From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Me and Don Paco

The best mirror is an old friend.

Latino Proverb

I woke up crying this morning. I realize the pattern now. I don’t tell people how much I love them while I still can. That’s the way it was with Don Paco, a chubby, balding, cuddly octogenarian who became my close friend and confidant. In the only photograph of us together, you can see how very dear he was to me. My eyes gleam as I cup my hands on his shoulder. Paco has a smug “she’s-with-me; eat-your-heart-out” look on his impish face. It is one of my favorite photographs because I look so radiant. Paco and I seem to bask in each other’s light.

It was Paco, not my father, who asked to meet my fiancé, Ed, to give him, as he expressed it, “el A-OK” to marry me. My father and I were estranged. He had been a good provider and a protective father. But as I grew older, I could no longer ignore his macho attitude toward my mother. When he cheated on my mother once too often, I finally and reluctantly drew the line and sided with her. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since their divorce over a decade before. So Paco’s paternal interest in me was especially important at this turning point in my life.

Paco and I had lunch together once a month at his favorite restaurant, a Spanish meson in Puerto Rico, where all the waitstaff knew him and he was treated with grace. He always reminded me that it was our special time together, our own little secret. He’d say, charming pícaro that he was, that we needn’t share what was said between us with anyone—not with Ed nor his wife, Martha, who had been my coworker for many years at an international cosmetics firm with field offices in Puerto Rico.

During our little lunches, Paco and I would sit with our heads together, and he’d softly tell me about his early life in Spain, his later migration to Cuba. How he fled to Puerto Rico after the Cuban revolution, leaving all of his possessions behind. He had to start his life over many times: a failed marriage, an unsuccessful business enterprise.

I sensed that he had displayed a very generous heart in each bad situation. He left everything to his first wife. In the collapse of his business, he had worried more about his employees than himself. But he had finally found the woman of his dreams in Martha. I shouldn’t be jealous, he’d tease. He was certain that I had been his daughter or his wife in another lifetime.

He’d always bring a gift for me to remember him by— as if I could ever forget Paco—a Pierrot doll and later a smaller Pierrot who he said was its child . . . a Japanese tree ornament, intricately carved, yet so tiny and delicate . . . a row of little marble elephants holding tails . . . a small ceramic hearth for my kitchen, which, he told me, was always the heart of the home.

At our last precious luncheon together, he spent a lot of time just holding my hand. Paco shared how he had always hoped to take Martha to Spain to visit the important places of his childhood. He asked me to make sure that she traveled there, should anything happen to him.

When we parted, he accompanied me to my car, as he always did—elegant gentleman that he was. But there was something a little different that day. He seemed reluctant to let me leave and looked back sadly as I drove away. I wanted to stop and ask if anything was wrong, but I was late for my next business meeting across town, so I blew him a kiss and sped off. Shortly afterward, I traveled to my company’s headquarters in New York City. The day I returned to Puerto Rico, I was brightly dressed and feeling on top of the world. Life held so much promise! I was met at the airport by another coworker, Aurea, who said that she had guessed somehow that I would be dressed in red because I was in love.

As she slowly drove me home, Aurea announced quietly that she had some bad news for me. I was singularly unprepared for what she was about to say. She explained that Paco had gone fishing over the weekend, and came home excited because he had caught his biggest fish ever and then let it go. Martha prepared one of his favorite Cuban dishes. He kissed her good night, told her how much he loved her and died peacefully in his sleep that evening, his hands folded under his head, like a gentle cherub.

As if that weren’t enough for one small heart to bear, she added that on that same Sunday, my father had been rushed to the hospital. He had suffered a massive stroke. I knew immediately what I had to do. It was too late to be with Paco, but perhaps if I rushed to my father’s bedside and held his hand, there was still time for us to make amends.

That was twelve years ago.

Today my father is still with me, and he knows that whatever mistakes he may have made in the past, I’ll always love him. There is no doubt in my mind that it was my angel Paco who, not wanting me to be without a father’s love, brought us together again.

Marie Delgado Travis

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