Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Day 3

Cayetana's daughter, Guadelupe, with her new mattress and bear
Early in September, I learned of the passing of sweet Cayetana, a 90 year old woman from San Jorge La Laguna who I had the honor to meet in March, 2010, when I visited Mayan Families for the first time. It was many months before that trip that I had seen a photo of Cayetana with her two disabled adult daughters, and I felt drawn to her story. At that time, she was the sole caregiver of Maria and Guadelupe, both blind and the latter with undiagnosed disabilities that prevented her from walking without support or effectively communicating with others. Each day, Cayetana would leave Guadelupe at home and lead Maria up the steep path out of San Jorge and then down the highly traveled mountain road to Panajachel where they would sit at the waterfall and allow toursists to take their photograph with the hope of earning a few quetzales before gathering firewood and beginning the trek home. Cayetana was their lifeline and, during her final days, she prayed that she would be spared so that she could continue to care for them. She feared not death but life for her daughters without her.

Surely tears were shed both near and far as word spread about Cayetana's passing. It is likely that she never traveled outside of a 10 mile radius of her home, and yet boxes of tissues were being plucked as far away as Boston, Massachusetts as she took her final breaths and made her way to heaven.

I admired Cayetana. On days when my kids were challenging, I imagined the strength that it took to care for children well into their 50s while living in dire poverty. Suddenly, my challenges felt like minor speedbumps. Cayetana provided perspective without ever intending to do so. By all accounts, she was the finest example of motherhood that I was ever blessed to witness.  And so, when today finally arrived, I traveled to San Jorge with both joy and sadness in my heart, to pay my respects to Maria and Guadelupe and to provide them with some comfort items in memory of their sweet mother.

Our day began with the final Mayan Families Christmas Party of 2012 for the sponsored students and ancianos (elderly) of the village. It was yesterday's El Barranco celebration reproduced in full for a group twice its size... clown, music, two Santas, toys, food, and fun. The women in the village kindly prepared a meal for the staff and volunteers which we quietly enjoyed behind the scenes. And, just like yesterday, the McFadyen kids quickly made new friends. The ability of young people to reach out to others and instantaneously connect is a pleasure to behold.

After the party, which was held on the grounds of the local school, we walked down the hill to the elderly feeding program where even more ancianos were awaiting small gift baskets of food from their sponsors. Even as a young child, I found great joy in gleaning wisdom from the elderly. When you hold hands with these seemingly ancient women and stare into their eyes, something truly magical happens. Language barriers no longer exist and they pass along to you, through the palms of their hands, the desire to become a better woman.

While Jay, Juliana and I enjoyed the reception of elderly women as they departed the feeding program, Kendra, Luke and Will began a game of street baseball with some local children. A boy who had received a baseball bat and ball at the party from Santa (and selected with great care by Kendra), was hoping for some batting practice and he wisely sensed that the McFadyen boys would be very interested in pitching to him. Little did he know, though, that Kendra would soon recruit the group of girls who were watching on the sidelines to form the first San Jorge Girls Softball Club. Jay and I were all smiles as we watched them race around to chase the ball in their ankle length skirts while laughing hysterically. Kendra was indeed very proud of her team.

We said our goodbyes, as children age six and under lit fireworks a bit too close for comfort, and made our way to Cayetana's house nearer to the entrance of the village. A steep climb down a narrow stairway of stones led the way to two small rooms with a small cement landing that they shared. Guadelupe sat in the corner of her doorway on the ground and Maria stood in hers as she keenly listened for our approach and then, through touch, carefully navigated her way to the two stairs at the top of the landing. Without a railing to hold, she reached way down to the top rim of the pila (outdoor sink) to guide her way. I couldn't help but imagine how frightening it must be to be without sight in a landscape with so many natural obstacles. The twenty or so stairs that I had just climbed down from the roadside were treacherous for my able-bodied self. To make that climb each day without sight is unimaginable, and yet it is part of everyday life here.

Just a few weeks ago, I had learned that Guadelupe had been sleeping on the same mattress upon which Cayetana had died. Sadly, Cayetana's blood and bodily fluids had soiled the mattress but, because the daughters had no money to spare, they simply flipped the mattress and Guadelupe slept on the other side. It seemed like an ideal gift to present both Guadelupe and Maria with new mattresses, new pillows and new blankets, and so we did just that. We also brought a new large stuffed bear for Guadelupe, as we had heard that, for days and days after her mom's passing, she clenched two small stuffed toys and banged them together over and over again while crying. For one brief but incredibly touching moment, Guadelupe held the bear close to her heart and offered us the most sweet smile. It was the highlight of my day.

We spoke with Maria and extended our sympathies for their great loss. She tearfully told us how hard life had been since September and how thankful she was for our gifts. We offered our promise of monthly sponsorship which would ensure that she would have access to the feeding program in the village and we also noticed the condition of the bed in her room (a broken metal cot upon which her new mattress would not fit) and arranged to have a new bed delivered to her by the end of the week. As food is always needed, we also ordered a 100 lb. bag of corn to be delivered so that Maria could make tortillas for the coming month. What a blessing it was to our family to meet these women and provide them with comfort and care at a time when they needed it most. There's no doubt that Cayetana was smiling down upon us all today.

Our day had been full but was not yet done as we then traveled to the village of El Tablon to visit our sponsored student, Daniel Pablo, and his brother, Victor Antonio, who is the sponsored student of my parents. When we arrived, it appeared that no one was home, but - sure enough - both boys (who seem to be as tightly connected as our Luke and Will) came walking around the corner to our delight. My enthusiasm may have overwhelmed these shy boys, now ages 14 and 12, as I quickly moved in for hellos and hugs. Thankfully, their teenage sister and niece were full of smiles and stories and took the spotlight off of the boys for a bit so that they could adjust to our arrival.

In addition to the practical gifts, we brought some fun things this time too, including a Monopoly game in Spanish and the ever appreciated soccer ball. While we were reviewing the items in the care package with the boys, Mayan Families' Julio set up their new ten year water filter and table and provided instruction on how to use it. We also had brought 100 lb. bags of corn and beans and 30 eggs as a special treat.

On behalf of their mother, Alejandra, who was caring for her own ill mother not too far away, the teenage girls presented us with a lovely tapestry in appreciation of our continued sponsorship and support of the family.  We look forward to passing it along to my parents in recognition of their many gifts to Alejandra and her children. My mother, in particular, has always felt a special connection to this family, as Alejandra's husband died many years ago when the boys were just toddlers, and my mom lost her own dear dad when she was just five years old. She remembers her own mother struggling to keep her large family afloat as a single parent and feels blessed to be in a position to make life easier for this mother, many miles away. I hope, with all my heart, that someday my mom will meet Alejandra so that she too can experience this family's generosity of spirit and affection. Forever intertwined, we are indeed!

It was after 6pm and the mountain road from Solola to Panajachel was dark and windy as we returned to home base at the hotel. Exhausted from a day overflowing with activity, we will rest well tonight knowing that the gifts that we've offered in these two days alone have been life changing ones. As I close this blog entry, my thoughts can't help but wander to sweet Guadelupe, snuggling her new teddy bear in her cozy new bed. Oh how I pray that Cayetana will visit her in her dreams tonight and offer her the comfort and joy that she provided for each of her more than fifty years. Buenas noches, queridas amigas.

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