ESTA ES SU CASA--JANUARY 2010
A thrill of hope
On December 2, following a day-long solemn and sober debate, televised on every channel, the National Congress voted 111 to 14 not to restore Mel Zelaya to the presidency. Thus was fulfilled the major element of the accord signed in November by Mel and “interim president” Roberto Micheletti, that Mel’s fate would rest in the hands of the diputados. Still lacking is a “government of reconciliation” and a Truth Commission.
Some people say Mel Zelaya was “the best president Honduras ever had.” That would make him the world’s tallest midget. In fact, poverty went up under Mel, with over 5 million (of a population of 7.5 million) in poverty, 3.5 million of those in “extreme” poverty, and at the bottom 1.5 million living on a dollar a day or less. Mel’s horse was living on a thousand dollars a day! With the wealthy world euthanizing the poor with ethanol--filling SUV gas tanks with food--it’s bound to get worse.
Now all eyes turn to Pepe Lobo, who had won the November 29 election by a landslide to become the next president, with inauguration scheduled for January 27. Hope and change? More likely another round of corruption, but it will be “our” corruption, you know, just the way we like it. Humorist Dave Barry’s “Year in Review” is probably more accurate than he knows: “In a setback for U.S. interests in Central America, voters in Honduras elect, as their new president, Rod Blagojevich.” Meanwhile, Mel Zelaya is still a thorn in the side. He says he’s leaving the country, he says he’s staying, he says he’s going--who cares? Follow him on Twitter.
So things have sort of settled down, and when I step back a little, I notice with some chagrin that I have enjoyed playing the role of political pundit these past few months way too much. Like I was auditioning for a spot on Fox News or something. These reports are supposed to be inspired a little more by the Sermon on the Mount than by talk radio!
So let’s get back to basics.
Cristian, 19, was shot in the stomach by his own drunken father at the cantina. He’s recovering, very unsurely and painfully. To be precise, he was hit in one of the few spots where death was not certain, it seems--about four inches to the left of his belly-button. Cristian, one of the “cantina boys,” as I call them, has appeared in these reports numerous times. You may remember his dear affection for his little nephew Eduar, who died a year ago at the age of 2. (We just visited his baby grave for the anniversary, Cristian was too weal to attend.) Berta and Chimino are Cristian’s parents, but when I say his own father shot him, I mean Carlos Montoya, his biological father, a little fling Berta had, I guess. A couple months ago, Cristian confided in me that Chimino wasn’t his real father. Actually, it’s more or less common knowledge, I find out. But it was Chimino who accompanied Cristian first to Victoria and then to the Yoro hospital and stayed at his bedside till he was out of danger, while Carlos was carted off to jail by the police. So who is Cristian’s real father, the drunk who shot him or the man who sat by his bed two days and nights without eating or drinking? (On the other hand, Chimino and Berta raised Cristian in a cantina! I mean, if my son were shot by a guy drunk on liquor I sold him, I’d think twice about selling any more booze--to anybody.)
Cristian is such a troubled youth. Ever since he turned 18 a year ago, I’ve been begging him to get out of Las Vegas and make a life for himself, a life without drunks cursing and vomiting and fighting in your living room. Now this. Supposedly an accident--Carlos was showing off his gun--but drunks don’t have “accidents.” The only good thing to come out of it was Berta closing the cantina for a couple days while Cristian’s life hung in the balance. When Cristian called me from the hospital after the shooting and, in a voice as thin as tissue paper, asked me, “Are you coming?” I immediately melted and said yes. I knew it was also a matter of money. Chimino had taken nothing with him, Berta had said she wanted to go but had no busfare, and Marvin, Cristian’s cousin who saw the whole thing, said he wanted to go. In fact, according to Marvin, Cristian probably saved his life. You see, Carlos fired his gun five times in the air, but then started pointing it at Marvin, just playing. Cristian screamed, “You still got a bullet in there!” and he jumped in front of Marvin just in time, as Carlos drooled, “Naw, it’s empty--see?” And bang!
When we got to the hospital, Cristian was already cleared to leave. But he barely seemed capable of movement. Berta and Marvin helped dress him with clothes Berta had brought from home (Cristian’s clothes, including his shoes and a favorite cap, had disappeared in the confusion) while Chimino and I got his prescriptions filled at the hospital pharmacy. I talked with the kindly nurses, who advised a nutritious diet and daily exercise. “Don’t just leave him in bed!”
