A Strong Woman Says the Long Goodbye
This is, above all else, a love story.
It’s about a couple of kids from opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, who still somehow found each other. She was from a mixed-European family on the north side of the fence; he was a poor Mexican kid from the south.
Fernando and Denise. Or perhaps better put, Denise and Fernando.
Like Sid and Nancy, but without the drugs and much more hilarity, along with a healthy dose of TJ street food.
This isn’t a biography, because the real story is book length.
But it’s just enough to show you how they were, and I mean this, made for one another, and how, like a fixer-upper house, Denise Seffens found her Fernando Romero and, well, fixed him up. She bought furniture and those chili pepper figurines she has hung up everywhere.
And together, they made a home not far from the Mexican border where he grew up, performing his magic on his journalist’s keyboard and on his drums.
Fernando, that rascal, always knew when he had a good thing.
Denise was always behind him, doing what she could to help make ends meet while he worked on his degree, played his music. She told him naughty jokes to lighten his spirits whenever he was down.
Together, they raised a journalist son who followed in his father’s footsteps.
And don’t kid yourself, Dennis Romero has a lot of Seffens in him as well.
Denise and Fernando met on a bar in TJ. She’d crossed the border with friends, most likely against her father’s wishes, and was introduced to the man whose nickname was a Spanish variation of the word “exquisite,” to described his view of the world, the way he played his music, how he saw beauty in the tiniest little thing.
The moment they were introduced, he asked her the time. Maybe he was playing drums that night and had to get back onstage, maybe break time was over.
It was not one or Fernando’s best lines.
But what he got in return was a classic.
“What do I look like,” she said. “Big Ben?”
That was Denise, always there with a quick response that buzz-sawed you down to size. She was the hot sauce to Fernando’s sweetness, the well-placed gut punch to his embrace. He always called her La Cocha, which means potato bug, supposedly for the way, early on, she coquettishly rolled up in a ball whenever he touched her.
I think it also must have meant: She Who Must Be Obeyed.
Fernando passed away this week after a long illness.
His liver finally gave out, and there was a bacteria that he’d picked up in a hospital in the late fall.
When he died, shortly after 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night, Denise was there. She had been there for weeks, attending to the man she did not want to see go.
In December, a doctor had told her there was no hope.
Take him home, she advised. Make him comfortable. Talk to the hospice people.
She took her man out of the hospital room to die what is known as The Good Death.
She slept on the living room couch, just a few steps from his hospice bed, in order to be there if he needed anything, day or night.
And slowly, she watched him slip from her grasp, always with that signature sense of humor, a strength that was harder to maintain as the end came nearer.
Fernando’s good friends made their regular pilgrimage to visit and life his spirits, none more so than Chet Barfield, about whom Denise is contacting the Pope about as we speak, recommending him for sainthood.
A well-deserved honor, I might add.
Chet wrote a goodbye letter to Fernando that still brings tears to my eyes. He wrote about how Fernando had shown him the ropes down in Tijuana when they both worked for the San Diego Tribune, how they both become not just colleagues, but friends.
“It pisses me off that you’re dying, though of course I know we all die,” Chet wrote. “Today I was impressed by your graceful acceptance of reality, but I’m not surprised. You have a heart of gold and are the kindest, most gentle person it has been my privilege to know.”
In a few frank, well-chosen words and images, one man had bravely captured the love he felt for a good friend. It was beautiful. One night, on a visit, I read the letter to Fernando as he lay in his bed. Near the end, I broke down.
Fernando cried, too.
“I believe that as long as you’re remembered, you’re not really gone. You’ll stay with me, my dear, cherished friend, in my heart and my memory as long as I’m around. Hopefully I’ll join you on the other side and embrace you again.”
“I know I’ll think of a hundred things later that I wish I’d have said here, but it’s late and I’m fried. So I’ll close with this: If the value of life is measured by love — the love you give and are given — you’re the richest man I’ve known.”
“I love you Fernando Romero, and while I will grieve losing you I will never, ever forget you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being my friend.”
Denise loved that letter, and she loved how Chet came by nearly every day after work, to sit with her. Of course, he paid his respects to his friend, but he also wanted to see how she was coping.
Denise found out who her real friends were, and Chet topped the list.
Over the last weeks, Denise and I kept in touch via texts.
She was doing the hardest thing a spouse can ever do, I said. With grace, and humor and, yes, tears at the end.
But she was there; always.
In recent years, I’d noticed that Fernando was keeping a quieter presence on Facebook. He’d suffered a stroke and had to relearn things, like working the computer.
Of course, I would call, and Denise would put him on, and we’d go through our time-tested greeting.
But it was mostly Denise whom I’d see online, sniping at Trump, always with the best one-liners to whatever I would post.
Then, on Dec. 23, I got this text:
“I am losing him, John. His body is shutting down.”
