A story of love and loss in Bolivia
By Linda Lawrence Hunt
It was the towering Illimani mountain that drew my husband Jim and me to the window as our airplane lifted off from La Paz, the last leg of a 7,000-mile joumey to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Much like on majestic Mt. Rainier that crowns our home state of Washington, ragged glacier crevasses gave visual warning to the inherent dangers en route to the summit. Though enchanted by the stunning view, we were not tourists seeking a summit experience in an exotic land, but a mother and father ragged with grief over the death of our daughter deep in a Bolivian mountain ravine. Our search was for a deeper peace to help heal the profound shock and break in our hearts.
In awe of the pilot's need to fly so near the snow-covered peaks, our son-in-law Aaron remarked, "We're so close we could see any climbers." He looked in quiet fascination at the mountain's challenge, reliving his own attempted ascent up Mt. Rainier just days earlier. The climbing expedition, aborted when fatigue and altitude sickness endangered their lives, was an attempt by Aaron's friends to help ease the avalanche of grief that also chilled his soul.
My thoughts ranged to another Bolivian mountain, where last May our beloved 25-year-old daughter Krista lay dying in a remote Andean ravine. In one midnight moment, she and Aaron were resting peacefully in a microbus, holding hands as their puppy Choclo snuggled on their laps, wrapped in a blanket of young love. In the next terror filled moment, their speeding bus plunged over a high cliff, tossing passengers out the windows like rag dolls as it careened down the edge of the mountain. When news reached our Spokane home, Jim and I also careened into a dark crevasse of pain. During the following weeks, we entered into the gates of Krista's death with family and friends.
It was August when we began this pilgrimage to the land of our daughter's last days on earth. We came because it was a gift offered. Krista and Aaron had lived in Bolivia for just six months, part of a three-year commitment in community development with the Mennonite Central Committee, a church organization that sends volunteers to work at the grass-roots level around the world. After language studies in Santa Cruz, they moved eight hours away to the rural valley of Bahado de la Cruz, where over 50 families farm along the Rio Comarapa. It was MCC that gave them a chance to live out their dreams of international service and invited us to see the land and people that captured Krista's heart.
Some family and friends questioned whether we should go. Was it wise to embark on one more emotionally-laden experience? We had celebrated our daughter Susan's wedding, two years in the planning, exacdy one month after her sister's death, taking our family on a roller coaster of immense joy and sorrow that added to our fatigue. Knowing we needed to travel the same dangerous mountain roads fueled our family's fears.
But we knew if we didn't do this now, parts of Krista's story could be lost forever. We had lost too much already with her future; we could not bear refusing to know the last six mondhs of her life. Aaron took a photograph the day before she died as she preparesd to climb on her Honda motorbike. Wearing her baseball cap askew, with their puppy Choclo's head peeking out of a serape sling on her back, and a large pack strapped to the cycle, she looked bound for adventure. It reminded me that young adults grow significantly within a few months in a challenging environment. I didn't want to freeze-dry her image in memories that left out Krista's daily actions in global service.
We longed to meet her new friends in MCC and in the village cooperatives, and see the fertile river valley that she wrote gave her a "peace which seeps into my soul." At her memorial services, we sang the Shaker song "It's a Gift to Be Simple." There is a stanza that goes:
And when you land in the place just right
You'll be in the valley of love and delight
In all her last letters, she wrote of her contentment and delight, of a joy in her soul as she and Aaron lived in the Banado river valley. What was it about her experiences in this new land that felt just right to her?
We knew we needed to go while fresh remnants of her memory still lived in those who had known Krista for only a few short months. Most of all, we wanted to be alongside Aaron as he faced closing up the first real home Krista and he shared.
So we chose a journey into terrible beauty. While we hungered to become acquainted with our daughter's life in Bolivia, Aaron was haunted at returning to a land filled with red-hot memories of his wife. He hoped to show us their daily world and he needed to decide whether he could ever return for further MCC service. But as he imagined walking back into their home without her, seeing the accident site, and visiting all the places they enjoyed together, his anxiety mounted. On the way to the airport he showed me a thoughtful letter from a friend. She quoted a poet whose sentence so expressed Aaron's and our sense of loss. "How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?"
A Mountain of Mourning
When we arrived in Santa Cruz, a city of over 1 million, friends of Aaron and Krista from MCC welcomed us at the airport. We were especially excited to reunite with Phil de la Rosa, the 23-year-old volunteer from Colorado who helped escort Aaron as they brought Krista's body home.
