I had just gotten home from school to our small apartment near Southwest 12th Avenue and Seventh Street and, even at the age of 5, I sensed there was something wrong. Mom didn’t greet me with her usual queries about homework, and my merienda, the afternoon snack , wasn’t ready for me on the table.
She didn’t ask me the usual: How was your day at school? “Please don’t make any noise,” is all she said.
The curtains weren’t drawn open like they always were. There was no midday sun brightening our small apartment and the din of the street still came through the open windows. I could hear the cars driving by and all the usual rumblings of that busy street, but I wasn’t allowed to pull the curtains and see my friends playing or the old man down the street carrying his groceries in his rickety metal basket, or the couple two doors down arguing.
The bedroom door was closed and just as I was about to open it I was admonished. “Your dad is in there and he doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
My first reaction to learning that dad was home in the middle of the day in the middle of the week was one of elation. Maybe I’d finally get to play catch with dad. Maybe he’d take me to the park or out for ice cream. He was always working, and time with my dad was precious.
But the bedroom door was closed and I knew, instinctively, that there would be no park for me that day. No playing catch. No ice cream. Something was wrong.
I asked mom. “Don’t worry about it,” she replied.
“Mami, but what’s wrong?” I asked again.
“Your Tía,” she said. “Your aunt who you don’t know, your dad’s sister, has died.”
I saw my father cry for the first time that day. Something so completely unimaginable for me as my father was larger than life. Big, strong. Man of steel.
And yet, that afternoon, I heard my father’s sobs come through that closed bedroom door.
I didn’t know the meaning of the word exile back then and that, sometimes, goodbyes are forever.
Of course, a few years prior to my aunt’s passing, when my father made the decision to leave Cuba, to make that sacrifice for his family, there were goodbyes. But these weren’t supposed to be forever. There was hope. Someday, soon, when this absurd horror is all over and our world is back to its simple, pure normalcy, we will be back and together again.
Three months ago and more than 40 years after that goodbye, my dad, white haired and now frail by time, leaned on his walker. His blue eyes lit, wrinkles betrayed by a wide smile. “I have some news for you,” he tells me. There’s no trace in his countenance of the severe arthritic pain in his hips or the wear on his body from the years of hard work and sacrifice. He is glowing.
“Next week,” he says. “ Tu prima, mi sobrina, my sister’s daughter, is coming from Cuba!”
My father is not a melodramatic man nor is he one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but it has been some time since I see my father so happy. My mother’s failing health, his own health’s decline and the passing of his childhood friends recently, one by one, have taken their toll on him. And the passing of my uncle, my father’s older brother, two years ago has solidified a certain sense of loneliness in my old man. He is the last of his kin and the last of his generation in his family.
The arrival of “ La Sobrina” breathed new life into my father. It filled the void left by the passing of his siblings somehow. A piece of his life’s puzzle, missing, lost for over 40 years, finally found and put in its rightful place. Not only was my dad able to look into his niece’s eyes and see his long-lost sister, but through her, my dad got to revisit his homeland.
Being a man of principle, my father has never returned to Cuba. His convictions would not allow it. And while he may be an American citizen, he has always been and will always be a Cuban exile. The system and ideology forced upon him left him no other choice but to leave everything he had ever known and he refused to feed it, no matter how painful. No matter the anguish.
But here, for the past few weeks in this home he built in exile, through La Sobrina he was able to visit old friends. He was able to walk through the streets of El Puerto and relive the beaches of his youth. He and La Sobrina, mi prima, spoke in terms of hellos instead of goodbyes.
Unfortunately, we Cubans cannot be too happy for too long. La Sobrina’s visa is set to expire, and her visit must come to an end. Our family is set to be separated yet again by circumscription and conviction.
Today, my father, hindered by pain and aided by his walker, is at the airport with La Sobrina, daughter of his sister, awash in tears. They will hug, take in each other’s faces while forcing knowing smiles.
Valentín Prieto is the founding editor of the popular Miami-based Babalú blog.