Cuba. Sounds like a fun, carefree vacation on a tropical island. Just grab your swimsuit and straw hat and be prepared to mambo the nights away. With Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro, we were ready for a rum and cigar filled trip. We wanted to go soon before the golden arches sprung up in the middle of Old Havana and Starbucks started serving their version of café con leche.
But a handshake is not an agreement. Americans can’t go as individual beach hugging tourists. You have to connect with a group, a group with a purpose – religious, cultural, people-to-people. We got lucky and hooked up with a group from a Brooklyn Heights synagogue. The itinerary included historical landmarks, cultural sites, and four Jewish communities in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo.
We were sent a list of gifts to bring. Medications, over-the-counter drugs, hygiene products, clothing, school supplies. And that left us with a lot of questions. What does it mean to have universal healthcare but a scarcity of resources? What is it like to be Jewish in Cuba? The revolution promised equality for all. But what does freedom mean for someone with disabilities? What does freedom mean to someone who can’t navigate the streets or get on a public bus?
About ten days before our trip, I developed a pain in my leg. Sciatica, I thought. Or, maybe I had pulled a muscle in yoga class. Then, a week before our trip, I was taking a shower. I looked down at my left leg. A cluster of rashes from my knee to my ankle. Shingles. I had taken the vaccine, but there are no guarantees. And my questions became more immediate and more personal.
Was I contagious? “No,” said the doctor.
Should I go? “That’s up to you,” said Gary.
Why now? On April 23, 2015 we were to meet the group from Brooklyn in Miami. April 23. Exactly eleven months after Ariela’s death. According to Jewish tradition, Kaddish, the prayer for mourning is recited for eleven months after the death of a relative. Like a lot of Jewish traditions, the timeline made no sense to me. How do you set a limit to mourning? I had felt numb after Ariela’s death. Eleven months later, I was only beginning to feel the pain, and my grief appeared in red ugly blotches on my leg.
I went because I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see a country on the verge of change. I suspect Cuba will not look the same in a year or even six months. I went because, wherever I am, Ariela is always with me. I see the world through the eyes of a young woman who sits in a chair and talks with a computer.
In truth, if she was still with us, we would not be able to go on this trip or any of the other trips we took in the last year. She was just too medically fragile to travel.
“Making up for lost time?” an acquaintance commented.
“No, we’re pretending to be Lucy and Desi.”
And with that we put on our straw hats and boarded the plane for Miami.
To be continued, amigos.