To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968, my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot inside a plane destined for a country she knew only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched around one suitcase, taking only what she needs most: hand-colored photographs of her family, her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house, a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink from her eyes as she lifts off into another life. To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her —once upon a time—reading picture books over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning English, sounding out words as strange as the talking animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages. I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese (but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell the rain of those mornings huddled as one under one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her nieces still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan— no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way through our first vacation to Florida theme parks. To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if it were you on a plane departing from America forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country, the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds you’d never see again, your address and phone number you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes, your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these. To love a country as if I was my mother last spring hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up to the U.S. Capitol, as if she were here before you today instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mijo, it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die—that’s your country.
The last ghostly patch of snow slips away—
with it—winter’s peaceful abandon melts
into a memory, and you remember the mire
of muck just outside your kitchen window
is the garden you’ve struggled and promised
to keep. Jeans dyed black by years of dirt,
you step into the ache of your boots again,
clear dead spoils, trowel the soil for new life.
The sun shifts on the horizon, lights up
the dewed spider webs like chandeliers.
Clouds begin sailing in, cargoed with rain
loud enough to rouse the flowers into
a race for color: the rouged tulips clash
with the noble lilies flaunting their petals
at the brazen puffs of allium, the mauve
tongues of the iris gossip sweet-nothings
into the wind, trembling frail petunias.
Mornings over coffee, news of the world,
you catch the magic act of hummingbirds—
appearing, disappearing—the eye tricked
into seeing how the garden flowers thrive
in shared soil, drink from the same rainfall,
governed by one sun, yet grow divided
in their beds where they’ve laid for years.
In the ruts between bands of color, ragweed
poke their dastard heads, dandelions cough
their poison seeds, and thistles like daggers
draw their spiny leaves and take hold.
The garden loses ground, calls you to duty
again: with worn gloves molded by the toll
of your toil, and armed with sheers, you tear
into the weeds, snip head-bowed blooms,
prop their struggling stems. Butterfly wings
wink at you, hinting it’s all a ruse, as you rest
on your deck proud of your calloused palms
and pained knees, trusting all you’ve done
is true enough to keep the garden abloom.
But overnight, a vine you’ve never battled
creeps out of the dark furrows, scales
the long necks of the sunflowers, chokes
every black-eyed Susan, and coils around
the peonies, beheading them all. You snap
apart its greedy tendrils, cast your hands
back into the dirt, pull at its ruthless roots.
Still, it returns with equal fury and claim:
the red poppies scream, the blue asters
gasp for air, strangled in its vile clasp
that lives by killing everything it touches.
The sun’s eye closes behind mountains, but
you lose sleep tonight, uncertain if the garden
is meant to inevitably survive or die, or if
it matters—one way or the other—with or
without you. Maybe it’s not just the garden
you worry about, but something we call hope
pitted against despair, something we can only
speak of by speaking to ourselves about flowers,
weeds, and hummingbirds; spiders, vines, and
a garden tended under a constitution of stars
we must believe in, splayed across our sky.