“As childhoods go, mine was wonderful. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1951, I was surrounded by parents and grandparents who loved me and dotted on my every whim, along with an older sister who was my best friend and active companion. It was not until my teen years I was told my mom had miscarried a baby boy before I was born. Thus my name, Maria Luisa Roque, after my father, Luis. My parents were both college graduates of the University of Havana. My dad was an accountant and entrepreneur; my mom worked as a secretary until they got married and then ran the household and took care of us.
We enjoyed the upper class life with maids, cooks, a home in the suburbs. We had a penthouse in ‘El FOCSA,’ a high-rise in the heart of Havana, and a 7,000 acre sugarcane plantation in Camaguey, owned by my dad and his brothers. There was no middle class in Cuba during the 50’s. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, educated professionals, and of course those with old family money were in the upper class and the rest were the day laborers or those with small businesses trying to make the daily peso. I had no concept of class division, attending a private school and very sheltered by my parents. In the early 50’s, Cuba was under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, with the Democratic Socialist Party. His focus on the large Cuban plantations and the gambling and tourism industry divided the classes in Cuba even further.
Fidel Castro’s ideals of spreading the wealth and everyone being equal was a very attractive, if not naïve ideal, sold to the unhappy masses. I remember conversations my father had with other landowners about what was going to happen when Castro took over. When Castro took power and aligned Cuba with Russia, my parents saw the writing on the wall and started to work on getting us out to the United States as soon as possible. My parents had traveled a lot to the United States when we were little. My sister and I were always left with our maternal grandparents, Jose and Estrella Maldonado. They lived within walking distance of our school and we loved staying with them, always feeling safe and loved. That to say, both my parents had passports and Visas to travel, so the problem was getting my sister and I ready to leave Cuba. I have no concept of how much money it took to get this done in 1959, but I’m sure it was significant. To compound the difficulty, my mom was 7 months pregnant during all the turmoil.
My parents were very intelligent people. When all the excitement about Fidel Castro’s rebels and their victory against the dictator Batista was swaying people to celebrate ‘the liberation of Cuba,’ my parents were skeptical. Soldiers came to the plantation ‘Miraflores’ and told my dad we had to leave the plantation; it was now the property of the Cuban government. We packed our belongings and all headed back to Havana without my dad. He was bound and determined not to let Castro’s communist government profit from the sugar cane, tobacco, and beef he had worked so hard to cultivate. He and his hands as well as many other landowners set fire to the cane fields, flooded the tobacco fields, and shot our cattle to avoid leaving any profit behind. My father was smuggled out of Cuba 2 days later by friends. Fidel’s soldiers were looking to arrest him. It would be 6 months before I saw my dad again in Miami.
At 9 years old, leaving my Abuelitos (my mother’s parents) was the hardest thing. My grandfather Jose had suffered a stroke a few months earlier and could not travel, so it was our final goodbye. What a change to endure in Miami, Florida for all of us. My sister and I could not speak English, so we were put back a year of school until we learned the language. I remember being afraid all the time, especially when my little brother was born January 5, 1961. I had no idea the suffering my parents endured. At the age of 36, they both left behind their whole lives, just to ensure freedom for their children. In Miami, we lived in a three room rented house until my father found work in Kansas City, Missouri.
My dad had a contract with the Vendo Company to place vending machines in businesses and hotels throughout Cuba. When he left, he contacted the owner, Mr. Pierson, and was guaranteed a job wherever he wanted. My mother, sister, and I arrived in Miami in November 1960. I hardly recognized my dad! At 6 foot, he had lost 50lbs off his 200lb frame. We were so happy to be together again; lots of tears and laughter were shared. Vendo moved us from Miami to KC in March. My dad was to be trained in running a plant for them in South America to infiltrate the markets there. After training, the area he was to develop was facing some civil unrest and my father chose not to upend our lives and potentially put our family at risk again. I have lived in Kansas City, Missouri since I was nine years old.
My parents are my heroes. They taught me the importance of honesty, determination, and a sound work ethic. They also insured my freedom, and for that I am eternally grateful. I wanted to teach art to children when I was younger and was also interested in medicine. My older sister was very bright, but my parents had no money for higher education for either of us, so we found our own way. My sister became a university professor and I became a nurse. I got married at 23 and immediately started trying to have a baby. This was in the mid 70’s before in vitro was out for the masses. After three years of trying, we went to a specialist, enduring multiple tests and procedures to be able to conceive.
During this time, my dad was going through severe bouts of depression. He had thoughts of suicide, feeling the loss of the life he left behind and how he wished so much for me and my siblings that he couldn’t provide (the Vendo Company declared bankruptcy around this time). He was hospitalized in the hospital where I worked multiple times. He went through ECT treatment to help with the depression, and it helped him forget what he had lost in Cuba somewhat. I am a true believer in positive thinking being a way to a healthy life, but my dad had little to feel positive about. He felt he had failed us, and no matter how much we denied it, he felt defeated. In December of 1983, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer with liver metastasis. I was by his side during the chemo, took care of his Hickman catheter, ate my lunch with him while he was hospitalized, sat by with my mother and sister at his death bed. He died October 1984 at the age of 60 at the hospital where I worked.
