How I Lost My Life but Lived to Tell the Story
From the day we entered this earth, we have all been taking part in our life’s cycle of death and rebirth. Several weeks ago, Dr. Christine Bradstreet, a blogging friend, showed this universal phenomenon when she wrote about how she rose from the ashes of a difficult childhood to discover God, true love and a life purpose of giving others the love and support missed out on as a child. She challenged a few of us to do the same so that our readers might see how the loss of our old lives plants the seeds of our resurrection. It is true, you can survive an ending and live to tell the story.
I have written extensively about my life. I have two books to prove it. The first, titled Boxing for Cuba–An Immigrant’s Story, details the trials and tribulations of my family’s immigration story that began in Cuba and continues today in the USA today. My second book Catch and Release–One Man’s Improbable Search for True Love and the Meaning of Life, chronicles my travails as I try to start life over in my sixties. These books are my gifts of love to the world, for they offer hope to anyone living through difficult life challenges.
My life began in Camaguey, Cuba.
I was the youngest of three boys in an affluent, upper middle-class family. My brothers — fraternal twins and one and a half year older — and me were inseparable. Servants catered to our every need and sheltered us within the confines of our backyard.
My father was a successful businessman and my mother a gregarious, beautiful socialite.
Yet, although our lives seemed idyllic, the cracks in the foundation of my parents’ marriage became visible. Their screaming fights often interrupted the silence of night during my childhood. Sometimes, their scuffles included the sound of things being shattered.
I have always felt my father’s emotional aloofness and resentment towards me. As a child, I had no explanation for the behavior of this adult. I concluded I wasn’t doing enough to earn his love. But for as hard as I tried, there was nothing I could do to gain his approval.
My mother was emotionally unbalanced and would lose her temper at the drop of a hat. Once the mercury started to rise in her emotional thermometer, there was little anyone could do to assuage her rage. In this state, the smallest infraction could cause her to burn uncontrollably hot and become physically abusive to her three sons.
I have many good memories of my Cuban life, specially the time spent on the white sandy beaches of Santa Lucia, but I mostly remember walking on eggshells around my parents to avoid their ire.
Castro’s Revolution and our subsequent exile.
I will never experience a more painful event than being separated from my parents when I was ten. The ensuing chaos after Castro’s ascent to power caused my parents to make the unthinkable decision of sending their three boys to the US seeking political asylum. My parents’ good intensions were not enough to prevent the disturbing effect that traveling unaccompanied to a foreign country would have on my young psyche. When family members already in Miami failed to greet us at the airport, I felt deserted by God and everyone who had meant something in my life. Even today, is easy for me to return to these feelings of abandonment whenever stressful change enters my life.
Living out a classic novel.
My brothers and I took part in Operation Peter Pan, an American-based refugee program that placed over 14,000 children in orphanages and foster homes around the country. They sent us to a catholic orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado.
By all worldly measures, the three of us were fortunate to have food on our plates and a roof over our heads. But the orphanage was an austere place run like a prison for kids. Within that prison, a culture of violence — like in William Golding’s dystopic novel, Lord of the Flies — had emerged where various gangs ruled with the power of their fists.
It took almost four years for my parents to reunite with their three sons. Denver became our home, but the grotesque nature of what remained of my parents’ marriage doomed the recovery of our family unit. Mutual hatred and cruelty were the only attributes left between them.
My brothers and I often joke it was a good thing my parents married each other and didn’t wreck two couples, but trying to survive amid their marital war was no laughing matter. We became the fodder for their hatred, their prisoners of war and the civilian casualties all in one. No escape was visible until we became old enough to move out.
The unworthy outlier.
I didn’t know it then, but my father’s emotional distance and my mother’s abuse convinced me I was not a good person; I was not worthy of love. Not having a healthy place in my family made me an outlier in my mind. If I was to become part of any group, I figured I had to successfully convince others of my worth.
Getting people to like and accept me drove me to strive obsessively to be the best at everything I tried. It also caused me to cling stubbornly to everyone in my life, even to those who hurt me.
In love relationships, I willingly gave up my identity and boundaries in exchange for my partner’s love. In professional relationships, I remained loyal to those who betrayed me hoping someday they would return their loyalty, which they never did.
Achievement and success are not necessarily related.
When one seeks to be the best for others’ approval, one becomes driven to collect accomplishments. This was me. As a younger man, I focused on excelling in athletic pursuits, especially basketball. I have several boxes full of trophies collecting dust that attest to my perceived athletic prowess.
