[My saintly sweetheart]
“Start talking!” she’d bark into the phone -- her
teasing way of answering my own teasing accusation that she talked
too much and domineered our conversations.
If anyone was ever young at heart, Patricia Alvarez was. Today, as
I write, would have been her 56th birthday. She was born in Havana,
which has just been assaulted by a tropical storm called Paloma (Spanish
for dove), my own nickname for her. She laughed when I addressed her
in deliberately fractured Spanish.
Her family, which also included her parents and her younger sisters
Cecilia and Luisa, left Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro came to power
in 1959, moved to Puerto Rico and then Florida. Patricia learned to
speak near-flawless English with a barely detectible accent I noticed
only because I knew her origins and was listening closely for it.
If you’ve seen her pictures, I needn’t bother raving about
her looks. Her smile was sunshine, giving off both light and warmth.
Even in those photos its sincerity is palpable.
Sometime in her twenties Patricia had a religious conversion, in that
her Catholic faith became all-important to her. By the time I met her,
in what turned out to be the last four years of her life, she was a
daily communicant, spent hours praying each day, and had become active
in Opus Dei.
Blessed are the meek. “Meek” properly means unassuming,
not weak or timid. And Patricia’s unassuming piety never stopped
her from giving you a piece of her mind, when she thought it warranted.
I finally realized that what I had taken for politeness and sweetness
was actually sanctity. But some people who resembled her more closely
than I did saw it long before I did.
Twice engaged, she had never married. A pity, because she loved children,
especially Cecilia’s, and she would have been a wonderful mother.
She was delighted to hear that my own great-granddaughter Christina,
barely three, could say “rosary” and identify pictures
of Jesus, Mary, and Padre Pio.
She made her modest living as a secretary for the American Legion
in Washington, and though she worked conscientiously, we used to joke
about the Legion’s passionate cause: a constitutional amendment
to outlaw flag-burning. We agreed that the danger of a hippie coup
d’etat in this country had receded and was pretty well defunct.
Last year I moved from the Washington area to Virginia Beach to be
near my grandchildren (and great- granddaughter). It hurt, but i assumed
Patricia and I would somehow live near each other again before long.
But I saw her only once more in the last year of her life. I am hopelessly
bad at choosing gifts, but she was deeply pleased, to my joy, when
I gave her a scale-model onyx reproduction of Michelangelo’s
Pieta. That matchless work of religious art might have been carved
just for her.
We kept in touch with almost daily phone calls until she became too
ill to converse. I had lost several friends to cancer, one earlier
this year, but somehow I thought my Paloma would defeat it. She seemed
so healthy: with no tobacco, very little wine, frequent workouts at
the gym, Patricia kept her beautifully trim little figure and her slightly
rocking gait. It was a pleasure just to watch her stride happily down
the street. How could death claim her so early?
On the contrary, she was always fretting about my health. Was I taking
my medications? Getting enough meat? Eating too much hummus? (Which
is like asking if you’re pigging out on parsley!)
When, after her first operation, one small tumor turned out to be
benign, I was lured by my relief into a false optimism. When, weeks
later, she was rushed to the hospital in agony and another operation
failed, the beast came back ravenously, and in what seemed an impossibly
short time she was gone. She died at seven in the morning on election
day, with Fran Griffin holding her hand.
It seems like only last week that we were laughing about the approaching
elections and wondering whether Sarah Palin might help defeat Barack
Obama. And in truth it was just a few weeks ago.
My dearest prayer now is that Christina will turn out like my beautiful
little Cuban saint. And last night Christina said something to me that
would have tickled Patricia. I trust she heard it in heaven.
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