On Looking Into the Light

by Pauline Campos

I make sad things funny. It’s a coping mechanism, I am sure. But it’s also an engrained part of my culture.

Sometimes, though, sad things make themselves funny. Like when my aunt told my father to look into the light.

As he lay on his deathbed.

Oh, she didn’t mean it that way. But English isn’t her first language. So while my sisters and I were fighting tears and laughter for two separate reasons, my father’s sisters were rallying my him to stay with us as they rubbed his hands and patted his feet and reminded my father of all the reasons he needed to focus on living.

He was 50 and had gone into the hospital to have heart valve replacement surgery (the original surgery a result of rheumatic fever he suffered as a child) and was supposed to have been released in time to celebrate Christmas with the family. Being the cocky Mexican stereotype that he was, it hadn’t really entered his mind that he might not come home. And because we all believed him to be the strongest man in the world, we had only focused on making fun of him while he recovered.

But problems arose after the surgery. And after a few close calls, the doctors finally told me and my mother to call everyone to the hospital. He wouldn’t make it more than a few hours.

There were only a few people to call. If you break your toe in my family, we are required to turn the waiting room into an ethnic stereotype. Every tia, tio, prima, and primo within driving distance is called to appear at the hospital, waiting for the afflicted to emerge, triumphant and cured. I am sure the hospital staff groans when we all arrive; a Spanglish three ring circus. Even as the doctor quietly urged us to notify friends and family, he looked around at the standing room only crowd already present.

Five daughters.

Two son-in-laws.

One Godson.

One grandfather.

Two brother-in-laws.

Three of four sisters.

One Niece.

One (or was it two?) long time friends.

One uncle who had flown in from Texas.

One aunt who had delayed her trip back to Mexico.

One wife of thirty years…who just happened to be celebrating her 49th birthday that very day on November 27, 2007. 

But we made calls. My in-laws were at my house taking care of 5-month-old Buttercup, but everyone else we could get a hold of did their best to arrive before my father left us. And while we waited for the inevitable, my aunts continued to rally my father.

“Rene! Rene! Stay with us! You have your daughter’s Rene. Pauline, Veronica, Sonya, Maria, Patricia!”

Stay with us, Rene! You have the grandchildren!”

“Rene! Dorothy is here, Rene. It’s her birthday, Rene. She needs you to take care of her, Rene!”

His signs were fading.
The beeping was slowing.
The tears were flowing.

I kept my eyes closed. Easier to block the tears that way. I needed to stay focused on catching my mother before she hit the ground when the last beep would eventually fade away. And that damned light over his bed was harsh enough to sting my already tired eyes.

I stood in between Pati and Sonya, with one arm around each of their shoulders. Being six inches taller than both of them, I was able to offer them a place to rest their heads while I used them for support to keep standing.

None of us spoke. We just let my dad’s sisters cry and wail and toggle between English and Spanish while they tried to break through to his spirit. His body may have been failing, but he was strong. Maybe strong enough to make the impossible possible. If only they could reach him.

“Rene!” One of his sister’s cried out. “Rene! Look into the light, Rene! Look into the light!”

My eyes shot open as my face crumpled into a pained expression that had nothing to do with my father and everything to do with me trying to bite back a “What the HELL?” at what had just been uttered.



She, of course, meant the light over his bed. The one harnessing the power of the sun. The one we would have joked was bright enough to wake the dead had my father not been dying.

But a chuckle, which came out as a muffled sob, escaped one of my sisters. Sonya and Pati, tears streaming down their cheeks, both looked up at me. They wanted to laugh. My father would have laughed. He would have laughed his ass off.  But it wasn’t the right time. Later. We could laugh after we got home. After we had signed off on the autopsy. After we got my mother into bed. While we sat huddled together waiting to leave for the funeral home. After we got home from the service. When we needed a reason to remind us that Christmas was a time of happiness. We could, and would laugh about it often. All it took was one of us to dramatically call out, “Look into the light!”

But not now. Not yet.

I pursed my lips and silently shook my head slowly. It was as much an admonition for them as it was a reminder to me not to lose it. Because good God, I needed to laugh.

“Rene! Look into the light!” She cried out, as the beeping slowed even more. “Look into light!”

My father had never listened to his sisters. He never listened to anyone. But as the beep, beep, beep finally drew itself out into a heart-wrenching “beeeeeeeeeeep” until one of the nurses (thankfully) turned off the machines, as I let go of my sisters to catch my mother before she fell to the floor…I had one thought.

“Damn it, Dad! Fifty years! And you listen to them now?”


  1. Christmas is the WORST time to lose a loved one, isn't it? My daddy died on Dec. 20th.

    So glad your sense of humor got you through this one--I loved the scene of all your relatives mushed into the hospital--your writing took me there.

  2. Pauline, you can make even the worst things funny. Good to know the family mobbing the hospital isn't just reserved for white trash southerners like my family. ;)

  3. Awww... what a touching and authentic tribute to your dad. I can just picture your whole family crowded around him. You made me laugh AND cry.

  4. Terrific post! I think this is a perfect blend of tears and laughter.

  5. What a story, I love it. You made me think of my own father, who is entering a phase of Alzheimer's we have been dreading. We are no longer close, but I need to make more of an effort to visit him. You're a very good storyteller, and I think it's important to see the humor in every situation - or get it from someone like your aunt. Looking back, it's easier to do that, I'm sure, then at that very moment.

  6. Tears and laughter. The best mixture of each.

  7. So sorry for your loss. So glad for your sense of humor. They prop each other up.


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