I was in California for Thanksgiving when I got the text from my dog sitter. My neighbor Rogelio had died. The tears came quick and fierce. All of my Chapala neighbors had made me feel welcome in the barrio, but none more than Rogelio. He and his wife, Mari, ran a small produce store directly across the street from my house. From day one, shopping there was not an ordinary experience. Rogelio never failed to ask after my family, my dog, my house, me. He and Mari consulted me before their weekly buying trips, catering to my weekly recipe whims. I was introduced to their grown children, Myrna, Ulises, and Carol, and their grandchildren. They invited my ex and me on a bus trip to the beach. I was encouraged to join the spontaneous karaoke nights that spilled from their storefront into the street on many a weekend night. Rogelio insisted no one could sing worse than he could. (This might be true.) Not since I was a kid in the small California town I grew up in did I feel like such an integral part of a neighborhood.
Even the shocking news that I didn’t eat red meat was met with acceptance. I was forced to confess that I didn’t eat mammals when Rogelio noted that I never partook of his weekend pop-up taco stand. He encouraged me to bring alternatives and didn’t hesitate to toss chicken, tilapia, chayote squash, potatoes or whatever I might fancy onto the grill. I had to force him and Mari to let me pay for the tacos we created. We agreed on half price.
My bedroom window faces the street. Every morning I would wake up to my vecinos, Rogelio, his neighbor and brother-in-law Turi, and the other Arturo who runs the carniceria next door to me, bantering back and forth in rapid-fire Spanish that I couldn’t understand but which always ended in peals of laughter. This made me smile almost as much as Rogelio’s terrible singing. I felt so lucky to start every day this way.
Christmas 2020 marked my first Christmas alone in Mexico. Rogelio and Mari were quick to invite me to their family’s Noche Buena celebration. Rogelio refilled my little cup of tequila so often that I spoke my Spanglish without hesitation. I had given their granddaughter, Sofia, a doctor’s kit for Christmas and she set about examining us with her stethoscope, proclaiming that none of us were well. We ate and sang and danced, and made gentle fun of each other all night.
When his daughter, Carol, got married, he did everything in his power to make her day special. He allowed Carol and her sister, Myrna, to die his hair. They did this in the store during business hours, with Rogelio joining in on the teasing he endured from his customers and friends. Whatever my baby wants, he told me. He helped assemble the little wedding favors, writing her name by hand on ribbon after ribbon. No task was too small or too large, his love for his daughter unabashedly flowing forth.
This will be the first Father’s Day that Myrna, Ulises, and Carol will not have their dad by their side. In this year of first withouts, which has already painfully included Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter, Father’s Day might seem particularly painful, but grief doesn’t wait for big moments. Yes, there will be the unavoidable introspection and revisiting of the loss that these milestones bring. It seems to me, though, that the quiet moments are harder, especially because Rogelio filled the world with such joyful noise. Despite the roosters and the dogs and the near-constant music, the neighborhood is much too quiet without him.
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