Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hurricane Blanca

I've written about my mother-in-law before, so if you've read it before, this may be redundant. But I really need to write about her some more.

I am grateful to her, if for no other reason, than the fact that she is the one responsible for my husband surviving childhood to become a man.

When my husband was a young child, he lived in Havana, Cuba, with his mother, who was a divorced single mom. Divorce was not very heard of back then, but when his mother saw that her whirlwind romance and marriage to a very charismatic and influential man was destined to take her far afield of how things appeared when she said I Do, she chose the tougher path of being single and being the only parent to raise Jack. He doesnt know much more than that, and she's not volunteered more. There were reasons.

She was a nurse who worked hard to provide for her small son. As he grew, a dark cloud settled over Cuba. It was an unsure time in the world. There was talk, uprising, rifts of loyalties as citizens more and more had to take differing sides and politically things began to boil. Cuba was then as popular and free a destination for those in the U.S. as the Bahamas or Hawaii is now. It was metropolitan, cultured, and tourist's seasonal playground. It was far more than the stereotyped Ricky Ricardo characterization. It was lush with internal farms, forests, tropical climes. You could drop a seed onto the ground and it would grow. Cubans had rich heritages tracing back from Europe (the Mediterranean), China, North Africa and the nearby Carribes. Since Castro, the land has been raped and degraded and now only the spirit of the individuals refuse to give up...survival plots of vegetables are planted in backyards or vacant lots. The buildings are crumbling. The black market is the main way to purchase anything. A single aspirin sells on the black market the equivalent of a doctor's salary for a month. Ah the glories of communism. But I digress...

Contrary to a lot of folks' assumptions (including mine at one time), Cubans don't eat tacos and burritos and are distinct in culture from other predominant South and Central American cultures that have now been lumped under the term "Latino." Cubano is the dialect of Spanish spoken there.

Jack's mother, Blanca, was in the know...she was a prominent nurse at a Havana hospital and knew a lot of people of every social situation there. Hemingway was someone she saw frequently walking streets and beaches nearby.

Be careful of promises of change and progress. That's what Castro brought. He was handsome, charismatic, able to inspire a loyal following, and seemingly bulletproof. He made promises, whipped up a new nationalism, achieved an overthrow. He brought communism, the antidote to the burdens of capitalism.


What happened to Blanca's family is an interesting but true study of history as it was made. It's so easy to look back to the past and assume we'd know what we'd have done in such a time as that. But as history is made, it's seldom clear as it unfolds, and it's not often we realize what consequences will come of our decisions in the moment.

Blanca came from a family of (if I'm counting right) 12 children. She was one of the first to leave their rural situation, go to college, and become a professional (nurse). They had lived in the sort of poverty that was to eat, but a lot of mouths to feed, and cash-poor. (Does this sound familiar to our times??) She wanted the city and opportunity.

As the years progressed and Castro first came to power, people reassured themselves that this coup would bring stabilization rather than communist extremes. But then came the de-privatization of personal property. You had no property...didnt matter if you were rich or poor, it was seized in the name of The Glorious Cause. And you had to choose sides. Children were enrolled in "re-education" classes with new communist book, curricula, programming. They were encouraged to be informants on their own parents, to inform teachers, authorities, etc, if their parents didnt smoothly parrot all the new propaganda. It was at this time that Jack's mom began making decisions. A lot of people bided their time, not knowing if this regime would actually last, or would mellow. This had been their home for generations..surely things would get better?

Emigration was still open to the United States, but was tightening. Still, there was the sense that surely things couldn't change THAT much, right?? The Cuba-to-U.S. travel route was secure because of the mutual benefit to both...right? People began to flee. It was embarrassing to the Cuban regime. Families were split as some went, some stayed. To go was seen as being a traitor, not only to your country, but to your family who remained. Some people had no choice...the elderly, those with disabled members or parents to care for, those who could not afford financially to leave. To go to the United States was not necessarily to receive a warm welcome. Immigrants have always been unpopular here, despite what anyone thinks. I feel strongly about immigration; we are a nation that would not be here but for a boat or plane. I know quotas and legal vs illegal is a hot debate these days. But anyone who has a problem with legal immigration does not have my sympathy. Those who do have such a problem are welcome to Go Home...where the boat or plane their forefathers and mothers originally hailed from.

