Ding Dong the Dic(tator) is Dead

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Versailles Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. Photo credit: Jorge Zamanillo

In a span of 12 days, the world lost not one, but 2 influential Cuban leaders. One rose to fame and power with a loud and powerful roar, making sure everyone and everything in his path knew whom he was. The other, quietly and politely from behind the scenes, led his fellow Cubans in his own way on their individual paths to freedom and the American dream. The first was Fidel Castro, the other was my papi, Miguel Perez.

My father came to this country sometime in the late 1950’s, became a permanent resident of the U.S. on December 14, 1961, began working for Pepsi-Cola in Miami in 1966, became a naturalized citizen on June 21, 1968, married my mother in May of 1971…

Why do I know all these dates? Because this last couple of weeks I metamorphosed from being his daughter to being the personal representative of his estate. Not a transformation I was looking forward to.

For those of us Cubans (or Cuban-Americans) growing up these past 40+ years in South Florida, Fidel’s death is huge news. And for those like my father who left Cuba as a young adult in the 1950’s- 1980’s, it is even more so.

My father fled from Cuba literally running away from Castro’s military forces, being shot at as he ran through the forest, hiding out, finally escaping with literally nothing but the shirt on his back. He couldn’t let his family know of his plan beforehand,  because it would put them in danger as well. He didn’t speak to them for 20 years, for fear of incriminating them back on the island.

When he finally arrived safely in this country, with no family around to help, he first settled in New Jersey (as did many Cubans). He had a couple of good friends who fled with him and who became his roommates. They lived right above a diner in a one-room apartment.

For the first 2 months, the only thing he ate was western omelets. He spoke no English, but overheard someone ordering that at the diner and it looked good, so he mastered those words. Whenever he’d come in and sit at the counter, the waiter would ask for his order, he’d proudly say “western omelet”, day after day, as that was the only thing he knew how to say.

He was briefly involved in a covert operation run by a division of the U.S. military, where he and a bunch of men were trained and prepared to ship out as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion. But shortly after they were deployed, their ship was called back, and it was over.

He eventually made his way down to Miami (as most Cubans often do) and kept plugging along. He had heard there was a Cuban man who worked for Pepsi-Cola who may be able to help him get a job there, so he went in and introduced himself. When they asked him if he knew how to drive an 18-wheeler, he said ‘of course, no problem at all!’ Mind you, he’d never driven a truck, let alone an 18- wheeler, but he really needed the job. So he faked it till he made it. He eventually rose through the ranks at Pepsi-Cola and ended up a distribution manager, retiring after over 30 years at the company. He helped countless Cubans who arrived by giving them their first job and an opportunity for success just as he had been given long ago.

I grew up fearing Castro and his power even though I’d never set foot on the island. I knew what he could and would do if you ever dared speak out against him. Even in Miami in the 1970’s you’d have been hard pressed to find a Cuban daring enough to speak ill of him or his regime out loud. All my family were there- my grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins….and there was nothing we could do to help them, thanks to the U.S. embargo. If someone was daring enough to try and make a phone call and send word that a friend or distant family member was planning a visit, sending aid in the form of medicine or money, they had to use code words because the phone lines were rumored to be tapped. The Castro regime would supposedly swoop in and take the person on the phone away, far, far away to Castro Jail where they would never be seen again.

I have heard that when Castro first came on the scene in Cuba, and was wooing the country with his charisma, he also spent some time here in South Florida. It is rumored he spent the night at my great aunt’s house…a story my maternal grandmother would tell me as a child and I would recount to people by saying “Castro stayed with my family once when he was good.”

My family, like many countless Cuban (American) families, would often hear of and hope for the demise of Castro, and his regime. He was rumored to be dead at least half a dozen times, each time bringing a spark of collective hope to the Cuban community that meant someday they would be able to return and rebuild. But the spark was always quickly extinguished when it wasn’t true.

But now, finally, it is over. The magic spell that Fidel had cast on Cuba is broken at last, at least metaphorically. I hope it will continue to pave the way for better relations and a sense of hope for the tiny, beautiful island where all my family continues to struggle and survive, along with many other hopeful Cubans.

My father, in his own small way, made his mark in this country as a Cuban with conflicted feelings about his homeland, in quite a different way than Castro. As I slowly, piece by piece, document by document, learned about many of my Dad’s life adventures over the course of this past year, what would be his last, we somehow became exponentially closer.  So did my brother and he.  My brother finally managed to capture my father’s stories on a voice recording on his iPhone as they spoke late one night. My father was not much of a talker, but for some reason on this night, he spilled it all. Things I’d never known about for 44 years. And I know we will cherish that recording forever, all the moments of our collective cultural and family history preserved at last.

I wish Papi had been around to see this, finally, the long-awaited end of an era. But at the very least I get a kick out of imagining him laughing and enjoying the festivities in Little Havana this week in spirit, having a shot of Havana Club rum in celebration.

