The last memory I have of Cuba was from the back of a car, seeing my grandmother fade away. Had I known then what I know now, I would have held her a little tighter for a little longer. I would have begged her to come with us. Taken away from us too soon, my grandmother now lives in all of our memories, our stories of her life, and our joy when we talk about her. She visits us in our dreams, and we carry her legacy in our hearts, memories, and daily lives. My grandmother’s memory is what helped me push through career and life uncertainties when nothing else could. I have always felt an unshakeable bond with her, and long after she’s passed, I still do. I think of my grandmother every single day, and there is not one thing I do where the thought ‘I wish she was here to see this’ doesn’t cross my mind.
On March 8th, 2012, at exactly 2:11am, I got the news of my grandmother’s death. I had been sitting in my bed since 8pm the night before, waiting for the news. We knew she was not doing well, and we were aware that her death would come soon. I was sitting in the dark, staring out, hoping that I could maybe catch a glimpse of her in a daydream. I did not. My mother and father walked up to my door, making sure to stay out of my room, and my mom blurted out, “Mima se murio.” I felt the anger and sadness in my mother’s voice as her words solidified the death of her mother. I screamed, burst out into tears, and fell forward on my bed. It was on that day that I decided to stop my human rights work.
When I entered college in 2005, I got involved with this work – for Mima. I had this naive idea that if I fought hard for what was right, I could become a part of a group that would change Cuba, that would free Cuba. I spoke with dissidents, political prisoners, politicians, and other activists – and I always had one main goal; free Cuba so that I could see Mima. My desires were selfish, but my actions were selfless. I helped free political prisoners, I heard first person accounts of torture, I collaborated with activists both on and off the island. I enjoyed helping people, I enjoyed the illusion of making a difference. However, my goal was always the same – have the freedom to see my grandmother.
Between her last visit to us in Miami in 2009 and her death in 2012, we stayed in communication through monthly phone calls. Priceless 30 second conversations during which I would tell her about how I was leading rallies to protest the Cuban regime, how I was speaking one on one with political prisoners, how I had met with a famous political prisoner’s daughter, how I was helping dissidents on and off the island. She relished in my human rights work. She took it all in. She was proud of me. I lived for those 30 seconds. I looked forward to them.
Throughout the time she was alive and when I couldn’t speak to her over the phone, which was our only form of communication for the majority of the time, I would see her in my dreams. I began having a recurring dream when I was around 15 years old where I would be sitting on a faded orange bench, atop a large hill which overlooked a vast and beautiful blue sea. It would always be windy on this hill, and the long green and yellow grass always swayed towards me. I would sit on that bench and wait for Mima to show up. She always did. She and I would then walk down the hill, and find ourselves on a beach with strong assertive waves that would beat the shore with their power. We would walk hand in hand, and in every dream she would have a message for me to give to my mom. Messages about feeling proud of my mom, messages that she was always with her, and messages that no matter where we were, or how far away we were from one another, we were always together.
After we’d talk, we would begin to fly together. The sensation always being like the moment right before a roller coaster would drop you 100 feet down. It was exhilarating. We would fly back to Cuba, and then we would fly to Finland, and always end our adventures in the USA. It was in that recurring dream that I made it possible to share every detail of my life since leaving Cuba with Mima. We would go back to her balcony in Cuba and we would dance and sing, and look out; this time, I wouldn’t see trees, I would see a wide open and endless sea. We would sit in the kitchen of my apartment in Finland and we would laugh about made up memories. We would share a lunch in my home in the USA. In these dreams I was able to truly live with her. It was the only time we had, the only time we were ever truly given. I stopped having the dream when she died.
I have not gone back to Cuba since I left at 6 years old in 1994. With Mima having passed away, I don’t have much to go back to. She was my world, as she was for many of us in the family. Having left Cuba at such a young age, my memories are limited. Thankfully, I have colorful memories of her balcony. It was a wide open space that you could walk out to from the second story apartment building. This balcony held priceless memories shared with my grandmother. Stretches of blue skies encompassed this space, and large green tropical trees provided a blissful backdrop. This is where she would do the family’s laundry, and it was where I would sit on the floor and watch her. This was my time with my Mima.
