I must admit that writing this month’s newsletter was difficult. I want to say the right thing, I want to say something, I want to make the right commitment to justice and advocacy and activism. I want to acknowledge the virus of racism and the threat it has posed to all of us since long before this pandemic of Corona. It has been killing our siblings, it has been robbing our human family of their very life breath, it has been poisoning and degrading all of us for hundreds of years, even – maybe especially – those of us who believe ourselves to be asymptomatic. Covid has just created the conditions of just enough unrest for us to finally break through some complacency and complicity and to put our focus on this virus of racism and how it has infected all of us, and especially for me and my fellow white people to look even deeper into the ways in which we are carriers of something insidious and deadly, even when we think we have “done the work.”
I know that I’m not the only one who can feel stunned and numbed into not “knowing what to do” in the face of this sickness laid bare. I know I am not the only one who wants to do the right thing, but gets lost and sidetracked by not knowing what that right thing is.
But we don’t have time to stay numb, we don’t have time to get lost – the moment is now for committed action, for opening our eyes and responding to the inequity and injustice all around us. What I sometimes have to remind myself is that our response does not have to take any one form, that as we stay awake to the suffering within our immediate sphere of influence, we will be compelled into compassionate action that will feed into the ever flowing river of need.
Just about one month ago, my husband Sasha was in a near fatal car accident driving home from work on the very windy jungly highway outside of our town. His car flipped on a curve – the last thing he remembers is the car surging onto the front driver’s side wheel while the three other wheels went airborne.
The next thing he recalls is waking up some time later in an ambulance in devastating pain. He was transported to a local hospital where his face and legs were stitched up and he was sent home. Early the next morning he was in excruciating pain and having trouble breathing. We brought him back to the local ER where they determined that due to possible internal bleeding and severe trauma to the abdomen they needed to transfer him to a larger hospital in the state capitol. That began a month of intense medical interventions, existential questioning and embarking on the healing process.
When we arrived at urgent care unit of the public hospital, it was packed with people all suffering in one way or another. Everything was dirty, run-down and unorganized. Everyone had on masks, but there was no soap or anti-bacterial gel to be found. We were the only foreigners in the place and despite having lived in Mexico for more than five years and being very comfortable with the Spanish language, I realized immediately that this experience was going to stretch me in ways I could never have imagined. I did not know then that I would spend the next two weeks in the city, that I would know that hospital well, that I would get to know all the guards at the doors and that I would become a part of a tiny community of patients and care-givers in a shared post-surgical room.
That first day may have been the most difficult as I tried to get a handle on my role and my capacity, as well as what was expected of me. In this hospital, the family or the patient has to go out and get their own medicine – they give you scrips and you go to the pharmacy down the block and fill them. Then you go to a cashier and pay – in cash only- for every procedure before they do it.
At one point, after waiting for several hours, a doctor came to me and asked me why I had not yet paid for the blood tests – I told him I had no idea that I was supposed to do that, and nearly broke down. It had now been over 12 hours since we left our town in the early morning and I was coming a bit undone. Finally, late at night, we had an abdominal scan which showed a hematoma on Sasha’s spleen. We were asked to wait until morning to see if the bleeding would stopped. We slept that first night on a gurney in a fully lit and rowdy hallway.
The next day we were moved to the surgical unit of the hospital and Sasha was admitted for a splenectomy. I stayed with him again that night on an open bed next to his, restless under the ungodly bright lights and with the constant sounds of new patients arriving. At one point in the middle of the night the doctor – who had told me not to look like I was really sleeping on the bed – woke me up. I thought I was in trouble for looking asleep, but he just needed me to go back down to the cashier, at 2 am, to pay for blood tests for the morning.
By that third day morning, the room had filled and I had hit a wall. Not just the lights and the noises and the lack of sleep and all of the other complexities in all of it, but also the despair at seeing the other five people now in Sasha’s room, with nothing to eat, sleeping on the floor on a cardboard box, no money to pay their medications, some with no family to advocate for them or to carry out all of the auxiliary tasks the nurses requested – they were so short handed, they needed to enlist the rest of us for anything we could do. As the days went on, I assisted in multiple transfers, was enlisted to hang medicine bags (and not just for Sasha), empty urine containers and even walk Sasha’s spleen in a jar to the pathologist down the street.
Early that evening, one of the men accidentally spilled his urine jar all over his bed and himself. I tried to find a nurse but there was none to be found. I ended up changing the sheets and cleaning him and then just holding his hand and reassuring him. I guess I felt “good,” for being able to help out but at the same time, the injustice of it all began to become a seemingly unbearable weight.
I finally went back to the hotel my brother had miraculously secured for me, all the way from Maryland, convincing the hotel – which wasn’t scheduled to reopen for another several days – to let me stay there as the only guest. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for sleeping in a real bed, and with guilt for knowing that all of the other family members in the hospital room would be sleeping on the floor that night. That while I would get a good breakfast before returning, they would eat just whatever little snacks they could grab at one of the nearby kiosks.
I cried the entire way to the hotel. But once I arrived in the room and turned on the TV, I saw all the rioting in the US. I couldn’t help but feel energized at the thought of the opportunity for sea change, for standing up and saying no to the physical and spiritual destruction caused by massive wealth and access inequity.