“We need a wheel chair,” said Marvin. I thought, Oh boy, how long is that gonna take? But as I stepped into the hall, a wheel chair was sitting right there. “This is a sign,” I said to myself. “He’s going to be all right.” But his wound! The bullet wound itself is nothing, a pinprick, but the scar from the operation looks like they went in there with a backhoe. It’s as long as Chemo’s but much uglier. It looks more like soldering than surgery. I just hope it’s as secure as it looks. I really thought Cristian was going to faint just getting from the bed into the wheel chair. But we got him outside and found a cab, another torture, to squeeze his legs in. I told the taxi driver we had to stop for shoes--and a pillow! The cabbie took us into town and we got our goods right off the street. Then to the bus station, where the bus was just about to leave. The steps up looked like Everest! But we hoisted Cristian up and we were off--we thought. Turned out this bus was just a shuttle to the gas station where the regularly scheduled bus was being gassed up and maintenanced. So we had to get Cristian down and off and up and on, every inch a miserable mile. I thought, I’m gonna need another sign!
It’s at least a two-hour trip back to Victoria and we hadn’t even gone a third of the way when Cristian was saying, “I can’t make it, I can’t make it.” But he did make it, held and hugged tightly by Marvin all the way, and in Victoria we got him down and off that bus and up and on the bus to Las Vegas. Which just sat there, for an hour, waiting for another bus from San Pedro Sula. Holiday traffic, you see! Once in Las Vegas, okay, how to get him home, way to the other side of town?
Then came the other sign. Javier, a young man with a big car, spotted us hobbling and offered a ride. Cristian by this time had mastered the routine and practically jumped into the large plush back seat. Now Cristian is getting around with his brother Juny’s crutch. Juny, whose story graced these pages, died so painfully a couple years ago, nursed by--you guessed it--Cristian, who wore Juny’s clothes then for a while afterwards, to smooth the loss.
Cristian and I have had our go-arounds. One day he’d bring me a couple fish he caught, the next day he’d be a stone wall for some real or imagined offense. And sometimes he’d show up at my house half-drunk himself. Then I’d usher him into the spare room. “I’m not staying.” “That’s all right, Cristian, just a nap.” And he’d be there till morning. Anything’s better than the cantina.
Our last row was a week or so before he got shot. It was the night Chepito got drunk. It was the same night Dona Argentina died. In fact, about half the town it seemed used her wake as an excuse to get plastered. I headed over to her house about 9 p.m., along with Chemo and his brother Marcos, visiting for the holidays. Elvis had already warned me that he’d seen Chepito under the influence, but I didn’t expect to find him right out in the street spinning like a dreidel, accompanied by Nahum and Cristian, both tipsy too. The only “job” I’ve given Nahum, who sleeps at the Bandidos’ house, and Cristian, is to keep tabs on Pablito and Chepito. He gave Chepito the guaro!
So I blew a gasket. I smacked Nahum with a classic “Life of Christ” I’m reading. I swear, I could hardly have found a better use for the heavy volume! Nahum responded by whipping me with his belt buckle. I’ve still got the welt, but I didn’t feel a thing. I fronted him like Joan of Arc, and he backed off. I didn’t care if he killed me! I make no apology for defending Chepito’s right to a sober life. Then I turned on Cristian, who cussed me out very colorfully and gestured pretty violently, though without actually landing any blows. I “complimented” him on his vocabulary and then I yelled at the bystanders, a gallery of what Mark Twain called half-men, including Chepito’s teacher, who made no move to help him or me. I pulled Chepito home, where his mother Irene, all too late, “disciplined” her son with his own belt.
Needless to say, I never made it to Argentina’s. I rushed Chemo and Marcos back to our house and shut up the doors.
The next day, Leon came home, Chepito and Pablito’s father, after a year and a half in jail for drunkenly attacking Nazario with a machete. I didn’t actually see him myself till I headed back to Argentina’s again and saw him drunk face-down in the street like a heap of dirty laundry. So he picked up just where he left off. You know, a guy’s in jail all that time, gets out, you can hardly begrudge him a little lifting of a cup or two, but alcoholism is a death sentence and Leon’s disease is pulling his sons down to his hell, too. The saddest thing was Pablito’s seeming indifference, his only defense against the killing shame he must feel. “Pablito, are you going take your daddy home?” “No, that’s okay.”