She would always softly hum lullabies as she washed the family’s clothes clean. Lullabies that I, now at 32, sing to my daughters to sleep. Even though Mima worked her entire life, she had hands that felt like silk, and smelled like lavender. Had I known on our last laundry date that it would be the final time I would be on that balcony with her, I would have taken the details in a little more. I would have stayed out there a little longer. I would have stayed to listen to the soft humming of my Mima.
Moving to a completely different country as a 6 year old child, and not speaking any relevant languages made things hard for me. Back then there was no social media, no WhatsApp, no Skype, and barely emails. My only form of communication was a bimonthly 3 minute phone conversation with my grandmother. I had less than 30 seconds to tell her how sad I was without her, how I missed her hugs and her laugh. I had 30 seconds to tell her that she was the one constant in my life when everything else felt temporary. 30 seconds would have to be enough.
“Sussy! Ven a hablar con mima!” My mother would call out to me. I would put down whatever I had in my hands, and I would run quickly to the landline telephone. It was a race every time, because the faster I ran, the more time I had on the phone with her.
“Hola Mima,” I would say as I nervously wrapped the off-white telephone cord around my small six year old fingers.
“Hola mi princesa – my princess – como estas? How’s it going? Cuentame.” My grandmother would rush as many questions as possible in our 30 seconds. Her voice was faint and hard to hear, which only quantified the fact that she was, in fact, so many miles away. The static background didn’t make the calls any easier. She felt like she was light years away, and frankly, she may as well have been.
“Bien, Mima.” I would say. I only had courage for a couple of words at a time. I always wanted to tell her the world, but my body could only produce two sentence words. The strength it took to speak was unimaginable.
“Como va la escuela? Are you making any friends? Sabes que te quiero? I love you so much. I miss you. I think of you everyday.” She would say. The longer we spoke, the faster her voice faded away. Almost like a dream. Like a distant dream that I never wanted to wake up from because it meant that I could no longer speak to her.
“Todo bien. I love you. Te extrano mucho.” I would always gather the strength to tell her I missed and loved her because even as a six year old child, I knew I wanted my grandmother to know that I adored her, and that she meant the world to me. Those 30 seconds were the most important part of my life in Finland, and at the time, I didn’t even know it. Before passing the phone back to my mom, my grandmother would always say her goodbyes the same way.
“Te adoro, mi negra. Un día pronto nos veremos.” One day soon we will see each other again, she would say. She didn’t have to utter the words, but I knew with each time she said it, it was a promise she was making to herself – we would one day see each other again. Which is why it was such a surprise when she came to visit us in Finland! Or so my six year old self thought.
One day, me and my sister woke up and found a kind of shadow imprinted on our second story apartment window. It looked like the silhouette of an angel; a kind of halo, wing-like structures on either side, and a smudged type of face under the halo.
“Mira! Es mima, es mima!” I shouted that morning, as I ran into my parent’s room with my eyes filled with happy tears. My parents, half asleep, stumbled into our room to find my 4 year old younger sister still staring at this window angel. My sister and I proudly pointed the angel out, every detail of it, so that my parents could see that it was, without a doubt, a visit from Mima. I wanted her to be with us so badly that I believed this shadow was her. Her soul, if you will. I wished for her so badly. To this day, my parents have not refuted the window angel, and neither my sister or I have ever asked about it – probably because we are too afraid to find out what it was that we truly saw that day in Finland.
After living in Finland for 2 years, we moved to the United States. My dad had finished his PhD, and we had no family there. Going back to Cuba was not an option, and we did have some family in Miami, so it was the logical choice. We moved to Miami in 1996, and my parents immediately started the paperwork to be able to have Mima visit us in the states. It took 12 years for us to see her again since leaving Cuba in 1994. I was now 18, and very aware of the restrictions the Cuban government placed on my grandparents visiting us.
In 2006, I finally saw my grandmother again. It was in Miami International Airport where I saw her for the first time since I was six years old. My parents, my sisters and myself waited for her for over 6 hours. We had no idea when she would walk out to us, and deep down, I was afraid that I wouldn’t recognize her. Then, like a ton of bricks hitting me in my chest, I saw her long grey braided hair.
