Many in my personal life who read this blog are already aware of this. But last Tuesday my grandfather Juan had passed away. My grandfather did not have an easy life. He had a life marked by pain and by isolation. John Donne said that man is not an island. But with respect, he never met my grandfather.
And while his poem praised human unity, very few humans ever lent him a hand. He was born out of wedlock to a Babalawo and to a white woman of Spanish blood. A woman with a deep interest in the Occult. She loved her Babalawo despite the fact that he was a married man. The two conceived my Abuelo Juan.
His uncles hated him. Because his father was biracial, they told him he wasn’t really a part of their family. Instead he was a “negro they found in a hill somewhere and took pity on”. This was Cuba before the Revolution. My great grandmother had to hide him on that farm with her uncles and mother.
A child born out of wedlock and born of two ethnically different parents. It was a scandal and a shame for the family. And especially for early Cuba. My grandpa had to go through beatings and emotional abuse until he became an adult. His grandmother to her credit, loved him.
And didn’t care that he was mixed. She loved him and took care of him and defended him from his uncles. And was always making sure that he was alright. His mother would visit him on the weekends. He always blamed his father for everything.
Said his father was too much of a coward to tell him who he really was. My family said that his mother kept his existence a secret. She was afraid to ruin his father’s life. My grandfather spent a lot of time alone. He had his friends but he loved his solitude.
He absorbed himself in books, in poetry, in history and politics, and in writing. He was a bit of a ladies man and seduced many woman. He even warned me to be careful with any Cuban girls I date. Because they could accidentally be related to me. Which would put a dent in my dating life to be sure.
But despite all the womanizing he did, there was one person he seemed fixated on since his early years : my grandmother. In his youth, he fell in love with her. She was 17 and he was 14. And while she didn’t pay attention to him at the time, he always vowed that one day she would be his wife. She married a violent and corrupt Batistiano Captain of the police.
He beat my grandmother and was responsible for war crimes against the people before and during the Revolution. My grandfather was a soldier of lower rank under this man. He waited for the bastard to drink himself to death so that he could approach my grandmother and propose to her. And she said yes. Something I don’t think she ever thought she would do because of the age difference.
They were both involved in the failed Counterrevolution on the island and ultimately divorced. But he still loved my grandma. So much that before she died he almost seemed to sense it. And he said to my mother,
“Hija, if one day your Mother should die, please don’t tell me. Because I know I’ll fall apart if I know. Just tell me she’s still alive,”
Unfortunately, he did find out and he went into a state of shock. Which led to him having two strokes and developing Alzheimer’s. Just as he told us, my grandmother’s death undid him. He seemed to go into an accelerated physical and cognitive decline in just months. He was rapidly turning into someone else.
Each month was like a decade for him, and soon the man who helped raise me as a child was disappearing before me. When I was a boy, my grandpa was one of the best and greatest people in my life. He defended me from my father when he got abusive. And asked my mother what the hell was going on and what she planned to do about it. He warned me about the dangers of cult brainwashing.
You see I was raised in a Fundamentalist church and he didn’t want me to blindly follow the doctrines of men, disguised as ‘divinity’. He claimed to be an agnostic, and once said that he believed,
“In the God who created Heaven and Earth. But I don’t know who the fuck this Jesus guy was. He was probably a delinquent and that’s why they crucified him,”
To my very Christian and very horrified mother. He also “shit on the Seven African Powers” and “Shit on every Saint in Heaven!” whenever he was angry. I always laughed and he couldn’t help but laugh with me. He would also write vulgar poems about Christian people, including a certain sect that knocks on doors to preach the good news.
“The Jehovah’s Witnesses say that soon Armageddon will come, but I laugh, I dance, and I shit on the Mother of God,”
I remember that when he took me out to eat at a Cuban diner. It was the very first memory of him I have. I think it was our first outing. He gave me an unlit cigarette and put it in my mouth and said,
“There, now you’re a man damn it!”
