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Letter from Honduras: 'I like the version with the tiger'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2013 - I did it for Chemo!

Tooth decay is a threat to a person with heart disease. So I had to bite the bullet, as it were, and get my cavities taken care of, lest I have a heart attack and leave Chemo alone in the world! 

  • We went to Tegucigalpa with a menu of four to-do’s:
  • Renew my residency visa;
  • Renew my driver’s license;
  • Chemo’s check-up with the Brigada;
  • The dentist -- if we had time!

At the last minute, the Brigada was postponed until February. The earliest “appointment” I could get for my driver’s license was Jan. 21. It took just an hour to renew my visa. So there was PLENTY of time for the dentist!
Chemo had just two tiny “spots” that were quickly tended to, plus a cleaning. And all I wanted was another temporary filling where cold drinks were giving me a shock. But when I opened my mouth, the doctor started poking and counting, calling out numbers to the assistant like a Bingo card. Twenty cavities! I didn’t know I still had that many teeth. I hadn’t really had a “diagnostico” in several years, because we had concentrated on a couple of fat molars we finally pulled out last year.

When they quoted me the prices to clean up this mess, I almost DID have a heart attack. I hemmed and hawed, hoping for some reprieve, and they did give me a discount. But ultimately I surrendered, as I said, for the sake of Chemo. He, however, would have much preferred I spend the money on a smart phone for him, to follow friends on Facebook. He also reminded me that I have already arranged with my friend Fermin in Morazan to take care of him, should I die before my time. Sentimental, ain’t he?

So four long sessions and a thousand dollars later, I had a new mouth.

Chemo’s big sister Rosa and little brother Marcos both happened to be in Tegucigalpa at the same time. Rosa was there looking for work, and Marcos was there with his itinerant boss, setting up games of chance for the biggest feast of the year, Our Lady of Suyapa, the patroness of Honduras, which draws as many as 2 million pilgrims to the capital. Rosa and Marcos weren’t staying together, but they were close enough -- in the most dangerous neighborhood in the city -- to take one cab to meet us at Pizza Hut. Things were very tense, just waiting for them, and it was already dark.

It’s a toss-up who’s more vulnerable, Rosa as a “girl,” or Marcos as potential gang bait. Finally, they arrived, and we ate pizza, salads and 18 wings. I wanted to be sure Rosa got home safely (Marcos would stay with us at the hotel), and that cab ride, was memorable. The guys hanging out along the streets seemed like imminent death. Were they just looking at us or were they planning something? We dropped Rosa off and shot out of there as fast as possible, the cab driver maybe the most relieved of us all.

Our last night in Tegus was Mema’s birthday party. It was the happiest I have seen her and Elio since they had to flee from a gang several years ago that was threatening their store and their very lives. I could not resist Mema’s invitation to dance! Chemo snapped pictures, when he wasn’t laughing himself sick.

Next stop, after a couple days back home in Las Vegas, was El Progreso. This visit was made more urgent by the sad news that Catalina, only 26 years old, had had another stroke and died. I thought she was recovering!

I had taken a beautiful picture of her in November, a sort of Mona Lisa pose. Her little son Jose, 4, does not understand; he keeps asking for mommy. Her husband Alfredo, his hair trimmed short for the funeral, had a sadness relieved only by hugging his son very tight.

Meanwhile, I got an alert from a Jesuit in St. Louis that Fr. Ray Pease was very near death. Padre Ramón was a legend in Progreso, where he served for 50 years, founding the first co-ed Catholic high school in the country (and the first high school where the girls could wear slacks) and serving as pastor of the city’s 300,000 souls, plagued with gang deaths and other violence virtually every day. He had been in “maintenance” for several years with a rare incurable liver disease when a fall about a month ago exhausted all his remaining resources. Originally from Colorado, of Cherokee descent, he was a big bear of a man, often a Teddy bear, tough as nails and gentle as a new mother, a keen storyteller, and a wondrous celebrant of the sacraments, the Mass in near ecstasy. 

I learned at the parish office that he was right there in Progreso at the Clinica Cristiana. Signs were posted all over, NO VISITORS!, but they waved me in, where I found two doctors busy taking notes, and two young men that I guess were seminarians keeping vigil. Ramón was awake and when I took his hand, he started talking, struggling mightily to form his words.

You know how you do, when you can’t figure out what some sick person is trying to say, you just nod and say, “Yes” and “Yes.” But Ramón would not accept my condescension. Finally, his face tightened and he spit out, “How’s ... the ... BOY?” He was asking about Chemo! Oh, I just melted, and told him all about how Chemo had passed sixth grade and had his diploma and was going on to seventh grade, and all. Here’s a guy who’s DYING and he’s thinking about my son! Then, as distinctly as he could, he said, spelling the word to accommodate my dimness, “I’m going to S-L-E-E-P ... now!” I bowed out of the room, hoping the witnesses would not annotate the disturbance I had caused.

