My baby is wheeled to isolation—into an elevator, down a long white hall, into an empty room at the end of the hall. I follow, burning with fever and crawl into bed with her. I lie sideways, flattened to the sheet, underneath a clean white mosquito netting they have placed over us.

“We do not want mosquitoes to bite her. She may spread the disease,” the aide says as she tucks the edges in.

I nuzzle Mary. She is hot. The sheets are cool against my cheek. They are cool and sweet. Her eyes are closed.

I close my eyes.

I sink into a deep sleep and nuzzle Mary.

 “At least it is cool,” I think. “It is cool and there are no roaches.”

* * *

At times I have tried to remember how many people died in our barrio while we were there but I cannot recount the number. I remember some of the near deaths, though. Those were the ones where death lingered on the fringes grasping out with its long bony fingers: Oscar’s three-year-old daughter, Elise, who fell into the water barrel head-first while standing on a chair. No one saw her and by the time they did she was already brain damaged. And Yaneth’s youngest son, Jorge, who walked on hobbled feet and who refused to eat when the family did. “Failure to thrive” is what she told me the doctor had called it. “Feed him more,” she was told—but she had said to me, “How can I feed him more? When he refuses to eat the other children take his food and there is no more food to feed him when he might want some.”

Or the night when, as usual, our electricity went out and we heard the explosion next door. Señora Ana had been trying to light her oven in the pitch black when it exploded into a burst of flame scorching her arms and face. Within minutes the neighborhood women had gathered with aloe plants, breaking off stems to rub the soft center over her arms and neck. I was sent home to get aspirin—the only person who had medicine in her home, basic medications a luxury for most. Muy caro—too expensive. The women instead relied on plants and herbs grown in their gardens and on amulets and spider plants hanging from their ceilings, warding off illness. And on prayer when it was available, “si Dios quiere”—if God desires it—a common refrain to pain or tragedy or future hope.

And then the time when Mike had a gun pulled on him as he descended the hill at dusk and how he ran toward a group of people yelling, Help! Help! in English. At least he was not shot at. We laughed over the English for a long time. I think the laughter relieved the pressure.

When I asked my neighbors about the deaths and near deaths and the inevitable weekly robberies we experienced they just shrugged their shoulders or shook their heads and said, “Demasiado,” too many. Then they would go on to the next task at hand. There was no consideration that the situation could change or might change if it was talked about or pondered over basically because there was no time to think beyond the next task. It was just part of our daily lives—like mosquitoes or roaches—something annoying to be flicked away.

Dengue; Venezuela 1995, three days later

We have been in the private pay hospital for three days. Mary has been hooked up to IVs. Daily showers, a luxury at home, are commonplace here. Air conditioning. Clean, dustless sheets. She has improved.

Pueden regresar a su casa hoy.” You can return home today, we are told.

I do not want to return home. Here I am safe. Here my baby is safe.

Mike and Emma pick us up in the jeep. The twenty-year-old Volkswagen once again in the shop. I hold Mary close, breathe in her cream-scented body, nuzzle into her fleshy neck. Stare out at the passing landscape. Low-lying colonial homes, red ceramic roofs, scraggly tufts of green, sidewalks flush with the road. We navigate our way through town out onto the autopista, past the concrete buildings. Gray, all is dry and gray, heat radiating off of cement winding its way into the car. Fine sand, dust carpeting windows, arms, eyes. We wipe them, squint, look beyond the immediate. Emma chatters in the back. Mike and I catch up on the time we have been apart.

We turn off of the autopista into El Trompillo, a narrow road connecting outlying barrios with the center of business. It is a straight shot from here, up a steady incline. Rows of cement homes with corrugated metal roofs line the path interspersed with lean-tos, ranchitos, homes of metal, nestled alongside cemented neighbors; shared walls. Women in chanclas, rubber sandals and housedresses pass, going from one task to the other. Children gather, run down the sidewalks, play on the dusted ground. The sun beats down heavily, movement is slowed.

We arrive home. Thick air within the walls is stifling. We open windows. Start fans to circulate the heat. I lay Mary on the bed. Already she is sweating. She stares up at the colorful mobile. The ceramic one we made in women’s group. Her hands wave in their direction.

We begin preparing a meal: arepas, cheese, jamón, jugo de naranja; check to see we have enough water. Mike walks up the hill to buy some eggs.

