"He died? Why did he die? Why are they taking his ashes to Santiago? What are ashes? Are you sure he died, mommy?"
These are just some of the questions my four-year-old daughter has been asking me over the last few days after the passing of Fidel Castro. And as I answered them, I realized that Fidel was my daughter's introduction to death.
For the last five days, it has remained as quiet as it was on early Saturday morning, when I learned of Fidel's death. I found out when I checked my phone and found a text message from a friend overseas. The kids were already stirring when I woke up my husband, and the four of us huddled in front of our old television with a fuzzy signal. The Cuban media had begun reporting it in the middle of the night, and through the early mourning hours, repeated the announcement made by Fidel's brother Raul, dressed in his usual public uniform of beige military garb.
We didn't think we would be here in Cuba when it happened. Though he had long given up making public appearances, Fidel made his presence known to us through editorials that appeared in the one state-owned newspaper Granma. Though some debated whether he was actually the writer, the long-winded nature of these pieces and the flowery language he used seemed to fit with his style. When various heads of state from Cuba's allies visited, a picture of a frail Fidel posing with the VIP would appear in the paper the next day. Over the summer, he made a surprise appearance at a private show to celebrate his 90th birthday, and that, too, made it into the papers. He had become a constant in our lives, like he was to the rest of Cuba -- someone who was there, a fixture of this island as his life steadily ticked on, defying so many people's predictions.
Over the last few days I've been trying to figure out how to explain everything to my children, and how much to say, But my immediate thoughts after I learned of the death were purely logistical. Nine days of national mourning were announced on the television. Would all businesses be closed? What did that mean for our children's schools and my husband's job? Would we be able to find eggs and milk?
Though it's been calm throughout Cuba, trying to organize our lives has been a challenge. Just a couple of weeks ago, before Fidel's death, the Cuban government had announced a new impromptu holiday on December 2, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a date important to the Cuban Revolution. With his death, the holiday was cancelled. My husband would report to his job as usual. Our daughter's private school deliberated most of the weekend and sent a message saying that it would be open all week, following suit with other Cuban businesses and schools. But then on Monday, it was announced that nearly everything would close on Tuesday to make way for an enormous rally in the Plaza of the Revolution, attended by the leaders of various countries who were fond of Fidel, including South Africa, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
Aside from the interruption on Tuesday, It turns out that most of daily life remains the same. I even got eggs from our local bodega. The one big and glaring interruption to daily life is that bars and nightclubs are closed, because the nine-day mourning period means that no one is supposed to engaged in revelry. The sale of alcohol is officially banned. So is the playing of music in public, which accounts for the eery quiet in our neighborhood. All we hear these days are the chirping of birds and the incessant barking of our neighbors' dogs (apparently they didn't get the memo that Fidel had died).
But, like with everything, people know how to get around these restrictions. We have been able to get mojitos and beers from at least a couple of different private establishments we visited. A friend of ours had a birthday this week and we'd planned to go out for a night of music; we instead had an impromptu surprise party in our home and were mindful to keep the volume low on the music. Still, when the doorbell rang halfway into the party, the thought crossed our mind that it might be the police. After all, we’d heard stories from friends that police have confiscated stereos from families who were throwing parties and had the music a few decibels too loud. Fortunately, it was just some late arriving friends.
My good friend's birthday was the highlight in what has been a depressing week. I could not imagine engaging in the revelry that was happening across the Florida Straits in Miami. To celebrate a person's death -- no matter who it is -- is wrong. I have been saddened, frustrated, and angry this week, like many Cubans. What has struck me about this particular time is that it has been difficult for Cubans, but in a multitude of ways, some expected and others unexpected. I'll be able to explain all of this to my daughter and others one day, but only when the time and place are right.