Sunday, June 2, 2013
SAVE THE DATES! I’ll be in St. Louis September 17 to October 15, 2013.
It took 10 years I guess, but I finally had enough “frequent-flyer” miles (35,000) to get a free trip! I was pretty nervous as I picked my way through the United (nee Continental) website, and when I hit a snag (“You need 14,000 more miles”), I was ready to call. I had already stocked my cell phone with extra minutes. A wonderful agent named Patricia quickly assessed the situation and said I if came one day earlier my free seat would be available. So I’ll come to St. Louis without an $800 deficit (the price of a ticket) before I even arrive.
ESTA ES SU CASA--JUNE 2013
CHILI TODAY, HOT TAMALE
THE BEACON made a nice thing of my last report; take a look:
Actually, I’m not sure I’ll get a big welcome in St. Louis if I come with my hand out again. Because I have a lot of deficits! All three of my credit cards are gasping for breath, and my bank account is running on fumes. I had to crawl to my bank in Yoro three times this month, just to eke out a little more credit. I get my monthly pension from Parkway, of course, but I’m like Oliver Twist. “Please, sir, I want some more.”
What happened? Just look at Chemo’s family. So often I see on FACEBOOK parents flummoxed and floundering with a sick child. Soon they are swathed in Like’s and Comment’s, followed by updates from a miraculous health-care system. Albita, Chemo’s 2-year-old niece, and Keila, his 2-year-old cousin, were recently like a tagteam, each getting sicker than the other. An adult might weather the storm, but when it’s a baby, you panic. So off we go to the best doctor in the area, Dr. Wilmer Landa in Victoria. What am I supposed to say? “I can’t afford it”? Then Dania, Keila’s aunt, kept getting sicker, scaring me pretty good when she could barely move, her legs as heavy as lead. An alarmist I guess, I thought she might be experiencing the onset of MS. Turns out it was a heavy dose of tonsillitis, and again Dr. Wilmer saved the day, and emptied my wallet.
But the poster child for the Las Vegas run of “Les Miserables” has to be Manuel from Terrero Blanco. Son of the inveterate drunk Renan, this poor child of God lost his mother Maria Enemecia to cancer in February (see the March CASA). He comes down the mountain every day now, to my house, mourning his mother; mentally retarded and epileptic, he can barely express, or contain, himself. “Miguel, look at me. My mother died. I miss her.” Even the Phenobarbital I keep him supplied with can’t stop the seizures anymore. I’m pretty much at a loss myself. Every day he needs something, a flashlight, new boots, a machete, always money for food. Dorothy Day, who loved the poor to the point of sainthood, warned us do-gooders that the poor can wear you out. One day, I got so annoyed with Manuel that I pushed him out the door. Like Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” he instinctively raised the broken blade of his machete, and he might have killed me, but I grabbed him and hugged him, till we both calmed down. I wept like Simon Peter when he denied Jesus, and swore to myself I’d never “deny” Manuel again.
Let’s just say, if I sold my house, I’d break even. That’s what I tell kids who pester me every day for “provision” and every night for a soda. “I need my money for emergencies!” But when poverty itself is an emergency, it’s hard to graph the triage. I guess I’m like James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” crying “poor house” all the time till he poisons every relationship in his whole family. After all, I asked for this, and after the way help poured in for Guillermo--who you are STILL helping as he gets ready for another post-op check-up--I just sound ungrateful.
But I have been thinking about a fund raiser. The artist-formerly-known-as-Chepito, who now goes by “Jose,” is still churning out the drawings. What are they worth? I might follow the example of Maude Frickert, a character created by the late, great Jonathan Winters, selling greeting cards. “They cost $10,000; that way I only have to sell ONE.” Just kidding!
I’ve been getting lessons in fund raising in my role as president of the Junta Directiva, the officers of the parents association at the school. In fact, raising money is our only job description, I’d say. I had thought some ideas might be discussed or issues, but the problems are much more concrete, in fact, the problems ARE concrete, and canaletas, and zinc, etc., for the two new classrooms under construction. So we meet to promote “activities,” to raise money. I call the meetings, but I’m really more like a silent partner than a president, since I’m clueless. And they understand that; when I wanted a picture of the Junta, no one even suggested, Hey, Miguel, YOU should be in the picture, too! I think I was “chosen” because folks thought I had a pipeline from the U.S. flowing with cash. But I cede the direction to Profe Flor, who is not shy at all about taking the initiative.
Our first fundraiser was rather modest. During the recent annual fair that I talked about last month, we sold “orchata,” a popular flavored drink, in little plastic bags. It was slow going, three long days as we sat at the edge of the soccer field with music blasting out of huge speakers and another nearby tent hawking “COLD BEER.” (Guess who had more customers!) I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time, since Minga, Maria, and Doris, and Juana and Gloria were all taking turns, and no one even expects a man to “do” food, but I was there as support. Our biggest sale was the 30 bags that I bought myself and gave out at a dawn service up at the church.
Flor immediately “suggested” we invest the proceeds in another, bigger project, nacatamales. This would really rake in the cash, because every kid in school would have to buy one, or two if they were in high school. I couldn’t even imagine how this would work, though of course everyone was telling me at the meetings. I finally got it. Flor, in the name of the Junta, obliged the teachers to oblige their students to oblige their parents to cough up 8 Lempiras per tamale. It works, don’t you know, because each teacher is responsible for their class; if the kids don’t pay, the teacher has to make up the deficit. So let me tell you, no coin was left behind! And if I, as the “face” of this Ponzi scheme, weren’t such a nice guy, the parents would have probably lynched me!
This was a big deal, 600 tamales. But, again, no one even suggested I attempt any cooking, so I did all I could to fill in the gaps, shuttling between three different “equipos,” or teams, a go-fer for firewood, palm leaves, corn grinding, vegetables, and chicken and whatever else. In fact, I “cheated” and got extra chicken so the tamales, usually a Christmas treat, would be even richer. I spent my own money on the supplies, you know, to increase the profit margin. I also played parent to quite a few of the poorer kids whose mommy or daddy could not afford the 8 Lempiras for their tamale. It was the least I could do, since the women did all the hard work. But Minga, bless her heart, led the chorus of thanks at the end of day. “Miguel, you were the only one [meaning the only man] who helped us. You were always right there.” Flor, more hard nosed, wasn’t thanking anybody till the money was counted. “The ‘billetes’ [bills, as in dollar bills] will tell the story.” So she made Maria, the treasurer, sit right down and total up. Pretty soon everyone was counting and re-counting, till Flor was satisfied that our goal of 4000 Lempiras ($200) had been met. Then she sprung for a couple big sodas to share with the crew. And chips. I have to hand it to her, she keeps us focused. Next up, baleadas!
The rewards of the “poor house” are so abundant that I cannot even think about leaving. For example, the birthdays, when we get a chance to celebrate them, including don Ramiro, turning 100 and still with it, his devoted gaze at his sister Olimpia worth the price of admission. Little Beatriz with her first birthday cake ever, a “loaner,” as it were, since it was an unsold Mother’s Day cake the local store had in reserve. A few days later, her daddy Marcos‘ birthday, 29, Chemo’s cousin. That same day, Yoemi (pronounced “Jamie”) had her first birthday and Cristian and Aurora, against all odds, managed to persuade Profe Flor to give them a little discount on the cake she’s famous for. A long hike (they told me it was “across the river”) up, way up, to Quebrada de Agua to see one of the most active communities around, led by Ines and his wife Ana, even though it’s a challenge to look a man in the face and call him “Agnes.” There’s a lot of other blessings--Chemo ALMOST passing a test--but I hope you can see even in the things that break your heart, a Spirit is at work, promising our common humanity.
After a few false starts, “invierno” (“winter”) finally burst from the heavens at 3:00 in the afternoon with a wild storm of deluging rain and whipping winds on May 31st, the same day, I believe, that folks in St. Louis were diving for cover from tornadoes. While you were heading for the basement; we found ourselves stranded at the highest point in town, huddled in the little church, where we were closing out the month of “las flores,” the daily devotion of children bringing flowers to Mary’s shrine. Almost tore the roof off the place! But after forty minutes or so, the calm returned and we finished up with coffee and rolls.
Now the plowing, planting, and scare-crowing will begin in earnest, as the seed corn falls into the ground and and dies and soon puts up a sheen of green shoots on the black earth. Mud everywhere for the next five months, buses slipping up and down unpaved roads, clothes never quite drying on the line, I’ve already lost one umbrella. But plenty of water at last in the pipes and faucets. I don’t have to bathe out of bucket anymore. And La Pena, the mountain that defines our landscape, no longer shrouded in a haze of heat, wears a shawl of fluffy fog in the morning. I suggested to Chepito--I mean, Jose--that he try to draw the full moon that shone like a spotlight in the clear night. “Nature” is not his forte, so when he came a couple nights later with the drawing, I offered some constructive criticism. “The moon should be more white; this is so yellow, how can you tell it’s the Moon?” He put me in my place. “It’s full of stars.” Blue stars. The kid’s a genius!
