He hoarded his Christmas gifts. We would get him cologne, ties, shirts, tchotchkes from our travels, treatments to soften his overworked hands, and they would all find their ways into drawers and cabinets, untouched for years. His clothing had to wear to nothing before he would discard it and start the next one’s slow disintegration. New, untouched things are a treasure to save for when they are needed, not an indulgence for in between. Scarcity is behind every shadow and over every hill, and a good hoard is insurance against doing without. It’s a habit my father, my grandfather, and I all share, to each other’s bemused frustration. They tangled with Communists, I grew up autistic, and we all hoard.
He was a marvel of a tradesman. He knew enough of every part of construction to do any basic task himself. With no formal education, he measured carpentry, trimmed hedges, wired apartments, installed outdoor sheeting, roofed buildings, installed drywall and sheetrock, and re-finished entire apartments. He needed help for most of those tasks, more so as he grew older, but all of that knowledge was his. He was a marvel of handwritten math and a font of informative tidbits well beyond his too-short schooling. He managed all of this with precise hands that belied both their years-roughened size, the precariousness of his balance, and his sensitivity to light.
I bear his name as my middle name, and I will keep it after my court orders run their course.
He was Celestino on paper, but ever since I mouthed the nonsense syllables the day infant-me first met him, he was Yeyo to all of us. I am told he cried that day, because that’s what he used to call his grandfather, whom I resembled until my features took a more feminine turn.
He was kind, and sweet, and good. He helped raise me from my smallest, and endured the tantrums and meltdowns of my toddlerhood as only a grandfather can. He watched me grow into a studious, bookish, enthusiastic, shy, curious, confused child and an equally well-read and reticent young adult, a constant warm presence I never forgot. He collected me from school and hosted me in his home. He caught a toad in his lawn while moving some heavy items and brought it home for me and my siblings. Yeyito the toad lived with us for many months, in each one a symbol and a charm.
He had a deep fondness for stray cats. Dozens of them would congregate around his backyard in New Jersey, and a handful more stayed near in Miami. He fed them wet food, heedless of cost, and they recognized him when he visited them. He always had a cat at home, if he could manage it. I remember them, a succession of tabbies and black-and-whites I was too young not to spook, and the affectionate black-and-white giant he left behind this week, who drools continuously.
My family had a running joke that, if mankind ever reached Mars, they’d finally find the people who understood him. He was born on the wrong planet, you see.
Every now and then, he’d press my grandmother’s buttons with flippant blasphemy, playfully denying the importance or significance of religious ideas or symbols. He never showed any interest in religion, except in these moments. He attended evangelical services with my grandmother until his health failed him, but he didn’t do it for himself.
If there is one word for how his politics worked, that word is “Cuban.” My grandfather’s holdings were expropriated during the Cuban Revolution. He participated in anti-Communist operations in Cuba. The American betrayal at the Bay of Pigs was personal, and he was arrested that day. He didn’t like to talk about what happened then. If the experiences of other Cuban prisoners are any indication, there is a good reason for that silence. It left him determined to escape and bring his only son and then-wife across the Straits of Florida. It made him an ardent, passionate anti-communist for the rest of his life, regarding politicians as “basically Communist” for supporting such determinedly centrist measures as the Affordable Care Act. I am aware of no such antipathy for the actually-socialist Medicare from which he benefited in his late years, but that’s the Cuban talking: take care of yourself, take care of your people, and everything else is a distraction. He might never have forgiven me for how I vote, but he’d love how insistently I do it.
It was a minor scandal when he began living with my grandmother. He’d lived with a different grandmother before, the one who birthed my father, but through long association via my parents he fell in love with my mother’s mother, too. They lived together for the last ten years of his life, too old to care about their oddness, uniting the two families more deeply than my parents’ marriage ever could.
Yeyo and I didn’t speak much once he had his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It was a few months before my transition disclosures, which I wished to postpone and couldn’t because of my own immovable degree milestones. His health rapidly deteriorated. I had already watched my Santa-Claus-shaped grandfather’s hair turn white and his skin sag, but the most recent photo I have shows a man thinner than my father in his prime, well-earned paunch wasted away. The last time we spoke, though, he gendered me correctly, as no one since has done in Spanish.
It is all this that makes me bristle at the idea that he found my transition horrid or repulsive. My parents have gone so far as to claim that what finally killed him was heartbreak at my new life, but all of the information I have about him tells me that he faced my renewed, feminine happiness with equanimity or even joy. I doubt he understood it, but if anyone in this family knew how oddness operated, it was him.
They knew what he meant to me. They knew that I would move heaven and earth to be there, endure every stare and whisper and glare and twisted arm and demand that my very presence was a scandal that had no place there. They knew that he mattered to me, by then, more than they did.
I found out about his death because my brother called me the day it happened. They hoped to keep his death secret from me until after the funeral. My presence would be disruptive and scandalous, they said. They begged me not to come. I despaired as the tight budget and tighter timeline made sure we couldn’t go. I rose in triumph when the world turned around and made it possible anyway.
I stayed away for two years. I shuffled my family onto a second, neglected profile so that my controversial opinions and radical vulnerability would no longer embarrass them. I missed his twilight out of fear, poverty, and consideration.
I did not miss the funeral.
They were horrified. They removed us from the wake.They got chewed out by the rest of the family over how awful their proposed solution for their own fears was. They got over it. They watched me and Ania mourn in peace and approximate acceptance for the rest of the service, even the fire-and-brimstone parts. They learned that I will not be denied.
I whispered to him: I wish I could have been here for you. I couldn’t come before. I’m here now. Your three grandkids are all here. We made it. We’re here for you.
I laid royal Poinciana flowers on him. This tree is a symbol of the islands and an icon of the homeland he did not live to see freed from the autocracy he battled. My people call it flamboyán, the flamboyant tree.
I think he would have appreciated that.