They took us to the Mennonite Center in the heart of the ringed city, a sight we had first seen on a video showing the outdoor Bolivian memorial service for Krista. The sounds of screeching cars, honking horns, barking dogs and cawing crows had almost drowned out the Spanish words of remembrance spoken by so many of her friends. When we walked into the gate, I saw Aaron visibly relax with the all-embracing hugs from friends and Bolivian staff obviously delighted to see him again. These were volunteers of all ages from Germany, Canada, Paraguay, Bolivia, and America.
This was MCC's central headquarters for over 24 teams in this region of Bolivia, and the staff told us a little more about the international mission of the Mennonite Central Committee that emerged in Europe in response to the ravages of world wars. Like Krista, who grew up in a Presbyterian heritage, almost half of the 900 volunteers in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America come from other denominational backgrounds. MCC simply asks that they embrace their Christian vision of wanting to demonstrate God's love to people at a grass-roots level of mutual giving, receiving and learning from one another. With a philosophy committed to peace and the transforming power of relationships, they now send volunteers to over 50 countries.
They are not naive to the dangers inherent in working in developing countries, often among people suffering from poverty, conflict, warfare or natural disaster. As I looked at Krista's picture on their office wall, it hung next to two other volunteers who died in this region.
For the next couple of days, Aaron took us to all the places they had discovered in Bolivia's second largest city. Krista had written of her pleasure in the small town feeling that Santa Cruz still retains, even with its mushrooming growth as a hub of transportation and trade, and its reputation for drug-trafficking. I remembered Krista's surprise at how safe the streets were at night and how much kindness they experienced as newcomers. "You've got to sample these saltenas," said Aaron as we passed a street vendor hawking the warm spicy pastries. At the town square we watched in fascination at the black-eyed forest-dwelling sloths hanging from trees, providing endless hours of urban entertainment just steps from a soaring cathedral. Then Aaron showed us their favorite artisan's shop, a local art museum and a popular ice-cream café, where refreshing waterfalls cooled them off during the 100-degree muggy heat of summer. He ordered chirimoya ice-cream. "This fruit grows best in our valley," explained Aaron. "I'm hopeful that our agricultural cooperative will find a way to market it. Transporting it is our problem now." On our way back we paused at a local coffee shop, their substitute for a Starbuck's fix, and stopped by the MCC center for street-kids where Phil works.
The next morning five of us climbed into an old double-cab Toyota pickup to drive the nine hours to Bañado de la Cruz, their rural village. Chris Woodring, a 29 year old seasoned volunteer from Kentucky who initiated the work in Banado, and Lorie Preheim, another American volunteer and good friend of Krista's, joined us to provide both comfort and needed language translation.
Before leaving Santa Cruz, we stopped at the outdoor market so we could bring flowers to the accident site we will pass along the way. To my amazement, I found the same rare brandy and cream roses that graced our daughter Susan's wedding bouquet. I buy these for Susan, daisies for her friend Julie, carnations for Jim and add snapdragons, a favorite of Krista's childhood. Aaron selected a classic long-stemmed red rose.
Even major highways in Bolivia deteriorate to wretched roads, challenging drivers seeking to avoid sand traps, mud holes, cracked surfaces and the swirling dust devils in the dry season. We bounced along for almost four hours through rural countryside, where occasional roadside adobe towns dot the arid landscape. Then we began the ascent up the mountain range, where hairpin curves, unprotected by guardrails, hug the cliffs. "We're almost there," Laurie gently warned shortly before we arrived at what newspapers called "the death curve."
Two crosses filled with bright plastic flowers marked the site. We knew the bus had recently been removed. Now a long swath clearing through the dense brush scarred the mountainside, looking much like a ski slope in summer. Too steep to climb down, we started down a rugged path that zigzagged left of the scar. Cheerful, high shrubs with sun-yellow daisy flowers gave no hint to the May 20th night of violence when four persons lost their lives and dozens suffered injuries as the speeding micro flew over a bank of trees before crashing down the mountain.
"There was an eerie silence after we crashed," recalled Aaron as he described scrambling through dense foliage down into the ravine and calling for Krista. He, their puppy Choclo, and Krista's shoe had been thrown out at the top of hill, where he landed on his head, injuring his shoulder and neck.
