Posts Tagged ‘Cuba’

Last week, my mother spent a couple of days with me, and since my Michigan days when both mom and dad would stay with me for weeks, I love her visits.  In my turf, unlike when she is in hers, she operates within adult boundaries, hers and mine. At home, her inner child has full discretion and when mine is awakened, it becomes a playground brawl.

We chatted in the morning about our family and ancestral histories, reminiscing about her parents and grandparents. From the little she remembers, we are descendants of Basques.  You may have heard about them at different times in the news for terrorists acts against Spain because they want independence. Huh, it makes sense why this French guy once called me an “emotional terrorist”.  I also learned a family secret that gripped tightly for decades has now been released by a less vigilant aging mind. It turns out, that my grandfather, Juan, was in jail for 20 months for shooting a man during an argument.  As she tells the story, the father of the man he shot, let’s call him “Justo”, later said that had he known my grandfather was such an upstanding man, he would not have had him prosecuted.  As the story goes, while in jail, Juan arranged to send  some medicine to Justo’s younger son, who was ill.  Truth, or fiction?  I choose to believe that it is true because my grandfather was a magnanimous and service-oriented man, or at least, that is what I grew up hearing.

I realize that I have spent my life not listening to my mother.  Although she brought me into this world, she became part of the wallpaper of my life. She was background noise and an obligation, kind of like taxes.  As much as I cry that I was invisible to my family, she was invisible to me. When I was younger I bemoaned her not being there for me—all I remember is my father’s, at first indulging and, as I grew up, possessive, overbearing, and suffocating love.  Growing up, I felt that she loved my father best; yet, although he wanted her to leave Cuba with him during the early days of The Revolution, she would not leave us behind. And, when my accomplishments were never enough for my father’s demands that I fulfill his aborted dreams, to my mother I was always enough.

When I was leaving for my first quarter at Chicago, I remember her saying that although most people would be more than satisfied with what I had, I was leaving it all to go for more. Although I realize now that I could have construed her statement as a criticism (like, aren’t you ever happy?), I experienced it as an affirmation. This is not to say that she did not have her own dreams of becoming a journalist and of, literally, climbing mountains; but unlike my father, she did not impose her dreams on me. The funny thing is that I unconsciously took it upon myself to climb the summits her sex, culture, and history prevented her from climbing.  Wait, whose dreams have I been living?


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I have had a lifelong pattern of avoidance and procrastination, like waiting to write this blog post at the last minute, and not responding to comments immediately, though both soothe my heart.   It’s not surprising, then, that it has taken me almost fifty years to deal with my feelings about having left Cuba.  To be honest, I didn’t think I had any feelings about it.  Although I went into therapy when I was 19 to deal with my adolescent cross-cultural angst, I attributed all my woes to my father’s old world, chauvinistic attitude.  Everything was his fault.  Any interest I had in Cuba was purely intellectual, and, indeed, I went back for a doctorate to study Cubans.  Despite my best intentions, it became easier to write a different dissertation on an existing data set than to collect my own data.  Looking back, I may never have finished, since data collection is so costly and time-consuming.  Twenty-five years later, I am doing the research on Cubans I set out to do back then.  It seems that not only did I have to do spiritual work to get me to a place where I can explore my Cuba wounds, but I also had to wait for my friend Rocío to start and change careers so that she could do this research with me.   I am ready now, but it is not easy—especially since I feel like a part of my affective life has been dormant for a half-century.

On Wednesday, we conducted two interviews that further thawed my frozen grief.  We interviewed Dr. F., a recently retired 85-year-old Cuban internist, turned psychiatrist after migrating to the US, and his 81-year-old wife.  At first, their story was like all the other stories— they were politically oppressed in Cuba, came to this country without money, and were forced to start from scratch to rebuild their lives again.  But unlike the others, who may have lost or almost lost a grown child, this couple had lost two of four children.  Their only daughter was stricken with a brain tumor while she was a pre-med student at John Hopkins University, dying at the age of 20.  Her mother, who had always sewn her dresses, made the dress she was buried in.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for this mother.  They lost their second child almost three years ago, at the age of 47, again to cancer.   Yet, they go on, as they did after losing almost everything the first time.  I say almost, because they had each other and their two children even though they were torn away from their country and their extended family.

