John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

My Deathday

October 28th, 2015

Back in February, I wrote about my birthday. Today it’s a different story: my deathday.

Every sentient soul in Cuba—and almost no one anywhere else—knows the story. At 6:01 on the evening of October 28th, 1959, I climbed into my two-engined Cessna and took off, with my pilot, on a flight-over-land from Camagüey to Havana. I’ve never seen Cuba again, and the disappearance of my plane—never a trace of it found—led to elaborate explanations from Fidel about how I’d been swept off course by a mythical storm, as well as to the conviction of most Florida Cubans that El Caballo had me assassinated.

Nope. I’m living still in Costa Rica, which that little Cessna reached before crashing into some trees on the coast. I’m here with my beautiful wife Clare—well, that’s what we say, my beautiful wife, though the truth is that Clare looks pretty craggy these days. Almost as craggy and wrinkled as I am. We are, after all, 83 and 84. Beautiful to me, I should say, and to hell with what any mirror shows—here with Clare and our kids and grandkids, living the Costa Rican dream, pura vida and all that.

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I see on the Huffington Post that the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez put up a post about me and my disappearance. At the end she says,

“The mystery has collapsed. Not because we found answers, but because we got tired of waiting for them. Right now, nothing would change because we know that Camilo Cienfuegos is alive somewhere – with his graying beard – unless it is scientifically proven that the official version is true. Nor would there be a great commotion on finding out his death was an assassination order by his own compañeros from the Sierra Maestra.

“Time, implacable, has ended up burying Camilo.”

What did I expect? Well, what I didn’t expect is that technology would allow me to read, almost instantaneously, reports of how school kids in Cuba are still throwing flowers into the sea in my memory, every October 28th. Inland, they throw the flowers into rivers. It’s such a lovely image that I almost have to agree with Clare, who doubts my idea of going back to Cuba. Do I want to return and tell the truth, and put an end to this lovely custom?

I don’t know. But I do know that I read about Cuba all the time now, and some pressure is building in me to go back—to go home, I almost wrote—and look around, and talk to people and crack some jokes (they’d expect that of me), and try to figure out for myself what so many have tried to understand over the last 55 years: Was there some worth to that Revolution? I did give my life to it, after all. My first life, before this second one took over.

–From Camilo, in Costa Rica

Naty Revuelta

March 5th, 2015

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Naty Revuelta has died, at the age of 89. You get to be my age, 83, and everyone you know starts dropping off. Well, not everyone. Fidel is still with us, and Raúl, too. But Huber Matos died last year, and Carlos Franqui a few years before that. Oh, what the hell, they were old, or old enough. It’s not like when we were fighting in the mountains and men were dying all over the place in their twenties or even their teens. Women, too. That Revolution was no game.

Up in the Sierra I heard rumors about Natalia Revuelta, how back in the Moncada days she’d thrown her husband over for Fidel and his cause. Also, how she and Fidel had a child—though Fidel was never much of a father to that girl. The truth is, he never had much time for his kids. He had so much else to do! Of course, Clare will tell you that I wasn’t all that good myself after I first found out about Alameda.

I didn’ t meet Naty until after we rolled into Havana in January, 1959—and she was a beauty, just as everyone said. A beauty, and devoted to the Revolution. She wanted Fidel back, that was clear, but by then Fidel had the pick of any woman he wanted, and in addition to Celia Sánchez there were a half dozen others. None of that held Naty back. She wanted to work for the Revolution, and Fidel gave her a job at INRA, the agrarian reform institute. That’s where everything was decided in those days, and where Fidel and Che and Raúl and Ramiro Valdés met to talk. I was often there myself. And Naty was a force in that office, I tell you. She was passionate about agrarian reform, about health care and literacy and a dozen other things.

Coño, how can she be dead? I’ve never understood it, no matter how many have died around me. How can someone be alive among us, then not? She was a tiny woman, and lively. She drove a little blue Volkswagen with a canvas opening in the top and sometimes, if I saw her stopped at a streetlight, she’d fold back the roof, stand up on her seat and give me a wave.

