December 18, 2006

Feliz navidad, Jose Feliciano

'Tis the season, he's on the airwaves, and it's time again for my annual tribute post to the crooner of the catchiest Spanish-language holiday tune yet written:

We were at the airport in Lisbon (photo) waiting to board our plane home from a Christmas-week family trip to Albufeira, a seafront resort-cum-fishing town in the Algarve. The gate area was packed with travelers, and all seats were taken. Dana was two, Adam five, both seasoned travel vets. They sat in the plastic chairs we'd managed to snag, swinging their legs and sipping juice.

A group of tall men milled around, looking for a seat for a smaller, blind companion. Mike offered his chair, and the blind man sat down next to me.

We'd overheard the men, musicians, talking about the bad flights and lousy hotels they'd endured on their current tour. I leaned over and asked the quiet, blind man, "What kind of music do you play?" All the men looked worn and tired, a littled rumpled and disheveled. I figured they played low to middle-tier clubs and bars. The
Zildjian cymbals they kept at closer than arm's length were the only hint of the possibility of something bigger.

"All kinds," he said. "Maybe you've heard me on the radio at this time of year singing a song I wrote..."

"!You're Jose Feliciano?!"

I launched into Feliz Navidad and called Adam over between notes. "Adam! This man wrote the Christmas song that mommy sings all the time!" I sang some more. Adam joined in on the "prospero ano y felizidad" and let loose on the "I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas." Jose was pleased.

We talked with Jose for a half hour. His big, serious, but very gracious manager hovered protectively. The band was on its way home from a sold out New Year's Eve concert in
Estoril, and Jose was eager to get home to Connecticut to his pregnant wife and two young children. A loving, involved dad, he talked about his kids. "I try not to spoil them," he said.

Although he couldn't see them, Jose was keenly aware of Adam and Dana. He sensed their movements. He used their names when he spoke to them. He told Adam to "enjoy being a kid, because it goes by so fast." He told Adam jokes: "Adam, why did the turtle cross the road? He wanted to get to a Shell station." And, "Why did the chicken cross the road, Adam? To get away from Colonel Sanders." Dana was cranky, and Jose gave me parenting tips: "Change her diaper before you get on the plane, and give her a lot to drink so her ears won't hurt from the change in cabin pressure."

We boarded. Jose crossed the Atlantic in first class, and we sat in steerage, narrowly escaping the flood of red wine that burst from the overhead bin when a Portuguese woman's jug of homemade vinho de mesa popped its cork. A nearly eight-hour flight. Adam and Dana handled the marathon transit like pros. They played with Legos, colored, ate stuff, and scanned the headset stations.
Henry the Navigator would have been proud of their endurance.

When we landed in Newark, I noticed Jose sitting alone on a windowsill in a corner, waiting for his men to pull the luggage from the carousel. I told Adam he could go over and say good-bye.

Thousands of miles, eight hours, two movies , two meals and one ocean had passed since we'd shared polite conversation with Jose Feliciano back in Lisbon, which seemed a lifetime away.

As Adam walked toward the tired man, I realized Jose might not remember Adam. And Adam didn't know Jose was blind. We hadn't mentioned it, and Jose wasn't wearing dark glasses. Jose wouldn't see Adam coming. He wouldn't see Adam at all. He might not be able to put a name to this little person he'd never seen, only heard. Adam was a voice from another time zone, another continent, another reality. Would Adam's five-year-old feelings be hurt? Should I have left well enough alone?

I stood nearby and listened. "Bye, Jose," whispered Adam.

Jose looked up and smiled. "Take care, Adam."

Last year I e-mailed this story to the contact address on Jose's official Web site. I got a lovely note back from Jose's wife, Susan, who told me their family is doing well and that the baby she was carrying when we met Jose in Lisbon was now 14 years old. We mothers exchanged a few e-mails about how time flies.