Merry Christmas: Faith, Hope & Love

Ay Abuela,

My senses deceive me.

They tell me you are gone.

I can hear you,
but then,
not clearly.

I can see you,
only right around the corner,
just gone.

I feel your laugh,
but then,
I don't.

My body tells me you are gone,

But my soul knows better.

Ay Abuela,

I never prayed in my life
the way I prayed
during the last hour
of your life.

Could you hear me?

Has God told you?

I was pleading with Him
to give you
the hope
it would take
to let go of your body.

God said yes,
and you exploded
into eternity,
leaving us so grateful
for your love.



Sister Candy

I remembered the first day Candice walked into my class.

Regal posture, long black hair, intense Cherokee eyes.

To top this off, she was wearing a red shirt which only exaggerated the power of her wisdom, courage and -- who am I kidding here? --- womanly curves.

Throughout the semester, she made nothing but A's. High A's at that.

Still -- Candice felt the anxiety so many thirty-something-mother-students are gripped with, and visited me often in my office to get clarifications on notes and readings.

That's where we laughed. Hard.

We're from different worlds -- I'm Cuban, from big cities; she's Cherokee and German, from Lakeland, Georgia, a smalltown outside the small city of Valdosta -- but we have the same laugh, the same curiosity, the same loyal devotion to just a few things.

Our talks turned more serious this past October when we both were tortured with mammogram craziness at the same time. We cried, hugged, giggled and encouraged each other. Just as it should be, right?

Then today, Candice showed up at my door before an exam, no makeup on, teary-eyed. Her grandmother had passed on, too. The same week as mine. We shook our heads in amazement.It's like the universe is serving us challenges from the same script.

But then Candice threw a curveball. She just found outher sister died, the one her father had before he met her mom.

Tears of rage, sadness and exhaustion streamed down her face as she opened her arms, "She's gone. Just gone... and I didn't know her...."

I looked at the clock over her shoulder. Three minutes until I had to give a final. No time for resolution, no time for deep questions. I hand her a tiny but wise and mind-opening book, and tell her I'll see her soon.

Because I will.

I know I will, Candice, because - in case you haven't noticed - I'm your sister, too.

And I'm right here, now, laughing and crying with you.

Forecast: Peaceful Waters

Mom loses her voice under stress.

Which is fine, because she has her blackberry.

This also fine because it means that people can't call Mom and constantly ask for updates on Abuela's conditions.

Being a PR/Media specialist, Mom has found a way to manage this situation.

She's issuing written updates to my father whose job is then to stick to his script and disseminate the statements by phone.

And of course, there is a protocol.

First, dad calls Abuela's other children, Milly and Vincent.

Then he calls my brother Winn. A

fter that he should call me, then other cousins.

The noon update, today: "She continues to deteriorate."

This is a particularly meaningful and appropriate analogy for a family who resides in South Florida and New Orleans.

I imagine Hurricane Abuela, once a category 5 storm with a well defined eye and winds of over 200 miles per hour, downgraded to a category 1.

Then a tropical storm.

Then a disturbance.

Then peace.

About those Keys

So Sunday night I didn't answer the phone.

No surprise to anyone, really, because I didn't really talk to anyone all during Thanksgiving Break.

Maybe I was still dealing with Beth's suicide, maybe I was tired, who knows.

I just know I sat still in a shadow, unreachable.

I didn't answer the phone when my brother called.

He and I love each other alot. Very much.

We love each other in the "only need to talk once or twice a year" kind of way.

The last time we spoke on the phone was when my dad was in the hospital back in June.

I didn't answer the phone because I just knew it was something not so good.

Finally someone got through to me.

Abuela was in the hospital.

Cardiac ICU.

No, don't come down yet.

Just stay in Tallahassee, wait.

Great. So I did stay here.

And I made up my own rules.

If I couldn't go down there, then no one could call me with bad news.

Not until after 5pm, after teaching, after lecturing, after I was a grownup all day.

Then, of course, I'd be ready to handle it.

On Monday I threw on my lucky airport dress, and taught my AMH 2020 class then took a field trip to FSU to lecture on Teaching College History.

On my way home, I called my mom and talked to Abuela.

