When I talk about my father and when I write stories about him, I chose my words carefully. His is a story of redemption. The success of that redemption depends on who you ask.
My dad was Osiris Fernández y Ferrer. That was his full name according to his Cuban passport. I say that with trepidation because I know that the age is wrong; he’s younger than the age shown. In order to leave Cuba in the 1960s, my grandmother lied about the birth date of her third oldest. It was like her gift to him, the opportunity to escape Fidel Castro’s Cuba as it began.
He wasn’t a nice man, my father. I know that now 15 years after his death. My dad wasn’t a nice man but he was always nice to me and I always sought his approval. I always had it. My life wasn’t as difficult.
My life wasn’t as difficult as my sister’s. My dad wasn’t a nice man to her. I wasn’t a nice sister to her either, a regret that I have asked for forgiveness for. My sister, I believe, has forgiven me. I haven’t.
And, if truth be told, I haven’t forgiven him either. See, in his world, there’s no way that he could have produced a child who was gay. In his world, he couldn’t have a brother who enjoyed the company of men. In his world, anything different wasn’t quite right. So my beautiful blood sister wasn’t quite right. She was a problem to be fixed. What we couldn’t see at the time was that she wanted a family and wasn’t getting it.
If the sins of the past come back to haunt, then they came back the first time I met my brother a couple of years ago.
Before dad met mom, he had a family. The particulars on how he lost that family included a gunfight in a bodega, the FBI questioning my brother’s mom, and my dad’s prison time. It was during that time my brother and his mother disappeared. Dad died wanting to meet his son and searching for him. It would be something I would try to carry on.
When I saw my brother, met him for the first time, I saw my dad. He had that same Fernandez confidence. My sister has that confidence too. Me? I take more from the Guatemalan side of my family than the Cuban. The swagger skipped me.
To describe the Fernandez swagger is to describe how a panther glides through the world. They own the world around them and they know it. Their steps are sure-footed. There is never a misplaced step in their walk or actions. They don’t apologize, they continue. They balance between the demands of obligation and hunger for something more than they had. The Fernandez swagger hypnotizes you to think or look one way, taking your attention away from everything else around you.
And my brother had. The undeniable Fernandez swagger. He was everything my father wanted. A man. Successful. Happy. With a family. And I was…not anything like him. At the time I was scraping by, recovering from the devastation. I didn’t have a family and biology would guarantee that I’d never have one of my own. And I was more grateful than happy. I had forgotten that happiness was an option.
We drank at the bar and took pictures while my mom talked to my brother. He filled in some gaps we had in our family narrative. When it came time to tell my brother what he was like, my sister and I started sharing our experiences.
That’s when I saw dad in a different light. Through my sister’s eyes, I saw him as a bully, not quite an abuser but right on the edge. What I thought was Cuban bravado was just him being an asshole. And then I saw the pain in my sister’s face I question whether my childhood memories were accurate or idealized.
Like when my dad would tell me stories from Cuba and say how much I was his life.
Like when my dad would teach me how to dance
Like when my dad would find the money to get me what I needed. College tuition? I’ll steal it if I have to.
Like when my dad would keep all the articles I published in the newspaper because he knew I’d be an important journalist one day.
Like when he would make sure I’d have a computer so I could do my writing.
Like when my dad made sure that the world was good and right because he wasn’t. Not even close
Like how I was the chance, his chance, to be redeemed as a father.
I’m not saying that sister didn’t have equal good memories. Dad loved my sister. But at the end, if you want to blame it on his illness then go for it, he wasn’t who he was when my sister was first born.
That swagger, the panther-like existence, blinded me for so long.
And THAT is a truth that is just as much as part of his story, his memory, as the time he would fry bacalao for me. Dad is the ghost of regret for my sister, something she has to live with. My ghost was that I didn’t see it sooner and I didn’t step up to defend my sister when she needed me.
That’s the danger of death, isn’t it? To paint the dead with a luminant color. To speak ill of the dead, well, that’s just not right. But to remember them fondly while not accepting the good and the bad isn’t doing the dead justice at all. It paints them as two-dimensional characters, Disney- like, and strips them of their complexity.
It strips them of their humanity.
So I chose the words carefully when it comes to dad. He was a man who loved his family, yes, but he also was a man who had to have things his way. Dad was a man who loved his daughters, yes, but also elevated one and downgraded another. Dad was a man who loved Cuba and was indifferent to Fidel. He was a man who spent a lifetime searching for a son when he had a daughter who was starving for his acceptance.
He was a man with regrets. He spent a lifetime trying to atone for some things but made new regrets in the process.
Dad has grandchildren. He didn’t know them when he died. He only knew of the ones in Cuba but not the ones from my brother. If he were alive, I think he’s would have beamed with pride. I believe that eventually, he would have reconciled with my sister. It would have been a tough road but I believe they would have gotten there. He would have met his son and have reveled in his fatherhood. He would have definitely kicked me in the ass when I was down and out because I would have needed it.
Did he complete his redemption? No. Yes. Depends. If you believe in reincarnation, then my dad has reincarnated into another form, working off his regrets and learning to be a better being. If you believe in Christianity, he is looking down at us and smiling. But if you ask us, the family he’s left behind, then the answer is that his redemption is still in progress. His redemption is us and the legacy he has left behind. The aftermath of his life is what we live with, seek to understand, and correct every day. We live with the complexity of his humanity intertwined with our own.
How perfect then that today, on the anniversary of his death, I seek to understand my dad as a person. A flawed man who loved with the same passion as he disliked. A man who made enough mistakes to fuel a series of novels and a tell-all book. A man who was, despite his transgressions, every bit as human as me.