Even In Death My Grandfather Healed Me
By Amada Abella
I’m never going to forget the Fall of 2008. It was by far one of the darkest periods of my life in which I learned just what kind of strength I had.
Emotionally, I was in the middle of one of the most crippling stages of my life. I was fresh out of a broken romantic escapade that left me with overwhelming pain and anguish, I had lost someone who I thought was a friend but only turned out to be one of the most abusive people I had ever met, and worst of all I was dealing with my own guilt of having caused someone the same pain I was experiencing.
I had been taken advantage of by people I cared about. People I thought I could trust had taken advantage of me to get what they wanted both emotionally and physically. That sentence alone took me a long time to say, because no one wants to admit when they’ve been had, especially when it comes to sharing such personal and sacred parts of their being with someone else. I felt used. I felt lower than dirt. I felt obscene and unworthy of any good. I felt dirty and grotesque. I felt broken. I felt like an idiot because I convinced myself that I deserved to be treated that way. I felt like I had a sign on my forehead that said, “Get What You Want From Me.” I felt that I had asked for it, somehow.
I was doubting humanity, but worst of all I was doubting myself and my ability to be a good person. I tried throwing myself into my religion, thinking that maybe I would find the same solace that others in my class had, only to be left with the same miserable feeling I had been carrying around for quite some time. In a way, I was mistakenly using religion to try and mask what I was actually feeling. If I grew upset then I subdued it in trying to practice charity and if I got angry I tried to force myself to forgive. Basically, if I felt any ill will toward someone who had hurt me I would put it away in a little box in my brain, for fear of being the terrible person I already thought I had turned into. Needless to say this didn’t work.
Combine that with a full schedule of work and rigorous academics away from my own comfortable bed at home, and what you had was a girl who would mask her pain with a fake smile, copious amounts of Screwdrivers, and several packs of Camel Turkish Silvers. And with such a difficult semester ahead, my feelings would have to be put on hold, except for the occasional sobbing in the shower.
Then came the worst week of finals I would ever experience. I was being met head on with four mind numbing exams plus an insurmountable amount of research papers when I got a phone call from my brother. Now, before I continue you must understand that my brother never calls me, so I already knew that something terrible was looming in the distance.
“Hi,” he said with a broken voice. “I’m calling to tell you that we don’t think Abu (our grandfather) is going to make it much longer.”
At first I was not surprised; my grandfather had been living with us for many years and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s a couple of years back. Although I never witnessed the complete deterioration of his body because I was away at school, I was updated periodically by my mother.
My rationality kept me calm until a few minutes later when my brother said, “We don’t think he’s going to make it long enough for you to see him.”
That was the kicker. I could deal with death, I had done it before, but what I couldn’t deal with was not seeing my grandfather before he died. You see, I come from a Latin family, meaning that my grandparents practically raised me. This man taught me how to ride a bike, would stand with me as I waited for the school bus in the rain, cooked some of the best Cuban food I would ever eat, and made sure that my brother and I understood the value of living in a free country.
My grandfather left his home country of Cuba as a political exile in the 1960s. Castro’s regime had taken everything he had, imprisoned (and most likely killed) members of his family for speaking out against the totalitarian government, and was even thrown in jail himself for owning a pig. Along with my grandmother (may she also rest in peace), my grandfather made the decision that they needed to leave in order to make a better life for their daughter, my mother. In exchange for his freedom, my grandfather was forced into excruciating hard labor in agricultural fields for 3 years. Eventually he made it out, and moved to Spain which at the time was under the dictatorship of Franco. You see, at the time the Cuban government would not give anyone permission to leave for the United States, so the next option was Europe or another Latin American country. At that point, even Franco’s Spain was better than the island prison that had become of Cuba. For 3 years he lived on the poverty line until he finally made it to Union, New Jersey.
My grandfather never really elaborated on the horrors he must have seen in Cuba. He never really talked about the human rights violations that occurred, or the lack of food, or the loss of his family members to a monstrous regime. Instead, he talked about how wonderful Cuba was before Castro, how no one went without and the beaches were like heaven. He talked about how Cubans had the quality of life of Europeans with the work ethic of Americans. He talked about his farm, the mountains, and above all his freedom.
