Today would have been my father’s 100th birthday.
His last words to me came via a book that he sent to my husband. It was a book about Poker, a game my husband enjoyed and my father knew nothing about, a gift that spoke of his affection for my husband as my father knew nothing about the game. Along with the book he enclosed a note in his handwriting that said: “Give my love to the best daughter in the Western World.” High praise for a man whose countenance spoke his love, but who never came right out and said “I love you”. Not in words.
When I was a little girl I hardly saw him. I remember the scent of Cuban cigars clinging to his suits when he came home from work, or from the country club, or a rare evening out at the theater. I remember feeling safe in his arms. I remember playing near the door to his study hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I knew if the door opened and he saw me, I would be the recipient of a genuine smile before the door quickly closed again. Truth is, my father belonged to the world more than he belonged to his family. He didn’t love the world more, but felt a duty to participate in the worlds of literature, law and politics. I suspect the man who would get his fifth doctorate degree at age 64, who loved to talk about philosophy, had no idea how to have a conversation with a little girl. And yet…he took time to take me to amusement parks, to the zoo, took me to the Yumuri Valley in our beloved Cuba, to the family farm in Placetas, and always introduced me to others with pride and delight.
My father fought against the tyranny of Batista, fought against Fidel Castro. He knew how to shoot a gun, but his best weapon was the spoken word. Speaking truth to power when power is merciless takes a special kind of courage. I am in awe of that courage.
Back then, I resented that he wasn’t just like all the other dads whose focus was his family. I resented it more when Castro’s men arrested him and took him away to an island prison when I needed him most. Why, I would ask myself, did preserving the freedom of strangers mean more to him than being there for his family? For a time, resentment and jealousy separated me from him. He was in prison and I needed him. Yet I emulated him, putting myself in grave danger along with other of my friends, doing what we could against the revolution.
As I got on an airplane to leave the country all alone, he suffered all alone in a forsaken island scooping prisoner’s excrement for punishment and solving math problems in his head to stay sane, knowing that his prison cell that was wired to explode if the Americans invaded again. At that point in time, the distance between our spirits seemed insurmountable.
I was seventeen the next time I saw him. The story of his release/escape from the island is too long for a blog. We hadn’t seen each other since I was twelve. When our eyes locked for the first time in a long time, we were strangers. Beloved strangers.
Through the years, the decades, we became closer and closer. It was inevitable. We were so alike! Like him, I couldn’t be content with being a wife and mother. We shared a restless spirit, a sense of mission. The injustices of the world beckoned. Writing beckoned. Advocacy and the preservation of freedom beckoned. We shared a penchant for making serious personal mistakes. We had both been spoiled children in the same family and our life lessons came at a harsh cost to us and sometimes to others.
My children called him Abi. My daughter knew him best because we lived in the same town when she was little. His times with her and then with the boys were few and far between. But their pictures were always next to his chair until my daughter had twin girls and their pictures took center stage. The children and grandchildren were his beloveds, but I had not taught them his language or his heart.
Today, papi, I wish you were here. Today I understand your passion for your mission and know that because I was at your heart’s center, you saw the urgency of making a better world for me. I feel it now for my children and grandchildren as once again in a once unimaginable turn of events, their generations face the unthinkable possibility of living in a country that may not stay free.
I am so like you…and so grateful to have had the privilege of being your daughter. I hope you can hear my voice. You, papi, were the very best father in the Western world. I love you with all my heart.