I think I was 6 or 7 at the time. My Mom went apeshit when she found out. It was awesome! Since that time we would go together to Little Havana where we would hang out with his friends on the side walk. Where we would work together on the farms with the animals. We would even make deliveries to places of bird food and sometimes the unsavory deliveries of animals to be sacrificed by Santeros.
Something I vehemently oppose to this day despite being a Santero myself. I would actually wake up at 5am on Saturdays to go with him to have a good breakfast and to plan out our day. We’d go to a Santero Botanica where I would go to help him bring in merchandise. We’d go see old friends of his, which included a couple that got married thanks to him (long story). Other times we would meet random strangers and talk over cortaditos about random things.
Oh, and then there was the Cuban-Chinese Restaurant. He’d go there not to eat Chinese food. He went there because they had “the best rice and stake he’d ever eaten,”. My mom used to tease him about it. “What? It’s true,” he’d say.
Mostly it was the solitude we both enjoyed. I loved talking to my grandpa about everything. We had no secrets. He quickly learned that he wasn’t so happy by himself after all. I was his partner.
I remember spending an hour eating cold pizza in his old truck. The windows down, the breeze of a nice day. The grey skies that promised a dark and stormy day. Oh how we both loved that kind of weather. Or at least I do.
Maybe he just enjoyed it because he knew I did. I remember when he bought me my first black leather jacket for the cold. I wore it even until the leather went bad and when I was hot. People thought I was crazy or that I was trying to be a punk rocker or something. But really I just enjoyed it.
When it was cold and early in the morning we would go to a diner and have a good breakfast. Then just enjoy the cold weather with a hot cafe con leche and eggs and ham. I knew all of his friends and they knew me. But despite that, he was silent as a tomb about his most private affairs. I dare say I probably know more about some of the things he went through or experienced than most people.
Only my mother knows more.
As a teenager, he loved the cemetery for example. He would spend hours immersed in the silence and the solitude. He’d even go there after school to do his homework. It was also one of the few places where he felt truly at peace. Death didn’t really scare him.
I’m sure like a normal man he feared the pain. But the act of being freed from this world did not bother him. What he feared if anything, was a life un-lived. That gusto for lifetook the form of travel, strange adventures with friends, the occasional brawl (even with younger men, he always won), affairs with younger and older women, and a lot of laughter. He even had an affair with his land lord’s wife.
I remember facepalming myself and going “Ay Abuelo tu eres tremendo,” (Oh Grandpa, you’re something else). I figured he’d end up having to find a new home. But as it turns out that is not what happened at all. He discovered that the man was beating his wife. So one day in their kitchen with both present he promptly said,
“She and I are together now. So, I don’t give a fuck if she’s married to you. She’s not your property. If you touch her again, I am going to crack your skull open and you’ll have a closed casket funeral,”
He said this nonchalantly while both the man and his wife where in the room. The story was told to me by her. That’s how I even know it happened. My grandpa had many flaws, but he loved you and was loyal to you. And he defended you with no care to what would happen to him.
Needless to say, while they were together the beatings stopped. I remember how bizzare that relationship was. That this guy had a tenant he knew was sleeping with his wife. And that the wife treated my grandpa like her husband instead of him. She even cooked breakfast or special foods for him.
My grandpa really seemed to like her. He once told me that talking to her he felt better than if “he fucked the princess of Spain!”. And he meant it too. Which made it funnier. This man could write poems in old Spanish verse yet that’s how he described his personal life.
One time, after he was already sick and looking like a corpse, my mother was “dating” some asshat that had a reputation for hitting women. She didn’t know that when she decided to give him a chance. But grandpa sure did. He sized this guy up, literally looked him up and down. So he looks at my Mom and says,
“Hija what is your size and weight?”
She replied and he said,
“Good! If some piece of shit ever lays a hand on you, you take your fist and you hit him as hard as you can under his chin and fuck up his jaw. He’ll live to regret it,”
The guy laughed nervously. He knew my old man had him pegged nice and good. And even while he was so weakened from his first stroke, that one hard gaze was enough to make even a younger man think twice. This was my second father. In many ways my real father, as he had influenced me in ways that my own could never do.
