When I pick up Safaa from pre-school at noon, he has paint on one of his cheeks. “Our teacher painted our faces for Halloween!” It has already been several hours and the paint has dried out and is cracking. You can’t really tell that it was a pirate’s head at some point. When we get home, I encourage him to wash it off.
“I want to keep it to show Daddy,” he says.
“But Dad won’t be home until late tonight.”
A thought comes to my head and I am headed into that labyrinth again. What if he doesn’t make it home tonight? How long will Safaa go without washing his face?
Ben is away on business. Just a short trip to Caracas for a meeting with some government officials. He works for an American mining company that is exploring a gold mine here in the Guayana region of Venezuela and often represents them at the meetings with the Ministry of Mines, where permits are negotiated. I love living here. I have adopted it as my home and have no intention of ever going back to the U.S. My three children have been born here; I have found my best friends, my “sisters”, here and it is only a five- hour plane ride from my parents’ home in Texas, so I can visit any time I want. Life here, however, can be precarious. When we leave the house, we run a 50/50 chance of either getting mugged on the street or coming home to a break-in. But instead of living with constant anxiety and fear, I have learned to truly trust in God and He has protected us so far.
“You’ll be asleep when Dad gets home,” I repeat, but my 4-year old son insists on keeping the face painting. What if there is an accident, a plane crash, and I lose Ben, we lose Ben? What will I tell the children? In a flash, I see them at their father’s funeral. That is how quickly I go from washing my son’s face to him being an orphan. That is how slippery the entrance to this labyrinth is.
In case of a tragedy such as that, what would I do? My parents will have me not tell the children at all. We will just pretend he has gone on a long trip. That’s the Persian way, keep bad news from children as long as possible. Never mind the future ramifications, the mistrust and the shaky confidence. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, will hand each kid a little shovel and have them throw dirt on their father’s grave. It will be more dramatic that way. I shake the thoughts from my head and get back to fixing lunch. Thank God for Joyce, our loyal housekeeper, one of the perks of living in Latin America. She has been with us since Miranda, now 6, was a baby and she is part of our family. She anticipates my every thought, which makes it easy to work with her. I don’t feel like I ever have to give her any orders. If I am widowed, would I have to go back to the States? How will I live here? What kind of work would I do? We are getting deeper into the labyrinth now. There is no going back. My parents will not let me stay here by myself. I know that. My mother-in-law would offer to move here and live with me. I imagine myself starting a day care or pre-school. I like to have a plan. It helps me calm down.
When we are done with lunch, the baby goes down for a nap. Miranda and Safaa sit down to watch old Sesame Street tapes that my mother sends them periodically. I lay down for a nap too.
I awake disoriented. It happens a lot; I feel I have slept for hours, but it has only been five or ten minutes. I wish we had a phone in the house so I could call Ben on his cell phone. When we moved to this apartment three years ago, the owner promised that he could get us a landline. Getting a phone in this country is close to a miracle. Even with his palancas in the phone company, the landlord has not been able to get us a phone. Last year, cell phones were introduced to Venezuela and they have been selling like hot cakes. We have one, which Ben carries with him. If I need to call him, I go to my neighbor’s apartment and use her phone. I decide to do that, to reassure myself that Ben is fine and will be coming home tonight. I cross the hallway and knock on her door but there is no answer. I will try later.
If I lose Ben, I will not re-marry. I know I am young and my children are small. But I will not bring another man into our lives. I will keep his memory alive and continue to do all the things he does for them. I will split my parenting style between mine and his. I will read history books to them and talk to them about languages. I will put on his shirts and stuff the children inside them. I will let them sit on my feet and walk around with them, shouting: “Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.” I will continue the story of the pirate Jaques Rouge and tell it over and over again, until they are too old to want to hear it. But I cannot imagine loving another man. We are now in the middle of the labyrinth and I am confused and don’t know which way will lead me to the exit.
It is time to take Miranda to her ballet class. I will stop at my friend Edi’s store and use her phone to call Ben. I load the three children in my little Fiat Uno and head for the ballet school. I love living in a town where everything is five minutes from my home. The ballet school is actually a little building attached to the teacher’s house. Ana Maria is from Spain, but has lived in Venezuela for most of her adult life. All the little girls in this town who want to learn ballet, come to her school. I wait with Safaa and Niku in the tiny waiting area, while Miranda does her lesson. Will Ben be back to see her dance? Will she want to dance if she loses her father? Will children this young get over a tragedy like that. The baby won’t even remember him. I must get a hold of him. Hear his voice and know that he is fine and is coming home soon.
As soon as Miranda is out, we drive a few blocks to the shopping center where my friends have a papelería, a book shop/ stationery store. They have two kids, the same ages as Miranda and Safaa and they have been playmates since the day they were born. Edi and Ziegler have raised their two children in the store, which is their life. They open at 9:00 a.m. and close at 9:00 p.m. They do take a three-hour break at noon to go home, eat and take a siesta. The children are at school in the morning but spend the afternoon behind the counter in the store. Miranda and Safaa run to the back and meet up with their friends, while I ask Edi to borrow her phone. I lift the receiver and there is no tone. It is not unusual. Actually, it has gotten much better. When I first arrived here, sometimes I had to wait five or ten minutes to get a dial tone. I would just leave the receiver off the hook and check on it from time to time. Today it only takes a minute. I dial Ben’s number but it goes directly to his voice mail. I leave a message to let him know I am just calling to make sure his flight is on schedule, but realize that there is no way for him to call me back. I am no less anxious then. This is where I feel the walls of the labyrinth closing in on me. To take my mind off of my anxiety, I offer to take all the kids for an ice cream. This will give the parents a chance to run their business without distractions. I pile all four children in the car and strap the baby in her car seat. We drive to the new McDonald’s. The kids each eat an ice cream and spend the next hour or so in the playground. In a town where public playgrounds are vandalized and neglected as soon as they are built, this place is a hot spot for families with children who can afford McDonald’s prices.