She sounded tired and distracted.

Of course, she's a celebrity in that hospital, probably getting foot rubs and extra morphine.

Lucky her.

I told her I loved her and that I'd see her when I drive down with the kids on December 18.

She laughed and told me I'd better bring down the keys, soon. She's ready to drive.

I think -- although I don't want to -- that I understood her, completely.


(Originally written June 2007)

My grandmother comes from a particular class and culture in Cuban history where women were not permitted much freedom.

Girls always took chaperones on dates, lived at home until married, knew how to embroider and play the piano.

Such a cultured and protected woman could expect a fine marriage with a Papi-style husband, one who works hard, cheats only when he's out of town, takes care of all the money, and -- of course! -- drives his wife wherever she needs to go.

After fleeing Cuba for New Orleans, Abuela had to take streetcars to work in a cafeteria where no one else spoke Spanish.

Later she carpooled to work with her married daughter to a job a downtown lab where she stained and read pap smear slides.

In all these years Abuela has never ever learned to drive.

Many times over the years she's gotten angry, gotten scared, gotten some backbone and threatened to go to driving school.

When Abuela was about 75, I offered to teach her to drive.

Heck, I taught my brother, I'm pretty relaxed, and hey -- this is Dad's car anyway -- why not?

Abuela said no.

Every time I came home for vacation, for holidays, for whatever, I'd shake car keys in front of Abuela.

"OK! Vamos!"

She would laugh and say "Ay! Si! Vamos!" but she wouldn't get up.

For years Abuela has continually refused the joy and privilege of learning to drive from me.

So about two years ago I started to threaten my Abuela.

Here is the story I told her.

I'll wait until she was completely deliriously old and frail, then I'll ask her to drive me somewhere.

If Abuela says she doesn't know how to drive, I'll make up some wonderfully accurate and descriptive stories about all the places in Cuba she's driven me.

Abuela will then feel a sudden burst of confidence, snatch the keys from me and we'll be off.

Of course, when she actually does drive she'll kill herself, but that would be *fine* because her brain was expiring anyway.

Abuela and waves her hand at me, "Psssssht. I'm not afraid to die. I think it will be fun."

So when I went home this past week, I made sure to wave keys at Abuela, reminding her how much I love her.....

French Fries and Spiderman's Daddy

We met in the parking lot of the Burger King.

Deb jumps into my car and for no good reason, we order huge amounts of french fries.

I eat mine one at a time, no ketchup.

She neatly fishes out groups of three fries, then paints a wiggly line of ketchup across them.

You know this is all about nothing. They just want one more picture of my breasts because they're so perfect. And because my health insurance is so great. That's all.

She nods, nibbling at her next bundle of fries.

We talk about almost nothing, passing time until heading to the radiology center.

She slips back into her car, I follow her.

The waiting room is unusually full.

We take seats in the way back corner, our backs to the wall, observing the room like we own it.

Two little boys dressed as unmasked Spidermen play under a table.

A teenage girl is doubled over in pain while her mother ignores her and makes small talk with a woman dressed in a horrible orange pumpkin-festooned sweater.

No one over the age of five should own anything with a pumpkin on it. Pumpkins are not fashion statements.

We agree.

Besides that, I can't talk.

I can't read.

I'm just smiling, waiting for it to be over.

Melissa Soldani?.... Melissa Soldani?

The radiology tech is not wearing pumpkin scrubs or pumpkin earrings or anything silly, which I take to be a good sign.

We're in Room #4.

She points at the door while holding a stack of xrays.

Take off your top, slip the robe on, let me know when you're ready.

I step out from behind the curtain.

She's holding up a film with pictures of my right breast, which is crazy because the whole reason I was referred was because of my left breast.

There is no small talk, no little questions about what I do or how many kids I have.

Slip your right arm out of your gown and hold on to this bar.

I follow directions, allowing her to plop my right breast onto a clear platter.

Before lowering the top of the machine, the radiology tech palpates my breast as though she were looking for either treasure or landmine.

Here it is. Feel it?

I reach over with my left arm.



I felt it, restraining my own surprise.

She takes an image, opens the machine and repositions it.

