With Christmas Day fast approaching, I am reminded of the paradox that holidays can be in our lives, especially for those of us who have lived with a complex relationship with our parents.
Holidays can, on the one hand, be the times we share with our families to celebrate the love and gratitude we hold for one another. On the other hand, they can be occasions that revive the hidden pains of growing up in a difficult environment. If our experiences were painful ones, we dread the holidays because of the angst we feel towards the very people we hold responsible for our suffering. It is because that has been my experience that I wanted to write about how I managed to find forgiveness for my parents and, in so doing, become a happier person.
It was September of 1961 when my estrangement from my parents truly began. This was the time when they sent my brothers and I to the United States from Cuba to escape Fidel Castro’s rule. I was a mere ten years old and my brothers, who are fraternal twins, were a year older than me. This event also gave birth to the overwhelming feelings of abandonment that have plagued me from time to time throughout my life and colored my view of mom and dad.
The surprising part of my parents’ decision at the time was the option to send us unaccompanied by way of a program called Operation Peter Pan that was created by Catholic Charities and the Eisenhower Administration. Under this authority, unaccompanied Cuban kids were to be housed in American foster homes. However, hopeful Cuban parents sent well over 14,000 children to the US through this program, making it the greatest migration of unaccompanied children in the history of the western hemisphere. This onslaught of children caused the Catholic authorities to run out of foster homes and, out of necessity, they were forced to distribute the overflow of children to orphanages all over the country.
Within a span of ten days, my brothers and I arrived at Sacred Heart Orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado. Almost instantaneously, our lives were altered from that of three pampered, Cuban middle class boys to one of three strangers in a place that was ran like a prison and where we baffled by the new culture and language. Making matters worse, within that prison were violent youths who ruled over the others like something out of the story Lord of the Flies.
For the next three and one half years, my brothers and I suffered greatly at the hands of these hooligans. The numerous, almost daily, beatings that the three of us endured helped us decipher the rules of the place; the mightiest ruled by violence and every “inmate” belonged in a pecking order. Disrupting that order could only be accomplished by challenging the person ahead of you in that line and then emerging victorious from the pugilistic battle that ensued.
Sadly during those years, the three of us never heard from our family that was living in the United States and it was nearly impossible for my brothers and I to think of a bright future in the midst of feeling so abandoned.
Yet, in spite of those rough early years in the USA, our greatest suffering did not occur until we were reunited with mom and dad. It was then that we truly experienced the difficulties of being immigrants in this country. It did not take long for us to become intimately acquainted with the poverty, discrimination, culture shock and language barrier that accompanies so many immigrant families at the beginning of their American life. Although life had been difficult at Sacred Heart Home, the three of us had never worried about a roof over our heads or a warm meal in our tummies. When we rejoined our parents, our security was no longer assured and every member of our nuclear family had no choice but to participate in the struggle of bringing home money to help make ends meet. In the end, however, it was not our immigration experience that made life impossible, instead, it was the madness of our parents that nearly caused the world of three brothers to collapse.
In the early years after they met, my father had seen my mother as an ideal candidate to help his social status. My mother, on the other hand, saw the ambitious entrepreneur as the perfect man to provide for her the life style she had grown accustomed to. These were hardly good reasons to unite in marriage and, predictably, their poorly thought out social arrangement exploded under the pressure cooker that Castro’s Cuba had become, specially for those who didn’t like his communist system.
By the time they arrived at Sacred Heart Home to pick us up they had already spent their patience and tolerance for one another. All that remained was the quiet, desperate resignation that they were stuck with each other for life. They fought and argued as if they were the intolerant characters in a new chapter of Dante’s Inferno who were destined to be cruel and abusive towards each other for all eternity.
Adding the three now Americanized boys to this terrible equation, our parents used us as their weapons of choice to foil one another’s standing in our eyes. In so doing, our lives became entangled in the weird web of their marital conflict and we became their prisoners as well as the casualties of their war.
For my brothers and I, every significant event in our lives has been clouded by the complex relationship we had with our parents and with each other. The three of us have often joked between us that it was a good thing our parents married each other and didn’t break up two couples, but no amount of humor could ease the pain of abuse—both physically and emotionally—that we suffered at their hands. One by one, we left their prison, but there is no denying that we were scarred by these experiences.
It was forty years later—a gift I gave myself for my fiftieth birthday—that I returned to Cuba to visit the places that had been such an important part of my earliest life. This visit has been an important watershed experience for me, as it gave me the necessary perspective to see my parent’s plight under a new light. After visiting their home, businesses and properties, I began to appreciate the magnitude of their sacrifice. They had given up everything that was near and dear to them, this was not only their material possessions, but also their social standing, their customs, their careers, their families and friends, everything that had once made them feel that they belonged in this world.
I have learned that the wisdom and perspective gained from sixty-five years of life have blessed me with the ability to see things for what they truly are. This new sight has led me to view differently those things I once thought were evil or, at the very least, the inexplicable behavior of those who had entered my life. I could see that —like so many sons and daughters—I had focused for far too long on my parent’s faults without giving them credit for the challenges they had endured. To this day, the truth remains that, thanks to them, my life in my new adopted country has, for the most part, been filled with opportunity, hope and wonderful experiences. Their sacrifice was the greatest act of love I will ever experience in my lifetime. It is an act that far exceeds their faults.
I have often wondered if I would have done any better having faced the same hardships. I don’t have the answer to that question. But, although I do not excuse their bad behavior, I have grown to understand that they did the best they could under the circumstances. Doing one’s best, after all, is the most you can expect from any human being and it was in knowing this truth that I found acceptance and forgiveness for them.
I know there are people who willfully commit evil, but the majority of us are just trying to figure life out as we go along. We don’t live inside anyone’s skin but our own, so we don’t know what lurks in the hearts of others. What we do know is that there are many life experiences that can crush body and soul and it is during those times that our desperation may cloud our worldview and our behavior.
I wish I had learned this lesson earlier in life so that I could have been more appreciative of my mom and dad, but I can’t turn back the hands of time. All I can do moving forward is to be slow in my judgment of others and be quick to forgive when I see true repentance. I will seek to be tolerant and accepting of others knowing they are trying to do their best. This in, the end, will give my soul true redemption.