We buried my uncle yesterday. He died Wednesday night and on Thursday at 3:30 pm I was walking out my front door. 2370 miles and 23 hours later I'd arrive in Venezuela to be with my mother and my cousins during this heartbreaking time.
Juan Carlos Parisca was the eldest of a strong-willed, passionate and loud set of seven siblings. All 21 of us cousins --offspring of those seven-- grew up close, tight and intensely loyal to each other. Our parents had fierce arguments amongst themselves, but they always came back together. Their love for each other matching the intensity of their passionate points of view.
Juan Carlos was an unrepentant communist. Saying that this caused enormous conflict within the family is an understatement. There are far too many memories of fights and strife in the family dating back to the early sixties when he joined the armed Venezuelan guerrilla, following the ideals of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum was my grandfather, whose strong democratic convictions were as firm as his love for his son. They fought ferociously and would not speak for months at a time. But every time my uncle needed him, my grandfather was there.
This radical political divide in our family persisted through the years. In the late 80's his daughter Sonia started dating (and later married) Carlos Blanco, who at that time was a minister in the Cabinet of President Carlos Andres Perez. Within his nuclear family, his daughter and son-in-law were again on a different political side.
And in the years since Chavez came to power in 1999 the divide grew deeper. As the country deteriorated behind a facade of Socialism, communists like my uncle thought that their dreams and ideals were within reach. In the meantime, my cousin Maria Corina Machado rose in prominence as one of the key political figures in the opposition to the Chavez-Maduro-Cuban regime.
He was ever-more the communist and the rest of the family were ever-more anti anything related to Cuba. We all had a hard time understanding him, but we loved him.
Yesterday at the funeral a huge group of his communist friends came to pay their respects. As they walked through in file, one by one shaking our hands and offering their condolences, all I could see were people who loved, admired and respected my uncle. Our beliefs and convictions could not have been more different, but we were united in our grief.
They had asked my cousins for permission to pay homage to my uncle. It made all the sense in the world to us, for even though we didn't agree with him, this is who he was. Each holding a long-stemmed red rose, they pulled out their FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional -- Nacional Liberation Armed Forces) flag, in other words the communist guerrilla flag, and began singing.
This extraordinary choir first sang the national anthem, then an international communist anthem and then one of my uncle's all-time favorite communist songs, Bella Ciao. As they sang, many of us cried. I didn't care what the words said or that I can't agree with them, I could only remember hearing him sing it. This is who he was.
When the song ended, they raised the roses and proclaimed, "Viva Parisca!"
A long-time friend of his from the countryside then said some beautiful words. She spoke of how committed he was to the community. These were the people who took him in, back in the sixties when he needed shelter. She spoke of how he went back and helped them organize, build houses, farm together and build an oven to make and sell pottery. How involved he was in helping them create what was his vision of the communist life: a community coming together, to build and work together for the prosperity of all. How he loved to cook and invite everyone. How he told the best stories and how supportive he was.
And this was my uncle. He cooked the weirdest things and he loved it. He was a story-teller par excellence and he appreciated everyone as they were. He soaked up all of life as if every breath were an exquisite bite of a gourmet meal he'd never taste again. Perhaps that's what happens when you've spent months in the jungle fighting for your ideals. Perhaps that's what happens when you feel the fear of death up close and feasible. This is who he was with his family and it turns out it was who he was with everyone.
After his friend was done speaking I walked up to her and thanked her. I hugged her and another woman who sang. I had never seen these two communist women before. So many times I felt enormous contempt for anyone even remotely supporting the regime that in my view has destroyed Venezuela. But yesterday I hugged them. They loved my uncle and so I love them for it.
At a time when the political divide both in Venezuela and in the US seems to be tearing people further and further apart, my uncle's death has helped me connect with the love that unites us all as human beings on this very short stint we call life. My grief joins me with their grief. Despite our differences we are united.
Seeing and hearing them yesterday made me realize something; THIS is who my uncle was. He was always a fervent communist and he was always surrounded by a family who never agreed with him or supported his beliefs, and he loved us just the same.
Just as my grandfather had always been there whenever Juan Carlos needed him, over the course of his life, my uncle was always there for his kids, siblings, nieces and nephews whenever we needed him. We always knew we could count on him without fail. He loved us and supported us exactly as we were.
The void he leaves is enormous. The hole in my heart is bigger than I ever imagined it would be.
He is amongst some of my earliest childhood memories. Holding my tiny hand in his huge grip, asking me for a little kiss on the cheek. I'd shy away even though I felt and knew the enormous tenderness in his heart. He always had the sweetest hugs and would call me "muñeca" (doll) and I always knew that with him, I was safe.
In his honor, I'd like to share with you what some of his legacy can teach us all:
- Live your truth to the end, even if your loved ones have a different truth.
- Love, respect and support should never be subservient to belief. You can love, respect and support even those who have different beliefs.
- Cook big meals, gather the people you love and savor every moment as if you were delighting in the best gourmet meal of your life.
- Love big and give big. Consider what is the legacy you'd like to leave in your wake.
- Never let a grudge keep you from calling a loved one and having them over for lunch. Never let a grudge keep you from saying yes. In the weeks preceding his death he and my mother had an enormous argument for political reasons. Nonetheless, he called her and invited her to lunch. She went. Thank God.
Tio Juan Carlos, we will forever miss you and hopefully we'll live a life you'll be proud of. Correct that, I know you will love and support whatever life we choose to live.
Someday I'll write the book you helped me start. I'm only sorry I won't have the pleasure to see you read it.