"It was a cold, pitch black night with only a finger moon, almost a surreal scene. I could tell Choclo was injured, but I told him I was sorry, I had to leave to find his mom. I knew I'd never be able to find him again." Aaron pointed over to where he had noticed a body hidden under the brush. "That's just about where I reached over and touched a face in the dark and sensed it was a big man."
When we neared the bottom where the bus landed, Aaron showed us the place he remembered first seeing Krista's body. "She was the last thrown from the bus," he said as he tried to reconstruct his last memories.
He described falling to the ground, crying, "Oh God, Oh God, NO," trying to give Krista mouth to mouth, hearing her death gurgle, and feeling the first icy fear of living without the woman he loved since their first days of college. "I started hearing voices murmuring for help coming from the bus. Everyone who stayed on the bus lived."
As Aaron sat looking at the pictures of Krista he carried with him constantly, I relived other images of the story he told of their last moments. A very loving husband, I could imagine when he cried over her body; his plea to heaven to "receive beautiful Krista"; and his tearful last promises to her that he "would try to go on," and "to not blame God." I shuddered as he told of trying to move her away from the bus, tipped precariously on its side, and his inability to do so with his broken shoulder. What if he had been killed alongside her? And I grieved for his anguish as rescue workers insisted he leave her and get up the hill for medical help.
I placed the flowers where Aaron thought she died, a gesture that felt so unsatisfying in expressing the terrible loss of her life. Then Jim and I sat side by side crying mountains of tears, facing the unimaginable truth that our beloved daughter breathed her last breath in this remote ravine so far from home. I cried for her, for all the days of lost love; for Aaron's bewildering pain; for the unborn children no one will ever know; for Susan and Jeff, a sister and brother who have lost a lifetime of familial friendship; for Jim, whose father's heart broke into as many shards as the shattered bus; for her soul-friends, whose dreams of the future intertwined with hers in wanting to create a more compassionate world. And I cried a mother's tears, for the child I first knew in the womb, whose light illumined every day of our family's life and filled my own soul with such abundant joy.
Questions surfaced in the heat. I wondered if she was conscious during those last few minutes of life, alone before Aaron could reach her and hold her? Did her eyes see the stars of heaven, so abundant in Bolivia's nights? I thought of Aaron's trusting prayer for safety shortly after the bus left Comarapa, a natural expression of his intimate relationship with God, and the theological questions her death ushered into his life, scarred already with the recent loss of his mother to breast cancer.
Chris and Lorie just hold us, respectfully silent as we mourned for Krista. Then Jim stood up and found a tree trunk to carve. With a Swiss Army knife, he etched "Krista-May 20, 1998." We knew her biology-loving heart might question this, but assumed she would understand her historian-father's need for tangible remembrance. I am unable to speak, except to say to the wind, "I cannot believe that one careless bus driver could kill so much love."
Looking up over 300 meters to the top of the road, I wondered aloud how people were rescued through wilderness foliage higher than humans. "Two bus floatas stopped and people tied things together to make a makeshift rope down the mountain," explained Aaron. "Then they brought up the injured. Bolivians were really helpful." Even so, we knew that Krista's body remained in the ravine for hours before she could be reached and removed. "Did they ever leave her totally alone?" I wondered, wishing again that I could have just been near by to hold her. I can't image a young woman who embraced others so freely in life Iying alone in her death in this dark distant ravine.
A Commmuty of Survivors
That night we stay at the misnamed Palace Hotel in Comarapa, a city of 3000 that Chris called the "armpit of Bolivia" because of its howling winds, blowing dirt and few amenities. But Aaron and Krista saw it differently because Sunday's market day provided their one touch each week with city life. The hotel owner knew Aaron and Krista and remembered they had eaten dinner with him right before they boarded the bus. "You ordered a fried egg sandwich,'" he said as he offered Aaron his sympathies.
From the morning we first learned of Krista's death from friends who came to our home, we knew her death was part of a communal tragedy. The bus was filled with school teachers going to Santa Cruz to seek months of unpaid back salaries. Our sorrow was forever linked with other Bolivian families who also lost loved ones. During the summer weeks of grieving, friends brought gifts to nurture our spirits – gifts of poetry, gay bouquets, lilies, rhododendrons, azaleas, plum trees, music, old photographs, stories, last e-mails, even a garden statue of St. Francis of Assisi, symbolic of their shared generosity to all living creatures. We hoped that bringing a gentle gift to Bolivian families might ease their pain a little, too. The hotel owner knew where the widow lived whose husband was director of a local school before his death. He asked a child to lead us through the labyrinth of side streets to her door.
