Thirty years ago today, I met death for the first time in my life.
I had been fortunate that at the age of twenty I had not had a close family member pass away, but that day, July 27, 1977, changed my life. My grandfather died at about 2 in the afternoon on that long and sad day thirty years ago. The day is as vivid in my memory as yesterday is. I was called at work and told that my grandfather, who had been suffering his second (and final) bout with cancer would not survive the afternoon. He had been in the hospital for almost a month. When I received the call I rushed to get to his side, but he had already passed away when I arrived. He and I had had talks before he died, about family mainly, and he knew he didn’t have much longer to live. He faced his illness with courage and he never, ever, showed us any weakness in his last hours. He was regretful that he would never see Cuba again. As the man of the house, it was my responsibility to finish all of his arrangements, which I did. He is buried right here in Miami, next to my grandmother, although they will be reburied in Cuba when the beast has left.
Rogelio Modesto Garcia Perez was born in Havana, Cuba on March 25, 1890. He was from a poor family, as so many were in those difficult days pre-Republic. At the age of 13 his father died, and from that day he worked and supported his mother and two sisters by doing whatever job he could find. He was not schooled, in the traditional sense, he could hardly write, but he was a smart man, a man with the common sense that the street and a hard life gives. He read whatever he could about the world and was better informed than many with more extensive formal educations. He worked his way up in Cuba to work in casinos in the 20s and 30s. He became a croupier, and made a good living to support his wife and daughter, mother and sisters. When he retired, he opened a little furniture store with the modest winnings from a lottery ticket. That windfall allowed him to run a business and be close to home. The arrival of fidel changed all that. In 1960, at the age of seventy, he left everything behind, his house, his business, his pátria, to come here to the United States to begin a new life. He was penniless again.
My grandfather was not a religious man, but he was a man of faith. He always went to church but never went to mass. He was a loyal friend, always writing, or having me write for him, letters he would send to his other friends in exile that lived in New York City. He had sworn off his beloved cigars after suffering a bout with cancer, but always carried some in his pocket to give away. To this day, the smell of a good cigar brings back the memory of abuelo. He taught me how to play poker and blackjack. He would always remind me that de enero a enero el dinero es del banquero, a subtle reminder not to fall in love with gambling too much. He helped me buy my first car with a $200 loan. He taught me about women. He was a simple man who wanted the best for his family, not materially, necessarily, but something deeper. Thanks to his sacrifice, and the sacrifice of my grandmother, mother and father, I was given the most amazing gift anyone could receive. I was given the gift of freedom. The gift of being able to think and read and believe without fear of repression or imprisonment or the paredón. I have been able to give my son the same gift thanks to his sacrifice.
He was more of a father to me than he knew and I loved him dearly.
Gracias, abuelo. Nunca me olvidaré de tí.