little freaked out by the whole thing. The next day I decided that I couldn’t go back. I lied and said my stomach was upset and that I just wanted to rest. About an hour after everyone left I wandered downstairs to scrounge some breakfast.

“Ava, what are you looking for?”

I was startled to hear my grandmother’s voice. “Abuelita, why aren’t you at the hospital?”

She smiled and put the kettle on. “I stayed to take care of you.”

In that moment I felt both selfish and terrible. My grandfather was possibly dying and his wife stayed behind out of some motherly sense of duty to make me tea and toast. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Besides, I know he’s going to be fine. You are only here for a short time. I want to know you before you go. We’ve had hardships before, we’ll get through this one just like all the others.”

I liked her smile. It reminded me of my mother’s and put me at ease. We spent the morning talking about our lives. I listened to her talk and when what she said went over my head, I simply smiled and nodded. Then, when I became animated and the complexity of what I wanted to say outpaced my ability to say it in Spanish, she smiled and nodded back. I don’t think I’d ever spoken so much Spanish for so long. I regretted not practicing more when I was younger. In those hours she transformed from being just my Abuelita, old, gentle, kind and lovely, into a woman I understood, who’d met a young soldier in the mountains of Peru and was whisked away to the big city where she woke every day before sunrise to work the local markets. She built a family, who stayed close over the years, who still struggled to escape poverty, but who nonetheless remained happy.

I didn’t have the same history with the concept of things “just working themselves out,” but I didn’t want to be pessimistic. “I just wish I had something more to remember my father by. He’s been gone from my life longer than he’s been in it. I hardly remember what he looks like or what he sounds like anymore.”

“I think I have something that might help,” my grandmother said and I watched as she shuffled along the brown ceramic tiles out of the room and returned holding a cardboard box full of photo albums. My grandmother narrated as I perused the pictures. I looked at photos of my mother with her siblings when they were children and the smiles they wore were so innocent, so oblivious to the different paths their lives would eventually take. Then I saw where my father came into my mother’s life, sometime in her late teens – so young and so handsome. There were pictures at the beach, birthday parties, weddings, a honeymoon in Machu Picchu, pregnancy photos and then pictures with me as a baby. I looked at those albums several times. Then I reached the photos from the airport from when we moved away. There were few pictures of my immediate family after that and I became less interested. As I was putting everything back in the box, I noticed a cassette at the bottom. It was labeled, “Summer 1988.”

“Your father sent that the year you moved to Canada,” said my grandmother. “There’s a stereo in your room. Why don’t you go listen to it?”

I raced up the stairs and popped in the tape. The wheels of the cassette motor squeaked and I heard my father’s voice. I was there in the background making little girl sounds and I could hear my mother chasing after me, telling me it was time for bed. My father sounded young and vibrant and happy. His tone became somber once my mother and I had left the room.

“Things here are tough. I’m not sure if we made the right decision to come to Canada. I’ve felt ill since we’ve arrived. Maria wants me to go see a doctor, but I can’t afford to take any time off work. I’ve written to the brewery in Lima to ask for my old job back. They said I could have it but we haven’t decided what to do yet. We’ll see how the next few months turn out. Your daughter is back, I’ll pass you on to her . . .”

My mother sounded so different. I thought her voice sounded like mine, except she spoke Spanish much better than I did. She was probably the same age, only with a husband and child and starting a new life in a new country.

“Hola Mami, hola Papi. The big news here is that I’m pregnant! I’m due in four months. Carlos and I have discussed it a lot. If it’s a boy we are going to return to Peru and hopefully our son can go to university and have a good future, but if it’s a girl then we are going to stay in Canada. Women have better opportunities here and the two girls can have a better life.

“Carlos hasn’t been himself since we arrived. If he smelled the warm ocean air, I’m sure he’d clear right up. But I don’t think it’ll be this Christmas. It’s been hard to make ends meet, everything’s so expensive here and we don’t have a lot of money. I miss you all so much. But I know next year we’ll be able to save enough to come home.”

A voice came from the doorway behind me. “You know, I said that every year for fifteen years before I was able to save enough to come back here. And I couldn’t even afford to bring you and your sister.” I turned. The puffiness beneath my mother’s eyes matched mine. She walked over to me and held me tight. For the first time in a long time, I squeezed back, instead of nonchalantly pulling away.

“That’s okay Mami. We had a big party while you were away, remember?”

My mother laughed and feigned anger. “Oh yes, and I grounded you two for a month.”

“Well, we’re all here now.”

Hearing my father’s voice again, hearing where my mother was in her life at my age, I realized that the poverty we lived in became an exile of sorts for her and I suddenly knew how much she had lost and how much she had given up for us. Everything she had done was for us.

“You’re back early. How’s Abuelito?” I asked.

“He’ll be fine. He saw a heart specialist today and all he needs is a pacemaker. We’ve paid for it already. He’ll be in the hospital a few days. You should come see him.”


When the entire family gathered again, it was a much more pleasant reunion. In a certain light, the hospital looked to be more trees, vines and green grass than concrete. Once again my sister and I accompanied my mother to my grandfather’s room, the sound of the fluorescent lights nothing more than a warm hum. I stopped at the threshold of the room and saw my grandfather sleeping peacefully in his bed.

If – a word that floats effortlessly from the lips and conjures up a vast forest of untrodden paths. It is a word that has cast its shadow over every misstep and misfortune in my life. Until now.

I walked over to my grandfather and put my head on his chest. He reached up and slowly ran a heavy hand through my black hair. He looked at my mother, then he looked back at me and smiled.

“Ava. Mi hija.”

This time I knew it wasn’t that he didn’t know me or that he had confused me with my mother. The ties that bind a family stretched across continents and generations and he was telling me that he loved me as if I was his own daughter. I decided then that if I had a second chance to become part of a complete and loving family, I would take it, and that the loss of love should not preclude loving again. I listened to the soothing and wonderful beat of my grandfather’s heart, placed my arms around his wide frame and squeezed tight.

“Mi papi.”