Havana Hope

Jose Enrique Arandia

It was the summer of 1975.  As I prepared for Valerie’s Great Adventure as a freshman at Tulane University, “The Book” arrived.  Well, at least that’s what me and my friends called it.  As a formal introduction into college life in The Big Easy (New Orleans, Louisiana), a soft cover book was sent out with pictures of the entire freshman class.  Sweeeeet!  At that season in my life, it seemed to be far better reading than The Bible, and I considered it a God-given summer gift.  Its photo-filled pages gave the opportunity to visualize who your new roomies were going to be, who your friends might be, and which delicious guy you could only hope to be dating.   (“Hope” is a key word when you are a dork like me.)  Like 13-year-old rock star groupies, my friends and I poured over every photo, putting a double circle of Bic pen around only the most handsome.  I guess it was sort of “Mail Order Boyfriend” kind of catalog.  Roaring with laughter and anticipation, my Val Pals and I were imagining my future.

It’s been 35 years since that summer….but like it was yesterday I remember pointing to the photo of Jose Enrique Arandia and saying, “He’s going to be my friend.”  Why wouldn’t I say that?  With dashing Cuban eyes, and a casual white gauze shirt, Jose embodied the word suavecito.  Maybe it’s the power of the spoken word…and maybe it’s destiny…but it wouldn’t be long into my freshman year that I would spot him at a party and we would indeed become friends.

So, you have to know the history of Jose.  As a small child, in the midst of unrest in Cuba, his family began the journey to a better life.  First to leave Cuba were his mother, maternal grandfather and three children.  They were literally put aboard a tanker which was traveling to Spain by Castro’s sister, Juana.

The close-knit family arrived in Spain and survived by selling Cuban cigars on the streets of Madrid.  Jose’s father and maternal grandmother stayed behind in expectation that the coup wouldn’t last (it did) and would try to sell anything of value to get cash.  While they did leave the country with some cash it was worthless because Fidel changed the currency and no matter how much money one had in the bank one could only receive the equivalent of $500.00 in the new currency.

The family communicated from Spain via encrypted telegrams which confirmed family health and also which cigars were selling best in order to send more (i.e. ‘Romeo and Julieta are doing very well but nobody came to Macanudo’s birthday party – these were all names of cigars and stories were created so they sounded like real people.).  The cigars were shipped in hollowed out medical books which were not being seized or searched at that point in time.  The family helped out in Spain for 10 months, where upon it became clear the coup would not be short-lived.  Finally, the Arandia Family was able to receive asylum in the USA from a paternal aunt who had married an American and lived in Chicago.

Against all odds, the Arandia family travelled half way around the world and back in pursuit of a better life.  As a devoted family, they rose out of virtually nothing to full and beautiful lives.  Jose’s dad became a successful physician in New York.  I guess medical books were good for more than storing cigars.

Though a tried and true New Yorker, Jose will always be Cuban.  He exudes a cultural energy, and in his presence you can almost hear salsa swaying in the background and feel the beat of a hot sultry Havana night.  Suavecito.  No wonder he’s president of LUSA LLC, Marketing Consultancy with expertise in the Hispanic Consumer Market.

My Mail Order Boyfriend never misses a beat.  Our level of communication has varied over the years, but the constant is that we always pick up exactly where we left off.  Our text messaging last night was true to form…

Me:  Can you email me a picture of you today?

Jose:  Use Clooney, we’re frequently mistaken for each other

Me:  Hilarious, Ricky Ricardo

I didn’t have to tell Jose why I needed the photo, and within the hour he emailed it over.

That’s what I love about him.  The last few years I’ve been exhausted by explaining myself.  (Valerie, You got some ‘splainin to do!) From constantly defending my choice of doctors and hospitals for Megan, to even being asked at her funeral why I had her cremated, the world has demanded an explanation.  What lies at the core of Jose’s Havana heart, is a man who has completely trusted me.  Right or wrong, I’ve never had to explain myself.

I also never had to explain that I needed to grieve.  One of Jose’s many gifts to me after Megan passed away was the Flower of the Month Club.  Like clockwork, every month around the 23rd, flowers would be delivered to my door.  By the third month after Megan’s death, the commotion of the funeral and doting attention of friends had wained…but not the heartache of losing a daughter.  At first I told Jose that “He didn’t need to do that…” yet I found myself watching the door by the 21st of every month.

Carefully and lovingly, I would put the flowers in a vase, and strategically put them on a small coffee table in my bedroom, surrounded by favorite photos of my girl.  As the whole world moved on, Jose gave me a place to cry.  A place to be quiet.  A place of soul-searching to figure out where I was going to go next in life.

Today is the two-year anniversary of my girl’s death.  My life is moving forward, and last night I picked up hot pink flowers to place by her photo.  The details of how much I miss her and the depth of my loss remain too intimate for a blog and maybe something I’ll never be able to articulate.  Since she drew her last breath on Easter Sunday, that will be the day that I more completely write about her amazing life.

For today, I’m grieving.  I don’t have to ‘splain to Jose how I’ll be spending my time, or who I’ll be with, or what my plans are for the future.  But I do want to say I’m so grateful one solitary life was moved from Cuba to Spain to NYC to New Orleans and back again to NYC to be my life long friend.  I’m even more grateful that over half a century ago a family that left an entire life behind in Cuba gave me life through the friendship of their son.

That is Havana hope.

Key Notes:

  • When I circled my Mail Order Boyfriend, I never imagined what my future held…but God did.
  • Friends that have known me from the stupid college years through the grown-up years were a sustaining support during Megan’s life and death.
  • I’m sure I’ve blown it as a friend with Jose.  However, he has been the kind of friend who lives by ‘love does not take into account a wrong suffered’ and seems to care for me in spite of myself.
  • If your friend is a primary caregiver to someone with cancer or chronic illness, don’t further exhaust them by demanding an account for their every decision.
  • Grief is largely overlooked in western culture.  Pay it now, or pay it later, but eventually you need to grieve the loss of a loved one.

On a lighter note:

  • When my assistant Randy proofed my blog this morning her first words were, “He’s handsome!”  (Note To Randy and all my matchmaker friends: Jose has been in a significant relationship for years!)  Randy added, “I bet he was hot in college!”  (Note To Randy: Muy Suavecito!)

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Article by: Valerie Bourdain