The following memoir is composed of a series of short vignettes from my experiences doing mission work in Honduras over the course of two years. They represent my experiences as truly as possible, regardless of how things and/or people have changed since the piece was written.
The sun was hot as the truck bounced over the dry, cracked clay, up the mountainside, dodging potholes and broken glass. Marcos was driving, and I was in the truck bed white-knuckled, clinging for dear life. The shocks on the truck did very little to cushion my aching tailbone, and I winced with each bump we hit. I tried to scoot up and get my feet underneath me, but the jostling motion of the vehicle pulled me back down–smack–every time.
The heat of the day soaked into my black jeans, the very same jeans I’d shivered in not two hours earlier. That was how things were in Honduras: cool in the mornings, warm during the day, cool again in the evenings. Spring was dry season, and that meant the terrain around me was brown, barren. Nothing but rock and earth and the occasional solitary tree for miles. And windmills. I gazed at them curiously and thought about Don Quixote and imagined that they were giants. I squinted my eyes, blurred my vision, and managed to give them arms and legs.
It was the girl who broke into my daydreaming. The same girl I’d seen when we first arrived in Honduras two days ago. She was tiny and dark and beautiful, with a thick head of raven-colored hair that fell to her shoulders in the front and then plunged dramatically to her waist in the back. She was about my age, wearing boys’ basketball shorts, Toms shoes, and a church camp T-shirt that could only have been a hand-me-down gift from some other American college student, also visiting Honduras on a mission trip like I was. There was something about the girl that really intrigued me. Maybe it was the way she looked people in the eye, like she wasn’t scared of anyone. But then again, underneath that, there was this other part of her that seemed so fragile–a strange combination of bravery and vulnerability in one tiny person. Or maybe I was wrong, and it was something else entirely. Regardless of the reason, I’d found myself staring at her from across the group, and several times, she’d stared back at me. But we’d never spoken. Until now.
“Hi,” she said, a little shyly. It was one of the only times I ever saw her shy.
“Hi,” I replied. Then I decided to see if all those college Spanish classes had paid off, and I switched the conversation over into Spanish. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Melissa,” she replied, pronouncing it with Spanish vowels so that it sounded like “Mey-lee-sa.” And then, as if she wanted to be sure I got it right, she added, “Wendy Melissa Rivera.”
“How pretty,” I said politely.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
Melissa dropped her jaw and screwed up her mouth as if she were trying to push a large wad of taffy through it, imitating the way I pronounced my name with her best impression of my Southern drawl. It came out something like “Zhara.” We both laughed.
“Ok,” she said, matter-of-factly, “I’ll call you Sara.” That Spanish pronunciation of my name sounded awkward coming out of my mouth, but I liked the way it sounded when she said it.
We sat in silence for a while, gazing lazily at the passing scenery. In a very strange way, the dramatic sweep of the mountains, rising and then plunging into deep ravines, was beautiful despite the lack of color. The further out you looked, the less dirt you saw. The earth tones-umber, ochre, copper, and russet-all swirled together in a rich palette and faded on the horizon. In the opposite end of the truck bed, I could hear my assigned travel partner, Derek, speaking in a low murmur of Spanish to one of the local boys our age named Dani. His father a Costa Rican, Derek blended in with the Hispanic culture from the moment the plane touched down, and despite the fact that he was an American student just like I was, the people of Santa Ana seemed irresistibly drawn to him. I listened to him for a few seconds, the way the language rolled off his tongue effortlessly. He caught my eye and grinned a gleaming white smile that contrasted starkly with his tanned face. It was a smile equal parts friendly and charming, and I was equal parts admiring and jealous. I could see he was quickly putting his new acquaintance at ease, a gift I wished I had.
“Where are we going again?” I asked, turning back to Melissa. “What was it called?”
“La Cruz de Chatarra,” she said. The name translates into “Junk Cross.” “It was built by a man who was not a Christian. One night, he had a dream. In the dream God spoke to him and said, ‘I am going to take all of the junk and all of the ugly things in your life and turn them into something beautiful for me.’ And when the man woke up, he gave his life to God. He built the cross out of scrap metal, to show other people how something ugly can be remade into something beautiful.”