But Chemo is my hero. When first-quarter grades came out and Chemo was at the bottom, I wasn’t even going to show them to him. Till he insisted. And he immediately started talking about “next year,” when he’d do better. He gets up and goes to school every day, it has to be a literal drag, but his teachers love him like their own child, he causes no problems, plays with everybody, no one has more friends.
What with the electricity going off half the time, and the Internet spoiling for a fight, I wrote this CASA out in longhand first. Now I have a better appreciation for what I put you through! If you’re still reading, thank you!
Monday, May 6, 2013
ESTA ES SU CASA--MAY 2013
The Beacon illuminates my last report:
Let’s start again with more good news about Guillermo! He’s back home in Las Vegas, enjoying a relaxed recovery, still weak--no reason to rush this--but buoyed by Erlinda’s attentive care and tasty menus. I can attest to both, especially the latter. You’re in the house any longer than 10 or 15 minutes and she’s got a plate of food in your hand, or, most recently, a big cup of mango juice.
I thought the surgeons would just extract the cancerous pocket from Guillermo’s stomach, but when Erlinda showed me the papers, photos, and drawings, it appears they actually cut Guillermo’s stomach in two, above and below the cancer, and sutured the remainder to the colon. Wow! That seems pretty radical, and I would have been even more doubtful of Guillermo’s survival if I’d had any idea they would do that! My faith in Honduran medicine is renewed. But the real miracle, that baffled even the doctors, is that subsequent tests show no metastasis at all. Erlinda showed me that page three times, and Guillermo was practically speechless, just smiling ear to ear. And again and again, they thanked me for your help. “We just could not have done this without that help,” basically because everything had to be paid in advance. So count yourselves “first responders,” as fast on the scene as the spirited folks of Boston.
Chemo could use some kind of metastasis. His math teacher told him he does not have a single point, he’s flunked every quiz. “I can do the homework, I can’t do the tests.” But I keep encouraging him. Hey, even zero is a number, so that’s SOMETHING, right?
But I knew I could not take him to Tegucigalpa, and miss school, as I kept postponing a trip because I didn’t want to leave him behind. But he actually told me to go, when it seemed I’d get him a new phone for the one that seems to have been stolen. So I finally went, knowing that Chemo’s brother Marcos was still there.
In Tegus, Roberto, world’s best cab driver, was waiting for me. We swept by Barrio Suyapa to pick up Marcos, but the minute we got to the hotel, even while we were still hugging Angelica, Marcos’ bright yellow tee-shirt was covered with “chilios”--tiny insects no bigger than an eyelash--leaping out of the low, leafy trees; as fast as we’d brush them off, they regrouped. They even slipped into his eyes, virtually blinding him. “Change his shirt! Change his shirt!” Angelica cried. While Marcos ran into the hotel to rinse his eyes, I ran across the street to a dollar store and got him a dark blue tee. Problem solved. Weird, huh? But that’s why we’re waiting for the rains--to wash the trees clean!
Marcos’ birthday was approaching (April 25, feast of St. Mark), and his phone had been stolen by some delinquent in his dangerous neighborhood. So I would buy two phones, one for Chemo and another for Marcos. The best price was CLARO at the Cascadas Mall (about $15 apiece), and some serendipity must have been guiding us, because as soon as we arrived Marcos lit up like a firecracker. “The Circus is here!” There it was, a bigger-than-life bigtop, a great, glowing tent, running lights on every surface, and a huge banner, “Tonight only--2 for 1.” We couldn’t miss this, though we both agreed we wouldn’t mention it to Chemo.
Circuses have become controversial in recent years, and I admit I have been cowed as well, though my whole childhood can be measured in the ecstasies of entertainment that only the circus can provide. Reading recently “The Circus that Ran Away with a Jesuit Priest” had whet my appetite again; it’s a beautiful memoir by Nick Weber, whose “Royal Lichtenstein Giant 1/4 Ring Circus,” as poetic as it was magical, entranced mostly college audiences for 20 years. I saw every performance I could ever get near. So this Suarez Brothers Circus from Mexico sitting in the Cascadas Mall parking lot was the Promised Land.
Marcos and I scurried to complete our errands, the two phones, Pizza Hut (the wings!), and other items on my list, and soon we found ourselves in the cheap seats (the best view) at the circus. It was a wonder! Maybe small in scale compared to those three-ring extravaganzas, but a series of delights and thrills, from the happiest juggler in the world, throwing balls all over the tent and catching them in his pocket, to that huge spinning wheel where the acrobat climbs out on top and keeps losing his balance--almost! Scares me to death. Only two animal acts, but they were big, literally. Sixteen horses, Clydesdales, no less, with a toy pony running in and out of their marching, dancing legs. And just as many enormous Bengal tigers; here was “Life of Pi” without the CGI, jumping all over the cage, including through hoops of fire, and practically swallowing their tamer. I forgot my camera, so the only photo I got is the one we had to buy. But I was glad it would live in my memory.
We invited Elio and Mema to lunch at the Mirawa Restaurant the next day, and as we sat there all full, looking at platters that were still heaping, suddenly in comes Elio and Mema’s very pregnant daughter Regina and two nuns she had invited to lunch to celebrate a school they had just opened in a poor little town near Tegucigalpa. We invited them to dive in, and soon we had a party going on. Since the nuns live in the same dangerous neighborhood as Marcos, I encouraged Marcos to join their Youth Group. Lovely and lively and non-judging, Sister Teresa and Sister Suyapa reminded me of the two nuns Holden Caulfield runs into in “The Catcher in the Rye”; he keeps looking for them again, since they’re virtually the only people who don’t abuse him. But Marcos, of course, was mortified. And Teresa understood. “Don’t worry, Marcos! We won’t bite. Poor kid, he comes to lunch and gets a couple nuns sicced on him!”
Back in Las Vegas, preparations were underway for the annual Feast of the Holy Cross, May 3. Like Christmas and Holy Week, the secular and the sacred compete for attention. Nominally religious feasts, they are also vacations. When the Festival Committee showed us their plans in a tri-fold brochure for the week’s activities May 1-5, they’d left us only one night and one morning for, shall we say, Jesus.
But Padre Jaime was determined to make the most of it. First of all, he wanted the Cross to lead the parade on May 1, to set the proper tone; May 2, an evening procession through town, armed with candles and bullhorn, with six stops along the way, mostly near liquor sellers, to preach our “mission,” followed by Mass and vigil till midnight; May 3, a morning Mass for the feast itself. Attendance was huge; we’d invited every other town around us, and Padre Jaime brought his “big band” choir from Victoria to really jazz things up. And then we snuck in another morning of activities, Saturday, May 4, with games and foods and music, up at the church grounds where the Committee wouldn’t see us, for a “Family Day.”
Tipping the balance in favor of faith was a knot of novenas that were being observed the same week. The regular novena in the little church anticipating the feast, as well as the one-year anniversary of the death of Doña Sofia, the ancient lady whose family wanted to honor with a full-blown novenario, and then, unexpectedly, the death of another dear soul, Doña Mercedes, 85, prompting yet another nine-day round of prayer. My chairs were all over the place, and the Legion of Mary, in charge of all three novenas, went non-stop, 2:00 p.m., 3:30, 5:00, every day. The core of each celebration was the Rosary, customized with songs here, a meditation there, Bible readings over there. Pardon me, but I loved it! It seemed so ironic that, while there were soccer games, horse games, even pig games, not to mention drinking games every day, beauty pageants, “mojigangas” (clowns in scary masks), and beer-soaked dances at night, a steady Catholic cadenza was anchoring the week dedicated to God’s mercy. Indeed, “mercedes” means “mercy.” And Padre Manuel even offered Mass right in Mercedes’ house.
The last night of Mercedes’ novenario coincided with the finale of the Feast, Saturday, May 4. I already called her “the sweetest lady I ever met” on FACEBOOK (where a friend gently reminded me about my own mother, so I need to say, “ONE of the sweetest ladies”!), but I appreciated her even more during the novenario when her family came from far and wide to do everything first-class. Her husband Vicente, I have to admit, had been a curiosity to me. Vicente was trampled by his own horse that threw him off many years ago, leaving him misshapen but still with a quick wit unimpeded by the cracks across his skull. With his wife’s death and his family’s support, he warmed up to his Christian faith again, something he had left up to Mercedes to handle all these years. In fact, the morning Mass for the Feast doubled as a memorial Mass for Mercedes. Vicente, accompanied by children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, was in quiet tears most of the time, his crippled hands folded in prayer.
