You could write a laundry list of all the things my Uncle Ike was associated with pertaining to the medical industry. He was Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs at Vanderbilt University, had been the CEO of Duke Hospital at Duke University, and was president of the International Society of Nephrology. He lived a very comfortable life that allowed him to travel the world. He was one of the privileged few who flew at 1,334 mph in the supersonic Concorde jet from New York City to Paris in 3 1/2 hours.
He would eventually buy a nice boat for him and his wife to enjoy the waters of Naples, Florida. Time to simply get away. Of course, it was dwarfed by his friend’s yacht. The same friend who would donate millions of dollars to Vanderbilt. Uncle Ike knew a lot of people whose financial holdings were very well off, and he too was fortunate to enjoy an affluent lifestyle. All of these people, including himself, worked hard for what they earned. Nothing had been handed to them. But if I had to tell you what his greatest success was, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it had nothing to do with money, but rather it was his ability to stay humble.
It was near the end of his life when I found myself sitting with him in his living room in Nashville. He had taken on a stubborn and rare form of lung disease. His house was loaded with massive oxygen tanks. He mentioned how he’d been wined and dined all over the planet. He talked about many of his travels and the various dignitaries he had met. Yet amongst all the wealth and important people that he had encountered, he came to find there was one group of people that he was particularly fond of. And that was the custodians. He said, “They are real people. They tell it like it is. They aren’t ashamed of their jobs, and they’re proud of themselves.”
Uncle Ike paused for just a moment, then smiled as he shifted into his classic dry humor tone, “But the real reason I’ve gotten to know the custodians is because they have the keys to open every door on campus.”
As I laughed, I couldn’t stop thinking about a similar admiration I had experienced some fifteen years earlier—that of a short, bubbly Hispanic woman in Seguin, Texas.
* * *
Connie Cabello was a custodian. She worked at the radio station where I produced commercials and was a disc jockey. I wasn’t the most skilled DJ, as I can recall numerous times I would leave the studio to go chat in the lobby with a 45 record playing, only to forget that the record was playing. It didn’t take but the duration of the song until I heard over the in-house speakers the sound of the turntable needle playing nothing but unrecorded vinyl.
Seguin is a small town where many of the citizens had names of German and Czech descent. I, of course, did a brilliant job of butchering their pronunciations—managing to screw up during the most opportune times. Like obituaries. I mean, seriously, here I was announcing their last great farewell on the airwaves and what do I do, but pronounce their names like a preschooler being asked to say “antidisestablishmentarianism”. The phones rang off the wall as if I had butchered an American eagle. Reading the daily obituaries became a mind-shuddering experience. Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up! That was the mantra that incessantly played throughout my mind as I waited for my microphone to go “On Air”. And, of course, I’d screw up.
It seemed that every time I stumbled across a vocal blunder, Connie Cabello was there to throw me a smile. And it was that first smile I caught that I forever put in my pocket. Like the first dollar exchanged in a new business’s first sale—mounted on the wall in a framed display. To this day, her smile beaming through that studio window is as new as the first time I saw it.
She quickly became that one person who I looked forward to seeing when I went to work. When I did the midnight shift, she’d stop by after having had a little too much to drink while dancing the night away at the local Hispanic dance hall. I was basically running the FM country station on auto-pilot as all the songs were taped. No more vinyl that I had to cue up and screw up. Everything ran through a computer playlist. All I had to do was watch the monitor, and pull wired news copy to read at the top of the hour.
It was a sort of babysitter job that allowed me one great luxury: to hang out with Connie.
If we weren’t laughing, we were digging up anything to laugh about. She introduced me to all the latest Tejano music and, of course, Mexican food. We began cooking for each other, sharing recipes on Saturday nights. I, being the white boy, would bring her spaghetti. She’d cook me her homemade pork-stuffed tamales warmly wrapped in corn husks that basically blew my socks off. Soon I said to hell with spaghetti, and became addicted to her Mexican treats.
One night Connie stopped by the station with just a few tamales, and told me she was going to stop eating them, that she needed to lose weight. She noticed that I ate a lot of salads, and asked if they would help her shed the pounds. We had a long talk that night about weight and healthy eating. Her excess weight was (to coin a phrase) getting under her skin. She had had enough, and wanted a change. Connie realized I was someone she could confide in, someone she could trust to share her frustrations with.
