Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sharing Christmas by Carolyn

You would think I would be good at sharing Christmas by now; I've been practicing it since I was a child. I can put on a pretty convincing show of it: "It doesn't matter what day you celebrate Christmas, as long as you get to spend time with people you love." Sounds good, right? The truth is, it is still hard to have no family celebration on the actual day.

My parents divorced when I was 11, so the typical family-all-together-around-the-tree-on-Christmas-morning ended fairly early for us. For the rest of my childhood, I rarely saw my father on Christmas.

Continuing the family tradition, my first husband and I divorced when our sons were very young. Throughout their childhoods, Christmas was a time of negotiations: "When do you want to meet to hand over the kids?", "When will you bring them back?" My Christmas celebrations with my boys were frequently not on Christmas Day. I tried to remind myself that I had the pleasure of being with them almost every day, so the least I could do was to allow their father the joy of celebrating with them on Christmas Day. Still, I felt empty without them.

Now that the boys are grown and in relationships, I must share them with other families. The negotiations continue: "When will your family have Christmas?" "When can we have our Christmas?" I suspect it will become even more complex as they have children of their own. Of course they will want to spend Christmas Day in their own homes, so the little ones can wake up and rush to the tree. I can't blame them for that. It is the natural way of things.

I am still struggling, even after all these years of sharing Christmas, to be content with my own small celebration of the day: a prayer of gratitude for the birth of my Savior, and a mental recounting of all the many blessings I have been given. After all, it doesn't matter what day you celebrate Christmas, as long as you get to spend time with people you love, right?


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Protect Your Fortress

At a wedding reception, the guests were invited to leave notes or words of advice for the bride and groom on scrapbook papers left on tables.  I usually draw a blank on those occasions when I have to produce a profound thought on the spot.  That night, all I could think of, was:  Protect your fortress.  The idea came from this Baha’i quote on marriage: 

And when He desired to manifest grace and beneficence to men, and to set the world in order, He revealed observances and created laws; among them He established the law of marriage, made it as a fortress for well-being and salvation . . .

Since that night, I have been thinking about how does one protect this fortress for well-being that is the institution of marriage.  Here is my current list:

1.   Invest in the foundation – Truthfulness, trust, honesty and respect are four strong pillars for building a strong marriage.  Other virtues can be added on but without these four tenets the fortress is susceptible to damage by forces from inside and out.
2.   Watch out for termites – Jealousy, resentment, fault-finding, gossip and backbiting eat away at the walls of the fortress.  Their effects can be slow and imperceptible for a long time, but over the years they add up and one day the slightest pressure causes the whole structure to crumble. 
3.  Do not recycle – keeping a tally of all wrongdoings and hurts and bringing them up at every opportunity holds everyone hostage to the past and paralyzed from moving forward.  Resolving issues and learning to forgive instantly wipes the slate clean and both sides feel free to grow and move beyond earlier mistakes and immaturities
4.  Beware of intruders – Friends and family , although well-meaning and acting out of love, can become unwelcome guests in the fortress if they sabotage the trust between the husband and wife and cause situations where they have to choose their partner over them.  Showing a united front and respecting the sanctity of spousal conversations by not sharing them with outsiders lets the world know the boundaries of the marriage.
5. Dust often - It is a lot easier to deal with problems when they are small.  Hurt feelings, misunderstandings and unintended offenses, if not dealt with quickly and regularly, can fester, grow and then explode at the oddest moment 
6.  Leave the repair work to professionals – There will be times when problems cannot be solved by conversation and consultation just between the two.  It is tempting to seek the advice of those closest.  But no matter how hard parents or best friends try, they cannot be truly impartial in giving answers or capable of asking the right questions.  It is best to leave the job to professionals.  It is an investment of time and money but it is worth it. 
7.  Do not keep the good china for the guests - Spending all of our good humor and charm on others can leave nothing for those closes and dearest to us. Life is too precarious to wait to be and do our best for the one that really matters.

And when the fortress of marriage is fortified, the society based upon it is strengthened.  Children born into these marriages will then grow up to “carry forward an ever advancing civilization.”