It was not three minutes more before we crested the hill and beheld a windswept bluff. It reminded me somehow of a frigid November day several years earlier when I’d hiked in the Swiss Alps, near the top of the world, although we were nowhere near that high now, and it was not the least bit cold. But this experience was similar for one reason: aside from the roaring of the wind, there was no sound. None of the busy honking and roaring of the cars on the roads below, no roosters calling, no dogs barking. Nothing but me and wind and cross. I felt, for a brief moment, the sublime experience of letting myself be engulfed by my surroundings. Then, a few seconds later, I remembered there were twenty other people with me, and Melissa was calling my name.
On a platform, surrounded by a stone wall at the very highest point of the bluff, the cross towered, its bits and pieces of scrap metal stubbornly resistant to the shoving wind. I got out my camera to take a picture of the structure, but I had a difficult time getting the entire cross to fit into the frame of the shot. In the end, I crouched down on my knees, six inches off the ground, and managed to snap a shot of the top of the cross, sunbeams peeking out from behind it.
We held a devotional there on the steps surrounding La Cruz, me and my fellow college students from Arkansas. Gringos, the Hondurans called us. There was also Marcos, whose real name was Marc, but nobody called him that. He was middle-aged, but he looked much older. And then again, he didn’t. His face was a ruddy sun-beaten mass of wrinkles, but when he spoke in English he still sounded like a Texan. He’d been a gringo once, too. Years ago, before he’d moved to Honduras and started a children’s home and a feeding ministry. Before he’d built relationships and become a father figure to orphaned children, including Melissa, who hadn’t known anything but pain, neglect, and abuse before. Now, he wasn’t a gringo. He was just Marcos.
The kids from the children’s home were there with us, too. I saw Derek on the other side of the group, a tiny girl squeezing the circulation out of his fingers as she pulled him down to sit beside her. She had on her best Sunday dress and two shiny little black shoes to match. Her long, ebony hair was pulled back in two braids down her back and tied with ribbons. Derek whispered something to her in Spanish, pointing at her dress, and she beamed a gap-toothed smile that consumed half her face. Her name was Lupe.
Melissa sat down beside me as Marcos began to lead us in some Spanish worship songs. I knew a few of them from going to Spanish devotionals in college, but most of my fellow classmates were not Spanish speakers and mumbled gibberish along to the tune, blank looks in their eyes. Marcos noticed and switched us back into English. When he prayed, I felt Melissa slip her hand into mine.
Weird, I thought, staring straight ahead, stiffening. I don’t even know her. But as Marcos prayed over us-a ten-minute-long prayer that left me with plenty of time to mull over my situation-my thoughts slowly changed. She doesn’t even know me, but she wants to be my friend, I thought. She’s reaching out. How sweet!
About that time, Melissa pulled her hand out of mine, holding out her palm. “Sweaty,” she said, and wiped it on the side of her pants. I blushed, trying to laugh off my embarrassment.
We halved a stick of gum on the way back to the truck.
Meli, I miss you, I would write later, the day I got back to the States. And then again, I would say it two weeks later, and a month after that. How are you? There was never any answer.
“Why haven’t we heard from them?” I would ask Derek, and he would merely shrug.
“I’m sure they’re busy. They have groups coming into Santa Ana every week this time of year, so the girls are probably translating for them all day long.”
“Well, I know. But how long does it take to send an email?”
Strange that I cared so much. It sounded crazy in my head, to say that I had found a sister in a third world country. When I tried to tell my family, my friends, they did not understand. Why in the world would I be so upset about losing a friend I’d just met? Why couldn’t I forget about a country I barely knew? It had only been a week.
Derek’s advice was to move on. Easy for him to say, busy with nursing school. I guess it would have been easy for me too, with graduation and finals approaching, had it not been for the small problem that my heart was still in Honduras on a windy day beneath a cross.
“We need to book it,” Derek says nervously, looking down at the ticket in his hand.
