Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Her Ferocious Heart
I think about Panama a lot these days. Someday I’d like to go see it again. If we get a little back on our taxes I know I’ll send my wife down so she can spend time with her mother and bring me back a big bag of Panamanian coffee beans. Chencha, my mother in law, is in her mid seventies now, and she has any number of health problems that could carry her off suddenly. But she has a way of chugging along. She’s a tough woman. People always make mother in law jokes, but actually we’ve always gotten along pretty well. Partly because we have a language barrier. We don’t have enough Spanish or English between us to argue about anything.
I first met Chencha at Madison Square garden around 1982 when I was getting married to her daughter along with a couple of thousand other people. That was a different time. My first impression of her was of a stout, shy person, a very working class latina woman with Chinese eyes and the deference for manners that is so much a part of Caribbean culture.
Chencha was born and raised in a little fishing village in western Panama called “Playa Chiquita”, which means something like “Little Girl Beach”. Her father was a Chinese national named Asan Yap who prospered in the grocery business and had several kids, three girls and three boys. Panama was going through hard times and as so often happens elected a right wing President, who managed to convince the people their problems were not the result of corrupt government, certainly not, but in fact were being caused by the presence of too many foreigners. With a wingnut rhetoric that would have given Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann a wettie, he whipped his countrymen into a lather about “real Panamanians” and how the country must be turned over to them and wrested from the hands of greedy foreigners, including those who had lived there for generations. Not counting the gringos of course.
Asan Yap, along with every other foreign national in the country that could be hunted down, was packed off on a fast boat to Hong Kong leaving Panama for The Real Panamanians. He never saw his children or business again. Oddly, Panama’s fortunes did not improve.
Chencha met a handsome young teacher and part time boxer named Santiago “Santy” Agnew and they were married in a common law marriage which was the norm for country folks. No marriage license or formalities other than a church wedding before God and family. They had two children, my wife and her older brother Chaguin. Santiago left them all for another woman, my wife followed him to America to drag him back home by his ears and years later our paths crossed, but that’s another story.
Chaguin’s wife died.
Then his daughters died all but one.
Then Chaguin died.
All of this happened in the space of only a few years. In 1995 as Chaguin lay dying and Chencha was in despair we packed up and moved to Panama to see what we could do to help. I became an immigrant on a tourist visa in a strange land without a job, without language or friends or money. Chaguin and his family all perished from AIDS. They were not drug users. They were not “god cursed sodomites” or whatever the TV evangelists like to call them these days in the name of Jesus. I find it impossible to control my temper when I hear people speak smugly of AIDS as a righteous disease that targets “fudge pushers” and “fags”. Chaguin was not gay. Neither were his little daughters who were born with the disease and wasted away slow and painful before they even had the chance to know of such things. Most people who die from AIDS don't even know how they got it. This is a hard world and that’s the way it is.
The last surviving member of Chaguin's family was a girl named Daniela and Chencha kept her alive with tough love and the free “socialized” medical care that the far right in our country seemed determined to deny to the rest of us. Daniela was my son's playmate for many years. Chencha kept Daniela alive by sheer bloody minded stubbornness and fierce love until Daniela was fifteen years old beating all the odds. But eventually she went home to be with her family, at least I like to think of it that way. In her last moments she said she saw her father standing by her bed calling her name. That's what they told me. Goddamn, I hope that's true.
Santiago lived with us in New York City and later in Panama as he deteriorated from Alzheimer’s. We kept him with us, and in spite of his abandoning his family and despite all the cause Chencha had to absolutely hate him, she joined in with us taking care of him from beginning to end. Eventually he died too. It was quite a place there for a while. An adolescent girl dying from AIDS. An old man in diapers dying from Alzheimer’s. And for a while at least no dough, Joe. It changed my view about a lot of things without my even knowing it.
After we moved back to the US with a good job, Santiago died. We were hoping his American social security check would go to his widow Chencha as a just offering for all the suffering he had caused her during their lives. But there was no marriage license, they were married in a church in the way that was typical of their culture. America is The Land of the Legal and the Home of The Lawyer. No paperwork, no money. Chencha was destitute. Panama doesn’t have a social security fund in the same way America does. So we took it on ourselves and every month we send several hundred dollars to help her whether we have it to spare or not. We always manage.
When I was a young man I thought I would dedicate my life to making the world a better place. My intentions were good. My companions were fine people. And we had faith, boy, did we have faith. It just didn’t work out. My messiah failed. I wish I could do it over. I can’t. It was all a waste in some ways as far as making the world a better place. We just managed not to fuck it up any worse. What little I’ve learned about compassion I’ve learned from Chencha and her ferocious heart, not from messiahs.
Compassion is the great religious ethic of Christianity and Buddhism both. The ideal of Christianity is that Jesus was a divine man who shared our sorrows and felt what we feel and paid his dues the same as us. So he has credibility, in a world where divine justice has so little credibility. Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and all attachment leads to suffering. In Buddhism the highest virtue is compassion, the willingness to take on and share the suffering of others. You don’t learn compassion from being successful. You learn compassion from failure. Sometimes not even then. You learn about generosity when you don’t know where your family’s next meal is coming from and someone helps you out. Good people helped us out. You learn about the preciousness of life when your only son and your grandchildren are all dying in your arms, slipping away one by one.
When I look at my life compared to what I set out to do as a young man, it doesn’t seem to amount to much. Nothing I did with such earnestness has stood the test of time, its all been undone. But there is Chencha, Chencha and her ferocious heart. The stuff she did didn’t stand the test of time either, they all up and died in spite of her tears and her prayers. She deserves better. So we take care of her. God isn’t going to bless me for this. God doesn’t give a flying fuck one way or the other. But when I send off that money each month, no matter what is happening with our own finances, I feel like I’m still connected to the idealistic young man who thought he was going to do great things.
You start out as a child loving just about everything you see, and as you get older the things you love number fewer and fewer until finally there's not much left. You can’t save the world, that's what you find out. But you can take care of a small piece of it. That small piece becomes your link to whatever is still decent inside yourself.
It’s my offering to God if God’s watching. If God isn’t watching, which is what I suspect, well, you take care of whatever's genuinely sacred and some of that is family. You just do it. Just the way Chencha did. That’s old school.
(I'll also donate $1 to Mercy Corps for every person who posts a comment to this. Scouts honor. Maybe God is watching. Who knows.)