Ernesto Perez Chang
HAVANA TIMES —Today, they are finally leaving. Days before, everyone had been anxiously waiting for Carlos, his wife and daughter to get the documents they needed to travel to the United States.
The family had won the US visa lottery some time ago and had since begun taking extra jobs to be able to put together the money needed to travel. The paperwork entails a considerable investment and they, humble working-class people, had to make some drastic changes in their lives, veritable balancing acts, in order to remain afloat.
They also had to stand in exhausting lines at different offices to put the needed paperwork in order and take English lessons to learn the basics of the language. They weren´t going on any old trip – they were preparing for a turning point in their lives.
At home, they are celebrating the news. We, the neighbors, wish them luck, see them off with hugs and jokes. Seeing them again seems to us neither a distant nor an unlikely event. Though we know we may actually never see them again and that their leaving will affect us in some way, it is one of the many daily losses we have learned to accept.
We are seasoned witnesses of these last goodbyes: we’ve seen many go, hundreds of childhood and university friends, close relatives and people we love or simply know and have become an irreplaceable part of our lives.
For us, it is part of everyday life, and the constant sense of loss and uncertainty has slowly shaped our ability to accept things, a useful skill in situations where very few things depend on our will.
We live in different spaces where entering, leaving, staying put, agreeing, disagreeing and even keeping quiet, to the point of effacing ourselves completely, are not willful acts, not even chance events, but, rather, some form of action done under pressure. It is as though we were a dense cloud of gases inside a plugged-up container. There is no choice, just circumstance.
Carlos, his wife and the little girl look very nervous. His mother, Mercedes, old and tired, smiles when she hears him speak about his future plans and encourages him, gives him some words of advice.
From time to time, she gets up and walks up to her granddaughter, strokes her hair and hugs her. She is the only one who doesn’t say anything, who just listens to everyone, and Mercedes senses she is afraid because she has never been on a plane before, she has never traveled so far or been away from her very long before.
Mercedes cannot or does not want to think about other things, associate the moment with other goodbyes, farewells that, old as she is, have become a common and painful part of her life.
Two or three years ago, Ana, Carlos’ only sister, immigrated to the United States with her husband and son. Then, they had also celebrated the trip and the girl, though only twelve can still remember a similar scene, another farewell when she didn’t feel the fear she does now, because she knew nothing of separation at the time.
Then, she knew nothing of these kinds of confusing gatherings where, as the hours pass and the time to leave nears, tears begin to drown out laughter – something that never happens when people know they will return the following day.
It’s not a party, and the little girl knows it. It’s a kind of family ritual, not as happy as a soiree but not as sad as a funeral. It’s a strange hybrid ritual born of the purest uncertainty and the most terrible certainty.
As Mercedes strokes the girl’s hair, she looks up at the smiling face of her grandmother and waits in silence. She knows that soon, when the time comes, a tear will flow down that face.