Barbara lives in Santa Marta, in the department of Magdalena, as a Practical English for Success volunteer.
I wasn’t going to write this. I thought I’d just let you guys tell your stories and sit back and read. But you know how sometimes, something compels you to write a phrase, an email, a letter? There’s like this “thing” that has to be said? Well, it’s got me by the throat this morning and it’s making me write this sad but beautiful story of a day in my life as a PCV.
In fact, it is the last day at my school.
It started out earlier than usual. I set my alarm for 6 a.m., and yes, I sleep with my phone. When the alarm went off, I grumbled into consciousness. A sick feeling in my stomach, a mother’s feeling, I know y’all have or will feel someday when something is off with someone you love. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there. Well, I’m feeling a bit concerned about my daughter who I’m suspecting has returned to addiction. She told me otherwise the night before on the phone. She lives in Delray Beach, Florida, the treatment center capital of the USA, and got clean there back in August after I plucked her out of addiction, homelessness, and shoelessness and put her on a flight to a new life. She’s loved her new life – got clean and sober; found her dream job at a treatment center; was reunited with her son, my grandson Noah, in December. I thought all was good.
So I push away those ugly feelings. My ex-husband fondly called me a “cognitive miser” because I tend to put away worries and not think about them until absolutely necessary. I’ve come to see it’s actually a useful asset. But sometimes I cordon stuff out so much that it’s a problem when I finally do speak up and people realize I’ve been storing a lot of crap.
I slip on my quiet sandals and creep down to the kitchen to make coffee, trying to not awaken my gently snoring host family. I love mornings in Santa Marta. It’s relatively cool; the breeze blows gently through my room and the house. Sounds on the street are at a minimum. The vendors aren’t calling out their wares quite yet. The clip-clop of the horses hasn’t reached my ears yet.
I make my coffee with my new French press. I’ve bought a pound of Juan Valdez coffee, which cost me dearly from my little PCV salary. I smile as the smell wafts to my nose. Delicious. I pour it into my sacred Peace Corps 25 Year Anniversary mug that I won back in training from Alberto, bless his soul. I heat up some oatmeal into another mug and slip back upstairs to my bedroom.
I sit on my bed with the coffee and oatmeal, and meditate for a few minutes. Knowing this is going to be a big day. It’s Carnaval time here in Colombia and I’ve been asked to be part of a line dance with the teachers. There are 16 of us – 8 women and 8 men. We’ve practiced. They taught me the dance. They laugh at my feeble attempts to dance like the graceful Colombian women. But I can hold my own. I grew up dancing to Motown music with my black sistahs in the 70s.
Makeup? Yes, Barbara, today you wear makeup! Groan. I put on a bit of foundation under my eyes and a bit of mascara and lipstick. Somehow the lovely top the teachers gave me, which looked way too small, actually fits my plump body. I’ve put back on a few pounds after losing 30 in training. Damn. Aye – this top is so revealing, I think. They have given me a matching lovely clip for my hair and I manage to stick in the pins and it holds.
OK, ¿lista? Sí, and I’m off in the taxi to my school. I bring my 35 mm camera, something I love and value but rarely bring along in fear it may be snatched from my hands. The driver and I have a bit of conversation. Here in Santa Marta the rules of Peace Corps require us to take taxis everywhere. The taxi drivers have been great Spanish teachers for me. The guy this morning is fun – he seems to enjoy my outfit. I’m not so proud of it. It’s itchy and tight. I bring along clothes to change into after our 7:30 a.m. dance.
The school is all abuzz as I arrive. Music and teachers’ voices pump out of the huge speakers. There are several hundred kids, grades K and 6-8, all decked out sitting in the breezeway cross-legged and being threatened by the teachers who lord over them to be quiet and sit down. The queens of each grade are presented and they each do a bit of a dance. The crowd erupts in approval with claps and cheers.
Now it’s the teachers’ turn. We line up in pairs. Sadly, I’m the tallest of all the teachers, men and women, and my partner, the rector, is missing. No worries, the last male teacher shares two of us women teachers, and off we go. We are so crowded that as our two columns of dancers gyrates forward and back I have to hold onto the waist of Connie in front of me to stop her from pushing me into the kindergarteners behind me. Phew, we get through that! The kids love it and cheer for us whole-heartedly. We all laugh and feel good about our accomplishment. I go to the teachers’ sala, lock the door for a few seconds and whip off that baby (my itchy top) and throw on my other clothes. Phew – comfort returns to the body.
I hear my phone ringing at the other end of the room. I unlock the door and Carlos the PE teacher comes in with a student. They sit in the back and talk. I answer the phone and it’s my daughter. Her story, the truth, finally unfolds. “I need you here.” She cries. I tell her that’s not so easy to do. I want to finish my last year of service. After all, I’ve just changed schools and am just starting off on my projects and teaching. I’ve got three special classes in the works; my SPA grant is one of them. Hoping to talk to the PTA about teaching one evening class to the community and the teachers. I started “English Today” with 3 English words on the wall of the teachers’ sala with examples in English and Spanish. They love trying out the language and ask me often about how to pronounce them. The rector (even though he didn’t appear for our dance – a’hem) seems loved and respected by his staff and the teachers, without exception, have been so kind and welcoming to me. I really don’t want to leave.
But slowly she tells me of how she picked up the needle again. Of how she thought she could just use once. And then the addiction is eating at her brain, her every thought. That’s how heroin is. It’s always waiting for her. I hate heroin.