I'm an opinionated woman, eh? Ah, but back to the true story...

These and many more dilemmas faced the Cuban citizens of that day. Blanca was a powerhouse...a woman who wanted to stay in the know, a survivor. As the economics changed and businesses were de-privatized and seized by the regime, property taken, and freedom of speech and free movement vanished, people took stock. Many people joined the Communist party either because they believed it was for the greater good, or because they wanted to blend in and avoid be targets. This split whole families, as the members of the Communist party "informed" on their own family members. It seems foreign to us, but it was justified by many people at the time as a means of survival.

Many people began leaving, and by leaving, I mean leaving it ALL behind. We're not talking a third-world country...not back then. We're talking a nation as alive and vital, rich in natural resources, agriculture and industry and the arts, as any in the "civilized" world today.

His mom decided to stay until she thought it was too dangerous to do otherwise, but she even then began preparing documents in case they needed to try to flee. She had a gentleman friend of several years, and they loved each other but decided they couldn't marry under the circumstances...he had family obligations with his extended family. She became a skilled barterer of goods so that her son would no go without food. She hand-collected coffee beans on a friend's land, plants part of a vegetable plot out in the country. She dried, roasted, and processed the sacks of coffee beans by hand for weeks, until she had coffee ready to be ground and brewed...something no longer available on the open market. She had enough for herself for a year, and the rest to barter for necessities. Jack's breakfast during those times, even as a growing youth, was a cup of strong coffee with milk, if available.

Blanca undertook the paperwork necessary for validating hers and her son's identity, and when the dictate came from the higher powers that nurses needed to now substitute water for meds in patients intravenous tubes, with the patients being told that there was no more medicine, she knew she couldn't sacrifice her integrity to the pledge "do no harm."

It took at least a year. She applied for emigration to the U.S., just as the doors began to close. She took Jack to an older couple far out in the country where there were no schools and hardly any roads, for him to assist them on their farm and be hidden, because the communist indoctrination in the public schools was already established, and children not joining the communist youth organizations were targeted. It took a year for the paperwork to come through. During the year, she visited her son and the couple caring for him, bringing them money, bartered goods, whatever she could. She was under intense scrutiny. When it came time to go to the airport, she packed herself and Jack as if they were going on a tourist trip to Miami...that's what was on the was the only way to get out. As they were boarding the plane, she was stopped by authorities and told she could not go, she was being detained. She was told her son could board the plane and go, but she could not. She had that second to decide whether or not to be separated from Jack, not knowing what would happen to him. She told Jack to go. She was told that since she was a medical professional, the country could not part with her because her skills were too necessary to allow her to go.

Jack arrived in Miami with no one to meet him. He was installed with other refugees in a gathering place for days before extended family there figured out what had happened and found him. They kept him with them during his separation from his mother, and they were not happy about it. They themselves had immigrated earlier, and were finding it very difficult to acclimate to the English-speaking world. Survival was difficult, but they were free.

He found out many years later what happened to his mother during the intervening months. She was imprisoned in Cuba for a year. When she got out, I don't know how, but she was allowed to fly to the U.S. and she rejoined her son. There were years of surviving, and she was never without a job. She began their naturalization process and the difficult process of trying to remain stateside the correct number of days, filling out the correct forms, etc. Their days ran out, so she took them to Canada until she was allowed to re-enter. She crammed daily studying English, and took the Nursing exam in English because her Cuban degree was not recognized as legal. She passed. She scrimped, worked herself all hours, and ran a very tight household. She moved to Tampa and began working for a doctor there. She fixed up run-down housing properties in her "spare"time, first, for others, then later for herself as a secondary means of income.

