She is known as the patron saint of Cuba but she is also my special saint. My mother had a beautiful statue of her (the kind you can still find in a Spanish botanica) in our East 95th Street apartment. And for as long as I can remember, my father always wore a gold medal with La Caridad on one side and his and my mother’s intertwined initials on the other.
As my mother explained the story to me when I was a small boy, three fishermen were once caught in a terrible storm in the Caribbean sea. Powerful winds drove their small boat far from shore. Huge waves threatened to capsize the boat or pitch them into the sea. The frightened men knelt down and prayed to the mother of Our Lord. In their dark night of terror and despair, she appeared to them and delivered them to the safety of the shore.
The statue depicts the three fishermen kneeling in their little wooden boat beseeching our Lady to rescue them from the storm. She is holding the Infant Jesus in one of her arms and a cross in the other. Her tranquil expression contrasts sharply with the fishermen’s terrified faces. The violent storm does not seem to have any effect upon her as she looks at the frightened sailors with a mother’s loving and compassionate eyes, guarding them under the shadow of her beautiful blue mantle.
The name of the saint is obscure. La Caridad del Cobre literally translates as “the charity of copper.” The word cobre in Spanish can mean both the metal copper and its color. I am told that el Cobre is a nickname fishermen and sailors used to describe the Caribbean sea. Caridad means charity, although in this context I think it means something more than almsgiving, which is what we usually mean by charity. Its meaning is probably closer to that of the Greek word agape as used in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, sometimes translated as Charity and sometimes as Love: “Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:8. La Caridad, however, is more than an abstract idea. The feminine article suggests that it refers to a being whose very essence is Love.
I rarely thought about La Caridad as I grew older. I don’t remember what happened to my mother’s statue. Possibly it was left behind when we moved. More likely, it was one of many beautiful and fragile things that got broken accidentally by me playing baseball in the house. My father, however, continued to wear her image around his neck. I have often wondered why he wore that particular medal. As I recall, he didn’t wear much jewelry. He didn’t go to church or read the Bible when I was growing up. I remember heated arguments he had about sports and politics, but he never discussed either his own or anyone else’s religious beliefs. The subject of religion seemed to hold little interest for him. Yet, my father wore that medal until he gave it to me shortly before he died.
My father was in the merchant marine during World War II. His ship was in the Caribbean sea when a German U-boat suddenly appeared and boarded the unarmed vessel. The Germans ordered them to abandon the ship. They quickly lowered the life boats, small wooden boats not unlike the fishermen’s boat in the pictures of La Caridad. Someone asked the Germans if they could take some food along. The U-boat captain said that was not necessary; they would be picked up in no time. After the ship was hurriedly evacuated, the U-boat torpedoed it.
There were a dozen or so men in my father’s lifeboat. Their only food was a tin with some stale crackers, which they finished the first day while waiting for the rescue plane that never appeared. Afterwards, they used the tin to collect rainwater. It rained practically every day, so they didn’t suffer so much from thirst. The showers also gave them a brief respite from the sweltering sun that beat down on them relentlessly every day. In sharp contrast, the nights were extremely cold; they had no jackets or blankets. One man nearly drowned trying to catch with his bare hands a fish swimming near the boat; they had no nets or fishing line. Another man cried for his money that he left on the ship. He was the first to die, less than two weeks after they were cast adrift. He didn’t need the money after all, my father grimly noted. Some of the other men decided to eat the dead man. My father and most of the others refused to eat human flesh. He said that one of the cannibals became crazed afterwards and threw himself overboard. Another one began to vomit afterwards. He became feverish and died a short time later. This time nobody suggested that they eat his flesh. My father lost consciousness on the twenty-second day. He regained consciousness in the hospital, where he learned that a plane had spotted them on their twenty-fourth day, and that he had been in a coma more than a week. Of the original twelve in my father’s boat, only four including my father survived.
In the spring of 1985, I learned that my father had lung cancer. I was not surprised at the news. Although he had quit smoking several years earlier, my father had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for nearly fifty years, and he suffered from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But I wasn’t worried. Three years earlier, he survived prostate cancer. Ten years before that, he survived six heart attacks. The next one, which the doctors believed would finally kill him, never came. He survived twenty-four days and nights adrift in a boat in the Caribbean without food. I had no doubts that he would survive this as well.
His surgeon told me that the operation was a success. They removed a malignant tumor the size of a peach along with most of his right lung. I saw my father that night in the intensive care unit. Incredibly, he was awake and looked remarkably well underneath the oxygen tent, the bandages and intravenous tubes. For me, it was just another demonstration of what I knew was true: my father could not die. He would recover his strength and be home in no time, just as the German U-boat captain had said.
My father did not recover quickly. He could not breathe right without an oxygen mask. His stopped eating. His skin turned gray. Two months after the operation, the hospital discharged him, coincidentally on the same day his insurance coverage terminated.
My parent’s bedroom was soon transformed into a copy of his hospital room. We brought in a second bed with an adjustable mattress so he could sit up and breathe easier, a walker that he didn’t have enough strength in his arms to use, and a portable toilet next to the bed. He was a difficult patient. He did not allow anyone except my mother to care for him, and the strain on her was tremendous. I finally realized that my father wasn’t going to get better, but I was afraid he was strong enough to kill my mother first. Before I had prayed for his recovery; that night I prayed for my father to die.
I was preparing to start a new job in Birmingham, Alabama the summer after my father got sick. I assumed that he would be fully recovered long before I would have to leave. But when the day of departure arrived, my father’s condition had not changed. I thought I would not be able to go. One of my cousins agreed to move in temporarily and help my mother take care of my father while I was away. My father gave me his medal of La Caridad as a going away present. He died ten days later. I have worn the medal ever since.
It was not until long after my father’s death that I first thought there might be a connection between his wartime experience and the medal of La Caridad he always wore. I have thought about it a lot since then. Was he wearing the medal on that boat? Did he continue to wear it because he believed it was La Caridad who brought him to safety? Or did he start wearing the medal after he was rescued, out of gratitude to La Caridad for rescuing him? Or was the connection between the medal and his experience something that existed only in my imagination? Someday, after I have given the medal to a son of my own, I hope to see my father again in heaven and ask him.