“Mira! It’s her, it’s her! Es Mima!” I shouted to my mom as I unsuccessfully tried to hold back tears of joy. We saw her walking behind a large glass wall out to us. We were still separated, but she was so close. I remember we all grabbed our bags, empty food containers, and ran towards her. My mother, Mima and myself fell into each other and we hugged for what seemed like an eternity. The three of us were sobbing, holding each other so tight, all of us too afraid to let go of one another. I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing her, holding her. I cried even harder, wailing almost, and I couldn’t hold it in. I was finally back in Mima’s arms.
I noticed strangers at the airport stopped what they were doing and watched our emotional reunion, and they, too, had tears in their eyes. Our love for each other was so powerful, it moved strangers to tears. I will never forget that moment.
Shortly after their arrival, we took a family trip to Key West, and we had memories to last us a lifetime. Mima had never experienced anything like the Florida Keys, and her naive reactions were wonderful to witness. She would light up bright red whenever a cross-dresser would approach us, but she always made sure not to offend anyone. At one point, one cross-dresser noticed my grandmother’s bashfulness, and decided to spark up a conversation.
“Hey baby girl, what’s your name?” said a 6’4” tall man, who had eyeshadow that was as bright as the sun, and lips as red as strawberries. Mima fidgeted, and clutched her purple flowered shirt.
“Si, hola. Hello, I am Carola. And you?” She struggled to get the words out, but there was so much kindness in her breath that no one noticed. It was as if she had been speaking English her entire life.
“I’m Candy, baby. You visiting?” asked Candy, the 6’4” cross-dressing man. His skin-tight sequin dress highlighting all of his muscles that he very clearly worked out for every day.
“Eh, bueno. Si, ehm … yes, I am here with my family. You look maravilloso.” I translated to Candy what my grandmother had told him, and he let out a huge scream of happiness. He told her that she seemed kind, to enjoy her time in Key West, and to make sure to get drunk. Mima laughed, nodded her head, and then asked my mom if we could all go eat. That’s who she was, my Mima. A bashful, quiet, and kind woman who never judged anyone.
In 2009, when they came again, I quit my job once I knew her exact dates. I wanted to spend every single day with her – I wanted to absorb everything about her. Her smell, her laugh, her hugs, her cooking – I wanted no time apart from her. I took my grandmother everywhere she wanted to go, and everywhere she was too shy to ask to go, but I knew she wanted to visit. She would always be fascinated by the most random and obscure things – she bought me a small geisha doll which was encased in glass. During her visits to the USA, she never had much money of her own, which is why this gift was so special; the little money she brought with her, she spent on me. I still have that gift sitting on my night table, along with a small doll that she gifted me when I left Cuba. I look at both gifts every single night, and smile because thanks to those two material objects, I can still have a piece of her with me.
The night before they were due to leave, I tried to convince her to stay. Of course, she wouldn’t because my uncle lived in Cuba, and he was very dependent on her. He needed her.
“Porque tu no te quedas? Why won’t you stay? Don’t go back to Cuba.” I asked her, but really it was more of a command. I didn’t want her to go back, I wanted her in Miami with me. I needed my grandmother. I yearned for her. So many years without her, and only having her companionship in my dreams, and in phone calls. I didn’t want to go back to that – it simply wasn’t enough.
“Mi vida, yo no puedo.” She replied, while stirring the ropa vieja sauce. I took a deep breath and took her in. All of her. The soft smell of a fresh bath, the light scent of lavender that she trailed whenever she moved. I noticed that she was wearing a yellow nightgown that landed right above her ankles with white sewn flowers across the chest, and how it made her beautiful long grey hair stand out. Finally, I took in the smell of the spices in her unbeatable sauce; peppers, lemon, onions, garlic, and her magic.
“Why? Just stay. Seria tan facil. Mami te necesita. Please, mima, please. Stay. Please” My eyes began to water, because I was starting to come to terms with the fact that once that month was up, my grandmother would once again leave me. I would once again be without her guidance, without her shoulder to cry on. Without her. I would be alone.
