Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gabriel's Ghost

Ten years ago the seniors and I did a project called LINC. It's a grant program which pairs senior citizens with youth. We pushed the very edge of "youth" when we arranged to work with a group of scholarship students at the local college who were from Central America. I say pushed because they ranged in age from 17-24. We helped improve their English, they tried to remind me of my high school Spanish and we went around the area as they performed dances from their native cultures. Laughter, however, needs no translation and we shared a lot of it. I wasn't surprised when the group won the "Best Community Project" award.

It was an eye opening experience and by the time the students left a year later, it was like watching your family fly off. Once their planes had landed, we heard from all of them. Except Gabriel, who lived in El Salvador. At first we chalked it up to him living in one of the more remote regions. A week later his town was hit by a devastating hurricane. Months went by and no one heard a thing. We all feared he'd been badly injured. Or worse.

One of the girls had become especially close to a senior couple whom she called Grandma and Grandpa. She invited them to her wedding in Guatemala and the couple went...because in her country, your grandfather gives you away. "Grandpa" made a video and we had a blast seeing how many of the students had come to see her marry. One had actually trekked through a jungle and walked for miles just to catch a bus to her country. Many of them kept in touch, even if it was with each other, but some were in such remote areas it was difficult. However, whoever had the latest update passed along news about the group to the rest of us so we could keep up. Years went by and there was no news of Gabriel. If one of the students came to the States, they would always drop by the Center to say hello. I'd ask about everyone, saving Gabriel for last because I knew the answer would be a sad expression and a shake of the head. All I could think of was his megawatt smile and hugs that always spoke volumes even when he was at a loss for English words.

Thursday morning I received a call from a Professor's wife who'd been the students "Den Mother". After asking how I was, she wanted to know if "Grandma and Grandpa" were still alive. When I told her they were, she said she had someone who wanted to speak to them, so I gave her the phone number. I could hear the laughter in her voice when she added, "I have a visitor from El Salvador." Without thinking, the first words out of my mouth were, "Gabriel's alive?!" She laughed and said, "He's standing here in the kitchen. Wanna speak to him?"

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but I did have the presence of mind to say "Yes". We only spoke for a few minutes because Gabriel assured me he would ask Grandpa if he could go bowling with us on Friday. When he walked into my office the next morning, all I saw was that brilliant smile as he sang out, "Where are all my friends?" as he opened his arms wide in greeting. A couple of the seniors beat me to him, but when I got up, he threw open his arms. He was the smallest of the guys, just barely taller than I, but he engulfed me in the most heartfelt hug I've experienced in a long time. Kissing my cheek softly he said, "You didn't change. You are still lovely." I joked that half the weight I'd lost when they were around had come back and I was 10 years older. He stepped back, never taking his hands off my shoulders, eyed me up and down, then shook his head. Hugging me again, he said, "No. You are the same. And I missed you."

He'd brought one of the American students, Susan, who'd dated one of the Nicaraguans with him and it was good to see her as well. I teased both of them about having reached 30 without changing and Susan quipped that yes, they were both still single and childless. Then they launched into who they'd seen last, who had kids and I shared what I knew. Susan and I giggled hysterically when Gabriel told us the "Romeo" of the group now had 3 year old twin GIRLS. If ever a guy deserved a future with twin female teens, this one would now see what the fathers of all his conquests went through. We had fun at the bowling alley and those who didn't know Gabriel before were ready to take him home with them. All he had to do was smile.

When we got back to my office, Susan and Gabriel were going to lunch with Grandpa and Grandma, then Gabriel would be leaving Saturday to head for his flight out in New York. I always hate to see them go, but this time, it was okay. Because I knew he was he promised to leave an e-mail address this time. He wrapped me in one of those heartfelt hugs, kissed my cheek and told me how good it had been to see me. I hugged him back just as fiercely, knowing that he was trying to hold onto a good memory to take back to a country that is so different from mine. He backed up, looked at me intently as if memorizing my face, sighed my name, kissed my cheek, then hugged me again. Harder, yet with a gentleness that made a lump form in my throat. It was like being the mother of a small child who doesn't want to go to let go on the first day of school. I whispered in his ear that it had been so good to see him...then added that now that I knew he was alive, I knew I'd see him again. That made him laugh and let go, if haltingly. He got in the car and waved. The last thing I saw was that megawatt smile of sincerity, Gabriel's ghost of memory which will linger in my mind

The last thing I felt was a hug of true friendship that will last for a very long time.


Bonnie said...

okay, now that i've got the tears wiped out of my eyes I can see to type! what a wonderful story. thanks for sharing and starting my day off so beautifully.

hope said...

Remind me to show you his's in the hall at the Center. :)