Whenever I tell people that my I recently lost my great-grandmother, they usually think that it wasn’t a big deal to me. I understand their reaction. Some people aren’t close to their grandparents and most have never even met their great-grandparents, but Ofelia Gonzalez, or Mami as we all called her, was truly like a mother to me.
She was born on September 8, 1925 (Although it could have bene 1924, the records back then weren’t great). Like the rest of the world at that time, Cuba was a hard place, especially for the poor families. She dropped out of school shortly after middle school in order to get a job at a factory in order to help her parents support their siblings. And she never stopped working. Even when she wasn’t working outside of the home, she still cooked, clean and helped raise kids, grand-kids, great-gran kids and even great-great-gran kids.
If one of her older siblings needed help, she would be there. I remember when we were living in Cuba she used to take me with her to visit one of her older sisters. She and her husband were very frail, so Mami (probably already in her mid-60s by then) used to clean their house, do their chores and bathe them both. I loved to go because they were hoarders and one of the things they hoarded was issues of this magazine called Bohemia. I’ve always been a big reader, so I would sit there and read magazines and help her if she needed my assistance.
When we immigrated to the States, and my parents weren’t able to come with me, Mami became my second mother. My aunt was here and my grandmother was able to come a year a later and they all, to some degree, became my second (and third and fourth) mothers, but Mami was the closest one to me. We were a poor family of immigrants, so that meant that we all had to share rooms. For the first few years, I slept in a pull-out sofa bed with Mami as my companion. I always tried to fall asleep before she did because her snores were really loud. At times I would shake the bed, or poke her really quickly and act like I had no idea who had done that, just so that I could catch a quick break and fall asleep. We moved houses several times and we always shared a room. I’ve never had my own room since I was 11 years old. As a teenager, of course I wanted my privacy, but now I’m glad that we had all those nights together, even if her snoring could wake up the entire neighborhood.
At some point I got older and would stay out late like most college kids and sometimes she and my grandmother would be up waiting for me, just to make sure that I got home okay. Even at 30 years of age, after I moved to Topeka, Mami would always remind me to wear jacket if it was cold and to take medicine if she suspected I had a cold. She never stopped caring for me, no matter how old I was. I was her favorite and it wasn’t a secret. I think because my mom was in Cuba for so long, Mami always wanted to make sure that I was doing okay and we formed a bond. I must admit that sometimes she was overprotective, but I know that she did it out of love and I now thank her for that.
When I was 13 or so, she was diagnosed with emphysema. A family member of mine sat me and my two cousins down (they were basically the same age as me) and told us that Mami only had a couple of years to live (the joke’s on him because she lived another 20 years). I remember feeling lost. She had never smoked in her life but in that factory in Cuba she had inhaled a number of toxic fumes that had really damaged her lungs. That night I prayed to God that Mami wouldn’t die just yet, that He would give her more years so that she could meet one day my future wife and kids. I made a sort of pact with God and that was our deal. And He stuck with it, for the most part. As my cousins had their kids really young and dropped out of school, I kept on studying and focusing on my goals and always remembering that “deal” I made with God as a child.
Years later, Mami went to the hospital for a routine procedure and she contracted a deadly bacteria while there. From her hip down, her entire body was purple. The doctors gave her a grim prognosis; she didn’t have long to live. But I knew better. I knew that God was going to heal her. He had to, right? I knew he had heard my prayers. So right there in the hospital I directed everyone there to join me in prayer. And what do you know? Mami was sent home not long after that.
Then another time, she got even sicker. When I arrived at the hospital my grandmother (her daughter) told me that the doctors had said that there was nothing they could do. They wanted to start talking about “pulling the plug.” I started to cry, not so much out of sadness, but out of anger. I knew that this wasn’t her time and I was pissed at the doctor. I went outside and I confronted the doctor and told him to get lost, to never talk like that around my family. He thought I was insane, but I just knew that it wasn’t her time. I went back in to the room, held on to my Bible and started to pray silently as the tears streamed down my face. Mami hadn’t opened her eyes in 24 hours, but the moment I started to pray, she sat up straight with a jolt, looked straight at me and said, “My son, keep praying for me” and closed her eyes again. And so I did and she was okay. She made it through that one.
Eventually I got older and met the love of my life and got married and had kids. We lived in Miami for a year, so she got to meet my wife, Elena. She also got to meet my daughter Ellie in person, but she never got to meet Oliver in person. She did see him through FaceTime numerous times, but now I know that she will never get to meet our yet to be born daughter. At least she won’t get to meet her in this life and I hate that. That’s why I said that God followed through, “mostly.” Of course, He didn’t have to follow through at all, but He did. He listened to the prayers of a teenager. Mami lived a long life and we shared so many great memories together.
Almost exactly a week before she passed, I had a dream that she had died at home, surrounded by the family. I woke up depressed because I knew that the dream was God preparing me for what was to come. I didn’t tell my family because I wanted it to be wrong, I wanted it to be just the product of my anxiety, but I knew deep down that it was a warning, a preparation.
The day before my flight to see her, she passed away at home, surrounded by the family. I wanted to see her one more time. I wanted to hold her hand, to maybe even hear that snoring that I disliked so much growing up, but would love to hear one more time now. I wanted so badly to be there and pray for her in person. But that awful night I got hysterical calls from my mom and my brother and I knew what had happened. Why couldn’t God just give her a few more hours so that I could see her one last time? Is that selfish to ask after all the time He gave her? Maybe, but I still would have wanted to be there in her last moments. Not seeing her one last time is a big scar in my soul.
My grandmother was devastated, and she still is. My mom was a mess. She tried giving her CPR for a long time until she had to be pulled away. Despite all that, I wish I had been there with her in her final minutes. My family, being really poor, didn’t have enough money to bury her like we all wanted, so we had her cremated. And to even get the money for that procedure was really difficult and stressful. I flew down to Florida for the funeral and got to see her, but she wasn’t really there, it was just her body. I know where her soul is now.
One thing that hurt me, besides her death, was the lack of support from many people that I consider(ed) friends and others that I admire(d) because of their religious status and whatnot. I hastily setup a GoFund me account to help my family with the costs and was really shocked by the lack of support from people that I “knew” would be there for me. And it wasn’t even the money that bothered me. It was that people didn’t call, or even texted me to offer their condolences. There was almost complete radio silence from people that I assumed would be there for me. But to my surprise, new friendships that I had just recently established in the last year or so were actually there for me. They texted me, they called me and they even gave. Sometimes it’s not the quantity of years, but the quality.
I’m sure that in time my resentment for those people will abate, but for now that pain stings. And honestly, I also expected a LOT more people at her funeral. We have a really extensive family and Mami was always calling everyone on the phone and looking for ways to get together, so I expected a lot more people. She touched so many lives, she worked so hard, she loved so many, but not many showed up to her final goodbye. I know that in the end what matters is that the closest to her were there, but still, it just feels that her life didn’t matter as much to those people, when it mattered the world to me.
I know that we’re lucky that we had her so long, but that’s never a consolation. Death is never easy, no matter how old the person was, at least not if you loved them.
I kind of lost my way a bit in my 20s, nothing serious, just a few disappointments in life that led me down a path of mediocrity, but thanks to Elena’s encouragement and support, I was able to graduate from college and be the first person in my family to do so. I know that Mami was really proud that day, even if she wasn’t able to fly to see me. That’s the reason why her, and the entire adults in my family, left Cuba, for us kids to have a better future, to graduate college, to “be somebody.”
I don’t know if I’m “somebody,” if my accomplishments are what she and my family expected of me, but I hope that I made her proud.