“Tu tio me necesita. No llores mi negra. Tu eres fuerte. You are strong. I’m so proud of everything you’re accomplishing. Everything you will accomplish. Ustedes no me necesitan, you’re okay on your own.” At that point I was sobbing. I couldn’t understand why she just wouldn’t stay. It was so easy. She was already in Miami, she was older, no one would even care if she stayed here. I’d give up my room, I told her. I would sleep on the couch, and she could have my space. I would have done anything to get my grandmother to stay.
She hugged me tight, and I felt at home in her warm hug. I felt an unshakable calmness every single time she hugged me. I didn’t want that moment to end. She and I, without speaking it, understood each other. We both knew that we loved and needed each other, but others needed her help, too. My grandmother stayed her month, and then went back to Cuba. It was the last time I ever saw her.
Towards the end of my college degree and after her death, I no longer felt driven to work in human rights. It felt wrong; I felt beaten by her death. I still needed something to occupy some college credits, so I began to actively take part in scientific field work. It was then that I first started working with sharks, started working with them hands-on. I identified with sharks; they were resilient and misunderstood animals. I began reading about them, learning about them, and I relished in my field time with them. I began feeling passion again. Something I hadn’t felt since Mima passed. I began feeling like I had a purpose again, and one day, out in the field, it could not have been more clear.
There were three graduate students and myself out on the boat, deep in the middle of the Everglades. Everywhere you looked there were wide and tall green trees, hugged by an endless body of dark brown water. We had cast rods out with bait, and it took a few hours for the sharks to show up, so we waited quietly. While we waited, I heard a bird singing, I walked to the bow of the boat and looked for it, immediately thinking it was my grandmother calling to me from the unknown. I couldn’t find the bird. When I went to sit back down, I had a visitor. A butterfly, out in the middle of nowhere in the Everglades, and it came straight to me. It perched on my shoulder.
Is that you, Mima? I thought to myself. Then the butterfly, a beautiful mix of black and orange, perched itself on my chest, near my heart. I knew it was her. It was then that I believed, in my heart, that my grandmother was telling me this was it, this was my purpose. I channeled my emotions into animal rights. Having my grandmother’s blessing, I decided that I would dedicate myself to sharks.
At first, sharks were alien to me. I knew nothing about their biology, behavior, or ecology. That all changed rather quickly. I looked for nonprofit organizations that I could help out; local ones, state-run ones, even international ones. I would sign up for dive shows where I would speak to strangers about shark biology and ecology. I would create presentations for non-governmental organizations that would highlight shark’s life cycles, their reproductive processes, their behavior. I would help draft legislation that would eventually legally protect several different species of sharks in state, federal, and international waters. I was on top of the world. But something was missing.
It was in those moments of doubt, even though I was busy with work I loved, where I would channel my grandmother through my thoughts, my dreams, and my feelings. I would question this ever increasing uneasiness, trying to figure out why I did not feel fulfilled. I would stay awake at night in my room, in the dark, and I would imagine what a conversation with my grandmother would sound like. I yearned for her wisdom, her guidance.
Sigue pa’lante mi negra, I would imagine her telling me, pushing me to create my own destiny. My grandmother forged her own life, and it was in those daydreams that I would learn to do the same. Inspired by her resilience, her hard work, and her determination, I realized that I would create my own legacy. Just like she did. When I got involved with human rights work, I did it with the hopes that my action would lead to a free Cuba, and in turn, I would finally have unlimited and unrestricted time with Mima. Her death shattered my world, but it also made me realize that I needed to make things happen for myself.
Using the strength that my grandmother’s memory gave me, I created Save The Sharks. I couldn’t have done it without the memory of my grandmother. Without the conversations I carefully crafted between us in my head – the very same conversations that would eventually push me – I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Through the years, I’ve grown my nonprofit from a small unknown entity to an international organization with supporters worldwide. My nonprofit is proof that love and hard work can create anything. And the memory of my grandmother that lives within me is proof that love never dies. It is proof that love is magic, and when protected, its powers are limitless. My love and dedication for my grandmother granted me the courage to do many beautiful things. It allowed me to spread my wings, test waters, and explore my hidden abilities. It allowed me to find my calling, not once, but twice. Most importantly, my love for my grandmother gave me eternal hope.
Susana Ramirez is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by the Head of NVW Lis Mesa.