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, I turned to my new career to establish my value. This effort took a great leap when I took a job with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
CDOT was tailor made for my needs. It provided a multitude of important projects and engineering titles I could pursue with abandon. I volunteered to join the staff of one high profile project after another. I applied for every promotional opportunity that became available. Within ten years, every title and achievement I had pursued became mine, but I was miserable. In spite of my “success”, I closed out my thirties severely depressed. I was lucky to survive the three years in this darkness.
A major turning point.
I turned to professional counseling for help, although I almost waited too long because, even in the 1980s, you didn’t want your family, boss and colleagues to know you were in therapy. “Normal”, “sane” people did not seek psychoanalysis, that was for the crazies.
I owe my counselors more than my life. They helped me discover that contentment and fulfillment came not from the accumulating worldly titles or awards; it came from working with others to create something greater than myself.
This was the light at the end of my depression tunnel, and I joyfully dedicated the rest of my formal career to this new measure of success. The real irony is that once I stopped chasing titles, I achieved higher-level positions than I ever imagined.
I became a cabinet member for the administration Colorado Governor Roy Romer when he appointed me to head CDOT. After twenty-seven years, I left CDOT to work for the City of Denver where I would later become Denver’s 44thand first immigrant mayor. It took fifty-years to take me from orphan to the mayor of a great American city.
Life without a father.
I was never more aware of my father’s dislike and resentment than on the day Governor Romer swore me in to serve on his cabinet. My father declared it to be the most embarrassing day of his life. To him, I was incapable of achieving such a coveted position without foul play. This became clear when he asked,
“Who did you blow to get this job?”
After the ensuing argument, he severed our relationship,
“I can no longer claim you as my son.”
For as painful as this experience was, I will always remember how freeing it was to know I could do nothing to please my father. I no longer needed to try, which left me free to live the rest of my life without having to seek his love and approval.
Four years later, while on his death bed, my father and I made peace.
I have been a part of two long-term marriages. I had three children from my first marriage and helped my second wife raise her two daughters. Both relationships lasted twenty years but ended in divorce.
After much reflection, I have had to accept that my sense of unworthiness contributed to the failure of my marriages. I became too willing to blur my boundaries and whitewash my true self with a fake persona to keep my partner’s love. The net result; I convinced my two wives I wasn’t worthy of their love either.
I am haunted by the knowledge that I taught my children this behavior, the only thing i can do now is share my mistakes with them. Nevertheless, I go forth still wanting a partner, but I do so knowing that I am enough and that I am worthy of love. I have to love myself, I cannot expect someone else to do it for me.
I lost my life again at sixty-three years of age.
Just as I was planning to ride off into the bliss of my golden years with my second wife, she ended the marriage. But that wasn’t all. In one fell swoop, the divorce — combined with other circumstances — left me single, grudgingly retired and forced to move to Florida. Without warning, the scaffolding of career, home and family that held up my self-image collapsed. I had died once again.
It has been daunting to start over in my sixties, specially dating again. But I have emerged more content than I have ever been with my life’s direction. This is why I decided to write about it in my second book, Catch and Release.
Two things contributed to this newfound joy. After much reflection, and with the help of many great authors on spirituality, I developed a daily spiritual practice and found my connection with the Higher Source that exists in all living things. Secondly, daily meditation has endowed me with composure and gratitude for my life just as its been so far.
It is strange that i had to reach my sixties to unearth my authenticity, but I have learned that our spiritual progression follows no calendar or clock. Now, from this connection I have with my truest self, I apply my writing, speaking and teaching to help others find their true source.
Reflecting on your story can teach you to see the light of your authentic perfection. Not only will you see that you lived again after an ending, your story will also remind you of how your soul was set free to soar.
The experiences and circumstances of our childhood hardened the shell of our early character. It takes the body blows from our disappointments and setbacks that happen later in life to crack that hard shell wide open so that our true self can emerge. I see this pattern clearly in every human life I know.
It is important to reflect on and bear witness to the many deaths and rebirths in our own stories. This is how we teach others that loss can be a gift because it frees us from the shackles of our attachments. We can also use our stories to show how our efforts to create a greater good, no matter our standing in life, are the true measure of success. Most importantly, however, our story can delineate for us the greatest purpose of our lives.
Take the time today to share your story with others.
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Going through a difficult life transition?
You might enjoy reading my latest memoir, Catch and Release: One Man’s Improbable Search for True Love and the Meaning of Life. Download a PDF of the first 5 chapters of Catch and Release free. To order your inscribed copy in either hardcover or paperback, click here (https://www.guillermovidal.me/shop/). Catch and Release is also available on Kindle here (https://www.amazon.com/Catch-Release-Improbable-Search-Meaning-ebook/dp/B07F26N1HS/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535494644&sr=1-2). Happy reading!