Before They’re Gone

The last two weeks have been a doozy. Not the, “day after day has an amazing, new surprise” kind of doozy, but a, “hardship after purpose-questioning hardship” kind of doozy. How much I’ve started to miss my at-times monotonous, daily life and the number of blessings I seem to have overlooked makes me realize how many more things I’ve failed to appreciate. The last two weeks showed me no mercy. And to those two weeks I can say nothing but, “Thank you.”

It started on Wednesday, November 22. I came in to work, a rundown but well-staffed elementary school no more than a five-minute walk from my homestay, to find my supervisor’s chair empty. The 7:30am smile that crosses my face daily and traditional Ecuadorian greeting of a kiss on the cheek was replaced by a mild, nonchalant panic and furrowed brow of confusion. Convinced Fanny had just started classes a tad early that day, I headed to our usual first class to, again, not find her. Twenty minutes passed, and in that time, I was informed not only that Fanny and a few other teachers in our school were in a car accident that morning, but that they were taken to a hospital in an ambulance shortly after. Hearing the news made my stomach feel not like it had dropped, but more like it had disappeared entirely. It was then that I was told I could go home for the day. Still, I looked at my co-workers that managed to make it to school safely that day and, realizing how understaffed the school was going to be that day, said a nervous, “Cómo puedo ayudar hoy?” (How can I help today?)

Friday was the next hard day, and currently holds the record for the hardest day of my gap year so far, beating my Salmonella episode, and kickstarted one of the hardest weekends of my life. Things first went wrong when I left my phone at work and, after successfully completing my week and finally coming home, had to return to the school to retrieve it. My siblings and I have a habit that when we return home from school or playing or anything, we go say hello to our (host) grandfather, José. He just turned 63 in September, lived in the U.S. for over a decade, and selects red when asked his favorite color. When I got back to the house I promptly helped serve lunch, washed all the dishes afterwards, and hurried to my room because I was late to return an important phone call. Now there’s something I didn’t mention about José. It’s not that we’d get into political debates on a near weekly basis, or that he liked to care for flowers, or that on my walks up the hill to our house, if I saw him sitting out front, I’d always yell an overzealous, “Hola!” to which he’d half smile and wave, or even that he seemed to truly believe that I should get an Ecuadorian boyfriend to marry so I can stay in the country all because I said, “me gusta la comida de Ecuador.” (I like Ecuadorian food) It’s that José had stomach cancer. That Friday, I was in such a rush to find my phone and serve food and make phone calls, I forgot to go upstairs and greet him. And on Friday, around 3:30pm, he died.

I got the text from my team leader, Lucia, first, and I went straight to my host grandmother’s house. I remember I paused in the doorway, finally walking into the room as if I were on ice, afraid to break the surface. I found the entire living room empty of its pleasant, green furniture, and replaced with a sleek, polished casket and a handful of unfamiliar faces. I finally stopped behind my host grandmother, who simply turned to face me and said, “José se fue.” (Jose is gone) With that, the strong, stalwart face she had on crumbled to pieces and she pulled me into a tight hug, sobbing and quietly wailing into my arm, “José se fue…José se fue.”

Before that day, I had no living memory of losing a person I had any recollection of a relationship with. I’d no memory of ever seeing a lifeless body with a familiar face. And I’d never been the oldest sibling of a family that now needed to tell a nine-year-old girl and a ten year old-boy they’d just lost their grandfather. The juxtaposition of seeing a body laid into a casket while hearing children laughing outside is one that’s hard to shake.

Friday night and all of Saturday were packed with work to do. Nearly 100 people came by during those twenty-four hours to pay their respects, but that meant we had to feed them all. Working with somewhere between four to seven hours of sleep that weekend, I served easily over 200 bowls of soup, plates of meats and rice, glasses of soda, sides of choclo (a corn dish), and helpings of ají (what I consider to be the superior, Ecuadorian version of hot sauce). Even in doing all this, I still at times felt inútil. Useless. Who was I to cry and feel so bent out of shape about a man I’d known for three months at best? I didn’t see my family crying, and they’d known him much longer than I.

Once again, I received an offer to, “tap out” of sorts. I had a Global Citizen Year sponsored trip coming up on Monday and had the option to stay with another host family for the weekend. While my mind’s initial reaction was relief to have a way out, less than five minutes later I had my decision: I was going to stay. I couldn’t imagine leaving my family back home during a time like this, so it didn’t feel right in my heart to leave this family behind either.

Sunday was the burial. A hundred or so people attended what I assume was a beautiful service based on the words I understood. The walk to the cemetery was long and quiet, down dirt roads and up rocky hills. Whenever the black-clad mass of bodies processed anywhere, I couldn’t help but feel removed. My younger family members always led the group in a two-line formation, armed with flowers watered by tears. Distant relatives and family friends surrounded my adult host relatives, sharing kind words, memories, and a hand to hold. Which left me to float amongst the crowd. Surrounded by people, yet still alone. But walking to the cemetery, I noticed my host mom, Marlene, checking over her shoulder every few minutes. It took me some time to realize what she was searching for was me, making sure I was never more than five gringa strides away. Knowing that in that time of grief for her, after losing her father, she somehow was able to manage to think of me, made me feel a little less alone. 

During the final words in the cemetery, my host sister and I locked eyes. Before I could even finish gesturing for a hug, she’d run into me and buried her face into my chest. 

The only comedic relief we got was when the men sealing the coffin into its cement shelf realized they cut the lid to the wrong size and spent half an hour sawing it down to try and make it fit. It might sound like that would be similar to slowing peeling off a band aid, but if you were there you would’ve heard the scattered chuckles after a fourth failed attempt and irritated, grumbled demands for a cigarette and a glass of apple flavored soda.

Monday morning was the first time I had no choice but to go. My GCY Training Seminar trip date had come, and it just so happened that the bus my host aunt, Maritza, and I were taking to reach the meet up point was hit by a camión (truck) along the way. In comparison to my weekend, that was nothing to me and I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until Maritza brought to my attention that we were driving along a road without any guardrails on a hill above a river that I realized how bad things almost were. Once in Cuenca, we switched buses in an attempt to be on time and informed a nearby police officer what happened. He astutely replied that it was not his problem and proceeded to enter the nearest building.

Needless to say, these events continued to weigh on my mind during my trip to La Playa.

There’s really no planned moral to the story here. I just had a hard two weeks and had to power through. When things seem like they’re going well, certainly acknowledge it. And when they aren’t going well, allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come your way. What makes all the difference is not dwelling on those emotions for longer than you need to. 

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, but acknowledge your blessings before they’re gone. My sole request if you’ve read this post is to go tell someone you love exactly that: that you love them. Not just over a text. In person if you can, or, at the very least, a phone call. Enjoy this wild ride of life and appreciate that you are fortunate enough to have someone to love along the way.

With Pride,

Marissa Emerson