A dignified woman dressed in black greeted us. In this country that places such high value on family relationships, it is customary to wear black for a year, a symbol of mourning for all to understand. Chris explained our visit and she invited us in. We gave her a small red book called Love, with watercolor hearts on the cover. The inside pages included spaces for photographs or drawings and pages for writing. Thoughtful quotes about loving relationships start each blank page. We mentioned the possibility that friends could write their memories of her husband while they were fresh and then the book could be passed down through the family.
Senora Lijeron, also a teacher, paged through it with delight. She started telling us about her husband, showed us his soccer trophies, and brought out wedding and family albums. She spoke with obvious pride as she showed us pictures of their two sons who now live in Sucre, where one attends high school and the other medical school. Also a survivor of the accident, she and Aaron began comparing memories. "I told my husband I didn't want to go on this bus because I didn't know the driver, but he ignored me," she lamented. After the crash, unable to find her husband who was thrown down the hillside, she picked up an injured toddler with a stick protruding from his bleeding forehead. Aaron remembered seeing them in the hospital.
Now living alone, she spoke of her great loneliness and her trust that God will help her and their sons. Aaron pulled out his wallet to show her pictures of Krista. She remembered her vividly since it was so rare to see an American couple on the local bus. Tears crossed international boundaries as we sat together in shared pain. "What happened to the toddler?" asked Aaron.
"His mother was killed, but he's recovered now," she answered and then directed us to the little boy's father's home nearby. She thanked us warmly as we left.
The toddler's father, Senor de Velarde, answered the door with the child in his arms and invited us in. A tall, muscular man, also dressed in black, we learned he is an educated agronomist working for the government. Tears welled in his eyes as he told of his wife, also a teacher, and the three children who were now motherless. "We had just celebrated her 30th birthday and our son's 2nd birthday," he explained as he showed us the scar where his son's injury has healed. "My mother is helping me with the kids." Hearing the older children crying in the back room, I thought of the enormity of this family's loss for a husband and three children. He and Aaron talked for a while in Spanish. Aaron's fluency with Spanish grew stronger each day, and I watched these two widowers work hard to understand each other.
Aaron turned and shared their conversation with us. "He helped bring Krista up from the accident site on a mat." An MCC staff member told us earlier how carefully and tenderly her body had been brought up the steep mountain slope. I felt grateful to this grieving man who in the shock of losing his wife, still took time to help our unknown daughter. As he held his 2-year-old son, a child he knows will hardly remember the mother who cherished him, he thanked us for the Heart book meant to help keep her memory alive. He and Aaron said goodbye, two men from different lands, yet united in their sorrow of losing a loved wife. We returned to the hotel acutely aware that our loss was linked forever with other Bolivians. What will this mean?
Please Don't Hurry Grief
Sunday is market day in Comarapa, a time when families from Bañado come to the city in a transport truck to buy and sell goods, produce and animals. Aaron and Krista usually joined their neighbors in this rural rhythm, often riding along with chickens, pigs or goats beside them. We strolled the dirt streets transformed now by a feast of farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains. The vendors' artistic display of gigantic green peppers and lettuces, varieties of yucas and potatoes, quinoa, vine-ripe tomatoes and spices reminded me of Seattle's Pike Place market, another favorite place for Krista and Aaron.
"You've got to try Api," insisted Aaron as we find the corner stall where they visited each Sunday. "It's a drink made of purple corn, cinnamon and sugar and Krista loved it." I took a sip and the aroma brought memories of the hot spiced wine brewed in our home each winter as she grew up.
We wandered over to the warehouse-like hardware store overflowing with practical supplies. Shelves of household items--kitchen utensils, enamel dishes, soaps, plastic buckets, tablecloths and mattresses vie for space with traditional hardware like nails, ropes, PVC pipes, electrical wire. "It was our lifeline for supplies when we settled our home and built the dry latrines," said Aaron as he headed over to say hello to an employee who'd also crashed in their bus. "He was in a coma for 10 days, and then came out of it," Aaron told us afterwards. "He was a lucky one."