I remember visiting him at the retirement home for the first time. I took a Lyft to travel from Sweetwater to Miami Springs. I remember it was a beautiful sunny day and I actually enjoyed the little trip. But no one told me, no one warned me about what I would find when I got there. I liked the building, I thought it looked nice from the outside.
I searched for his room in the hallway. That rancid smell hit me all at once. That smell that lets you know there are elders who have not bathed yet. Like a smell of dust accumulating. People who can no longer move on their own.
Who need constant supervision. Then I found his room. He was sharing it with three other people. How can I describe seeing him turn from a strong man, despite his age, into a living corpse? I was shocked to say the least. Holding my emotions in was no easy task
That first day when I got to the Home he had to be placed in and saw him in that bed I hardly recognized him. I’m not exaggerating when I say he looked like death itself. He had lost so much weight, his skin grew so pale as if no blood flowed through his veins. And to make it worse, he couldn’t even stand up anymore. Now he required a wheel chair and a diaper.
Most of his friends weren’t around. He had fallen out of touch with all of them by this time. But not me, I’m your partner remember grandpa? Till the end. I stayed with him all day as he slept. I only left to eat in some little Restaurant around the corner.
I came back and I stayed until 5 or maybe 5:30pm. I knew it was late because night was breaking through. I took another Lyft home and felt mixed up inside. Confused. So, so confused.
I took pictures of him and shared it with my uncle and with my sister. For three years almost without fail myself, my mother, and my sister visited grandpa every weekend. We would bring him Cuban cafe, and chocolate pudding. Sometimes jello. He would devour it and then sing lewd songs aloud.
Mostly he would change the lyrics of Guantanamera to “Juan Cagalera” (Juan Shits alot). He would also sing about a man taking a shit. And that he saw that he had a small gun and a sack with two bullets. My mom was trapped between being embarrassed and laughing at the same time. I’m pretty sure he did it to piss off all of those old society ladies in the home.
The ones who wore fancy pearls and thought they were Spanish aristocrats. One of them was named Daisy. She came up to us to try and complain about my grandpa. My mom quickly defused the situation.
“My what nice pearls you have Daisy!”
“Why thank you child, I’ve had them since I was a little girl,”
Then my grandpa said,
“Coño (damn) they must be over a 100 yrs old. Quick! Run to an Antique Dealer, you’ll be a millionaire!”
My mom, sister, and I tried so hard not to laugh. We went red in the face. And Daisy walked off so pissed we thought she’d have a stroke herself. Gradually, this became the new normal. And my mother said seeing him like this was even worse than watching my grandmother die.
We never thought this would happen to him. We never thought he would end up in a home. We are a family that takes care of our elders. All my other grandparents lived with the family. With their children and grandchildren.
We wanted Abuelo Juan to live with us too. But he was so stubborn. He didn’t want to be a burden on us. He lived on his own and had his own place. But with his cognitive decline, the owners of his building began to tell us that he was falling asleep in the hallways and forgetting where his apartment was.
We never thought a retirement home was where he would end up. It was unheard of in our family. But with each stroke and the growing Alzheimers he needed help only professionals could give him. He’d more or less become accustomed to his new surroundings. He believed it was a new apartment building.
He’d talk with other people but it was just small talk. The only people he really talked to were younger, attractive nurses. He would hit on them and make them laugh with his jokes. And would speak gibberish that he claimed was Arabic or Russian. But he only really came alive when he saw us.
“Pepito Carajo! Que bueno verte,”
(Pepito Goddamn it! It’s great to see you).
He was the only one I allowed to call me that. Pepe is my father. And I hate being seen as similar to him in any way. But somehow my grandpa changed the meaning of the name for me. The last peaceful memory I have of my grandfather was the last time me and my mom visited him.
My sister had already moved to another state. It was a calm Sunday afternoon. Sunny outside and the light coming from the window cast shadows that made it look as if the room were under water. You know what I mean? Like the reflection of water from a pool. He was already almost immobile by this point.
He never wanted to get out of bed now. Although he seemed more alert and happy strangely. He stayed awake talking to us for a bit and asking me how old I was now. And as usual, when I said 33 he would be shocked. He remembered me as I was in my teenage years.
