Thursday, January 15, 2009



by Kerry Madden

For Catherine Garcia

And for my husband, Kiffen,

who has been a teacher for LA Unified School District for twenty years.

Do the stories offer comfort to a child who is dying? What stories will offer the most solace? Will the child dream in the land of the stories? Maybe you should just whisper dolphin stories into Catherine’s ear the way your husband, her fifth grade teacher, whispered Anansi stories to her one night? Catherine loved dolphins…Find the best stories for Catherine, the girl who loved dolphins.

* * *

In the spring of 2003, Catherine Garcia was a week from graduating with her fifth grade class at Betty Plasencia School in Echo Park in Los Angeles. She began to feel sick at the school picnic on a Friday. They thought she had the flu, but by the following Monday, she was in Children’s Hospital on life support, diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Visitors poured in to comfort the family as the doctors predicted she wouldn’t wake up, but after surgeons relieved some of the pressure in her brain, Catherine woke up talking. When she was strong enough, the doctors performed surgery and managed to get some of the tumor, but not all of it. Still, Catherine began to recover and started rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, physical and occupational therapy. That’s when we began spending more time with her at Children’s Hospital on Sunset Boulevard.

I remember the first time we drove along Sunset Boulevard in 1988. We were twenty-six, and we had moved to Los Angeles sight unseen from Georgia pregnant with our son, Flannery. It was a rainy Saturday, our first real day in Hollywood, and we walked the streets around our Valentino Place apartment off of Melrose and soon found ourselves at the corner of Sunset and Vine. It was a shock to see that the streets I’d only heard about in movies truly existed. Our plans were simple then. We had no money, no health insurance, but Kiffen would become an actor, and I would write for film or television - wherever I could get a job because, after all, I had an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Tennessee.

Of course, none of it happened the way we planned…

But this essay is about Catherine, one of my husband’s students – the one none of us will ever forget. After she got sick, we’d sometimes visit Catherine together at Children’s Hospital, but mostly we went in shifts. I usually went during the day with any or all of our three children. They each got to know Catherine in their own way. Flannery, then 15, read her HARRY POTTER, and he read it the right way. When I read HARRY POTTER, I caught him rolling his eyes at my mispronunciations, so I switched to WIND IN THE WILLOWS and picture books like SWAMP ANGEL, FALLING UP, THE ADVENTURES OF FROG & TOAD, THE LITTLE PRINCE, and STONE GIRL, BONE GIRL.

Norah, five at the time, always climbed onto the bed with Catherine, who would smile at her and say, “Hi Princess,” and, Norah loved that Catherine knew she was a princess. Catherine also loved dolphins. During her recovery, her hospital room was filled with posters of dolphins swimming in cobalt blue oceans. Norah drew her pictures of roses, fairies, and hearts. Our daughter, Lucy, who was 13 that year, described middle school to Catherine, and how she planned to take her around King Middle School when she felt well enough to go.

During our visits, I would watch Catherine’s mother, Deysi, and think about her beautiful name and wonder why she spelled it that way. Deysi spoke more English than I spoke Spanish, but mostly we could understand each other. Sometimes, Catherine translated our questions or we would laugh at my mix of Spanglish. Dasysi’s husband was Romeo, and I learned how he taught Catherine to speak on the CB radio to truckers in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

At the age of five, Catherine gave herself the CB handle: “Estrellita” which means “Little Star,” and I imagined a tiny girl swinging her legs at the kitchen table while conversing in Spanish to truckers in three or four different countries.

By the end of the summer, Catherine was pronounced well enough to go home. Fall passed quickly, and Kiffen would take the kids to visit Catherine at home on Saturdays. I was busy teaching writing workshops out of my house, so I didn’t go with them. She seemed to be doing so well, studying with a home tutor. She even went to the Long Beach Aquarium to see the dolphins and attended a dance recital. She stopped using her crutches, and it was clear she was going to get better. Her other 5th grade teacher, Dave Dobson, dropped by at Christmas, and Catherine was joking with him and said, “Hey, remember how my eye used to this?” and she twirled her finger around her eye to show him how it used roll around after her first surgery. They both laughed at her silly eye. I liked hearing the stories. It meant Catherine was getting better, and we all needed and longed for her to get well.

