The elderly couple and my father conversed for what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time. After all, my father spoke English like Tarzan and the couple seemed thoroughly gringo. In a moment, they were all smiling, and then my father ran back to the car. “Tienen unas de las gomas de atras ponchada y se la voy a cambiar,” [One of their rear tires is flat and I'm going to change it for them.] he explained to my mother.
“Ay Pepito [my grandfather was still alive so my father, not me, was Pepito] ten mucho cuidado.” [Ay Pepito, be very careful] I couldn’t tell whether my mother was genuinely concerned or proud of my dad. Perhaps she was both.
My father took off his short sleeve shirt, leaving only his “wife beater” on, went to the trunk of our car, took out the tire changing implements, and started changing the elderly couple’s flat tire. I sat there quietly in the huge back seat of the Impala and played with my toys. My mother kept looking out the back window at my father and would glance at me occasionally. She interrupted the silence of my playtime only once during that moment that afternoon. “Jose tu padre es muy servicial y ayuda mucho a las personas. Pero acuerdate,” she leaned over and her tone became weighted. “Hay muy pocas personas como tu padre. Muy pocas.” [Your father genuinely helps lots of people, but remember that are very few people like your father. Very few.]
Only a few moments later, I watched through the same rear window as my father wiped his hands with his handkerchief, as a beaming couple thanked him. The old man took out his wallet to try to pay my father, but Pepito laughed kindly and simply shook the man’s hand. I confess that I wondered why my father didn’t take the money. I knew my parents did not have the money other kids’ parents did, so I was confused as to why my father refused that money if he needed it.
My father, who studied in La Escuela de Comercio de La Universidad de La Habana, did the income taxes, for free, for scores of Cubans who were relatively newly arrived. When a friend of the family, or friend of a friend, or friend of a friend of a friend, arrived to the US from Cuba, my father would go out of his way to find them a job. At my father’s funeral in late October of 1982, stories of my father’s personal generosity abounded. There was no mass before the burial; he was not religious in the least. “Yo creo en un dios bueno, no en un dios malo,” [I believe in a good god, not a bad god.] he always told me, taking issue with the god of Western religions. Perhaps he was the first, real humanist I ever knew.
A little more than a year after my father died, I was driving back to my house on a school night from my friend’s house. I was a junior in high school. I turned down a dark street when I saw an elderly couple parked by the side of the road standing next to their car. Immediately, I turned off the road, parked my car to see if I could be of service to this couple. Their tire was flat. I offered to help change it. Unfortunately, their Toyota did not have the correct tire-changing equipment and my Chevy Monza’s equipment did not work on their car. I tried. I offered to drive them somewhere, but they declined, telling me that someone was coming for them soon. The were all smiles and grateful for my efforts.
When I arrived home, my mother asked what had taken me so long. I told her the story about the elderly couple and their flat tire. My mother began to weep. “Eso me recuerda mucho de las cosas de tu padre.” [That reminds me so much of the things your father would do.] I did not inherit my father’s altruism and humanism, though.
My mother was right when she warned me that very few people are/were like my father. In recent months, several of my former students went without much deserved letters of recommendation from me because I was stuck inside myself dealing with my own garbage. People who have reached out for my help have received delayed, or no, responses from me because, among many other reasons, I’ve been stuck in my own head. And now that I am in a position to genuinely need help, I hear crickets. Or, I receive communications faulting and blaming me for my situation. All the princes, those who don themselves with glitter, the religious and the pious, are summarily absent from my struggle. The one, maybe two, near me? The most humble among my tribe.
I have no idea whether anything in the Bible is factually true. Really. No idea. But no doubt that it is filled with real, enduring, gritty commentary on the human condition. In one of the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth explains, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’” (Matthew 13.13) I get that. A lot. It is amazing to me how much garbage we, yes we, have in our heads that prevent us from seeing each other, from really feeling each other, from getting at a deep level of the heart, that we are all connected for real. We are one human family. One. We withhold love from each other, not because of “the other person” but because of the tons of garbage, of caca, in our heads, and consequently our hearts.
“José, you don’t have a job now because you blah, blah, blah, and that, that, that.”
“Yes, my brother, I know my faults and am working very hard to overcome them.”
“Well, you need to blah, blah, blah, and that, that, that.”
"Yes, I know, my brother. But knowing those things will not pay my bills, help me on my feet, or help me on my way.”
Or another, “Thanks for sending me your resume, José, it’s just that I’ve been really busy, …”
“Yes, I know you have, my sister. I respect and admire you for your hard work and commitments. When you get a chance, I would really appreciate your help.” The weeks go by and … crickets.
Or, at a nice cocktail party among Miami’s power-homosexuals, or at an informal gathering of Christians (Catholics included) after church, “Omg, have you been reading José Vilanova’s Facebook posts? Wow, he’s really going through a difficult time. Have you heard from him? How is he doing? I really hope he’s okay.” Are those judgments or feigned concerns? And I get zero phone calls, emails, texts, or Facebook messages.
I get it. I’ve been there and done that, too. And I’ve learned my lesson to my core and in my bones. I am so painfully sorry at not writing those letters of recommendation for my students or being present for those who needed me. I’m so sorry that I’m sick to my stomach about it. I know better. At least I think I do.
Recently, a member, a beloved member, of our OneWheaton community drank himself to death. I am still inconsolable about it. I was not as close to him as other members of the community, but I am still heartbroken over his death. And I ask myself, “Who were we BEING in OneWheaton to Mark? Were we, individually and collectively, extending ourselves for his betterment? Or were we just content at watching the train wreck itself?”
Several years ago, the Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church Men’s Emmaus community lost an absolutely wonderful, kind, generous, and musically gifted member of its community. Rudy checked himself into a hotel, took a bottle of sleeping pills, chased it with alcohol, and fell asleep forever. I was close to him at the time. The entire St. Augustine’s Emmaus community washed its hands of the incident. “There was nothing we could do.” “That guy was crazy.” “He was gone.” In the weeks after Rudy’s suicide, some, only two or three, members of the community had a “come to Jesus” moment over the incident and started to grow some flesh in their hearts. They began to see their ‘sins of omission’ and publicly amend and alter their Selves.
It is Spring time in the global north. My deep desire for myself and those who walk with me is renewal and newness. I hope that this is a new Season of Love for our individual and collective humanity. I know that I have started on that road to transformation; I hope I spread the virus and it spreads to me.
Omg, did you see what José Vilanova wrote in that blog post? I can’t believe he wrote all those things! What is he thinking? What is everyone going to think?