In Her Memory

I’ve been thinking about an old Paraguayan woman, La Abuela, who died this year before I was able to return and see her one last time. Her eyes were cloudy and her knees swollen when I last saw her. She hobbled short distances holding onto chairs and walls. She was from an era I have only glimpsed through stories shared while gazing out at the world passing by and over snacks. She wrapped her hair in a scarf each day and worn simple skirts and shirts. And always worn sandals. She was the mother of one of the señoras who took me as a daughter during my years in her community and with whom I still often speak.

La Abuela was alive during the Chaco War (1930s). It was a particularly deadly war for Paraguayans. My and her community in Paraguay has a jail. When she was younger, she used to cook for the jailguards. That was in the era of the Chaco War when the jail was full of Bolivian war prisoners. I guess during that era the prisoners could leave the jail and she used to cook for them too. When I lived there, the jail was still active, but she had long stopped serving the folks who lived and worked there.

She told me how it used to be. It used to be that the only way to get to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, was by canoe down the river that ran around our community. It was hard to come and go during those times. When I lived there, it was a simple 2-hour bus ride into the capital—a journey I made frequently.

She told me that later, once the road was constructed, she used to run a bunkhouse for the bus drivers. She would cook for them. She had one rule, no women in the bunkhouse. And if she found out the bus drivers were sneaking in partners, she’d no longer offer them a bed. She was a woman with strict ideas about how things should be.

And there was a period when she worked in Asunción, cleaning homes. That’s how she and the señora who was a mother to me, learned Spanish. Paraguay is bilingual. But the people of rural areas speak more Guarani than Spanish. And the people of the city speak more Spanish than Guarani. And that’s despite the dictator they had for about 35 years during the middle to end of the 1900s who tried to erase Guarani.

La Abuela endured the dictator, her Guarani remained more robust than her Spanish. It was thanks to her time in Asunción that we could communicate reasonably well in Spanish. She’d reminisce of the order that used to exist under the dictator and the chaos of current times. We did not discuss the disappearances and deaths of the dictator’s time. She was a strong woman and she had seen more sadness than I could fathom. But she was more likely to discuss the wind and recent gossip than sadness long past. 

La Abuela and I shared many afternoons sitting on the porch watching the school children walk by and various neighbors run errands. And she had so many stories of getting up early and working hard. Of her garden. Of cooking. Of milking the cows. Of raising children. Of her neighbor’s parrot who spoke so well and was once stolen and then returned. And the hazy day and mango shade would fade to dusk. We’d sit in the evening, still hot but without the beating sun, and we’d have dinner. And the stories would continue interspersed with many long periods of quiet contemplation.

No one knew exactly how old La Abuela was. She was from an era when records were stored in the family’s memory. She had had too many of her own children to remember her exact birth year after her mother died. But the wrinkles of her face and the grayness of her hair and the curvature of her spine spoke of many years of hard work.

I knew La Abuela was fading before she died because her daughter told me. Her daughter told me when her mother became bedbound. In Paraguay families care for the sick. I knew her daughter was caring for La Abuela. La Abuela had 6 children, but only one daughter. It’s almost always daughters who bear the brunt of caring.

I got the tearful message that La Abuela had died from her daughter not long before I had a huge exam. At the time, I didn’t have much left in me to think about death. But these days I see lots of people La Abuela’s age in the hospital. Recently my team helped several families put loved ones on hospice (care for those likely to die in 6 months, usually less). And while medicine can cure many things, it cannot stop death. And I think about La Abuela’s daughter caring for her in her last days. And I know that the care La Abuela received at the end of her life was equal or better than any hospice care the US has to offer.

I think about the thatched roof and the dirt floor of her home, the wood fire on which she and her daughter cooked with smoke billowing around them, and the stories of the ants and mice that sometimes passed through the house. I find myself smiling. Because as complex and sophisticated as medicine becomes, hope isn’t found in the hospital. It’s found at home and in our hearts.

La Abuela built a home large enough for all her children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, and me to visit peacefully; a home where the mango pits she planted so many years ago were now towering trees offering shade to whoever might need protection from the sun. And as summer slips away I think about that shade waiting for me whenever I can once again visit our community. She won’t be there when I return, but I know her daughter and I will share stories of her life.