Thursday, June 30, 2011
ESTA ES SU CASA--JULY 2011
IF A BOUGH BREAKS...
Always check out The BEACON, please:
http://www.stlbeacon.org/voices/in-the-news/110693-letter-from-honduras-fear (= June 2011 CASA)
Little Belkis is OK, let’s make sure we start with that, because you are not going to want to even imagine what happened to her. And I don’t, either, and I didn’t see it, thank God, so I’ll just say it. She fell out of a tree in Nueva Palmira and on impact the top bone in her left arm shot right through her elbow and out the skin. Now, you might ask, what’s a child that age doing up in a tree? But let’s deal with this question, what was she doing on the ground, and that was dying of a compound fracture, and loss of blood.
When Teresa Cruz came to my house with Belkis’ mother Paulina, who was in such shock she could not speak, they asked for help to get the child to Tegucigalpa. They had already been to Doctor Meme here in Las Vegas, and he had done what he could, but this was way beyond any resources around here. They thought they would have to wait till the next morning for the bus, but besides me, they pooled some resources (well, they got a “loan”) and managed to get a car to take them. It’s a seven-hour trip by bus, and maybe half that in a car, so thank God, because Belkis was still oozing blood, they said. And how scared was she?
At the Hospital Escuela, they put two pins in the arm, and, a couple of “clean-ups” later, they put on a cast. Panchito, her daddy, called on a borrowed cell phone that they were charging for the pins! I suggested he talk to the Social Security department for a reduced rate; he’d already done that, and was denied. So, he’s not poor enough? Good Lord, everybody in Honduras is poor enough! That, plus the extra days’ stay, meant they would need more money. Well, I couldn’t be chintzy, could I? But how to get it there? They’d already figured that out; Teresa’s daughter Miriam would take it. So I gave Miriam extra for her bus fare. Panchito, not to mention Paulina, was very grateful. But even I could come nowhere near the huge bill they were slapping them with, twenty thousand Lempiras! That’s over a thousand dollars. These folks don’t see that much money in five years! If they don’t pay, what? they take the pins out? In any case, Belkis is back home, a wonder of survival in a world full of menacing trees.
Nicho, 65, did not survive his tree-fall. In a freaky little storm that whipped up tornado-like winds in just minutes, one tree out of all the trees at the edge of the river where he was fishing, twirled out of its roots and fell right on him, killing him instantly. At least, one hopes it was quick. There was only one witness (and this, too, I beg you to forgive me for the picture it paints), Nicho’s grandson, little--tiny!--Oscar, just a year-and-a-half old. The storm came about 3:00 in the afternoon, and of course, it took a while before anyone missed them. And then the search, deep into the dark, lit only by the full moon, finally coming upon them way down the bank, the old man with his head smashed, Oscar just sitting in silent, paralyzed vigil. Oscar will never be able to tell us, I’m sure, but as I thought about it, I wondered if a scenario were possible where, as the storm broke, Nicho swept Oscar up in his arms, and then, just when the tree snapped, he threw Oscar to safety, lest they both be crushed....
If someone saved Oscar’s life, maybe it was his grandma Petrona, who “went to heaven” last February. Remember her, from the March CASA? She died in all splendor of family and friends and neighbors over the course of a month or two, the equivalent of Hospice care. Nicho was Petrona’s husband. My only photo of him is at her funeral, with a raft of red flowers in his hand. And Telma, their daughter, who managed Petrona’s care more than anyone, is Oscar’s mom. The suddenness of Nicho’s death broke everyone’s heart all over again, but we knew the routine. Another nine days of prayer and mourning, and with my new super-boots I fairly flew over the rocks and ruts back and forth every day to Paraíso, as opposed to the blisters I got during Petrona’s novenario.
You know, at first, I did not know who Oscar was. When they told me that Nicho’s “grandson” was with him, I naturally pictured a kid about ten years old. At the wake, I was looking around for a likely candidate, ignoring the baby that was crawling all over Telma. When I finally asked, she says, “This is Oscar.” I hope she did not see the look of horror--pity and horror--locked on my face. At one of the later sessions, I ventured my theory of Nicho saving Oscar’s life at the expense of his own, for whatever comfort it might bring.