Next day, I headed to Morazan, where Chemo had gotten off the bus the day before (so I could not actually show him to Ramón at the hospital), to have extra time with Fermin’s kids, especially Eduard and Jose Miguel. Chemo greeted me with the news that he had seen an owl in the yard. An omen? A blessing? Or ... an owl.

I’m sure the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., would not have minded sharing his birthday, Jan. 15, with Fermin’s granddaughter Gladis Elena, who was turning 10. I accompanied Fermin and Maria to the supermarket and paid the bill for the festivities, including a piñata. A couple dozen boys and girls showed up to share the candy and a tub full of chicken-and-rice and lots of soda and, of course, cake. Pretty simple, really, but so much more than most children ever see here.

Two days later, as I was visiting Fermin’s daughter Esly at the radio station, where she does a show from 7 to 10 each night, word comes of Padre Ramón’s death. Suddenly his precious seeking of the “BOY” seemed even more miraculous. 

I could not go to the funeral, because I had to get back to Las Vegas. Because this trip would be very quick, Chemo stayed behind in Morazan, for still more time with the family. Chemo wants to live in Morazan! 

By all reports, Ramon’s funeral was huge, a civic event of inaugural proportions. After all, he knew virtually everyone in Progreso. The church, big as it is, couldn’t hold a tenth of the people attending; then they processed Ramon’s casket around the city eight times, till returning to the church to bury him in the garden. Poor Ramon! A victim of his own popularity, he wanted to be buried with his fellow Jesuits on a lovely hillside in the general cemetery, but “the people” overruled him; they wanted to keep him close. The tribute in the newspaper was nice, but they repeatedly misspelled his name Ramón PEACE (instead of Pease), but what could be more fitting?

I went to Tegucigalpa on Sunday, Jan. 20, on a bus so crowded I felt as I’d been packed in someone’s suitcase. I got my new driver’s license with no problem. Small world, turns out the doctor who gave me the eye test had been a student of Padre Ramon in Progreso. I did my other little chores and found myself downtown just as noon Mass was starting at the cathedral. My cell phone buzzed and I saw it was Elio calling. Actually, I was in line for confession at that point; another buzz indicated a voice message. 

As soon as I left the church, I listened to the message. A heart-broken, barely audible voice: “Miguel, this is Elio. Padre Nicolas has gone to Heaven.” Fr. Nick Schiel, S.J., 88, had been in Elio’s life since his baptism. He performed Elio and Mema’s wedding, and baptized their four children. He always told Elio, “I’m going to bury you, too, my friend, if you don’t take care of yourself!”

Nebraska native, he was salt of the earth. He had a Ph.D. in languages, a professor at Creighton University, but Fr. Nicolas got the bug for the missions, and they sent him to the most remote area of Honduras, La Patuca, a desert bigger than the whole country of El Salvador. He’d go from village to village, three days minimum each visit, “Encuentros con Cristo” he called them, a sort of retreat he had developed. He’d be “out there” for weeks at a time, until he’d finally take a little break to visit Elio and Mema, who had moved to Tegucigalpa.

That’s where I met him. He’d say Mass in the living room, just as intimate as if Jesus walked in. And every time he’d see me, he’d say, “Miguel, you know what your name means in Hebrew?” And every time I’d say, No, please tell me. “Mig-El: He who is like God.” I took it as a warning.

He seemed old-fashioned to some, as he got older and older, but he really just got simpler, a Francis of Assisi, utterly heedless of material comforts, preaching the love of God, in word and deed. He could live on beans, or just a salted tortilla, sleep on a bench in the little chapels, read his prayers by candlelight.

And to think that he, too, was in Progreso; I could have visited him when I visited Ramon, but I didn’t know. So when Elio invited me to come with them to the funeral, I leapt at the opportunity. I had missed Ramon’s funeral; I wouldn’t miss Nick’s, too. And the irony was, I had to go to Progreso anyway, to swing through on the way to Morazan to pick up Chemo! When I called this “pure chance,” Elio’s daughter Felixa, a nun studying in Spain, calling on Skype, said, “No, Miguel, not chance at all; God’s planning this.”

And maybe God planned Elio’s collapse. He is diabetic and six other things that can knock him out at any moment, but you’d have to say the death of his “father” Nicolas was the blow that felled him. He was just too sick to go to Progreso, puffed up like a pillow, red as a beet, hot as blazes, weak as a kitten. His sister stayed behind to care for him; he wouldn’t allow any of us to miss this moment for Padre Nicolas.

We left in two cars from Tegus, about 6:30 p.m., arriving in Progreso about 10:30. Padre Nicolas was laid out in the tiny chapel of the San Jose high school. We sat and prayed for at least two hours, and then the Jesuits sorted us into rooms for the night.

