A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
The following is Chapter 23 of a serialized novel and podcast. Start the story of Elvis Romero at the beginning, with Chapter One.
Now a family of three, Anita and I became aware of the multiplying responsibilities that we were faced with. Raising a child was a full-time job but we now also needed a real income to meet our mounting expenses.
Anita and I sat in our little kitchen and tried to figure out a way to make everything work. Trank dozed peacefully, oblivious to the complicated nature of the world.
“I love our life Elvis,” Anita sighed.
“It means so much to Trank and me to have you around. I don’t like the idea of having you go out and get a regular job and be gone all day.”
I didn’t need much persuading.
“Yeah, we’ve got to figure out something and be creative. If we live simply, we don’t need much money.”
Anita stood up and slowly walked over to the bedroom to check on the sleeping baby boy lying in the bed we all shared. I sat drumming my fingers on the table contemplating our future. Anita returned and went over to the wood-burning stove and poured boiling water from a pan into two cups that held peppermint tea bags.
“Maybe we can string a lot of little things together to make ends meet,” she suggested.
She pulled a sheet of paper out of the drawer and started to write down all of the ways we could generate income.
“First, we’ve got your job at the radio station a couple of nights a week. Then there’s the vegetables from my garden that we can sell at the farmer’s market in Santa Fe. That’s a start, what else can we do?”
“We can work with your father and help him make santos for the Spanish Market,” I suggested.
“Good thinking Elvis.” Anita smiled and nodded her head approvingly.
Encouraged, I continued, “I can teach a few guitar lessons. You know something else that might work? This disco fad is just not going away and there might be an opportunity to make some money off of it.”
“How’s that?” Anita inquired skeptically.
“Well, the kids these days don’t seem to be much interested in live music anymore. They would rather dance to records. They don’t want to focus on a band up on stage. They’re into being stars themselves; they’d rather be the center of attention with their fancy clothes and platform shoes.”
Anita laughed and I continued, “What if I get a P.A. sound system with some big speakers and hook up some strobe lights and play records for high school dances and weddings and stuff like that?”
We brainstormed late into the night and the strange thing was that all of our plans somehow did eventually come together and we were able to piece together a modest but consistent living. The most important thing was that we were able to sleep late in the mornings and spend most of our time together and avoid getting caught in the nine-to-five rat race. We thought we were pretty smart when it came right down to it.
I found that family life suited me quite well. There was nothing I enjoyed more than spending the day with Anita watching Trank amaze us over and over again with his fantastic and hilarious antics. I found myself looking at the world through different eyes with Trank as my tour guide. In his presence I discovered wholeness and a sense of purpose that I had been searching for all of my life. He was like my own personal little guru teaching me how to “be here now,” in the present moment beyond the myriad of everyday worries and distractions. He taught me by example which is the highest form of passing on knowledge to a disciple.
An entire day could go by as we sat under a ponderosa pine and gazed with awe at the infinitely wondrous world around us. Every gust of wind or bird that came hopping by to search for seeds was cause for renewed celebration.
“Look Trank,” I whispered as I pointed to a fat, red-breasted robin that had landed a few feet away. He bounced in my arms, his whole body vibrating to the miracle before us. He held out his chubby little arms at the bird as he yelped out “What’s dat?”
I replied, “Robin, robin, can you say robin?”
To which he replied, “What’s dat, what’s dat?”
This was his response to just about everything that he saw. For a while his entire vocabulary was pretty much made up of those two words. It was hard to tell if he was actually asking for an explanation or if he believed that everything new he saw in the world was named “what’s dat.”
Trank began to take an interest in watching me play the guitar. He’d sing along to the chords inventing his own songs that knew no boundaries of key, pitch, or meter. What he lacked in musical training, he more than made up for in enthusiasm. After a few months, I noticed that he was honing in on the melody of some of the songs and strumming along with me in perfect rhythm on his air guitar. He definitely was catching on even though he never got the lyrics quite right.
“Countwy rolls take me home, to the plates I belooong, West Virenia, mountain mama, take me home, countwy rolls.”
“Listen Anita,” I shouted excitedly, “he’s a regular John Denver, can you believe it?”
“He needs a little more work on his vibrato,” she teased and we listened to our own private concert serenaded by a performer who loved the limelight to such a degree that supper and bed were of little importance in comparison to creative expression.