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Change by Carolyn

My relationship with my mother was as close as close could be. We spent hours and hours in each other's company, never tiring. We thought alike, spoke alike, looked alike. I looked to her constantly for wisdom, understanding, and fellowship. Our worlds were on synchronous orbits.

My father, on the other hand, was unknown territory to me. He was on a path of his own, his orbit only occasionally intersecting with mine. Although bound by one of the deepest connections possible, we were not truly connected by inclination, proximity, or habit. We rarely saw each other. When we did, the time spent together was awkward, rife with those silences that occur when people are not quite sure what to talk about next.

My relationship with my mother is frozen in time. I will never know how it would have played out, how it might have ebbed and flowed with time, or deepened as we both aged.

My relationship with my father, however, has changed dramatically over the past few years. We now cross paths much more frequently than in the past - sometimes of necessity, sometimes by desire. We have a kind of symbiotic relationship: he depends on me for some things (like sewing), and I depend on him for other things (like fixing stuff). We take turns being the parent.

Although we are still a little wary of each other (he, afraid I will cry; me, afraid he will rant and rave), we talk together, laugh together. I have discovered he has a great sense of humor, something I never knew until the past few years. He still makes me crazy from time to time, but at least we are close enough now that he has the opportunity to make me crazy.

My father is a difficult man to completely like and admire, but I have now built a relationship with him based on affection (and, yes, duty). My relationship with my father will never be the same as the relationship I enjoyed with my mother. But my time with my mother is in the past, my time with my father is in the present - and the future.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Banana Split Baby

I think it was the banana split that did it.  Or it might have been the spaghetti lunch before that or the giant ripe pineapple after it.  Whatever the cause, Niku came two weeks before her due date. She was the third in a series of four children and I must say, every woman should try to have their third baby first.  It is amazing how after raising two spirited, strong willed children, on a tight budget and living a continent away from your mother, gives you all the confidence you need to have more children.  And of course, if you are brave enough to go for the third, you may be rewarded with a “good” baby, one that wants to be put down and left alone when she is sleepy not carried or driven about town for hours.  One that reaches for whatever food you are putting in your mouth, and wants to try it instead of one who will only eat white things until she is four. 

My good friend Estela and I found out we were expecting at the same time.  It was my third and her second pregnancy.  I was so excited to have a partner in pregnancy this time around, I kept planning things for us to do together:  Go to check-ups together, go shopping for baby stuff together, take Lamaze classes together.  She was all for the first two but I noticed she hesitated to commit to the birthing classes. Finally she came out and told me that she had had such a difficult labor with her first baby that she was not planning on repeating it.  She was going to have a C-section.  In fact, most women in my doctor’s office did elective cesareans because who could guarantee that natural childbirth would go as planned?  My question was who could guarantee that a surgery would go as planned.  Somehow, I trusted in God’s hands more than in a man’s.  But I respected her choice and we spend nine months keeping each other’s spirits up, especially with afternoon coffees and ladyfingers.  Have you ever tried dipping a ladyfinger in coffee and then sucking on it?  There is an art to it.  Take it out too soon and the cookie is just too hard; leave it in too long and it will collapse into the mug and turn into mush.  That is why you need a big tin of it to keep practicing until you get it right. 

A month before my due date, I saw a sign up for a pottery class.  It was a two-week course on doll making.  On a whim, I signed up.  It would be the last two weeks of my life when I had no obligations during the morning hours.  The two older kids would be at school, the third one was still pretty portable and my lovely housekeeper would be cleaning and washing while I was learning how to work with clay, something that I had on my list of 50 things to do before I die.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  The teacher was a very giving human being whose very breath inspired you to take risks with the clay.  And the clay seemed to have a mind of its own.  But I think it was the little girl inside of me that moved my hands to turn everything I made into a baby of some kind.  The first doll I made ended up looking pregnant so I went ahead and made a husband, a little girl and a little boy to complete the menagerie of our family.  The cat I tried to make, ended up being a kitten and the elephant looked like a baby too.  I am sad to say that three years later, the same little girl who had inspired my adventures in pottery, climbed up the shelf that held all my pieces and brought the whole collection down with her as the stand crashed on top of her.  She was safe and unscratched but the dolls had to be swept up and put in the dustbin.  Still I am glad that I tried my hands at making them and know that I have it in me to try again someday.