“I know,” I say, trotting to keep up with his quick strides down the hallway of the airport. It is only nine in the morning, but already the place is beginning to bustle with large tour groups, Americans with sunburned necks and constipation and dirt under their fingernails. I know they are probably flying back to the States after their spring break mission trips, just like we are, but they speak in loud, boisterous English, and for some reason this annoys me. I wonder for a moment why this is; my appearance isn’t so very different from their own. Although my complexion is dark-my eyes, in fact, are darker than either Derek’s or any of our Honduran friends’-my own neck is red and hidden beneath the hood of my jacket, and my stomach hasn’t exactly forgiven me for the strange foods I have put into it this week. No, it’s not the appearance of these fellow travelers that irritates me; it’s the fact that they are here. That I am here. I don’t want to be one of them, heading back to our first-world comforts and problems, thinking I am infinitely wiser for surviving my seven days in a third-world country. I don’t want to go back at all. If I had my way, I’d turn around right now and march back to the yellow bus, tell our driver Willie-a large man with twinkling, mischievous eyes-to drive me straight back to Santa Ana. But Derek and I have already discussed the possibility of “accidentally” missing our flight, and we both decided it wasn’t practical. Begrudgingly.
We are now approaching the line for security inspection, and my stomach clenches violently with a sharp intake of breath. If I let this uniformed woman a few feet in front of me stamp my passport, usher me through the gated checkpoint, I will not be able to return. I pull up short, and Derek bumps into me.
“What?” he asks in Spanish. We still prefer to talk in Spanish, even when it is just the two of us.
“I’m not leaving yet,” I say, setting my jaw resolutely.
“Sarah, we’ve got to go. We’re going to miss our flight.”
“I’m not going without saying goodbye to her.”
Derek studies me with his hazel eyes, sighs, lifts the strap of his bag off his shoulder and sets it on the ground at his feet. “Me neither,” he says.
We wait for what can only be a few minutes, but it feels like approximately forever. We’re both standing just outside of the security line, people bumping and shoving past us, and the woman at the desk is giving us a raised eyebrow. But we are not paying attention, because we are both channeling all of our energy into gazing through the crowd of faces coming up the escalator, willing her to be among them.
Derek takes my arm, about to forcibly guide me through the checkpoint, and I am about to panic. Then I see her. Melissa alighting at the top of the escalator in a striped tank top, her long hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She is looking from side to side anxiously, and when she spots us she breathes a visible sigh of relief. Derek and I grab our bags and meet her halfway.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” I say, wrapping my arms around her neck.
“I had to help some of the others check in their bags,” she says, returning my hug, then wrapping her arms around Derek’s waist.
Then I see them behind her-Lizeth and Heidy-her two sisters, who I didn’t even know were here. I thought they’d left with another group two days ago. I never expected to see them again before I left for home.
“Hermanas!” I say, my excitement registering on my face. I embrace each of them the same way I did Melissa, wrapping my arms around their necks. It is easy to do, since none of them clears five feet. When I pull away, I feel my eyes smarting with tears.
“Sara,” Lizeth coos in a mothering voice, petting my hair affectionately. This does not help my quivering lip.
Derek is pulling away from the girls, finished with his goodbyes and now looking nervously at his watch again. “We’d better go,” he says. “We’re out of time.”
I kiss each of the girls on the cheek, last of all Melissa. She holds out something to me in her hand.
“Present for you,” she says. “So you remember that I love you, sister.”
“Thank you,” I say, putting the little turquoise bracelet on my arm. I look down at the ground, my eyes blurring into a smear of silver from the shoes on Melissa’s feet, my shoes I gave her this morning. Then I am hugging her one last time, and Derek’s hand is on my arm, and we are walking away. I brush tears off my face as I hand the uniformed woman my passport. She asks me some question I do not remember, and I answer her absent-mindedly in Spanish. This causes her to raise her eyebrows in mild surprise, but I do not care whether or not she admires my language-speaking abilities. I focus on the back of Derek’s head as I walk through the gate.
I do not know when, or if, I will ever see them again.
I smelled the dump before I ever saw it. As the bus wound its way up the steep, narrow side of the mountain, the air hung heavy and acrid, burning my nostrils. It was a smell I could taste; sickly sweet, it sank like lead in my lungs. Burning and sickness mixed together. Trash littered the sides of the road, and the piles grew larger as we neared the top, directing us onward to our final destination. Many of the people I saw there, crouching in the shadows of the mountain walls beneath cardboard box houses, wore bandanas over their noses and mouths to shield themselves from the foulness of the air. All I could see were there eyes. Their eyes looked dead.
