You know where you start, but you don’t know where
you’ll end up, so never begin a trip on an empty stomach,
my uncle Enrique said, pulling into the brand-new
Wendy’s, the first in Costa Rica. I forget where we were
going at break of dawn that day, maybe the Arenal
Volcano or sloth country in the southern forest. Not
long after that he died on his birthday, half a cake left
on the table, just a few minutes after hanging up
the phone. He sounded so happy, my aunt said, crying,
I never heard him so happy. They said his heart stopped,
but his heart was the one part of him that was not dying,
the one part untouched by cancer, hepatitis, diabetes, maybe
HIV. He up and died after half a birthday cake, a glass
of wine, and a last call to his favorite sister.
                                                                                                And so no wonder
I keep thinking of him, though this is not his poem. It’s not
his poem because my dear friend Carmen, incurably ill, has
refused food for ten days, hasn’t swallowed water for a week
but will take a sip, hold it in her mouth, and close her eyes before
spitting it out into a glass. It’s like crossing a desert. Nothing
could taste sweeter, she says, with a smile that is still hers,
dark brown eyes keen with their old clarity, now turned on me
as if she would say more but knew she didn’t have to.
No meal for her as she strode out, no final drink. She knew
where she began, and she didn’t know where she was going,
but Uncle Enrique would know a good exception to the rule
when he saw one, a fearless, dignified exception made by a woman
who was too proud not to choose her way. And watching her
watching me for that second before she turned her head,
I knew she was teaching me just like my uncle had,
back when I was a kid and just beginning my travels.