I heard that toward the end of her life her great love was a granddaughter in Miami, a girl she saw too rarely. The Castros, the Revueltas, the Diaz-Balarts, the Matos—even the Cienfuegos: there’s not a family on that damn island that isn’t split and divided and tortured. No family is whole, there’s always someone who lives in Miami or Madrid or Caracas or somewhere most Cubans can’t get to. Naty, you were a great revolutionary when it wasn’t easy. I haven’t seen you in fifty-five years, but I wish you were still here on earth with us.

–From Camilo in Costa Rica

It’s My Birthday

February 6th, 2015

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Letter from Camilo:

It’s my birthday, February 6th. The whole family came: Alameda and Ernesto and Clarisa, along with their husbands, wives, kids and grandkids. They were trying to surprise me, but I read all the signs. Eighty-two years old, going on twenty-two. Well, perhaps not quite. I can’t remember what I felt like at twenty-two. I hadn’t met Clare, I wasn’t burned, I didn’t have any kids. Okay, thirty-two.

I pulled a little stunt after Clare brought in the cake. I pretended as if I didn’t have the wind to blow out the candles. And then, as if my mind were going, I started to speak in the most exaggerated Cuban accent, making it almost impossible to understand. The grandkids looked at me like I had a sudden attack of Alzheimer’s. I could tell Clare wasn’t too happy about it, because I was kind of giving away the Big Secret, and we agreed long ago that we weren’t going to do that. So I clowned around with it, and the littlest kids loved it, they thought it was some kind of game. Oia ‘oño, ’o sabe ’nde se ’ompra lo ‘uego pa lo niño en ete ’ueblo, ’orque esos niño nesitan lo ’uegos ma que yo.

In Tico you’d say it nice and clear: Oiga, coño-—only you wouldn’t say coño here, it’s not a good word for kids-—no sabe donde se compra los juegos para los niños en este pueblo, porque estos niños necesitan los juegos mas que yo. Which of course the kids liked when I let them figure it out, that they were the ones who ought to be getting the presents.

After everyone went home, Clare jumped right on me. If I went on talking Cuban like that, the family was going to figure something out. And of course, Clare had me figured out almost before I did—-because I’d started to wonder if enough damn time hasn’t gone by.

I haven’t cared for decades if I ever saw Cuba again. But recently, with all this talk about the U.S. and Cuba normalizing relations, I thought, We could go back for a visit. We could see what’s happened to that country.

“Yes, we could start with that,” Clare said. “And then maybe you’d want to tell everybody the whole story.”

I wasn’t quite ready for that—but I had been thinking it over. It’s because of Obama and Raúl lining up to talk to each other. They’re going to “normalize relations”. Of course that’s a joke. In a hundred and fifty years there’s never been anything normal about how the U.S. and Cuba have gotten along, so normal is not what’s coming. But driving home from the clinic the other day, I had a kind of dream, or a vision: how normal it would be for me and Clare, and maybe our kids, and maybe some of their kids, to go look at the world I grew up in.

After I said that, Clare and I sat around for awhile listening to the night, just thinking about the idea.

My Mother and Camilo

January 25th, 2014

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This is my mother, Virginia, at the age of 16, standing behind her house at 822 North High Street in Columbus, OH. These days North High is the heart of the city’s hip Short North, but in 1931 it was all family homes and backyard gardens. Standing next to my mother is her dorky boyfriend, with his arm around her waist and his right hand looking like some prehistoric claw. With his round glasses and high waist, I don’t think he had any idea of what he had a hold of, and I doubt that he lasted long.

My mother wanted more, but wasn’t sure know how to get it. Only three years later, after a single year of college, she married a truck driver named Larry Tidball, who moved her to Beaumont, Texas. Things did not go well with Larry, and in 1937 she left him and moved to New York, where her father had found a job at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

And here’s a man I thought my mother would have liked to meet:
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It may seem odd, so many years after the fact, that I’d be matchmaking for my mother. After all, a year after she moved to New York she met my father and soon married him. But I’m afraid that my father, in her hidden heart, was not the kind of man she wanted. Though far from dorky, and truly an admirable guy, he was still somewhat tame: not commanding enough.