We searched around Santa Fe and within a couple of weeks we found a miniature guitar with a decent fingerboard at a reasonable price. I was amazed to discover that he had absorbed the shapes of the chords by watching me and his little fingers knew where to go almost by osmosis.
The seasons flew by quickly, spring, summer, fall, and then another winter. Life was full and we were as happy as it seemed possible. One day Anita woke up with a familiar feeling and she instantly knew that our world would be expanding once again.
The timetable for our second child placed the birth at around mid-September. We were caught up in great anticipation and began preparations for the coming fall. Anita contacted midwife, Sophia Pacheco and we set about getting our house in order.
One of our first tasks was deciding how our future sleeping arrangements were going to work. Anita and I had happily shared our queen-sized bed with Trank since he was born. He considered it his birth right to occupy the space between his parents at night. However this was going to need to change now that a new brother or sister would be appearing on the scene. We began the arduous process of weaning Trank from our bed slowly and cautiously.
We made a great effort to emphasize to Trank what a big boy he was becoming and we reminded him often that big boys went to sleep in their own beds after they had been told their bedtime stories. Anita’s mother presented Trank with a beautiful handmade oak bed for his third birthday that was just his size. She proudly explained that the bed had been made by her grandfather and had been stored away waiting for the right time to pass it on to our son.
Trank’s eyes shone excitedly and we made a big scene out of the ritual of putting on sheets and blankets and presenting him with his own pillow. All day long Trank asked if it was time to go to bed and his grandma laughed and was thrilled that he loved her present so much. Finally nighttime came around and we tucked Trank into his bed which sat just outside the door of our bedroom in the living room near the wood stove. After several bedtime stories and countless goodnights, we turned off the lights and Anita and I spread our arms and legs out luxuriously amazed by the expanse of our bed. It was hard to believe that such a little boy could take up so much room.
I shut my eyes and began to drift into a good night’s repose when I felt a little body climb over my stomach and crawl into the small space between Anita and me. Anita sighed and hugged the little castaway that had found his way back home. We laughed and accepted that this was going to be a change that would take time and patience. Eventually after many false starts, little Trank’s return visits became less frequent and he grew used to sleeping in grandma’s bed.
Life progressed according to plan and we spent the spring and summer planting pumpkins, green chili, squash, tomatoes, carrots, and cucumbers for our own use and to sell at the farmer’s market on weekends. Anita and I helped her father gather pine and cottonwood stumps that were the right size and shape for carving santos like San Isidro, the northern New Mexico patron saint of farmers, St. Francis of Assisi, and various sizes of angels. We went on trips into the higher mountains looking for plants that he used for making the natural paints that brought his carved figures to life. His carving skills were amazing and we watched in awe as a twisted piece of cottonwood magically transformed into a living entity under his skilled hands.
He advised, “When I carve a new santo, I chew on a carrot and stand out in front of the wood pile and stare at it until an image comes out from one of the pieces and talks to me. Then I just chip away until I free what’s inside.”
Lacking the god-given talent he possessed, I never attempted to carve anything but instead contented myself with being his right-hand man and taking care of the numerous other tasks that went into his ultimate creations. This allowed him to spend his time more productively engaged in his carving.
Along with my part-time radio job and the occasional dances that I was hired to DJ, we got along fine. Anita’s belly continued to grow and her mid-wife was encouraged by her progress as summer came to an end and her delivery date crept closer. We began thinking about potential names for our new baby and settled on Sergio if it was a boy and Lillianna for a girl. Rather than naming our next child after any relatives, we decided to go with what felt and sounded best to our ears.
The day arrived in September right on schedule and Anita’s contractions began in earnest. Anita’s mother and the midwife took over as they had when Trank was born and soon the familiar scene was taking place once again.
The morning was cloudy and the air was unseasonable cold. I explained to Trank that he would be spending the day and maybe even the night with grandpa and when he came back he would have a new baby sister or brother to play with. This seemed to satisfy him and he contentedly drove off down the road with grandpa in an old pick-up.
I walked back into the house and everything was quiet and a peaceful, a comfortable atmosphere permeated our house. Water was boiling on the stove and Anita was sitting on the bed while Sophia and Mrs. Armijo scurried around with the final preparations.
Anita’s labor was smoother and went along more quickly than Trank’s birth. We were all much more relaxed being veterans this time around. The wind howled outside and a driving rain soon began to beat against the tin roof of our house. We snuggled in the warm bedroom full of confidence and anticipation.