But sometime in the new year, things changed. We heard that Catherine was back in the hospital to have more surgeries, one to remove a tumor from her back, and there was a talk of radical chemotherapy. The doctors gave her oral chemotherapy, but it didn’t work either. From January to April, she was in and out of the hospital until they finally decided to stop all therapy and send her home.

During her stays in the hospital, we brought her Mozart CDs, which played softly in the room. I gave her jasmine lotion and massaged her arms and legs and told her she smelled like the most beautiful flowers in the world. Once after I finished a story, she sighed the sweetest sigh in her throat and said, “Sorry I’m such a sleepy head!” Then she laughed.

If I had to choose a word to describe Catherine’s mother, Deysi, during this time, I would pick “serene,” which seems impossible, but she fed, washed, and kissed Catherine with such tenderness – as if each day with her child was a gift. If Catherine called out, “Mommy,” Deysi was there, smiling down on her as if she was most beautiful girl in the world. And Deysi was always happy to see us, or, if she wasn’t, she pretended to be, because there was not a time when she didn’t smile and wave us over to the bed. “Wake up, Catherine! Look who’s here! You want a story, Catherine?”

But as more time passed, the tumor began to steal Catherine’s facial expressions, and it was also difficult to know what she could see anymore. The last time I saw her, Deysi fed her strawberries and yogurt, and Catherine chewed and swallowed but could no longer smile. Then on a Friday afternoon, I was trying to write a story for her about a jacaranda trees on the secret staircases of Silver Lake with fairies and hummingbirds when my husband called to say he had some sad news, but he couldn’t finish the sentence. Then he said that Catherine’s family had gathered around her bed at home, singing one of her favorite hymns, and then Catherine closed her eyes and was gone.

Deysi called the school and asked him to come over, and he sat with her and Romeo next to Catherine. He described the little white scarf they put around Catherine’s head and her peaceful expression. A few days later, we visited the family, and Deysi explained that the funeral would be on the following Friday and everyone would spend the night at the church, singing to Catherine and eating tamales. That’s when I learned that Deysi and Romeo met when they were three-year-olds living in El Salvador, thirty years earlier. They moved to Los Angeles in 1991, and Catherine was born two weeks before the Los Angeles riots on April 10, 1992.

As we sat in the Garcia family’s living room, Norah and Michelle, Catherine’s little sister in Norah's class, played with the doll house and made up stories the way five-year-olds do. Renel, Catherine’s brother said, “Yesterday, my Dad took us outside, cause we were feeling sad, and he squirted us with the hose to make us laugh.” Kiffen was now Renel’s teacher, and the two of them discussed how they would tell the class about Catherine together.

The church served 500 tamales at Catherine’s funeral which was held at the church called “Iglesia Luz De Vida Maranada – Fundamento De Apostles Y Profetas” down in the heart of South Central near San Pedro and 21st Street. The church was clearly once a house, but refurbished into a place of worship, and it was packed with everyone who loved Catherine, and it was overflowing with people.

When we arrived, Michelle greeted us in a sky blue dress and brought us up to see Catherine who lay in a tiny lavender coffin. Next to the coffin was her fifth grade picture - radiant smile, long brown hair thick and curly, eyes shining – inside a collage of Catherine at every stage of her life. Later, when we sat down, I realized the men were on one side, women on the other, but nobody made us move from the men’s side.

Renel talked on walkie-talkies with his friends at the funeral and hugged everyone. Earlier that week, he told his class how Catherine taught him to swim in the river in Bakersfield. I saw Catherine’s best friend, Sugey, who grew up with Catherine in the same Echo Park apartment building. I thought of Catherine’s cousin, Miladas, and her Tia Sandra, who together walked from El Salvador to Los Angeles in February, and how it took them five weeks of walking and camping and taking boats and hitching rides to finally complete their journey to be with Catherine.

