I sit here looking at a picture. It is of a smiling man, in his 40s, proudly holding up a prize trophy of a swordfish. By his side, also smiling is a boy of 12. The camera has caught a fleeting moment of happiness, a carefree moment that never betrays what is to come.
Fifty some years later, that smiling man is gone, but not without leaving behind a legacy of an exemplary life, intensely lived and always affected by unforeseen events that shaped the rest of his minutes, his hours and his moments on this earth.
Writing about the loss of one's constant past is not easy, particularly when the past for years has been buoyed and affected by the one "someone" who has always been present for as long as you have had the inception of thought.
And so it is that today I honor my dad, and grieve for the loss of a simple, yet extraordinarily intelligent and compassionate, man. A man who did not get his final wish: to die in his country, to be buried in a free Cuba.
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My dad was 46 years old when he came to the United States in the first wave of Cuban political exiles to leave the island. He had been a well-known cardiologist in Cuba. He arrived in Miami with a suitcase filled with the uncertainties of a new life. He studied for his "revalidating medical exams" in the daytime and worked at night as a busboy in a restaurant, cleaning tables and working in the kitchen.
In order for him to be able to practice as a doctor in this country, he had to redo his internship and residency. He humbly and with passion did what he had to do. Eventually he became the director of the Emergency Physician Services at King's Daughters Hospital in Ashland.
That life changes radically and unexpectedly is something none of us are ever prepared to experience. Imagine leaving the place that always had defined your identity, and now you face the fracturing of that identity: an unwanted divorce from the stability of your grounded self, from the person you have been culturally up to the moment of change.
You are now the protagonist in a story in which your past becomes totally and radically different from your present reality.
And this reality can be quite daunting.
Stepping into the unknown takes courage. It is this courage — the courage of the exile, the immigrant — that I value as my dad's greatest legacy to me: to choose the trajectory of displacement, whether for political or economic reasons; to leave your beloved homeland, your language, family and your friends; to face countless strangers, new traditions; to always be living with a packed suitcase under the bed, filled with the nostalgia and the remembrances of a past self, and with the memories of a country that no longer resembles the one left behind.
Thank you Papi, for your courage and for instilling in your children to love and respect another culture while never forgetting who we are.