My heart fell. I hadn’t known Fernando was this sick.
But Denise was already preparing.
“So many volunteers,” she wrote. “He’s been calling people he loves to say goodbye. Maybe I will help him call you.”
And so began our regular correspondence. I tried to call or text every other night.
Each one of my texts was met with A Denise quip.
When I said I wanted to visit, she suggested I sleep in their bed because “Dennis’ bathroom looks like snails live there.”
In the beginning, Fernando had lots of energy. He was like a King propped up upon his pillows, entertaining his court.
People stopped. Writer friends. Musicians.
Denise held her tongue.
She called him as Poopsie. And whatever Poopsie wanted was OK with her.
On Jan. 3rd: “Update. A surprise band (they did not ask me) at 6 p.m. tomorrow. His old favorite. They want him to sing his favorite song again. He is back today to there is a cure. It’s so hard to handle.”
During one hospital visit, a medical aide had mentioned something about a list-ditch procedure. Fernando clutched onto those words, hoping against hope there was some way to save him.
Denise knew the truth.
After being strong, telling his friends that he was ready to go, that he’d led a good life, he reversed strategy. Maybe there was a way out.
But Denise knew.
She was a stalwart. Of course, she’s strong, but who could stay strong watching someone leave you in slow motion?
“When the nurse left this morning, he asked, and she told him: no hope. He gets it for now and is sad all over again. Music this afternoon. Jazz. Violin and Guitar. Soooo smooth. Sleepy bye. Nurse said a decline every day. I know.”
And always the frank humor.
“No pain. But I am ready to give him mood elevators. I got stuff. After I am taking it.”
Fernando wanted company. He wanted the musicians to show. And the journalists. She asked if he wanted people to come, and he always said yes, even when sleeping.
I tried to be a friend, offer advice that might give her a way out to have a quiet night with Fernando. One night, after she sent me a picture of her chili-pepper shaped stapler, she insisted she was not going to say no to visitors.
“I can catch up forever,” she wrote.
The decline continued.
“Bad enough he made Chet cry,” she wrote one day.
One night, while a band played, Fernando insisted on getting up and going to the kitchen for something to eat.
And another night: “Slipping away. Said he was out dancing last night. I went to the store while Dennis sat. I could only buy things for myself. I had to skip the Men’s Department. Who knew?”
It was an oft-oft-repeated refrain in the days and weeks to come: Denise was getting a brief glimpse at what life would be like without him.
“This is really hard shit. I am working hard at not being all boo-hoo and depressed. Tomorrow I need to go make arrangements while Dennis baby-sits.”
It broke your heart.
On January 15, she wrote:
“Bad today. Barely awake. I canceled the band and company. Except Guy and Lynette, and Chet. They understand the NP says there will be pain. He is off all drugs. Nothing now. I have plenty for pain. Not if I can help it. I had a 4 week old baby. I had a 20 year old Rambler. Richard Nixon thought he would stop drugs at the border by checking every car. The wait both ways was 2 hours. The freeway was 2 lanes. I drove to Pacific Beach left the 4 week old with my mother who took 4 week old to a neighbor at ten when mom had to go to work. I drove to la Jolla, by 9 and worked till 5, 5 days a week Drove back to TJ, kept house did laundry at a laundry mat, went to bed and started again the next morning. I would trade that for this anytime.”
The visitors who came saw less of Fernando. He’d say “Hi. I’m gong to sleep now.”
By now, like Chet, many had some to console La Cocha.
She began to discourage the musicians.
“Memo and his violin. His eyes were closed but his feet were moving. Chet, a drummer and a keyboard player. I got a call from one of the guys saying everyone wanted to know but I discouraged them. I want to maintain dignity. Some of them would not understand.”
Shopping trips, those rare moments when she could slip away and have a moment to herself, were harder and harder.
She felt moments of anger. Maybe she should have insisted even harder that Fernando quit his tequila. He’d promised her that they’d see 90 together.
Now, she saw a time when she would be forced to go on alone.
“Escaped for awhile today and it wasn’t fun,” she wrote. “I see too many thing I don’t have to buy anymore. 49 years in April.
“How can sorting underwear be so fucking painful?”
“I went to the store. I was excited to get out. I cried all the way home. No one to tell me, be careful, what did you buy, show me, did you remember, what did you get to eat, what took you so long, why did you buy that for me. I am alone for the first time in 70 years. He said, you and me together forever, the end. He lied.”
At the end, in his haze, Fernando began to speak to the only woman he has ever loved.
“Looked at me and said, ‘I am the happiest man in the world.’ Never said that before.”
“He always wakes up long enough to tell me he loves me. He says ‘You are the prettiest of them all’ and calls me La Reina. Enough to last a lifetime.”
One night, he left her.
The strong woman knows she still has to stay strong.
Now, it’s for herself.
Still, she has his mementos and her memories.
The love story goes on.