The year Niku came to us, was the year when Ben had a great job, we lived in a lovely apartment overlooking the Orinoco River and we had a tight knit group of friends with whom we spent most of our free time.  On Sunday, July 28th, Estela called and invited all of us to go over to German’s office and play Ping-Pong.  I am not much of an athlete under normal circumstances, so being nine months pregnant gave me the excuse to just watch from the side lines and heckle.  Like most of our get-togethers, one thing lead to another.  After playing a couple of hours, Estela suggested we go to her house and have some lunch.  She made a giant pot of spaghetti and we all sat around eating, laughing and talking.  Being pregnant gives you permission to express the oddest desires and normally sensible people will go along with it.  So when I mentioned that I felt like eating a banana split, not only no one objected, Estela said she wanted one too.  So we all got in our cars and drove to JTO, an ice cream shop whose name in Spanish, jamas te olvidaré, means I will never forget you.  I think that might have been the first and the last time I ever had a banana split, but somehow it felt right.  Eventually, we parted ways with our friends and came home.  We had barely settled in for the night when there was a knock on our door and it was my cousin’s Venezuelan wife and my good friend Yrene, back in town to visit her family. In a time and place where cell phones and landlines were not always available or reliable, it was not unusual to receive an unexpected guest.  I was delighted to see her.  Yrene herself was five months pregnant with her first child and had just spent a week visiting her family in their rural home on the other side of the river.  She came bearing gifts, namely a humongous very ripe pineapple that she insisted had to be eaten right away.  Yrene deftly cut up the fruit and then she and I sat at my kitchen table and ate to our hearts’ desire.  It turned out that Yrene was a God sent because when I woke up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to go to my regularly scheduled pre-natal checkup, I found myself with a broken water bag.  Our plan was for my mother to be there to stay with Miranda and Safaa while Ben and I went to the hospital.  But my mother was not due to arrive for another week.  Our back up plan was to drive the kids to a friend’s house once contractions started.  But as it turned out, we just left them soundly asleep with Yrene and went to the hospital.  Before leaving, I called Estela to tell her that I would not be making our regular Dr.’s appointment because I was actually going to have the baby.  That prompted her to move up her C-section a week, lest she be surprised with early labor! 

It wasn’t until 7:30 that evening that Niku finally arrived.  Beautiful baby girl with lots of brown hair, which pleased Ben immensely.  After the birth, Yrene and Ben switched places.  I was the only patient and Niku the only baby in the small clinic that night.  Thank God again for Yrene who checked on me and brought me what I needed all night and even went to the nursery to check on the baby because the nurses were too busy watching TV. 

It was interesting to see how the addition of a baby changed the dynamics of the other two children, now 6 and 4.  Their attention was now focused on taking care of this little one instead of the power struggle between the two of them.  It was scary at times because I would leave the room asking them to just watch the baby and I would come back to find one or the other carrying the newborn over his or her shoulder.  Images of her little head hitting the tile floor would send chills up my spine.  But somehow she survived.  Not only survived, she basked in the double attention she received not only from mom and dad, but from two doting siblings as well.  She was the reina and Miranda and Safaa her adoring subjects.  And then one day, there was a fourth baby and the two and half year old Niku realized that her plans for the future as the consentida of the family were forever changed.  It took her years to recover but I know that today her younger brother is her best friend and her comrade in arms in many of the projects either of them conjures up.