Before settling me in again, she steps back, holds the film up again, and again I can see a big white something that shouldn't be there.

She inserts an attachment that looks like a magnifying glass onto the mammogram machine, then compresses again.

This time I wince.

I know it hurts. That's because it isn't moving. Just hold your breath.

It's over. I get dressed.

The radiologist will be in touch with you within five days. If you don't get a call, you'll get a letter, OK sweetie?

I nod, slip out of my robe, back into my bra and shirt.

Deb is in the waiting room working on a grant.

I sit down in my same seat, sliding back so that my head is against the wall.

She can see I'm not about to talk. Or drive.

I saw something. There is something. I'm sure it's not a bad something, but it's a visible, palpable something. Wow. And I don't want to talk about it because I know it's nothing.

Deb organizes her stack of papers, looks at her watch.

I'm not ready for Halloween. I don't have candy or anything... What time do trick-or-treaters start?

I look at my watch. It's almost 5pm.

Oh, let's get OUT of here. You have to go buy candy. Sometimes they start coming at 6pm.

What are you going to be again?

Barb and I are going to wear cute outfits, drink wine and hit on the helpless and confused Daddies.

I angle my legs so that the muscles pop more defined, then twist a lock of hair in my fingers, pretending to talk to imaginary trick-or-treaters.....

Hi Spiderman's Daddy. Can I see what's in YOUR bag?...... Hello Snow White's Daddy, that's a really hot beer belly you've got going...... Whoo-hoo Ninja's Daddy, did he learn those moves from you?

She laughs.

We walk back to our cars.

After giving me a hug, Deb stands back and shouts I LOVE YOU!

I know she does, but I'm concentrating on something far more important.... remembering to throw away the Burger King bag before I get home.

All There Is

So this is how it happened, Thursday afternoon.

We got caught unprepared in a small rain shower, ducked under a tree, leaned against a large rock and watched the black-socked tourists go by.

My phone rang.

It was a Tallahassee number I didn't recognize, so, because I wasn't really available to talk, I let it go to voicemail.

I showed her my phone, and she agreed it wasn't a cellphone number.

We shrugged together, and waited to see if there would be voice mail.

Beep. The front of the phone lit up.

I flipped it open, turned on the speakerphone, and we both leaned in to hear.

It was Becky.

The radiologist would like me to come back.

Please call.

I frowned at my companion.

I thought I was completely out of the woods when they didn't call back Tuesday, the very next day.

OK, when they didn't call on Wednesday, I only thought about it a little.

By Thursday morning, I wasn't thinking about it every second of every minute.

And now?

NOW they call?

The day before the presentation?

Before Halloween Horror Night?

Before Epcot Food and Wine Fest?

Fine. Whatever.

I called Becky right back.

This is Dr. Soldani, I just got your voice mail.

Hi! Good. How about tomorrow at 2:30?

No. I'm out of town.

Monday at.... 10:15am?

No, I can't cancel class. It's World War 2....

How about Tuesday....

I cut her off. I'm only available from 3:00-4:45. That's it. That's all I can do.

OK,. (I hear click, click, some whispering) October 31, 4:05pm.

That's fine. That's perfect. Thank you.

I look at my friend.

What did they say? Why do they want you to come back?

I didn't ask.

I held my hand out to confirm that the rain had stopped.

Are you going to cry?

Me? Cry? No. But I'm going to feel this. For just a few minutes I'm going to let it go completely through me.

She stood still.

It was clear I didn't want a hug, a pat, any sort of silly pep talk.

After a few deep breathes, I lead us out from under the tree.

This is all we have. Today, here, this. Now. This is all there is.

She nodded.

And it's pretty damn great isn't it?

We continued meandering around tourists, stepping over puddles, laughing at nothing in particular.

Nerves of Steel, Purse Contents, Magazines

This morning I woke up, well aware of the date.

Monday, October 15.

The day of the mammogram.

I heard from a good source that women who forget to wear two piece outfits to their mammogram end up wearing one of those hospital gowns that allow gentle breezes to waft up their sacred Brazilian rainforest.