So Leon just lay there for all the world to see. He sobered up some the next day, got drunk again, got a few odd jobs, got paid, got drunk--you’ve probably observed this pattern yourself somewhere. Finally, I saw him, all smiles and handshakes. Not a word about the new house we built, not a word about how he’d take care of Pablito and Chepito now, see them through school, raise them to honorable manhood, nothing about how he’d rejoin AA and be as faithful to the group as the chastened Scrooge to Tiny Tim, nothing. I have mostly steered clear, just opening my house to Pablito’s daily visits for a little breakfast, a little lunch if there are leftovers, a chore or two for a few bucks. Chepito, Leon’s image and likeness, sports a big ring on his finger and a huge belt buckle, both set with skulls. I’m trying to help him get him his national ID card, now that he’s 17. But it seems he’s already chosen his identity.
With Argentina’s burial began the nine days of mourning and prayer at her house. I think I finally loved her--she was not a pleasant person a lot of the time--when her fragile stick of a husband Domitilo collapsed in tears in my arms every single day. She’s got 13 children, all grown, the most infamous of which is Renan, a drunk’s drunk. He’s got some competition from 3 or four of his brothers, but Renan parades it! Disheveled and slobbering, he dances! barges into any event, a wedding, a party, a funeral, in this case, his own mother’s, who’d always shut her door whenever he came near, crying, “You’re a disgrace!”
When it came my turn to preach, I remembered we’d just had the elections, when there was a two-day ‘ley seca,’ or dry law, banning liquor sales nationwide. “Today we start a ‘ley seca’ in this house in honor of Argentina! No more booze! Never again! She gave her life for you all! [Indeed, she was only 58 and she looked like a 158 from the toll her graceless family had taken on her]. We’re going to swear off alcohol, but let’s all swear off selfishness too, and laziness, and irresponsibility.” Of the 13 kids, Lupe, the shining exception to the rule, the only one with a recognizably filial devotion, and who has a lovely family of her own with her husband Lenchito in El Zapote, attended the novena every day. On the eighth day, Renan, almost unrecognizable with his hair cut, a new shirt and slacks, and a benign demeanor, offered prayer right along with the rest of us. I hugged him like the Prodigal Son. But it was a one-day wonder. He’s back in the dirt long since.
Marta, the youngest daughter, and one of the most slovenly, redeemed herself and maybe all of us with her narration of Argentina’s final minutes. They had gotten her to the very door of the San Pedro Sula hospital when she collapsed, and in one grand gesture of self-donation, she spread her arms wide and up and lifted her head toward heaven, mouthing without speaking some prayer, then sank dead into Marta’s lap, a blessed smile on her face. It sounded for all the world like Jesus’ departure on the cross: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Before Cristian was shot, I had already been going to the cantina every day to change the bandage on his little nephew Joelito. He climbed a tree to pick (steal!) lemons and fell onto a broken branch that pierced his calf at its fleshiest spot, opening a wound deep and jagged enough to expose the fat and muscle. Long tutored to remain calm in emergencies from my days working at a swimming pool, I thought, when I saw the wound, OK, first I’m going to faint, and THEN I’ll remain calm. But I held it together and we--me and Cristian, who had brought him to me--hurried him over to Dr. Meme, who is sometimes hard to find, after hours. But Meme was in and stitched Joel up, inside and outside the wound. A week later, when Meme took the stitches out, the wound re-opened, so he said, “Just keep changing the bandage till it heals.” Bottom line, that day when Cristian was shot, I could have easily been at the cantina myself, changing Joelito’s bandage. And something tells me I wouldn’t have been any Joan of Arc facing a gun instead of a belt! But I was hiking to La Catorce for a Mass at the time. Oqueli’s blue pickup whizzed by me in a cloud of dust with Cristian and Marvin and Chimino in the back and I didn’t even know what had happened till Marvin called me on his cell phone.
What about Christmas? Well, any light in the darkness qualifies, which these stories show, I believe, but OK, how about an actual nativity? On December 2, Maricela gave birth to Mariana Teresa, named for my sister Mary Anne, who died last April, and for Teresa Jorgen. Weighing in at 10 pounds, she is worthy of two such grand names. In fact, the doctor induced Maricela a couple weeks early, at the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa, because the baby just wouldn’t stop growing! This is an honor all around, and my sisters Barb and Nancy, who accompanied Mary Anne in her last days, were scrambling for Christmas presents for the newest member, as it were, of the Dulick family. And Teresa made sure her appreciation was felt, too. And this kid sure lucked out, with such a loving family of her own. Juan Blas and Maricela and their 6, now 7, kids are poor as church mice, and I do my best to keep them afloat, but some things money cannot buy. I keep trying to figure out how they could adopt Pablito and Chepito...or me, for that matter.
