I was Invincible

The sweat was slowly making its way down our faces but we didn't care. The Puerto Rican sun wouldn't get in the way of our imaginations. There we were, just my friend Camille and I, the last ones in the sandy playground, running around and doing what 4-year-olds do best: playing. The big metal slide next to the swings was scorching hot so we decided to continue our never-ending quest for super powers around the trees. Man how I longed to have a cape and a cool superhero outfit back then.

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Her mom soon arrived. I saw Camille run and give her a huge hug. The sweat meant nothing to her mom. She was just happy to see her little girl. Her mom then came towards me and asked, "You sure you don't need a ride home?"

"No. My mommy will pick me up soon," I replied.

"Are you sure? I don't mind. It's a two-minute ride."

"No thank you."

And with that, I was the last kid left on the pre-school playground. This wasn't really new to me. An hour had passed since the bell had rung and by now I was so used to my mom not being able to pick me up in time from pre-school that I found new ways to entertain myself. I found distractions--not a tough task for a 4-year-old with a vivid imagination.

Sometimes I thought that the Principal enjoyed having me around after school. She would often find me running around pretending that the big mango tree was an evil monster that I had to save everyone from. She'd come outside of her office and have me help her feed the ducks that were in the lake around the pre-school. I was such good company, just like a sidekick, I thought, and she was the hero. I guess my mom talked to her, explained our situation and asked if I could stay a while longer without having to pay for the school daycare. I felt somewhat special.

"You want juice? Your mom called. She will be here very soon," said the Principal.

I nodded. I knew that "very soon" meant at least another hour and who could pass up juice? But something felt different that clear and sunny November day. I sat down on the bench, right in front of the school's gate, with my new Toy Story lunchbox, and waited patiently to see my pregnant mom come and give me a hug. But when the white, Isuzu 4-Runner pulled up, it was my sister Maritza and not my mom, who walked out of the car. It was around 1:00 p.m.; she was supposed to be in school. I didn't ask why she picked me up. I was just happy I was on my way home to go play.

"How was your day?" she asked, looking straight at the road and not really paying attention to me. I said it was fun, told her all about how I fed the ducks, as I wiped off my sweat on the seat. She didn't answer. She just looked straight at the road through her shades and said nothing. It was so quiet I could hear the wind entering through the cracked window.

"Can we turn on the radio?" I asked.

"We're almost here," she said.

I guess it was true. We lived only a few blocks away from my pre-school and I could already see the white roof of my one floor, light-yellow, house. "La Calle Cordoba" was infested with cars on both sides of the street. I could barely see my mom's lovely small bushes that went all around the house. I missed out on the sunflower decorated mailbox that took us a whole afternoon to decorate. I could only see that the door was open.

My sister parked, looked at me and I saw a tear run down her cheek. I asked, "Why are you crying?" She quickly turned around and went inside the house. I took my lunchbox and got out of the car feeling a bit confused.

I was used to having people in my house. Being the youngest of seven siblings and having a friendly, loud, and charismatic Puerto Rican family meant that there was always someone in the house; someone to play with, I always thought. But this time there were all types of people. All of my mom's friends, the priest, my grandparents, some cousins, my siblings and some of their friends, and both of my parents were there. "Wait outside," said Maritza, as she called for Mom.

My mom came outside and hugged me. "Mi bebe," she said, and looked into my eyes. The red in them distracted me. I asked, "Mom, what are all these people doing here? And why are they crying?" She said: "You remember how I explained that your sister Ileana was sick and how I had to take extra special care of her?" Of course I remembered she was sick; she had been battling with cancer for two years now. I was used to not having my mom around and imagining that the hospital was another place I could be the hero of.

"Yes. What of it?" I said.

"Well, she's in heaven now, Carmen, with all those angels that we talked about. Come, come inside and look at her peacefulness." I felt confused so I just went with it.

As we walked towards the room the smell of the calla lilies distracted me. Who brought flowers? And why? I could feel the eyes of the people who invaded my house piercing into my skin. All whispering among themselves: "She's so young! How could she ever understand?" All waiting for a reaction from me. I understood what was going on. I guess I was prepared for my sister's death like most of us were. I just felt it differently. Just like a 4-year-old would.

When I walked into my sister's room, I looked at the orthopedic bed that they had brought a long time ago and that we all decorated with pictures of ourselves. She was in between her white sheets looking peaceful, as if sleeping. Everything was in place; the image of the Virgin Mary on top of her bed, her teddy bear that Tio Hiram gave her, her books on the nightstand. Even her smile was there.

"She looks so happy doesn't she?" said mom. I nodded. "She is in heaven now, Carmen. She is now looking down on you, taking care of you. She is in a good place."

I looked straight at my sister's face. The fact that she was bald and that she had to use an oxygen tank to ease in those last breaths seemed insignificant compared to that smile. She had died after two long years of chemo and other treatments. She was my oldest sister and she died when she was just 19 years old. I understood.

"Mom, can I go look for Juan?" Juan was my next-door neighbor, my best friend.

She smiled in between tears and said, "I think he is already here."

As I walked around the many unknown faces that were standing in the living room, all sad, I felt somewhat annoyed. Why can't I just find Juan and go play? My dad was in his chair crying. My sisters were cuddling with my grandparents. My brother was talking to my cousins. I felt alone in a crowded room.

When I got to my backyard, Juan was there next to my playhouse. He had his Superman shirt on and we decided to go look for capes, which usually meant the towels from the laundry room.

"Your house is really crowded today," said Juan.

I smiled and said, "It's like a party for my sister."

We laughed and went on running around next to the huge mango tree. We pretended we were superheroes. Fighting crime, kicking ass, not worried about anything because we were invincible. I didn't pay attention to anything that was going on inside. I didn't care for the priest and his rosary, for the many "I'm so sorry for your loss" that my mom was hearing. It didn't seem important at the moment. To me, it was all a bunch of fuss and crying. Pretending I had all the time in the world because nothing could ever touch me was more important than Catholic rituals.

After a while someone said: "The ambulance is here."I got really excited to see an ambulance in real life that I ran up to the front yard without anyone noticing. Juan and I just stood there, hiding in between those bushes that my mom loved, wanting to see the ambulance lights. "Riding in an ambulance must be so fun," said Juan.

As we stood there in the bushes, pretending to have invisible powers, I heard some loud sobs coming from my grandma; "Ay diosito ¿Por qué?. It was all like background music to me, nothing that mattered. It was just the regular noise that usually emanated from my household. That was until the EMTs came out with a black body bag riding in the gurney.

"Is that your sister?" said Juan.

"Yes," I said in a low voice.

Right there I understood what was going on. I took off my cape.