Forewarned, I have dressed for battle in my 2-piece red suit, the one that shows my curves in a I'm-too-powerful-to-have-anything-wrong-so-don't-cross-me way.

I have my rope pearls on, ruby ring and brown crocodile print pumps with dainty bows on the just-subtly-rounded toes.

Into my matching crocodile print brown bag I've stuffed:

  • 7 tubes of lipstick, lipgloss, lip shimmer and lip glass because it's IMPOSSIBLE to match a red suit in changing light...

  • 2 protein bars, just in case my appetite returns

  • $3.35, excavated from the bottom of my red purse.

  • The pink prescription form from my gynecologist, with it's generic stick figure drawing of a woman's drooping breasts, providing a field for physicians to sketch in any "suspicious areas."

  • The checkbook, in case there is a co-pay. And also, because I have promised myself I can buy Boston Market chicken soup and a bottle of Francis Ford Coppola's Rossi on the way home. I may or may not do this, but in the meantime, I'm unapologetically allowing myself to imagine it soothing me.

  • The lucky silver egg that I bought in Austin

  • My brown-pink-and-teal striped journal

  • very engrossing book which I decline to mention here

Yes, a book.

I hate waiting-room magazines especially ones targeting women, warning them to clean & decorate their house (cheaply and quickly!), lose weight (quickly!), teach their children manners (quickly!), fix their marriage (because that's a woman's responsibility!), and -- after home and family are all safe and perfect --- figure out what they want to do in life.


I already live my dreams, and the only magazines that helped me get here are the ones that published my articles back when I was taking baby steps toward finding the writer I'd buried deep under shame, pain, and habit.

That was years ago, in my own dark ages, before I realized that my writing gives me nerves of steel.

So this afternoon, while I'm standing there alone in a cold room, breasts squished between unforgiving metal, that's what I'll be thinking of.

Nerves of steel.

Living my dream, today, tomorrow, and every day.

The Big Squeeze

If I could do it again, I might have folded the referral sheet and tucked into that pocket in my purse where I stuff things I can't handle quite yet, but I need to have handy for the moment my courage surges back.

But I didn't.

Today when home, while the kids were rummaging around for afterschool snacks, I taped it up at eye level on the side of the refrigerator.

It took less than 15 minutes for Zoe to see it, read it, and ask me what was going on.

"Oh that? It's for my mammogram." Damn, why didn't I leave it in my purse?

"Your WHAT?"

"Mammogram. It's where they use a special machine to squeeze your boobies and to make sure everything is OK."

She gasped and held her imaginary breasts. "Will it hurt?"

I don't answer.

It hurts now, deep in the pit of my stomach.

Thinking about it makes me flinch, the pain more emotional than physical.

My breasts have been good to me.

I can't imagine them being part of any sinister plot to shorten my life, take my hair, challenge my virility.

"It's no big deal. If it does hurt, it'll only be for a minute. I'm tough, right? Plus, if there is anything wrong, I can get NEW breasts!"

She gasped in mock excitement. "How?"

"You know Aunt Milly? She had breast cancer and she got two new boobies AND a tummy tuck. You can ask HER how they make new ones."

I smiled and locked my teeth together, waiting for Zoe to lead the conversation.

To change the subject would raise her antenna.

To lead her deeper into this than she can understand would be dangerous.

The girl would be googling "double mastectomy" within hours, and parents from school would be calling us to discuss Zoe's "anatomy lessons" in the playground.

Zoe smiled at me, looked down at her unopened bag of doritos, and -- I imagine -- considered whether spending time on this with her mom would be as satifying as a rerun of Full House.

"Well, we girls can talk about this later."

She spun on her heels, disappearing to her room, content and secure.

Perfecto Amor Equivocado

By noon, the worst was over.

Whatever it was, it hit me hard, and as I sat on the sofa hugging my pillow, I didn't have the mental energy to watch last night's The War from PBS. It would be too loud, too bright, and I know WW2 so intimately that I kinda wanted to watch something a bit more upbeat than the Anzio campaign.

So I went to On Demand and found a wonderful, wonderful movie that was shot in Cuba, "Perfecto Amor Equivocado."

