Alejandro La Luz Rivera pulled the keys from his pocket, unlocked the heavy gate, and walked slowly up the outdoor stairs leading to what used to be a rooftop patio. Before Maria, this was the 90-year-old's favorite place to be. Now, without electricity, it's not as quiet up here — he doesn't have a generator, but his neighbors do. And the patio is gone, destroyed by the hurricane and its winds.
"And I miss it a lot," La Luz said. "Because it was the area in which I spent a lot of time."
La Luz made this home with his wife Cecilia. They met a decades ago selling newspapers, and they made a life together for nearly 60 years — first in Puerto Rico, then for 10 years on the mainland, and finally, for good, here in Bayamon. She died in 2009.
After Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Ricans have left the island. But some of those who did have also found themselves going back. La Luz is one who couldn't stay away.
His family was worried about him being alone so, a couple of weeks after the storm, he left the island to stay with one of his sons in Pennsylvania, far away from the home that he and his wife built together. But it wouldn't last. After a short visit, even though he was safe and comfortable with his family, La Luz decided to head back home.
Now, he lives alone. He apologizes a few times for the lack of furniture after Maria. The refrigerator is open, empty, and off, because he doesn't have electricity. He watched the storm from his bedroom — his louvered windows tilted open, so he could see Maria wrecking his patio.
"The very first moment, it was frightening. But, after a couple of hours, I felt so sure that the house was, you know, very strong. ... I said, I'm going to survive. I'm going to make it through it. And I did it. I did it."
One of his neighbors, Ana Maria Rivera, said she wasn't surprised to see him.
"I was expecting that," she said. "Because, that's the way he is. Everybody [tells] him, why don't you stay there with your son? You're going to be better. No. I want to be here. Okay. That's the way he is. At 90. 90? 90. 90-years-old, he's not going to change."
La Luz has neighbors and family members who look out for him. He gets breakfast at the cafe down the street. Once a week, he drives about an hour away to put flowers on his wife Cecilia's grave.
"When I'm here, I'm not alone," he said. His wife, he says, is with him. And he misses her a lot. "Cecilia was my life. Cecilia was my life and I couldn't be away from her. She's still here with me. I feel her presence everywhere I go around the house."
La Luz isn't sure if he'll rebuild the outdoor sitting area he lost. But, if he does, he said he'll most likely pay for it himself. The thought of asking FEMA for help turns him off.
"We still have two arms and two legs. And a bright head," La Luz said. "I can still move around, do some work, and do things for yourself. We don't have [to go] begging to anybody."
At the end of the visit, La Luz headed to the mechanic in his minivan. Someone had just stolen one of his two headlights, and it was time to get it fixed.
This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.