I've mentioned that in my early twenties, I spent several years living in Mexico, Guatemala, and some of the worst streets of Philadelphia. My first husband and I would act as 'house parents' and we'd be joined by 10-15 college kids for a few months at a time and get them connected and working with the orphanages, health clinics, and soup kitchens in the area. Amazing, the lives I saw changed...hearts softened, souls healed. Sometimes there was joy so pure it felt like flying.
Sometimes there was darkness so black it felt like the end of everything.
I dreamt the other night of Guatemala. While some of you may have vacationed in the lovely parts, there are villages still without electricity, towns full of families that scrape food out of the dust...children who have never seen a refrigerator. I learned so much when I was there. About myself, my fears, my expectations. I learned to long for toilets that flushed....craved brushing my teeth with tap water...sprayed the legs of my wood and rope cot with raid to keep the tarantulas from climbing into my blankets.
One day, we took a trip out to visit an orphanage that had asked us to come sing for them. Something so simple; our rag-tattered gang of off-key, couldn't-carry-a-tune-in-a-bucket, sunburned loons--and those children were ecstatic. They giggled and laughed and danced--it was a holiday, a treat, the best of presents. Such fun....but the van was silent that night as we trundled back over dirt roads towards home, such simplicity and gratitude drapes a cloak of conviction over privileged shoulders.
Driving in another country is staggering. The fact that there are no car inspections, no rules, no lanes--insanity. Often cars run without operating lights, making night driving perilous. We almost didn't see them. The smashed little car, the larger one less so. There was a drunk man passed out in the dirt. And a sobbing, hysterical man that came running towards us, his face streaked with tears and blood.
His new bride was pinned in the car.
Our interpreter, Debbie, called for an ambulance, it was on the way. We were about ten minutes from the closest city. Meanwhile, the man I married the first time around was not good in emergencies and was slightly panicked. I left him in the van with the crew and asked them to pray. Debbie and I were nearly drug over to the smashed vehicle, the husband frantically gesturing at the car and pointing to his nose. Oh God, I could smell gas. We didn't have tools, but between us, were able to pry the door halfway open. Finally able to hold his wife's hand, he calmed down enough to tell us her name was Maria and his was Carl. Headlights in the distance...the ambulance. I stood, waving my arms to get it to slow down.
It was a pick-up truck with a piece of plywood in the back.
I was dumbfounded. Shocked into silence....this? This was the ambulance? The driver was efficient and soon produced a crow bar and wrenched the door the rest of the way open. Carl seemed unable to let go of the unconscious Maria's hand so I found myself attempting to support her head and shoulders as we gingerly pulled her from the twisted wreck. Debbie had drug the plywood over and we carefully laid her down. There was so much blood. Maria's head was cradled in the palm of my hand and it shifted slightly as I knelt in the dirt....and then the tips of my fingers felt the bones of her skull move.
In glare of the headlights I suddenly understood why Maria's head didn't look right. My heart nearly stopped. Debbie reached out as I inhaled sharply, drawing Carl over to the other side of the board, sparing him the sight of his bride's broken body...and his shattered dreams.
We carried the board to the truck and slid it into the back, Carl climbing up to sit next to her. I could hear him telling her he loved her over and over as he clutched her hand. I stood there, frozen, as the tail lights vanished down the dark road. Debbie had checked the drunk and said he was fine. He'd been tossed from his car when it t-boned theirs. Aside from some scrapes and bruises, he would be alright. She helped him to his car and then gently led me back to the van. I don't remember the rest of the ride home. I do remember getting into the shower with all my clothes on, watching Maria's blood wash down the drain, and sobbing till there was nothing left.
I didn't have children then. Years later my boys would enter my life and I would understand a love that literally was cell and bone and sinew deep. Tomorrow is my fortieth birthday. I suppose it's only natural to find myself today sifting through what I am thankful for. Since that night, kneeling in the dark, I have never heard the wail of an ambulance and not closed my eyes for a moment, desperately grateful to live in a place where such a sound is only a phone call away. That my children live here. This gratitude is nearly overwhelming, immeasurable.
There is a moment every year when I realize I've lost the sun. As if the frozen air has plucked every ray from my flesh, scraped away summer's glow with icy claws, leeched the color from my skin. Perhaps it's a redhead thing, this day when you notice that you've passed on from ivory and now are somewhere closer to alabaster. Just a notch or so from transparent. Oh, how I do miss the feel of warm rays spilling over my bare shoulders and down my back...
Spring, please hurry.
At any rate, the other night I was sitting next to one of my boys and discovered him staring at my hand. "Mom," he whispered, "I can see your pulse." I chuckled and told him now he could be sure now I wasn't a vampire--he grinned, but looking at the back of his own hands, he shook his head. "My hands don't have those veins." I ruffled his hair, "Well love, that's because you're young, perhaps you won't have hands like mine." He seemed slightly disconcerted by this, my youngest and I have much in common, but his brother called and off he ran to play.
Evening was approaching, afternoon's light beginning to fade as the night drew near. I sat in the dusk, swirling the wine in my glass, marveling a bit at the contrast of my pale skin against the crimson liquid. You could plainly see blue lines, veins tracing the length of my fingers, across the back of my hand, disappearing as they swirled around the bones of my wrist. I've always been lucky as far as needles go. A slightly bizarre thing to say, but having such a surface bloodway means that the one in the crook of my elbow is raised up, a quarter inch wide, it cannot be missed. (it always thrills the nurses--once I had a doc ask if I would come in to let the new aides train on me. Um.....no.) But such things are not without peril.
I have my mother's veins.
How strange to stumble across a memory tucked long ago into the eves of my mind...
I was about seven or so. Mum was drying dishes with me, taking care of the more fragile ones. I remember us just chatting on, and there was a clink. One of the large wine glasses had broken....with her hand inside of it. I remember the scarlet spray that hit the wall in front of us. The pulse of it that was her heartbeat seen, like a mad macabre sprinkler. That split second where my mind added up the volume and the throb of it all and arrived at how serious the injury must be...and for the first time, there in our kitchen with the green ivy towels, my mother became mortal. This superhero who ran our ranch with an iron hand, could fly through the door snatching a loaded gun which hung on a rack above each, and cock it with deadly accuracy before even hitting the ground outside--beware ye wolves and mountain lions, our horses were not for you. Suddenly before my eyes, the bulletproof super woman bled....alot.
She wrapped her hand in a kitchen towel, it was soon soaked. As I've mentioned, our land was a long way from any doctor's office. I remember sitting in the passenger seat as she fumbled with the keys...and then stopped. The towel was dripping and there was no way she could drive. Back inside, she called for help and wonderful friends rushed like madmen to our side. They whisked her off and a few stayed with us girls; my father had a moment of sheer panic when he arrived home to a blood drenched kitchen and a house full of people, but all was soon explained. There were stitches and a bandage and that evening, lying in my bed long after dark, I knew my mother was safe upstairs. But invincible no more.
The things that shape us. Ideas and dreams and memories. Do you know, I've never once put my hand inside of a wine glass to dry it. I am stronger than most people I meet. I am six feet tall and have a 36 inch inseam and own my own heavy bag. But the truth remains, every superhero has a kryptonite. A chink in the armor, an achilles heel...a broken heart, nightmares, shattered hopes, lost causes. Beautiful humanity. We are so strong.