Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An Ocean


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.

Oh, God. 

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. 

It's an ocean.

24 comments:

BamaTrav said...

Wow. Don't know what to say.

Shelly said...

Mmmm- so very moving I don't have the words to articulate it.

Just yesterday, one of a number of students I have who are here because they are fleeing the violence in Mexico told me in stark detail of finding her older brother's body hanging by the feet from a bridge in Mexico, a note from the drug cartel poked into his belly with a knife. She lives in what is little more than a shack here, with a dirt floor, an outdoor toilet and sporadic electricity.

And yet her eyes lit up when she told me how happy they are here, in America, where they don't have to worry for their lives daily. This imperfect country of ours, with its squabbling people and divisive politics, is still a haven of warmth and love for those who have fled hell.

Thank you for reminding us. We do have much to be thankful for. And happy 40th, my dear. You will do that decade proud.

Mandy_Fish said...

Tears. So many of your posts bring tears to my eyes. Your writing is so vivid and alive, we are right there with you.

Thank you for this. And happy birthday, my friend. Welcome to my decade, you'll see I've cleared a path for you.

Wow, that was awkward said...

Wow. How am I supposed to joke around about this post?. You have taken away my game Chantel. I can't even imagine what that was like despite how well you wrote about it.

Brian Miller said...

happy early birthday...smiles...
ugh...wow...remember my first car accident victim working with the cops...its was brutal...i have felt those bones move myself...the quality of care in other countries though, esp 3rd world...ugh....scary moment...the job you had sounds really intriguing though...

Shea Goff said...

Chills.

I am so grateful you are here.

Happy Birthday, my friend.

Robbie Grey said...

Wow. An accident and shattered dreams...lost a friend like that...

South America; one of the places I'd love to see, but this world is so small, but so large, is it not?

I do not say it easily, but you're a fucking hero...

And, have a good birthday. We all earn our orbits.

NicePeace said...

oly wow. amazing stuf here. i brak down so easily. but this lreft me to sob some.

xo momo

NicePeace said...

happy 40th. its not so bad i am weel into them now. i feel good in my skin these days

Out on the prairie said...

Celebrate your life in the fullest.Happy birthday!

Mel Heth said...

Oh Chantel... I'm caught between feeling like that was complete horror and some sort of strange gift to give you an appreciation for life that many of us will never have. I'm sitting here stunned. I hope your birthday is filled with blessings and gifts that are easier to receive.

ND Mitchell said...

What an experience this and the whole time must have been. No words for what you describe so eloquently. Wishing you a fabulous 40th. I join you on that milestone in about 6 weeks. 1973 must have been a great year :-)

Chantel said...

BamaTrav--it's taken me a long time to face this memory again.

Shelly--thank you and this little girl just breaks my heart. We're so blessed, yet many don't seem to know that.

Mandy--thank you, I'm honored to follow you! :)

Brett--that was an awesome compliment dude.

Brian--it changed who I am, that's for sure.

Shea--me too. xo

Robbie--I love your last line, thanks handsome.

Momo--thanks, I'm actually looking forward to the 40's!

Prairie--thank you!

Mel--thank you so much love, that just about sums up how I feel about it too.

David--thank you and happy birthday too! 1973 rocked! :)

Anthony said...

Wow, that is tragic-even years later...On a totally separate note, I do want to wish you a happy b-day.

terlee said...

The things that change us, form us, make us who we are--the light and dark of Life.

Happy Birthday, sis... ;D

Freckled Philologist said...

Tears running down my face I stopped breathing halfway through this post and didn't start breathing again in gulps until I had finished. Long heavy hard breaths. This pain is so palpable. It's the fear of pain that drove me to call the sheriff in my kids' home town all the way from Spain just last week when they weren't home by 3am. You have such a gift for "real" and the wisdom to appreciate the important. I admire both.
Feliz Cumpleaños, Querida. Ojalá que los 40s sean los mejores de tu vida!

Mary Kirkland said...

I can't even imagine going through something like that.

The Loerzels said...

Happy Birthday Chantel! Think of all the lives you've touched and how grateful even near strangers are to have had you grace theirs. People like me.

Rose Hascall said...

May your memories on your birthday be happy ones. Happy Birthday from one of your newest followers.

Chantel said...

Anthony--it is, and thank you!

Terlee--the light and the dark, both so necessary, don't you think? And thank you, it was lovely!

Mary--thank you and I can only imagine your panic a country away...

Mary--it changes how you see the world, for sure.

Marie--love being a part of yours, thank you!

Rose--Thank you so much!!

Dee said...

Dear Chantel, this harrowing story I think will haunt me today as I go about my life in this home with electricity and running water and heat and a indoor toilet and all the comforts of living as a middle-class citizen in this country. Thank you for reminding me of this. In my gratitude journal to night I will write my thankfulness for these things.

And thank you for being there for Carl and Maria. Our lives are so intertwined and only in eternal will we, I hope, see the ripples that go out from these brief encounters that stay with us the rest of our lives.

Happy birthday and may your forties be truly freeing years as they were for me. Peace.

Jessica B said...

Wow Chantel...such a painful memory. Thank you for sharing. Happy, happy birthday to you. 40 isn't so bad :)

Chantel said...

Dee--thank you, I do feel life is like millions of intricate spider webs, piled one atop the other, the intertwinement (is that a word?) unending...

Jessica--lol, I think 40 and I will be alright cohabiting, thank you for the birthday wishes!

Heaven said...

What a beautiful share ~ I do understand what you mean by blessings and being grateful for simple things like clean water, security and health services ~