Perhaps hardest hit by Nicho’s death was his youngest son Jacobo, 20, whose little--very little--wife was still in Yoro, recovering from a near-fatal Caesarian operation (where the hospital charged dearly for two pints of blood) that delivered their first child, a boy. Jacobo was sort of just wandering around dazed, torn by conflicting emotions, anxious for his wife, excited for his son, throwing himself on his father’s casket in sobs and tears. The baby grows up without grandparents. In fact, I rather hesitantly referred to Jacobo and his siblings as “orphans” now, maybe a little too literal a term, but I just wanted to touch the depth of their loss, our loss.
But there’s good news, too. Helen is 12! Handicapped daughter of Maricela and Juan Blas, and big sister to the bubbly Mariana Teresa, she does love cake. I have been so strapped lately that birthday celebrations have been put on hold, but I always promised Helen we would do it up right for her. We got the biggest cake you’ve ever seen, this time from Profe Flor, the principal at the school, who’s got this cake-baking gig on the side. Now, different from Carolina, whose cakes are dense and deep, Flor’s are fluffy and light--real dirigibles! Helen ate enough to get sick on--good for her! Being wheelchair-bound does little to inhibit her enjoyment at a party.
Speaking of party girls, do you like to be proved wrong? I actually think a lot of us do, you know, when we’ve misjudged someone, dismissing them, discounting them, even mocking them, only to find they are golden. I have come to expect and even enjoy the experience, as a chance to laugh at my own small-mindedness, and I get a lot of opportunities here in Honduras. Gladys, built like a jukebox but with the attitude of a supermodel (including plucking her eyebrows), makes an odd partner for the dirtiest man in town, literally, Marvin, the local mechanic. He’s usually sweating under a car or truck or even bus, black with grease and grime from head to foot, and she’s on the porch with a mint julep or something, in tight jeans and a bosomy top, entertaining bystanders with a voice like a brass band and a routine rippling with swear words and raunchy one-liners. Maybe she’s our version of Snookie, though I’ve never seen “Jersey Shore.”
So when the “authorities” threatened to send Wilfredo, the most popular teacher in the high school, off to some remote village in the hill country to make room for somebody’s cousin, Profe Flor asked for volunteers to make a protest visit to the superintendent’s office in Yoro. Marcelo offered his “busito” for transportation. When I saw Gladys squeeze her bulk into the van, I thought, Oh, Jesus, Wil’s case is lost.
But wait a minute! She was the key to the whole thing. They kept us waiting three hours, and when we finally got in, Señor Antonio Gundemero Hernandez was very properly reserved and formal. Then Gladys starts, and the place just lights up and lightens up. You see, Señor Hernandez is her uncle! He never loosened his tie, but pretty soon he was eating out of her hand. The rest of us were superfluous. Bottom line, Wilfredo’s staying.
We all had lunch at a crowded restaurant afterwards to celebrate, and Gladys sat at the head of the table and just played herself, dropping the Spanish equivalent of F-bombs all over the place, and she didn’t give a damn who heard her. I just wanted to hug her! She hadn’t changed, at all; it was me who changed, and I can never look at her the same way again. From floozy to phenomenon, that story. And it’s a story I’m telling everyone I talk to.
Some folks you always knew were gold, but you’re still stunned at how you had underestimated their shine, maybe took them for granted. Marisol was as big as Gladys and, yes, as loud, but she was a religious Sister, a missionary from Spain for 20 years in Honduras, till illness forced her departure, and then recently claimed her life. I knew her through Elio and Mema, whose daughter Felixa is a member of the same Order. I have a great picture of Marisol at Mema’s birthday party a few years ago. Chemo and I went to Tegucigalpa for his “annual” checkup (we missed last year, because of all the violence and turmoil in the capital), and Elio and Mema invited us to the final day of Marisol’s novenario, which would be in the same church where the poet Roberto Sosa’s funeral had been a month ago. At Sosa’s mass, there was a sort of indifferent feeling since no one seemed too comfortable in a church, but for Marisol, it was a real feast of faith and affection--and fun, including a slide show with music. Everybody had a funny story, which of course they cried all the way through. When I asked Mema why she didn’t speak, that’s what she said, her eyes glistening, “I couldn’t, too many tears.” Now, this service, you understand, was a parallel of sympathy to the “real” novenario over in Spain, but we sure did feel connected.
