Lessons of Loss - From an Idyllic Childhood to PTSD

Maria de Lourdes Santa-Maria, Ph.D., LPCC


An Idyllic Childhood

Was it idyllic? If you asked my mother she would have said "viviamos como millonarios sin serlo," we lived as millionaires without being so. She meant that our lifestyle was simple, fun, with great friends and family around. We lived in Camaguey, a small city in a mostly farming province. My father was a young physician getting established. He worked at a clinic down the street from where we lived - La Clinica Agramonte. We did not own our home, we rented, but it sure had to be a good size house, since my mom was pregnant every other year; I have no memories of her not being pregnant. My paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles lived nearby, so did my closest friends.

Weekends were the most fun. Saturdays, dad would take us to breakfast at El Kiosco de Manolo, where we had jugo de naranja fresco, café con leche y pan cubano con mantequilla we wold then take La Carretera Central, for a 30 minute drive to my grandparents' farm. We would ride horses and pick mangos off the trees as we rode. Afterwards we would be very thirsty and we would drink agua de coco fresca, from the coconut shell itself. There were horses, cattle, chickens, pigs, and goats. I will never forget the summer that I saw a calf be born, what a thrill that was, I was speechless! Sundays, I might be dropped off at a movie with girlfriends, get in for thirty-five cents, and without my parents knowledge, sit next to my cute boyfriend, Gustavo, and hold hands… how exciting, especially the "secret" part! The Sundays that I did not go to the movies, I joined my family at El Country de Camaguey where Dad would play golf, my mother would play canasta, and we would swim and play until dinner time.

During the week, I attended Catholic school, at "Las Teresianas," run by Carmelite nuns. We wore gingham jumpers and saddle shoes - I loved the shoes! We moved from one classroom to another in single file, stepping to the sound of a Sister's clicker. Overall, I liked school, but my best friend, Cristi, always got better grades than I. I got "A's" in academics, but my downfall was conduct. I was too chatty and when the nuns were not looking I passed notes to friends, so I always got "B's in conducta. Sometimes, after school, we would stop by the Cathedral of Las Mercedes, where a nice man had a churros cart, yumm! Another fun treat was to roller-skate on the front sidewalk and stop at the corner of our block to buy un piruli, a pointy version of a large lollipop.

My father decided to specialize as a neurosurgeon, because Camaguey did not have one, so we moved to Havana for two years, so that he could complete his medical training. My maternal grandparents lived en el reparto Miramar, a beautiful suburb of Havana. Their home was a two-story, Spanish-looking house, with tejas, and a big yard, with mango, anon and fig trees, and bouganvillas galore. My grandfather "Perucho," as we called him, loved gardening. I remember kneeling by his side and working on flower beds together. He must have passed on to me his "green thumb" because to this day, there are not many things I enjoy more than getting my hands in the dirt and caring for my garden. My grandmother Juanita had a real thing for mangoes. When you could not find her, a sure bet was to look in la terraza, there would be my petite-sized grandmother, by herself, sitting at the wicker table eating one dozen mangoes at a time, looking a little guilty, but with a big grin on her face and her mouth covered with pelusas de mango.

A unique feature of our stays in Havana was that my maternal great-grandparents lived in the same house. Sitting on the porch and enjoying each other was part of the family routine. Abuelito Juan Ignacio, a retired pharmacist, would sit on the front porch every morning to smoke a Cuban cigar while he read "El Mundo," Havana's most popular newspaper. One day, he asked me to trim his hair, I felt honored! So, I got some scissors and started cutting. In came abuelita Yita, having a fit! "Lourdes, que estas haciendo? She stopped me in my tracks, and reprimanded my great grandfather: "Juan Ignacio por favor!" He smiled at me rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders, I could tell the fun was over.

Usually parked in the hilly semicircular driveway was my grandfather Perucho's 1955 Mercury Sedan. The prettiest car I had ever seen! It was a creamy color with a really bright blue top. Inside, the creamy leather was cool and comfortable, and the outside chrome was the shiniest I had ever seen. One day, I decided to get in, sit on the driver's seat and pretend I was driving. Well, one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had shifted the gears from "Park" to "Neutral" and the car started rolling down the hill backwards, onto the street. Pretty soon, the cars in the oncoming traffic started blowing their horns (Cubans love to blow their horns!); my grandfather "Papo," (that's what I called him), came outside and gave me "the look." Needless to say, I had to go upstairs and was grounded for the entire weekend. But, thankfully, my grandfather was very forgiving. On weekends, we would often go to El Biltmore to play at the beach, where the families of my cousins, Amelie and Jaimito, joined us, as we children were close in age. One of my favorite memories at this beach club was getting in a row boat with Papo and having him teach me how to row the boat. He was a very endearing man and I was "in heaven" when I had these special times with him.

