Birthday blues: The worst beautiful year

By Isabel M. Estrada-Portales
To Harold, that most beautiful birthday gift.

So, it is September 2ndagain. And the calendar insists in making sure I know time has passed, life has passed, sorrow has passed and – dare I now say it? – happiness has passed and leisurely settled in, as if a birthright, as if I deserved it.
However, it has been the worst year of my life, or so I thought.
Once I was very young, so young Victor Estrada’s arms were still around to protect me and his voice was a continuous whisper that read from books that never ended. So, I was very young. I lived in that island that thought it had found all the answers, and I was young enough to believe it was true and I was happy. One day I cried a lot, because I couldn’t understand how I could actually be so happy in a world that was pushing pain in my face from every corner. How could I not feel that unhappiness? I was definitely too young. Father said the things that those who know they cannot protect them from the real pain say to their children. Words that come from frustration and age, I guess. Then, he read to me, cover to cover, a beautiful book, Dágame,about a horse whose story tore my heart out. A story of unnecessary suffering. A story of men destroying and stomping. A story of life. I cried, and cried, and cried some more. His arms were around me. His hands kept bringing his handkerchief to my eyes – my papi was an old gentleman, never seating at the table without a shirt, never without a handkerchief – but he kept reading, ignoring the sharp, anguished gaze of my mother who looked ready to punch him on his face. I guess that was his way of saying: “Yes, there is a pain out there that can’t be ignored; that you have to feel; and that you must do something to alleviate. But that happiness that you feel while surrounded by my arms and under your mothers’ watchful eyes will hold you together, and give you the strength.”
Happiness, I learned then, is like hunger: it doesn’t diminish when shared, to the contrary.
My happiness was short-lived. It wouldn’t be more than two years from then when I lost my father. I was 11 years old. I was still very young. And that loss felt like an absence. It was such a pervasive absence of his leg over the arm of the rocking chair, of his place at the table, of his voice explaining me the world, of his hands that I imagined were the main reason my mother loved him. But it was a bigger absence. It is an absence that walks with you, and suffocates you. An absence that you can’t shake. At times you are very scared that the absence takes over the place where the presence once was; that all you remember is that there must have been someone you loved very much, since the absence is so commanding.  
It was then when I discovered, more like developed, a very strange way of forgetting; more like a way of extirpating a memory that could not be. At some point, I stopped dealing with the absence. It became something that was foreign to my life. I had become truly orphaned then. It was, almost, another unintended gift from my father. Years later, when that island that had all the answers showed it actually didn’t even had allowable questions and I had to leave it, I also left behind my eldest daughter, a baby then. Unconsciously, as the pain compounded, I again closed off to it; made it into a totally rational process; kept working towards bringing my daughter, but forgot that she was a she, a gorgeous baby that braved herself out of me, as would be her sign in life, a bit earlier, with a fighting cry, and made me burst out into tears and laughter at the same time, while blood was running out of me.
On September 2nd, 2013, the world began to crumble around me. That gorgeous baby, now a stunning young woman, was going through what I can only hope will be the worst she ever suffers. On my own side of life, I was also coming to terms with the mistake of doing for our children things we do not want our children to do for anyone. I realized that I had been living my life as an absence. I had settled for a loveless, dutiful life. I had been orphaned of an amazingly important part of my life. I had resorted once again to an exercise on forgetfulness, not of the insignificant, but of the essential. The lives we live provide enough to fill almost every space. And the suffering around us provide enough excuses to allow yourself to be unhappy…there is plenty of company. Happiness, apparently, felt again as an undeserved luxury. I had, apparently, really forgotten my father’s lessons. I couldn’t imagine a worst time.
Life continued. I found the way to help my daughter and she found herself. And as I saw her flowering, I saw happiness all around me. My younger daughter, crushed by her sister’s pain, began to blossom. I realized I owed them my happiness, in both senses: they made me happy and I should be happy for them to see. For all my speeches and activism, and my demands that they should give of themselves to the world, which certainly can use all the help we can give it, I had neglected to give them the certainty of happiness that my father bequeathed me and had carried me through the worst moments. I promised myself I’ll correct that.
Happenstance happened. Concurrent happenstance, as a Cuban poet might have it.
One day there was a wink, a message, a conversation that has no end in sight. A pair of strong, beautiful hands that jumped to hold me. A laughter that fixes my world. A corrective laughter. A stream of words and images that enamor me. A seductive respect for my delusions. A respectful surprise before the miracle of words. A music. A string of shared passions. A love for a city we had unknowingly shared and now miss (La Habana, of course. Is there any other city?) A common language that the schools can’t teach. A face that is absolute and captivating.
One day, right in the midst of the worst of times, his smile walked off a plane. The glass doors opened. And happiness was not merely possible: it became a mandate. 

En español: Beneficio de inventario: El año más bellamente cruel


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