There is a knock.

“Is this the house where there was dengue?” they ask. “Sí? Bueno, we need to spray. It will not take long.”

Two men dressed in black flak jackets, completely covered neck to toe, canisters strung on their backs, come in. They look like riot police. Heads covered in gas masks. They spray the rooms. A thick fog emerges from their hoses, white, dense, wet. They go from room to room: bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, porch; into the yard. Nothing is left untouched. I carry Mary out to the backyard to hide from the fumes, Emma by the hand.

As they leave they tell me they must spray all the houses adjoining ours and up the hill as another child also has dengue.

I close the door. I head to the bedroom. A fine oil has settled on the dresser. I cannot see it but I suspect the sheets and everything else must also be covered, even the dishes.

Mike comes home. We throw out the exposed food. We clean what we can. The rest we leave as is. Today's limited water supply hampers us. We eat lunch. We are home.

Here there is no time to think about the future. Here there is no time to contemplate life. Here there is no time to be grateful that one has come through a crisis—that one has evaded death.

Here there is just life and the living of it.

The sinister aspect of dire poverty is that it can kill life—not just physical life—but the life of the spirit, the life of the mind that can see possibility and hope. That is not to say that those experiencing dire poverty do not or cannot think. No, they think abundantly, for to survive one must have a keen sense of thought and organization and clear priorities. No, what dire poverty kills is the luxury of having time to think beyond poverty, to think beyond day-to-day survival. If one’s energy is wholly absorbed in the task of survival then what energy is left to ‘imagine’ how one can transcend this existence? What energy is left for one to rest?

I do not understand this kind of poverty. I only know that I have grown to hate it. I hate that I must constantly fight off bugs that may harm my children. I hate that I cannot place my baby on the floor lest the dry dirt blown in, permeated with outhouse residue, find its way into her mouth. I hate that conjunctivitis—pink eye—is a monthly menace. I hate that no matter how clean we can be we will always get lice. I hate picking out nits. I hate placing pails and bowls and buckets under rain that drips through our roof. I hate not having water to shower. I hate the larvae that float on the top of our barrel water and I hate the dirt that pours through our pipes on those thrice weekly occasions when our part of the barrio gets piped water to fill our barrels. I hate that all I feel that I am doing is surviving day to day.

And the fact that my neighbors are doing the same is no comfort to me. I hate that they also must endure this and I hate that I am so whipped. I hate that the wound has begun to fester in me.

I hate that I want to escape.

I hate that I count the days until I can escape.

Maybe the hate has made me old.

Why did I go overseas? I thought that in some intentional way I would be able to ease the suffering of those in need. By binding my life with theirs, by walking with and sharing their burden, somehow, I would be able to help. I was not naive. My husband and I had been activists; lived nine years in inner-city Chicago, working with neighbors in soup kitchens, shelters, halfway homes; providing pastoral counseling to elders and those facing loss and death. We lived simply. Perhaps it was the starkness of third-world poverty, dire poverty, that began to age me; the inability to escape a ‘survival mentality.’ I never thought that by being present to this type of poverty I would be dragged under. I never knew that it would mean the possible loss of my child. I never knew that it would mean that I would die inside, that part of me would succumb, be swallowed up, disappear. I never knew that I would come back so old.

I don’t think that I am strong. But I need to be strong. I don’t have a choice.

It is the next day. Mary recovers quickly. Dengue has a knack for that—striking quickly, lingering many days, plunging one down and then just as quickly disappearing. That is, if it is treated quickly.

Today I rise early. I must finish cleaning the oily residue left by the gas spray. I do not know if it is poisonous but we have made it through the night with it on our sheets and pillows. I must begin the laundry right away, hang it in the sun. I must order gas for the stove and make sure there is enough drinking water; open the slats to air out the house. I must sweep out the carpet of dirt that has accumulated overnight. The sun is already beginning to bake our roof. Mary whines to be nursed. Emma is fed. We have fruit in the fridge and hard pan dulce—sweet bread—that we can soften with milk. Tomorrow is feria day so we will get our supply of fruits and vegetables and hopefully a loaf of sliced bread, my one indulgence. I tire of arepas and hard rolls. The list goes on.

Mike will attend to the vocational school.

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