Someday, when it is all not so raw, I will finally listen to his stories, to his voice telling his stories. But for now, I will say a prayer, and light a couple of candles….one for my father, and one for Fidel Castro.

En paz descansen los dos lideres Cubanos, que siempre seran recordados por sus hechos,  ya sean buenos o malos.

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Photo credit: Jorge Zamanillo

Six Degrees of Cuban Bacon

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Okay, so I realize this post is completely self-serving, and I’m okay with that. Sometimes, shit happens. And it makes me think and ponder and wonder… and these thoughts yell and scream at me until they are allowed out into the world. Sometimes through spoken word, sometimes through a blog post. It helps me process.

So there’s your warning. This may or may not resonate with you. It doesn’t matter. It just needs out. But be careful if you choose to keep reading. This MAY resonate with you, and cause YOU to think and connect some dots or raise some questions.

Two days ago, I had a kind of epiphany regarding energy, spirituality, life….and our connections with loved ones specifically. Because two days ago, I wound up in the hospital surgery “Family Waiting Lounge” …waiting. Waiting to get an update about my father.

Let me back up a little.

I have spent most of my life striving to connect to my spiritual, higher self…learning everything I could that might remotely relate to that topic, through workshops, live classes, coffee dates, “date” dates… you name it. I have learned so much and awakened so much, so much so that at times now I am often shocked at how quickly things “connect” for me. How quickly, or oddly, things manage to manifest in ways I never imagined.

A big challenge for me (as I imagine may be true for many on their own spiritual path) was clearing certain blocks that were hindering me in a few places in my life and spiritual growth.  That was something I was really, actively “trying hard” to do. I’ve taken quite a number of courses on this particular area in hopes of “mastering” it, because I “needed” to be done with those blocks.

One of these blocks was the grief I still felt at losing my mother when we were both too young to be ready to part. She was 49, I was 22. Cancer took her away, and I won’t go into the details because it honestly doesn’t matter. But for a good 20 years I held on to that grief (apparently). I was angry/sad/frustrated that she didn’t get to see me get married, to become a grown-up, to have my own child…and no amount of therapy or meditation or reading or anything made a dent in that grief. And we’re not talking sadness here, we’re talking true grief.  It nagged at my soul when I wasn’t even thinking about it, and really did a number on me during holidays, Mother’s Day, birthdays, etc.

It wasn’t until almost 2 years ago that I really got a true grasp of the energy world and how it functions, surrounded myself with my “tribes” of energy people, that I was truly able to release that grief. And it was almost effortless. Well not exactly, but it felt quite miraculous and instantaneous. I had an incredible encounter, and it was DONE. Once I grasped that we truly are all one, that energy never ends or dies, just transmutes and transforms…that we never truly “lose” our loved ones, they are very much “still there” and we can still connect with them (and when I finally embraced that this was my truth, that I was brave enough to embrace that & honestly & completely accept it and own it) it just fell away, and opened up a whole new world for me.

Apparently the universe wanted to test me as it has tested many of us during this last year, just wanting to make sure we really have our souls firmly planted in our truths and we can’t be shaken. So this past summer I lost another being near and dear to my heart, another great teacher to me, my faithful and fart-full long-time doggy companion Sammy Davis Junior Jr. It happened fairly suddenly, and the loss was huge for me and left quite a gaping hole in me for a while. But knowing what I know now, I was okay feeling all my feels and allowing myself the grieving process of losing his physical presence, knowing it wouldn’t debilitate me for long. So I reached out, used my tools & newfound knowledge….and lo and behold just about a month later, I had another encounter, and BAM, the grief was gone. I do still feel some tiny bit of sadness once in a while, but it subsides quickly and is usually also mixed with love and joy and wonder.

So I am learning still how to best deal with these energetic ties… how to learn from them, to use them for good and not to let them swallow me up or overtake me. And this past couple of weeks I had a great opportunity to practice with someone still living, my Dad. I realized just this week what an amazingly strong connection we have…. which had you asked me a month ago about our relationship, I would have had a completely different point of view.

You see, of course I love my stubborn, old-school, Cuban Dad, I always have, but we never really “connected” at all growing up together. We were very similar and very different in so many ways. We didn’t live well together, and our relationship did improve once I moved out on my own in my early 20’s. But we never really have a lot of common interests to discuss. He doesn’t understand my spirituality, my passion for following my dreams. He is ever the realist, firmly living on this planet, in the practical here and now. He doesn’t believe in stress, depression, anything intangible, or discuss emotions or anything of that sort. And that’s okay! I love him as he is, I just never felt very understood or close to him on a soul level.

