Prayers for yesterday, hope for tomorrow
Tantalizing smells of an impending feast waft through the apartment as giggling chaos reigns in a back bedroom. Welcome to the kid zone.
Five-year-old Alejandro Martinez and a cousin wrestle on the carpet, inching precariously close to a television perched on a stand. In the back corner, a door to a walk-in closet opens and shuts, the hinges rattling each time. Youngsters scramble in and out, playing a game no one knows but them. Alejandro’s older brother, 10-year-old Cristopher, checks in frequently, making sure he’s not missing out.
Fourteen-year-old Ana Olmedo, the oldest in the room, surveys it from her spot on an oversized bean bag in the middle of the room. She smiles at the ruckus, a cheery scene that masks underlying sadness.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, a bittersweet gathering for this extended family because of the loss of Yadira Martinez, 38, and her daughter, Karla, who would have been 11. They were slain 7 months earlier.
Arturo Martinez-Sanchez is without his wife and daughter; his two boys are without their mother and sister.
“Karla, she was very understanding,” Ana says of her cousin. “She was kind. She always cared about others before herself. She was honest. She never let you down.”
Yadira, known as Yady to family and friends, was her favorite aunt, a patient listener but also the first person to crank up the music at family gatherings and start dancing.
Yady would have loved that her side of the family is hosting this holiday gathering. Old stories evoke refreshing laughter.
There was the time Ana rolled Karla’s hair in curlers made from paper bags, the time they tumbled so hard on a slip-and-slide that it broke, and the time they slipped through a narrow crevice during a family hike.
Yady’s brother, Lupe Olmedo, walks in to check on his children, briefly interrupting the storytelling session.
“That’s the thing,” he says. “We have good memories in all of this.”
A giggling 8-year-old’s wisdom sets the tone for the day.
“You know what else is going to be a memory?” the girl asks. “Today.”
Before Arturo packed his two boys in the car and headed to his brother-in-law’s home for the day, he posted a quick message on his Facebook page.
He asked God to bless family and friends — including his fellow union members — who helped him reopen his boxing gym. It’s his place of familiarity, his refuge.
Today, he’s sitting on his brother-in-law’s sofa, holding a newborn nephew.
“I forgot how to cradle little babies,” Arturo says as he snaps his fingers above the baby’s head to grab his attention. “But now I kind of remember.”
A mound of food is growing on portable tables in the middle of the living room. The early arrivals from the kitchen: smoked turkey with Mexican-style stuffing, bread with a chipotle and mayonnaise dipping sauce, and cochinita pibil — pork marinated in too many spices to name.
By 7:30 p.m., the table is complete and the kids emerge from the back bedroom. They jockey for seats near one another as their parents, aunts and uncles join them, forming a circle around the table. There are 21 adults and children in the home this evening. Pictures of Karla and Yady hang on the wall.
Everyone links hands and bows their heads, asking God to watch over the souls of Karla and Yady.
With his sons on either side of him, Arturo continues the prayer, pausing every few seconds to find the right words. In Spanish, he prays for all who cannot be with their families on this day and, perhaps speaking from inner pain, asks for them to be well por los siglos de los siglos — forever and ever.
With the prayer of petition complete, and as little ones squirm in metal chairs, now comes the prayer of thanksgiving:
For allowing us to be united on this night even though two important people are missing.
For my husband’s job, for the health of all of us.
For all the blessings like a roof over our heads, our food, our clothing.
For giving me a sister and a niece who are so special."
Napkins wipe away tears. Wives comfort husbands. Arturo embraces his boys. And, after the final family member finishes speaking, they recite the Lord’s Prayer.
At its conclusion, a clap echoes, followed by more. The applause crescendoes, and everyone is smiling.
At his chiropractor’s office, Arturo lies on his back atop a leather therapy bed that is rumbling with the sounds of massaging rollers. With his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling, he is the picture of tranquility.
It’s early December and Arturo has been coming here several times each week for more than a month, focusing on a single goal: being able to jump rope again. For that to happen, he needs to be mostly free of back pain and numbness in his fingertips, left hand and leg.
After 20 minutes, he moves to a back room and flops down on a bed-like contraption that will stretch his spine and help mend a compressed nerve.
Chiropractor Nancy Fallon adjusts the table’s settings and straps two belts around Arturo that are attached to pulleys. Most patients think the gentle tugging feels good and either fall asleep or chat on the phone, she says.
As the treatment begins, Arturo pulls out his iPhone and checks his voicemail. The message is from a debt collector, jolting Arturo out of his relaxation.
He calls back while still strapped to the table.
“You guys are making me stressed,” he tells the lady on the other end of the line. “I don’t owe you any money. They already talked to me last week.”
Arturo explains a state-funded program that helps victims of crime is covering the bill in question. The debt collector wants more details, such as the date of the police report.
“The day was April 16, 2012,” he says.
The call is over and Arturo tries again to relax.
With little fanfare, Arturo bids goodbye to his 30s, surrounded by family and friends in his boxing gym. He turned 40 in December.
A friend gives him a gold rosary, now dangling from his neck. It joins the small crucifix he carries in his wallet.
He relies on his faith to cope with the unnatural, gruesome deaths of his wife and daughter. This week, television monitors remind him that he is not alone.
Some 2,500 miles away in a postcard-perfect place called Newtown, Conn., dozens of families have joined Arturo’s nightmare after a gunman entered an elementary school and mercilessly killed 20 first-graders and six staff members. Cruel is the word Arturo uses to describe the massacre.
Arturo knows something about what the families of the Newtown victims will discover: Full healing seems a Herculean task, but time will help. Hours elapse into days and weeks into months. Progress comes with setbacks, but life does not stop, hence the onslaught of Christmas decorations covering walls and shelves everywhere he goes.
On Dec. 14, Arturo changes his relationship status on Facebook from “married to Yadira Martinez” to “single.” There’s a reason: Arturo is taking one of those proverbial steps forward. A month earlier, Arturo had asked an old family friend, Gisela Corral, to dinner. He enjoyed her company, she enjoyed his, so they continue seeing each other.
Arturo understands others might question his decision to start dating eight months after he lost his wife. He says only he knows when the time feels right.
Several weeks into their courtship, Arturo shares the news with perhaps his toughest critics: Cristopher and Alejandro.
“What are you going to do if I’m single all your life?” Arturo asks them.
Cristopher, who is more vocal about missing his mother than his younger brother, ponders the question in silence but doesn’t object.
The conversation with his boys wasn’t entirely spontaneous. These are the difficult subjects many couples broach during marriage, perhaps after a near-miss on the highway or a particularly frightening story on the evening news: What would happen if one of us dies unexpectedly? Would the children be OK? What about finances? And should the surviving spouse seek love again?
Arturo and Yady didn’t dwell on these grim questions, but Yady made clear one request: “If you find someone that fits you, the first thing you have to think about is the children.”
Arturo believes his sons deserve a father who is happy — not the man prone to tears they have observed since April. A good relationship breeds happiness.
The poor Christmas tree sitting in a northwest valley home doesn’t know it has an enemy, but across town, Arturo is plotting its ouster.
His sister, Gaudia Martinez-Sanchez, bought the fake tree for her house, where Arturo and his sons have been living. But there’s a problem: It’s not real.
“I love Christmas,” says Arturo, a fiercely stubborn man who stands by his principles — in this case, a real tree. “My Christmas tree is better.”
Christmas trees should cast an evergreen fragrance in the room. They should be trimmed with different decorations each year — with one exception: a train circling the trunk.
Arturo has started buying gifts for Cristopher and Alejandro, and now he’s adding a tree to the list.
It will help this Christmas.