I signaled to Dochechka and The Brit to join me inside Tia’s house. Then, without waiting for them, I stepped into the darkness behind her door. My eyes readjusted and I saw that there were two others just inside: Prima, my Tia’s niece (my Mamacusa’s cousin) and Prima’s husband, El Barrigon. We all congregated, awkwardly, in the center of the house’s front room, which was slowly registering on my retinas. Aged marble tiled floor with several missing tiles. Dingy walls. Antique, formerly beautiful furniture curiously pushed off to one cramped corner. Piles of 2 X 4’s in an opposite corner. Dust that evidenced a room never used except to simply enter and exit. I couldn’t figure out why, and it must have been written on my face as El Barrigon pointed up and began to explain. The ceiling had given way one day, and the contents of the room upstairs, complete with neighbor and all, had fallen through. That event took place about a decade prior. Suffice it to say, the use of their front room ceased then and there.
We were invited to pass through into the “livable” part of the house. Just beyond the front room, the harsh midday sun poured in from the centrally located patio and exposed the rest of the house. The layout was typical of a Spanish-style home: high ceilings, crown moldings, multiple rooms, all of which connected to the central patio. In it’s day, it must have been beautiful. But the years had cracked the moldings, browned the walls, warped and shifted the floor, aged the furniture, chipped the porcelain figurines and apparently, collapsed the ceilings. Whatever space was not otherwise occupied with a Virgin Mary statue or a cross was filled, instead, with pictures and trivial trinkets…odes and shrines to a better time. The time before the revolution. Everything here in Cuba seemed to be referenced with a “before” or “after.” And anything from the time of before was framed, hung up on the wall, and cherished.
We passed through Tia’s room to Prima’s room to the dining room where a young man, about my age, sat. Prima and El Barrigon’s son: El Curioso. He looked at me with an unexpected recognition, immediately stood up and hugged me politely. I started to explain who I was and he nodded, saying, “Si, si…la hija de Mamacusa!” He knew who I was. From pictures. There were piles of them. He led me to the stacks of photos on the worn dining room table, in the drawers of the tired china cabinet, on the shelves of the overflowing bookshelves. There, chronicled in those photos, was the American chapter of our family’s story…for those of us who “got out” before it became impossible to leave. They’d been here all along, within the walls of this aging, collapsing house, bearing witness from afar to my first steps, my childhood ballet recitals, my awful fluffy-haired high school days, my med school graduation. My moments had been their moments. They knew me. They knew my aunts and uncles and their children, my cousins. It was just too overwhelming to take in all at once.
Frankly, the entire visit was an onslaught of overwhelming. Just moments prior, on the other side of door, these people were just characters in my grandfather’s tales. Characters whose lives, admittedly, I knew little to nothing about. What I learned that day over hours of talking, laughing, crying…truly changed my world. Changed my identity.
I sat down opposite my Tia, who beamed back at me with a smile that was uncannily familiar, and we stayed up til nearly 2 am disturbing everyone’s sleep with our chatter. She wanted to know about everyone. So I filled her in. The weddings, the kids, the achievements. The death of her sister three years prior. I’d been the one to explain to my grandmother her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I’d been there when she decided to go home to die rather than stay in the hospital. She’d spent her last days in her own bed, surrounded by family, blissfully in and out of the delirium of renal failure. She’d slipped away painlessly. Tia was comforted to learn this. She hadn’t been permitted to leave the country to go to her sister’s funeral.
Before El Curioso had turned in for the night, he’d chimed in with a stream of questions about the world and the US. What are the states like? Is there really a difference in culture between the east and the west coasts. What do we think of our president? Does everyone love Madonna as much as they did here? Funny, the People magazine that Dochechka had purchased for the plane ride had a few pictures of Madonna. We brought it out and handed it to him. Wide-eyed, he gleefully accepted it and spent the next few hours studying the pages and then studying them again.
