Our Personal Giants

If we are fortunate throughout life we come across people that we grow to admire. My journey was simpler. I was born to two of mine. Let me share the story.

Often in the rush of daily life, we fail to focus on the reasons why some people grow to become so special to us. We simply accept their presence and their influence in our lives without giving it much thought. It’s often because we can’t find the time to pause and in our haste, we fail to thank them for their example. Sadly, we might even come to take them for granted.

But as the tally of our days on this earthly experience grows, almost unconsciously we begin to perceive the finality of life. In the process we want to understand better, acquire a more deliberate purpose, as we reflect on the trajectory that brought us to the point at which we find ourselves. We begin to change the pace of our daily lives, deliberately slowing down from a hastened quest for something to a more deliberate walk and, in the process, we become more selective of how we use our time. We begin to disregard the sizzle to focus on the substance. We begin to finish the bridges that we started and never found the time to complete.

Suddenly, as Proust, we long to recapture time. We want to reach out and thank those around us for everything they taught us. We want to show our gratitude for all they give us, their affection, their attention, their valuable contributions.

So today, my mother’s role in my life becomes paramount: a woman who at the age of 9 completely lost the use of her legs to polio. She never walked again despite countless surgical procedures ranging from muscle implants to bone grafts to painful attempts to reset her spine, all intended to help her by reconnecting nerve endings. All were required to regain control of the muscles, functions lost forever in the early days of the disease in the early thirties of the twentieth century. Despite her illness, her frailty and her physical disability, she is not a woman to be dismissed with a sad gesture and sympathy over her affliction.

A wheelchair became her transportation. Not wanting to use the traditional chairs available at the time, for they were bulky and denoting of serious physical inability, she used custom-made four legged chairs with small casters to propel herself across classrooms, high school hallways, college yards, city sidewalks. She had biceps to make some weight-lifters envious.

By the time I was eight years old, she learned to drive an automobile and drove herself everywhere; first in Havana until 1965 and since then in Miami. When she arrived anywhere, her presence rarely went unnoticed. The attention was not over her inability to walk; it was directed at her jovial smile and her always friendly disposition.

There are people who inexplicably radiate positive energy, enough to transform their surroundings. She has always been one of those. To strangers, she is visibly identified as a woman of spirit.

I recall how when she drove anywhere, upon arrival, she would swing open her driver-side door, and humbly, but with vibrancy, she would ask passers-by to lend her a hand. She would explain briefly that she needed help to get from the car to her modified chair. With few exceptions, strangers eagerly did as she asked.

She towed her wheelchair on the back seat of her car, chair-back down, legs with casters up. These kind strangers would pull out the chair, set it on the ground, hold it from the back as she slid across it from the driver’s seat, all in the blink of an eye. With the assistance of a stranger that only a few seconds before was walking to get somewhere with something else on his mind, she would close the car door.

While in grade school, my academic performance was less than stellar. We could say that the early days of political turmoil in Havana affected my academic progress. My grades fell in the category of average to better, at best. While in fifth grade, one of my classmates approached me one day. He carried a message from his mother, whom I loved very much. She was beautiful, kind, soft spoken, and very gentle with me. To my surprise, the message was an admonishment due to my lackluster school performance. I was causing, “… unnecessary pain to my poor mother who already had too much to deal with.” His statement disturbed me very much.

Until that very moment, at the age of ten, I had never stopped to notice that my mother deserved special consideration because she was unable to walk. While to everyone else her being confined to a chair made her different, to me until that very instant, she was just like any other mother. You see, she was always present in my school events; she took me to parties, swimming, to visit my grandparents and cousins, and everywhere as every other mother I knew did with their children. She never conveyed being any less than anyone else. Perhaps not entirely as nice as other mothers who would be very tolerant of my occasional misbehavior, she would not let me indulge in everything the other mothers allowed when she was absent. She was a strict disciplinarian for she wanted at all cost to build my character and shape my personality much to my dislike.

In 1944, she met my father when she was barely 22; he was 29. They married three years later, after several surgical procedures caused her to find an excuse not to see my father while she recovered from the multiple operations she underwent in the early days of their acquaintance, the body casts, the physical therapy sessions, until she deemed herself again visible enough to resume their idyllic courtship. They met on a telephone conversation, but purely by accident. She was calling a friend and he picked up the phone. He liked her pleasant voice and told her so. She flirted. They spoke on the phone several times after that before she invited him to come by and call on her in person. When he came by the house, she sat on the Cuban Porch, lined with white rocking chairs, while always nearby a small side table held coffee, water, and snacks . Nothing a guest would want was missing while my father was visiting expressly to avoid her having to rise from the rocking chair, thus revealing that below her wide skirts she had children-sized legs and tiny feet, unable to support her or move her anywhere.

He would visit nightly after dinner when at a prudent hour, my grandfather or my grandmother would join them on the porch. They would sit with them and socialize a few minutes before declaring the end of the visit. It was my father’s signal to leave, thus ensuring his welcome the following evening.

The custom of the time allowed for women to remain seated as men arrived or left. It was up to the man to display good manners in bending down to say hello or good bye, as appropriate, and issue the expected airy kiss on the cheek. This went on for three years.

She was sure he had no inkling about her physical condition. He never discussed it. She was a delightful woman to him. She always had something nice to say. She talked incessantly. He liked that. It was fun to be around her. He fell in love. She fell in love with him too.

When she had to undergo more surgeries, she always found a way to break off the wooing in time to save herself the explanations. On one of those breaks, one day he showed up at the hospital, by her bedside while she was convalescing. She asked him how he knew and when he found out. He said he always knew. On that occasion, he thought it was time she knew that he loved her as she was. He loved her character, her personality, her disposition, everything about her.

They married after diffusing my grandparents’ initial objections. Typical parents, they did not want him to break her heart, so they relented on the condition that he never stopped her from continuing her fight to regain the use of her legs; he never did. He often said to me that he was in love with her spirit. He lived to celebrate together their 55th wedding anniversary, surrounded by their grandchildren and their only great granddaughter. He died shortly after, in June, 2003.

Still at 97, my mother never lets her spirit down. When dad died, she was strong and her strength helped us all overcome his absence. She lives in the sunshine. She has been a living example to me and to those who come in contact with her.

This unique and beloved woman’s life with my father allowed me to understand in real terms the metaphysical notion of Karma. In my presence, they acknowledged that theirs was a union meant to be.

As different events jog my memory, I’ll have more anecdotes to relate. Today, I must come to a close.

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