Both my parents are now dead—my father died in 2005, my mother in 1972—and I feel free not only to explore their histories but to play around with their lives. That’s what led to my notion of a fictional romance between two actual people: my mother, and the Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos.

What first triggered the idea was reading, some dozen years ago, that Camilo—a hero and martyr whose giant neon sculpture now faces Che Guevara’s in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución—once worked as a dishwasher at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Actually, I think his job was at some small restaurant out on Long Island, but in my mind I long ago moved the scene to Manhattan. That was where a young-woman-something-like-my-mother might have run across a Cuban dishwasher—a guy who only three years later would be appointed by Fidel as head of the Cuban Army.

And that’s how a novel might get started: a couple of photos, a single surprising bit of history, and a writer’s basic obsession.

Finally, here’s a photo by Korda, the Cuban ex-fashion photographer who took the iconic picture of Che in his beret.
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That’s Fidel on the right and Camilo, with his Thompson submachine gun, on the left, on the day of their triumphant entry into Havana. That was in January, 1959, and only ten months later Camilo took off from a provincial Cuban airport in a twin-engined Cessna, and disappeared without a trace.

 

55 Years Ago Today

January 2nd, 2014

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55 years ago today, Camilo Cienfuegos and 300 men from his column drove into Havana, where the remaining generals of the Cuban Army handed over their control to the rebel army.

Only a day before, the dictator Fulgencio Batista had given his usual New Year’s party. Then, at two in the morning, he and his family, along with a few of his generals and some 300 million dollars, climbed into a plane and flew to the Dominican Republic, yielding his rule to Fidel Castro. But the first of the rebels to reach Havana was not Fidel, who was in Santiago at the eastern end of the island, nor Che Guevara, who arrived a day later and took over a lesser post at the El Morro castle. It was Camilo Cienfuegos, the Cuban Revolutionary hero most Americans have never heard of.

Every Cuban (and almost every Cuban-American) knows Camilo well. In early 1959, aside from Fidel, he was the most-respected and most-loved of the revolutionaries. His column had been fighting in the town of Yaguajay in Santa Clara province, and almost at the same hour that Batista abandoned the country, the army chief of the Yaguajay barracks signed a surrender to Camilo and his rebel troops. Camilo and the general shared some champagne (I admit to imagining a few of the minor details of this scene), Camilo went to bed at four in the morning, and at five he was woken by a phone call from Fidel, telling him to get on the road to Havana.

Here was the triumph of Fidel’s two-year fight to take over the country from Batista. Here was the culmination of the Americas’ most dramatic revolution, in which 82 men boarded a cabin cruiser in the Mexican port of Tuxpan, met with almost complete disaster after landing in Cuba (only 15 of the 82 managed to make their way into the Sierra Maestra)—yet only two years later were able to rout a powerful and corrupt dictator supported by the U.S. government.

Today Cuba can look like a shambles. The record of Castro’s idealistic political and social changes is bleak in many ways. But in January of 1959 many of the families that wound up in Miami (and Tampa and New York and Union City, New Jersey) were cheering wildly for Fidel and his soldiers. For many, that enthusiasm later faded—but on the day Camilo Cienfuegos took over Camp Columbia in Havana, the city was on the edge of delirium

55 years ago I was a boy of 17, buried in my junior year of high school. I knew nothing of any revolution in Cuba. Yet Camilo’s story has gripped me for decades now, and here I am on another January 2nd, remembering his first dramatic days as head of the Cuban Army. What glory he enjoyed over the next ten months, at which point he disappears from Cuban history—but not from the novel I’m writing.