Out on the street we met two American men from a nearby town, an unusual sight in this non-tourist region in Bolivia. They worked in an American school for children of missionaries and knew of Krista's death. Years ago, the older man lost a 16-year-old son and kindly sought to console us. He meant well, but when he said "my wife was a realist and started getting rid of his clothing the day after he died--I recoiled. I resisted the tone of "get on with it" as life's tidy way of dealing with death. "What's real about that?" I wondered silently. Is this another form of America's one-minute manager lifestyle--only now is it one-minute grief? When his voice escalated into preaching, we signaled one another it wass time to split.
Unbeknownst to him, it was this question--how do I prepare for an absence the size of Krista--that lies at the heart of my own search. How can we sustain her memory in our family in a healthy, non-obsessive way? Someone as cherished as Krista will always live in our lives, even if she no longer lives in our physical world. How do we best remember her rare spirit in a way that nourishes her dad and me, Aaron, Susan and Jeff, other family and friends? How do we fill the broken cracks where such raw hurt lives now?
I thought of one of Krista's last letters about the importance Bolivian culture places on relationships, both with the living and the dead.
I'm learning a lot about our task-driven culture versus a relationship-based culture. Family is definitely the priority here (while often expressed sexist), but definitely a priority. Why don't we live in a culture where you take two weeks to honor the dead and console the living? Why don't we leave work to be with a friend in the hospital, instead of making our dutiful visitation for I5 minutes? From the development standpoint, when we come into a community and focus on the work, the task, the achievements and not invest into the relationships, our being there is almost worthless in their eyes.
And I thought about the waterfall and small pond carved into our backyard hillside, the weeping cherry and Japanese lace-leaf maple given in her memory, the bed of willowy Young Love yellow lilies to honor Aaron and Krista, the inviting birdhouse awaiting its first nest, the living poems from her father and several friends, and the scrapbook made by MCC volunteers, all efforts to keep her memory alive and strong in the absence of her presence. I know how much we have needed these tangible expressions of a life so beautifully lived, a bounty of grace given to ease this grief.
The Valley of Love and Delight
After attending a Quechua church service, we began the 15 km ascent up a twisting primitive mountain road which then dips down into a delightful river valley. Now the dry season, the verdant green hillsides Krista and Aaron knew in the rainy season have turned a drab brown; swirling dust replaces earlier battles with mud and a high impassable river. Forty-foot spiny cactus and prolific scrub cacti testify to the desert-like terrain. Yet, as we ascended toward the Rio Comarapa, an elaborate mosaic of irrigated fields created a fertile oasis of bountiful crops.
We saw a farmer plowing with two oxen, tilling fields much like his ancestors. The community of Bañado de la Cruz has no village center, but includes around 50 families who live in subsistence farms spread along the river, often at great distances from one another These were the families Aaron and Krista worked with through a women's cooperative and an agricultural cooperative. "She was there three short months, I wonder if they'll even miss her," I said aloud.
"Let me tell you a story," answered Chris. "Shortly after her death I met one of the husbands of a woman in the cooperative. He said he'd found out about Krista's death first and just dreaded telling his wife. When he did, he told me she cried for three days; she said she felt abandoned."
He then told us that when women in the cooperative learned of her death, they rented a truck to go into Comarapa, where they thought her body would be returned, clearly an extravagant gesture. "Knowing Aaron had no family nearby, they probably planned to prepare her body for burial. When they discovered she had been brought to Santa Cruz, none could afford to go."
More than any part of this trip, it was Aaron and Krista's valley home and this community of friends I most longed to see. I recalled Krista's disappointment when she first saw the one-room adobe home connected to the community center. "We romanticize adobe in America," she wrote, admitting to her "borderline depression" at the sight. "In fact, I live in a mud and straw house which has been baked in the sun and looks like it's going to disintegrate in the first rain. It looks like crap." Without electricity or plumbing, they needed to use a dry latrine and outdoor bucket for showers, gathering water from a distant spring and the river.
However, within days she grew to love her new home as she and Aaron looked forward to giving it their own touches. I knew she especially liked the spacious windows overlooking the bucolic view of farmlands and mountains and listening to the sounds of the river from the porch hammock. Many friends shared letters that spoke of her contentment. To us she wrote, I love it here and am increasingly content and happy with my new home. I love that there are more donkeys, pigs and goats roaming the road than cars. I love taking hikes. I love getting strong carrying water. And I love what being here does for our marriage."
