Healing memories

When I come back this evening my father is still in his wheelchair, huddled next to the radiator. His sea-green sweater drapes across his narrowed shoulders, he has the heater going at full blast. Florida in August. But he’s been cold for about two years regardless of the season, time of day, or the temperature outside. He’s blown out the heating and cooling system in his own home and has already broken one at the nursing home.

Huddled beside the heater in the darkening room, his dwindling figure is illumined by the fading light of day slipping in through the window before him and by the fluorescent light seeping in through the partially closed doorway behind. TV and the CD player are silent, and the room is quiet and still.

At first I think he’s dozing, but as I draw near I see he’s only closed his eyes for what in my childhood he called a “long blink.” He isn’t sleeping, and behind his closed eyes there’s a restlessness. A nurse said he sometimes cries out at night; memories of war, she said, pierced his dreams, after all these years. Memories he otherwise only alluded to and never spoke aloud. He always seemed self-contained and inaccessible.

I stand over him in the grayness between the two lights and watch him for a while. I’ve seen anguish, I think. The wordless lurching of one struggling to name the memories that would build a bridge to the outside world—even a loosely hanging rope bridge to those dearest to him, her.  Those memories of hurt, death, fear; where love was not absent but pummeled and grown guarded.

In heat not so different from that in my father’s nursing home room—but natural—in El Salvador, I recall, I’d waited quietly while villagers slowly joined a circle in a spot of shade beside fields of corn, just over the ridge, with the river below, in Usulután. They came one or two at a time, backs bowed under the weight of memories they shouldered, like overstuffed sacks of just-picked raw coffee, for more than 20 years.

Salvador García, who later that day would cradle his head in his hands during a rite of remembrance, was first to locate his voice. When he spoke, the birds all around hushed and made room for his unfamiliar words—about a massacre not far from where we sat. Until then it was unknown beyond the village—unknown, unrecorded, unacknowledged. Unspoken by the survivors, except to each other. They’d buried sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, friends; then they’d gone back to living, the invisible load of memories lying like a yoke across their shoulders.

Norbelina Blanco opened her mouth to speak, and a litany of the dead tumbled out before tears could swallowed her words again. Salvador, short and hulking, his western-style hat shading his eyes, got up then. He walked part-way around the circle to where Norbelina sat and wordlessly handed her a bottle of water. She took it, gulped the water down. He continued standing behind her, never touching her, never looking at her, still, wordless; waiting with her while she got hold of the ghosts. An act of kindness. The image of them remains with me to this day, a loosely hanging rope bridge to the world outside their pain.

In the gathering dusk in the room at the nursing home, I pull up a brown metal folding chair and sit next to my father. I turn the chair slightly so I can see him. His eyes are open now as he appears to me to loop together the figurative ropes of his own bridge; courage and kindness reach out from the abyss of his memories.

“Sometimes I just sit here and just say thank you, thank you,” he says, his thumb gesturing upward, Godward, as he understands it. “Thank you for all of it, thank you for everything.”

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