Having children is as much about them helping you grow, as the other way around.  Each child has taught me valuable life lessons that I would not have learned otherwise.  What I have learned from Niku has been: “Just do it, now!”  While still in the womb, she inspired me to try learning pottery.  When she was five she moved me to sign up for graduate school and become a teacher, something I had dreamed of all my life but never could see myself doing it.  We had just arrived in Texas.  It was spring and the wildflowers were everywhere.  There were still large open patches of land around our home where an incredible variety of wildflowers grew.  One day, at noon, she asked me to take her to pick some flowers.  It was already hot and I did not feel like walking the few blocks with her and the baby in a stroller.  I tried to convince her to wait until later that afternoon and we could stop on our way to pick up her older sister.  But Niku was never good with taking no for an answer.  So she insisted, I gave in and we walked to corner where we spent some time being amazed at what we never see when we drive by patches of wildflowers.  We found some new species of plants, picked a few indian paintbrushes and brown-eyed susan’s and came home.  Later that afternoon as we passed the same area on our way to pick up Miranda from middle school, I saw city workers mowing everything down to provide more visibility for cars that would try to turn at that corner.  If I had not heeded her call to “just do it, now!” we would not have had that unique experience that day.  But to me the incident was a sign that I should act on the flyer that had arrived with the weekly newspaper advertising a master’s program in education, only minutes from my home and in the evenings.

She just turned sixteen.  She has a driver’s permit.  She traveled to the East Coast by herself this summer.  She spends a lot of time on her nails and her brown hair is now down to her waist.  I don’t think she has ever had a banana split but she asks for green tea tempura ice cream for her birthday.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Healing Molly by Carolyn

Molly was scarred on the inside where it didn’t show right away. But if you spent any time with her, the damage began to seep out through her skin and reveal itself. It showed in the way she scurried under any table or chair she could find in an effort to become invisible. It showed in the way she gobbled her food quickly, ferociously, before anyone could snatch it away from her. It showed in the violent quivering that made her whole body tremble with anxiety with very little provocation. It showed in her reluctance to be picked up, stroked, cuddled.

Molly’s damage was understandable. She spent her first year of life in a small trailer home with more than 150 other dogs. They lived among mounds of shed fur, piles of feces, the stench of urine, and probably a few rotting carcasses, but with no light, no air conditioning or heat, and most significantly, no human contact. When you thought about her first home, it was easy to understand why she was so scarred.

When I first brought Molly home, she gulped her food frantically because in her first year of life she had to compete with 150 other dogs for every bite of food she got. She trembled with fear from head to tail so often because she had never known love or security before. Everything was frightening. She scurried to hide under any available piece of furniture in an attempt to escape detection. She refused to be held because she didn’t trust people. Why should she? She had never had anyone to trust.

How do you set about healing that kind of scarring? With love, liberally laced with patience. When Molly hid under the furniture, I lay on the floor and tried to coax her out with soft, sweet, soothing words (and a few doggie treats). When Molly gulped her food and growled at Finn, “Get back! This is mine!” I gently chided her, “Friends don’t growl at friends, Molly”, but I let her learn in her own time that she no longer had to fight for food. When Molly shivered violently from fear and anxiety at the slightest little thing, I held her tightly (whether she wanted me to or not) scratched behind her ears, and murmured sweet nothings to her.

Little by little, baby step by baby step, moment by moment, we made progress. The hiding-under-the-table episodes became fewer. Eventually I only had to chase her under two, rather than five, pieces of furniture when I needed to pick her up. Gradually, the gulping and growling and snapping over food diminished. She even let Finn eat first once or twice while she waited her turn – she was busy having her backside scratched! After many months, the frequency of her whole-body trembling decreased. Instead of shaking uncontrollably over every little thing, she saved that response for really serious situations, like someone ringing the doorbell.

Wonder of wonders, Molly even began to seek me out. At first, she jumped up in my lap once every few days, stayed a second or two, then jumped back down. “Just passing through. You happened to be in my path,” she seemed to say. After a few months, she jumped up in my lap at least once a day and stayed just a little longer each time, but not quite settling in. Eventually, she purposely came to me more and more often - jumping up on my lap frequently, and settling in to stay a while each time. We snuggled together. My heart swelled with love, gratitude, delight.

While I was determinedly busy healing Molly, she was surreptitiously healing me as well. Focusing my attention on her wounds helped me move beyond my own heartaches a little. Holding Molly in my lap and scratching between her ears not only soothed her wounded spirit, it also infused my fragile heart with calm and peace. Providing Molly with a safe, loving home where she could recover from her trauma brought rewards to me as well: compassion, laughter, joy, contentment.