Turns out it was Vicente who, before his accident, had taught carpentry to Elvis my neighbor all those years ago. So that last night of her novenario featured a concert organized by Elvis for his “second father,” a sing-along of all our favorite church songs, while the Rey Feo (“ugly king”) contest was running in the dance hall a couple blocks away, where guys dress (or cross-dress!) as ridiculously as possible and prance and perform. You know, most of the stuff during the feast really is just a bunch of fun, things you’d never blame anyone for--especially the marimba music, good anytime--if it weren’t competing with the Cross of Christ! So live and let live, I guess. That’s a motto of A.A., always a wise touchstone. God does not hide.
I’m sorry this CASA is “late.” I decided to wait for the fiesta, partly because so much was going on I could not get it finished sooner, and partly because I was scared to death that Chemo would get drunk and lost with the abundance of temptations. He came home late most nights, but somehow kept his cool. Of course, I did find a condom in his jeans when I washed them last, but he assures me some buddy “hid” it there. If you hear any different, let me know!
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
ESTA ES SU CASA--APRIL 2013
The Beacon version of my last newsletter is a gem:
About 10 days ago, I sent a separate update on Guillermo’s successful operation (and posted on FACEBOOK), and he continues to improve. I am anxious every time I call his wife Erlinda, fearing any setbacks, but it’s been good, and better, news each day. Within a couple days or so he was taking little walks, taking baths, enjoying a liquid diet, a nice step up from intravenous. A week later, he was ready to check out of the hospital, to stay with his daughter MariCruz and her husband, who live in a quiet little neighborhood of simple houses on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, with a diet of mostly fruit and vegetables. His digestive system has resumed its regular functions, as Erlinda happily reported in somewhat simpler terms. Erlinda laughed when a I mentioned “carne” (red meat), and of course I was kidding. That’s way down the line! Talking with Guillermo himself is a delight, he is just so grateful for his new lease on life. “It’s just like a miracle, Miguel. I thank EVERYBODY! Please tell your friends that.” Now they await results of the biopsy, to see if they got it all or if Guillermo will need more treatment, such as chemotherapy. So don’t cancel your dance card just yet!
Let me give a little account of your very generous donations. I didn’t want to send any money on to Erlinda before the operation, for fear it wouldn’t last, but with all the postponements, they really did need as much as they could get, just for Guillermo’s medications, not to mention paying for all the utensils, including blood, BEFORE the operation. Since they managed to wrangle a deal at the public Catarino Rivas Hospital, the operation was a lot cheaper, so it balanced out. The public hospitals are swamped with emergencies--shootings, stabbings, bloody car wrecks, etc.--and so they often keep postponing these “elective” surgeries till the patient finally dies, as may be the case with my next-door neighbor Pichin, with prostate cancer, after three fruitless trips already to the same Catarino Rivas Hospital. So Guillermo’s success IS a miracle!
But things are never simple. While Guillermo was still waiting for his operation, his granddaughter, little Mariana Teresa (“Marite”), 3, suddenly puffed up again, her kidneys apparently failing, so I presumed your permission to “spread the wealth” around, to help her mom Maricela rush her to Tegucigalpa, if such a grueling 7-hour trip can ever be a “rush.” The doctor had taken Marite off Prednisone at her last appointment a couple months ago--too soon, it seems. Maricela was beside herself, and a couple days later her husband Juan Blas joined her in Tegus, to keep things under control. Marite, in fact, began to improve in Tegus the same day Guillermo emerged successfully from his operation in San Pedro Sula. I hope it’s OK: you paid a lot of phone calls! And then there was Fausto, an orphan raised by Guillermo and Erlinda since he was an infant, stuck by himself here in Las Vegas, watching the house, and looking for help with some groceries. He also made a trip to San Pedro to see his “papa,” again thanks to you. As Erlinda said, “Miguel, they can’t stand to be separated!”
And as I am writing this, Elba, 21, from Pueblo Nuevo, came to show me the results of her exams for ovarian cancer. I had paid her way to Tegucigalpa for the tests. There’s a nasty tumor there, all right. Her operation is scheduled for April 15 at San Felipe Hospital in Tegucigalpa. What can I say? I guess together you and I can send her off with a little “got your back”...? Donaldo her husband, scared to death, will go, too, while grandma Chila takes care of their two little girls.
I’m sorry that these newsletters sound like a litany of “bring out your dead.” It just seems there’s another Guillermo every week.... I guess I reached out to you all in his case because maybe I panicked; the sinkhole seemed to open up so suddenly and I didn’t have even a patch. And your love overwhelmed us!
Guess who’s the new president of the Parent-Teacher Association. As we sweltered in the heat at the meeting to elect the new board, I kept my head down, but as the minutes wore on, I decided I would accept the position if they asked me. Finally, somebody “nominated” me, someone else seconded, and that was that. I did it for Chemo! I thought, they can’t flunk the son of the president, can they?
But I was desperate, you see, after Chemo had missed almost a week of class. We had timed an appointment in Tegucigalpa to renew his passport with a visit from Andy Kwok (Parkway North 2003), who came down with a group from his church in Michigan to help poor kids with health care. Andy visited us in Las Vegas in 2010, and we didn’t want to miss this opportunity. The group had a “rest” day, so we tagged along, to the Picacho, where the giant statue of Jesus overlooks the city in a big, beautiful park. We had already hooked up with Chemo’s brother Marcos again, and everyone played soccer. These folks were amazing! They treated us like best friends, including sharing their lunch with us, and giving us a ride back to our hotel.
By the way, I doubt Chemo’s ever going to use that passport. We got it originally 5 years ago, when it looked as if he would have his heart operation in the U.S. I thought we might as well renew it, just in case. I have to say the chief Migration agent Maritza went out of her way to accommodate us; at first, Chemo seemed to be in no-man’s land. Because he is under 21, they could not renew it without his parents (“But he’s an orphan!” I explained) or without adoption papers (“He WAS my son, until he turned 18”). After a lengthy “consultation,” they made an “exception,” a bureaucratic miracle. Alejandra, who actually processed the passport, including an “interview,” treated him like a visiting dignitary!
We got back to Las Vegas just in time for one of the wildest events you’re ever gonna see, the dog and cat vaccinations. Folks brought their animals, all brimming with excitement till they found themselves gagged with a rope looped through a tree root and pinned to the ground while big, bad Elvin grabbed a hind leg and jabbed them with the serum. Every owner got a little tag, some 3 or 4, as proof of protection. The line seemed endless, at least 250 “pets.” The kids even got off early from school, for the round-up.
Speaking of animals, we worked like dogs hauling rocks and sand for the projected wall around the church. I threw myself into the task, and almost as quickly threw myself out of it. You know, somebody had to take pictures! This is how they built the pyramids, I guess. Mostly teens helped with the rocks, forming a hand-to-hand line-up to Elvin’s big, bad truck; and mostly men with shovels got the sand in motion with the help of three pick-ups. But they had been shamed into it when the ladies of the Legion of Mary started carrying the sand in cooking pots up the hill on foot.
In Honduras, Father’s Day is celebrated on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, husband of Jesus’ mother Mary. You may have seen a headline from the new Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass on that day, where he said of St. Joseph that we should not be afraid of “tenderness.” The school celebrated us dads with a special event including the marvelous marimba players and presentations from every grade. Some of the seventh-graders did a folk-dance, and I would have loved to see Chemo participating; he does dance all over the house, when his rap music is loud enough.
The last of the coffee-pickers wandered home by the middle of March. It was a hard year of work stuffed into a couple or three months, endless and mostly fruitless, since the coffee crop was so sparse this year. But Marcos, Dania, and their three little ones were glad to be home, even without much to show for their sojourn. The family returned in time to celebrate Damaris’ 14th birthday, which we did in pretty simple style, cold sodas and cookies. I promised her we’d do better next year when she turns 15, the special time for a young lady. I kept trying to compliment her on her dimples, but I forgot the Spanish word; we played Password for about 5 minutes till someone finally figured out what I was trying to say, “chocayos.”
Holy Week was unseasonably cold, that is, below 70 degrees, even with a little rain, so that may have kept the drunks in check somewhat. Meanwhile, the religious side of it was somehow more moving than ever, Good Friday in particular. The teens surprised me when they dusted off the little scripts I had written for the Stations of the Cross years ago. I felt so dumb, I was tearing up at my own words! We wandered all over town, 14 different houses, each of which had prepared a little altar decorated with flowers and pictures, and some with carpets of pine needles on the ground. And Holy Saturday, the church ablaze with candles.
My ancient neighbor Santos passed away as Holy Week began. At 95, he had long been blind and deaf, but so good-hearted that he carried on a conversation with you just by guessing what you were saying. He would have been a whiz at FACEBOOK! We prayed his novenario, nine days of mourning, as a fitting backdrop to Jesus’ last days. Despite a face as monumental as the rock and sand we hauled, he was as playful as a kitten.
