Coming back at nightfall from the Utuado community, driving back to our homes, minds racing about the impact of the people we had met, knowing something had to be done. I asked Agnes if she would help me with this idea I had: help the people in these communities we had visited all throughout the center of the island (We had been traveling for days across Puerto Rico visiting communities, landmarks while passing miles of devastation). She agreed and I started working, getting supplies and organizing myself. At the moment, the idea was just a pipe dream; never realizing the profound change it would invoke on me.
I started a Facebook post asking for supplies and it immediately went viral in some networks. I had people looking me up to help and contribute, even had people volunteer to get supplies in communities on the West coast and have them delivered to me. I was able to amass a few hundred dollars from my savings and buy the necessities: food &water. Hospital San Jorge would donate the medicine and Agnes would get some toys.
Agnes at the time was working on a school and her teacher friends happily helped out, giving some supplies and some money to buy toys for the children of the community. We eagerly bought coloring books, crayons, play-doh for the kids; wrapping it all in bags to give them a surprise. We packaged it all together and set-off to Utuado in the morning.
When we got there, we where welcomed with open arms by the leaders and dutifully people came out to help with the supplies. We moved them to a small church where they had amass other donated supplies to distribute to their community and others around. The soldiers had already come and donated MREs, yet as anyone in Puerto Rico now knows, an MRE doesn’t substitute a good old-fashioned Puertorrican stew or rice with beans. But to this day I think the soldiers true mission was winning hearts and smiles.
We spent all day traveling with the community, going house to house delivering toys and seeing children and parents smile. Sometimes helping people smile and giving them a token of better times is the scarcest commodity, after all, happiness in the middle of a humanitarian crisis is more of a oxymoron than a reality (and the soldiers knew this, winning the hearts of countless communities they visited).
By halfway through the day, we met up with this family in the community. I had heard they had a sick person with breathing problems, yet I hadn’t met her nor could I foreshadow how she would change my life. Since they had a child, we visited and Agnes gave him his gift, which he was eager to play with since he loved play-doh (his favorite).
Sitting with the family and talking to them while sharing smiles, I noticed the patient woman and how she stared at me in a different fashion. It was weird since she looked at me as if she knew me somewhere.
We continued talking, thinking maybe I had something funny in my face (could be, I had been working with dirt all morning) and she mentions her story of how she became ill by a chemical-pesticide accident where she worked that left her with chronic respiratory troubles (the neighbors had been improperly storing the pesticides; which during a pipe-burst flooded the area and created a cloud of chemical-pesticide she breathed and almost died). Shocked by the story, I didn’t press fury and focused on trying to see the positive. We continued talking until leaving.
Before leaving, the woman (who I had enjoyed talking very much) asked me whom I was and who where my parents. I proceeded to tell her my father was an ENT in the area and my mom a dermatologist. She asked me: “is your last name Chabrier”? And I agreed, to which she started to cry and tell me: “you where the sick boy, wheren’t you?” And I agreed, stunned and petrified as to who knew this dark chapter in my young life. She asked me to sit down and told me the story that my mother, when she was a dermatologist in Arecibo (which I recall from when I was 7-8yrs old) had been the best doctor she had ever seen. How after going to dozens of specialists, she had been the only one to diagnose her disease as to one caused by chronic exposure to chemicals (this was about a year before the chemical spill). She told me the story of how one day she called to get an appointment and the secretary responded that my mom wasn’t going to be working for a few weeks due to personal issues. She knew it was because of the kid as my mom had expressed to her that I was sick. Months later, she called again and the secretary answered my mother wouldn’t be returning to work, to which she assumed I had died.
Years had passed and my father took ahold of that office and even performed surgery on one of her kids; yet she never asked what happened for fear I was dead.
Then suddenly, 17-odd years later after the worst disaster in history and when her family was dealing with living in an incommunicated portion of a mountain-side in Utuado. A strange young-man had appeared and had donated some aid and his girlfriend had given toys to her grandson.
The kid she knew when as a patient of my mother almost two decades past, when that caring-doctor who heard all her problems and had correctly diagnosed her for the first time in years, who had foreshadowed the chemical spill later in her life. The son of that caring-doctor whom she assumed was dead due to a rare-disease that everyone thought was cancer.
That kid, that young man, THAT was me. And we just cried and hugged, embracing the poetic irony of life. The tumultuous, unforgiving and ironic journey that caused a deeply emotional moment in my life and the happy resolution of a age-old question in her. Who says humanity doesn’t exist in the darkest places life can take us?
Returning back from the one of the most emotional moments in my life, I shared with Agnes the backstory; something few people knew of my life and one of the darkest moments in my childhood. She embraced me and said she was thankful for allowing me to share that story and moment of my life.
To this day, I’m dumbfounded by that story and use it as fuel to continue in life; knowing great things will be sowed from the great things I plant now, in this turning point of my life and a marker in history. Knowing that even after falling hard, being battered by Hurricanes and disappointment, I was able to get back-up and resist. Resist life, resist hardships, resist breakups, resist broken dreams; resist death, diseases and come back to help others: true happiness.
At the end of the day, I come to understand the meaning of Jose de Diego’s poem I had loved and memorized since my mom told it to me.
EN LA BRECHA
José de Diego
¡Ah desgraciado si el dolor te abate,
Resurge, alienta, grita, anda, combate,
De la tormenta al iracundo empuje,
¡Levántate!, ¡revuélvete!, ¡resiste!