Monday, February 28, 2011
ESTA ES SU CASA--MARCH 2011
Petrona’s end was mercifully quick. Last month, I told how she had had a leg amputated a couple years ago, due to diabetes, and had recently taken a turn for the worse when her other leg deteriorated beyond repair. I showed you her beautiful face, her eyes already blind. That was the last “flattering” picture I could take. When they said she could no longer swallow, I didn’t want to think about it. It would be a horrible end: she would starve to death. It would take at least a couple weeks, probably. So I went every day, the twenty-minute or so walk, across the bridge, over to Paraíso. Lots of folks did, including family from La Catorce, where Beto the blind boy lives. Petrona was his aunt. Then they said Paulino her father had already bought her casket in Victoria. That seemed so final, I didn’t want to think about that, either.
But there still was beauty. Petrona was so uncomfortable--her back was killing her--that the only help was to physically hold her. “Sit me up, please,” was her code for this intimacy. Her daughter Telma was primary, but a sister, a neighbor, even men, cuddled her like a child. I wondered if even I might get a chance, it was so sweet a duty. But I just took the pictures, knowing how much they would mean.
Her final days coincided exactly with Paraiso’s annual fiesta, celebrating the Patron of their little church, Our Lady of Suyapa, Suyapa being a poor village on the northern coast of Honduras where long ago fishermen found a seemingly miraculous image of the Virgin Mary carved in a piece of driftwood. Now, usually a town’s fiesta includes lots of games, like an eating contest, competitions like climbing the greased pole, and soccer matches--and drunks. It’s a big money-maker. But this time, the word went out: with Petrona’s illness, the only celebration would be prayer. A Mass with a visiting priest from Panama, Padre Luis Carlos (Padre “Lucho”) was dynamic and enthusiastic. That was in the church; everything else would be at Petrona’s house. The celebracion for the feast day itself, February 3, went long into the night, and we all watched Petrona carefully, lest we overdo it. But she would weakly raise one arm with every song, in time with the music, as if directing a choir. And when it was over about 11:00 p.m., she insisted, with the little strength still available to her, “Otro canto, otro canto.” (Sing another song.) So we just kept going. You know what, every time you went over there, morning, noon, or night, to sit with Petrona, five minutes after you got there, someone was offering you coffee and rolls. And for the big celebracion, when Petrona kept us singing late into the night, the women had prepared delicious and plentiful nacatamales.
That was Thursday night. When I went on Friday, she looked bad, gaunt and frowning. But on Saturday she was sleeping like a baby, curled up with her pillow, silent and serene. On Sunday, it was my turn to preach at the morning service in Las Vegas, and since in the gospel reading Jesus called his disciples “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth,” I mostly spoke about Petrona. It happened to be Super Bowl Sunday, though that was not much of a distraction around here. In the afternoon, when Beto came from La Catorce, we went over there. And now, for the first time, I saw the signs of imminent death, Petrona’s featureless face, unblinking eyes, and short, gasping breaths. About 6:00 p.m., I invited Beto to supper over at Natalia’s. While we were eating, word comes that Petrona has, in fact, died. Simple as that. Her timing was perfect, because I realize I can go home and get my chairs ready to haul over there. Indeed, as soon as Beto and I got back to Paraiso, they were revving up a truck, worst driver I ever saw, but we got here and back with my 33 chairs, while others were carrying benches from the church. Twitter could not have spread the word faster, as the house and yard filled with mourners. Actually, we used her grandparents’ place just next door, an ancient barn of a house, where Petrona, now in her casket, lay in state. Somehow it fell to me to give the eulogy. I just said that Petrona had become the true Patron (‘patrona’) of the feast this year, and we would never be the same. We stayed all night.
Her burial Monday afternoon was simple, but the strain of final separation brought howls and wails from daughter Telma and son Jacob, whose young wife is expecting their first child very soon. Then the novenario began, nine days of prayer. Paraiso proved its salt and light once again; there was more active participation from folks than you ever see in Las Vegas, telling stories, comments on the scripture readings, dialogs, and of course, songs. But with the month or so of constant care, the exhaustion did not disappear till about halfway through, when folks had finally caught up on their sleep. The nine days ended and we took all the flowers and wreaths and the cross to Petrona’s grave, where I offered a group picture.
