The neighbor women pass by on their way to the bodega to offer support, to ask questions, to kiss the baby, to give Emma a mango, to find out where we contracted the dengue. They come with kindness and with curiosity. And then they continue on with their next task.

Here women do not stop; or if they do, not for long. They cannot. The tasks of living: peeling fruit, squeezing juice, forming corn dough, frying arepas, soaking black beans, and putting food on the table commences at daybreak. Then there is the task of washing the few sets of clothes by hand, beating the dirt out, scrubbing with knuckles, hauling water, sparingly—bucket after bucket from the barrel, rinsing with clean water, saving the run-off for tomorrow’s wash or for hair shampooing in the afternoon or to mop the floor, hanging the clothes out on the line, sweeping the ever incessant dirt and sand that covers every corner of the house overnight; and then running down to the bodega to purchase two eggs or powdered milk or a package of noodles for lunch; taking the clothes down and folding them.

Here there is no time to think about life or what one might want to do with their life. Here there is only the chore of living it.

I find that women here endure. While there are moments of frivolity and laughter, moments when we gather in each other’s homes to borrow necessities like beans or noodles or when we share stories on the way to the bodega, for the most part it is a journey of endurance. Rarely is there time to just rest and chat, to gather for coffee or to reflect. Chatting and resting and reflecting must be done in conjunction with another useful task otherwise needed chores cannot get done by sunset.

The work we had come to do: to insert ourselves into the neighborhood, to identify the needs of the community with the people, to begin a trade school to address the teenage dropout rate, to provide leadership development and health classes, to work with catechists, becomes secondary to our existence. Our primary work is to find a way to endure.

And so I fall into this rhythm. Living in the barrio I do not have a choice. My day-to-day tasks also include swatting mosquitoes and smashing roaches when I catch them unawares. It is an endless battle but I feel a great sense of satisfaction each time they splat. Of course my stomach churns when I need to clean them up but at the same time I feel deeply satisfied that I have rid my home of one more bug.

I struggle with this question: how close must one come in order to be in solidarity with the poor? How close must one lean if they are to share the burden of those who suffer? And if they lean too close will they be of any use? Will they too succumb, grow old, die, and disappear? And what is it to “be of any use” anyway?

In the Dawn of Shadows:

    Barrio El Trompillo

I stand in the dawn of shadows,
my arms wanting, the world beautiful.

My eyes can’t get enough of the morning showers–
they’re so clean, so clear.

A rainbowed path runs through the bougainvilleas,
I’m underneath the corrugated metal roof, dripping.

I can smell the excrement bubbling from the ground—
a gentle wind must be blowing.

It’s this way:
to stand as witness is beside the point,
the point is not to turn away.

Birth, Venezuela, One-and-a-half years prior to dengue, 1994

Word reaches me that Yaneth is home. She delivered her baby yesterday. She has two other children to care for: Elias, age six, who is her mama’s right hand, and Jorge, age four, who often hides behind the door whenever a visitor stops by. I myself am six months pregnant. I go to the bodega, buy three mangoes and place them in my shoulder bag. I wrap a receiving blanket with Disney characters and some booties that I received from the States. It will take a good forty minutes to climb the hill and I am glad that I have begun the trek early before the sun is too hot for travel. I want to visit Yaneth to see what I can do. If I am fortunate I will be back by noon, in time to join Mike and Emma for lunch. Today we will have arepa with cheese, fried banana and papaya. Mike will cook.

Always on the trek up, there are women behind barbed wire fences sweeping their dry plots of land or hauling buckets of water to their wash basins. Children play on the dirt patios. Lean dogs roam the streets. Today I wave out greetings to Señora Rosa, to Ire and Señora Josefina. I tell them the news and they send well wishes to Yaneth. Men and women descend the hill on foot heading toward the nearest bus stop. They will journey into town to work.

When I arrive I am surprised to find Yaneth already dressed, with broom in hand. She is sweeping the dirt-packed yard. White laundry hangs from the barbed wire fence that doubles as a clothesline. Jorge is sitting in the dirt playing with two bottle caps. Elias is hanging socks. Yaneth smiles, “Hola, Michel—véngase—come!” She pulls a metal chair from her two-room ranchito and tells Jorge to get another from behind the house.

I hold out my hands to embrace her. Felicitaciones—ya estas trabajando?  Y la bebé?” Are you working already—and the baby?

Sí, sí,” she laughs. “Durmiendo en la casa.”

