Thanksgiving in Ecuador – The Simplicity of the Self

I really enjoy and appreciate the holiday of Thanksgiving. A time to come together with those around you and give thanks. To celebrate the life we have with one another. To celebrate and appreciate all the joys, miss-steps, successes, mishaps, accomplishments, sadness, lessons learned and all else in between.  To celebrate life in all its glory, all she has to offer us.

It was strange not to be home. It didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving…at least not the Thanksgiving I’ve known all my life. I missed figuring out what to make with mom and grocery shopping all week to prepare. I missed spending time with my brothers, excited for the food we were about to enjoy. I missed spending time with my cousins, chatting away and catching up – imagining our futures and sharing the latest stories about the men in our lives. Oh, and you can’t forget trying figuring out what our future holds for us in the wisdom of Armenian coffee grinds that surprise us with a new design inside our cups. I missed being with family. Feeling good about doing all the dishes and cleaning up from supper so mom wouldn’t have to. I miss cuddling with Roxy after we’ve both eaten too much turkey.

But you don’t have to feel sorry for me. Although I may have missed this wonderful holiday at home, let me share with you the new Thanksgiving I experienced – the things I didn’t miss out on:

I accompanied our wonderful retreat group from Boston on a neighbor visit to Monica’s. She spoke of the faith of Ecuadorians that moves mountains. Her faith is everything. God provides. Simple as that. Her faith holds her through the times where it seems hope dwindles. She said you only have one true friend in life – God. She explained that when good things happen, you find yourself surrounded by your friends, but when the bad things happen, you find they’ve all gone. However, you can always trust God. He is there through thick and thin, good and bad. Monica also spoke of the beauty of living in the now. Of not missing out on the present moment with concern of the past or worry of the future. And also of the importance of opening your heart to others, which is the only way your heart can grow. As a group we talked about the differences between Monte Sinai and our lives in the States. The retreat group talked a little about how people smile a lot more here and aren’t afraid to say “Hola! Buenos dias!” However, in the states, people are too busy looking at their electronics to look up at the people around them and smile or say hello. We mentioned the difference between being in a poverty of heart and a poverty of material goods. Monica said that here, people might not have much, but it allows them to live in the present moment and it keeps you humble, where you won’t forget about the important things and about God above all. She said our house might not be big and we might not have a lot of money, but we are rich when it comes to love.

I also tagged along with the retreat group to Damien House, a really special and beautiful home for people who suffer from the effects of Hansen’s disease. At Damien, men and women can find a safe, comfortable place to stay while they are treated and cured. Some patients only stay until they are cured; however, some unfortunately have no home to return to, due to the stigma attached with the disease that has left them outcaste and rejected by family and friends, and so they can find a home at Damien.

While there, we met with a group of women who welcomed us graciously and talked to us a little about who they are and where they come from. We shared a little about ourselves as well and one of the retreatants mentioned that today is the holiday of giving thanks in the US. One woman jumped at the opportunity and responded with what I remember to be “Well then! We must go around the room and all say what we are thankful for, starting with you!” And so we did. We each said what we were thankful for. Many of the women said they were thankful for our visit which brings them great joy. It was a really beautiful moment.

After meeting with some of the women, we headed over to meet with the men. The last time I visited, I sat at the table where dominoes was being played and jumped right into the game. The men patiently taught the other members in my group and me how to play and we all played until it was time to leave. This time was different. I saw a man sitting by himself away from the men playing dominoes. I remembered a dear friend of mine from college, Laura, who was always so good with the elderly, patient and kind, and in the moment I prayed I could be a little more like her so I could have the courage to sit beside this man and just be as she would.  I sat beside him and introduced myself. His name is Noberto. He was really hard to understand and I knew I wouldn’t be able to respond much, but I also didn’t want to leave. Shortly after, one of the retreatants, Jesus, and Eli came over to greet him. Luckily, Eli and Jesus had better luck translating. Noberto began talking to us about his legs – me duele, me duele – he was in pain. I can still hear his voice saying it, shaky and low. He told us that he sits here every day and doesn’t have much to do. He can’t do much because of his legs. It hurts to move them and to walk. Not long after sharing this information with us, Noberto holds on to the railing before him to support his weight. He leans on the railing and stands to the best of his ability, beginning to look around. I hear the word “silla”. Jesus translates that he wants us to sit down. It takes a second for me to process. Noberto is looking for chairs so that we all have a place to sit beside him. I see a chair ahead of me and quickly bring it over so he can sit back down himself. We all sit beside him and listen. Again he mentions the pain in his legs and tells us you learn to ignore the pain after a while. I am all alone he says. He said this is how life is; some of us suffer more than others. He brought his hands together in prayer and thanked God for our visit and prayed for our health. Anytime we tried to respond to him, he would point to his ears and tell us he can’t hear us. At some point, Jesus, Eli and the retreatant leave to spend time with some of the other patients. I remained sitting beside Noberto, doing my best to make out what he was saying. He repeats himself a lot and at times, points to his ears again, saying he has trouble hearing. He also points to his mouth and tells me his speech is not good anymore. I nod and smile when I feel appropriate to let him know I am trying my best to listen though I cannot respond with words. I wanted to maybe sing a song for him. Tomad Senior is one of my favorites that I have sung at mass a few times. I thought it might be nice to sing for him, but when I asked if he knew the song, he responded that he couldn’t hear me. And so instead, I sat in silence beside him, listening. Eventually, it was time to go. I said goodbye and he asked if I was coming back later that day. I shook my head and told him I would try to visit again soon. I knew he didn’t hear me, so I just offered him a hug and a smile before I turned to catch up with my group.

I don’t know how long I sat beside Noberto that morning – 30 minutes, maybe a little longer or shorter– and I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t offer him my voice in any way, nor could I ease any of the pain he was feeling. There was only one thing I could share with him. Presence.

And so this Thanksgiving, I didn’t miss out on the incredible wisdom of my neighbor, Monica. I didn’t miss the gift of being at Damien, seeing the beautiful smiles of the women and hearing what they were thankful for. I also didn’t miss out on meeting Noberto – a wonderful man who, despite his pain, got up to find his guests a chair. Despite his sadness, smiled back at me. What a glorious smile.

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