Thank you for filling us with life!
Friday, March 1, 2013
ESTA ES SU CASA--MARCH 2013
For last month’s events, check in with THE BEACON:
Before any more time passes, I have to thank you and thank you a million times for your help with Guillermo, whether with prayers, concern, your attention, and cash. No sequester here! Your kindness is unlimited. In case you missed my e-mail, Guillermo, 65, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and the family was simply at a loss when told the operation would cost 40,000 Lempiras ($2000), not to mention all the other expenses, tests, medicine, etc., even the instruments for operation itself, right down to the thread! That’s the way health care in Honduras works, or doesn’t. So I held my breath and sent out the call, and you responded like a choir of angels.
I thought I’d hold off on this CASA till the operation was over. But it’s been re-scheduled several times already. Right now, we’re looking at March 11. The family is looking for blood donors. They have to have a certain number of pints before the surgery. Doesn’t matter what type, the hospital bloodbank just has to balance out. Guillermo’s own children are all diabetics (I guess from his wife Erlinda), so they’re out; but their spouses and friends are stepping forward.
The night before Guillermo and Erlinda headed off to San Pedro Sula, we had a wonderful prayer service at their house. Guillermo cried several times--a hard thing for a Honduran man to do in public--first from grief, even despair, because he felt all day like death, and then, by the end of the evening, from a gratitude and hopefulness beyond words. Next day, he woke up feeling like a new man. “They gotta check me again, I think I’m cured!” Of course, they did check him again, in San Pedro, and the tumor is still there, but it is as nicely placed as possible, in a sac of some kind, at the base of the stomach, its major threat in virtually closing off the path to the colon. So I guess they just pluck out the ball of bad and close him up! Could it really be that simple? Keep your guard up, if you can, and I hope to report a cure.
Now, back to the old news.
My life flashed before my eyes--or maybe it was just the shower of breaking glass. Dodging a speeding cab, I made a great spin move (it was right after the SuperBowl and I actually thought of Ray Lewis), but my right elbow broke the driver's side of the windshield, and I felt the wheel run over the tip of my right foot, as the cab came to a screeching halt, the young driver pointing and gesturing in frustration--like it was MY fault!
It was just a matter of time. Chemo has saved me innumerable times in big cities from getting run over. This time he was waiting across the street in another cab as I delivered 1500 Lempiras (about $75) to a couple sons of Maria Enemecia, who was in the Hospital Escuela, waiting for an operation for cancer of the liver. I got across the first 5 or 6 lanes of traffic when the cab came out of nowhere. I saw the tiny shards of glass glistening on my clothes in the bright sun and a couple dots of blood on my elbow. I sort of wondered about my foot, but it barely hurt at all. All I saw was that a little strip of the shoe cover (apparently it wasn't leather!) had been shaved off. I spontaneously gave the cabbie 500 Lempiras to "settle" the thing and we hurried on our separate ways.
We had already picked up Chemo's brother Marcos at Colonia Suyapa, where he and his boss had been plying the tourist trade with a roulette wheel during the big Feast of Our Lady of Suyapa. With Marcos, food is always a priority, and we ended up at Pizza Hut again for the umpteenth time. (Marcos loves the wings!) When I finally took off my shoe, there was nothing, not even bruises, on my toes, all in working order, just a little...squished.
We had come for Chemo's appointment with the Helping Hands for Honduras heart brigade. Just a check-up, and Dr. Mike Carbonari of New Jersey gave Chemo a big thumbs up, come back in a year. It was over so fast, and Ron Roll, in charge of Helping Hands, was running around, we barely even had time for a quick photo with his wife Alba. Just continue with Chemo's meds, dosages so tiny the pieces of pills I've cut up get lost in Chemo's hand. Then, lots more eating, including a lunch at Mirawa, where we hosted Elio and Mema, their favorite restaurant. They were both much better than we found them in last month's newsletter following the death of their “patron saint,” Padre Nicolas.
And shopping. We had to find a uniform for Chemo. Nothing in Las Vegas was big enough, for his (now) rather wide bottom and short legs. We tried local stores, but, well, only Wal-Mart could fit him. (And even at that, Dora had to shorten the pants.) After a couple days, we were ready to dispatch Marcos back to his dangerous colonia, and head home, when suddenly my MacBook computer screen went dark. So we stayed one more day to take the computer to the Apple specialists at JetStereo. Where of course it worked the instant the technician touched it. Overjoyed, I didn’t even suspect any further trouble, so we celebrated with one last meal. Chemo and I got home Friday.
The computer worked twice more, and quit. I KNEW it! But there was no way I could whip around and return to Tegus. School was starting Monday! In fact, the kids had been doing clean-up and such, so Chemo was already behind. And, believe me, it was touch-and-go right up until he walked out the door at 6:30 a.m. whether he would really go or not. I had left all possibilities open, and somehow, miraculously, he finally opted for this one. But, “I’m going alone!” he declared, as I followed him out to the street. “No, no, I’m just going up to the church,” I assured him. But we both knew I couldn’t miss his entry into seventh grade; I was so thrilled, I had to pinch myself. I greeted the Principal Profe Flor, and his four teachers and thanked them all for everything and anything I could think of. And then I did go up to the church, a little devotion I’ve assigned myself for Lent. But I do have much to pray about.
For Chemo, school is still touch-and-go. Some classmates who are, like, 12 years old, make fun of how “big” Chemo is at 18. The middle-school syndrome is universal, I guess. And the homework. “They write too fast, I can’t keep up.” On the whiteboard, he means. With virtually no textbooks, a lot of the “subject matter” comes off the board into your notebooks, and Chemo is very undexterous--handicapped, almost--in his writing. When he was up till 1:00 a.m. recently, copying the notes of a classmate, he announced, “I’m not going to school today, I’m too tired.” But when 6:00 o’clock came around, I started to wake him. “Chemo, it’s Friday, you can sleep all day tomorrow, you’re doing so great,” etc., etc. Then I enlisted the help of Dora, who’s been getting kids up for school for 20 years. She came over and had the magic touch. Soon I heard Chemo in the shower.
As soon as the quizzes and tests begin, however, the writing may be on the wall. Supposedly, the government has tamed the curriculum this year, making it a little more user-friendly. Indeed, there are two sections of seventh grade, 35 students each; there’s just one section of eighth grade, about 32, and about half that again in ninth grade. So you see what happens. What are the chances of Chemo being one of the survivors? I had already decided in my own mind to spend all the time necessary helping him with his homework, but he’s doing so well, he meets with his little group every day to work together. So I have time to write this newsletter!
I did swing back to Tegus the next weekend, and they fixed the problem the same day. Seems a loose wire or two from the base to the screen cut off the lights. That’ll happen; good Lord, the computer’s bouncing around 6 hours or more in my backpack on the bus on these trips. A lot of things come loose. But Marcos was not loose. The gangs were getting to him. I didn’t even think he was still in Tegus when he called me to say a couple tough guys wanted 500 Lempiras to leave him alone. My trip was so short, I was already on my way back to Las Vegas when he called. So I had to send him the money from a bank in Victoria. For now, that seems to have ended the threats. But I keep telling him, “Tell Peludo [his boss’ nickname] to get you outta there!” They are due to follow the sun, as it were, to the Next Big Thing, wherever another crop of cornpones can be fleeced.
Dulis, just 18, was shot and killed up in the mountains. For some reason, no one’s death has scared me more, and not just because around here folks pronounce my name “Dulis.” Back before I met Chemo, when Pablito and Chepito slept here while their dad Leon was in jail and they were still going to school, Dulis and his big brother Selvin were also in school, and they slept here, too, because their family was in the mountains. Those were some good days. I’d get breakfast, I’d do the wash, we’d do homework, I’d make dinner!, we’d pray every night, I’d have to flash the lights a few times to get them quiet enough to sleep, but I really loved their fun. They’re all clever, quick-witted, but Dulis was the natural comedian. I loved setting him up for punchlines. There are rumors flying as to why he was killed, but I’m ignoring them. His aunt’s house here immediately filled up with mourners when his body was brought down, and I helped a lot of them with busfare back to Tegus or San Pedro or Progreso or the mountains after the funeral. Selvin’s catatonia did not break for three days. Finally, he could talk and even relax a bit. He’s 20, but he started calling me “hermanito” (little brother), a term of affection unimaginable from him before this. Dulis’ girlfriend Flor just came by looking for a photo of him. A slim, sweet young child, she was weeping as she settled on a photo of Dulis’ sister in almost a pietá wiping blood from his chest where the bullets went in.