My paternal grandmother "Matita," I called her, (short for Mamasita), had moved to Havana, with my young aunts, Silvia and Isa, (short for Isabel). I had great fun when I visited them, because my grandmother was funny and very nurturing, and a fabulous cook. I had a wonderful relationship with her and with my young aunts, who were only six and three years older than I. They were like big sisters to me.

My aunt Silvia was engaged to be married. One day she asked me to go shopping with her for linens. I was thrilled; it made me feel really special. My aunt Isa was great fun, too. She would often give my cousin Frank and I dancing lessons together, in the living room, (so I can credit her with my great salsa moves!). Being surrounded by extended family was a typical part of Cuban life. It enhanced the quality of my experience as a child, but sadly it did not last much longer.

From Safety to Fear

A couple of years later, we moved back to Camaguey, and soon after, our lives changed drastically. Batista, Cuba's President who became a dictator, had fled. Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army had taken over the island. At first, most people seemed to be happy. I know that my father was hoping for democratic reform. There were celebrations, frequent military parades on the streets, and guys in uniform giving children rifle bullets as souvenirs. People were glued to the radio and TV, eager to hear about upcoming positive changes in the country.

Instead, unexpected things started to happen. One example was "agrarian reforms." The government started limiting the amount of land people could own, supposedly to give it to the poor, so they could grow crops. Initially this seemed like a good idea, but the problem was that the government kept shrinking the amount of land one could own, until there was no private land ownership at all. Gradually, utilities and other companies were confiscated as well. Another example of puzzling events was that revolutionary leaders, who did not agree with Castro, started having "unfortunate accidents" and disappearing. I believe that Camilo Cienfuegos was reported to have perished in an "airplane accident." Eventually, people wondered if this revolution would be a desirable change after all.

More and more, our lives were darkened by suspicion and fear. I remember seeing adults whispering to each other when they spoke about politics or the government. I felt unsafe even in school. One day, I was in class and we heard multiple shots being fired outside. Suddenly, the nuns informed us that school was closed and that our parents were coming to get us. Shortly after, the government confiscated the schools, changing the curriculum and dictating what children would be taught, by whom, and what books students were permitted to read.

Another especially frightening time, in our home in Camaguey, I witnessed army officials come to our front door and take my uncle Carlos Alberto, without explanation. My dear aunt Gloriosa had quite a meltdown; she was overcome with anxiety and fear. My parents took her to their bedroom and laid her on their bed, and I saw her entire body shaking out of control, from head to toe. I was terrified. I later heard that a similarly frightening incident occurred to my uncle Besto and his family, in which he was suddenly arrested without explanation as well. We no longer felt safe in our homes or in our country.

Often at night, while I was in bed with the windows open in my room, I could hear soldiers marching on the streets and chanting "Que quiere Fidel, que vaya con el!" "What does Fidel want, that I join him!" My parents "saw the handwriting on the wall." Youth militias were formed and were requiring teens to participate by carrying weapons and being indoctrinated into communist philosophy. Subsequently, after much heart-breaking consideration, my parents decided to send the five of us who were of school-age out of the country.

Dad put mother and the five of us who were the oldest on a train headed for Havana. Her challenge was to go to the American Embassy to get us visas, so we five could leave the country, and escape youth militia recruitment and communist indoctrination in the schools. My knowledge of English was minimal, but I could hear my mother's urgency in her broken English, as she pleaded with the American Consul, "my children…" was all I understood.

Shortly, my two younger sisters, six and seven years old, and I were told that we were going to Miami for a "little vacation," to stay with our aunt Chiqui, my mother's sister, and her family. My brothers, nine and eleven years old, were going to Puerto Rico, to stay with our uncle Besto and his family, who had fled earlier. I was thirteen; at the airport, all I had to do was look at my mother's and father's sorrowful and frightened faces to see that this was to be no vacation at all, but a life-changing family separation, and a departure from all that was familiar to us. My childhood had come to an abrupt end; life would never be the same.