My oddest memory of Petrona’s final days was something just so dumb I’m embarrassed by it. I got blisters on my feet! The road right now is so hard and dry, studded with stones and sprinkled with little rocks like broken teeth, and the cheap hiking boots I got at Target in St. Louis seem to be soled with tissue paper, and I’m going over there, often twice a day, so I practically cripple myself with these blisters. Here I am almost eight years in Honduras and I’m still a tenderfoot! But I guess I had it pretty good, compared to Hector Manuel from Terrero Blanco. I had no feet, but he had no ass--donkey, that is. He and his brothers bring firewood to sell, usually loaded on their animals. Hector showed up the other day with the whole load on his own back, a 90-minute trip down the mountain. His donkey had suddenly up and died. I don’t even use firewood, but I buy it for the folks cooking our supper. When I saw Hector, bowed and trembling under the weight, and sweating like a...donkey, I wanted to relieve him immediately, but I had to send him off down to Natalia’s by the river. Once the delivery was made, he drank at least half a gallon of the cool water I provided from my fridge. I’d really love to buy him a new donkey for a thousand Lempiras (about 50 dollars); not only does he have epilepsy that we treat with a steady diet of Phenobarbital, but his father is Renan, the stinkingest drunk around. The trick will be to keep Renan from selling the donkey for more drink....
Chemo and I went to Tegucigalpa for one last fling before the start of school, if you can call three days in the dentist’s chair a “fling.” Dr. Juan Handal was the soul of kindness, as always, but once he checked us both out, we needed three other dentists, all women, to get all the required work done. Besides needing a good cleaning, Chemo had a several cavities, including one right between his two front teeth, an especially sensitive area for drilling; but he did not resist or complain or squirm. Believe me, he was braver than I, who needed a root canal. My last root canal began a five-year odyssey that was only finally relieved when we yanked the tooth a year ago. So I was not encouraged, professional as the dentists were. And they were drilling through a 30-year old gold crown in what ultimately was a futile attempt to get to the “root” of the problem. They plugged the hole, and Dr. Handal said to come back in two weeks if the pain returned. So I thought about it. I’ll be a fossil before I go back! Cured or not, I can’t afford a repeat; even with Dr. Juan’s generous discount, the bill ate up over half my budget for the whole month.
Nevertheless, we rewarded ourselves with a nice supper and a trip to Nova Centro, the vertical mall I mentioned last month, the one topped by the Bumper Cars, which shook the rest of my teeth loose. And Angelica gave me a Valentine’s present, a new shirt. She says, “After all that pain, I got the brightest color I could find, to cheer you up,” a flashy Jell-o orange. It worked!
And then, school started. Chemo is in fourth grade, outstanding in his class, literally. He’s 16 surrounded by 8-year-olds. But his teacher Juana Maria makes no mention of the anomaly, unlike some other teachers I’ve heard about that actually make fun of their bigger students. The schoolwork has ratcheted up some, with lots more reading and writing, as you would expect, but Chemo is holding his own. Helping him stay focused are his nieces, nephew, and cousins who just returned from 3 months of coffee picking. And they all started school the next day, some for the first time. If I had anything to do with it, I am very proud that I’ve kept up the drumbeat to get the kids into school.
I’ve had so many dreams lately, and I’m not sure I can blame them all on “Inception,” though that’s one disturbing movie. The dreams--nightmares, really--are about Chemo, chasing him and losing him. One dream was on a train. I saw Chemo get on board, and I got on and then suddenly through the window I saw him outside on the platform, as the train started to move. I run through the cars to get out and suddenly there’s a big, padded bench across the aisle; the train is only 2 cars long! No way out, and I wake up. Another was on a Boston bus that kept taking wrong turns, when I was sure I would meet Chemo at such-and-such a stop, and the bus just kept going farther and farther in the wrong direction. Another episode had me in St. Louis, rushing through the buildings along Market Street starting with Kiel Auditorium and the Post Office and Union Station--somehow these were all connected with hallways and corridors, with Chemo just out of view as doors folded closed. It did not seem that Chemo was trying to get away, he seemed as lost as I was, but I could not catch up to him.
Now that the coffee picking season is over, we got our first look at little Dago, Daguito, born in El Transito last December to Dania and Marcos, big Dago’s brother. And now that everyone is home, Natalia is asking me to plan the six-month anniversary celebracion of Dago’s tragic death, actually six-and-a-half months by now. She wants it very simple, a rosary and a Scripture reading. Some relatives will be coming in from the hills above Sulaco, where Chemo still remembers some of his childhood. Daguito, of course, is named for his uncle, and we cling to that, we plant that faith deep in our mind, how life goes on, even if we must repeat it to keep our hope alive. Dream on.