Vicenta, at 98, was 80 years older than Dulis, but her husband Pedro was as lost as Romeo without his Juliet when she quietly slipped away after a final illness. He’s very deaf, but that only means we HAD to express our sympathy physically with hugs and kisses. We did the novenario, nine days of mourning prayer, and when he saw folks standing up and moving around, he’d say, “Is the prayer over?” He doesn’t stop praying.
And Maria Enemecia’s cancer had spread uncontrollably, so blessedly they brought her back home from the hospital in Tegucigalpa to Terrero Blanco to die in the arms of her children. She was 53. How do you figure this? Her husband is the infamous drunk Renan, husband in name only, since his only loyalty is to the bottle. He’s fine, he’s gonna live forever; his wife dies of liver cancer! We thought he might take a turn to sobriety in the wake of his loss; he only took a U-turn.
Santos, Alba, and their children, Joel, Chila, Mirna, Reina, Albita, and their dog Peluche, returned to Las Vegas after 2 months of coffee picking in the mountains of Comayagua. The whole migrant enterprise was crippled this year by a raging epidemic of La Roya, a fungus that chokes the coffee tree. A lot of folks spent more time planting new trees than picking the few healthy ones, and the new seedlings won’t yield a crop for at least three years. Reina, 10, immediately started school, advancing to third grade. But she’s the only one “in the mix,” you might say.
While you are getting layer cakes of snow, we are in the throes of summer here, ripe, sun-hot days, unrelieved by any rains. Everything is bone dry. Folks love the cold water I keep on hand.
But nothing is more refreshing than your friendship! You send my roots rain!
Thursday, January 31, 2013
ESTA ES SU CASA--FEBRUARY 2013
For last month’s CASA, look to The Beacon:
I LIKE THE VERSION WITH THE TIGER
Tooth decay is a threat to a person with heart disease. So I had to bite the bullet, as it were, and get my cavities taken care of, lest I have a heart attack and leave Chemo alone in the world!
We went to Tegucigalpa with a menu of four to-do’s:
Renew my residency visa;
Renew my driver’s license;
Chemo’s check-up with the Brigada;
The dentist--if we had time!
At the last minute, the Brigada was postponed till February, so that was off the list. The earliest “appointment” I could get for my driver’s license was January 21st, so that was off the list. It took just an hour to renew my visa. So there was PLENTY of time for the dentist! Chemo had just two tiny “spots” that were quickly tended to, plus a cleaning. And all I wanted another temporary filling where cold drinks were giving me a shock. But when I opened my mouth, the doctor started poking and counting, calling out numbers to the assistant like a Bingo card. Twenty cavities! I didn’t know I still had that many teeth. I hadn’t really had a “diagnostico” in several years, because we had concentrated on a couple of fat molars we finally pulled out last year, after I persuaded Dr. Juan Handal to stop trying to save them.
When they quoted me the prices to clean up this mess, I almost DID have a heart attack. You remember last month I talked about getting robbed; this was a “fiscal cliff” ten times worse. I hemmed and hawed, hoping for some reprieve, and they did give me a discount, but ultimately I surrendered, as I said, for the sake of Chemo, who nevertheless would have much preferred I spend the money on a SmartPhone for him, to follow friends on FACEBOOK. He also reminded me that I have already arranged with my friend Fermin in Morazan to take care of him, should I die before my time. Sentimental, ain’t he?
So four long sessions and a thousand dollars later, I had a new mouth. (I kept hoping the bank would refuse the repeated charges to my credit card.)
As for the touch-up I thought I’d get, Dr. Handal recommended something more secure, a “protesis,” a sort of little plastic boot with a piece of (fake?) tooth tucked inside. It’s guaranteed for a year; I’ll probably chew it to pieces in a month. They gave me a discount on that, too. Oh boy.
Chemo’s big sister Rosa and little brother Marcos both happened to be in Tegucigalpa at the same time. Rosa was there looking for work, and Marcos was there with his itinerant boss, setting up games of chance for the biggest feast of the year, Our Lady of Suyapa, the patroness of Honduras, which draws as many as two million pilgrims to the capital. Rosa and Marcos weren’t staying together, but they were close enough--in the most dangerous neighborhood in the city--to take one cab to meet us at Pizza Hut. Things were very tense, just waiting for them, and it was already dark. They had agreed to meet up at a gas station. “I’m here,” says Rosa, “where’s Marcos?”
It’s a toss-up who’s more vulnerable, Rosa as a “girl,” or Marcos as potential gang bait. Finally, they arrived, and we ate pizza, salads, and 18 wings. I wanted to be sure Rosa got home okay (Marcos would stay with us at the hotel), and that cab ride, through endless little twists and turns of the narrow, muddy paths of La Era, looked like a colonoscopy. The guys hanging out along the streets seemed like imminent death. Were they just looking at us or were they planning something? We dropped Rosa off, and we shot out of there as fast as possible, the cab driver maybe the most relieved of us all.
Our last night in Tegus was Mema’s birthday party. It was the happiest I have seen her and Elio since they had to flee from a gang several years ago that was threatening their store and their very lives. I could not resist Mema’s invitation to dance! Chemo snapped pictures, when he wasn’t laughing himself sick. Mema and Elio thrive on hard work (that’s what made giving up their grocery such a sacrifice), so they prepared all the food themselves, not to mention the decorations. The whole family gathered, including neighbors, and the memory lingers on.
Next stop, after a couple days back home in Las Vegas, was El Progreso. This visit was made more urgent by the sad news we got while still in Tegus, that Catalina, only 26 years old, had had another stroke and died. I thought she was recovering! I had taken a beautiful picture of her in November, a sort of Mona Lisa pose. Her little son Jose, 4, does not understand; he keeps asking for mommy. Her husband Alfredo, his hair trimmed short for the funeral, had a sadness relieved only by hugging his son very tight. Since Cata’s birthday is July 14, I told the family at lunch (prepared by Santa, who always insists she is my fiancee), “Look, it’s January 14; let’s have a birthday party in Cata’s memory tonight.”
Meanwhile, I got an alert from a Jesuit in St. Louis that Fr. Ray Pease was very near death. Padre Ramón, a legend in Progreso, where he served for 50 years, founding the first co-ed Catholic high school in the country (and the first high school where the girls could wear slacks) and pastor of the city’s 300,000 souls, plagued with gang deaths and other violence virtually every day, had been in “maintenance” for several years with a rare incurable liver disease when a fall about a month ago exhausted all his remaining resources. Originally from Colorado, of Cherokee descent, he was a big bear of a man, often a Teddy Bear, tough as nails and gentle as a new mother, a keen story teller, and a wondrous celebrant of the sacraments, the Mass in near ecstasy.
I thought he must still be in a hospital in San Pedro, where I had visited him before, but I learned at the parish office that he was right there in Progreso at the Clinica Cristiana.
Signs were posted all over, NO VISITORS!, but they waved me in, where I found two doctors busy taking notes, and two young men that I guess were seminarians keeping vigil. Ramón was awake and when I took his hand, he started talking, struggling mightily to form his words. You know how you do, when you can’t figure out what some sick person is trying to say, you just nod and say, “Yes” and “Yes.” But Ramón would not accept my condescension. Finally, his face tightened and he spit out, “How’s...the...BOY?” “Boy” was the clearest word, and it could have been Spanish (‘voy’), till it finally dawned on me he was asking about Chemo! Oh, I just melted, and told him all about how Chemo had passed sixth grade and had his diploma and was going on to seventh grade, and all. Here’s a guy who’s DYING and he’s thinking about my son! Then, as distinctly as he could, he said, spelling the word to accommodate my dimness, “I’m going to S-L-E-E-P...now!” I bowed out of the room, hoping the witnesses would not annotate the disturbance I had caused....
That night at Santa’s house we had a party with pizzas and wings from Pizza Hut, and a cake I got with “CATA--TE QUEREMOS MUCHO” (“We love you”). The mood was rather somber, though Santa lightened the atmosphere by scolding me. “Don’t you EVER bring thin-crust pizza into this house again! I like it thick! I’m going to have to think twice about marrying you, after all!”
Next day, I headed to Morazan, where Chemo had gotten off the bus the day before (so I could not actually show him to Ramón at the hospital), to have extra time with Fermin’s kids, especially Eduard and Jose Miguel. Chemo greeted me with the news that he had seen an owl in the yard. An omen? A blessing? Or...an owl. This was to be our annual “vacation,” though Fermin was still recovering from an especially strong dose of the flu back in December (“Miguel, I thought I was going to die! I was making funeral plans with Maria.”)
I’m sure the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have minded sharing his birthday, January 15, with Fermin’s granddaughter Gladis Elena, who was turning 10. I accompanied Fermin and Maria to the supermarket and paid the bill for the festivities, including a piñata. A couple dozen boys and girls showed up to share the candy and a tub full of chicken-and-rice and lots of soda, and of course, cake. Pretty simple, really, but so much more than most children ever see here.