A few years later, I stopped working at the radio station. I had caught the travel bug. I was single with no ties, and so I boarded a plane and went backpacking throughout South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. I was half the globe away from Connie, but she would still pop into my head, even at the oddest times: going for a run in a safari base camp, fishing on the Zambezi River, awestruck at Victoria Falls, or standing at the very tip of Good Hope to watch the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide.
As the years passed, Connie was always someone who I would call periodically. She wanted to know all the details of my family. She was highly inquisitive. If you didn’t have a question for her, she’d endlessly fire them at you. I wrote her Christmas holiday letters, about anything and everything, often enclosed with family photos. Unable to read English, she had her daughter read them to her. She made a few trips to my house where she’d stay well into the night, laughing the majority of the time. She was approaching her seventies, but her energy level didn’t indicate any such aging. She came over for a couple of Thanksgivings, always arriving with plenty of her prized homemade tamales.
Life got busier, especially with our kids being highly involved in youth sports. Everything exponentially exploded into back-to-back full days and weeks, and for that matter years. But Connie was still merely a phone call away. The excitement in her voice rose skyward when she heard me on the other end. Half of it was in Spanish, which meant I didn’t understand half of what she was saying, but I fully felt all that she was saying. Her sincere voice—it had a way of settling softly into your heart.
The day arrived when we received a call from one of her daughters. Connie had passed away. The warm and ebullient gift named Connie had expired, but only in its human form. I’m pretty certain the magic of Connie is still circling this planet in some form or fashion.
The entire drive to the funeral home in Seguin, I kept telling myself: I can handle this. The parking lot was crowded. A lot of people had come to offer their condolences. I can handle this.
As I entered the funeral home, one thing was immediately evident: I was the only white person. And at 6’4, I probably appeared even whiter. The looks on their faces said: Certainly you have the wrong place. A woman approached me and said, “Excuse me, may I help you?”
“Yes, I’m here for—” I looked at her, and stopped mid-sentence. I could see it…her eyes. In fact, her voice…remnants of Connie were addressing me. This Hispanic woman had a familiar friendliness about her as well. And how familiar it felt. “Yes,” I said, “I’m here for Connie Cabello.”
“And you are?”
I’m not sure I could have measured the fragment of time that passed from when I said my name to the time I saw the first tear fall from her eyes. And in that sudden wave of emotion, she was already holding my hand. Her chin quivered just before she released a trail of tears. We were both in a place neither of us had anticipated. She was one of Connie’s daughters. “You’re…Ros?” she said.
“Ros,” she said, ”You—“ She was struggling to talk, her throat gripped tightly with emotion. She took a deep breath, collected herself, then continued… “Ros, you were all my mother talked about. I mean she couldn’t stop talking about Ros. You were her magic.”
She guided me towards the main gathering of people. “Look,” she said to them, “It’s Ros!”
My name quickly circled the room. Hands extended towards me from all directions. Hugs from people I had never met. A reverent blanket of warmth filled the air. But I was a bit taken aback by all the attention. Sure, I knew Connie, but we all knew Connie.
I met the entire family and Connie’s closest friends. And each time I made an attempt to talk, the words just never made it out. I knew I had impacted Connie’s life, but never to such a degree that I would be rendered unable to speak. I had no idea how much I had influenced her life. Her daughter told me that after I would call her, she’d go to her collection of family Christmas photos that I’d sent over the years, and just smile. She couldn’t read a lick of English, but when her daughter read her my letters, she shut out the world and permanently tucked my words inside her heart.
I’ll never forget being in that room. I’ll never forget the sudden and unexpected pang of regret that pierced my heart. What I would have given to have one last minute with Connie—to thank her for allowing me into her life. I wanted to give Connie all the credit in the world for bringing those warm tamales to the radio station. She didn’t have to do it, but she did because she was a giver. I wanted to thank her for being the greatest audience of one on the other side of that studio window as I comically danced for her to cheesy country songs. Give me one more minute and I’d tell her how magnificent a sight it is to see two oceans clash at the very tip of Africa—a moment where I held her safe in my memory.
Referring to my Uncle Ike as he would say of the custodians of the world: In addition to having all the keys to the radio station, Connie never relied on wealth to give her value, and she was not ashamed of her job. She did, however, rely on one thing that never failed to succeed: her smile.
Connie…wherever you are…I’ve still got that first smile you gave me, tucked away in my pocket. I take it out now and then to remind me of what a difference you made in my life. And you know what?
I can handle this.
Copyright Ros Hill 2016