Ana, Anitica, Ana Avelina, Abu, darling, corazon.
These are just a few of the names we called my mother. To her, Learning and loving went hand in hand. My mother came to this country at the height of the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s not knowing a word of English but slowly mastered her diction, the language and all the rules that come along with those old school grammar lessons. The love of learning was just a natural part of her disposition, but just eighteen months ago my mother was diagnosed with stage four cancer and lost her ability to speak. Her illness took over and the woman I had long drawn out conversations about the appropriate spelling and use of words in either English or Spanish, punctuation rules and accent guidelines forever changed. I can recall asking for some translation help over the years where my mother would both apply her spanish language and english language knowledge.
“Mami, I just wrote that I was introducing a new element.”
“Pero, mi nina, introduce and introducir no son la misma cosa. Por favor ,usa la palabra presentar, suena mejor y no es tan vulgar. “
Ana’s illness took her spirit which was often expressed vocally. This too changed as she was unable to speak in the comforting yet directorial way that I had come to appreciate in the course of my life. You see, my mom came to the United States with strong convictions and that allowed her to raise her family to the best of her ability while navigating two cultures. My family spent their first “SANSgiving” Thanksgiving trying to figure out what to do with a turkey. And when realizing that this day was somewhat sacred they tried to assimilate for my then very young sisters who came home from school asking what the plan was. In realizing that the day was a holiday their attempts to shop for anything more than the turkey were sabotaged because everything was closed. Trying to understand what the day meant became a historical lesson which as our family grew turned into a Cuban thanksgivng intertwined with arroz, frijoles y tostones. My mom ended up leaving the turkey as a centerpiece that first year. What I know is that I will miss the debates, and the fire starter quality that we both shared. What we compliment one another innately about was a need to learn, learn what was happening, learn how to make it better, learn how to love, accept and forgive and learn that in the end we cannot change our destiny.
“Mami, I really want to visit Cuba with you, Papi and Abuelo y Abuela. When can we do that?”
“Ay mijita, nunca. I will not return to Cuba in this lifetime. I will not stop you, for it may very well be your destiny to visit the land where your roots are, but I accepted that the Cuba that I knew is not longer and that I have no control over, atleast not anymore.”
There was an inherent need to unify situations, relationships, family. That came through celebrations over the years and learning about our heritage, one that seemed so distant yet so constant. That there is a plan that we cannot control every situation and what I learned from her was how to forgive, not that forgetting is ever easy, but starting new and again each day in order to show gratitude for living and for doing the best that one can do each day amid challenges and conflicts.
My relationship to my mother was classic in ways of disagreements, while we did not often see eye to eye on many modern day topics, we could easily get past the challenge. I felt blessed in many ways and maybe that was the part of her that was unique, the connection that she made through love and learning. I remember a tone of learning during our many weekly conversations, that always struck me. Her curiosity, not the nosey kind, just the I want to knowledge kind. My mother was proud and a true scholar, so the fact that her daughter was a slight rebel in many ways, always made her smile. Loving her family even through their faults, learning how to steer even in stormy times. Loving and learning did not only apply to traditional education but to the whole story or the whole individual. Practicing forgiveness was something she worked on everyday a quality we can all learn from.
In my own relationship with my daughters I often reflect back on some of my rather traditional upbringing even though there are things that I have consciously decided not to incorporate. The learning and loving piece resonates in our daily lives and from that I am able to channel some of the meaningful moments that I shared con mi mama. And while the time that passes will soften the blow of her final days what I have learned about loving is that it really is allowing your heart to lead even when you learn that there is not always a reason for the why. My mother, and her illness took me by surprise because it hit hard from the get go and while I find myself trying to focus on our last few conversations that were meaningful, fiery and intact, it has been challenging for me to love and learn why end of life can be something that suddenly affects our core, but something that we are rarely learning about.
My sister, my niece and I spent a lot of time with my mom during her final days, and while there is nothing that prepares you for the loss of someone so critical in your life as a parent, sibling, caregiver or mentor, the experience of watching someone actively dying is not one you really can love. It is also not one that can really be taught and so we learn about loss as we experience it and we all learn in different ways. The loss of my mother, in many ways was a true learning experience for me as a mother and what I know is that I want my daughters to know how much they are loved and how much they teach me everyday about being the best that I can be.