By the way, Chemo’s checkup was perfect. I knew it would be, but I did want his original doctor, Karla Andino, to see how he’s grown. And she’s crazy about him anyway. While we waited for the echo-cardiagram machine, we saw this tiny baby about the size of a Twinkie, getting his ultrasound. He already had wires and tubes all over him. The poor thing didn’t look like he could survive the exam, much less an operation.
Chemo’s heart is strong, but his math grades are on life support. He flunked the same quiz three times, 0 out of 20, and for the same reason. It was multiplication, three-digit numbers by three-digit numbers. Is that even fair? I get all itchy when I have to help him with his homework. Math was never my friend, and after high school, I never took another course. Chemo knows his times tables, but he was lining up all those subtotals crooked, and if the answer was something like 8326, he’d get 20,748. I finally got him a notebook “cuadriculo” (grid), to put a single numeral in each box. When I ask his classmate Dorisell, Elvis and Dora’s brilliant 8-year-old, if there’s going to be another quiz, she says, “Just for the ones who flunked.” The teacher Juana María is really doing her best to get Chemo through fourth grade. She tells me, “You know, practice with him a little more.” But she probably senses that I have no more aptitude for math than Chemo does.
As June 23 approached, Chemo’s grandma Natalia was nervous. It would be the first anniversary of her 19-year-old son Dago’s fatal accident when he grabbed a high-tension wire installing electricity in their house. “What will we do? There’s no money for coffee and rolls.” She wasn’t being coy, but I immediately assured her I’d take care of the expenses. In fact, I just shouted next door to Jacobina, the best baker in town, “Natalia will be in touch, OK?” And Jacobina, God bless her, did it all for “cost,” I just paid for the ingredients, which included 10 pounds of flour. When I suggested corn bread, too, Natalia just wanted to keep it simple, but then on the day she presented me with a pan of cornbread that she had Jacobina make just for me. (I took it home and ate half of it before I even told Chemo it existed!) That’s Natalia, staying gold.
The memorial itself was fine, including a cleansing, cooling rain right in the middle of the service. “That’s Dago blessing us,” I said. But you could sense there was a reticence in the little gathering. As gently as I could, I tried to suggest it was still OK to cry, and finally, at the end, the family clutched each other in a release of an ever-fresh grief.
For the first time ever, the Las Vegas celebrated “Youth Day,” with a gathering of at least 600 teens from 10 other towns. For the occasion, I put on a tee-shirt I had saved, a homage to Archbishop Romero, murdered by a Salvadoran death squad in 1980 for his outspoken advocacy of justice for the poor. On the back of the shirt is a quotation I had not even noticed before: “It is a caricature of love to think donations to the poor are a substitute for what you owe them in justice.” I looked at that and thought, Back to the drawing board! That’s all I do, is donate.
Dennis, the fragile, autistic boy in Paraiso, really has the same message as Romero, and he does not say a word. I would greet him every day on the way to Nicho’s novenario (and Petrona’s before that). At first, he would just come to the window. Then he came to the door, eventually outside, to touch my outstretched hand. And I would say, “Dennis, you come visit me,” but I never imagined him leaving the safety of his yard. Well, he just showed up! Again, not a word, he just drank a big bottle of Tang I offered him, and posed for pictures with his little brother Danny and sister Heydi, who had accompanied him. He even smiled. But, really, I was the one who was thrilled. As they left, Danny said, “He’ll want to come again, I know.” How about that? I wish I could be that brave.
I guess I should be on the barricades, but meanwhile just please let’s cradle each other in our arms, lest another one fall.