When I woke up the next morning, I decided it would be a new day. I stopped on the way and bought fresh bread and pillows for everyone – it was the least I could do, right? Being the one with the money, the agency, the support.
But once I got back into the hospital, I was overwhelmed again with the situation, Sasha’s condition, our unearned privilege, my own doubt and concern about the future – both my own, and our collective. As I held Sasha’s hand and did compressions on his legs, I began to cry again.
The 17 year old boy in the bed next to Sasha, who cracked his skull open and broke his arm in two in a motorcycle accident, who listens to ranchero music out loud on his phone all day and plays video games all night started waving me over to him.
At first I was irritated, “Haven’t I done enough? What do you want now? Can’t you see I”m having a moment?” all went through my head, but he was insistent.
I let go of Sasha’s hand and walked over to Ronaldo. This young man took my hand and held it so tightly. He stared at me in the eyes and said over and over, “It’s going to be ok.” He would not look away, the only other person I had ever experienced this with was Ram Dass – I tried to find a photo I have of me, Sasha and Ram Dass to go with this post, but I couldn’t find it – but this kid, at 17, had no self-consciousness, he just kept holding my hand and looking into my eyes, “It’s going to be ok.”
That moment reminded me that as much as I wanted to be the one to use all I “have” to give to the others in the room, this kid wanted to give all he had – his heart, his hand, his unwavering gaze from his soul to mine, and it fed me deeply in ways I didn’t even know I needed in the moment.
In the short time we were together, we became a community in that room, everyone sharing whatever they had – water, extra toilet paper, even prayers. It was in that sharing, in that inclusion, in that sense of community, that it seemed like Ronaldo could be right.
I can still feel his hand holding mine, I can feel his eyes looking into mine, and I believe him absolutely, “Everything is going to be ok.”
When my sister Erin was sick, she often commented how grateful she was to be in a position to have excellent care but also to have friends and family all around her – and that she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be doing all that alone.
In that room, in that week, I didn’t have to imagine what it would be like to be alone in a hospital, or to not have the money or capacity to advocate for yourself or your loved one, or to keep a space around you that is soothing or reassuring in some way. It was the lived experience of most of the people in that room. I can only think of how many millions of people are alone, without adequate care and how now, more than ever, is the time for collective care, for using our privilege to uplift those without and to break down systems that perpetuate inequity and isolation. No one should be alone, no one should be without care.
Sasha is now home and healing slowly. It will be a long road of healing ahead, a splenectomy, it turns out, is no joke and he will have to be hyper-vigilant against infection for the rest of his life, with the next couple of months will be most critical. He will be ok, and the love and support that has flowed toward us has been phenomenal.
But I can’t stop thinking of our little hospital community. I can’t stop thinking about Eleuterio – who will help him when he is suddenly discharged? Where will he go? What will happen to Gabino, and his dad who never left his side, dressed beautifully in his traditional garb while sleeping on the floor, his hands and feet and creased face revealing a lifetime of hardship? Who will take care of Griselda, who was kicked in the side by a horse, and her young boyfriend who kept his face covered with a bandana the whole time, and who accepted every bit of food or drink or kindness offered, but never said a word, just dutifully and lovingly washed and cared for his partner? How will Marisol be, Marisol, who spent her days just scribbling lines and lines on page after page of her notebook, and her nights writhing and calling out in pain?
I don’t ever want to go back to that hospital, and yet I can’t get that room and those people, who are just like me, who feel pain and loneliness and fear and love just life me, I can’t get them out of my mind – in that room, under those awful bright lights, way too air conditioned with not enough blankets, sleeping on the floor, doing most of the nursing work themselves.
And again I have to ask myself, why? Why do we have this and they have that? Why do things turn out this way for us, and that way for them? What do we do knowing that our privilege gets us more privilege – a hotel room opened just for me, a Gofundme campaign to cover medical expenses -and that poverty and lack of access is met with more of the same?
And more importantly, as I acknowledge this reality, as I acknowledge my own privilege, as I see the ways in which people suffer through systemic injustice and income inequality, as I see the ways in which my life is easier than many others simply because of the color of my skin and the conditions in which I was born into, I must be compelled into real action – awareness and acknowledgement is a good start, but it’s never enough.
While there are some direct actions I can take in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the reality is that there are more immediate actions that I can also take right here in my own town, in my immediate sphere of influence. My commitment to stand in solidarity with the most marginalized in my community reflects a commitment to stand in solidarity with all marginalized and oppressed people everywhere. My commitment and vision for La Ermita, the healing center I am building from the ground up, reflects my commitment to use my own unique gifts and privileges to be in solidarity with those who do not have access to curative spaces and collective care. My enthusiasm for creating a volunteer community program for end of life care reflects my enthusiasm for creating networks of support in which every person is held and tended to equally.
If you are reading this post, then you, like me, most likely have some unearned privilege. We are alive, we have communities, we have circles of kindness and compassion that we can make larger by the day. In those moments where we feel overwhelmed into inaction, we can pause and take stock of our many gifts and how they might specifically meet the needs of the people around us and then take that action, no matter how small.
It is those tiny, tangible steps – those small steps that lead to larger actions and commitments – that we can each take every day, that will ultimately widen our circles of support and inclusion, until, as Father Greg Boyle says, no one is outside of that circle.
“No daylight to separate us.Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”