Two days later, as I was visiting Fermin’s daughter Esly at the radio station, where she does a show from 7 to 10 each night, word comes of Padre Ramón’s death. Suddenly his precious seeking of the “BOY” seemed even more miraculous.
I could not go to the funeral, because I had to get back to Las Vegas and get ready to return to Tegus for my Monday, January 21st, appointment to get my driver’s license (which I only use in the States when Teresa lets me use her car). Because this trip would be very quick, Chemo stayed behind in Morazan, for still more time with the family. Chemo wants to live in Morazan!
By all reports, Ramon’s funeral was huge, a civic event of inaugural proportions.
After all, he knew virtually everyone in Progreso. The church, big as it is, couldn’t hold a tenth of the people attending; then they processed Ramon’s casket around the city eight times, till returning to the church to bury him in the garden. Poor Ramon! a victim of his own popularity, he wanted to be buried with his fellow Jesuits on a lovely hillside in the general cemetery, but “the people” overruled him; they wanted to keep him close. The tribute in the newspaper was nice, but they repeatedly misspelled his name Ramón PEACE (instead of Pease), but what could be more fitting?
I went to Tegucigalpa on Sunday, January 20, on a bus so crowded I felt as I’d been packed in someone’s suitcase. I called Marcos on the way, for another meal at Pizza Hut, but this time for lunch, before the dangers of the dark. I called Rosa, too, but she was back at her mother’s, near the Guatemala border, hoping for work there. As he wolfed down his food, Marcos begged me to take him back to the hotel for the night. “I’ll sleep on the floor!” Poor kid, I had to say no, because my day would start early and stay busy. So I had to send him back into the belly of the beast.
I got my new driver’s license with no problem. Small world, turns out the doctor who gave me the eye test had been a student of Padre Ramon in Progreso. I did my other little chores and found myself downtown just as noon Mass was starting at the cathedral. My cell phone buzzed and I saw it was Elio calling. Actually, I was in line for confession at that point; another buzz indicated a voice message.
As soon as I left the church, I listened to the message. A heart-broken, barely audible voice: “Miguel, this is Elio. Padre Nicolas has gone to Heaven.” Fr. Nick Schiel, S.J., 88, had been in Elio’s life since his baptism. He performed Elio and Mema’s wedding, and baptized their four children. He always told Elio, “I’m going to bury you, too, my friend, if you don’t take care of yourself!” A Nebraska native, he was salt of the earth. He had a Ph.D. in languages, a professor at Creighton University, but he got the bug for the missions, and they sent him to the most remote area of Honduras, La Patuca, a desert bigger than the whole country of El Salvador. He was there forever. He’d go from village to village, three days minimum each visit, “Encuentros con Cristo” he called them, a sort of retreat he had developed. He’d be “out there” for weeks at a time, till he’d finally take a little break to visit Elio and Mema, who had moved to Tegucigalpa. That’s where I met him. He’d say Mass in the living room, just as intimate as if Jesus walked in. And every time he’d see me, he’d say, “Miguel, you know what your name means in Hebrew?” And every time I’d say, No, please tell me. “Mig-El: He who is like God.” I took it as a warning.
He seemed old-fashioned to some, as he got older and older, but he really just got simpler, a Francis of Assisi, utterly heedless of material comforts, preaching the love of God, in word and deed. He could live on beans, or just a salted tortilla, sleep on a bench in the little chapels, read his prayers by candlelight. Elio treated him like a king, but even there he’d just ask for soup. “They say I got a little stomach problem.”
And to think that he, too, was in Progreso; I could have visited him when I visited Ramon, but I didn’t know. So when Elio invited me to come with them to the funeral, I leapt at the opportunity. I had missed Ramon’s funeral; I wouldn’t miss Nick’s, too. And the irony was, I had to go to Progreso anyway, to swing through on the way to Morazan to pick up Chemo! When I called this “pure chance,” Elio’s daughter Felixa, a nun studying in Spain, calling on Skype, said, “No, Miguel, not chance at all; God’s planning this.”
And maybe God planned Elio’s collapse. He is diabetic and six other things that can knock him out at any moment, but you’d have to say the death of his “father” Nicolas was the blow that felled him. He was just too sick to go to Progreso, puffed up like a pillow, red as a beet, hot as blazes, weak as a kitten. His sister stayed behind to care for him; he wouldn’t allow any of us to miss this moment for Padre Nicolas.
We left in two cars from Tegus, about 6:30 p.m., arriving in Progreso about 10:30. Padre Nicolas was laid out in the tiny chapel of the San Jose high school. We sat and prayed for at least two hours, and then the Jesuits sorted us into rooms for the night.
If Ramon’s funeral was tectonic, Nicolas’ service was a cup of coffee. Except for his fellow Jesuits, no one in Progreso ever heard of him! We were just family, you might say, including others who somehow had come the great distance from La Patuca overnight. Padre Valentin Menendez gave a very appreciative sermon, but it was at the end of the Mass that the real significance of this man’s life appeared. “Excuse me, I just have to say something,” Mema began, and spoke in testimony of Padre Nicolas’ life and work that had us in tears. Aware that she was speaking for Elio, too, Mema held on and did not break down (later, she said, “I was praying like crazy that Padre Nicolas would give me strength!”), and that sparked other tributes, including a young priest and two nuns and another man, another woman, all from La Patuca who had worked with Nick. As they spoke, I thought, “You know what, I think I really knew a Saint.” I was going to say something myself (the “Mig-El” deal), but I knew I could never get through it; I was actually trembling.
A little caravan headed up to the cemetery, and there Nick was buried, exactly where Ramon longed to be, up a little slope, overlooking the city, with his band of brothers. We lingered and lingered, singing Nick’s favorite songs, led by Elio and Mema’s daughters Estela and Regina (pregnant with her third child, who will be “Nicolas” if it’s a boy), with lots of pictures by Elio, Jr., a professional photographer.
Afterwards, they dropped me off at the bus station and I hopped on a bus just about to pull out, heading up to Morazan. I got there for lunch. While I was away Eduard had helped Chemo open an account on FACEBOOK (Search “Chemo Hernandez.”) Oh man! Now I know I’m a mere appendix in his life.
But Chemo was also now helping Eduard mix cement and carry concrete blocks for a little house being built in the backyard, financed by Fermin and Maria’s first-born, Merlin, 30, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “She’s not sending enough!” says Fermin,
who is picking up the extra tab for Carlos the builder’s wages as well as materials. The house is for Merlin’s two daughters Gladis, 10, and Michelle, 6, who barely know her. Fermin is always planning for the future.
He’s trying to get me to plan for Chemo’s future, too. And Chemo himself said to me, “You never think about my future, Miguel.” Excuse me? That’s ALL I think about, and it scares me to death! You know, if I just knew exactly how long I was going to live, and if Chemo was going to succeed in school, or get a job, start a family, live a long time--if I could just be sure I could manage the tiger on board, as in “The Life of Pi”--it would be so much easier!
When I visited Esly during her afternoon shift at the radio station, the owner Gumercindo (“Chindo’), who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known Fermin, invited me to participate in the next day’s “religion hour.” “We’re going through the Creed; tomorrow it’s the Holy Spirit.” Theologically, that’s like Quantum Theory. I looked at Esly, for help; but her eyes were so bright and her smile so wide, even through the tinted glass, that I said yes on the spot. Here was another tiger I would have to have by the tail. I went back to the house and borrowed a Bible from Fermin to look up and check out and scratch down whatever I could remember about the Holy Spirit. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (which are actually in Isaiah 11:2-3) .... even the “unforgivable sin” against the Holy Spirit (but I put that way down the list, because I was going to be “positive”!). Most of all, when St. Paul says the Holy Spirit inspires us to call God “Abba,” that is, “Father.”
Next day, I pretty quickly picked up on the format. Esly was cueing the music (I kept glancing at her, pleading with my eyes, more cow bell! to fill up the time), Gumercindo introduced the show and a series of short Biblical readings, which a very shy woman to my left would read, and then Chindo: “Miguel, your comments, please.” Unbeknownst to me, every passage included the Virgin Mary, which is sort of the way it goes down here among us Catholics. But I had my talking points, so I made sure I emphasized how much we are all loved by God, who is Creator but humbly asks Mary’s consent to “conceive [Jesus] by the Holy Spirit” to live among us in the dust and dirt of a broken world and later when Jesus himself turns aside a disciple’s tribute to his mother: “Any one who does my God’s will is sister, brother, and mother to me!” And the “Abba,” not gonna leave that out.