That afternoon, we interviewed a woman who was reluctant to talk with us because she had nothing important to say but gave us a textbook definition of ambiguous loss. Mrs. V. was embarrassed to tell us her story, claiming that her long-deceased husband would have so much more to tell us.  But she finally did talk to us, sharing that for the first ten years she spent in this country, she would physically celebrate holidays, like Christmas Eve with her family in NJ, but mentally, she was in Cuba.  She would not only recollect memories of years gone by, but she imagined how her parents and siblings were spending the holidays.  According to Pauline Boss, she was experiencing a Type One Ambiguous Loss , where she was physically absent from Cuba, but psychologically present.   When her parents died, she wore neutral colors for years as a symbol of her grief, following a cultural custom known as “luto”, and sixteen years later, her husband’s clothes remain untouched.

Their grief collided with mine, and I cried myself to sleep that night for my losses and theirs.  I cried for my father, who died six years ago October 2nd, and whose story I would never get, because it did not seem important at the time, and for the Cubans we’d met that day, who lost their motherland during their youth and spent a lifetime in exile, longing to return to the paradise they did not know they had until they lost it.

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A week ago at this time, Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene had moved on, leaving some relieved that they’d been spared and others devastated that their homes were surrounded by water so high that they needed to be rescued in boats.  Although the intensity was expected to be so great that the NYC Transit System was shut down, and parts of the city were evacuated, by the time it reached us, Irene had been downgraded.  We got off easy; our basement was flooded and we lost power for 24 hours, though I admit that I was a frantic that I could not charge my two computers.  But the thought that people we know in Haiti, through our church, never have electricity or running water, snapped me out of my pity-party .


The thought that a hurricane would strike NY, where we typically get Nor’easters, storms resembling hurricanes, was surreal.  In my ignorance, hurricanes only happened in the tropics—in places like Cuba and Haiti.  Cuba!  I wondered if my mother had ever experienced a hurricane during the thirty-three years she’d lived in Cuba. “Of course,” she said, “I grew up in Cuba!”


Then she started reminiscing about the hurricane of 1932!  She remembered it “as vividly as if it were today” even though she was five at the time.

“I can still see ‘Lala’ (her mother), holding Mimi (the fourth of her ten siblings) throughout the entire hurricane.  She would only put her down to changer her diaper.  It’s funny how you can remember some things so vividly and others that happened more recently, you can’t remember.”

“What about you, who was caring for you,” I asked?

“Oh, the entire family was gathered—-aunts, uncles, grandparents during the entire storm.”

But she did not identify an adult that comforted her and her other two sisters, one six, and the other four, while their mother cradled their infant sister.  Witnessing her remembrance I was flooded (and still am) with profound grief that my mother was deprived of her mother’s comfort during a time so terrifying that it is fixed in her mind, 79 years later.


Her hurricane story helped me to see why my mother often reminds me of a vulnerable child, why she is hypersensitive to rejection, and why I don’t remember her ever holding or comforting me when I was little.  I do remember, however, my Tia Elba hugging and kissing me.  I also remember Tia sitting at her sewing machine with me sitting on her lap. Today is Tia’s 88th birthday.  She is still alive, continuing to defy the odds, just like daddy did.  She will go when she is ready and when we least expect it.  As I write, tears flood my face.  I am crying for the little girl that weathered the hurricane of 1932, for myself, and for my aunt, who will never again tell me that she loves me.


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Open yourself to the Tao, and trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Mitchell, p. 23).

On Tuesday, I was feeling sad, so I sat down to write to discover what was beneath the sadness; it was related to a talk my friend and I attended on Monday at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  The speaker,  a sociologist named Susan Eckstein presented on her book, The immigrant divide:  How Cuban Americans changed the US and their homeland. Since I’d read the book, I sat and knitted a sock while I listened.  Was I subconsciously distracting myself?  Seated to my left, my friend, an aspiring academic, was furiously taking notes and whispering commentaries.  Shortly after Professor Eckstein began her talk, a middle-age Cuban man interrupted her, challenging one of her arguments.  As is the custom at such events, she asked him to please hold questions and comments until she was done.  I commented to my friend, that he seemed contentious, and she replied that she, too, was feeling that way.  I couldn’t understand why, though I was aware that his defensiveness irritated me.  The man continued to interrupt, and my friend continued her commentary.  When the talk ended, the man was ready to pounce, but he was stopped, this time by the moderator, an older Cuban academic.  I noticed, however, that when another Cuban woman spoke in response to a question asked by the moderator, she, too, sounded angry.  I continued knitting, irritated and embarrassed that, unlike me, Cubans become so emotional whenever the subject comes up.