About ten o’clock that evening Anita’s contractions came closer together and were more intense and we knew the time was at hand. I took up my position behind Anita and rubbed her neck and shoulders and breathed with her as Sophia’s steady hands guided a new baby into the world. Anita’s eyes were shut in concentration when the cry of our child filled the room. My heart jumped and I let out a sigh of relief when I heard the tiny voice express it’s annoyance at being taken from the safe, warm womb that had been the only home the tiny soul had ever known.
Sophia announced “You have a baby girl” as she cleaned her in a soft damp towel. I looked down and the first thing that struck me was the look of concern that I caught in Sophia’s eyes. I was startled when Mrs. Armijo let out a soft gasp and put her hand over her mouth.
Anita sensed the same reactions and she cried, “What is it? What’s the matter?”
Suddenly the warm, happy bedroom turned surreal and time stopped.
“What is it Mama? Anita implored, “Is something wrong with the baby?”
“Sophia answered, “Everything is fine Anita.” Your baby is breathing normally and there is no reason to panic.”
“Let me see her” demanded Anita, “I want to hold my baby.”
Sophia wrapped our daughter in a warm blanket and placed her in Anita’s waiting arms. We looked down into her face and we were immediately aware of her unique features. Her face seemed somehow flat and her eyes had an unusual upward slant to them. She seemed peaceful but something didn’t look quite right. Her hands and feet seemed too small for her body.
Anita looked at Sophia and asked nervously, “What is it? Is something wrong with her?”
“Anita, I’m not completely sure, I’m not a doctor but I’ve seen these kinds of features before. Have you ever heard of Down Syndrome?”
The words “Down syndrome, Down syndrome,” kept running through my head like a mantra. I held on to Anita tightly and peered down at my poor, little Lillianna.
Anita’s mother began reciting Hail Mary’s in a low, pleading voice. Anita pulled the little bundle close to her and began to weep. Lillianna whimpered softly in her arms. Sophia decided it was time to take charge and she announced sternly,
“I need everyone to get themselves together and listen to me now! We need to wrap Anita and the baby up in some warm blankets and get them into the back of my car. I’m not going to cut the umbilical cord or worry about the placenta right now. We need to get to the hospital and make sure everything is alright. I don’t want anybody to panic. This is just a precaution, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Sophia ran outside and turned on the engine of her Toyota Four Runner to warm up the interior.
“Elvis, you and I need to spread some blankets out on the back seat. Quickly grab whatever you can find and come with me.”
We grabbed a pile of blankets and towels and prepared the car. Mrs. Armijo sat near her daughter and held her with a slight rocking motion. Sophia ran next door and called St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe to inform them of our arrival. Anita and I had not yet installed a phone since we only had to run next door whenever we needed to make an infrequent call.
When Sophia returned, we lifted Anita while she held Lillianna and we carried her gently and placed her sitting up in the back seat. Sophia said this was the best position for her at the moment. Anita’s mother climbed in beside her and I sat up front on the passenger’s side next to Sophia. We wheeled out of the driveway and pulled out onto the interstate. Everything seemed like a dream as we headed toward the city.
I prayed harder than I ever had in my life.
“Dear God, please hear my prayer. I don’t know what name to call you or how to ask for your mercy but if you can hear me God, help me wife and my little daughter. Please let her be alright. Dear Buddha, Dear Jesus, Dear Krishna, please hear me.”
I remembered my mother praying beside my bed when I lay in the hospital myself years ago and I suddenly understood the agony of beseeching God for the life of your child. We neared the city lights of Santa Fe and everyone was very still, even Lillianna. It was almost as if we were all savoring our moment of peace before facing the challenges that were ahead. Sophia drove at a steady but moderate speed down St. Francis Drive and turned left on St. Michaels Drive as we neared the hospital. She drove into the emergency entrance and hopped out of the car and in a matter of seconds two male nurses appeared pushing a gurney with shiny, silver legs. They carefully lifted Anita and Lillianna onto the white sheets and I walked alongside touching Anita’s hand while her mother followed stroking her forehead.
Anita looked up at me and smiled, “Good God Elvis you look like death warmed over. Don’t worry; everything is going to be alright. I prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the car and I felt her presence very strongly. She answered me Elvis. She told me that she was looking over us and to have faith in her. You just wait and see.”
