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Voices: My Abuelos, And The Anatomy Of a Romantic ‘Bolero’

I’m currently single on Valentine’s Day, but I’m fine it with because until I find a ‘bolero’ kind of love, I’d rather not bother with the compromise romance requires. If I’m going to love, I’m going to love spectacularly or not at all.

Some might think that pinning my hopes on love songs that speak of impossible yearning and challenge the stars to shine brighter than my passions is an exercise in futility. Why should I expect the world to stop turning for him when I walk in the room or even be relieved to get lost in the memory of him if it doesn’t work out? Because I know that kind of love exists, I’ve seen it and it’s worth the wait.

My Abuelo, Abo-babo, as I used to call him, was a successful doctor and frustrated crooner. He loved Spanish love songs like nobody I’ve ever known. He had books of lyrics, shelves of cassettes and an iron-trap memory for every song that talked of love, abandon and longing, carefully organized by singer and style. He relished in the anguish of ‘Si la Noche de Anoche Volviera’, a ranchera sung by Lolita and happily hummed along with the promise of reaching the moon with his love on the melody of Luis Miguel’s ‘Si Nos Dejan.’

Dr. Ramon and Alicia Oyarzun in Cuba, 1953
Dr. Ramon and Alicia Oyarzun in Cuba, 1953. Carmen Pelaez

My abuela usually rolled her eyes as he played his favorite songs pretending not to be smitten with his devotion. She knew he would enjoy them more if he felt he had to win her over. Theirs was a relationship of legendary one-upmanship and of a profound understanding of what the other needed.

I once asked my grandfather why Cubans were considered such romantics. Surprised I didn’t know, he answered, “Our music! Listen to the lyrics. "Bésame mucho"…"Contigo en la distance"…How could we not be romantic?!’ Then I followed up by asking him what he thinks of when he listened to those songs. “Your Abuela. But don’t tell her!”

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Later that afternoon, when I asked her the same question she blew me off, “Ay Carmen María, you and your questions. I’m not a romantic, y ya - enough already!”

If they both admitted how in love they were, nobody would be able to stand being in the same room with them, including them. They didn’t need to display their feelings because they lived them every day, profoundly so.

Back in 2000, at the beginning of February, my abuela needed hip surgery and my mom told me abuelo was acting a little odd. His driving had suddenly gotten bad and she was concerned. I called him and offered to fly down from New York to drive him back and forth to the hospital. He took me up on my offer by saying “Si, come for your Abuela.” She was recovering beautifully, so I didn’t understand why he would want me to come for her. Regardless, I booked my flight and was in Miami a few days later.

Dr. Ramon and Alicia Oyarzun in Miami, 1999.
Dr. Ramon and Alicia Oyarzun in Miami, 1999. Carmen Pelaez

A day after I arrived, he was diagnosed with brain and liver cancer. We checked him into the same hospital as Abuela. He was on the 7th floor while she was recovering on the 4th. As his prognosis was growing increasingly negative, he insisted she continue with her physical therapy. The whole family split time between their two rooms. Kids, grandkids and close friends all got to let my Abuelo know what he meant to them. His time in hospice was the eye of the storm that had just hit our lives. But we considered it a blessing.

My Abo died on Valentine’s Day. I was sleeping in my Aba’s hospital room when they came to tell us. In a daze, I wheeled her into his room so she could say goodbye. Words fail to describe how profoundly painful and beautiful it was to witness this moment. We were all heartbroken because we were the product of what true love creates. And in that moment, I realized what a stunning feat the ability to love is. Her life without him was never the same. None of our lives would be.

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To some, a love song is a fabrication. A manipulative grouping of words to sell us an idea to aspire to. But to me the existential suffering of love, the heights one can reach when they have it and the declarations of sublime vulnerability that these songs offer, are very real.

When I listen to boleros, the only thing that makes love worth the trouble is loving truly. There is no better way to to give of yourself, than to believe that what you are feeling is connected to stardust. Until I feel that, I will listen to the boleros my Abuelo listened to. Their promise is greater than any compromise I would make to avoid being alone.

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