It was our sixth day in Honduras, the day I’d been anticipating and dreading at the same time, because I knew we were going to visit the dump. Marcos and the others had tried to prepare us as best they could beforehand: we’d been shown a documentary, prepped on how to act, how it would smell, what we would see. But none of that really matters in the end, does it? Because it doesn’t matter how many times you see people starving on TV. Doesn’t matter how well you think Sunday school prepared you to encounter extreme poverty. All of that fades away with the sickening crunch of the garbage under your shoes, the sight of children fighting with the dogs for scraps of food in the sewage.
“Leave everything valuable beneath your seat,” Marcos was instructing us. “Close and lock all the bus windows.”
I stepped off the bus and sank ankle-deep into something I did not want to examine too closely. Buzzards fought amongst themselves about twenty feet away from me for what looked like the innards of an animal. Cows roamed freely between shelters made of truck tires. Children no older than four or five years walked barefoot through the waste, dragging trash bags behind them. They were looking for recyclables: plastics in particular. In the evenings, trucks would roll through the dump, paying next to nothing for their day’s work. If the children were lucky, they would get about $4 for the twelve-hour day. They’d have just enough daylight leftover to go to market, buy some food for their families, usually their younger brothers and sisters who were too little to take care of themselves. The next day it would all begin again. This was life for them. I felt like I was trespassing on it.
Someone, I think it was Melissa, shoved a case of water bags into my arms, and so I spent the next half hour handing out clean water to anyone within my reach. Nearby, Marcos had set up a feeding station out of the back of his pickup, the same one I’d ridden in a few days earlier. Melissa was spooning rice and beans onto tortillas, giving them first to the women and children and then to the men. As I handed out little bags resembling water balloons, I tried to smile and say hello to the people I passed. I tried not to be afraid, not to think of danger or diseases, AIDS or germs or hypodermic needles. I handed a bag to an old man with gray hair and a gray film covering his skin. I felt the rough, calloused touch of his hand as we exchanged goods. Then his crinkly little black eyes tilted upward, and although I could not see his mouth, I knew he was smiling at me. That smile was what I needed: I forgot my safety, my health, my anything. It wasn’t about me anymore. Not when I saw the people instead of the dump.
When my case of water was empty, I found Melissa and Derek talking with a kind-faced woman wearing a floral-patterned dress that draped loosely over her form. I had a sudden urge to know this woman: to really know her. I took a deep breath and plunged into the conversation, asked her about herself. She replied in a slurred, irregular speech that was difficult for me to understand, myself not fluent in Spanish as it was. But what I did gather was this: she had grown children, living away in Tegucigalpa. Why they allowed their mother to live in the dump, I did not know.
“And you,” she said, “are you married?”
I laughed. “No. I do have a boyfriend, though.”
“At your age? Not married?” she teased me. I was twenty-one.
“Well you know, I want to finish my school first,” I said.
She looked at me thoughtfully, her head cocked a little to the side, and then she said something I wasn’t expecting. “You know, when I see Americans and us, I do not see ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I see that there are no differences between us, no matter where we live. We are all brothers and sisters together.”
I smiled a shaky smile, pushed down a knot in my throat, put my hand on her shoulder. I thought about the cross I’d seen a few days back, about Melissa and Derek and this woman, about the trash that surrounded us as we spoke.
“You’re right,” I said. “You’re absolutely right. You are my sister.”
Later that week, I would say the same thing to Melissa. I would say it after she told me her own life’s story, how she and her sisters, Heidy and Lizeth, were abandoned as little girls, how they endured abuse in foster homes and sex trafficking, how they escaped, how they were separated for years and only recently found each other again through Facebook. How they battled every day with drug addictions and guilt and remnants of a life they were now trying to leave behind them, how Melissa was convinced with every fiber of her being that it was all for something beautiful in the end, something God could see that she could not.
I would hug her and we would cry together, something I never thought I would be doing with a girl I barely knew. “Eres mi hermana. Te amo,” I would whisper in her ear. You are my sister. And I love you.
It is strange how you can wait months for something to happen, and then one day it does. Not dramatically, with a fanfare, but quietly, like a gear clicking into place. For nearly half a year, I’d waited to hear from the girls in Honduras, despite Derek’s advice to move on. Checking my email became more of a habit than a hoping. For weeks, there was nothing.
And then one day, there was a reply.