They don’t get People magazine in Cuba. Among a few other things. Things like: The internet. Consistent power and water. Beef. Chicken. Toilet paper. Ownership of their house. Rights to form associations or accumulate wealth. (Whether one is a doctor or a gas station attendant, the monthly salary is the same: the equivalent of $20.) The privilege to stay in any of the country’s hotels. (Not that they have the financial means to stay in one anyway.) Free speech. A choice in whether or not to swallow the force-fed propaganda. (There is no avoiding it, as if it isn’t on one of the three television stations, it’s printed on the cover of the sole newspaper, or broadcast on one of the two radio stations.) A way to leave the island other than to marry a non-American foreigner or take to the water.
Viva el socialismo! With its free education…if one wants to call history as written by Fidel “education.” Free health care…if one wants to call no access to basic medications and treatments “health care.” Rationed food…if one wants to call the mealy bread and the abysmally limited ration of beans, rice, and vegetables “food.”
This is life in Cuba. Why anyone, if given the chance to escape, would come back to this voluntarily is beyond me. And yet that is exactly what Tia did. In the early 90’s, she’d been given a rare traveler’s visa to see her sister in Florida. She stayed for 6 weeks. Soaked in the liberty. Fattened herself on the seemingly endless amount of fresh food. Talked shit about Fidel in more than just a whisper without looking over her shoulder. Laughed because there were things that were actually funny, not because things were so miserable that she would cry if she didn’t find something to laugh about. It was all there, documented in the stack of pictures. Why didn’t she just stay? Claim political asylum like all the rest? Why on earth did she come back? When I asked her this she looked at me square in the face with a resolution I recognized. Then, with her wiry, malnutritioned finger, she quietly pointed to Prima, who now laid fast asleep on her sagging mattress next to El Barrigon. Then she pointed to El Curioso, also sleeping. Familia.
I looked at her frail, cachectic frame, at the fire behind those sunken eyes, and in the night time silence of her cramped and crumbling house on this prison of an island, I saw her for the angel that she is.
Or rather. The angel that she was. In this life.
When I first started writing this yesterday, I thought it was going to be a story with a somewhat happy ending. A fellow surgical resident and good friend of mine had just decided to go to Cuba for vacation at the end of this month and she’d graciously asked me if I wanted her to hand carry the package I’d been trying to send to Tia since I’d returned. I’d tried first, in my ignorance, to mail the package (laden with laxatives and vitamins for Tia, anti-inflammatory pain medication for Prima’s arthritis, pictures from our visit, a few new shirts for El Curioso, and money [hidden within a double layered envelope that I convincingly hand crafted to try and evade the Cuban government inspectors that would invariably search the package]) from the US. I learned that sending anything other than books was not allowed. Then I tried from Mexico. The post office advised against it at the time because for some reason, all mail sent to Cuba recently was being returned. Then I tried from Canada. It left without a hitch from the post office…only to return a week later with a notice of having violated the 2kg maximum weight restriction for packages. Finally! The package would make it. And now that it was going by hand, I could include more money. And maybe even a few silly, trivial Christmas presents.
But this evening, I received word, through neighbors with a phone who called Tia’s only living sibling in the states, my grandmother’s brother, that Tia passed away this morning. It’s unclear the cause. But one thing that is clear is that the government has wasted no time in reclaiming the home that had been assigned to Tia for her use. A house that Tia has lived in for decades. Now that she is no longer breathing within its walls, it belongs once again to the government and Prima, El Barrigon, and El Curioso need to vacate the house. Through our weak and inconsistent lines of communication, I’ve learned they plan to go to Havana. But where in Havana? Now I’ll have no way of knowing how to get anything to them.
In all of my adult life, I’ve never known a pain like that of having to leave Tia and the rest of them in that house this past July with little more than a stack of money and a People magazine. It wasn’t even a comfort to know that the money amounted to half a year’s salary for one of them. I wanted so badly to bring them back with me. To pack their starved bodies into our suitcases and stow them on our plane. But instead, I had to hug them goodbye, which I did tearfully and repeatedly, and get back into the rental car to leave. Truly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to talk myself into doing. Truly the most pain I’ve ever felt.
This is no less painful.
My only comfort is the idea that for one of them, things are better now. My angel Tia deserves it.