Actually, Chemo and Marcos’ grandmother Natalia has adopted me. Just after the elections, Chemo’s brother Santos and his wife Alba, daughter of Natalia, and their four kids went off to the mountains of Quebrada Amarilla to pick coffee. There went our gravy train! We’d been going over to their house down by the river every night for supper, once I had stopped my own spaghetti suppers for all comers after Chemo got away and got drunk one night and I resolved to be a better dad, and spend more time with him.
Those were such pleasant evenings, Alba’s suppers; and the walk home under the street lamps and the stars seemed like a dream. So, after some hesitation, when Chemo and Marcos were already over at ‘mamita’s’ all the time, I sort of insinuated myself with Natalia and Elio her husband and their three grown sons. As with Alba, I finance the fixings, and Natalia whips up the simple and delicious meals; so our sweet evenings have resumed, including the quiet walk home. That’s a Christmas story, too, on a nightly basis--always room at the inn.
As for Christmas itself, our “Midnight Mass” started at 6:00 p.m., with guest priest Fr. Tony Pedraz from El Progreso. He looks like Santa Claus, red face, tussled white hair, roly-poly, so when he tells the Christmas story, you believe him! But his message, his gospel, if you will, glowed a lot brighter than Rudoph: it was a fire! He was (is!) a full-fledged member of the ‘resistencia’ (the Resistance), denouncing from the beginning the coup that ousted Mel Zelaya, and in the streets at every opportunity, a chaplain to the marchers, you might say. His sermon lasted an hour, but the congregation was enthralled; time passed like a blink. He barely talked about Mel or Micheletti by name--he talked about Jesus! which made the same point. The repulsive thing that both Mel and Micheletti--and Pepe, too--are guilty of is, it’s all about them. Ever since Jesus’ birth first scared the pants off Herod the King, in his raging, the die was cast: make Jesus a target, make Jesus a joke, make him a cover-boy, make him your pal, make him your pet, make him your Che, make him your jewelry, make him your “Lord,” but watch your back! He’s a thief in the night.
Cristian, who never goes to church, preached the same sermon in his own way: he “pardoned” Carlos Montoya! He told the police to let him out of jail. Carlos was grateful enough to bring some provisions for the family over to the cantina--for a few days. “And now he’s forgotten you?” I asked Cristian. “Pretty much.” But Cristian’s charity should not be forgotten. I wish I could live it so well.
We ended the year with Ery’s birthday party. Carolina made the cake, this one for her own brother, and Angelita is here, too, with her baby. She loves to dance with her brother. Ery turned 22, and he had a good time. He even danced with me! It was a sign, I hope, of blessings to come in 2010.
In January we begin another odyssey in search of Rosa’s heart operation. A doctor in Tocoa told her, “You are a candidate for a heart transplant.” That’s how sick she is! A transplant here, of course, is unheard of. The first kidney transplants are just about to be attempted. It’s not for lack of fresh kills. Healthy teens are sacrificed every day in gang activity; live hearts abound. But the nearest Barnes Hospital is...Barnes Hospital. On the other hand, I just talked to Ron Roll, whose Helping Hands sponsors the brigadas, and he enthused, “We’re already talking about Rosa! We are putting her first on the list!” And Dr. Christian Gilbert just emailed me to say, after I told him Rosa is feeling better and stronger with the medicine he prescribed, “This is awesome news! She may not even need the surgery!” Now that’s the kind of “second opinion” I like to hear! But when I called Rosa with the good news, she goes, “Oh, crap, today my knees are killing me, my chest hurts like hell, my stomach’s in knots, and I got a horrible headache.” “Rosa,” I said, “whatever you do, don’t tell the doctor!” Anyway, please include Rosa in your New Year’s resolutions, to transplant a bit of your own heart in her hopes.
From Giuseppe Ricciotti, The Life of Christ (1941):
“The Sermon on the Mount is the most complete and radical paradox ever asserted. No discourse on earth was ever more subversive, or better, reversive than this. Until the Sermon on the Mount, the world was united in proclaiming that blessedness was good fortune, that satisfaction came with satiety, that pleasure was the satisfaction of desire, and honor the product of esteem. On the other hand, Jesus announces that blessedness resides in misfortune, satiety in famished hunger, pleasure in unfulfillment, and honor in disesteem. “