As Julian Izaguirre Jr. lay in his child-sized hospital bed, in complete darkness, halfway reclined between the seated and lying positions, he asked himself, Am I going to die?
Dying to Juliancito, as his family would refer to him mainly to distinguish him from his own father, meant going to Heaven. It meant seeing God, the same one who nobody could see, but were deathly afraid of angering. Dying meant moving into God’s house and living in His warm presence.
How can God be doing this to me? Juliancito asked himself. I thought Him and I were buddies. He had played baby Jesus in a play as a newborn to some critical acclaim. Having been born to church-going parents, he had been praising His name even before he could speak. His mom used to tell him that, as an infant, Juliancito used to ball his eyes out when the hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” would be sung. Susana, Juliancito’s mom, being the wonderful pessimist that she was, would ask the pastor if there was something wrong with him, almost as if she half-wished that he was indeed demon-possessed. The pastor reassured her by saying that sometimes small children and animals felt the spirit of God differently than did adults or older children. That they expressed their fervor by crying or tossing and turning.
A couple of days before he lay dehydrated in a hospital bed, Juliancito tossed and turned in writhing pain, definitely feeling the spirit of God inhabiting his body, ripping him from the inside out. He had just served himself a bowl of his favorite cereal, Cocoa Pebbles, drowning the brown, crispy flakes with an eighth of a gallon of milk. After having taken only two spoonfuls, the pain began to set in. He doubled over while still in his seat, but the pain was too overwhelming that he felt like lying down. Juliancito pushed his chair back and whacked the table top, seeking support. In doing so, he flipped the cereal bowl, and all of its chocolaty milk contents tidal-waved onto the edge of the table and onto the cold, dirty blue linoleum. He collapsed on the floor, feeling the cold drip of milk rolling off the table, drop by drop, trickling on the back of his neck. This heavenly fervor was making him cry and curling him into a fetal position. And, in his writhing, he thought he saw the face of Jesus, smiling a transfigured smile, his luminous, orthodontic-perfect white teeth surrounded by a perfectly trimmed strawberry-blonde beard.
The absence of light made it possible for the moon to shine, in slivers, through the window blinds, stretching across the room like gigantic Corinthian columns. It was a grave sight for Julian Senior to behold his 4-year-old son teetering between the world of the living and the dead, at Hades’ gate. Julian was gripping tight a gold medallion, the ferryman’s fair, cast with his Lord Jesus Christ’s battered, cross-ridden body, praying for a miracle. He weld his fingers shut around it, mainly to delay payment hence delaying his son’s fate.
Juliancito had just emerged from the operating room after another successful gastro-intestinal procedure. He had what is known as abdominal adhesion, a condition which constricts or pulls the intestines, completely blocking anything from going through. Juliancito, later in life, came to think of it as God’s finger sucker-punching him in the gut. For a total of 8 hours and 34 minutes, Juliancito had gone from being the youngest kid in his entire family, one who used to chase after cockroaches, running furiously after them, and who had never received a grade lower than a happy face on his homework, to a piece of inert flesh that could’ve just as easily been rolled into the elevator with a downward trajectory to the morgue as it later was into the elevator with an ascending one to his recovery room.
The young Izaguirre boy was barely conscious and aware of where he was and had yet to be enlightened by the knowledge of good and evil to know that he was trudging deep in the valley of the shadow of death. He had yet to understand these two states of being, the cold binary of biology. Of the two, it was death that was imminent, as death didn’t give any warnings. It didn’t care if you were a child living life by the handfuls or an old person waiting for the sweet release of death, rich or poor, man or woman. It didn’t give a shit. Death just took you.
Life, on the other hand, left you dangling on the edge, halfway reclined, between the healthy and dying positions. It would ask the types of questions asked by a horrible boss: Can you come in and do whatever it is that you do? If you meet one or both of the conditions posed by the aforesaid inquiry, then Life would callously say, You’re good, wearing a big smile, holding up an even bigger thumb, which in the agony of trying to dig your detaching fingernails into survival’s edge, looks more like a middle finger.