Maria had a “bread class” one morning. She had never made bread before and she wanted to learn. I thought that was so fantastic, still eager for new things even after raising a family practically her whole life, including her daughter’s kids, not to mention getting an education and teaching grade-schoolers. When she asked me what was my favorite kind of bread and I said “batidas,” which is a sort of cornbread, little did I realize that would be what she would ask her friend Marta to teach her to bake! So we had mounds of cornbread for the next three days, with milk, with coffee, early morning, mid-afternoon, you name it. And she gave a lot away too, of course. But it was good, even better after the first day. Those of you who “know” bread can explain that, I guess.
Our last night in Morazan, we celebrated Eduard’s 19th birthday, with a barbecue and some friends of his. Fermin and Maria worked all afternoon to prepare the feast, marinate the meat, dice tomatoes, peppers, onions for “chimol,” a relish that I used to hate (being raised on ketchup) but which now I crave, especially because it means there’ll be a great meal! It takes me a while to register that Chemo is the same age, even older in some cases, as Eduard’s friends. And they’re all good kids. That’s why Chemo loves it in Morazan. “There’s no druggies here!” He walks such a gauntlet in Las Vegas, you see. But there are drugs and gangs and violence in Morazan, maybe not on Fermin’s street, but it’s a big town, and perfectly located away from the bigger cities for certain drug runners to settle in and run the place to their specifications.
Anyway, we reluctantly returned to Las Vegas, and Chemo says he wants to start seventh grade, he doesn’t want to, he does want to.... He feels “old.” Good Lord, he sees twelve-year-olds coming to my house for seventh-grade I.D. photos, kids literally half his size. He thinks I’ll “regañar” (‘scold’) him if he fails. Poor kid! If anything, I’m the one who failed.
Next stop, Chemo’s check-up with the Brigada February 6. Back to Tegucigalpa!
In “The Life of Pi,” the story is told to “make you believe in God.” Oh, I long to tell that story! This CASA is my latest attempt. I know it’s ridiculously long, or just ridiculous, but I don’t want to leave anything out. Maybe something somewhere somehow will open your heart--my heart, too--and we’ll choose the risks of riding with the Tiger, rather than the “rational” version of predictable results. As the reporter says at the end of the movie, “I prefer the version with the tiger.” And Pi affirms his choice, “And so it goes with God.” Mr. Parker, this one’s for you!
Thursday, January 3, 2013
ESTA ES SU CASA--JANUARY 2013
If you missed it, see last month’s CASA in THE BEACON: https://www.stlbeacon.org/#!/
On December 21, the day the world was supposed to end, I got robbed at knifepoint in my own house. About 8:00 o’clock at night, right after the Posadas, Kevin, 19, comes by
to watch a little TV. “Where’s your friend?” I ask, meaning Marvin, 17; they’re usually
together. Kevin actually lives with relatives in Tegucigalpa and is just visiting for the holidays. Chemo was still out, but his cousin Dionis was here. After about a half hour, Kevin says he’s leaving. When I open the gate to let him out, there suddenly appears a guy brandishing a knife, his face banded in a tee-shirt. “Back up! Back up!” Of course, at first you think it’s a joke, but I stifled my laughter and went on defense. “OK, OK, we’re moving, it’s fine, don’t hurt anybody.” He directed Kevin and Dionis into the kids’ room and took me into my room. “Gimme your wallet! Now!” “No problem, here you go, here you go.” What I didn’t realize was that Dionis had already identified the thief as Marvin--by his voice, by his clothes, by the little tuft of hair not covered by the mask--and was telling Kevin, “Let’s jump him!” But Kevin was saying no, no, we better not.
He grabbed the money, looked at it curiously, and shut me in the room, and ran out. When I heard the gate clang, I burst out, checked with Dionis and Kevin, and, my heart racing, I had to thank God he hadn’t grabbed my laptop sitting on the card table, or the iPod Nano that was already stolen once about a month ago, nor my cell phone. When Dionis says, “Miguel, it was Marvin,” I turn on Kevin, “You guys planned this together!” Kevin denied all complicity, but I told him, “Go find Marvin and tell him to bring back the money.”
As I told the story to other kids stopping by, or my neighbors Dora and Elvis, the sympathy and the advice poured in--put a security camera here, don’t let ANYONE in, call the police, tell their parents, let me go get ‘em (that last was Chemo’s solution!); but the most practical advice was what I had to formulate myself. Forgiveness. I’m no saint, nor even near it, but I’m sorta used to the idea. I see it every day in the Psalms I read, every day in the Gospel for Mass, every night in my own prayer, a slip of paper I found somewhere years ago that I keep by my bed:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I am worn out, I cannot pray really;
accept, O Lord, this monotonous voice and the words of prayer, and help me.
Help me, O God, to put off all pretences and to find my true self.
Help me, O God, to discard all false pictures of thee, whatever the cost to my comfort.
Help me, O God, to let go all my problems, and fix my mind on thee.
Help me, O God, to see my own sins, never to judge my neighbor, and may all the glory be thine!”
So I had had presence of mind enough that night--somehow--to tell Kevin, tell Marvin to return the money AND “tell him I forgive him.” It is the Christmas season, after all.
But wait, I was not totally Scrooged! In fact, when the thief asked for my “wallet,” I tried a trick I had used the last time I was robbed at knifepoint in my house a couple years ago. I grabbed all the cash out of the wallet and handed it to him, tossing the wallet itself behind the door of the darkened bedroom. Because the cash I gave him was sort of a thick wad, he didn’t take time to notice they were mostly small bills. Hidden in other pockets of the wallet was another trove of big bills worth about $500! I was acting all scared and stuff, but secretly I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this again!”
Perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of the season, I got a big Christmas present when Chemo passed his last math test on December 18 and was awarded his sixth-grade diploma. Turns out there is a Santa Claus and his name is David Suarez, Chemo’s teacher, who went out of his way, and two weeks deep into his vacation, to help carry Chemo across the finish line. Ironically, this puts Chemo a full year ahead of Elvis and Dora’s brilliant youngest child, Doricell, half Chemo’s age, who finished first in her fifth-grade class, the class the school wouldn’t let Chemo register for last year, because, at 18, he was “too old.” His Maestro en Casa course was a combo of fifth and sixth grades, you see. But Doricell is a lot more ready right now for seventh grade than Chemo, let me tell you. You know, the math he was doing was so weird and complicated that the year was over before I realized, gratefully, that it had not included the area of a circle or the volume of a sphere. But that means it’s lurking in the “high-school” curriculum, along with a lot of other exotica. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think there’s any way Chemo can do more advanced academic work. In fact, I was planning my own little course of study for him that would include lots of reading (“high-interest,” of course), including a little Bible or religion study. Some tests, quizzes, what have you, but no math!
To celebrate Chemo’s “graduation”--and Dionis’ Confirmation--we made a quick trip to El Progreso to see Teatro La Fragua’s signature production, “Navidad Nuestra,” ‘Our (Honduran) Christmas.’ Manuel Figueroa from Las Vegas (now teaching in El Progreso) was featured in multiple roles in this adaptation of the Christmas story. I asked Manuel what he would most like me to catch in a photo. “When Herod chokes me!” for telling him a new King has been born. Got it! By the way, Herod’s raging at the “subversive” new-born Jesus is taken almost verbatim from President Roberto Suazo Cordova’s 1983 denunciation of Padre James (‘Guadalupe’) Carney, the “subversive” Jesuit missionary who cast his lot with the poor and was assassinated by Cordova’s henchmen.
Another production, very Honduran as well, was a wedding of four couples in La Cuatro, just about the poorest little community around here. The ceremony was so simple and unadorned that it put these imitation “royal” weddings you hear about to shame. Padre Jaime and Padre Manuel have been doing a wonderful job of encouraging folks even with three or four kids already to enjoy the sacramental version of marriage “in the Church,” without all the expense of a big wedding, especially of a reception. Poor as the folks are, they manage a little coffee and rolls for the newlyweds.
Someone in Las Vegas came up with a novel idea: a dance, a party, a banquet to celebrate the end of the year WITHOUT ALCOHOL! A committee was formed, the salón, site of all the debaucheries, was reserved, a fancy menu was prepared, music was provided (by my neighbor Elvis, including vocals by his exceptionally talented daughter Lily), and I loaned them my chairs. A big crowd attended, despite the steep entrance fee of about $10; the committee members had gone door to door showing the hand-made invitation, a gentle arm twisting, ensuring a success. It was a fundraiser, actually, for repairs on the church. Everyone agreed, we have to do this again!