Raul’s Brilliant Performance

December 20th, 2013

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From Camilo:

I saw last week that President Obama of the United States shook hands with Raúl Castro in Johannesburg, at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. It was just a handshake, but Fidel congratulated his brother, saying he had given a brilliant performance. “Señor Presidente,” Raúl announced to Barack Obama, “yo soy Castro.” Did he doubt that Obama knew who he was?

I read all this on my new computer, a gift from one of my children, Ernesto, the only one who makes money. Clare scolds me if I spend too much time on it, yet she does like to hear the news. Last night we talked about Mandela and Africa, as we walked under the coffee trees on our little farm here in Costa Rica. There are only enough to harvest for the family and some friends, but I like having them. I pick the cherries myself, even with my bad knees, and the first of them will be ready in a couple of weeks.

Clare and I never made it to South Africa, but we were in Madagascar twice, working with AIDS patients for Médecins Sans Frontières. The Cuban doctors go to South Africa. We wanted to work there for a month as well, but the MSF board, once the two of us turned 80, felt that we were too old for such work. Coño, they are bureaucats at heart. They should see Clare in the ocean when we go, swimming like a young girl.

I shouldn’t care about Raúl. But when I see him shaking Obama’s hand it’s an old anger that rises up in me. It took Raúl decades to displace his brother—but in 1959, when he got the chance, he wasted no time in removing me as chief of the Cuban Army. I will never forgive him for that. I don’t need any revenge, really. But I would like some. I’d like him to fall over with a heart attack tomorrow. Before I ever do, at least! Fidel can live on forever, wearing those red and blue athletic suits. He’s a cranky old guy, but what can I do, I still love him.

Book Review: King of Cuba

June 7th, 2013

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I’m biased. Almost anything about Cuba fascinates me, and Cristina Garcia has become the definitive chronicler of both Cuba and Cuban exiles.

Garcia’s approach to plot and narration is sometimes a trial. She doesn’t like a single point of view, but wanders through time and many characters. This worked perfectly in Dreaming in Cuban, but in The Lady Matador’s Hotel I thought it gave the book a skittish feel.

I appreciate, in King of Cuba, Garcia’s new-found discipline in telling the story almost entirely from the point of view of two men: El Comandante (also called the despot, the tyrant or El Líder—clearly this is Fidel) and a Miami exile, Goyo Herrera, who is as old and infirm as Castro. Garcia has channeled her impulse to write from many perspectives by scattering small vignettes and footnotes throughout the book: observations by imagined Cuban poets, meat inspectors and meteorologists. These don’t help the narrative drive of the story, but they are all bite-sized and don’t interfere for long.

What I loved about the book is its portrait of old age. Of Goyo Herrera the author says, “He didn’t know a single Cuban of his generation who wasn’t besotted with the past.” Goyo’s last trip with his son, a man nearing sixty and perhaps schizophrenic, is filled with aching moments. “If only he could kiss his son’s eyes, wash his feet, take away his suffering, ease his inexhaustible heart.” But he cannot, and leaves him in a New Jersey motel, as Goyo himself drives on to New York. He’s on his way, if he can manage it, to assassinate El Comandante.

Garcia’s portrait of the desperation and ignominies of old age, of the hopeless attempt to cleave to past glories, transcends Cuban history and brings us two men I found cantankerous and self-inflating, but irresistible.

 

Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker

May 24th, 2013

New Yorker dementia care

Rebecca Mead, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has a persuasive piece about dementia care in the May 20th issue. The article centers on the practices of The Beatitude Campus, a retirement community in Phoenix, and it’s full of inventive ways to deal with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

What struck me, just as with Jonathan Rauch’s article in the May Atlantic, is the slowly-evolving consensus that heroic medicine has little place in the care of advanced-stage dementia patients. We are trying to give some grace to scenarios that are inherently difficult and often painful, both physically and emotionally. As Mead writes, “Without any immediate prospect of a cure, advocacy groups have begun promoting ways to offer people with dementia a comfortable decline instead of imposing on them a medical model of care, which seeks to defer death through escalating interventions.”