It is interesting that this talk came a few days after my frozen grief blog (Frozen grief) and that anger and irritability are grief reactions.   Is that why the audience seemed so angry and defensive?  In the past, I have avoided being around Cubans, other than family, and a friend or two, because, ironically, being with my tribe, reminded me that I was perpetually condemned to not belonging.  Not here, where I am always seen as “different”, nor among Cubans, whom I have distanced myself from.  Because frozen grief does not flow, like water does, my feelings took 24 hours to germinate. I awoke feeling restless and melancholy, and this time, I could not distract myself, so I was forced to face my feelings. Shortly after I started writing, a wave of grief assaulted me—-one as deep, or even deeper than when my father died the second time.  I say the second time, because the adoring, and indulgent father of my early life in Cuba died in 1959; the father that greeted me at the airport—the angry, violent, reproaching one, the one eternally scarred by trauma, died in 2005 (More on Parenting).  As I write this, I wonder if I have allowed myself to grieve either of my fathers.  But although my second father died five years ago, his mind preceding his body in death by a year, as he withdrew into silences occasionally interrupted by violent rages precipitated by torturous delusions about infidelity.

Pauline Boss classifies losses where there is a physical presence and a psychological loss as type II ambiguous loss situations (http://www.ambiguousloss.com/four_questions.php).  My indefinite separation from Cuba and the family left behind, technically, constitutes a type I loss because there is psychological presence and a physical absence.  But, did I hold them and Cuba psychologically present?  Not really.  Although my Death and Dying instructor pointed out my losses in that paper that I wrote over thirty years ago, I was occasionally intellectually aware but, mostly, emotionally cut-off from my losses; hence, my irritation with and my retreat from “emotional” Cubans.  Yesterday, almost fifty years later, I wept, and until it comes again, my melancholy lifted.  It is amazing that something as simple as crying (and writing) can erode our feelings of grief.  But, as the Tao reminds us:

Nothing in the world

Is as soft and yielding as water.

Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,

nothing can surpass it.

Finally, The Tao also reminds us that:

If you want to shrink something,

You must first allow it to expand.

If you want to get rid of something,

You must first allow it to flourish . . .

This is called the subtle perception of the way things are (Mitchell, p.36).

What ambiguous losses in your life are waiting to be grieved?  I am humbled and grateful for any thoughts, feelings, or experiences you are moved to share here.


Eckstein, S. E. (2009). The immigrant divide:  How Cuban Americans changed the US and their homeland. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, S. (1994). Tao te ching: A new English version: HarperCollins Publishers.

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“…healing comes not from being loving but from being itself. It is not a case of being clear but of clear being. This healing is not about anything else but being itself.  Nothing separate, no edges, nothing to limit healing. Entering, in moments, the realm of pure being, the gateless gate swings open– beyond life and death, our original face shines back at us.”  ~Steven Levine

Despite twenty years of meditation practice, I have a hard time being, which is why I work so hard at it; it is more than a full-time job that prevented me from seriously taking on other jobs.  I resisted tenure, in part, because I refused to spend my life in academic solitary confinement.  In my early thirties, when the first tenure clock began ticking, I was overwhelmed by the realization that my life was escaping me while I hid in books.  After my dissertation, continued intensive academic writing felt like busy work that prevented me from living.  Yet, I have spent thousands of hours distracting myself with activities as banal as shopping, or by immersing myself in others’ life dramas, because being still meant facing my paralyzing anxiety.  Existentialists would argue that I have been busy being busy to distract myself from the awareness that life is finite.  But, paradoxically, by not embracing death, I have also avoided life; both existentialists and spiritual teachers agree that we cannot fully live until we befriend our mortality.

My earliest preoccupation with the passage of time and with death dates back to the age of eight.  I remember feeling depressed around my birthday because I had one year less to live, and in my child’s mind, only older people died.  Years later, when I was about to graduate from the MSW program, I had fantasies about being hit by a car and killed, just as I completed the program.  In the doctoral program, I feared that I would not finish in time for my father to see me graduate, a fear that kept me focused, as I was getting the education denied to him after third grade.  In retrospect, my obsession with death and dying was triggered by the multiple traumatic losses I suffered between the ages of three and six.  As I said in an earlier post, my world crashed during the last two months of 1958, when my sister was born on Halloween, and Castro rose to power on New Year’s Eve (is this why dislike like holidays?).  I went from being a little princess to a wild pitch, a ball looking for a place to land, bouncing from relative to relative, from the Cuban countryside, to a crowded ghetto apartment in Havana, from bliss to confusion, from instability to estrangement.