Death is rest.
Life is unrest. It is struggle. Autonomous, anatomical atomic anarchy against oneself.
Juliancito’s eyes opened slowly as tears and eye boogers had sewn them shut, he emerged from his 21-hour slumber not knowing where he was. It was dark, quiet, save the green, red and blue lights flickering from the multi-parameter patient monitor he was hooked up to. The noises emanating from them resembled those colorful ones spoken by an angry R2-D2. The pneumatic tube work protruding from his nose and upper hand, transporting fluids in and out of his depleted body, would have made any 1940s office worker proud. All of these eerie cues told him that the bed he was lying on wasn’t his own. He looked at his hands– they looked like his hands, but they didn’t feel like his hands.
Still under the drowsy effects of Midazolam, Juliancito didn’t know why he felt the way he felt. Why the world didn’t seem as it used to seem. Why he couldn’t quite get a grip on what was real and what was a dream. He felt trapped. The tubes keeping him alive, to him, were tethering him to this strange reality. He saw his dad sitting next to him, sleeping with his eyes half-closed and mouth fully open, so he began to scream at him, but nothing came out. Juliancito wasn’t physically able to, an aftereffect of having been entombed in his dreams for an extended period of time.
The chains holding him down needed to be expelled from his body and the sooner the better. Using his right hand, the only appendage that didn’t seem to have anything coming out of it, he began to remove things at random, pulling the straps Velcroed to his left hand against a flat piece of wood, which appeared to be a piece of rogue plywood. The ripping of the fibers sounded like the loudest sound in the world, he looked over at his dad. His dad didn’t even flinch. Juliancito then moved on to remove the needle lodged impossibly deep inside his upper hand, between his index and middle finger. Just to make sure it hadn’t impaled his hand à la Christ, he quickly flipped it over. To his relief, his palm was needle-free.
The needle and the deep purple-red tube to which it was connected were taped down to his forearm. Removing each strip, from end to sticky end, sounded louder than the Velcro. With each strip removed, Juliancito could feel follicles of hair being plucked hard out of his skin. The tube, heavy with blood, began to tug away at the buried needle like someone who is pinching you while walking away, not planning on letting go. By the time he removed the last strip, the needle itself was begging to be dislodged from within him like Excalibur to Arthur.
Juliancito took the deepest breath he could muster this side of reality, held it in, his face growing increasingly warm, eyes bulging out. He kept it in for what felt like hours, thoughts of blood rivers swimming in his head. He bit his bottom lip with just the right amount of pressure as to not puncture it with his baby teeth. He tugged at the blood-warm cord, and the anchored needle began to recede from his frigid knuckles. Juliancito finally exhaled.
He watched the needle come out slowly, feeling every centimeter of it exiting his body. As he pulled, red discharge began to pool between his knuckles, dripping delicately, like espresso onto his virginal-white bed covers, blossoming on contact all about, as miniature roses do in the infancy of spring.
The more Juliancito pulled, the more blood gushed out. As all three inches of the needle lay weeping crimson tears, Juliancito moved on to the tube coming out of his nose.
As was the case with the needle in his hand, the nasogastric tube needled in his nose was taped to his right nostril, as he discovered on his first attempt at yanking it out. Based on his previous success, Juliancito simply ripped off the tape in one swift move. Pulling this tube out of my nose will be a breeze, he thought, as he assumed that his nose’s depth was as far as his little finger could reach. He knew this from having mined his nose for boogers so many times before. Just a quick pull, and the tube would be out. In his limited knowledge of human anatomy, he soon discovered, as he kept pulling and pulling with no apparent end in sight, that the tube only entered through his nose, but it actually ended up all the way down in his stomach.
Since Juliancito’s small intestine had recently undergone work, the doctors didn’t want to cumber it with waste just yet. The tube that had been protruding out of his hand, which had now sprung a leak, was feeding him nutritious saline solution and medicine. The tube he was now playing tug of war with was evacuating the waste accumulating in his stomach.
