Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Abie - Life and Death in Guatemala
Within moments of arriving in Guatemala City I knew this new temporary home would reward me in so many ways. ______ , the gentleman who handled our bags upon hotel check-in, asked me where we were from. "Cincinnati, Ohio," I responded. "I was there once," he said, "I walked on the bridge to cross the river." What were the odds that my very first Guatemalan encounter, one that should have ended with a $5 bill squeezed into an outstretched palm, would take this turn? The young man had come to the United States illegally to find some work and his journey had brought him to Cincinnati. When he arrived with no money he found shelter for two nights at the Drop-Inn Shelter in Over-the-Rhine. I explained to him that for more than ten years I had run a Campus Ministry Sunday morning breakfast program at the Drop-Inn Center. How many Guatemalans had I already encountered during that decade without ever having asked for a name? The next morning before we reconnected with the rest of our Xavier team we met with a father and son, members of Guatemala's small but historic Jewish community. Mario regaled the students with his ease of historical analysis, his business acumen and his sensitivity to Mayan culture and the need for healing Guatemala after its brutal and lengthy civil war. Mario had come to my attention through a faculty colleague. I had the privilege of involvement in his daughter's wedding and Mario was a relative of her new in-laws. A casual mention of my Guatemala trip was the catalyst for this quick Central American connection.The words "Cincinnati" or "Xavier" did not come up again until I received an email about a new admission to Xavier's student body. Bernard Pastor had become known outside his Reading High School community when he was arrested for failing to produce a driver's license and subsequent immigration documents in October of 2010. In days he became a poster child for comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act of 2010. Together with a band of his valiant friends and supporters we successfully fought his deportation back to the country of his birth, Guatemala. Bernard, like _____ had entered the U.S. illegally in the arms of his parents who had escaped the poverty and brutality of Guatemala during its worst days. But Bernard had been three years old when he came to the U.S. In one week I had more Guatemalan memories than he could ever possibly recall, I had seen more merchants selling Mayan textiles, more street vendors selling patatas fritas, and more mothers carrying their babies on their backs wrapped in a wide swath of colorful woven cloth. While I was in the land of his birth, my home university had offered him a chance to continue to grow and develop educationally. How incredibly proud I was and how hopeful I was that he might secure the funds to accept Xavier's academic welcome. Of course the words "Cincinnati" and "Xavier" were often audible in our makeshift medical clinic in the 584 family small village high above Lake Atalan. The lake was silhouetted by three volcanoes and the view from our clinic perched on the mountain top was breathtaking. Surely the Mayan gods of sky and mountain and water had come together to create the beauty in Patanatik and its villagers. At 4300 feet above sea level the hikes up mountain paths to villagers' homes took your breath away as much as the scenery. Each patient we saw, each villager we met, each child we treated during a chicken pox outbreak in the elementary school, heard words they had never heard before - words of healing from Ohio. But on our last day, I brought our healing to a most unlikely venue. All week long our team of 12 students, two doctors, two emergency room nurses and two professional staff had done everything we could to forestall suffering and death. With each full physical exam, with each prescribed and dispensed medication, we hoped to forestall a debilitating disease, to keep a bad medical situation from deteriorating, perhaps even to cheat death on this remote mountainside. On Thursday, while being examined by one of our doctors, an adult woman received a cell phone call that her elderly father had died. She immediately left our clinic and returned to her home. As if to affirm the critical importance of the first-ever doctor she had ever seen in her village, she was back in our clinic within an hour. Her family had initiated what needed to be done; she was determined to seize this healing medical moment even in the worst of emotional circumstances. The next day Dr. Walter and I decided we should hike up to the family home and extend our condolences in the name of our medical group from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. We received permission from the local director of our operation and with only our hearts in our hands we began our climb. The steepness of the climb and the oxygen poor air made the climb quite challenging. We stopped often to catch our breath. Both of us were thinking the same thing - life and death on the same continuum.We entered the one room family home. The open casket lay on a table in the center, surrounded by large votive candles. We were introduced to each member of the grieving family. As they began to speak of their husband, father and grandfather, tears flowed easily. We stood inches from each other, our hearts beating in unison. We expressed condolences from our American medical group and shared the gift of a new relationship between Cincinnati and Patanatik. May the deeds of the righteous be a blessing forever.