Hounded by my ruminations about death, I decided to take a Death and Dying class in my second year of social work school, to help me face my fears, and one of my assignments was to write about the losses I’d experienced.  Instead, I wrote about my luck that, at twenty-one, I had not experienced any significant losses, since my parents, and all but one grandparent were still alive.  The instructor, who knew I was a refugee, prompted me:  What about the loss of your country, your relatives left behind, and your language?  Shock.  Numbness.  Years, later, Pauline Voss, would research and write about ambiguous losses—unclear losses that cannot be grieved because they are uncertain.  Although my family in Cuba was still alive, they were not physically present, and because of the continued enmity between the US and Cuba, for seventeen years, we were hopeless of ever seeing them again.  According to Boss:

Unless people resolve the ambiguous loss—the incomplete or uncertain loss—that is inherent in uprooting, and bring into some congruence their psychological and physical families, the legacy of frozen grief may affect their offspring for generations to come, compounding itself as more ordinary losses inevitably occur (Boss, pp. 3-4).

Boss’ work explains my emotional numbness as a child, why I could not feel because my feelings were imprisoned behind a large windowpane; or, was it, instead, a sheet of ice encasing my frozen grief?

It’s no wonder that these early losses, and my inability to grieve programmed me to expect tragedy.  I was afraid to marry because my husband would die suddenly, as it happened to my aunt, and to a friend, who like me married late.  I was afraid to have children because I couldn’t risk losing them; my cousin and sisters had multiple miscarriages that they will forever mourn. Ironically, by not having children for fear of losing them, I lost them before I had them.

But, thanks to my spiritual and social work training,  I have learned the importance of planned good-byes, whenever possible, and of acknowledging losses; that lossess, an inevitable part of life, do not have to feel tragic, and even when they are, that God has engineered us to be resilient—with mechanisms that enable us to withstand and transcend the deepest sorrow, if we allow ourselves the time to mourn and heal.  Now, when “tragic” things happen, and I use quotes because tragedy is in the eye of the beholder, God is there.  And, at those times, I cling to God’s skirts like the petrified three-year old that, at different times, was separated from her mother or her father during the early days of the Revolution, and God picks me up, cradles me, and assures me that everything will be all right.  And it is.


Boss, P. (2000). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief: Harvard Univ Pr.

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We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.
~Thornton Wilder

This is Thanksgiving weekend, and although Black Friday has quickly hijacked our collective consciousness from gratitude to mega-bargains, I want to linger on thankfulness. I give thanks that my husband and his church mission team safely arrived in Haiti today. Haiti, which has a way of dramatizing our blessings because just when you think things can’t get any worse there, they do. Last night, we feasted on Tofurky, two kinds of potatoes, string beans with pears and veggie bacon, sweet potatoes, maple glazed Brussels spouts, cranberry sauce, risotto, and three different desserts; but for the next five days, my husband will be eating rice and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I suggested that, for variety, he take packages of instant oatmeal, he laughed because he won’t have access to a kitchen; the women in the mountain village they visit, cook crouched over an open fire. Due to the cholera epidemic, our mission team will be wary about drinking water and will forgo showering because there is no running water.

So, I give thanks for living in this country. Although Haiti is the poorest country in this hemisphere, Cuba, my birthplace, may be the second. In 2000, purchasing power parity figures were $1,700 for Cuba versus $36,200 for the United States. That means that, despite the sagging economy and my current under-employment, I am rich relative to what my life would be like in Cuba. For one, I would not be free to write this blog because, first, I would not have a personal computer, and, second, my writing would be censored. Yet, how flustered we get when our appliances don’t work and how outraged some of us are about full-body screenings at airports!

Today, I am grateful for the big things in life— political and religious freedom, a husband, family, and friends who love me, my animal companions, my spiritual, and civic communities, and, of course, my health. But I am also grateful for those blessings that are imperceptible when we have them, and devastating when we don’t. Immediately following my surgery, I discovered so many things I never thought to be thankful for: getting out of bed in the morning, standing in front of a sink to brush my teeth, the appetite and taste buds that I bemoaned when I wanted to lost weight, and my energy. Until then, I took these gifts for granted even after watching my father, for the last eight months of his life, bound to a hospital bed, with a feeding tube, and a catheter. My father, who had once lived to eat, lost his yearn for food and his ability to swallow. All those years that I had wanted him to lose weight, and he could never go below 215 pounds.

I know that this sounds depressing, but it doesn’t have to be if it awakens us to our blessings. So next time we are tempted to have a pity party, lets remember the people of Haiti, my relatives in Cuba, and the patients at The Weill-Cornell cardiovascular surgical ward.

What are you thankful for?

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