Interstate 5 slices north–south and serpentine along the West Coast of the United States, parallel to the Pacific Ocean for more than a thousand miles. In the south, it curves into one of the world’s busiest border crossings—the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where San Diego and Tijuana touch. A green sign hangs over the highway: “Mexico Only.”
In the summer of 1986, a young Puerto Rican physician drove on a southbound lane just north of the juncture. She sought an exit called Bonita Road. But there is no such exit on I-5, and never was. It exists on I-805, to the east. The woman who would become my mother had just arrived in San Diego, in quest of the American dream, and her suitcase-stuffed rental vehicle was on a straight course to Mexico.
Jeannette Del Valle grew up on the western tip of Puerto Rico, suffering asthma her father blamed on the sugarcane pollen of their pueblo, Aguadilla. She had big, startled eyes that struggled to see—diagnosed with myopia at age twelve—and curly ash-blonde hair her mother did not let her cut, so that it grew long and thick to her thighs, a heavy cloak on her bony limbs. Her classmates called her Eskeleto, or Skeleton. From her earliest memories, her throat constricted against her will. She tried to pull oxygen into her convulsing lungs; she could not. Raised Catholic, she prayed to God for help. It came in the form of Doctor Mendoza, a chubby, gray-haired man who gave her shots of epinephrine and steroids, consoling her with a competent, bespectacled gaze. At night, she was alone in her battles against death. Her father purchased a nebulizer and an oxygen tank. Blind in the blackness, she sucked air into her esophagus. She survived each time to see the dawn.
Her father, Luis, was a bespectacled mechanic with a wide nose and brown skin. Despite his five-foot stature, Jeannette’s father had a towering, storybook tale. He became a provider for his two younger siblings as a teenager, when his mother died of tuberculosis. His father, a police officer married to another woman, refused to recognize him as his son until later in life. Luis shined shoes in the street. He learned to build and install central air-conditioning units. On the hot island, his skills were in high demand. He helped establish El Colegio de Técnicos Refrigeración y Aire Acondicionado, to give the island’s previously informal cool-temperature trades a licensing structure. He married Luz, a lean blonde with skin like carne de noni.
Jeannette was the third of their four children, the most delicate in complexion and size—the skinniest, the fairest, the most prone to sickness. A verdant tangle of plants and panapen trees separated their house from Playa Crash Boat, with its peach-colored sands and reaching blue waters. Jeannette’s hardy siblings spent much of their time there, imitating the coqui frog’s song, kicking coconuts, chasing crabs in the mud. Jeannette liked the ocean from an aesthetic point of view, but she preferred the indoors and its comfortable, controlled environments. Her favorite pastime was reading—medical literature, for the most part, which she checked out from the local library, dreaming of discovering a cure for the asthma that asphyxiated her almost every day. Naturally, her goal was to become a doctor. Even with all the doors and windows of their little Aguadilla house shut, Jeannette suffered. Even after the sugarcane harvests, when the fields were clean, the attacks came. One day, as she doodled unicorn intestines in an anatomy text, it occurred to her that maybe the sugarcane pollen was not the sole cause of her asthma. Posiblemente, she thought, it was also the creatures in the attic next door. Every evening she saw the bats emerging in droves. She wondered if spores from their dung or dander clung to the ubiquitous humidity and floated into her breathing space, irritating her lungs. When her family moved to a nearby house for unrelated reasons, her asthma attacks abated, and she remembered her hypothesis. She had a gift.
Luz nurtured it. It is humiliating to have to ask a man for everything—even underwear, her mother whispered in Spanish. In her adolescence, Luz had been known in her neighborhood as La Rubia Peligrosa—the dangerous blonde. The attention had planted vague dreams of grandeur in Luz’s teenage mind: perhaps she would be a movie star someday, or a powerful curandera. Now she was a devoted wife and mother, linked forever to the whims, worries and wanderings of the man to whom she had committed. Luz did not know how to read, write or drive a car. She rarely left the house without her husband. She had been eclipsed by her man and feared the same fate for her daughters. She poured her passion into things she made for the family, food like savory sorullitos de maíz and pasteles de yuque. Luz also made the girls’ clothing, expressing her rebellion in bright colors and bold cuts.
Luis was old-fashioned, and didn’t believe women should aspire beyond domesticity. When he hired a painting tutor for his daughters, it was to increase their desirability as housewives. But on the walls of their Caribbean home, Jeannette painted murals of an indecorous medical nature—for example, a grinning feline with a sinewy esophagus visible through a slit in its throat. The oldest daughter, Irma, expressed plans to attend law school. The youngest, Myriam, announced she would be a professional painter. Luz’s nocturnal whispers had worked like magic on the girls. The three would make their way to the mainland in pursuit of their ambitions. Only their brother established himself in Aguadilla.
My mother was the first to leave. As valedictorian of her high school class, she secured a full scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s in biology in Mayagüez. There, she applied to the U.S. Air Force for a medical school scholarship. But she had worn thick glasses since she was twelve, and at the time, the Air Force required 20/20 vision. She applied to the Coast Guard and the Navy. She was underweight. Jeannette told herself it was for the best; it was hard enough to breathe on land. Despite living footsteps from the ocean, Jeannette had never learned to swim. A rip current had sucked her out to sea once, endowing her with a permanent terror of el mar. She had been splashing waist-deep on the shore, clasping her sisters’ hands, when a swell of water buoyed the girls and separated their fingers. Jeannette alone lost her balance. Disoriented, she watched as her rooted sisters shrank, and the palm trees on the white beach became farther away. She sought a place to rest her feet, in vain. A tall wave crashed around her, knocking off her glasses and plunging her into the deep. She saw the blurry sun cracked to golden pieces by turbulent undulations. She was accustomed to mortal terror, thanks to her asthma—and as water filled her throat, she mentally chanted traga, traga, traga, like a magic spell, swallow, swallow, swallow. She resolved to imbibe the whole sea if necessary . . . traga, traga, traga, don’t let water into your pulmones . . . Even as her lungs screamed for air, Jeannette refused to succumb to irrational impulses. So many times in the course of her life, she would be imperiled by invisible forces like the rip current over which she lacked control—or like Interstate 5, which would push her straight into my father’s arms. Her will to survive was always militant. She sank, her hair floating upward like Medusa’s snakes, eyes wide open, respiratory system secured. Her uncle dove in and saved her.