While Jim and I longed to see the home they'd created, we both knew going into her special place could be wrenching. But for Aaron, walking inside the door would return him into the most intimate of memories, into the dark heart of loss. "I want to go in by myself for a while first," he stated days before.
Minutes before arriving, Chris realized he had forgotten the door key back in Comarapa, so he dropped us off at the house and borrowed a friend’s motorcycle. A barbed wire fence and gate, built earlier to keep goats off the fruit trees, surrounded the house; newly planted chirimoya trees, gifts from neighbors, stood shriveled from neglect; a pile of unused adobe bricks lie in a corner near their dead wildflower and vegetable gardens. We absorbed this dismal scene as we sat down on the porch to wait for Chris' return.
Within minutes, Dona Dionisea, a widowed neighbor, came running over when she realized Aaron has returned. "Aaaaron, Aaaron," she shouted in exuberant delight at seeing him. She shed tears openly as she talked about Krista and invited us over to her porch for soda pop. "Krista called her the Tina Turner of the community," Aaron told me as we stepped carefully around the spiny cactus. "She has such strong legs. She's almost 50, and a mother of 12, and Krista marveled at how she still works in the fields and walks miles back and forth into Comarapa. She also knows a lot about traditional herbal medicines."
Soon a young woman with classic high Quechua cheek bones stopped by to welcome Aaron back. She carried a baby in a ahuayo on her back. I recognized this was the woman and baby that Aaron sketched last spring in his artist's notepad.
After drinks, Dionisea walked us down a path along the irrigation ditches through her five-hectar farm, land she cares for with obvious pride. We passed harvested tomato fields, ripening potato and cabbage crops, and chirimoya, grapefruit and mango trees. "Here's the cornfield where I took Krista's last pictures," said Aaron. I have looked at these photographs so often I can almost imagine seeing her sunny face with the saucy straw hat. Neighborhood children trailed along through the fields of giant tuna cactus and to the rows of sugar cane where Dionisea cut us all a sweet-tasting gift.
Hearing Chris's motorcycle, we returned to their home. Aaron slipped alone inside for a while and then lit some candles and invited us in. Rather than the cold chill I feared, stepping into their one-room home filled me with a warm sense of Krista's presence everywhere. Exquisite antique Andean tapestries hung on the white plastered walls near two old mahogany armoires which defined the "bedroom" section. A vibrant hand-woven bedspread and pillows created an artful space. A red enamel tea kettle, bought at the local market, waited on the gas stove to be used for guests, and a blue patterned tablecloth brightened up the corner. l smiled, remembering Krista's comment that "Aaron and I are enthused about making this place our own home."
I browsed at the books on their over-stacked bookshelves. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Carlos Fuentes, Barbara Kingsolver, Carl Jung, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tolkien, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Gabriel Garcia Marquis. What a feast of friends for the long nights of quiet so rare in American society.
Other books spoke of their work: The Complete Bee Manual, Building Dry Latrines, The Andean Network, The Jungle Camp Cookbook; Where There Are No Doctors; How to Train Community Health Workers. Old copies of magazines and journals--Wilson Quarterly, Nature, The Atlantic Monthly, Popular Science and The Economist--lined the bottom shelf. I picked up Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, one of the last books Krista read, and thought about her lively thoughtful mind. How much I will miss our rich conversations around the dinner table or over a latte as she tried to merge her absorbing interests in women's literature, politics and biology. "She wrote me a 'found' poem from Dostoevsky for my birthday," said Aaron, pulling his journal from the shelf. "She drew words from The Brothers Karamazov to come up with an expression of us." He handed me her letter and poem, written on lined yellow notepad paper.
While I had wanted to throw you a party (all good Latins love a party), and wanted to celebrate your life with lots of chocolate and candles I'm finding that the best thing I should do now is to celebrate quietly. But in our quiet celebration of your life know this--l love who you are as a man, a son, a child of God, more each day. My quiet celebration is in no way an accurate reflection of my huge, immense, grandiose celebration that goes on in my heart each moment you take a breath.
As I sit by this candlelight reflecting on our love, our friendship, and our marriage, I am at a loss. I could go off on mushy memories and sappy stories but it would never describe how I feel and express just how much you impact my life.
So with lack of words I will try and let Dostoevsky do it. Thank you for your mind and your passion to find the best.
And then Krista signed it with a quote of her own.