I watched Catherine’s grandfather, a tiny man in a white cowboy hat and reddish hair, wiping his eyes outside the church. Teacher Dave was there in his dark blue suit and sunglasses, and I recalled how he bought her hiking boots for the 5th grade science field trip to Big Bear and brought her Fluffy, the three-headed dog from HARRY POTTER, in the hospital.

The women in the church wore white scarves and sang, and the men in their blue shirts sang, and the preacher preached a sermon of Catherine’s beauty and holiness, and after four hours of prayers and singing, Norah whispered, “Does God understand Spanish?”

We didn’t spend the whole night at the church, but we did meet there again in the morning to go to the cemetery in Inglewood. At the graveside, the jacaranda trees bloomed their lavender blossoms, and people sang and prayed some more under the cloudy sky, but when Deysi, Romeo, Renel, and Michelle placed roses on Catherine’s casket, I heard the saddest sound I’ve ever heard in my life.

A few weeks later, the school put on an arts festival, and her teachers dedicated an art sculpture called “Arbol de Vida” (Tree of Life) to Catherine's memory that will remain on permanent display at Betty Plasencia School in Echo Park. Renel made a sculpture of a deep sea diver exploring the ocean, and Michelle painted a picture of the ocean for the festival in the student gallery. There was talk of a scholarship in Catherine’s name for fifth graders who want to study dolphins or oceanography.

But I kept thinking of those 500 tamales, because I learned that it was Deysi who made them, her quick and careful hands shaping them the way she so lovingly cared for her daughter. I thought of my own mother-in-law making grits and cornbread for her own thirteen children. How did Deysi find the will and strength to make 500 tamales? She smiled when she told me and said, “I made the tamales. Did you like them? 500!” And those tamales nourished us at Catherine’s funeral, and in a way, Deysi was continuing to take care of Catherine by feeding us.

Several years have gone by, and last summer, the Garcia family made a decision to move to Kansas, but later I learned it wasn’t Kansas at all but Arkansas. Was it the way Deysi pronounced to Kiffen that he heard “Kansas” instead of “Arkansas?” Michelle and Renel have called us a few times to tell us how much they love their new home. They want to stay in touch, and I wonder what their lives are like in Arkansas. I know Renel is playing football, and I wonder how Michelle is doing in her new home. How are Deysi and Romeo?

The first "Day of the Dead" after Catherine died, Norah made an altar to celebrate her, but she mispronounced the word “altar” or heard it wrong and called it not "an altar" but "a walter," and she'd say, "I made a walter for Catherine to remember her." And we still keep Catherine’s picture on the table that was “the walter.”

Sometimes, I think of all the plans we made to live one sort of life in Los Angeles but how we wound up living a completely different one. When the jacarandas bloom each spring, I see the CB radio and a tiny girl who called herself “Estrellita,” swinging her legs at the kitchen table as she chatted to truckers driving through the night in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. She was the star guiding them home.


Kerry with her daughter, Norah...
Kerry Madden is the author of JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and GENTLE'S HOLLER, the books of the MAGGIE VALLEY TRILOGY for children. Her new book for teens, HARPER LEE UP CLOSE, (Viking, The Penguin Group) will be published in the spring of 2009.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful story. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, Cheryl. It was a very difficult one to write. Thanks for reading.

All best
Kerry Madden

Anonymous said...

That one really made me cry.

Anonymous said...

The story of your experience, and the experience of all the players, wound itself around my heart. I know I am a little more tender for having read it.

I know this was a difficult story to write and you inspire me to continue trying to write about those experiences that broke my heart or dashed my hopes and all those in between.

Anonymous said...

So sad and beautifuly written.

Vivian Mahoney said...

As a mother, my heart is breaking for this special family. I admire you, your family and all the others who stayed by Catherine's family's side and helped them during the most difficult of times.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. (My word verification is gracias.)

Jeannine Atkins said...

I had to come back for another read and another look at the jacaranda tree. I love how you put hope along with the sadness. xo
Jeannine Atkins