Jack learned English and adapted to schooling with no transition other than practicing vocabulary repeatedly. It wasn't easy, but he did it. As soon as he graduated high school, he was drafted into Vietnam. Of course, he'd rather have not have had his number come up, but when it did, he served his country gladly. The U.S. gave him so much, and he was not reluctant to serve in the Marines. He was shipped over, the other details are his alone...he keeps them private; he's not a man to tell war stories. He came back in a coma and nearly lost his life. He lived to keep on serving in the military, and then was honorably discharged sometime later.

His mother was a rocky person, and a rock. The demands of making a life for herself and her son kept her always on the go with little time for leisure and sentiment; she defines the word "Grit." She has a strong personality, and loves to learn anything she can to improve herself. She stood solid with her son as he returned with disabilities from a very unpopular war. He never stopped working, supported his newlywed wife and they had a son. He inherited her grit, and steadily worked 60+ hour weeks for years to gain a good life.

Much has happened since then, but his mother has always been his champion. She did not always make popular decisions, did not always agree with Jack, but she loved him with actions that gave him opportunity to make what he would of himself and become a man. She married, and stayed in Tampa. Even to the age of 95, she took care of her husband and household...with grit. She has helped Jack in many ways over the years. When he lost his job of 24 years a few years ago, and was experiencing other reversals as well, she learned that his only vehicle was about to go and gave him enough money to cover half of the purchase of a newer one. She welcomed me into the family less with sentiment but more with an acknowledgement that Jack and I are suited for each other, and we are happy and hardworking. I've never learned Spanish and have had difficulty communicating with her, but we have an understanding. As long as I'm good for her son, I'm ok :)

I am writing this as a tribute to her life, though there is so much more that should be written. Sometimes love comes in a prickly package, less of warm fuzzies and flowery words and more of determination, fighting for survival, and long hours working for stability. This is the case for Blanca, and she loves her son in those ways, and with attachment emotionally. She is definately a fiery gal! Opinionated, headstrong, bossy, loving the latest news or gossip. Always wanting to be in the know and not left behind. A backyard gardener. A devoted wife....her pet term for her husband comes out sounding like "dahhhh-ling." Spanish spanish spanish, dahhhh-ling... spanish spanish spanish (her husband is an English speaker and they have sort of their own Spanglish going on).

We're not exactly sure how old his mother is. When Jack and I married 4 years ago, an interesting thing happened. On her birthday, she turned 92. She had given her age the prior year as 93. This is a woman who had not lost any of her memory or mental acuity. The next year, she turned 91. The next year, she turned 91 ...again. Our theory was that she had hit her preferred age ceiling and just wanted to begin counting backwards...heehee. In that vein, we hoped she'd live to be 60...

A couple months ago, we found out that Blanca knew she had a liver disease, but had not told her son. She abhors emotion and sentiment...she's an all-business woman, no nonsense. It really was an unpleasant shock for my husband. We were told she was in stage 4, and that she'd likely only have a couple more weeks to live. This was a blow, even though she is 95 (according to hospital records). She chose to remain at home and do for herself until she no choice otherwise. She enjoyed a window of time where she actually felt better and was able to have daily visitors (audiences!) with family and friends, and the doctors were baffled...maybe her decline was not so imminent?

When Jack cannot travel to visit her, he calls every day. For the last few days, she's always been asleep each time he calls, at different times of the day. Today, he called and was told she'd been moved to hospice. She has been conscious less and less; she is now awake off and on. I hope she does awaken, if only to see her son. She adores him.

It looks like it's about that time. Jack is on his way there, now. She's able to speak and they are together.

