Oh, that I may never forget.

August 22, 2013

Growing up, I always lugged around an enormous sense of guilt. I lived in self-inflicted shame for having such a privileged life, and the summers I spent in Honduras, though they were the love of my life and extremely formative, were also times when my confusion unfailingly came to a miserable head.

I would enjoy the lavish dinner parties complete with live music, boisterous dancing, and guests of high societal standing. The gigantic compound on which we lived was an endless store of adventures and treasures galore. The beautiful pinatas and even prettier cakes that appeared every July on my birthday were the delight of the year. I loved it all with my whole being.

But amidst the glitz and glamor, the dusty beggars who would aggressively attack our car, hawking their wares in impoverished desperation did not escape me. Nor did the images of infants sleeping in dilapidated cardboard boxes. Nor did the heart-rending stories I eavesdropped about J and G’s home life. Their mother B was one of the house maids. The boys were also my best friends.

I could never comprehend how I was chosen to be born in the United States to a middle-class family and why my lot was so comfortable when all around me I saw people mired in poverty and stuck in lives of hardship. How did God decide that I could literally have my butt wiped by any number of these individuals, many of whom could never comprehend even a fraction of the opportunity I would encounter in my lifetime. I certainly did not deserve it any more than the next person, so why me?

Somewhere along the lines, I managed to convert much of that shame into a sense of duty; a burden of responsibility that drove me to be accountable to the blessings I enjoyed.

But on one of my last nights in Paraguay, I felt the guilt return. I have heard it said that the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair. But once again, I was unable to reconcile why grace had picked me out of the crowd to crown with this life and not, say, I and N.

I and N are two young adult students who attended the English classes I taught at Mi Esperanza. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone with sweeter dispositions than these two dear girls.

Several years ago, their mother was involved in an accident that left her in a vegetative state. I and N were forced to drop out of school in order to provide the around-the-clock care their mother required. Although the mom has shown small degrees of improvement, it is unlikely she will ever progress beyond toddler-like capabilities at best. I and N also have a younger sister, who is physically handicapped with a condition that requires corrective surgery.

Together with another older sister, these five grown women live in a tiny studio in an apartment building full of violent drug addicts. I and N spend their days trading off caring for their mother and younger sister, and commuting an hour by bus to work evening shifts in the food court of a fancy shopping center.

They wanted to hang out one last time before I left Paraguay, so we arranged to meet at the food court on a busy Friday night. I expected a simple coffee date and relatively detached goodbyes.

Instead, I and N proceeded to lead me through an evening of premeditated generosity and sweet friendship. First, they refused to allow me to split the dinner bill with them. After a large and delicious meal, we strolled over to a fashionable clothing store so I could see I’s place of employment. As we sifted through the racks of trendy blouses and colorful skirts, the girls giggled and accosted me with “We want you to pick something out for your [belated] birthday.”

Although the store was by no means high fashion couture, it wasn’t the 99 cent store either. I was mortified by the thought of the girls scraping together their meager income to purchase something for me. I repeatedly declined, hoping that if I continued to politely refuse, they would drop the subject matter. Unfortunately, they persisted and claimed they would be offended if I left empty-handed. As I frantically searched for the cheapest item in the store, they kept pulling things off the racks—scarves, earrings, handbags—accessories to complete an outfit. I felt distressed yet extremely humbled.

And somehow, it still didn’t end with a long, blue skirt I’ll treasure forever. From there, we hunted a location to take a photograph of our trio, which the girls paid to have printed, and then we entered yet another store to purchase picture frames for the photos. At every step, they adamantly refuse to let me contribute my share of the bill. I could not imagine the portion of their monthly budget they had spent on me that night.

Throughout the night, they chatted about visiting me in California one day, asking endless questions about airplanes and airports and how much money they would have to save. “You have such a beautiful life,” they said earnestly to me. Their sweet naivete broke my heart.

I thought about their cramped apartment and the corrective procedure their sister couldn’t have because the oldest sister accidentally got pregnant and how I and N couldn’t go to school even though they desperately wished to study more than anything else. They have so little, but here they were schooling me in the art of giving and giving well.

I have received inordinate amounts of love in my life, and yet, I felt I knew nothing about giving it. I have been stunned by how much I have learned about generosity in the most dire, unlikely places over the last two years, none more humbling and apparent than this evening with I and N.

“We hope you will always remember us,” they said.

Oh, that I may never forget.


2 Responses to “Oh, that I may never forget.”

  1. atomisms Says:

    Your post brought tears to my eyes.

    Thank you for this story of true generosity.

  2. brougherbunch Says:

    Wow, Lauren…very touching story (as my eyes tear). That none of us may forget… By the way, I miss you!

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