What I've Learned From My Selena-Obsessed Aunt With Down Syndrome During Isolation
"Kimbely, mira, mira, mira," Lili yelled as she shoved the smartphone my abuela got her in my face to show me the same video of Selena performing "Como La Flor" live from the Astrodome for the 50th time that day.
My 49-year-old great-aunt Lili was now my roommate. She was born with Down Syndrome. She had left her motherland of Honduras permanently after her mother passed away. My abuela, her sister, took it upon herself to take care of her. I lived with her for some time during my teen years and took care of her multiple times before I moved away for college to NYC.
The moment I left NYC before COVID-19 truly overtook the city and went back home to Miami, I knew what I was getting myself into. I didn't have my own room until I went to college, so sharing a room with my sister and aunt never really fazed me.
But as a 21-year-old working college student who had lived on her own for a little more than three years, being in a two-bedroom apartment with seven other Latinx relatives was proving to be a new challenge.
Her favorite thing to do was to sit extremely close to me and stare at my laptop screen and blurt out, "What happen?" which is one of the very few English phrases she knows to say.
A month in and I was irritated. I forgot what it was like to live with Lili again for an extended time. One time when I was on the bed, in the zone, typing out a paper on a deadline, she yelled "OYE! Kimbely! Vamo comer," again and again, until I got up and went to the kitchen with her to eat dinner. I sat for a max of two minutes to satisfy her before I ran back to the room to finish my paper.
When I was on a Zoom call for work, or for a happy hour, or for class, her favorite thing to do was to sit extremely close to me and stare at my laptop screen and blurt out, "What happen?" which is one of the very few English phrases she knows to say.
If she had a problem, like her stomach hurting from eating too much sopa de frijoles con tortillas (a Honduran bean soup that my abuela has mastered), or YouTube wasn't opening up on her phone, she came to me, regardless of what I was in the middle of doing.
I forgot how much she talked to herself in the dark. She sounded like Harry Potter when he spoke to snakes. It was terrifying. My mom and abuela believed she was talking to dead people. I was too scared to stop her mid-ghost convo so I learned to tune those conversations out.
But I couldn't tune out her repeated demand: "Kimbely, ponme Selena, como la flor tanto amor!" This meant for me to plug in the DVD player for her to watch the 1997 film about Selena Quintanilla, aka the queen of Tejano music. She loved her. She wore a pin with Selena's face on it every day. She also loved to remind me of her replica of Selena's iconic purple jumpsuit that was made for her and how guapa she looked in it.
She religiously listened to and watched Selena on YouTube; it became her quarantine routine. I taught her how to spell Selena so she could search it on her own, but this backfired because I wouldn't know when Lili would break out in song. She usually did when I was working.
Between her, my abuela and abuelo blasting Telemundo noticias in the living room, my mom playing Instagram videos out loud, my brother yelling into his gamer headset, my sister fan-girling out loud over anime in the bed beside me, I was irked by the daily noise. The struggle for silence was real.
I felt guilty and cold-hearted for being annoyed at not only my family but an individual with a disability.
I felt guilty and cold-hearted for being annoyed at not only my family but an individual with a disability. But one morning, when everyone in the house was still asleep, I began to prep for my daily stretch. I was surprised my Aunt Lili didn't wake up with all the little noises I made in the process.
I was extra quiet laying out my yoga mat between the dresser and our beds. I opened up the Zoom link for the stretch class and propped my laptop on my bed. I put on my AirPods and tried to zone out and not think about my aunt waking up.
Twenty minutes into my stretch, I looked at the screen to see the reflection of Lili sitting up on her bed, following my movements. I turned around, taken back by her surprising actions. I took an AirPod out to whisper to her, since my sister was asleep in the same room, "Lili, lo quieres hacer?"
She gave me a blank expression and nodded. Without saying another word, I faced her and stretched my arms out to do a warrior-like pose. Staying on her bed, she mirrored my movement, following my inhales and exhales. For the first time I felt connected to her. We were on the same energy, listening to one another without saying a word. After we reconnected at our heart center and released our final breath, she smiled at me and left the room. I sat down on the mat caged by our beds, speechless.
Now my morning ritual became our morning ritual. She helped me find my patience again. She reminded me to indulge in the moments and the tiny things I didn't get to experience every day while being away from my relatives for the past few years.
My aunt had no idea that COVID-19 existed, even when I tried to explain it to her. She tried to leave the house one day, but my mom stopped her before she turned the doorknob. She huffed, puffed, and protested with an "Ay no," and locked herself away in a room.
She reminded me to indulge in the moments and the tiny things I didn't get to experience everyday while being away from my relatives for the past years.
Unphased by her mini-tantrum, my grandparents continued their COVID-19 Telemundo news watch. My parents blasted Marc Anthony as they cooked. My brother yelled at his friends on his video game, while my sister screamed about the fact that her anime crush wasn't real.
I cracked open the door of the room my aunt was in to find her with her headphones on, stretching and breathing, just as we did together. After three minutes of her doing the same side-to-side arm stretch she sat down to color and sing "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" to herself.
I shut the door and went back to my corner of the room. I closed my eyes and inhaled the familiar noises that filled the teeny tiny two-bedroom apartment I grew up in, reminding me of who I was, who loved me, and who would always take me in, no matter what. The sounds that were keeping me safe during this crazy time.