Y tú?”

Bien bien—siéntese!” I am well she says—sit!

And so it goes. We embrace, we laugh. Yaneth eases down onto her hard chair. We sit. I pull out the three mangos and the children gather around. Elias runs in to get a platter and a knife. Today we are feasting!

Three months later I will try this.

My baby arrives early. She was born yesterday and today I am home. Mike has left before dawn to drive to Caracas, four hours away, to pick my mom up from the airport. I am fortunate that my mom has agreed to come but I do not know how she will be able to adapt. Once again a fine dust has entered in and covered everything. Emma, four, strokes her new sister’s hair and tries to nuzzle in as I nurse. I ask her to watch the baby while she sleeps and I find the broom and begin to sweep. Blood throbs against my stitches. I try to ignore it. Yaneth swept the next day and so did Julia and even Maria. I too must keep going.

I stoop gently as I set up my mom’s bed, as I squeeze juice and fry an egg to prepare breakfast for Emma, as I sweep the dirt into a pile. I begin to bleed. I change pads. I try again. I want our home to be prepared for Mom, who is coming for the first time. If the women can do this then so must I. I carry water to the stove to heat it before I do the dishes. I carry another bucket to the toilet to flush the morning’s accumulation away. I splatter drops of water on the floor and mop the concrete clean.

Wounded? Is that how far one must lean? Must we too become infected by dire poverty in order to be of any use to those with whom we journey? The policy of our sending group was that we live in the barrio, at one with the people, sharing their burdens in order to understand their reality; working alongside them as we sought solutions to the pressing needs of the community: education, job training, health classes. Their policy was well intentioned but it ran a risk. Either one entered in, worked hard and maintained a sense of detachment, their head above the pain, or one entered in, heart open, and struggled to do their work. And if we became infected, would we stay or would we turn away? We did not know the path the illness would take … mejor? Better, stronger, willing to take on more? … Peor? worse, falling, unable to navigate the road ahead? It was a tricky path. There were no specialists to guide us.

Being a woman, sharing in the daily tasks, struggles, laughter, and heartaches of my neighbors, I became infected. At night, lying upon my pillow, I would offer the burdens of the day to a God I was certain dwelled within the barrio, listening to our pleas, guiding our paths. But as time went on and deaths and near deaths continued to take their toll all I could do, as a I lay upon my pillow, was place a kiss on my prayer beads, uncertain of anything. By the time my baby became ill I was beginning to bleed within.

I look back on that time, in Venezuela, as though it is a chapter in a book. I can’t believe that character was me; that Mary, who is now fourteen, was that baby in the grips of dengue’s clutching fingers; that the water we struggled to obtain was filled with so many little larvae; that the dust that coated our clothes and floors was so full of dried feces; that the nits we picked out of hair were that numerous; that the mangos we shared on dirt plots gave that much refreshment. I can’t quite fathom that part of my life.

You see, I escaped.

It is true.

I ran. Two months after my baby had fallen ill with dengue we left. My husband, through his work, maintained bonds but I could not.

I fled, in mind and body, I fled.

To survive, I fled.

Does Yaneth still exist? Does her child, who suffered from “failure to thrive,” still limp? Did he live?  Is Oscar’s daughter, Elise, still strapped to her chair, head lolling back and forth? Did Senora Ana’s scars fully heal? Do Señora  Rosa, Ire, and Señora Josefina still sweep their patios so thoroughly? Do the women still gather to borrow necessities and share stories on the way to the bodega? Do any from that world still exist?

I don’t know.

Yes, you see, there were attempts at letter writing; there were letters lost and letters returned but with a postal service that infrequently delivered mail to the barrios my letter writing stopped. I was afraid to hear back, anyway. I was afraid that if I heard I would be dragged back under and so, instead, I laid my heart on my pillow and wept.

That is what I did; for endless months I wept.

When I came back to the States I discovered that, having lived in the barrio, I had lost a sense of perspective; I forgot who I had been. I forgot what it was like to live with a semblance of abundance and safety. I forgot that it was okay to choose to slow down, to take care of myself. I forgot that there was a choice. Was this the poison that had invaded me? The women in my neighborhood cared for everyone but not always themselves. They did this because they needed to survive. Their children and their spouses needed to survive. It was not a choice for them. I lived like my neighbors did because they were my mentors, they were my guide in this new land, and I too needed to survive. I survived and like them I grew old.

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