My mom died May 16th, 2019 at the nowadays relatively young age of 83. The last time I really saw her, was Thanksgiving 2016. There are pictures of her from that weekend, she was already on her way to disappearing into a maelstrom of dementia, though we did not really see it until it was time to leave for the airport. The next time I saw her, she was already not there, existing in a timeless fog, collapsed into herself not knowing where she was, but more peaceful than she had been in years.
There is a picture I discovered a few years ago of her and my late father. It is sometime in the latter half of 1959. My mother is pregnant with me, they are at a seemingly endless beach in Cuba, probably out with friends on an tropical overcast day, both laughing. My mother did not laugh easily, particularly in the thirty eight years since my father died. But here they are young – my mom is 23, my dad 26. Batista’s dictatorship is in its waning days. The revolutionaries are just a couple of months from entering into Havana where they will be welcome as saviors. My dad has a good job as a salesperson for the biggest textbook company in Cuba. They live in a very small apartment, with a balcony on an airshaft, but it is in a modern building, in the bustling modern center of Havana at the intersection of Zanja and Belascoain. I can almost feel the rhythm of their lives, their friends – really my dad’s friends – much of my mother’s extended family already in exile but everybody pretty much alive, including my maternal great grandmother. Things would change rapidly after Castro threw the country into an amateurish communist regime that essentially destroyed it.
Exile was a tragedy my mother never recovered from. Not so much for the struggles, though they were indeed many, but because her life was never going to match the narrative that she had spun in her mind. This was the origin of her deep despair that really prevented her from being happy, it always loomed large that she had had to leave Cuba. Throughout my youth there were long afterdinner conversations when the table was full of family where everybody tried to remember exactly what stores were in a particular stretch of Havana street. Those were the only other times that I saw her happy, pretending she was walking in Havana, surrounded by family.
Then my father died at 48; something so incomprehensible to me that I could not believe it until I saw him laid out in a cheap funeral home in San Juan. The ache of losing him has dulled a bit over the years for me. For my mother, every day she woke up alone in her bed was an inescapable reminder of her loss. The next decades were not good, more family died, some tragically, like my grandaunt who raised my mother crossing the street against the light and being hit by a truck that never saw her.
So I am not mourning my mother, but the beautiful young woman in that picture and the life she never got to have. Hopefully, if there is an order to the universe that we can't see, she is walking in Havana, in 1956, hand in hand with my father.