"For a man who loves a good book, will love a good woman." me
After the first part of the poem, which spoke of their discovery of one another seven years earlier, it read:
He's her first love
So I kissed you.
He felt a special tremor in his heart and he
radiated joy-so I kissed you.
When I read the last part, I paused in wonder.
I shall not die before enjoying one more talk
with you, before once more looking at
your dear face and once more
pouring my soulinto you.
"And will you cry for me? "
"Yes I will."
And so I kissed you.
As I sat on their bed, I wondered silently if Krista had any idea of how many tears have been cried for her--of the hundreds of friends at three memorial services, of the six days of solid rain after her death, so unusual in eastern Washington, that her father asked one day, "I wonder if heaven is weeping with us?"
About then Chris told us we needed to move all the furniture and stay outside as he sprayed the baseboards for scorpions, tarantulas and vinchucas before we can sleep safely.
Always a concern, a bite from the vinchuca, a common beetle, can cause the dreaded and incurable Chagas disease that afflicts over 25 percent of Bolivia's population and leads to a slow death. "We found 15 dead scorpions after the last spray," remembered Aaron, and I'm reminded again that what looks romantic harbors danger to any unwary resident.
"Look at Krista's tarantulas," said Aaron, as he showed me two jars with giant spiders that she preserved. Even dead, their big black furry bodies and legs caused me to wince. I relished her sense of curiosity, alive since childhood, toward all living things.
Chris and Jim returned from the half-mile trek to the spring, the only source of safe drinking water, and we began cooking. "I can't believe the change in this house," said Lorie, a 30-year-old art major, as she cut vegetables on the cabinet Krista had designed to help the kitchen function. "It was so barren before. It really feels like a home now." Aaron concocted a fresh spaghetti sauce on their gas stove and soon the aroma of basil, garlic and tomatoes filled the room. A small pantry shelf held the few ingredients that could survive without refrigeration: plastic containers of sugar, flour, cocoa, olive oil, powdered milk, tea and spices. "We learned to cook with just about 20 ingredients in the house," explained Aaron, whose joy experimenting as a chef blessed Krista's life each day. "In America, it used to be that if I was missing something, like mushrooms, I wanted to rush to the store to create the perfect dish. But I was learning how to be content with what we had. I was learning to live without."
My heart almost stopped as I heard our handsome, passionate son-in-law chatting about living without mushrooms. I've seen his pain as he has learned to live without his mom who died four years earlier. Now he has lost his wife, who infused his days with such radiance, and he's only 25. How will he choose to live without?
After dinner he showed me their Christmas ornament, selected to symbolize the year. I laughed at the miniature Nescafé Instant Coffee jar on a chain, quite a shift for these Seattle Starbucks latte lovers. Then we stepped outside to the slatted porch table where we used river water to wash dishes. I remembered photographs of Krista on this porch, where a dozen women and children gathered for the Women's Cooperative meetings. For Bolivian peasants, whose homes are often cramped and dark inside, the porch becomes the center of hospitality. Three cowering dogs hung out with us, eager for any scraps of food and affection.
"Dogs are kicked and abused so often that when they figured out we'd treat them with kindness, we usually found seven or eight at our porch every day," said Aaron. "Krista couldn't resist feeding them. That's why Choclo's gregarious personality was so unusual for the kids to see in a dog. They loved him." Normally, a solar panel provided electricity for four hours at night and daily radio contact with MCC headquarters in Santa Cruz. But the solar panel was down, so soft candlelight glowed off the white plaster walls. Aaron found Krista's journal and began to read aloud to us. One of their kittens, now raised by a neighbor, rested on his lap. As Jim and I listened from the bed, we gained a sense of how Bañado nourished her spirit of adventure. A long early entry told of their move from Santa Cruz to Bañado on a transport truck:
February 22, 1998
We piled in with Chris, Philip, 2 cats, puppy, all our stuff and about 20 people and their belongings. While fun at first, it quickly became cold and then ultimately freezing. . . The bumps would slam my body into the 18 cement squatters as our thin blanket slowly worked its away from our toes and fingers. I doubt I have ever been that uncomfortable in my life for that many hours. What should have taken 7 hours took 11, and I'm sure the driver was drinking at each stop, in addition to paying off the officials for not having a license.