The more Juliancito pulled, the longer the tube felt. He could feel it traversing through his chest, throat and nose. The tube was being treated to a cross-country tour of his insides. This scenic route finally ended and triggered his gag reflex all over his hospital gown and blood-soaked bed sheets.
He was finally free.
Something was terribly wrong. That which he had wrought didn’t make him feel free. Juliancito felt worse. Worser and worst.
He let out a loud cry that woke up the whole hospital, including his dad.
“What the fuck did you do?” Julian asked upon seeing what his little boy had done, his eyes not completely open yet. He opened the room door and a wave of piercing light drowned his son’s retinas.
Julian yelled out for a nurse, and two of them quickly ran in. Juliancito was crying, not due to the pain of two exit wounds, but due to the amount of commotion and hecticness coming from the three adults in the room.
“What did you do, sweetie?” one of the nurses asked in a motherly tone. Juliancito’s small ribcage, one big enough to hold only a tiny bird, was heaving spastically. “Just relax, my dear.”
The motherly nurse was walking him from a cardiac ledge, distracting him while the other nurse was diligently preparing all of the materials for intravenous reinsertion. First came the hand needle. The resourceful nurses used the same fresh hole between Juliancito’s knuckles, open still as not enough tine had transpired in order for it to heal itself closed. The needle being inserted was sterilized and looked thicker and longer than the one he had just pulled out of himself moments ago. More like a soft drink straw than a straw of hay.
“No, no, no,” Juliancito spat out. His dad held him down as the nurses tag-teamed him, one holding down his floundering hand, the other doing the final lunge.
“Don’t pull this one out, my dear baby,” the motherly nurse said, wiping the sweat off his tiny forehead, which fit perfectly inside her palm.
“Yep, you better listen to her,” the other nurse said crudely. “Every time you take it out, we’re going to come in here and stick it back in.” She seemed to derive some form of twisted pleasure in torturing children, especially in the way in which she said, “Stick it back in.” In his young mind, it sounded more like, “Nail it back in.”
The worst was over. Juliancito took a deep breath, a sigh of relief. He leaned his head back and laid it on his pillow, the only white surface on the bed undefiled by blood, and allowed the warm hint of morphine to course through his veins.
“Okay, now let’s stick in your nose tube,” the crude nurse said, almost jokingly. “All the way down.” What proceeded can be best depicted by images of Egyptians performing the mummification rite of brain removal.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” said the motherly nurse. But everything wasn’t. The plastic tube jammed up his nose scratched and poked every surface inside his head and throat, bringing about the feeling of sneezing, which was highly discouraged by both nurses.
Juliancito gulped a torrential amount of saliva and tube. Had he known the words and meaning of “Fuck you, bitch,” that would have been exactly what he would have yelled instead of the unpitched, crying drone. He actually only knew one curse word, “bitch,” and only because both his parents used it with such liberty. Mainly, to refer to their sisters, female coworkers, strange women driving poorly, their mothers, sometimes, and, on one occasion, his brother for refusing to date a girl. Juliancito had only uttered the derogatory term once as he came out into a crowded living room, full of his aunts and uncles who were all saying it. In spite of the positive reaction from his relatives in the form of side-splitting laughter, his mom’s feedback was a hard smack on the lips, sealing them from ever saying it again.
After the nurses left and his dad went back to sleep, Juliancito felt as though he was invisible, stuck inside a prison, incarcerating and eviscerating him from the inside. He slept in what felt like intervals of a minute, closing his eyes and immediately opening them again. His eyelids felt heavy, his eyeballs dry, he wanted to sleep but didn’t know why. He woke up to children’s laughter, then night’s complete darkness, then daylight again. It seemed as though he hadn’t seen a real person in days.