After rejections from the Navy and Coast Guard, Jeannette applied to the Army. The recruiter looked at her with pitying eyes and advised her to try the National Health Service Corps: she could remain a civilian and repay her debts as a primary-care provider in an underserved community. She applied. The Service Corps notified her she would be going to medical school, all expenses paid. She completed her bachelor’s in three years and moved to San Juan. She specialized in internal medicine: the treatment, prevention and diagnosis of adult illness.
For a year, in anatomy class, she familiarized herself with the innards of an unclaimed corpse. Having studied mutations, protrusions, rashes, gashes, warts, wounds and putrefactions in books since she was a child, Jeannette was not a queasy person. She was fascinated by the labyrinth of tubes inside this human. She sliced open the gray-haired man with scalpels, planting labeled flags in his arteries, muscles and organs. She removed his heart and held it in her hands, imagining the limp, defective organ in its last moments, its once-moist coronary arteries clotted and trembling. When Irma moved into Jeannette’s apartment to study law, she was aghast to discover that Jeannette placed her textbooks on the dead man daily and brought them home to study on the kitchen table. The corpse is sterile, Jeannette thought, shrugging. They keep it cold.
Living on their own was liberating. Jeannette cut her hair short, bleached it and styled it voluminous and layered like the actress Farrah Fawcett’s. She had the same wide-open eyes and pale, delicate lips. She weighed ninety-five pounds. She was a top student, but her adventurous wardrobe, inspired by her mother—thick belts, audacious colors, tall boots—meant she was also named Most Fashionable in the yearbook.
A medical student named Carlos proposed to Jeannette. Like her, he was spindly and half blind. Thick-rimmed glasses hid the small eyes on his prodigious head. They were engaged for about a year. But as they neared graduation in 1983, Carlos realized he wanted a housewife. He begged Jeannette to give up medicine. She refused. Carlos asked her to return his engagement ring. For a few weeks, Jeanette’s grades slipped.
Heartbroken, Jeannette flew to New York for an interview at the Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center. She took in the shining, metallic skyscrapers, an alternate universe compared with the ripe green Eden of her home. The silver city beckoned her. When the cutting-edge trauma center offered her a residency, she said goodbye to her relatives and moved to the mainland.
Jeannette sent her family money and gifts, writing letters that focused on the positive aspects of her new life, such as the hospital’s ethnic diversity—I feel like I live all over the world!—and her improving English. She described the workload—thirty-six hours of emergency-room duty every three nights—in cheerful cursive Spanish: I find a way to sleep one or two hours, it’s enough.
She said nothing about the dead who plagued her dreams, the patients she failed to save, such as the man whose skull was splintered by a bullet, whose heart she kept beating for nearly an hour. She made no mention of her romantic anxiety, her fear that she might never love again. Although she cloaked her insecurities in her letters, I detect them in her praise for Myriam, the artist, whom she called the smartest of the sisters for pursuing a passion she saw as less exhausting. Career is not everything in life, Jeannette wrote. I hope God blesses you all and helps me keep going forward with . . . a whole life in service of health. She ended her letters on playful notes. P.S. They’ve changed my name a little bit; they call me Jeannette D’val. As if I were French. Americans—or Gringos—don’t know how to pronounce my beautiful last name Del Valle . . .
The winter of the East Coast sank into her tropical bones like teeth. Gargantuan, grimy rats wriggled into her apartment. She slept with her inhaler under her pillow and scattered glue traps. In the mornings, her landlord stopped by to toss their sticky tombs from her window. Once or twice, she passed their twitching tails protruding from the snow like stems of animate flowers.
In the emergency room one night, Dr. Del Valle admitted two drowned bodies as blue as icicles. The corpses had been pulled from a frozen river and transported by helicopter. For hours, Jeannette warmed these dead lovers with blankets, intravenous injections of warm fluids and the aggressive motions of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. She watched as the woman’s cheeks regained color and she took a sudden breath of air. The man did not awaken again, but the woman’s recovery was remarkable. Miracles such as this, and the role she played in them, allowed her uncertainties about prioritizing her career to dissolve with the snow. Spring came.
She befriended an aspiring radiologist starting his residency at a nearby hospital. Mark Anthony had a thick brown beard, vulnerable brown eyes and a contrasting conspiratorial air that gave him an edgy charm. In Puerto Rico, men had not preferred Jeannette because of her thinness and her ambition, perceived as masculine traits. In New York, with its multicultural range of ideals, she was a desirable Twiggy, with a sexy, superior mind, and Mark Anthony was infatuated with her. They went dancing. He lifted her petite body, spinning her as others looked on with envy. They spent hours conversing about their fields. They both felt that familiar tug of the heart, but they resisted it. They wanted to be realistic. Mark Anthony was younger than Jeannette, and would not finish his residency for another two years. Jeannette planned to establish herself in a more habitable climate, ideally in the Golden State.
She was accepted at several Service Corps facilities, including her top choice: the San Ysidro Health Center in San Diego, California. She picked up her residency diploma and hired a moving van. Maybe you can follow me someday, she told Mark Anthony. Maybe I will, he said. Then she got on a plane and flew to California.