TAMPA, Fla. – I had hoped he would wait until I got here, but he was in a rush to go.
“I’m dead,” he said a couple of days before he was. “I died yesterday,” he said a few minutes later. Several times, exasperated upon realizing he wasn’t in fact dead, he would chuckle and say, “This is a helluva mess.”
Mauricio Rubio, my stepfather of several decades, was humorous to the end – an end he very much wanted sooner than it finally arrived. At 91, his body was tuckered out; his mind had already been made.
When it’s time, it’s time. No heroic measures, no medicine, just minimal maintenance. He was a doctor after all – a psychiatrist – and he recognized the exit signs before others noticed them. Despite his self-diagnosis – “old” – he wasn’t quite able to coax his vessel out the door. He wanted to depart with the same precision he had lived his life: disciplined and without bother to others.
Even though Mauricio was my stepfather once removed – meaning he married my stepmother after she and my father divorced (you’ll need a thick sketch pad if you’re serious about tracing my family tree) – he had been part of my life since high school.
He wasn’t so much a father figure as a friend who offered as much as I was willing to receive. He was also a model of how to live – and how to die. Small in stature, huge in spirit, he was in medical school by age 16 and came to the U.S. from Mexico at 21. I wrote about him once before 11 years ago when he decided to return to work at 80. Retirement bored him.
He was a well-known figure in the Tampa Bay area, not only for having treated many in the angst-filled population but also for having married the belle of any ball: Sarah Jane.
She came into my life when I was 4-ish, following my mother’s death, and became “Mama” soon thereafter. For her wedding trousseau (women still did that then), she bought matching dresses for me. She was and remains the light that brightens rooms, the party that materializes with her presence. An interior designer with a knack for transforming the mundane into the sublime, she has made her own mark in Tampa as a member of “The Chislers Inc.,” a group of women dedicated to the historical restoration of the 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel, more recently part of the University of Tampa. She also was featured brilliantly in a book, “A Place Called Canterbury,” by former New York Times writer Dudley Clendinen.
His mother, now deceased, and mine both called Canterbury Tower home, and Clendinen lovingly recorded the retirement center’s characters and culture. It was not possible to exclude so colorful a denizen as “Fiesta Jane,” my preferred nickname of many that also include “Mama Jane” and “Toots,” the latter her suggestion when a son-in-law once asked what he should call her.
Together, she and Mauricio made a point of celebrating life. I never heard either complain. When they moved to Canterbury, I asked if they were going there to grow old.
“No, we’re going there to young up!” Fiesta said.
For years they hosted a huge February birthday party for their fellow Aquariuses and assorted Pisceans. They served guests Mauricio’s famous margaritas for full moon parties on their balcony overlooking Tampa Bay. The same balcony brought them a new family member, a cockatiel named Pepe who landed there one day. He and Mauricio kept each other close company for 27 years. “They’re staying alive for each other,” Sarah Jane told me several weeks ago. Pepe visited Mauricio in the health center. They said their goodbyes.
Upon his departure, Mauricio wanted no fuss, no service, no anything – just a brief visit with the Neptune Society, a cremation company that also will spread one’s ashes in the surrounding salt waters. He urged Sarah Jane to heed his wishes but said he knew she wouldn’t. “Well, just have one of your parties, then.”
And so we shall gather for one more margarita and a boat ride to celebrate a life well lived and a passing we all hope for – without drama, with family, friends, a bowl of ice cream (his last meal) and, if you’re lucky, a loyal bird – at peace with one’s time on Earth.
Gracias, salud y hasta luego, amigo.
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