It's unfortunate that her later life was also complete with the sort of people who move in for the sake of the possibility of financial gain, when a person's most vulnerable. There are some such people who have suddenly materialized during this crisis, for just such expectations. My husband is not one of them, and is not friendly towards them. For so long, it was just his mother and him. Now these people have arrived on the scene, only an hour since he arrived. I am praying he is allowed the opportunity to peacefully continue spending her last days and hours with him beside her, without the drama of opportunists and troublemakers.

Blanca has always been a force to be reckoned with. No matter how these next hours are, my husband has the reality of a lifetime as her son, and no one can take that from him. It is probably no coincidence that as a near-hurricane Fay approached, it marked Blanca's journey to its next step. Her life has been as much a force as the native, natural forces of this area. It is fitting her final awareness is accompanied by such -- the rawness and strength others are awed by, but are everyday to her. Her determination and vitality have been as elemental as any hurricane.

I hope that if this is her last day, or days, that they ease peacefully from high gales to sheltering showers that bring comfort, peace, and no pain. We were glad to bid farewell to the spectre of the recent roiling force called Fay. We are sad to face saying our farewells to the life-giving and sustaining force that is Jack's mom.

And for the person she is, and has been for nearly an entire century, we are eternally grateful to G-d.


Spider Lady said...

That was very moving and I'm glad you shared it. My thoughts go out to you and your husband during this time.

earth heart said...

A wonderful tribute. Holding all of you in my thoughts.

Nita said...

Wow, what a great tribute. So sorry for your husband and you at this difficult time.

tina f. said...


Phelan said...

My thoughts are with you.

I know the Cuban struggle. My grandmother was 12 years old, and her family's home (plantation) was raided. They were not legally there, being immigrants from Ireland. My grandmother would tell me the story of how she and her sister hide under the bed, and watched the soldiers boots walk by, and the fighting the happened between her parents and the soldiers. They were kicked out of Cuba, leaving all of there wealth. But my family did come to the US. They went to Panama.

There are some amazing survival stories out of there.

Gina said...

Wow, what a story and such a strong, courageous mother. I really don't think I could give my son up like that, but she must have sensed she would be detained. How scary and beautiful all at the same time.

I hope she finds peace in her final days.

Hugs to you and Jack.

Gina said...

Wow, what a story and such a strong, courageous mother. I really don't think I could give my son up like that, but she must have sensed she would be detained. How scary and beautiful all at the same time.

I hope she finds peace in her final days.

Hugs to you and Jack.

Paulette said...

Wow, I've gone through 2 or three tissues as I've sat here reading this. What a story, what an amazing woman. And such a moving tribute. My thoughts are with you and your husband.

Kathie said...

Thank you so much for sharing that story! Many prayers are being lifted and thoughts sent.

Christina said...

What a lovely tribute to your mother in law! How wonderful of you to acknowledge her in such a way! I think Jack is one lucky man!

plantainpatch said...

What a beautiful tribute to your mother in law. I hope her and Jack's last moments together are peaceful and full of love.

Nola said...

What a wonderful tribute to your mother in law. It sounds like she's led a full life, and you and your husband will have many memories to ease your sorrow in the days to come.
Immigration is a hot topic now; I remain apolitical. On a somewhat comical note, let me tell you what my husband, who is an American Indian had to say about immigration. I quote him as saying "If my ancestors had had better immigration laws, none of you would be here!"

Granny Sue said...

What a lady. Your tribute honors her and her life. This is a difficult time but you are doing the right thing by remembering her life and the many good things she brought to your husband, and to America. Thank you for letting us know her.

Killi said...

A wonderful tribute to a remarkable lady. I agree with your comment that none of us know how we'd react in given circumstances.

I have a wonderful friend here from the North. I don't know his past ~ bits come out occasionally ~ & because that have I none idea how I would have coped in the Troubles I know I can never judge him & his life from before. I know a kind, gentle, troubled man who makes me feel completely safe in his company & whom I know I can trust implicitly. Others see a NI prod & judge according to their prejudices