He thought I was 15 again. He started drifting to sleep. And then we left. And that was the last time I saw my grandpa alive. Because then the pandemic hit.
And his retirement home was shut down. My uncle and mom were able to see him through the window and talk to him. Or sometimes talk to him through the phone. He started developing a cough and we began to get worried. We suspected it was the Coronavirus right away.
But they assured us it was a case of pneumonia. Nothing more. They took forever to test him, if that is what they actually did. And claimed he tested negative for the virus. My mom breathed a sigh of relief for the first time that day.
So imagine what it was like the next day to be ordering dinner and finding out that he passed away. My mom said she had felt a heaviness in her heart. That she knew something was going to happen but not what. She had left work earlier that day to give him a visit but no one answered from his room when she called out. Not even a nurse.
Not his usual protests of “shut the fuck I’m trying to sleep!”. Nothing. The nurses claimed they came in with his food and found him dead at 5:30pm. I had to be the one to break the news to his friend from his old job that he possibly died of Coronavirus. The assisted living facility we took him to, had apparently had 106 cases of Covid 19.
We learned about all these cases nearly a week after he died. We were starting to get grounded. We were starting to come to terms with what had happened. Only to watch Univision at 11pm for one of their daily Coronavirus reports and see this.
My rage, my pain, my anger. So much hurt in so little time. This had to be the shittiest week of my life. Nothing else could ever compare to this. I used to think my ex leaving me was bad.
I wanted to marry her and have a family. But this was far worse. In fact it set the bar for just how much worse something could be instead of a breakup. Someone you dated leaves you? Big Deal. There’s someone out there for everyone.
You just have to go out and find them. But there are some losses that one never truly gets over. Losing someone that you have loved since you were born, the first person who held you as a baby. That’s a fate worse than death. Or perhaps it is a death of some kind.
It’s as if my life force had been sucked out of body. As if something in the Universe just went cold. I feel numb and almost cold inside. I have had to keep myself from crying and grieving because my mother needs me. She just lost both of her parents now.
She’s not going to see them again for a very long time. Until her time comes to depart as well. I’ve been sleeping on the floor of her apartment so she wouldn’t be alone. And today I heard her talking to her husband (who is stuck in Honduras now). I pretended to still be asleep.
And I heard her crying on the phone. Telling her husband that she’s worried about her brother. Because their Dad’s death has so deeply effected him. That he blames himself for his death. Because he had power of attorney.
Because he trusted the scum from that facility to care for his Dad. That he would be safe and cared for. As mother’s day nears, it won’t be quite the same. For all intents and purposes she’s an orphan now. They have a cliche for this kind of thing.
You know, the one that says that with a person’s passing, the world gets a little dimmer. Well, it’s not a cliche. It’s truth. In Judaism, God is believed to be this gigantic swirling pool of light.
And all of us come from that pool of light. We’re all pieces of Adonai’s great cosmic soul broken down into human form. So when we die, our souls or our light, returns back to the Source. And that Quantum Source is God. Or comes from God.
So when we die, we are dimming the world. Because our light flees this place to go home. We leave the world dimmer and darker than when we first started out because our presence made it a better place. So the dead are not whom we mourn, but ourselves. The dead find peace (usually).
As long as they are remembered, as long as they are not forgotten and the proper rituals and prayers are offered, they are well. It’s only when they are forgotten and unloved that they suffer. No, we mourn ourselves because just a little bit of that light left our world and went back to it’s source. And we are left in a world far less bright, than that which we lived in before. How did I do Abuelito?
Did I succeed at condensing your long, eventful life, into one gigantic post? I found it hard to do. I feel that the Earth has shifted underneath my feet. That my hold over everything is lost. That I am lost. But I won’t mourn you Abuelo, I’ll celebrate you.
We will take our time to grieve yes. But not to feel bad about ourselves. Instead, to heal and to move on. To honor your spirit and your memory. To cherish all the fond memories we have of you.
And to light your way so that you may be with the ancestors. Adios Juan, hasta la vuelta. Until I see you again grandfather. I love you.