I nod and greet him in Spanish. He nods back.
"I am Sammy", he shouts back in perfect English, and it stops me in my tracks.
We smile and shake hands. I couldn't help observing the difference: mine, cold and smooth; and his, warm and calloused.
"Thank you for being here. This is a great place for people like us."
I blush, suddenly not knowing where to put my hands, or my verbs. So I wait for him to continue.
He takes another few bites. I ask how long he has been there.
"About two years. When I first came, I was on drugs, and so sick. I came to die."
I can't quite absorb the gravity of this, watching him chowing down spoonful of rice and beans. His hair stands tall, each strand in the direction of its own choosing, so the plain of his head has the look of a wild fire, or wind blowing through a piny forest. His skin stretches tightly across his face, and I can see the shapes of his bones on his arms. But he ate heartily through the gaps of his smiles, looking thin but relatively healthy and happy.
The bench is hard and cold, but the place is clean. The ceiling is low and gray, but the afternoon sunlight manages to splash through the small windows, painting glimmers of oranges and reds here and there. The next room is large and white, with a TV in the center and chairs all around, stacked neatly as if soldiers waiting for their next command, or next event. The pharmacy is around the bend, a small room filled with shelves piled high with medicine, for AIDS.
This is Casa La Memoria, a small hospice on the outskirts of a small town, just outside of Tijuana. A lone building away from other residence or business clusters, it houses memories and outcasts. A tiny garden and orchard surround the otherwise bare exterior, among a field of gravel and dirt, just steps beyond the unpaved road. A mist that started this morning has turned into rain, pushing us inside before the customary history and introductory talk could be completed.
"So what happened?" I catch him between bites and smiling at me, so I let go of my next question.
"They gave me meds, and took care of me. They also brought me back to God, and He saved me. Now I am clean, and alive. I come here to see these others who are like me, because on the outside, no one understands. My family loves me, but they don't understand. They just say okay, okay. They thought I was crazy when I was doing drugs. I was crazy and I would have sold anything to get high. But here, everyone understands what it was like, and we talk to each other, and we feel better."
Somehow this sounds universal. I give him an understanding nod while trying to remember the last time my family "understood". Before I drift too far, I ask about his family.
"I have five brothers and sisters. We have a big family, two of my brothers live in the US, in California. I visit them sometimes. But I like it here, I like to go back and forth. I like to come to this place and talk to everyone, who are nice to me and understands me. My other brother is struggling, he sells used cars, and my sister is trying to finish school while raising two kids. I wish I could help them."
He looks down for a moment, eyes moist. He wipes them with the back of his bony hand before continuing.
"But I can work here. I help them cook and sweep the floor or do whatever that's needed. Everyone contributes here. We know the medicines are very expensive, but we do what we can. "
Earlier the director told us the medicine for each patient can cost up to $2000 a month. A bargain, for the lives changed in those small dorms inside this tiny building. All afternoon I hear stories like Sammy's, from Jose, from Juan, and from those young mothers. Their bodies look beaten and worn, but there is always a glimmer of light in their eyes. Sometimes it is more than a glimmer, like Sam, his eyes bright with hope, reminding me of the storm weathered plants outside, their leaves clean and gleaming with the sparks of rain drops.
I couldn't help but wanting to stay and listen forever. The rooms are without heat but I hardly feel cold. We arrived around lunch time yet before we knew it dinner bell has sounded and everyone stood up to help. Our leader takes a regretful look at the resting sun and rounds us from the various rooms, so we can bid our goodbyes with hugs and reflections.
|Pharmacy wall painting: To Live With Dignity|
Outside the rain has stopped as we walk to our van. It's too late for rainbows and too early for stars. Still I am filled, too the brim, like tears that want to flow, like boxes of pills piled high on shelves, like stories that got told.