For as long as my girls can remember, almost every time they’ve gone to the garden (our community oasis in West Harlem) they received a mango. Victor, an 80 year old retired postman of Puerto Rican descent, would see them coming and plan his delivery. We never knew where he got the mango (grocery store, home or off the back of the truck – the latter is the most likely), but he’d stride over with the biggest grin, chuckling quietly to himself along the way, as if he was the only one on the inside of a joke. He’d tenderly tap one of the girls on the shoulder, and she turned around as he’d present the mango in slow motion as if it were a delicate flower. Seeing the girls’ eyes brighten and mouths water at the site would bring him more joy than you ever thought imaginable.
Victor Benitez passed away this past Friday at the age of 85, on Earth Day, succumbed to brain cancer. It progressed more rapidly than anyone could have imagined, having only been diagnosed in February. He returned to NYC with his family at the forefront, no other place they’d rather be. In my last talks with Victor, he remembered me telling him years ago how I’d rather go through cancer over and over again than to ever have to watch a loved one fight it. That it’s the caregivers, the family and friends, who can only watch and wait, that it’s the hardest on. He understood this. He may have not been able to express his gratitude for it, but he was forever thankful.
For those who were fortunate enough to know him, your heart is broken, but you also have a smile on your face because you know that’s what he would have wanted. Always so full of life, and ready to throw a handshake and a hug to each and every person he came into contact with. You could feel the warmth emanating from the shake of his head or the wave of his hand from hundreds of feet away. And that laugh….oh that laugh! When he laughed it was the deepest of belly laughs and you couldn’t help but join in, even if you didn’t understand what he said that got it all started. For those that never knew him, it is his presence every weekend at the garden and in the park they will miss most. Knowing that Papi won’t be around, well …it’s just not going to be the same each summer without him.
He was a husband who thought the world of his wife. He was a father who loved his children dearly. He was a grandfather who doted on all of his grand-kids and the kids of others. And he was a dear friend to hundreds. When I told my girls about Mr. Victor’s passing, the first thing they said, in unison albeit, was, ‘No more mangoes?’ Then it sunk in. We won’t see that smile any longer, won’t see that giant hand wave from afar, won’t get another bear hug and won’t hear that laugh that tickled our insides. But we know that where he is now, he isn’t suffering, nor is he in pain. He is where we all know him best, behind the wheel of his heavenly gator, driving around until his heart is content. As for us? Well, I know that many things will remind us of Victor, but for me? It’s the mango, that simple. As I close my eyes, all I need to do is say the word and I’m reminded. And I smile.
Photo courtesy of Basia Nikonorow