Each time we met, I would come up, wrap my arms around her tiny body, and slowly lift her. (Which wasn't a large feat, as she could be compared to a handful of plantains, in terms of weight.)
And as I lifted her, she would squeal—half (I would like to think) in jest, and half in legitimate fear. “Loren, NO! No!” she would say her in a thickly glazed Cuban tongue.
She was a poet, played drums in the high school band, came from a family of creatives, and always encouraged my independence—”Don't rely on a man to provide for you!” she would say. She was feisty and quiet, fiery and withdrawn, laughing and serious all at once. I wish I had the words to describe her perfectly in this moment, but I don't think my emotions will allow that.
I used to define “greatness” as a selfish and cheap desire of recognition, tied to particular careers; FBI agent, Actress, USWNT Player, Children's Book Author. This understanding of “greatness” was based on a hollow truth; that my isolated existence gave me purpose—in reality, my isolated self drains, self-glorifies, and self-destructs.
Last week, I defined greatness in a new way: I held Abuela Carmita's hand in a hospital in California.
Yes, I found greatness in many beautifully-scattered, simple moments; holding her hand; sitting with my Tia's; sleep-deprivation in a cement-like chair; buying toothbrushes and toothpaste and early morning Starbucks; reading the Bible in Spanish; singing in Spanish; sitting in a crowded room with people who sought safety and comfort from each other—and in their shared knowledge of the relationship we all shared with a great woman who came from Cuba, with her family, and allowed a granddaughter like me the opportunity to even be born, to create, to live, to participate. As she added light to the world, she poured into us; and in that, she allowed us to shine for others.
That's what true greatness does; it makes the way for someone else.
I also saw greatness in other people, last week: Yolanda's calm, assured voice; Abuelo Lilo's laugh when he put on my sunglasses; my father's sleep-deprivation and planning; Tia Eva's interpretation of hand signs, and presence; Tia Ana's ability to laugh and bring light even as she cried; my mother; my sister; my brothers; Tanya, staying overnight to make sure "alone" was never an option; Nati and her little Sophie (who clumsily tried to walk, and was, at the same time, reassuring all of us that life recreates itself, and people are never “forever lost”—as they live in our giggles, our nephews and nieces, and habits and jokes); and of course, there's Octavio, who pushed my buttons as he argued the validity of a candidate like Donald Trump.
It was the holiest communion of blood and connection I have ever experienced, and I get chills just thinking about it.
We were made for this kind of thing; we were made to venture with each other into the darkest places, and—somehow—still find hope. We were meant to venture into the darkness and, not just sit in it, but light it. And as we gathered in this holy hospital-room huddle in the ICU, stories were exchanged, memories recalled, and—wait for it—smiles and laughs echoed off the walls.
This is what assures me that this physical realm is just a stepping point. Even in the darkness of an Enemy as daunting as Death, He/She/It does not win; it did not win this week—and it never will.
Life is as brief as it is deep. Nearly everything we experience feels tiny in the face of death. Every fight, fear, hateful thought or vengeful deed seems pointless. Why would we treat each other anything less than starstruck or magnanimous and beautiful? We are rare. We are each a unique and colorful (think Warhol) constellation of relationships, communities, memories, burnt cookies and lost baseballs—all in the face of a sometimes harsh, cold universe.
So why would we treat each other as anything less than a miracle?
That is exactly what we are. Therefore, I'm grateful—for you. If you are breathing, I'm glad you have the privilege to; if you are walking, privilege; if you are seeing, privilege; if you are tasting, laughing, hearing, autonomously functioning; and (maybe) most of all, if you are loving (albeit messy and in the wrong order, or torn apart and still taking steps, or starting over and learning what that means), you are privileged.
So hold your head a little higher; take stock of all the ways you are afforded opportunities that many are not—or that, in death, many lose—and go out boldly and make your mistakes, hold the hands of those you never want to say goodbye to; and, if (and when) you must say goodbye, hold on as long as you can, and then let go.
Death is a battalion of thieves; but Love is a thousand children singing. And (spoiler alert) again—death doesn't win. So shout your song; dance your clumsy dance; and when you have the urge, let your love be heard from mountaintops—let it loose and wild; because you must have the courage to, and because you do not have the time not to. Hold nothing back. Depend on no second chances. Seize your moment, for it will soon be gone.
This is what it means to be great; to be unabashedly present; and to open your messy, bloody, infected storytelling-heart to the outside world, and to love that world by saying these words: "Let me tell you my story; let me hear yours; and if you must go, let me please—forever and always or just for this moment—let me sit with you until then."
Abuela, thank you for letting me sit with you.
Until the next time I can sit with you at a table, eat your congre and yuca, and camarones and platanos, and hear you laugh, or lift you up in my granddaughter-arms; until then, Te quiero; forever and forever on repeat; te quiero; te quiero; te quiero.
I have known no greater task, or inner fulfillment and purpose, than the privilege and duty, of holding your hand this week. I feel your warm, paper mache hands holding my heart now, still.
Por siempre, tu chiquitita y nieta,
Pictured Below: What I wrote this morning, to be read at the service in California, today. Excuse the (multi-language) typos and lack of Spanish poise at the end; I am a granddaughter and daughter of Cuban refugees, with little practice in the sounds, and my first language, that will always feel like home.