By Robert Bradley
There is something endearing about seeing eight-year-old boys all dressed up in their Sunday best for church. Unlike little girls who tip the cuteness scale almost sideways, boys seem to be competing whether they or their clothes will grow up first. The kid almost always wins. The shirt is a little too large — he will grow into it — and the shoes are a tad too small — he grew right out of them. It is a dress rehearsal for adulthood and growing into your own skin.
I am walking to El Centro to surround myself in beauty, and meander streets new to me. I see whole families dressed up for church. Some of the boys will be growing into their shirts and trousers nicely. Others remind me of me when I was little, and memories begin to unwind.
But, it is the shoes that concern me at this moment. A few boys appear to be hobbling their way to church, perhaps their soles are a little too tightly trussed. I think time, tides, and shoe leather will answer this question. A little guidance and prayer will help too.
My memories are unwinding. I’ve been revisiting the “why” I decided to move to Cuenca and for good reason. I don’t want to forget.
Memory tends to expand with time. The fish larger, the mountain steeper, the mama bear meaner with her two cubs — no, make it three cubs, two of which are crying and pointing at me.
Seemingly, and without our thoughtful consideration, the scenes tattooed on our retelling are too often inked in dark images or floral designs that mask their underlying reasons. Obscuring our true colors.
For me, it all started with a major flashpoint. I thought I was going to die.
I will never forget the moment it was confirmed by my doctor. He could not tell me how much longer I had to live. Six months? A year or two? He simply did not know. It wasn’t cancer or a rare disease, it was my head.
My doctor said, “Look, you can be hit by a Buick five minutes after you leave this place or live until you are 97 years old. So, go. Start living.”
It was good advice.
I’m lucky, I can recall the exact moment I decided to redirect my life. An elemental part of me had been discarded and I was sad and lonely and paralyzed with grief. My dearest friend and companion of many years vanished years ago — yet I persisted that I could not survive it. Devastation would give light meaning to my profound sense of emptiness and anguish. I thought I was going to die.
And then, one morning, Andres, a nurse who had cared for me many months earlier when I was recovering from knee surgery, dropped by to say hello and ask how I was doing. He quit working at the assisted-care facility where we met and came to share his new plans.
He told me this story:
“When I was eight years old my parents took me to see my first movie, I was mesmerized! Lights! Camera! Action! I don’t really remember the movie at all, but the glamor and opportunities portrayed in the film changed my life.
“I was moving to the USA!
“It took me thirty-five years to save up enough money and to secure a good profession that would be appreciated in America. After all, it is the land of opportunity, the greatest country in the history of the world! And, I was ready. When I landed in Seattle (Paradise with an Ocean View), my dream had come true, I wanted to shake every hand and kiss every cheek. Welcome! Oh, happy day!
“Welcome to the United States of America!
“But I was not welcomed. It was so confusing to be branded ‘Mexican,’ as if that was a bad thing. I was shoved aside with the smallest pretense. I could not find a job in my profession. I could barely find suitable housing. Store clerks would follow and pester me with, ‘What do you want? What are you looking for?’
“I was standing in front of a restaurant I had just dined in, waiting for the valet to return with my car when a man much younger than I walked up, dropped his ticket in my hand and said, ‘It’s a dark green Volvo V-90 Cross Country wagon with chrome wheels. Drive it carefully.’
“I learned first-hand that people here do not care for people like me and they don’t care for their own families, either. You shelve them in places like the one where I cared for you. I am going back to Cuenca.”
“Where?” I asked.
It is then that he told me about the rivers and clouds. He reminisced about farmers, fabric stretched across their shoulders, freighting baskets of produce for the market, and how the mornings can be champagne bright. He said the scent of flowers could waft all morning along cobblestone streets polished by evening rain. And he told me about the centuries-old tradition of almuerzo when you rest and are rewarded for your efforts with a light mid-day meal and perhaps a brief nap. He said, on holidays everybody dances and sings and prays together, and in times of grief, they mourn as one.
As he spoke he slowed, he paused for long stretches as he searched for the exact word that would mirror his memory. He was drifting on a current crumbling the banks of his misadventures. Then he spoke softly of his parents, brothers and sister, his aunts and uncles, his friends and neighbors, and how they rained tears when he left — as he spoke, droplets from rivers spilled on his cheeks, the oasis in his soft brown eyes pooled.
“I am going home.”
I remember that exact moment. My life changed. I remember the swirling paisley of blues and grays as the Columbia River bucked the incoming tide. I remember an apple-scented breeze inviting autumn to join us with wreaths of orange and gold, and I remember the gray dome of cloud that replaced the sun.
I decided to learn about Cuenca.