Courage displays many colors. For some it is displayed during the heat of battle, or when they refuse to move in the face of overwhelming force or what they consider unjust laws. For others, it is amplified by the sadness of a life apart.
And so it was with this man. He’d left his native land without saying goodbye, making a quick dash to a waiting, leaky boat to go 90 miles over treacherous seas to his new home. His family, still at home, had no idea that we would not come back. Dinner on the table, his wife watched anxiously as the traffic ebbed, hoping that he’d just broken down, maybe caught a ride with someone, had a late meeting. It was not to be.
They shed tears when the truth was revealed. The family became the object of surveillance in a totalitarian paradise, the spies left behind. The recriminations ceased and he vowed that he’d never speak with them again, unless and until….
I met him in the second decade of exile. We were working together, his accent mostly gone, his fervor undiminished. Over the next few years we had a lot of time to ponder “what if?” He kept his emotions in check. To betray his pledge, to show fear or sadness would, in his mind, be a betrayal of all he’d done and was now doing.
For us, it was a time of overturning of the conventional wisdom. A time when new people, those not forged in the crucible of battle, were quick to make assumptions, to challenge the validity of long-held truths, or half-truths. It was an uncomfortable time for me, a relative outsider, and certainly for him, a man of conviction, someone who’d seen the evil firsthand, not read about it in a history book.
I saw the anger rise to his face, then in his voice. Demons long buried surfaced and he stumbled down deeper into the chasm. It was a place he’d kept in check for years. He lashed out, gaining volume and his accent as he thoughtfully, forcefully made his points, slashing the new ideas and the idea proposers in his wake.
The reaction was pure textbook: the new thinkers agreed reluctantly but it was clear to me from their body language and comments they would do all in their power to circumvent him, to make him irrelevant in time, perhaps the next time.
When I mentioned this to him, he looked at me as if I were one of them. I told him that I would never totally agree with him, but that I would never betray our friendship.
His rage cooled. We had a long talk about the past, not the present or the future. He brought up the history of his escape, the turmoil, the secret police. His eyes glistened as he recounted the times that he’d wished the small boat had capsized, that he’d been caught, tried and executed by firing squad like many of his friends.
Lamely I told him his life and his work were more important to what we were doing than that, and that he needed to focus on what he’d done for us, and for his family too.
He patted me on the shoulder, telling me that I might be right. His eyes betrayed him; I knew that he did not believe a word I’d just said. We went on to the next big thing, whatever it was.
I was being transferred from my Cuba assignment. I wanted to see him again, to say goodbye, to tell him that I’d certainly keep in touch. He was not there, did not answer my calls, preferring to keep the relationship as it had been in the good times, not to see it ebb now that I was leaving and he was staying.
Over the years I’d think of him when there was a shift, a time, however fleeting, when it appeared that his homeland could be liberated. I imagined him landing at the airport outside Havana, eyes filled with tears, shaking hands with men and women as aged as him, then driving to his home, if it was still there. I tried to put myself in his place as an expatriate coming home to a quiet, dignified welcome. Older memories of his leaving forgotten, he would sink into the routine of an old man, one at home at least.
Castro died and there were celebrations in Little Havana. I watched the celebrations on TV and for a moment could see him there, quiet, in the background, taking it all in. His unlit cigar, held loosely in one hand, the other over his heart.
But he died years ago, not knowing the outcome; if the day of liberation would come. A few of us hope to take him home on that day so that the nation he loved can once again hold him in its arms. It would be an act of courage that he’d understand.