Saying Goodbye in Cuba

Verónica Vega

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — I thought I knew death – at once the negation and the complement of life – but I now feel obliged to admit I only had a mental image of death, a theory.

True death, tethered to the intensity of one’s affection for the loved one we lose, is very different from this rational interpretation of death. It’s experience ends up taking away an enormous part of who we are, not only because of the ocean of memories it unleashes in its wake, but also because it reminds us of our own mortality and the mortality of those who accompany us in this brief wave in the sea of time – our families, our generations, are a mere illusion.

Our culture deifies the false stability of life, its succession of material objects, degrees, success, pleasures – and when this reality faces death head on, it is shaken to its very foundations.

Other civilizations train themselves in the acceptance of one’s departure from infancy. They look on this sojourn of ours as a mere stretch of road in the long pilgrimage, from one body to the next. Departing is not as traumatic for them, and saying goodbye isn’t loaded with a sense of fatality, of impotence in the face of the irreversible.

I don’t believe anything in life resembles death as much as exile, the sense of departure, of tearing oneself away from something, how foreign the world suddenly appears to us in its succession of fleeting liturgies and wonders.

My mother, who died of respiratory arrest among the gazes and the attention of strangers (for relatives are not allowed to enter the intensive care ward at the hospital), clung to the hope of emigrating, of reuniting with the other members of the family and making up for the time lost, of regaining the carcasses, the love and comfort snatched from her, almost to the very end.

I know her soul had been torn, divided between those who were present and those who were absent, for that is the way she lived here, in unending pain over the impossibility of seeing the family together again, ceaselessly resisting the movement that brings us closer and drives us (or tears us) apart – the same expressed by her absence today, suddenly driving home the truth I tried so hard to make her understand, when I didn’t know it well myself.

The worst, worse than the minutes in that inaccessible ward, where I was finally allowed to touch her empty body, was seeing how they treat someone – an individual – when their identity card is about to be replaced with a death certificate. For the son or daughter, the family or friend, this is more brutal than death itself.

There lies the naked body, having shed all embarrassment. They tie her hands over her belly with a bit of rubber hose. With another, they tie a folded-up bit of paper around the ankle. The violence of the scene left me speechless, powerless to resist, to scream, to complain.

This fragment of existence that had contained nearly all of my own existence had ceased to have any dignity, any right to a last act of tenderness, before the eyes of the hospital, or perhaps the mortuary.

This dreadful policy of treating a lifeless body like an object devoid of identity, after all vital signs and all intentionality have gone, strikes me as more than misguided.

The same thing happens at the funeral parlor, in the brightly-lit room where the body is again exposed to the gazes of strangers, stripping the experience of the last vestige of intimacy, denying those who ascribe infinite value to every mark, every depression, every sign of suffering the right to clothe, dress the image (the shell) of their loved one – the exclusive right of those who bear the full weight of the pain over their departure.

Despite everything I was taught in school, at home and by the media, I know death does not exist. But as we go through the motions of loss – of an objective separation from the loved one – no one should have the right to profane the sacredness of our last goodbyes.

I resort to another mental image, a recreation of that moment, as solace, and I picture her and her daughters in a place no one can profane, for the time being. The Joe Dassin song she liked so much is playing and, beneath it, I hear the whispered words I have been repeating for some time now:

True existence, the true nature of things, is revealed to us only through their destruction…we destroy ourselves ceaselessly, for, at the end of every destruction is the immense openness of the sky.*

(*) Reina Maria Rodríguez, “Te daré de comer como a los pájaros” (“I Will Feed You As I Do the Birds”)

3 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye in Cuba

  • I understand the importance of being with and holding our loved ones during their death, which is often very painful and scary for them. And I also understand that very few can take better care of our loved ones than the ones who love them the most. When our loved ones are sick and/or dying, it is vitally important that we be their caretakers, along with the medical community. There is so much that needs to change with the Cuban government and I wish they would learn more from others who have more wisdom, like this writer. I wish this for the country I was born in too – the US.

    The medical community in the US has gotten fairly good at keeping families involved with the process of death. Although I wasn’t completely happy with the medical community when my family members died (my mother, my father and my younger sister), we had many choices. We took good care of them at home until their deaths, with the exception of my mother, who had destroyed her lungs by smoking, and so she needed to be hospitalized for the last few days of her life to ease her suffering – and it was her choice to be hospitalized.

    Taking care of the sick and dying is the hardest job on earth, intellectually, creatively and emotionally. And it is a job that should be done by family, friends and the medical community together.

  • When health care workers prepare the body of someone they have cared for creating that barrier between themselves and the body can be a survival skill. If you have any strong rerligious belief, then the soul has departed the body, leaving a cadaver behind. If you are an atheist, then it remains a cadaver. I think in your grief which is understandable, you are too quick to judge those who prepared the body–they might have been grieving as much as you.

  • Nice Piece my sister very nice Compassinate honest and worth a read and some time spent reminicing ( for I)

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