Hello! For everyone who has been at all concerned because it has been two months since I’ve last written, let me thank you for keeping me in mind and reassure you that all is well with me in El Salvador.
I’ve been here over half of the time that I will be here. It has gone by terribly fast. When I think of it I can’t believe it. I’m in my eighth month. My commitment was for one year, which will be up in August. However, I’m the English teacher for nine English classes in three towns. The school year ends in early November. I’ll probably return to the States in late October. That seems so soon.
A young friend of mine, who knows me through these letters, wrote me asking, "Do you ever smile down there or is it all terrible with nothing to smile about?" (Thanks, Bobby) The question caught me off guard and made me consider what I write in these letters. I feel myself wanting to put into words what I cannot. I know that I have said that it is a great privilege to be here. I know I’m repeating myself when I say that an old woman’s dark eyes or a child’s smile are the most real things I’ve ever known. I know that I’m repeating myself when I say that I am more alive than I’ve ever been before. So how can I tell you that the struggle is so real that it can only lead to joy?
I'll try. Today is the day after Christianity celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we know that even the greatest suffering is overcome by the greater joy of resurrection. On Good Friday morning (three days ago) Don Tonio died of cancer. Parents die of cancer everywhere. In fact, the cancer rate is much lower here since many people die of something else at a younger age. Perhaps here I have learned to sit with pain, to accept the mystery of it, then grow in peace and joy.
Don Tonio had six children. One died in the war, another works to send money from the United States and could not be here. The rest live near by. Two of them, Silvia and Hernando, are my good friends. Since embalming is not customary, and this is the hottest time of year, the funeral, procession and burial were Saturday morning. We were present for the family in the procession from the church to the cemetery, a kilometer along the dusty, unpaved road. Our dark clothes, worn for the funeral, quickly absorbed the heat making us damp so that the dust stuck to us all the more. A barefoot woman, who is slightly out of her mind, with large eyes full of tears, put her arm around me as we walked. Men cried; the sons hugged each other. In the heat and sadness our breathing was deep but short as our heart pushed against our esophagus, wanting so much to hold just some part of their pain.
That night as it was getting dark, I went to visit Silvia and Hernanndo. They were out on the steps to the house with cousins from another town. They had had no sleep since Don Tonio’s death but didn’t seem to want it. Instead they asked about me and how I was. We talked about English and the United States. They told their cousins, with pride, how I planned to stay only a year but I like it here so much that I’m staying until October. Hernando invited us for pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran food sold on street corners in the evenings. We had pupusas and Coke and talked about how unusual it is in this country, that their family has green eyes. We joked and enjoyed each other’s company. There was the slight hint of stability returning to their lives as they looked for the eye contact that I could give.
For Silvia especially, breathing without crying may still have been difficult, but she was doing it and even venturing to smile. And I was glad to be here. No, more than that; I was grateful that their father had loved them and that they loved him. And I was extremely grateful that I could be here for them. The pain that Silvia and Hernando feel has little to do with their living in El Salvador. Parents die of cancer everywhere. Embracing pain and joy is embracing death and resurrection. It’s not a call to look for suffering or even to accept suffering as God’s will, but it is a means to hold firm in the belief that good does overcome. Do I ever smile? I wonder if I ever don’t.
I will not let so much time pass again between my future letters. It is exciting to be this busy. However, writing these letters needs to be a priority. I am grateful for your interest in what I do, and, in turn, in the lives of Salvadorans. Like eye contact giving stability to those who are mourning, your awareness has value. My father, when visiting me in February, used the metaphor of holding hands. As long as we value the common humanity of each other and reach out to hold hands, we will not be lost. It is easy for me. I’m in a situation in which barefoot women put their arms around me, and children just want to be sung to. I don’t have to reach far to hold hands. But you are present too. Your interest is a way to reach out to them.