“Agua,” my mother said to me as she held out a glass. She refused to release it from her grip until I relented, but I walked away with a dry mouth rather than say the word “water” in Spanish. I was about 5 years old and quickly learned the comeback that was my only sure defense: “You’re in America now. Speak English!” It wore my mother down, and eventually, she stopped offering drinks with an accompanying language tutorial. I had won. Or so I thought at the time.
Had I grown up a Cuban American in Miami, Spanish would have been an inescapable part of my life. Instead, my mother, a refugee from Castro’s rule, settled in Brooklyn, in a primarily Italian, Irish, and Jewish neighborhood. I certainly didn’t want to be thought of as different in a community where the mere aroma of arroz con frijoles might cause “For Sale” signs to spring up for three surrounding blocks. And I think my mother never really forced the language on me because she herself worried about how she was perceived. When she came to New York in 1965, she understood that mastering English was her ticket to acceptance and a better way of life. She learned it as quickly as she could and even took classes to eliminate her accent.
What little Spanish I knew was entirely incidental, absorbed from my abuelita, who lived in the apartment downstairs from ours. The smell of her Marlboros and the sound of her telenovelas would often penetrate the thin floorboards that separated us. Every day she’d come up for a cafecito with my mom or to help wash the dishes. If I ventured downstairs, it was usually to admire her collection of elephants and odd figurines. I knew the visit was over when she yelled out, “No se tocan!” For a while I thought it meant goodbye.
As a child, I never really connected with her. Maybe it was because I didn’t always understand what she was saying. She spoke to me in Spanish, and I responded in English. That was how we communicated, and it worked just fine since neither of us was ambitious enough to clear up any misunderstanding. We’d often exchange embarrassed nods and grins. Whenever we parted, she’d leave me with a single phrase: “Te veo pronto.” I’ll see you soon. I’d return the sentiment with a muffled, “Bye.”
Over the years, it was always the same. We spoke far more often with hugs, kisses, and awkward smiles than with actual words. As a result, we never really talked. I couldn’t ask her what her childhood was like or about life in Castro’s Cuba. I’m guessing she knew a lot more about me, having watched me grow up. But I can’t remember her ever once asking, “How’s school?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” Things only got worse when my abuelita lost her hearing. It no longer mattered whether I asked her, “How are you feeling?” or troubled with, “Como te sientes?” All of a sudden, she couldn’t understand anything at all. She was often confused, and when someone spoke to her she’d giggle nervously and shrug her shoulders.
When my abuelita fell and broke her hip at age 84, I sat by her hospital bed and watched as my mother and aunt communicated with her by writing words in Spanish on a large pad of paper. She and I, well, we had our system down pat: Winks, smiles, a tight grip of the hand. She seemed to be doing okay, then unexpectedly took a turn for the worse. Over the course of two weeks, I visited her almost daily. Sometimes she’d cry out, “Ay, que dolor,” but she didn’t have to tell me anything. I knew her body language so well that I could see she was dying. If she realized it, she never told my mother. She never said goodbye. But she did, in a private moment the night before she left us, admit to me, “Tengo miedo.” She was afraid. She said other things, too. But that was all I understood. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to figure out the very last words she would ever speak to me.
I was never angrier with myself than I was when I left her that evening. And for the rest of my life I’ll wonder what she uttered in our final moments together. I do know this: She loved me, and I’m sure she knew that I loved her. Because it was all said in besitos, abrazos y sonrisas.