Alba, Santos, and their five kids headed off Dec. 17 to El Transito for their own annual fundraiser, that is, picking coffee for the next two or three months. They pile all their belongings into the boss’s pickup and climb on top. They even stuffed their dog Peluche in a sack with just his anxious little head peeking out for the three-hour trip up into the mountains. Given the condition of the roads around here, I was scared that at least a couple of them would get bounced right out of the heap. When we finally heard from them, it was already dark. “We’re too tired even to eat,” Santos said. “We’re going to unload and go to bed.” The idea of this annual migration is to make enough money to last all year, or make some big purchases like a horse or get started on a little house, but it’s a rigged game. Oh, the boss is nice enough and treats the folks well, and keeps good order so drunks don’t cause trouble, but “the company store” absorbs a large portion of the workers’ earnings. A family might actually have to leave someone behind when they head home, to work off the debt they still owe.
Olvin, 20, came to Las Vegas the other day, to visit his best friend Selvin’s grave on the second anniversary of the shooting that left Selvin, 17 at the time, dead and Olvin badly injured. Some trigger-happy truck driver took them for bandits in the dark, on the road, before their little community (La Cuatro, again) got lights. Olvin has come a long way, now with a girlfriend and baby son, a life we wish Selvin could have enjoyed, too.
Often, kids need extra help, even if they have a mommy and daddy. Ana Cristina’s Antony, 2, one of my many little godchildren, was just wasting away because of malnutrition. So he finally ended up at San Ivis, a sort of foster home in the city of Yoro, run by Maria Puerto. When I went with Ana Cristina to visit him, I realized that this is the Center built and maintained by the generous support of St. Louis University High School volunteers under the leadership of veteran teacher Charley Merriott, who brings a group of seniors down every year between semesters. Each group leaves a souvenir of their visit, a sort of shield painted on the walls. So I decided I’d delay this CASA till I could get back there and get a picture. Of course, I invited them to visit us in Las Vegas, and maybe some day....
Las Vegas hosted the regional soccer championship game on New Year’s Eve. Our team won, finally breaking a 0-0 tie in a rough-and-tumble game that looked more like rugby than ‘futbol,’ when a penalty kick was called in the very last minute of the contest. Chele, who actually played a season or two on a professional team, scored and the celebration erupted.
When I wished Happy Birthday to Brendita before Mass on Sunday, Dec. 30, she gave me this mortified look and slipped her hand away from mine. She’s 14, when any adult attention is an invasion, I guess. But when Padre Jaime called her and Ery, turning 25 the same day, up in front to pray for them, the wall was down and she could not resist. If it had been anyone than Ery, with Down Syndrome and our community’s role-model, she might have ducked under the pew!
My favorite birthday right now was December 23, when my grand-nephew Justin Robert Dale Dulick was born, to join his big sister Jaslyn, 3, and mommy and daddy Sonja and Jason Dulick. Arriving a month early, he was officially designated a “preemie,” but he hit the ground running, you might say, just right for the son of a former University of Illinois wide receiver.
All best wishes for the New Year!
Thursday, December 6, 2012
ESTA ES SU CASA--DECEMBER 2012
Is it possible that, despite everything, including skipping class any time I was in St. Louis--a total of almost 3 months out of the past 6--Chemo might still score a sixth-grade diploma? We should have known by now, since school’s out all over the country, but, graciously, Chemo’s teacher David offered to give Chemo extra classes, basically until he is dragged across the finish line. The classes are in my house, which is quite nice, and the subject is math, which is a deal-breaker. Gives me hives. But for Chemo, I’ll even do long division--with decimals!
At Mass the other day, Padre Manuel lowered the boom on Santa Claus, a “gringo” invention of Coca-Cola advertising, he said. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard someone in his position tell parents, “Don’t tell your children there’s a Santa Claus.” And of course there are kids all over the church. Christmas trees and lights feed the same “myth,” namely, gimme, gimme, gimme. Sorry, Virginia! Now, this is the same Padre Manuel who said, when some poor parishioner asked him why he didn’t talk more about Heaven, “I’ve never been to Heaven, I can’t talk about some place I’ve never seen.” A dash of cold water, just when we’re gearing up for the Posadas, nine nights of visits to homes, like Mary and Joseph looking for lodging in Bethlehem. We sing carols outside till the family flings the door open and turns on the lights and tree to welcome us in, a burst of Christmas as Dickens portrays it in “A Christmas Carol.” But Padre Manuel is simply reminding us of the gospel’s constant theme: the turn to our neighbor, especially the poor, exactly the image of the wretched children Ignorance and Want that the Spirit of Christmas reveals to Scrooge for his conversion.
That’s why Padre Manuel said he wanted to start a holiday tradition here that they have in El Salvador, a big Mass of Thanksgiving. Nothing is abstract for Padre Manuel; by “thanksgiving,” he meant the equivalent of a canned-food drive. Of course, most of our food is not in cans, so folks brought sacks of corn, rice, beans, coffee, flour--I brought 20 pounds of sugar. I guess you could say we played Santa Claus.
The biggest Mass of the year was Confirmation, 52 kids marking their passage to adult faith, including Dionis, Chemo’s cousin, receiving the sacrament from the Bishop of Yoro, Juan Luis. We’re so proud of Dionis (pronounced ‘Johnny,’ in case you forgot!); somehow he has gotten this far against all odds. He’s just 16; Chemo is 18 and he hasn’t even made his First Communion (more classes he missed while I was away).
We were just starting the novenario for Romelia, whose death I noted last month, when tragedy struck again. Romelia’s death was sad enough, at 54, but Carlos Antonio (“Lota”) collapsed and died of a heart attack at only 32! The news spread like a whip, including on FACEBOOK among expatriates in the States, folks grasping for words and reasons. His life touched everyone in town, since he was president of the local soccer club, so the whole team became his pallbearers, taking turns from a gathering in the middle of the soccer field all the way to the cemetery, instead of the usual pick-up truck. Lightning strikes like this chill me to the bone, reminding me of Chemo’s likely fate if he had not gotten his heart surgery.
Irene, Pablito and Chepito’s mother, got an early warning from María, the nurse who works in the local clinic. With all due discretion, María called me to see if I could help follow up some concerns she had about certain “woman problems” Irene was having. Both Pablito and Chepito pled ignorance, but I did take Irene to Dr. Karen Carrión in Victoria, who prescribed some pretty powerful meds--including a dose for Irene’s husband León, the town drunk, who probably infected her in the first place. The results of a pap smear will not come for weeks or even a month, perhaps, since they only send them up to a lab in Yoro when they have accumulated about a dozen tests. But, to tell the truth, cancer is a possibility, the doctor says.
They say the “Latino” vote put Obama over the top in the recent election. Maybe, but I’m not so sure that Jeremías would have endorsed the President. He was rotting in a Texas jail for illegals for the past seven months. Of course, none of us here in Las Vegas had any idea, including his wife, who gave birth to a baby boy while he was away. When I took Irene to Victoria, there was a letter at the post office waiting for me. I check frequently, so it must have just arrived, but it was dated September. It was sent to me, but it was for his parents, a long apology for his stupidities and lack of respect and indifference to his wife and two “girls” and a pledge to do better if he ever gets out. So I trudged to the edge of town where his parents live, to give them the bad news; but, as I approached the house, there sat Jeremías himself, shrunk and defenseless, but smiling. “I just got back yesterday.” He met his son for the first time, and was already planning to get back on his feet. “I’m going to sell firewood, at least for starters.” I guess it’s not official “policy,” but there are some guards in those prison camps who abuse the immigrants, and so I apologized for my country. You know, Jeremías is no innocent; this was the third time he snuck into the States, despite the fact that his brother Marcos was cut in half by a train some years ago when he fell off a boxcar. What you do to survive, let’s not even discuss.
I felt like I was on death row myself, as I waited forever for Chemo to finish his math test the other day. I sat just outside of his view, as his teacher David huddled nearby. I can only assume David was giving him just a little help, or that the power of prayer is really infinite, because CHEMO PASSED WITH 100%! We have two more tests to go. But we can’t have come this far for nothing; the mere fact that David is actually cutting into his vacation time means, I think, that Chemo will get his ruby slippers.
Of course, Chemo is not the only one who has trouble with math. When I asked little Mariana Teresa how old she was going to be on her birthday, she held up two fingers and said, “Eight.” Her birthday cake said “3,” so that’s what we’re going with. She’s so special because her parents named her for my sister Mary Anne, who died in 2009, and Teresa Jorgen, who has been so good to their family.
Folks are heading to the hills, to “cut” coffee. They’ll be gone for months, most of them. For a lot of people, it’s their major income of the year. Dionis’ family has already taken off, though he stayed behind with his mother Natalia. Chemo and I will be eating supper over there soon, once our usual dinner-date, Santos and Alba and their kids, head out next week. I would love to go, just for the adventure of it--probably for about half a day. I mean, this coffee picking is tedious work, and the pay? A day’s work for what they charge at Starbuck’s for a “grande.”
Have a wonderful Holiday Season! You always convince me that, yes, there is a Santa Claus!