I think of my little 6-year-old grandson, Noah, and then I know. I have to leave. I have to go be with him. I don’t know where this addiction path will take her this time, but I have to be with Noah. Tears begin falling from my eyes and Madison and I are crying on both ends of the line. “OK, I’ll be there. I’ll come.” I’m bereft. Carlos ignores me but I implore him, “Carlos, ¿donde esta Alejandro?” Alejandro is our school psychologist. He’s an angel sent from heaven, this man. He’s calm, always smiling, a loving husband and father. I see him take control of a class of 11th graders as well as first graders. He speaks English fairly well. He’s helped me immensely these past four weeks. Carlos tells me he’s gone to the other sede. I thank and hug him. He’s a good man too. I gather my things, put on my dark glasses to hide my wet eyes and stumble out of the school amidst the hugs and accolades from the students and teachers who have no idea that this may be the last time they see me. I walk down the two blocks to find Alejandro in the other sede – the 1-5 graders. I spot him with the rector. There’s a big, loud Carnaval celebration in their school too. I motion them to come outside the gate to talk to me.
I tell them the story of my daughter and how I have to leave their school, Peace Corps, and Colombia. They are wonderful and we talk about family and how it’s so important to be there for them. I tell them the whole ugly story of her addiction in a few sentences. I decide they need to know the whole truth. It’s hard to know what to say to people when you have a child who’s an addict. To some I just say, “She’s sick.” To others, “She has a mental illness,” and to still others I say, “My daughter is a heroin addict.”
For years back in the States I’ve attended Al-Anon meetings, which have helped me cope with being a parent of an addict or alcoholic. I’ve learned how to not enable my daughter’s addiction, that I didn’t cause, couldn’t control or cure. I’ve learned that she’s not a bad person, but a sick person. There are just a few AA meetings here in Colombia and I’ve not found any Al-Anon. I know how important those meetings have been for me. This is another project I know I won’t be able complete: providing information about addiction to the Santa Marta community. I was looking forward to attending an AA service conference in March and make some more connections with the recovery community. Here in Colombia the disease concept of alcoholism and addiction just isn’t understood.
So I part company from Alejandro and the rector with hugs and some more tears. I promise to stay in touch and email Alejandro the curriculum I’ve designed for the Conflict Resolution, US Culture, and Addiction Prevention workshops. He will carry them out for me. What an amazing man.
Neighboring Sede II is the chapel that Alejandro showed me when I first came to the school. I go inside and hear the whirling fans. It’s hot, but the air movement and quiet feels good. I slip into the last row on the left and kneel to pray to God to help my girl, once again. Tears stream down my face and I have to grab my sweat rag to blow my nose. The makeup comes off. The other women in the chapel pay me no mind, which is unusual for me in Colombia. The women here always stare at me: I’m tall, I have white hair and I’ve got white skin. I really stand out and feel the “fishbowl” effect here. I’m grateful that they ignore me today. I know they’ve had their own tears and struggles too. Somehow I gather myself and calm begins to wash over me as it always does when I come before God as a disheveled mess – I ask for help for myself to make the fatal call to Geralyn and resign Peace Corps. A few minutes pass. My peace and confidence returns. I am ready. I go outside and sit on the stairs of the church. Usually I don’t talk on the phone outside. There are so many phone thieves and I love my little iPhone! This is my 4th phone here! But I feel the sacredness of the church will protect me. Yes, Alberto, maybe foolish, I know. I make the call to Geralyn and resign. She knows well the story of my daughter. We’ve talked at length about both of our daughters who are similar ages. We put together a rough plan for me to leave Colombia early next week. I’m grateful again for having a boss I love and respect. She totally understands the challenges of being a mother.
I call the taxi, and then begin the process of messaging some other PCVs whom I’ve come to love about my leaving: Jackie, Monica, Mia, Rocky, James, Audrey, Angelica, Helena… the list goes on and on. I’m so blessed to have a network of volunteers here who truly love me. Some of them are coming tomorrow to the (free!) yoga class in the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the sacred place where Simón Bolivar died in 1830.
I go to my house and tell my host family that I’m leaving in a few days. I tell them the whole story of my daughter’s addiction as well. They hug and tell me I’m welcome back any time. I go to my office, Juan Valdez, and meet up with Monica, my Latina PCV daughter. The two of us have grown quite close over the last year and shared many tears and belly laughs. She’s even friends with my daughter on Facebook and maybe someday they’ll meet. I tell her the news and her eyes fill with tears but she struggles to fight them off. We have lunch, run a bunch of errands and then go to the beach, Playa Tortuga, a lovely sparsely inhabited place. We laugh, float, talk. The sun slips low in the sky. This place is sacred. I’ll miss el mar y Monica.
Then I go home and make calls to folks back home, including my beloved novio Gene (CII-6 RPCV) who’s swept up with his busy daily life and two Colombian cats back in California. Sofie and Hiss made it through the Trump travel ban. He’s also got Connie, my 2008 Saturn Aura, with golf clubs in the trunk. I smile at the thought of playing golf again. We try to figure out how to get her to me. Lots of things to figure out.
But one thing I know for sure – my life will never be the same now that I’ve spent these 13 months in Colombia. I’ll never throw out garbage or draw a glass of water without thinking about how it is here in Colombia with power outages, water shutoffs and garbage everywhere. I’ll never take for granted a sweet Spanish love song. The loving interchange of cultures as I shared my life with my students and theirs with mine. The teachers, kids, taxi drivers, the other PCVs, yoga in la quinta, my Juan Valez oficina, learning Spanish, Alejandro. I’m so grateful for this life. Now I’ll start another. But I’ll never, ever be the same. Thank you all for your love, respect, inspiration, sharing of your lives with all of us. I’ll miss you. Muchas gracias.