Why do people get married? In some countries marriage is ,still, a business transaction, a deal, an arrangement to improve a family’s economy or even a community. In some cultures, women have little say about the process or the partner they have to share their lives with. In the western world we love believing in fairy tales and happy ever after. We sell this idea through propaganda, films, TV shows and even novels. It’s nice to think that someone out there is just for you, a soul mate, your better half. Yet, divorce rates are high, people fall in and out of love as easily as they change shoes. There are second, third and fourth weddings. What happens though, when people decide to build a life together? Is it solely based on passion, looks, lust? What is love? What does love even mean? What happens when the white wedding dress is off and the honeymoon is over?
These are questions I can’t answer. I don’t think anyone can truly answer them. The meaning of love is undeniably a difficult thing to define. However, I’d like to tell you the story of two of the most important people in my life, and their love story. This isn’t an attempt to solve the mysteries of marriage but to explore certain layers. My grandparents did not have the perfect marriage, neither were they perfect, but they did share their lives for more than half a century.
Ever since I can remember I have this vivid image of my grandmother getting out of bed early to take care of her husband. She would choose which suit and shirt he would wear. She helped him get dressed. She gave him his insulin shot every single morning. She gave him baths. She made him breakfast, and in the later years when my grandfather couldn’t read as easily, she read him the paper. They slept side by side. They exercised together. They took long walks at the park, and held each others hands. They had learned their bodies, and learned to lean on each other. They had grown old together.
Last year, on the morning of October 11th, my grandmother had woken up just as any other day, to dress her husband and head to the park to exercise. Everything was just as any other day, except that while sitting on the bed as she undressed him to put on a pressed white shirt, my grandfather stopped breathing. He had smiled at her, and after he stopped breathing. My grandmother panicked and instinctively tried to give him CPR. She screamed for help. She hit his chest. She cried, hopelessly. My cousin called the doctor. When he arrived there was nothing to do. It happened. The one thing we all feared. He died.
They were married for 61 years.
I wasn’t there when it happened. I was far, far away. I heard the news over the phone. My mum called me. I just knew it was bad news when I picked up. In a trembling voice, she said “hello, how are you?” and I immediately asked, “what happened? what’s wrong?” I felt this huge not in my throat, and the tears started running. There wasn’t anything I could say or do. I couldn’t make it to his funeral. The last time I embraced him, was the day I headed to the airport after a short visit in August. I hadn’t been in Bolivia in almost three years. I spent so little time with him. I didn’t stop to think it would be our last time together. I didn’t think it would be the last time I would be able to hug him. There was still so much I wanted to ask, so much I wanted to share.
I called my grandmother after I finished talking with my mum. It was by far the most devastating conversation I have ever had. She blamed herself. She thought it was her fault, she kept asking herself what did she do wrong. I can’t even imagine the pain and sadness she must have felt. How do you say goodbye to your best friend and the person you have shared your whole life with? How do you learn to live without that person? How do you get up in the morning? Why would you get up in the morning?
The past few months, my grandmother has had to learn to sleep without him. She has woken up in the middle of the night to find herself without him. There is this emptiness that impossible to fill.
There are many things that have happened to me in the past few months, most of them saddening. I felt that I needed to go home. I truly wanted to be with my family. I was there this past June, and I too felt the emptiness in their house. An absence. It was weird to be in the house of my childhood memories and realize that he is really gone.
Though I’m not here to dwell about his death, but to honor the life he had alongside my grandmother.
My grandmother, Betty, met my grandfather, Eduardo, when she was only 17. She lived in Llallagua a small town south-east of Bolivia. Eduardo, nine years her senior, was working as an engineer in the mines of Catabi Siglo XX. My grandmother’s eyes smiled when I asked her to tell me their story. She said that they used to pass each other by while walking down the streets of Llallagua. Often, they exchanged looks, they smiled at each other. For a long time, Eduardo admired her from afar. It was not only until a party where both were invited that he finally asked her out. He knew he had found a pearl in a sea of empty shells. He got lost in those brown eyes that held hundreds of secrets and told a thousand stories. He knew he had to marry her.