I drop Margarita and Ely back at their parents’ shop and head home. Before entering our apartment, I knock on my neighbor’s door again. She is home and happily lets me come in and use her phone. Voice mail again. It is possible that the phone is dead, but my mind chooses to go the route of a holdup as he gets cash from an ATM, or a taxi hijacked while stuck in traffic. These are the way outs I try but realize they are dead ends.
The sun will set any minute. Our apartment looks over the Orinoco River. Our small balcony is the best spot at this time of the day. A cool breeze blows from the river. Most people here live in apartments. But our apartment is really as big as a house. We just don’t have a yard. We do have this balcony though and thanks to Joyce’s green thumb I have a nice little garden growing here. I sit with the baby in my lap and keep a lookout for Ben’s car. I will be able to see him turning into the complex from this vantage point. Sunsets here happen quickly. You may miss it if you are not paying attention. In a blink of an eye, it is dark. His plane should be arriving in about 30 minutes. Another advantage of a small town is that I can hear the airplane approaching the airport, which is about five miles from our apartment. No plane. It is not unusual for them to be late.
This is the loneliest time for a mother who has been home all day with three small children. It is when you have reached the limit of your energy and are ready for someone to come and relieve you, only if it is to cook dinner undistracted. When relief doesn’t come, I feel my heart squeeze as if it wants to burst out of my chest. Today it feels worse, because in addition to the normal dusk induced edginess, I am stuck in this labyrinth of worry. The children go about their normal lives, asking questions, fighting with each other, wanting their dad to be home already. But my mind is too wrapped up in the worse case scenarios to be able to answer or react to any of it. If he doesn’t show up tonight, where would I even begin to look for him? I guess I would go to his office here and ask them for help. Who would stay with the kids, if I have to fly to Caracas to identify his body? If the plane crashes over the river, will there be a body? I have to physically shake my head to banish these thoughts. I wave my hands in front of my face to erase the image.
“Who are you waving to, Mommy?” Miranda asks.
I must keep my sanity. I have to be strong. It won’t do for these children to lose their father and have their mother go crazy as well.
The kids are hungry. I should fix something. Pasta with ketchup and mayonnaise. For picky eaters such as these two, it is a perfect dish. The baby eats anything. She loves to grab for food from people’s hands and plates. I think after two finicky eaters, I am finally rewarded with the “perfect” baby. She eats well and goes to sleep by herself. When Miranda and Safaa were babies, I would have to walk, rock and drive them around for hours to get them to go to sleep. I also sang a lot to them, which made my voice sound really good. Niku wants to be left alone when she is sleepy. So it has been a while since I have sung and I think I am losing the tone in my vocal chords.
After dinner, the kids put on swimsuits and take a communal bath. That takes up some of the time. But if the Caracas plane came in, I didn’t hear it with all the noise in the bathroom. I sit by the bathtub and supervise the pouring and emptying of containers and the “pretending we are at the pool” games. Once everyone is bathed, the baby goes down pretty quickly. Miranda and Safaa gather around me to read.
I hear a plane and look at my watch. It is 8:30 now. If this is the plane from Caracas, Ben should be home in the next 45 minutes or so. My mouth is reading a Berenstain Bears book, but my mind is going round and round in the labyrinth, hoping to find a way out. I believe that when you love someone, you are reunited with their soul after death. But is there a minimum time limit for this bonding to take place? Have we been married long enough for our souls to find each other in the next world? I am at peace with death on an intellectual and theological level, but how do I explain these things to children as young as mine? Last year when Minnie Lee, Ben’s grandmother died, Miranda was devastated. At first, I couldn’t understand why. She had only seen Minnie Lee, who had been confined to a bed in a nursing home for the past twenty years, once, maybe twice in her life. She definitely did not have a relationship with her. Minnie Lee had not talked coherently or walked by herself as long as I had known her. But Miranda was beside herself. I tried to explain death to her as best as I could. But she continued to be distressed. Finally, after many questions, it came out that if Minnie Lee died, that meant anyone could die, including me. It was the thought of losing me, or her father, that was disturbing her. So, what if she did lose her father? Ben has this theory that when the parent of a very young person dies, the child is prone to depression, alcoholism and all kinds of other problems later on in life. I hope he is wrong!
We pray and Miranda and Safaa crawl into their beds. All three children sleep in the same bedroom; two twin beds and a crib. It makes bedtimes so much easier, because two out of the three refuse to go to bed by themselves. I turn off the lights and sit in the rocking chair. The breeze coming through the open windows makes the gauzy white curtains dance. Cars go in and out of the complex, opening and closing the creaky gate. I get up and look through the window to see if one of them is Ben’s.
I used to have my life all planned out and, until I moved here, everything did go according to my plan. But about seven years ago, I realized you don’t grow much as a person if everything always goes they way you want it. Another one of Ben’s theories is that if all things turn out the way you envision them, how will you ever recognize God’s hand in your life? So, I have learned to rely on prayer. As I stand in the dark looking out at the street, I whisper the same prayer, over and over again: A prayer for mercy. That’s all I dare ask for. It has now been 45 minutes. It is possible that the plane was not the one from Caracas. Every night about this time, a couple of other flights come in from Valencia or Barquisimeto. I sit back in the rocking chair and try to focus on my prayer: Mercy, mercy, mercy. I hear a key turn. It is opening the iron safety gate on our apartment door. Another key opens the top lock, then a third one the bottom lock. “I’m home!” Ben sings. Miranda and Safaa spring from their beds and run to greet him. I finally let out my breath and step out of the labyrinth into clear ground again. -Susan