I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes good, does it not?’
“You’ve caught me, grief answered, “and you’ve ruined my business, how can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing.” Rumi
I caught a glimpse of my godmother through the glass of the Pecera- the fish tank, at Havana airport. Thick glass separated the passengers from their families. Mina did not show emotion easily, and on that day in particular, it was important to her that I did not see her cry.
The line of children waiting for the Militia men to go through our suitcases looking for contraband was long and I drifted towards where Mina stood helplessly. I placed my hand on one side of the warm glass and she covered it with hers from the other side. We had done this many times since I was little, skin to skin, as my hand struggled to grow as big as hers. Sweet innocent moments we both treasured…would there be more? Ever? My throat was parched with thirst, but it was the rise of grief that almost closed it to my breath. We looked in each other’s eyes soaking in our good bye in disbelief.
My father was in Isla de Pinos prison. His war of words with the Castro government, his stubborn belief that one man could make a difference, had won him a thirty year prison sentence in a prison whose walls were now full of explosives ready to detonate at the first signs of another invasion like the Bay of Pigs. My mother, who had taken to her bed to nurse a nervous breakdown, was still there as I took my last steps on Cuban soil.
Mina’s gaze left my face, as she took in the scene before her. The Pecera was full of children. Boys and girls, small children, adolescents, most of them alone but for a few lucky enough to travel with a brother or a sister, walked to a table. One by one they watched as each suitcase was emptied, and each piece of clothing was closely examined. Sometimes the men tore the lining of a suitcase thinking they felt something suspicious. They had to be sure the children were hiding nothing. There were no toys in the suitcases, not one familiar teddy bear or doll for a child to hold tight. Fidel wanted to make sure we all left our childhoods behind.
Mina looked at me again, our hands still touching, and mouthed “i’m going now.” She pointed me towards the line of children. I blew her a kiss, turned away from her, and obeyed.
This scene, with myriad variations, was repeated over and over again, as more than fourteen thousand children with living parents became orphans in Miami and other places. To this day, those of us who experienced the Pecera are bound to each other by our time in the fish tank- our second womb.
For the last two years as the 50th anniversary of Operation Pedro Pan drew near, there were small and large reunions that brought to the fore not only the memories of friendships established in camps and schools, but the palpable presence of our individual and collective grief; a grief that was not healed by a freedom so dearly paid for. Because it is the grief that sets us apart. It is the grief, the sweet grief/love that we feel when we embrace each other, that adds a dimension to our friendships and strongly connects us fifty years later when we encounter old friends with whom otherwise we have little in common. The threads that still knit us together are woven from children’s tears and choking grief.
The last two years have been a time of healing, of contemplation and of soul searching for me personally. You may have noticed the months of silence on my blog as I gave myself private time for my own journey.
Looking back at the Pecera and at my Pedro Pan experience, I no longer feel the grief. I see myself in that small glass enclosed space that embodied friends, enemies, war, anger, fear, and of course, grief; the world mirrored in a fish tank, and I am filled with gratitude. I survived it all. I am here living in the present. I am whole, embracing peace, love, forgiveness, and leaving fear behind: truly free. It feels amazing!