It was becoming more difficult for Juliancito to distinguish between dreams, hallucinations and reality. At times, he would see his mom sitting at the foot of the bed just looking at him; other times he would see her holding him in her arms, like Mary holding Jesus’ flagellated body. Juliancito’s face looked gaunt, elongated like that of an old man, the whites of his eyes yellowed and without pupils. Susana was taking care of him as she had every cursed day of his four years on Earth. Both of them in a certain kind of state, different from what they were each used to. Her meditative, Juliancito vegetative.
Juliancito opened his eyes to a man dressed in gray robes, his face concealed by a hood. He was standing tall, between two trees. Juliancito knew that it was a man because his hands were vascular and worn from too much work. His mom would often tell him that that was what real-man hands looked like. The tree to the man’s right was leaf-less, barren, white as dry bone. A river of milk ran from it. The tree to the man’s left was green, greener than any tree he had ever seen. It was robust with fruit of all kinds, such as pomegranates, apples and tangerines. His parents were bathing in the pristine, blue water running out of it, touching each other as they had when he walked into the bathroom late one night because he couldn’t hold it in and was afraid to wet the bed. They were feeding tangerine wedges to one another, making sounds that he had never heard them make. Sounds that made him not want to be able to hear, ones that made him feel ill.
The two rivers, the white one and the blue one, met at the feet of the cloaked man, and at their point of conjecture, the two liquids spontaneously combusted into a warm mist, tender and silky to the touch. The cloaked man rolled his hood back over his head with both hands. Juliancito saw the face of the man; it was the face of God. His mind became burdened with questions, but so did his vocal folds with muteness. God’s face was like the Sun, and his hands were as gray as his robes, withered from having created everything he knew of, including every person that had existed, existed now, and would have ever existed.
God was silent. Juliancito remembered that whenever God spoke, something got created. Maybe God isn’t in a creative mood, he thought.
As God’s hands descended, they pointed out to the two trees. The tree to His left, the one with his parents, was shaking. Juliancito’s parents were nowhere to be seen, but the sounds they were making were now coming out of the tree, dropping fruit onto the grassy knoll, spilling their seeds all about.
The white, withered tree had morphed into a crucifix and the river of milk into blood. However, the miserable person hanging from it wasn’t Jesus, it was Juliancito. God began to chant in an echoing boom: I-N-R-I… I-N-R-I… I-N-R-I… Juliancito didn’t know what “INRI” stood for, but he had seen these letters countless times, at church and at his grandma’s house, written on a tiny piece of wrinkled paper, nailed above Jesus’ wounded head. He had always wanted to ask his parents what that meant. In his mind, maybe it explained why Jesus looked so miserable up on that cross. But when it came to God or anything church-related, it was a mortal sin to ask for an explanation.
Suddenly, Juliancito was no longer looking up at his own crucified body, but rather down from the cross, down at his naked parents. Their genitals, the ones his mom and dad had hidden from him any time he walked into their room as they were changing and had been told to hide his own, were covered with green flames. They were standing still and quiet as his body was being nailed to a cross by three 8-inch nails. The pounding of the hammer against his limbs was loud like thunder, and the pain of the nails perforating his hands and feet radiated throughout his body. The pressure on his forehead and temples from the deadly diadem wedged on his head, the crown of thorns, shrunk smaller and tighter, digging deep, cracking into the bone.
“Mom. Dad,” Juliancito yelled.
It was dark outside. God was gone. His parents were fully clothed, his dad sleeping in a chair across the hospital room and his mom in one by his bed.
“What happened?” Julian said, jumping out of his seat.
“Are you okay, baby?” Susana asked, finding a seat on his bed.
Juliancito, his head beaded with sweat, was sitting up on his bed with a new sense of vigor, something he hadn’t felt for the past five weeks and three days that he spent bedridden in the hospital after his surgery. A resurrection. A thick crown of heavy thorns had been removed from his head. He immediately jumped over to his mom and laid his head on her lap. Susana wiped the sweat off his forehead, bearing the weight of her only begotten son’s illness on the very womb from which she brought him into existence. That which had felt like an eternity to Juliancito had been merely part of a nightmare. Part of God’s plan for him.