Molly still carried her scars on the inside, as I do, but her wounds no longer showed quite so much on the outside. Her scars, faded and softened with time and love, no longer determined the way she viewed life or guided all her actions. I hope mine don’t either.


Mom Wisdom by Carolyn

While my two sons were growing up, my kitchen was always fully stocked in case of a culinary emergency. When you considered the shelves upon shelves of provisions in our walk-in pantry and then combined that with the copious quantities of food contained in the refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen, and then added in the foodstuffs in the additional refrigerator/freezer in the garage, and then counted the back-up food supplies in the full-size freezer, well, you see what I mean.

The amount of food I kept on hand, ready to assuage my family's hunger pangs, was the stuff of legend. There were jokes among family members and around the neighborhood that my house would be THE house to stay in in case of a long-term power outage, alien invasion, or nuclear holocaust. We might be without electricity, plumbing, or anything else, but at least we wouldn't starve!

I delighted in planning meals, grocery shopping, and cooking for my family. As my boys grew older, I began buying snack food as well as my usual groceries to be sure the friends who visited them could be fed at any time hunger struck. In their teen years, they often had a large group of friends over in the evenings - about dinner time. Some evenings I only cooked for the four of us; other evenings I cooked for eight or ten. New friends were often taken on a "tour" of all the possible food-vending locations in the house. Our house was a popular hangout!

When my boys became old enough to get jobs and make their own spending money, they also developed a habit of driving through fast-food establishments to pick up a meal for themselves on their way home from work. Over and over, I remonstrated with them for spending their hard-earned money on junky food when there was a house full of food waiting for them, free of charge (at least to them). "Son, why in the world would you spend your money on food when everything you might want is already here for free?" I just couldn't understand it. I had that same discussion with each of my boys many times during their teen years, without successfully convincing either one of them to quit spending their earnings on food they didn't need to buy.

A few years ago, the boys moved out of my house into a house they shared with several roommates. They pooled their money with the other guys and bought community groceries so they could save money by making meals at home. Money was tight for them. Apparently tighter than it had been when they lived at home, and they became cautious with their spending. During a telephone conversation after several months of living on their own, the subject of one of their roommates' spending habits came up. My son indignantly said, "Mom, he keeps picking up fast food on his way home from work! I don't know why he wastes his money that way. I asked him, 'Dude, why do you keep spending money on fast food when we have plenty of groceries in the house that are already paid for?'" I couldn't keep from chuckling. "Mom wisdom" had prevailed again!


Poor Baby by Carolyn

     It had been a long day of no adult conversation, no one to talk to except a 4-month-old child. Again.
Most of my days were that way, so when my husband called to say he would be late coming home from work that evening, I decided I had to get out of the house.
     So, I packed the baby into his car seat and headed out to the mall.  Not really because I needed anything, just for something to do out in the real world where there were other people, the sound of other voices besides my own. I shopped for a while, window-shopping mostly, and then decided to head back home. By that time it was dark, bringing some welcome relief from the sizzling heat of the August sun.
     The huge mall parking lot was mostly empty by then. As many women do, I felt a little uneasy about my vulnerability as I pushed the stroller through the lot, but I reached my car without mishap. I unloaded the baby from the stroller and buckled him into the car seat. I closed the door to the back seat and pulled on the handle of the front driver's side door, ready to get in and start the car. It didn't budge. I ran around the car and frantically pulled on all the door handles, hoping that one of then would be unlocked. No such luck.
      Now I had a dilemma. Should I leave the baby in the car and go looking for help, or should I stay with the baby and wait for help to find me? I dithered a while, looking anxiously around me at the vast, almost empty, dark stretch of asphalt, partly for help and partly for danger.
     After a few minutes, the baby realized he was alone in a dark, hot car, which was not moving as he wanted it to. He opened his sweet little angel mouth and screamed, and screamed, and screamed. That, of course, made me cry.
     Finally, help arrived. A man walking out to his car saw (or heard) my distress and asked if I needed help. I explained my situation. He couldn't fix my problem himself, but he offered to go get the mall security guard to assist me.
     A few moments later, the security guard whizzed up in his little golf cart. He pulled out a "slim jim" and began trying to slip it around my car window to reach the door lock. Throughout this delicate operation, the baby continued to scream. His pudgy little face was bright red, his cheeks were tear-soaked. He was mightily perturbed. I crooned useless reassurances to him through the car window.
     The security guard worked and fumbled and tried again and again, but could not get the "slim jim" to work. Finally giving up, he offered to call the police to see if they could help. So, added to my fears about how hot and the baby was and how frantically upset he had become, I began to fear what would happen when the police arrived.
     My fears were two-fold: Would I be arrested for child endangerment? Or would a news crew show up and shoot video of what a bad mother I was, making me the top feature on the ten o'clock news? Or both? Well, I am happy to report that neither of those fears came to pass. The police arrived, had a good chuckle or two at my predicament, and unlocked my car within seconds. I wasn't chuckling. I was hugging my baby, crying with relief, and thanking God.