Betty’s mother, Raquel, opposed from the beginning. She would not have her youngest daughter marry so early to some guy from out-of-town. Eduardo was kind, a true gentleman, ambitious and hard-working. Raquel tried to convince him that Betty had bad temper, that he would not stand her if he married her. To which he eagerly responded, “conmigo va a cambiar.” (with me, she will change). My grandmother laughs at this, because we know too well that she never changed, and he loved her just the same.
My grandparents were rarely left alone during their months of courtship and engagement. There was always someone watching, someone going out with them. Despite not having intimate moments, they were in-love. Six months after their first date, they married on June 16th,1949.
Eduardo and Betty faced several obstacles. Their respective families were far from pleased with their union. Eventually they learned to deal with it. The first few years they lived with Eduardo’s parents, while they worked to build their own business: a construction company. Betty had to deal with the resentment and jealousy from Eduardo’s five sisters, and her mother in law who never accepted her. Maybe it’s because my grandmother is one of the most beautiful people I know, or because Eduardo was their favorite. Either way, their first years together living in that house were a test, and they survived it.
At the beginning of their union, they didn’t have a home, a bank account, not even their own furniture. Yet, they were eager to have a family. Betty’s first-born was a son, Carlos. In Bolivia, a son is the greatest blessing for he will perpetuate the family name. Later; Ana, Carmen, Cristina and finally Daysi were born. My uncle Carlos was king among his sisters, they all adored him. As the greatest big brother to have ever existed, he took care of them, and spoiled them as often as he could.
Finally after five years of hard work, waiting and hoping, Eduardo and Betty bought a home in Sucre. Their business began to flourish. Betty juggled work and the care of the home and her children, while Eduardo traveled often and invested in building a future for his family.
Throughout their marriage there have been plenty of difficult times. When Ana was born, my grandma recalls she cried a lot, pretty much all the time. They didn’t know why, and learned a bit too late that Ana had a dislocated hip. Ana was a baby when she began undergoing surgeries. Several and different medical procedures tried to give Ana a sense of relief. As she got older, she had to skip school after every surgery, she had to stay at home resting while her sisters and brother went to school and ran outside. My grandparents did their best to find a solution, but despite the many procedures my aunt had, her hip was never completely fixed. However, this didn’t stop my aunt from swimming or excelling in various areas. This, after all, is what my grandmother has tried to instil in me, even when some things are not the way we wish, we must continue our path in life doing the best we can with what we have, and accepting who we are.
Life went by quicker than my grandmother can remember, and soon her children were grown, trying to figure out what to study, where to go. All the women in my family have a sense of rebellion and strength. You don’t want to mess with them. At the time, Bolivia was a country where a woman shouldn’t dare to study medicine, or architecture or do politics. My aunt Ana was the first to say that if she didn’t study medicine, she wouldn’t study anything at all. My grandfather had no other option but to support them in their choices, that’s how he had raised them after all. Ana and Daysi studied medicine; Cristina, architecture. My mother, Carmen, picked economics and was actively involved in politics. Opposed to many other women from my mother’s generation, that didn’t have a choice but to marry and have babies, my mother and her sisters pursued careers in fields that were (might still be) ruled by men.
During the 60s and 70s Bolivia was a highly unstable nation. Revolutions rose all the time. Confrontations could occur any day, any time. People were killed, tortured, imprisoned, silenced. It might seem that I’m romanticising those days, yet, these things happened and they happened to a lot of people. Carlos had decided to become a civil engineer like his father, he moved to Oruro city in 1969, during one of the many military governments. The following year, on October 8th, the students decided to protest against abuse and against the military. My uncle, a student leader at his university, was leading the protest along other brave young people. During the confrontation my uncle was severely hurt by a grenade. He made it to the hospital. He asked nurses and doctors to help others. He didn’t want to identify himself. He didn’t want to worry his family. He had internal wounds. He bleed to death. Carlos was 21.
That same night, Carmen was listening to the news about the riot in Oruro. Names of the deceased resonated in the empty room as she listened, her heart beating fast. Luis Carlos Pareja was not mentioned, but the reporter said that a young man from Sucre, who did not have papers and did not identify himself had died too. As my mother’s body shivered, she knew the young man with no name was her brother. The whole family found out about his death the next day.
To be continued….