My own experience with my father showed me how difficult it was to go against the medical juggernaut. We never want to be seen as limiting care, as doing any less for a patient than we can do. Our natural urge is to prolong the patient’s life. I wanted this for my dad—but not so much that I wanted him to suffer. By the time, near the end, when he broke down and pleaded with me, “Help me. Help me get out of here, can’t you please help me get out of here?”, repeating himself for 20 or 30 agitated minutes at a time, I knew there was no longer any role for “escalating interventions.”

I love this country for its adaptability, for how we talk about everything, for how good news can spread. When my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s in the late sixties, we were in the dark ages of dementia care. I think now we’re seeing some light.

“How Not To Die”

May 4th, 2013

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Jonathan Rauch has an excellent piece in the May Atlantic called “How Not to Die” The key to it is “unwanted treatment,” which Rauch calls “American medicine’s dark continent.”

“The U.S. medical system,” Rauch says, “was built to treat anything that might be treatable at any stage of life—even near the end, when there is no hope of a cure, and when the patient, if fully informed, might prefer quality time and relative normalcy to all-out intervention.”

This made me think of a friend’s father who, three weeks before his death, was subjected to a massive cranial operation. I can’t remember the hope anyone had for this operation, but it seemed a classic case of unwanted treatment. The recovery from it was brutal, and was interrupted by his death. There was little normalcy to Jack’s last days—and all, as Rauch would see it, because he and his family never had The Conversation with his doctors—a conversation that would have addressed the fact of his approaching death.

In 2009, as Rauch points out, it was Sarah Palin who “mendaciously (and effectively)” labeled such frank discussions as “death panels.” Anyone who questions medical maximalism,” Rauch continues, “risks being attacked for trying to kill grandma.”

I rode the edge of this dilemma with my father in 2005, after he fell and hit his head. Blood spilled freely because of the blood-thinning Lasix he was on, but I stanched the wound, called our Hospice nurse and eventually got him into bed.

Somehow, perhaps through his GP, my father’s cardiologist heard about the fall and demanded that I bring my father in for a CT scan, in case there was some bleeding inside his skull. But the Hospice nurse came to the house, looked Dad over and said, “The guy’s doing okay, we’re not going to take him anywhere.” After all, if they found bleeding on his brain, what could the doctors have done? Nothing my brothers and I would have accepted—and nothing my father would have wanted. Though still walking, he was 92, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, and extremely frail.

I understand, a cardiologist must be thorough. But to this day I bless that Hospice nurse for helping me stand up to a classic case of unwanted treatment.

Kudos to Jonathan Rauch for a trenchant article.

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Robert Olen Butler

April 11th, 2013

 

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Robert Olen Butler has come to Athens for Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival. I’ve read a couple of his books, including the spicy and engaging novel, They Whisper, so I went in to hear his lecture on writing. He’s a dynamic, sometimes arch speaker, and clearly on top of his subject. (Next up for me, from his works, will be his 2005 book on writing, From Where You Dream.)

His talk was original and fascinating—yet what grabbed me hardest was an anecdote he told about his sixth novel, The Deuce, the story of a young runaway American-Vietnamese on the hard streets of New York. Mind, he had published five novels already, most to solid acclaim. He seemed to hit it big with The Deuce when the New York Times Book Review gave him a full page review. Scott Spencer—he of the glorious Endless Love—called Butler’s voice “marvelously convincing.” He wrote that readers would have “the distinct pleasure of watching a fine novelist as he grapples with his great subject.”

Then the kicker. This book, published by an established New York house, praised by Scott Spencer and the Times, wound up selling, according to the author, a total of “one thousand and sixty-four copies.”

Ouch.

The moral, backed up by the second speaker of the day, the novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell, is that you better write what you want, not what you think anyone else wants. That’s advice that goes down smoothly with me. I write too slowly to do anything else. I can only write a story that fascinates me. I take some story out of the Cuban Revolution and pursue it, connect it to my mother, dig down inside it. I stay happy with it for years, and eventually it’s a book.

But 1034 copies. By a great writer, Robert Olen Butler. That was kind of crushing.