After 13 years of infertility and effort, on July 17, 1990, we found out we were expecting! I cannot tell you how happy we were to get the news. My mom was the only grandparent my child would have; all the rest were gone. She was enough, she made up for the other three in the love and care. I was working in the Operating Room as a surgical nurse and had terrible morning sickness. I remember throwing up in a hopper (flushing area outside the OR), rinsing my mouth out, and going back to work. You can’t abandon your patient, after all. I was so happy every minute of every day those nine months. On March 27, 1991 I went in for a weekly checkup and the obstetrician sent me to the hospital because the baby’s heartbeat was irregular. I stayed in the hospital all day, walking the halls trying to start labor, but nothing happened. My doctor gave me a choice of staying the night or going home. The baby was stable, so we chose to go home to sleep in our own bed.
The next morning, I didn’t feel the baby moving like usual, so after calling the doctor, we headed for the hospital around 9 a.m. I was so afraid I had made the wrong decision going home. Nurses always think of the worst case scenarios. When they put the fetal monitor on my belly and we heard the fast, steady heartbeat, my husband and I just broke down crying. Our little baby boy was okay and would be born soon. After breaking my water and an induction drip, Colin was born 11 hours later on March 29, 1991. He was a beautiful baby boy with full head of dark hair. Our happiness was overflowing.
Colin had horrible colic for the first 10 weeks of his life. He was such a happy baby, but every day at 2 p.m., he would start crying hysterically and no amount of rocking, holding, Mylicon drops, vibrating, or singing could calm him down. We found out after testing that he was allergic to one of the proteins in milk and after putting him on soy, he slept through the night. That was the most trouble he gave us as a baby. He loved books and being read to. His dad would make up stories for him each night about owls and butterflies, Indian princesses and braves, little snakes who played together, and as Colin got older, he started telling his own stories he made up in his head. I had made Colin a book about family with pictures of his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins to show him family he didn’t know or got to see often. He loved the book and carried it with him a lot. My mom would come over and go through it with him because my sister and her family and my brother and his family lived out of town, but we wanted Colin to associate the names and faces to people he would meet in the future.
Of all the pictures in the book, he kept going to the one of my father, Luis, who had died in 1987. When Colin was about 4, we were going through the book… this is Tia, Uncle Steve, cousin Brad and Bryan, papa Luis, ‘Oh, I know papa Luis,’ he said. I told him, ‘Yes, that’s Papa Luis, my daddy, but he went to heaven before you were born.’ Colin looked at me with his big brown eyes and said, ‘Papa Luis was sitting with me on a cloud when I was waiting to be born.’ I was so shocked, I asked him again, and very matter of fact he said, ‘I was waiting for a long time, and he sat with me and told me it would soon be my turn, and not to worry.’ At first, I thought this was his imagination at work, after all my mother and I talked about my dad all the time and how we wished he had been able to see Colin grow up. But Colin was so insistent he had seen his papa, I just hugged him with tears in my eyes and believed every word he had said.
Colin was born with an old soul. At daycare, when he was 1-2, he would toddle over to other babies crying and put their nooks in their mouth, rock them in their swings, or try to wipe their mouths for them. As a child, he would run toward kids crying to help and comfort if he could. In grade school, he saw a classmate having a seizure in the hall outside the bathroom and called for help while he held the friend so he wouldn’t bang his head against the floor. As a teen, he watched a neighbor child crash on her bike running toward her, picked her up and carried her half a mile to her house, then walked back and got her bike for her. As a young man, he saved a friend from drowning at a swimming event by jumping in and lifting him up on the deck of the pool and helped me start CPR until the ambulance arrived. He was never fearful of doctors or nurses, he just wanted to be there to help.
Colin never knew a stranger, he was very friendly to all our neighbors, but especially to one young couple who moved into the neighborhood when he was around 4. Everyone knew this couple was trying to have a baby; about a year later, we heard the news they were finally expecting. Colin was so excited to have a new baby coming to the neighborhood, especially because he really liked this couple. Unfortunately, about a month later, my neighbor came and told us she had lost the baby at three months. I had to tell Colin the news so he would be careful with his inquisitive nature. About three days later, I got a call from the neighbor; she was in tears and I immediately thought Colin had said something that might have hurt her feelings or made her sad about her loss. She proceeded to tell me how much she loved Colin and what a sweet and smart boy he was. Unbeknownst to us, he had gone to her house, and told her a story…a story she relayed to me with utter surprise.
This is what he said to her: ‘You don’t need to be sad about the baby, he just wasn’t ready yet. When I was in heaven, sitting on a cloud, waiting to be born, my papa Luis was with me telling me to be patient, that soon it would be my turn. God had to find the perfect family for me, and they had to really want me and love me before I could be born. I have seen other babies waiting to be born, just waiting on clouds. Your baby will come soon, so don’t be sad, just patient.’ He gave her a hug and left. She said, he was so matter of fact and calm during the whole conversation, she wanted to tell me how at peace he had made her feel.
With all the restrictions of the past year and COVID-19, I began thinking about how many changes and challenges our family has faced. My parents left everything behind for freedom from Communism. My siblings and I were the beneficiaries of, not money, but their bravery and determination. We were raised to love life and our family bond. They raised three very different children, a University professor, a nurse, and a business owner; and in turn, we raised 5 grandsons between us to carry on our family. The human spirit is such a strong entity. We would not have turned into who we are without the experiences and of our past. So many people who were affected by the virus will be forever charged. Lets learn to live each day as if it’s our last, and help those in pain like little Colin did, giving hope to those who have loved and lost someone.”
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