Fish Explosion by Carolyn

     Bam!  I sat straight up in my narrow twin bed, my heart pounding in my chest, as the explosion reverberated through the house. The booming noise had awoken my sister from a sound sleep, just as it had me. We exchanged puzzled glances, not understanding what had caused the sound.
     We jumped out of bed, hurrying toward the living room, which we assumed to be the source of the boom. In our small house it didn't take us long to reach our destination. At first, we weren't able to comprehend the scene of chaos and destruction that met our eyes.
      Slowly, it came into focus. Mom was standing at the threshold between the kitchen and the living room, a damp dishtowel in her hands and her mouth agape. Dad was sitting ont the edge of the couch, his shotgun in his hand and a sheepish look on his face.
     The living room floor was awash with dirty water, colorful gravel, and broken glass. Here and there, a small fish darted about nervously, quite probably shell-shocked. More than a few lifeless fish bodies floated amongst the debris. Occasionally, a piece of seaweed or a portion of a small fish body dropped from the ceiling into the mess below with a soft splash.
     In spite of all the evidence before us, we were still having trouble making sense of what had transpired.  Until, that is, our eyes were drawn to the gaping hole in the living room wall where the fish aquarium had stood until just a few minutes earlier, when Dad had decided to clean his shotgun in the living room.


Friday, July 5, 2013

A Stranger in No Land

I once bought ice cream in an empty bread bag.  It was closing time and the store had run out of containers.  So we bought a loaf of sandwich bread, let the owner keep the bread and put several scoops of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream inside the bag.  To keep it from melting, we held the bag outside of the car’s window, as Peter our driver raced through the narrow cobbled streets of Arequipa, Peru.  It was August, 1985 and winter in the southern hemisphere. 

Ben’s best friend, Tom had moved to Peru to live out his dream of dedicating his life to serving others and putting to test his belief that “others” were any and all members of the human race.  He taught English at the university in the small town of Puno, high among the Andean mountains. He had also founded a theater company called “El Teatro de Pan y Paz”, where life size puppets representing the local Quechua people, taught the residents of rural communities about health care and literacy.  For months we had been writing to Tom to let him know that we were planning a visit to several South American countries and would love to visit him in Puno.  And for months Tom had been writing us asking when, if ever we would be visiting him.  As it turned out, the postal workers in Peru were on strike and our letters, along with thousands of others, were piling up somewhere in a warehouse, and never being delivered.  This was before email, Facebook, cell phones and in Tom’s case even a landline where one could place a simple call.  We decided that we would continue with our plans anyway. We visited Ecuador and Bolivia first and then took a boat across Lake Titicaca to Peru.  I got the worse sunburn of my life on that trip.  When it’s 20 degrees and you are grateful that the sun is shining, you forget that at 12,500 feet you are a lot closer to the sun that on the beach in Galveston. 

