“Elegy for Tío Lazaro” by Isabella DeSendi

Isabella DeSendi


Because he was already dying, he figured
there was no harm in huffing through 2 or 3 cigarettes
in the early morning before my mother would wake—
the animal of his thin, brown body lassoed
to an oxygen tank. Because he didn’t have papers
we had to drive two hours to retrieve the tank
from a discount store in Ocala
where my mom had to pay
out of pocket for air that would be filtered
from a rocket-ship shaped canister
into a tiny tube three times the size of a vein
directly into the soggy, plastic bags of my tio’s
stalling lungs just so he could drink cafecitos
& play crossword puzzles or the lottery
while we sat around in the kitchen
wondering how long we could keep him alive.
My mom was elbow deep in dishwater
when the letter came
denying our appeal for his citizenship.
No, he could not get Medicare.
Yes, he would have to go back after living
50 years in this country. This country,
where, at 20, he learned to fix engines
in chop shops and likened himself
to a surgeon—saying any man with purpose could fix
any broken thing if he simply tried hard enough.
Entiendes sobrina? It’s why God gave us hands.
Sometimes, I like to imagine him in the garage
surrounded by brutal heat and moonlight,
the broken chair under him barely keeping
itself together while he held metal chunks
in his hands like a heart, wondering where
it all went wrong, believing enough screws
could put it all back. Of course, this was after he fell
in love with a woman in Kentucky,
dreamt of being a local politician
and with that same American sense of disillusion,
grandeur—discovered heroin: the god he’d worship
until he felt nothingness, & after nothingness
the dull edge of sobriety, the death of his American wife
which meant the death of food stamps, which meant the death
of a life that allowed him to lay on the roof of his car
while he smoked Marlboros and recited constellations:
Andromeda, Aquilus, Ursa major, Ursa minor
which made him feel just as smart as the white men
he swept for. Aren’t our lives just simple constellations
made up of many deaths? Yes, someone in an office
in a building in this country decided no, he could not
get medical care. No, he could not stay.
Two nights later, Lazaro woke from a dream
screaming aliens were coming to get him.
That their ship was hovering over the house.
The light so bright he couldn’t see my mom’s hands
as she helped him back to bed. The next night he died.
Milky Way: one answer on yesterday’s crossword puzzle.
You can’t tell me the dying don’t know
when their time is coming.
The tip of the letter, still sticking out
of my mom’s black purse like a cigarette
already flickering gone.

from Rattle #82, Winter 2023
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Isabella DeSendi: “I wrote this poem after telling two of my poet friends the story of my tio’s death, including his vision of being abducted by aliens just days after we’d received the news about his deportation. My mom was still trying to figure out how to fight the government’s decision, how to break the news. My friends and I were huddled in a small circle during the intermission of a reading when I decided to share the story with them. One friend, Cat, turned to me and said, ‘Bella, this is a poem.’ She was right. This piece is an elegy for my tio, but it’s also a lamentation for immigrants in this country—and ultimately a song of praise for my mother, whose strength, generosity, and capacity for enduring I am constantly in awe of.” (web)

Rattle Logo