One of the many joys of living in Cuenca is meandering through centuries-old neighborhoods on Sunday mornings. Booming cannons call people to prayer as streams of families pour onto sidewalks worn to bedrock by shoe leather and bare feet. Little girls, clutching mammas’ skirt, tip the cuteness scale almost sideways with their frilly princess dresses and glittery tiaras. The boys, fidgeting and distracted, seem to be competing with their clothes over what will quit first, the shirt a little too large; he will grow into it, or the shoes a tad too small; he is growing right out of them. It is a dress rehearsal for adulthood and growing into one’s own skin.
These moments evoke a timelessness that creates memories, some long-held tight, to unwind slowly.
As my memories unspooled, revisiting why I moved to Ecuador returned in sharp focus, and thankfully so. I do not want to let go of the thread that led me here or vilify the heartbreak I left behind.
Like many storytellers, my recollections tend to expand with retelling. The tales are taller in detail and broader in their magnificence. The fish are larger and more difficult to catch, the mountains are steeper and more treacherous, and the weather is more cruel and more sinister. That mama bear I encountered while hiking alone is closer and meaner. Her two cubs, no, make that three cubs, rush into her arms, crying out in anguish for their mamma and pointing right at me.
Were it not for thoughtful consideration, some scenes tattooed on my storytelling would become inked in overly flamboyant tones. Designs that are more floral than fact would dictate, obscuring the truth. I’ve learned over the years that understanding the implications of the past is imperative; representing the present with clarity is critical.
It is here that my story begins.
It all started with a major flash point; I was convinced I was dying. It was confirmed by my doctor.
He said, “Yes, you are surely going to die, I just have no idea when. You might be crunched by a drunk driving a rusty ‘67 Buick Riviera eight minutes after you leave here, or you might live until you are 97 years old before choking on a cherry pit or falling from a racing horse. Don’t worry about dying, examine how you are living and do something to make it better.”
It was good advice.
I recall the very moment I decided to redirect my life.
It was a crisp autumn morning. Julio, a nurse’s-aide who had cared for me a couple of months earlier when I was recovering from knee replacement surgery, dropped by my office to say hello and ask how I was doing. He quit working at the convalescent home where we met and came to share this decision by telling me his story.
Julio was eight years old when his parents took him to see his first movie, he was mesmerized. He didn’t remember the actors or the storyline very well, but the glamor of Hollywood and the opportunities portrayed in the film changed his life.
He decided on that day to center all of his efforts on preparing to immigrate to the USA.
It took Julio 18 years to save up enough money and to learn some of the many skills that would be appreciated in America: the land of opportunity! He was itching to join in “the great experiment,” to make his way in the world, to show his mettle. When he landed in Newark, New Jersey, he thought his dream had come true. He 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,” he lamented. “Instead, they branded me, ‘a Mexican,’ as if that was a bad thing.”
He deplored being shoved aside under the slightest pretense and not being able to find a job in the fields he studied. Suitable housing was nearly non-existent, and even when found, one needed at least three roommates to pay rent. Store clerks would follow and pester Julio with, ‘What do you want? Why are you even here?’
A few simply said, “You do not belong here.”
He continued, “I learned first-hand that your people do not care for people like me. I learned, too, that Americans don’t even care for their own families. Children are forced from the nest when they are still young and told to fend for themselves. Grandparents are shelved away in holding tanks like where I found you at the very time they need loving help the most.
“Americans have forgotten that we are all children twice.
“It is all too heartbreaking. It is too much to bear; I am going home.”
He paused for a long time, tracing his memories.
It is then that he told me about the rivers and clouds. He reminisced of stooped farmers, fabric stretched over their shoulders, freighting baskets of produce for the market, and how the day can turn champagne bright, or slate grey, in moments. He said the scent of flowers can waft all morning along cobblestone streets polished by evening rain. And he told me about the tradition of almuerzo when you 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, we all mourn as one.”
As he spoke, his cadence slowed, pausing for long stretches as he searched for the precise words to reflect his memory. He was drifting on a current crumbling the banks of his misadventures and reinforcing his vision of the future. He spoke lovingly of his parents, brothers, and sisters, his aunts and uncles, his friends and neighbors, and how they rained tears when he left. As he spoke, droplets spilled on his cheeks; the oasis in his soft brown eyes overflowed in a small cascade.
“When I see my mother again, she will hug me until my shoulder is saturated with her tears of joy. I am returning to my family; they are waiting for me in Ecuador.”
I remember the exact moment my life changed. I remember the swirling paisley of blue and gray water bucking the incoming tide on the Columbia River.
I remember the wheat-scented breeze inviting autumn to join in with her confetti of red and orange and gold leaves, and I remember the gray dome of cloud that replaced the sun.
I recall geese honking words of encouragement; they are moving south to warm their tired bodies and to hatch the goslings that will take their place when they will fly no more.
I remember tension banging in my face.
I made a commitment that day; I would examine where and how to live my life to the fullest.
I would visit Ecuador.