We arrived at a small port on the Peruvian side of the lake and took a bus to Puno, where we knew Tom was living.  Ben left me at the bus stop, which was basically a storefront, with our luggage, while he went to look for Tom.  He remembered from his teenage days in Bolivia, that it is not that hard to find a foreigner in a small town like that.  He would just start asking people if they knew an American man who taught English at the university and be pointed in the right direction.  Confident in my two semesters of college Spanish, I sat on one of our suitcases on the sidewalk.  Few minutes after he left, the thought occurred to me that I knew no one in this town, had no telephone numbers for anyone in the entire country, and really did not speak the language well enough to find my way back to the airport in Lima if I had to.  I don’t remember panicking too much though.  Somehow, I had faith that Ben would find Tom and come back for me.  I did not feel completely out of place.  The people looked familiar, the same coloring and built of those I had grown up with back in the Middle East and the mountains and the arid cold reminded me of my hometown of Tehran.  About half an hour or forty five minutes later, Ben came back and reported that apparently there were two American men teaching English in this little town and the one that he was pointed to was not in fact our friend Tom.  We decided to get a hotel and go back out in a different direction to search further.  It was getting dark when we found ourselves on the streets again and started asking passersby if they knew someone with Tom’s description.  All of a sudden a voice from above asked:  Are you looking for Tomás?  He is in Arequipa.  We looked up to see a young man at the window of a three-story building.  He promptly came down and introduced himself as Daniel, a friend of Tom.  It turned out Tom had gone to the next major city for an operation and was recovering at the home of a friend there.  He had had no idea that we would be coming through to visit him.  Daniel took us to the train station, where the only public phone nearby was kept on a pedestal in the stationmaster’s office.  He gave us a number to call Tom at the home where he was staying in Arequipa.  We got through and realized the only way to see him would be for us to go there the next day.  We bought a train ticket for the next evening and relaxed a bit, now that we knew where our friend was.  Daniel offered to show us around.  By the next evening, that little desolate town became a place where we knew some friends and were invited to go back to, the next time we were in Peru. 

The overnight train arrived in Arequipa at 6:00 a.m.  Tom and his friend Peter were waiting for us at the station.  Peter was also an American but had been living in Peru for many, many years.  His wife and kids had moved to California in order for one of his sons to receive treatment for his special needs.  Peter was finishing up medical school and would soon join his family.  It was obvious that he really did not want to leave his adopted country, where he had become one of its people.  He arranged for us to stay with a couple that were his neighbors. We spent the next day visiting the sights of Arequipa, a colonial town set in a valley.  The next evening, Tom was speaking to a group of young people about his theater project and we went along to hear him.  At the end of his presentation, Peter offered rides to several of the attendees.  I kept looking at Ben to see if he had the same concern as I:  How is he going to fit all these people in his little five-passenger sedan?  But Ben had already reverted to his “we are not in the US” mode and thought nothing of piling in eight people, several on top of each other.  I didn’t even bring up the need for seat belts or safety. Eventually, we dropped off everyone and were back to just the four of us in the car, when Tom expressed a craving for ice cream.  It turned out that he could not get good ice cream in Puno.  By the time the product made it to that isolated corner of the country, it had melted and frozen back up so many times that it was not worth eating.  So Peter abruptly changed directions and turned the car around so we could find somewhere to get ice cream.  Years later when I myself ended up living in South America, I realized that Peter was actually a good driver.  But that night in Arequipa, I was a bit scared for my life.  He not only drove very fast, but I noticed he did not stop at stop signs or traffic lights.  I asked him whether he had ever wanted to be a racecar driver.  He replied that no, but he had driven an ambulance in Vietnam.  I figured if he had survived that experience, then I was in good hands. 

I can’t remember if we actually ate that ice cream or not.  By the time we got home, it had softened too much and we had to put it in the freezer.  I think we might have forgotten all about it, as we got busy talking and laughing and wondering what we were doing so far away from all that was comfortable and familiar.  But I know that despite the physical hardships that both Peter and Tom had to deal with, there was something about embracing others as your own that had made their hearts a little bigger and their souls a little happier.  I know this because like them, I chose to pack my bags up one day and leave my parents and a good paying job to live the same adventure for almost thirteen years.  I ended up in the warm tropics of Venezuela.  I did not experience much material discomfort.  The roads were paved, the cars had seat belts and there was plenty of delicious ice cream.  But just like Tom and Peter, I got to be one with others and got to see friends in the faces of strangers.