His health has been deteriorating a lot lately, and at 83, he is battling all sorts of issues. We’ve had a number of scares within the last year, and this man has more than 9 lives it seems. On top of his “usual” daily health struggles, he has been dealing with debilitating back pain for 3 weeks now….and ironically (not really as it turns out) so have I. Granted, I have always had a bad back, but not like this. I had sought out the help of a dear, close friend who is a chiropractor, and that provided some relief. I have also played detective, trying to figure out what could be making me feel so much pain. This back pain is unlike ANY I have had before, it just feels different, and radiates down one leg. Ironically, my Dad’s pain was very similar. But unfortunately, due to his age and other issues, his was taking away his ability to stand and walk. His health care provider (aka CRAPPY CLINIC IN HIALEAH) leaves a lot to be desired, and the awful advice and care they have given him in the past have almost cost him his life a couple of times.  So here we are both trying our best to get help and treated for our back pain (and I hadn’t really even realized the connection yet at that point)… he has been back and forth from doctor to specialist to hospital multiple times, I have been from massage therapist to PT to chiropractor…. until finally last week my chiropractor suggested me getting an MRI to take a better look. I was desperate for relief and answers, so I took the steps to make it happen. Which meant heading to my primary doctor, a DO whom I adore, who coincidentally happened to have an amazing machine in his office which provided immediate (temporary) relief, and he also laid the groundwork for me getting a referral for an MRI. I shared all this info with my Dad and urged him to find a chiropractor to get a different perspective.

So what happens next is where it starts to get crazy. My Dad is now to the point where he can’t walk, or stand, or control his bowels or bladder, and his pain is so great he says he can’t go on another day, and heads to the hospital (all this from a man who avoids doctors & hospitals at all costs). They send him home within hours after running all sorts of tests and attribute it to a fall 3 weeks ago, his age, and his general health. One day later he is rushed by ambulance to different hospital in the wee hours of the morning because now he can’t even move his legs or get up into a sitting position. He finally gets taken to a “real” hospital, and they run tests. And you know what solves the mystery? An MRI of his back. Revealing a huge, deep infection pressing against his spine, compressing T9-10 to be exact. He needs immediate (Laminectomy) surgery if he hopes to walk again. So he’s transported to a bigger, regional hospital with a Neurosurgery department, gets examined, and indeed, they agree surgery is needed.  The infection has branched out and compressed his spinal cord and is the reason why he has had all sorts of issues for MONTHS. As have I.  I just didn’t know what my back was trying to tell me.

So oddly enough, now my back pain is virtually gone (without the MRI, or any further treatment since this all came to light). And he has answers, and has had surgery, and is on his long road to recovery, rehab, and learning to walk again.

Coincidence? I think not.  It’s like a strange “6 Degrees of Cuban Bacon” or something.  But what came first, the chicken or the egg? His back pain or mine? Did mine help save him? Did his help save us? Who knows.

All I know is the universe never stops communicating with us, teaching us, connecting us. We just have to be quiet and aware enough to listen.

Dads & Doulas & Stuff….by Jeffrey Lerner

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The following is a guest post from my incredibly insightful, loving husband, who is my best friend, ally, and a BIG believer in the power of Doulas. It came up as we were speaking the other day about Dads and their ideas (usually) when Moms say they need to hire a Doula to be there for the birth….I hope you enjoy!

There are all kinds of fathers out there in the world today. Big ones, small ones, skinny ones and fat ones.
Smart ones, dumb ones, short ones and tall ones.
Fathers that want to be in the room for their baby’s first breath, and fathers that want to be in the waiting room with a whiskey and a cigar. (Ok….maybe that was just in the old days.) Fathers that are tricked by their wives into hiring a doula, and fathers that don’t know that a doula has nothing to do with the medulla oblongata. (Which for your information is located in the hindbrain, anterior to the cerebellum…Duh!)
I find it incomprehensible as to why the father would not want to be present for such a momentous occasion. In fact some 92% of fathers do take part in the birthing process. What the hell are the other 8% of men doing while their beautiful wives are trying to give birth to a something the size of a watermelon? I for one am so thankful that I was present and accounted for during my son’s birth. It truly was the highlight of my life so far.

Because my wife was planning on giving birth naturally, she decided early on to hire a doula. I must admit that at the time I was completely ignorant about what a doula does. But what I quickly learned at the hospital was that I was out-gunned and needed some serious backup.

The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “a woman who serves” and that is a good way to put it. Our doula not only supplied emotional support to my wife and I, but she helped us navigate through all of the pressures of having our baby in a modern hospital. Let’s face it, the nurses and doctors at a hospital dont always support the plan that you have in place. Our doula helped us through the entire birthing process. Not to mention she gave excellent backrubs………to my wife too 🙂 .

Sometimes a birth can feel more like a battle. Would you go into battle without a good, experienced soldier to help you through it? Why would you go to a birth without a doula? Giving birth is an emotional rollercoaster where things can change in an instant and most likely will. Why wouldn’t you want someone there with you who has been there before?

So if you are a father on the fence about hiring a doula or not, take it from me and do like Nike says…just do it. In fact, if we ever have another child, I would hire my own private doula just for me. No seriously……lattes…..chocolate…..backrubs……more lattes….oh and maybe some doula type stuff too.