Set in modern Cuba, this story centers on the life of a famous writer, his gynecologist wife and his professor girlfriend. From the first scene I was completely absorbed by this intelligent, smart and funny film which reminded me of *Love, Actually* and *Four Weddings and a Funeral.*

Of course, those films are all set in the UK, a culture and background which emerges as an enchanting character in both films.

Modern Cuba -- beautiful, sparse, hot -- cradles this film and steals a few scenes. I know my Cuban History and I know that the US has had an embargo on Cuban since 1960. What I could never imagine was the impact this apparently the ongoing long-term embargo against Cuba has resulted in a bra shortage on that beautiful island.

Everywhere, every scene, happy women wearing clingy shirts gesticulate dance and generally go on with their merry lives completely unashamed of their jiggling communist breasts.

Shameless, truly.

Just wait until Castro dies and Victoria's Secret opens in Cienfuegos. These women can then know the glory of perfectly set -- and well behaved -- good freedom-loving breasts.
Probably the most amazing part of the film was the utter lack of technology -- especially communication technology -- in modern Cuba that cut deeply across this film, exaggerating the gulf between our cultures.

For example, the (hot professor) girlfriend doesn't know what time the writer's plane is arriving, therefore she calls his house repeatedly, and repeatedly hangs up until he arrives home and answers it himself. That's a little crazy, and very very 1955.


One of the big reasons I haven't been blogging this week is that I'm spending all my spare time wiggling Zoe's teeth for her and with her.

The girl has NOT lost a tooth since last October, and now, suddenly, she has four loose teeth, including those crucial two top ones which are threatening to jump out at any moment.

I can't help but imagine that when those teeth fall out they somehow activate her hormones, signalling the beginning of breasts, mood swings, crushes and door-slamming.

Dear Tita, You Can Have Everything

My Mom, Tita, has everything. A fantastic career, an-almost-remodeled home, a skinny healthy husband, four new grandchildren, children and her parents.

That's right, Tita's parents are holding on to live to see the day that Castro dies and Cuba is free.
It's a battle of wills, and my money is on Abuela.

So Tita, I can understand why you'd want to spend Mother's Day with Abuela. She's fun, she's easy to please, and you can just sit on the beach, face the sun and have quiet time with your Mom on Mother's Day.

But at the same time, don't you want to see me?
My new dresses?
Your grandchildren?
Mickey Mouse?
Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique?
Tiki Room?
The new ride at Mexico?

If we go early on Friday May 11, we can spend two days together.
Sunday you can leave extra early, go see your Mother, sit on the beach.

Abuela doesn't wake up until noon anyway, right?

Isn't she up all night watching Sabado Gigante? Waiting to hear about Castro?

Say YES!

Marvin's Story

I've always written things.

But there is definitely a day, a moment, an action when I became a writer.
A particular day that I remember when I began to become who I would be.

It was April 2000.
I'd finished my PhD and was teaching college while managing a coffeeshop. I thought I was becoming an artist, a bohemian, something new.

That month I had surgery for girl stuff, and cancelled class for two days.

The day after the surgery I was at home, reading the paper. Bored.
Until I saw a picture of one of my most favorite students, Marvin Scott.

It was his obituary. I was shocked. Devastated.
I cried for hours.
Then suddenly the tears stopped, I got up and sat in front of the computer and wrote him a letter.

It was a short letter - about a page - but I poured out my shock and sadness, then told him I felt so lucky to have been part of his journey. I told him that he inspired me, and that I would miss him.

When I was done writing the letter, I emailed it to the newspaper.

I have no idea why I did that. I wasn't in my right mind. But I did it anyway.
The next day they published it.

Then I wrote Marvin's family a long letter, describing how he scratched out all his answers on essay exams, rewriting them over and over. How he was never late, always there, and took time after class to shyly ask really important questions.

I wrote about our last conversation.
It was on the way to his car after class one day, and we talked about the Korean War.

Marvin was afraid he just didn't understand it, so I told him a few stories and assured him that if he'd just write down what he understood, I could review it and clarify it for him.

He was wearing a striped polo shirt, and we walked slowly that day.

I don't think I hugged him goodbye, but I wish I had.

Since then, I haven't stopped writing.

Thank you, Marvin.