“Hi, sister,” she said. It was Heidy, the youngest of the sisters. At eighteen years old, she was both sweet and sassy, tiny but full of spunk. Since we’d last spoken, I had graduated, ended a three-year-long relationship with my boyfriend, said goodbye to most everyone I knew, moved across the country, and started graduate school. When I got her message, I was sitting in my newly-painted bedroom in a strange house filled with people I did not know.
“Hi!” I responded as quickly as my fingers would type. “How are you, sister?”
She said she was fine, she missed me, things were good. We went through all of the routine questions you ask a long-distance friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, and then I finally asked the question I was dying to know the answer to:
“How is Melissa? I haven’t heard much from her.”
“Oh, she is good. She is very big.”
“Yes, like a watermelon.”
It took about two seconds for the meaning to hit me. I asked her anyway, just to be sure.
“She is going to have a baby,” Heidy said. “A girl in December.”
Numb with shock, I did the math and realized Melissa must have gotten pregnant immediately after our group had left that spring. I asked Heidy enough questions to discover that there was no father in the picture, that my sweet twenty-one-year-old sister would be raising this child alone.
“Congratulations,” I said dully, but I did not mean it. Heidy was excited to be an aunt; she saw the joy of a new life, and I saw a cycle of pain and suffering repeating itself. Children with no parents bringing children with no parents into this world.
Derek and I had made a pact long ago that we would let the other know immediately should we hear from the girls. After all this time, I finally had something to tell him. Ironically, I didn’t want to.
But a deal was a deal.
“Derek,” I said, “I got some news today.”
We sit four across in the back of the rickety old van, its leather cold on our bare legs in the night breeze. Although it took Dani about twenty minutes to crank the engine while we all shivered and waited, the van is flying now, bouncing airborne over potholes and careening around corners on two wheels, chickens scattering in front of it. Richard is driving. He is the village preacher, and this was what you might call the church van, although it rarely does anything more than decorate Richard’s front yard. We lurch through the quiet night of Santa Ana, me and these strangers I decided to tag along with at the last second for a rare opportunity to pay a visit to my friends across town. I hold my breath and try not to look out the window.
“Woah!” Richard yells, slamming his foot down hard on the brake. My stomach heaves as we are all thrown forward, our shoulders slamming into the backs of the seat in front of us.
We skid to a halt inches away from a donkey grazing lazily in the middle of the road.
“Burro estupido,” Richard mutters to himself, as if the donkey were the one to blame for our brush with death. The animal lumbers off to the side of the road just as slowly as you please, and Richard’s heavy foot rediscovers the gas pedal.
There is only one thing that could provoke me to let this man drive me through the village at 11:00 at night with a group of other Americans I just met in this death trap of a vehicle. We round a corner, and as the red two-story house comes into view, I breathe a sigh of relief. The brakes, worn out from the donkey episode, groan as they decide whether or not to stop, so we all hop out at a roll. Dani, a Honduran about two years younger than me and the only member of our group that I vaguely remember from last year, deftly hops the steel fence surrounding the house and pounds on the front door.
“Liz!” he yells. “Abre la puerta!”
I decide to join him for the heck of it. “Liz!” we both call. “It’s cold! Open the door!”
Lizeth, the eldest sister, comes to our rescue with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, inviting us with her sweet heart-shaped face into the house. The downstairs area has an open layout of kitchen, dining area, and living room. Up a flight of cement stairs are two small bedrooms and a bathroom. Eleven people sleep in these two bedrooms. As we enter, I see Lizeth’s four boys, all under the age of ten, fast asleep at random angles on a king-sized mattress. They do not stir when we enter the room.
Heidy, now with pink and purple stripes in her hair, trudges groggily into the room in her pajamas and gives each of us a hug in turn. Last of all comes Melissa in a black tank and sweats, with her beautiful baby swaddled in a mass of warm blankets. Without a word, she places the baby in my lap and sits down beside me. My friend’s eyes look tired, but her smile says she is genuinely glad that I came.
“Hi, pretty girl,” I coo at the baby, who gazes back at me through droopy eyelids. Little gold studs gleam in her ears, and her tiny mouth forms a perfect oval shape. Her skin is a beautiful olive.
Inevitably, the baby begins to fidget.
“They always do this when I hold them,” I say.
