Cruising past the night lights of El Malecón in the backseat of my Dad’s 1988 Russian Lada I said to my younger sister “What I love most about rivers is: you can’t step in the same river twice.” It was bit of lyric I’d sang along with Pocahontas a thousand times before; before I fully understood the language it was sung in or grasped its deeper meaning. At the end of September, after months of anticipation and planning, I hopped on a 45 minute plane ride back to my motherland. It had been eight years since I’d last seen Cuba. Or its people. Or my family. I had some catching up to do.
I visited my childhood home and, like everything else on the island, it was a memory suspended in time. Nothing had changed and yet nothing was the same. There was a time when through my childish eyes the park across the street seemed an impassible forest, now it was a block’s width at best. The neighborhood’s square, the place of so many nooks for hide-and-go-seek games, was now merely two broken benches and a cracked Jose Marti statue. Everything was smaller than I remembered. Even the looming ruins of Cine Santos Suarez, a once majestic Art Deco movie theater. A crumbling proscenium stage, standing proudly on the corner of San Benigno, was all that remained of the first theater I attended when one afternoon my step-dad took me to a showing of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk. I stood transfixed by the lone piece of wall thinking how much like the Cuban spirit it prevailed. How through all the erosion, perjuries, and demolition its resilience was much the reason for its decayed beauty. I also thought about the slow 26 year progression of brick and mortar that has constructed who I am today. That fragmented wall, more like a mirror, was a reflection of how far I’ve come and the patience I need as the rest unfolds.
I went to my grandparents’ house. I walked the same hallways I’d walked when I was one. And five. And twelve. And nineteen. I sat on the same front porch rocking chair my grandma used to sit on when she told us ghost stories. I splashed around barefoot in a torrential downpour. In the same way as when I was six. And ten. And fifteen. I dug my naked heels in the mud, the same earth that witnessed my birth and my grandfather’s last steps. Their absence was palpable. I visited their graves seeking the closure I didn’t have in having suffered their deaths from 90 miles away. So I paid homage to their memory the only way I knew how, I dusted off the debris from the tomb and placed fresh flowers in the clay vase. Kneeling before their remains I found the catharsis I sought and soon the rain wasn’t the only deluge. From deep within rose a determined voice “Pay homage instead with your life. Keep your ambitions but remember your humble beginnings and promise to stay grateful.” I thought it was an inner voice but now I think it was my grandmother’s sage voice speaking through my own. For one as secular as I, it was the most spiritual I’d allowed myself to be. I understood that pain, like life, is a cycle and after the rain the sun is sure to follow. As much as we cried that day we laughed twice as hard. There was music to be played, rum to be had, and new memories to be made.
On the last night my Dad opened his finest bottle of scotch and there we sat in his colonial style eat-in kitchen, where as a kid I used to play “chef,” now two adults, whiskey in hand, making amends for the years of neglect. It was a time for healing, for atonement, for renewing the inextricable bonds that bind me to my treasure. Like Santiago the shepherd boy, I too needed to go back to the beginning to find my “chest of gold” but my treasure was the proverbial river that led me back to my family, my roots, my self.