“Freedom,” my grandparents would tell us, “is the only thing in this life worth dying for.”
We were taught to fight for what matters. We were taught to appreciate the fact that we were born in a country where a man is innocent until proven guilty. We were taught to embrace free speech and the freedom of religion. We were taught to be patriotic and respect our home country without ever forgetting our roots. We were taught to love our freedom and never take it for granted. We were taught to work, that nothing is given to you for free. We were taught to respect family.
Even with everything my grandfather had been through, he remained a simple and happy man. He was a man who loved everyone equally. He was that adorable old guy who would smile and say hello to anyone he saw on the street. He also wasn’t one to fight or get stressed out over trivial things. Above all, he was accepting.
If anyone had a reason to hate humanity, it was my grandfather. But instead he chose to live with arms wide open. Clearly, this was a lesson I had not yet learned.
“I’m coming home right now,” I said.
“How? You don’t have a car, you and your friends are in the middle of finals, and we can’t leave him to go get you. You have to stay there for another week. Hopefully he’ll make it,” my brother said as he brought me back to earth.
Immediately after he hung up I did something I hadn’t done in quite some time: I headed straight for the chapel and prayed. Not looking for instant gratification, solace or grace, just looking for help.
“Dear God just keep him around until I can see him,” I begged.
A week later I was home. My grandfather was alive, although barely. I knew that he was not doing well, but nothing on the face of this earth could have prepared me for the next few days. Nothing could have prepared me to witness the death of one of the most important people in my life.
That Monday my mother and I took him to the Parkinson’s specialist out of desperation. We wanted answers, we wanted comfort, we wanted something, anything that would help us understand what was happening.
The only thing we were told was that he probably was not going to make it to the end of the week. At that moment, as I was looking at my grandfather, it really hit me that he was dying. I knew that I was supposed to be strong, both for him and my mother, but I was so overwhelmed that I locked myself in the bathroom and began to have a nervous breakdown interrupted by uncontrollable tears.
Everything was hitting me at once. My past, people who had hurt me, my anger, my sadness, my guilt, all of it was flashing before my eyes. For the first time in months I was having vivid memories of being used. I was remembering every detail of the pain and torment I had felt on those horrendous summer nights. I was feeling it as if it had just happened. And now, I had to witness the death of a man that for all intents and purposes was like a father to me, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
After I had composed myself, I wheeled his frail body out into the parking lot, choking on the tears that I was holding back. That night, we found a priest and I witnessed someone take their Last Rites for the first time.
In the next few days his condition would worsen and we all had to muster up the strength to keep it together. The sound of his ventilator kept me awake at night as I lay in bed and cried. I would avoid walking by his room because I knew I would burst into tears. Instead, I tried to keep it together elsewhere. I signed for the medical equipment and talked to the Hospice as my mother went to go make funeral arrangements. During this time I didn’t cry and I didn’t choke. I treated it as if it was strictly business.
Eventually I had to suck it up and walk into the room where my grandfather was dying. I had to choke back the tears so that I could say my final goodbye. I will never forget the look in his eyes as I stood there and used up every fiber of my being so that he would not see me cry. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t even really move, but his eyes said everything. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine where I’m going.”
On December 18, 2008 at around 11:00pm, the nurse from the Catholic Hospice told us that his blood pressure was dropping rapidly. In unison we all began to pray, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” By the time we got to, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” he was gone.
And at that moment, the strangest thing happened. There was a peace in the room unlike anything I had ever felt before. For a few minutes, whatever emotional torment I had been experiencing for months seemed like some insignificant nightmare I had as a child. It was as if my grandfather had given me the gift of peace in one of the most trying moments of my life.
I suddenly realized that life is fleeting and that I am only human, eventually we’re all going to die. The bigger picture became clear as I realized that on my death bed, all the pain and torment I would experience in my life would no longer matter. Instead, what would stick out are the moments and people that I loved.
Since then I vowed to live my life with arms wide open, and while this has proven to be difficult, I try to remember that peace in order to keep moving onward.
Amanda Abella Bio:
Amanda Abella is a language instructor and freelance writer based out of Miami, FL. She also runs a personal development blog for young adults in order to help them with the challenges they face as they enter adulthood, GradMeetsWorld.org