“Not true,” Melissa says. “Just pick her up and sing to her. She likes to move, and she likes music. For two months when I was pregnant with her and didn’t know, I did a lot of dancing. So now she likes it too.”
I sway with the baby awkwardly from side to side.
“What should I sing?” I ask.
“Whatever you want. Sing her a lullaby.”
I don’t know any Spanish lullabies, so I settle on a pop song about break ups instead. Singing soft and low, I am surprised to discover it is actually soothing. Within seconds, to my elation, the baby drifts off to sleep.
“See, I told you,” Melissa says. “April loves her tia Sara.”
I look down at the baby asleep in my arms and feel the overwhelming significance of this moment, with two-month-old life in my hands. I wonder what I would not do for this child. “April,” I whisper. It is the name of the month when she was conceived, the month of spring and renewal and rebirth, the month of her mother’s birthday. I remember the day Melissa told me the name of the baby, two weeks before the terrifying rush to the hospital to do a C-section. Even though I knew the baby would be named April Melissa, after her mother, I’d joked then that the baby’s middle name should be Sarah.
“Si,” Melissa had replied without missing a beat. “April Sarah Derek.”
I smile at the memory but also feel a twinge of sadness, knowing that it might be years before I see this child again.
“She won’t remember me when she is older,” I say.
“Yes she will. I will show her your picture and tell her about you,” Melissa says. “You are family.”
“That’s no good,” Heidy says, squinting up at the sky. It is dry season, but an unexpected thunderstorm billows over the horizon, hiding the sun and casting gray shadows on all of us.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Rain makes the dump worse,” she says.
By the time we turn off the main road just outside Tegucigalpa and begin our slow climb up the all-too-familiar mountain, rain is pouring in icy sheets. Through the tiny rivulets of water on my windowpane, I see the beginnings of the trash piles on the sides of the road. The piles grow thicker and deeper the further up we go, and I brace myself for what I know is coming. Some of the others in my group, however, are seeing this for the first time.
“The smell,” they say. “The smell!”
I have to admit, the smell is worse this time. The rain has turned the dusty mountainside into mud and the trash into a thick sludge oozing across the ground. To my left, I see some women waist-deep in a trash pile, throwing plastics into large bags. They do not have a coat or an umbrella; when it rains, they simply keep working.
When I step off the bus, rain sprays me in the face. It is a dirty rain that seeps into the corners of my mouth, its taste not unlike the bitter smell of the dump. I blink furiously, clearing my vision in an attempt to see my surroundings. A few yards away, Marcos and the girls have already begun the feeding assembly line out of the back of the pickup, the same one I rode in up to La Cruz over a year earlier. Most everyone else in our group huddles together, fearful and hesitant, in the midst of gray heaps of trash and rivers of sewage.
I slip and slide my way to the truck, where I grab a case of plastic water bags. Looking at one of the new guys in my group standing nearby, I ask, “Want to come with?” He nods, so I hand him a few water bags, tuck the rest under my arm, and off we march into the dump.
Drenched and covered in mud up to my shins, I wade through herds of cows and stray dogs to toss the working men some water. They smile when they catch them.
“Dios te bendiga,” they say. God bless you.
I weave in and out of a small cluster of women and children, smiling at them, touching them. Most of them do not respond. Then I see one man, wearing a makeshift piece of plastic as a poncho, sitting a few yards away from the crowd by himself, eating his bowl of rice and beans. Something about him draws me. It may be his kind face, for when I approach him, he smiles.
“Hello,” I say. “How are you doing today?”
“I’m blessed,” he says. Not once have I ever heard someone in the dump complain.
I ask him all about himself, what his name is, where he is from. Does he have any family, and where are they? It is difficult for me to catch everything he says, but whenever I don’t understand him, I simply ask him a question of my own, and in this way, we have some semblance of a conversation. His name is Santiago. He is in his mid-thirties, but his leathery, careworn face looks much older. When I ask him about his family, he tells me that he has a brother in Toronto working for some sort of metal company. But here in Tegucigalpa, Santiago is all alone.
“But you know,” he says thoughtfully, “I have realized that this is where I have to be right now. And I am content to be here.”
When it is time for me to go, I hold out my hand for him to shake. He looks down bashfully at his own grimy hand, wipes it on his poncho to no avail, looks at me hesitantly.