“Why does God hate me?” Juliancito asked, tears rolling down his cheeks and onto his mom’s worn-out blue jeans.
“Son, He doesn’t hate you,” Julian rebutted.
“Yeah, He does. He really does. I can feel it.”
“Now listen,” Susana said, propping Juliancito up so that their eyes met. She always did this for serious matters, so that he could see that she wasn’t kidding. “I know that you’re upset, but you don’t talk about God that way. You hear me?”
Juliancito was using the name of God in vain, and he knew it. He held this and all of the other 9 commandments to heart, including ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’ although he didn’t really know what that was referring to. Susana wiped the tears away from his eyes.
“Well, if He doesn’t hate me, then why did He make me this way?” Juliancito asked. “Why did He make me broken?”
His parents looked at each other and took a collective deep breath, the kind you take before telling a big lie.
“God works in mysterious ways, son,” Julian said. “We shouldn’t question His ways.”
“Your father is right,” Susana weighed in. “We just need to learn to live with what God gives us. There’s nothing else we can do.”
After his parents each kissed him on his fevered forehead, they turned off the lights and snuggled up in their respective chairs. They instantly went back to sleep, but Juliancito couldn’t. His head was still heavy with burdensome questions. Looking up to the ceiling, he noticed the reflection cast by the tiny sequins embroidered into the outside of his mom’s green leather bag. The refracted light glimmered like stars. Although they weren’t the Sun, he began to talk to them as if they were, as if they were God Himself.
“God, I hate You,” Juliancito said. “I don’t know if You love me or hate me, but I do know that I hate You.” He spoke the harsh words cautiously, not wanting to wake his parents up. His voice lowered down just below a whisper, and mouthed, “I really hate You.” This time, he didn’t even want God to hear him.
Deep in his heart, Juliancito didn’t really hate God or His only begotten son, Jesus. Especially not Jesus, as he himself had felt the cold fingers of crucifixion impaling his hands and feet.
However, Juliancito did hate God’s wicked sense of humor, His fucked-up punchlines. One that had placed a pleasure button on his intestine, to detonate at His random, inscrutable will, bringing him down to the existence of a dirt clump. I wonder why He plays this cruel game with me, Juliancito thought. It was the same one that he played in his school’s playground, capriciously mutilating insects, peeling away the exoskeleton, ripping away leg after gooey leg. Juliancito realized that he would never be able to break away from God’s will, no matter how hard he tried. He had to learn to accept God’s cruelty, His warped sense of compassion, that “undying clinging to life” He bestowed upon every living thing.
As sleep finally draped over his eyes, Juliancito accepted that he was a sinner, even though he couldn’t think of a reason why he was one. In his opinion, he was afraid of the right things, never did any of the bad ones and only lied when it wasn’t hurting anybody. He accepted that all that befell him was his own fault, not God’s, as his parents and the Bible had told him so. Propping himself up to a seated position, the euphoric feeling of health that had overtaken him a few moments ago was slowly fading. He would never be a normal boy, and the crown of illness that had been removed from his head had left a thorn lodged within him, one that would continue to bleed and perhaps, one day, finish the job that the whole crown had begun, that of ending his life.
In the darkness of the room, the tears spilling from his head onto his white bedspread looked like the bloodstains that had once sprung from his hand. Juliancito continued to mourn his lot in life, alone, silently, not due to the physical pain it caused him, but due to the pain that resulted from loving someone that didn’t love you back, and trusting blindly in something that didn’t have your best interest. He swallowed the bitter nectar from the cup that he wished would have passed by him, that neither man nor god, medicine or prayer could heal his corrupted body or soul.
Juliancito closed his eyes and gulped deeply, drinking from the chalice set before him, one that overran with uncertainty, unquestioning its purpose, in remembrance of him.
Artwork by Cory Bilicko
Bilicko, C. (2017). What Remains [Painting]. Acrylic on wood, Long Beach, CA.