If Ramon’s funeral was tectonic, Nicolas’ service was a cup of coffee. Except for his fellow Jesuits, no one in Progreso ever heard of him. We were just family, you might say, including others who somehow had come the great distance from La Patuca overnight. Padre Valentin Menendez gave a very appreciative sermon, but it was at the end of the Mass that the real significance of this man’s life appeared. “Excuse me, I just have to say something,” Mema began, and spoke in testimony of Padre Nicolas’ life and work that had us in tears. Aware that she was speaking for Elio, too, Mema held on and did not break down (later, she said, “I was praying like crazy that Padre Nicolas would give me strength!”), and that sparked other tributes, including a young priest and two nuns and another man, another woman, all from La Patuca who had worked with Nick. As they spoke, I thought, “You know what, I think I really knew a Saint.”

A little caravan headed up to the cemetery, and there Nick was buried, exactly where Ramon longed to be, up a little slope, overlooking the city, with his band of brothers. We lingered and lingered, singing Nick’s favorite songs, led by Elio and Mema’s daughters Estela and Regina (pregnant with her third child, who will be “Nicolas” if it’s a boy), with lots of pictures by Elio Jr., a professional photographer.

Afterward, I hopped on a bus just about to pull out, heading up to Morazan. I got there for lunch. While I was away Eduard had helped Chemo open an account on Facebook (Search “Chemo Hernandez.”) Oh man! Now I know I’m a mere appendix in his life.

Chemo was also now helping Eduard mix cement and carry concrete blocks for a little house being built in the backyard, financed by Fermin and Maria’s first-born, Merlin, 30, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. “She’s not sending enough!” says Fermin, who is picking up the extra tab for Carlos the builder’s wages as well as materials. The house is for Merlin’s two daughters Gladis, 10, and Michelle, 6, who barely know her. Fermin is always planning for the future.

He’s trying to get me to plan for Chemo’s future, too. And Chemo himself said to me, “You never think about my future, Miguel.” Excuse me? That’s ALL I think about, and it scares me to death! You know, if I just knew exactly how long I was going to live, and if Chemo was going to succeed in school, or get a job, start a family, live a long time -- if I could just be sure I could manage the tiger on board, as in “The Life of Pi” -- it would be so much easier!

When I visited Esly during her afternoon shift at the radio station, the owner Gumercindo (“Chindo’) invited me to participate in the next day’s “religion hour.” “We’re going through the Creed; tomorrow it’s the Holy Spirit.” Theologically, that’s like Quantum Theory. I looked at Esly, for help; but her eyes were so bright and her smile so wide, even through the tinted glass, that I said yes. Here was another tiger I would have to have by the tail. I went back to the house and borrowed a Bible from Fermin to look up and check out and scratch down whatever I could remember about the Holy Spirit: The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (actually in Isaiah 11:2-3) ... even the “unforgivable sin” against the Holy Spirit (but I put that way down the list, because I was going to be “positive”!). Most of all, when St. Paul says the Holy Spirit inspires us to call God “Abba,” that is, “Father.” 

Next day, I pretty quickly picked up on the format. Esly was cueing the music, Gumercindo introduced the show and a series of short Biblical readings, which a very shy woman to my left would read, and then Chindo: “Miguel, your comments, please.” Unbeknownst to me, every passage included the Virgin Mary, which is sort of the way it goes down here among us Catholics. But I had my talking points, so I made sure I emphasized how much we are all loved by God, who is Creator but humbly asks Mary’s consent to “conceive [Jesus] by the Holy Spirit” to live among us in the dust and dirt of a broken world and later when Jesus himself turns aside a disciple’s tribute to his mother: “Any one who does my God’s will is sister, brother, and mother to me!” And the “Abba,” not gonna leave that out.

Our last night in Morazan, we celebrated Eduard’s 19th birthday with a barbecue and some friends of his. Fermin and Maria worked all afternoon to prepare the feast, marinate the meat, dice tomatoes, peppers, onions for “chimol,” a relish I used to hate (being raised on ketchup) but now I crave, especially because it means there’ll be a great meal! It takes me a while to register that Chemo is the same age, even older in some cases, as Eduard’s friends. And they’re all good kids. That’s why Chemo loves it in Morazan. “There’s no druggies here!”

He walks such a gauntlet in Las Vegas, you see. But there are drugs and gangs and violence in Morazan, maybe not on Fermin’s street, but it’s a big town, and perfectly located away from the bigger cities for certain drug runners to settle in and run the place to their specifications. 

Anyway, we reluctantly returned to Las Vegas, and Chemo says he wants to start seventh grade, he doesn’t want to, he does want to… He feels “old.” Good Lord, he sees 12 year olds coming to my house for seventh-grade I.D. photos, kids literally half his size. He thinks I’ll “regañar” (scold) him if he fails. Poor kid! If anything, I’m the one who failed. 

In “The Life of Pi,” the story is told to “make you believe in God.” Oh, I long to tell that story! This missive is my latest attempt. I know it’s ridiculously long, or just ridiculous. Maybe something somewhere somehow will open your heart -- my heart, too -- and we’ll choose the risks of riding with the Tiger, rather than the “rational” version of predictable results. As the reporter says at the end of the movie, “I prefer the version with the tiger.” And Pi affirms his choice, “And so it goes with God.” Mr. Parker, this one’s for you!