For Laura, Andrés and Bruno. My brother Alejandro just left us. In three days. It was a sudden leukemia. We never saw it coming. Just as the doctors were starting to treat him, his body gave out.
It was completely full of damned leukocytes that did not stop multiplying. We have no idea what provoked that cancer. He went to the hospital for what we thought was a lingering flu, and never came out.
He was the happy one in a family where no one else danced or sang much. The second of four brothers and one sister, he was always the mischievous one, the one indispensable at parties and family gatherings, the most generous with his time and smile. A psychologist, he was a great listener and a master of consensus.
Now that we need him so much, and I think back. Alex was my roommate for 24 years. As children, we always shared a bedroom, as well as underwear and socks. Our two beds were lined up in an L shape, over a shaggy orange carpet. We met there every night until I went to live in the United States. I know his breathing – and he knows my snoring – better than anyone.
I just realized I am still talking about him in the present tense. And I have not wanted to delete the last text he sent me. It’s a little bit like having him at my side, like he was for more than two decades. He gave me my first nickname, Pote. We presume it comes from potrillo – little horse – because I ran around a lot as a child. And Alex alone made it shorter and cute. He was everything I could never be. He made his peace with life quickly, squeezed every moment out of it, and took some enviable siestas.
If success in life is measured by the number of friends, Alex won. At his hurried and unexpected funeral were all those friends he made in primary school and continued to meet several times a month for decades. I never received tighter hugs, shoulders drenched in tears, than the ones from friends of Alex at his funeral.
Alex hated to go to the doctor. One of his main anxieties was waiting for the results of medical tests. That’s why I imagine him on his ICU bed, surrounded by doctors and machines, asking himself what was going to happen to him as he lifted his big lashes over those blue eyes.
But until the end, my siblings tell me, he was convinced that he was going to be OK. That’s how he was. He had overcome polio as a child – with the help from the broken head from a San Martin de Porres figurine, according to family lore – and now he was preparing for his next battle. “Keep talking about me,” he told me with a smile, in what would be our last phone chat.
“What happens when one dies, Alfredo?” If anyone can answer that question it is Alfredo Quiñones, a family friend and one of the world’s most talented and famous neurosurgeons. “I don’t know what happens when one dies,” he told me at the funeral, his miraculous hands on my shoulders. “But I do know that when the brain dies, there is an energy that escapes, that is no longer there.”
That energy that escapes is the basis of all religions. I want so much to have faith at times like this. But biology interests and challenges me as much as metaphysics. Alex, who took good care of himself and had a full head of hair, died at 63, almost the same age as our father.
His death surprised me as I flew from Miami to Mexico City. A cold text message on landing shattered my hope of seeing him alive, or at least saying good by. Since then, I have been humming parts of Elegia, the song by Joan Manuel Serrat written by Miguel Hernández. And I feel a little bit less alone and sad. Art heals.
There is no expanse greater than my wound
I cry my misfortune and its ramifications
And I feel your death more acutely than my life …
I won’t forgive the lovestruck death …
I won’t forgive the uncaring life …
We all lost something with the death of Alex. But I never heard a more heartbreaking cry than my mother’s, at night, sitting on the edge of her bed, after a long day of condolences. Nothing compares to the pain of losing a son or a daughter. “Is it true, what happened,” she asked me between sobs.
Alex died the way he would have wanted, on a day of celebration as millions of people around the planet marked Argentina’s victory in the World Cup. I am sure he would have even joked about it.
I write this because I don’t know anything else for easing the pain. But what I do know is that after a hard loss, Alex – my unforgettable and happy-go-lucky roommate –would have pushed everyone even harder to celebrate life, family, friends and this holiday season.
This one is for you, Alex.