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Singing a song of brotherhood

There's a place I like to go, a park, a quiet place, and it's just a block off the boulevard where I live. I enjoy it because there's grass there and I have no grass at the building where I live. No grass and no children and very seldom any silence. I don't mind sharing the park and its solitude with the children who occasionally join me. We push each other on swings, throw frisbees back and forth, tell stories, share jokes and secrets.

This morning, a Saturday, it's David and Sharon who sit waiting near a clump of oleanders. The kids are both about nine, and regulars at the park. Sitting with them is an old man I've not seen before. I offer hellos to all three, receiving in return two good mornings and one buenos dias - the Spanish greeting coming from the older man.

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''This is Francisco,'' offers Sharon, smiling proudly. The man at her shoulder wears tennis shoes, baggy green trousers, and a wildly clashing yellow shirt adorned with bright red tropical birds. Before I can decide what kind of birds they are, or say anything at all, David exclaims: ''He's got parrots coming out of him. Look!''

''Parrots!'' repeats Sharon, as if I might not be convinced. ''And he has a guitar. There in his sack. I bet he plays good.''

I offer my open hand to the man, my eyes moving from his shirt, the ascending parrots and jungle flora, down the grocery bag, the protruding neck of an acoustic guitar, and from there to the man's face, the intense blue eyes, weathered skin, flashing white teeth.

''I'm pleased to meet you,'' I say, and after a second set of greetings are exchanged, Sharon nudges Francisco, pulling the sleeve of his shirt and whispering: ''Tell him, Cisco. Tell him your story. . . .''

''Tell him,'' advises David, nudging him eagerly from the other side.

It requires another moment, though, and another request from Sharon before Francisco will talk. In halting, broken English, with a variety of hand gestures , and with both children helping to interpret, the man begins. He reveals that he was born forty-seven years earlier ''in a tiny white house that smelled always of my mother's cooking, that rang with the laughter of my brothers and sisters. A place a million miles, I think, from this place. A little village outside of Havana. . . .''

''Havana? Cuba?''

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''Si. Cuba. . . .''

What follows is part history lesson and part biography, all mixed with an assortment of anecdotes, personal philosophy, and details from the life of Francisco. We're given a description of his childhood, the names of brothers, sister, parents, and grandparents, an account of their education in an English school, the years they spent working the fields of a sugar plantation. ''Very hard work, all of it. Work we did with our hands. The whole family. And never enough food or clothing, never enough of anything.''

He shrugs his shoulders, his eyes cloud, the lines of his face tighten.

''The revolution was the worst part. The revolution made everything worse. Made it all the more difficult. Very little laughing or smiling after that. Very little joy. . . .'' But it wasn't until long afterward, he tells us, just two years before, that he helped his family and friends into a small boat that landed, miraculously, on a beach in Florida. Life changed quickly then; things became better.

''It is a very beautiful country, yours. As beautiful as the color pictures we saw in magazines. In the home of my family.''

''He likes it here with us!'' This in unison from David and Sharon. The shoes the man wears are full of holes, and he might not have enough to eat, but he likes it here. I'm trying to imagine what his life might have been like, his life in Cuba, the struggle and the hardship. I want to ask him to tell me again. But I don't say anything. I don't have words for what I want to say. I'm thinking of the distance between us and our differing backgrounds, one that seems as great as from here to the island of Cuba. So I keep my mouth closed. I just listen.

And as if he knows what I'm thinking, my curiosity and my apprehension, he takes out his guitar and begins, slowly, without saying anything, to play. It is a song I've never heard before, vaguely Latin. A music that seems to flow from the center of him: something pure and strong, graceful and free, personal and yet universal. A sound that rises from his fingers to fill perfectly the space between our bodies, the distance between our separate lives.

I listen and say nothing, but I know, I think, as this man opens himself to us through his music, that there is no difference we create or imagine. And I understand, or I'm beginning to, the bond that connects all men. I'm listening to it this moment as I sit in the grass near an American oleander bush. It is something that unites us all at the level of the heart, a brotherhood that transcends the individual circumstances of our lives, our sociologies, our national boundaries. It is there but we must desire to find it; we must look for it and we must listen for it with our whole selves.

I'm trying to think of a way I might communicate this to the children, explain to them what I'm thinking. But when Francisco's hands fall silent, and the children stand to embrace him in a long hug, I know that that's unnecessary, that they understand this already. I fold my arms around their shoulders then, the four of us standing together for a moment, our bodies touching silently, until David pulls back and says, ''Let's go eat.'' Then Sharon and Francisco say , ''Yes, let's go eat!'' And the four of us, together, go off to look for lunch.

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