A Heart-Wrenching New Beginning

That Pan-American flight from Havana to Miami, on December 6, 1960, with my two little sisters, was the end of my idyllic childhood. We were now "unaccompanied refugee children." From then on, life entailed so much change and displacement that I became numb to my emotions (a symptom of PTSD). I just functioned, realizing years later that I felt emotionally disconnected and literally "homeless" at a deep level, regardless of where I lived in our multiple relocations.

Much to her credit, our aunt Chiqui did her very best to normalize our experience while we lived with her, but there was too much working against us - being separated from parents and siblings, from our home and way of life, for an indefinite period of time. (Children who are separated from parents tend to be more at risk for PTSD than their counterparts). I constantly worried about my parents in Cuba and feared for their safety. There was little communication between us, due to the oppressive control the Cuban government exercised over its citizens. Mail and phone services were closely monitored. I felt guarded, anxious, and insecure (hypervigilant - another symptom of PTSD) nearly all the time. I often had this sensation as if I was emotionally detached and disconnected (yet another symptom of PTSD) as if I were suspended in space without a safety net, not knowing what might be the next unexpected and frightening step of our political exile saga.

At first, Cubans in Miami expected to return to our homeland within a year, so I was registered in a makeshift Cuban-like high school, to continue my education in the Cuban system, called Bachillerato. However, our hopes were utterly shattered with the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The lack of air support from the American government created an indefensible situation for the brave Cuban soldier volunteers who had enlisted to reclaim our homeland. All were either killed, or incarcerated, in Cuba without access to legal protections or humane treatment, for decades.

I often wondered what would become of our family in Cuba? Were they safe? Would we ever see them again? I was so frightened that, at times, I felt as if I could not breathe. My little sisters were traumatized as well; I wanted to protect them but, at age 13, I was at a loss as to how to do it.

When hope of returning to Cuba in the short-term ended, my aunt Chiqui and her family decided to move to Mexico, but they could not afford to take all three of us, as they had three children of their own. It was decided by my parents that I would go live with my paternal aunt, Chacha, and her family, in Washington D.C. This move would have been positive for me, as I got along very well with them. In anticipation of my move, aunt Chacha secured a scholarship for me at a private Catholic school, in D.C. Nevertheless, my heart ached, I dreaded the thought of yet another family separation from my two little sisters, Maria Elena and Lillian. I was inconsolable (fear of separation or loss is a common symptom of PTSD for children). I wondered what would become of our family, as our lives seemed to be hanging by a thin thread, once again.

Reunification with Parents and Siblings

Due to the large numbers of people who had left Cuba by 1961, the Cuban government had put in place severe restrictions to prevent professionals like my father from leaving the country. Obtaining a visa was a very complicated matter. My paternal grandmother, Matita, was already in the U.S, and had become seriously ill. As a result, my father began the challenging process of obtaining permission to leave Cuba and emigrate to the U.S. with my mother and two young siblings.

Decades after being in the United States, I learned of the sensitive circumstances which enabled our parents to finally obtain permission to leave the country. My father mentored younger physicians as part of their residency training. The wife of one of these physicians told us that a Cuban government official had solicited Dad's surgical services, after he incurred a serious brain injury. Dad agreed to operate on this man with the condition that, if the surgery was successful, he would exert influence to obtain the visas necessary for my parents and two very young siblings to leave the country. So it was, in August of 1961, my parents came to the U.S. with my little brother Tony, age two, and my little sister Annie, 6 months. However, their departure was challenged until the very last minute. At the airport, as they were being checked to leave, a Cuban official told my mother that Annie could not leave with them, as she had no visa. My mother told us she felt her heart "stop" and, after she caught her breath, she told him that she had been informed that children under age one needed no visa. My mother said that she felt her knees weakened out of sheer fright; the official was called to attend to another situation, and the other man working with him motioned for all of them to go on and board the plane while she held my little sister, Annie, tightly in her arms. The plane landed in Miami with my parents exhausted, weary and in shock from their frightening ordeal, with only one suitcase each and no money, having been required by Castro's government to leave all their earthly belongings behind.

My brothers joined us in Miami and we remained in aunt Chiqui's home for a short period. Thereafter, we continued our saga of repeated resettlements for many, many years to come. Chronic change and displacement became the norm in our lives. I started having nightmares and becoming physically nauseated every time we moved (re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD). It took me decades to become aware of and to begin to articulate the emotional toll these losses and multiple resettlements took for us, and for me in particular.

To be continued…