“It’s ok,” I say, reaching for his hand. I take it in both of mine, feeling its rough calluses. “It has been such a pleasure getting to know you.”
“Dios te bendiga,” he says, smiling at me. I leave him there, eating soggy rice and beans in the rain.
I say a prayer for Santiago tonight as I listen to a steady trickle of rain outside my window. It is midnight, and I am back in the U.S. after a full day of catching flights. I am not in my own bed; I am in a stranger’s bed, someone who is gone for the weekend, someone who gave me a place to crash before a long ten-hour drive back to Texas tomorrow. Ironically, this is the same house I used to live in when I went to college here in Arkansas. A year ago this very night, I lived here. And when I returned from Honduras, shaken and changed, I came back to this room that night, too. In a strange sense of déjà vu, I lie on my back, staring up at the darkness of the ceiling.
I knew how this would be, coming back. Last year, when this happened, it took me a week to start eating again, two weeks to get a good night’s rest. It took me closer to a month to regain any semblance of concentration in my classes, which made it quite a struggle for me to maintain my GPA in the end.
“It’s culture shock,” my missions major friend had said. “But you weren’t there very long, so it won’t be bad. You’ll be back to normal before you know it.”
But what happens if you don’t want to go “back to normal”? I have wondered that for the past year, and I wonder it again tonight. It’s something I still do not have an answer to.
What happens if I don’t want to forget? I ask the quiet air around me.
But I know it’s not really an option. I can’t forget.
What I don’t know is when I will be back next; it could be months or it could be years. It could be never, but I refuse to entertain the thought. So many things will happen during that time. Babies will be born and grow up, houses will burn and be rebuilt. People will die and people will be saved, children will starve and children will be fed. April will grow up. She will think of me as a stranger. Melissa, Heidy, and Lizeth will experience a neverending cycle of joy and pain. I will miss it all.
That is when I realize that I am guardian over these girls. Or at least, that is how I feel, fiercely protective, trying to shield them from taking on any more pain in this life. They have shown me love and joy and what it means to break free from fear. Because they have saved me, I want to save them.
But with that realization comes another. It terrifies me.
Will you take care of them? I ask the darkness. Because I can’t.
A thunderclap and a burst of lightning are my answer.
Climbing the stone-cut stairs at dusk, the park has a calm serenity to it, a hush over the air. The breeze fondles the green plants on either side of the walkway as we ascend the pinnacle of the mountain. Twinkling lights from the city below stretch over the vast darkness.
“Tegucigalpa is beautiful at night,” Derek says in a hushed voice. The lights shine blue on his black hair.
Something about this night feels holy to me, and I do not think it is just because of the statue. I can see it up ahead, where the rest of the group is clustered around its base. They are taking photos of the city below, attempting group shots or kneeling down to get the entire statue in frame. I find Melissa sitting against the stone wall on the outskirts of the group, join her. We sit in silence, gazing up at the statue. It is enormous. The bare feet begin fifteen feet above my head, followed by the robe and the outstretched arms. It is hard to see the face, but I can see the upturned palms clearly. He is holding them out in front of himself, showing them to me. The hole in each hand is tiny in proportion but still large enough for me to stick my fingers through.
Marcos begins singing, and the group takes their cue to settle down. I sing, but Melissa remains silent. I think it’s because she doesn’t feel comfortable singing worship songs in English, but she tells me it is because she likes to listen to my voice. As Marcos prays over us, a rush of wind sweeps downward through the crowd and nearly knocks the baseball cap off my head. A year after our visit to La Cruz de Chatarra, Melissa and I sit side by side in silent dark, the wailing of the wind muting the voices of the singers around us. I slip my hand into hers, and she gives it a squeeze.
And that is how we remain for twenty minutes, until the singing and the praying end and it is time to move again. But those twenty minutes with Melissa are twenty minutes I have wished for so, so many times over the past year. So many things have happened to both of us during that period of waiting, wondering, doubting whether we are still friends. So many more things will happen in the coming year, when we will be apart, unable to see or even speak to each other. But for these twenty minutes, there is only love between sisters, for that is what we are, sitting here hand in hand beneath the Jesus Statue on a windy Honduran night. I do not wish I could freeze this moment in time, for the best moments are fleeting. They bring us joy, and then they are over. We move on with our lives.
So for these twenty minutes, me and my sister together, I am content.