I looked down at Anita holding Lillianna on her stomach and I couldn’t speak. The tears ran down my face and I could hardly see anything in front of me. I could only hold her hand tightly as I walked beside her. We reached the end of the hall and a female nurse in a blue uniform and mask ordered me to stay behind in the waiting area as they wheeled Anita and our new daughter through bright, silver swinging doors and they disappeared into the bowels of the hospital. There was nothing for me to do but sit down on one of the hard, red plastic chairs and bury my head in my hands. Mrs. Armijo went to a phone in the lobby and began made some phone calls..
Anita’s mother returned after about half an hour and she put her hand on my shoulder and said,
“Grandpa told me that Trank is having a wonderful time. They went fishing this afternoon and they had a great day. Trank fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.”
I nodded my head and managed a weak smile.
“You know ever since Anita was a little girl, I knew she would make a wonderful mother. She’s always loved the little creatures that couldn’t fend for themselves. She was constantly bringing in baby birds that had fallen out of their nests. Elvis, maybe that is what you and Anita have been blessed with today, a little bird that needs you more than you can possibly imagine. God has given you and my Anita a special challenge. He must think very highly of both of you to place one of his angels in your care.”
I began sobbing involuntarily and Mrs. Armijo held my hand comfortingly until I had let out some of the grief I was carrying and I settled into a silent, meditative half-slumber.
I realized that I had been grieving for myself as much as anyone, my expectations of a perfect life with my perfect children. Why did I think that I was above the trials and circumstances of the rest of the world? Certainly I knew that people faced great difficulties every day, but somehow I had thought that I was immune. Suddenly, I was now in the thick of it, beseeching God with my heart and soul to listen to my prayers. How quickly everything could change, it seemed unbelievable. I began to feel ashamed of my previous arrogance when I believed that I was above it all. I had never known real compassion for those suffering around me because I had not suffered in the same way myself.
I felt a tide of determination rising inside of me and I knew that I would accept our daughter no matter what her challenges were and I would love her as much as I loved Trank. She was my child and I was her father and I would not turn away from her, not in a million years.
I was stirred from my thoughts by Dr. Maldonado, the attending physician in the emergency room.
“Mr. Romero, your wife and daughter are doing well and they’re both resting comfortably. I’d like to keep them here for a few days as a precaution but from all appearances they are both in good shape considering all they’ve been through today.”
“Thank you Mother Mary,” Mrs. Armijo exclaimed.
The doctor continued, “As I am sure you are aware of, your daughter shows outward signs of a genetic condition. It is known as Down Syndrome. It is not as uncommon as you would think. About one in every 600 babies has this condition. Basically she was born with 47 chromosomes rather than the usual 46. If your wife had gotten more prenatal testing you might have been aware of this possibility but there was nothing you could have done to prevent it. The good news is that we examined your baby’s heart and other vital organs and she seems fine. Unfortunately not all Down Syndrome babies are so lucky. Of course, there may be other problems that present themselves in the future; we just can’t know that yet. Also, Down Syndrome children invariably have varying degrees of mental and physical limitations. However, given a supportive home environment these children can do quite well and live happy, productive lives.”
I nodded my head and thanked the doctor for his information and honesty. I was tired of feeling hopeless and victimized.
“When can I see them,” I asked.
Probably tomorrow,” he replied. “Why don’t you go home and get a good night’s sleep. There’s nothing more you can do for them right now.”
Rather than driving back to Peñasco, Anita’s mother and I stayed with my parents in Santa Fe that night. As intense as my day had been with the countless thoughts that had been racing through my mind, I fell into a deep sleep on the living room couch almost immediately. I slept without dreams and when the morning came, I awoke feeling rested and content until the reality of my world began to creep in on me again and I became aware that my life was irreversibly different.
We arrived at the hospital about 10:00 a.m. and we were happy to discover that Anita and Lillianna had been given their own room. This was a very good sign and we rushed to the second floor of the hospital. As I entered the room, Anita looked up and smiled. She was holding Lillianna and she looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. She was radiant and I kissed her forehead and looked down at our daughter who was sucking energetically at her breast.
“Look at her Elvis! Isn’t she wonderful? The doctor told me that babies like her often have a hard time nursing but she’s a miracle baby. Don’t you think so? She’s our angel, our miracle.”
I gently stroked Lillianna’s soft head and my heart was filled with pride and love for our brave little girl. She looked like the most exquisite baby in the world. Mrs. Armijo and my mom made a great fuss over her and we all laughed and marveled at her strong, magnetic presence. We all agreed that we wouldn’t trade her for any other baby that had ever been born. Whatever challenges that lie in own future, we would face them together; that was what family was all about.