MCC gave Aaron and Krista two Honda motorbikes for transportation and Chris, a lanky, strong Southerner, coached her on how to ride the treacherous terrain, avoiding spiny cactus, eroded sections, jolting rocks, loose pigs and cow dung. In a culture where domestic abuse prevails, her first week meeting families in Bañado posed problems. She wrote:
As I learn the art of motorcycle driving, I manage to crash twice. The first time in a hole over an irrigation canal and the second time in a mud hole. I am left with a bump/bruise on my chin and two enormous bruises on my thighs. It kills to ride again but I have to learn. My knee is all scraped up and I seriously look like some abused wife or rape victim--it's awful and because they don't ask, I feel like I have to explain my clumsiness to each family so they don 't think Aaron beats me.
As I listened, I remembered her funny letter saying that riding motorcycles in Bañado's rutty roads was like being in control of some sick carnival ride, but how proud she was whenever she finished. She hoped someday to show her gutsy brother Jeff her new talent.
The women's cooperative began when Chris started the MCC work in Bañado de la Cruz two years earlier, and it offered women whose homes are separated by significant distance a time for community. They welcomed Krista, the first female MCC volunteer, with generous hearts, often bringing her and Aaron gifts of eggs, mangoes, tomatoes, potatoes, even valued chirimoya trees to start an orchard. In the middle of a long February journal entry, she continued:
Monday afternoon was the women's group reunion. We processed the future plans and then cooked our stuffed green peppers. The cooking was beautiful if it could be such a thing. We sat around cutting onions, spices, and cooking everything on the open fire. The women shifted tasks as babies cried, or children needed attention. The dogs, pigs, and chickens were always shooed away from the food scraps despite their effectiveness at cleaning up the compost.
At the end of the first week she summed up life in this new land:
So within a week I've visited all the families that are in the project, fell in the river, crashed motorcycles twice, washed clothes in the river, played soccer, attended a meeting of the community and government and figured out if there is bread for sale or not, baked green peppers with the women's group, received corn, potatoes, onions, corn flour, filled the pee container twice, swept and swept again, baked cookies twice, lentils twice, carried water past a "bad" bull, and got diarrhea.
I've learned that we have a retarded dog, whiny cats, dirt that won't ever leave the floor, I bruise easily, and that rain stops everything even more than a flooded river.
I thank God for the women who get along, the stars, fear, answered prayer and the peacefulness of space.
At times she just jotted brief ideas or favorite Bible verses: One day when Aaron was gone, she wrote:
I am alone with birds and sunlight.
She recorded Psalm 87: 7:
Then those who sing as well as those who play theflutes shall say,
"All my springs of joy are in You. "
and Psalm 84:5:
How blessed is the woman whose strength is in Thee.
Aaron paused for a moment before he read aloud about a few days when they needed to be apart, a difficult time for Krista living alone in Bañado. She wrote on March 26:
I hear Aaron is coming tomorrow or later and my body aches from not being touched. I had no idea how dependent I am on hugs, kisses, glances, and caresses to get going. Mom knows--she always had to give me my morning hug to get going and nothing has changed. My normal over-productivity when he is away has changed to quasi-dysfunctionalism. I don't know whether to blame the diarrhea, my period, or my lack of a morning hug. Maybe it was Tar Baby. Toni Morrison captures me. I rush to the end only to get there and want to trace my steps back to suck more, more of her words. Reading her makes me want to write...to express ideas, thoughts, images, dreams in ways which don't tell the obvious and aren 't meant to. And from these inner craving for self-expression I end up signing up for a macro-econ distance course, to prepare me, and make up for my shit for GRE, to allow some school to accept my being. Is this just the grunt necessary to do what I love or am I not choosing a path I love? Why is this not easy--yet I'd be bored if it was.
Then her mood shifted before Aaron returned:
I'm better now. I sense it. . . I looked at my face today and liked it. It has an even tone which is tanned and probably causing some long-term damage. But I like it.
She wrote of her hope to "move towards God each day" and expressed frustration at not meeting her desire for steady prayer times.
As far as quiet time--well, yes, some and too sparse to mention. Does praying on my motorcycle count--or is that Santa Clausing God?
Then Aaron read her very last entry, her quest to find meaningful life work. On April 18, about a month before she died, she wrote:
I had an epiphany the other day. I thought how cool it would be to be a freelance peace/justice lawyer working on things ranging from alternative youth punishment/sentences to working on labor disputes and home costs. Or work for a law firm that allows half-time on poverty/justice issues. Ideas: Immigrants/labor/children/youth.
Hearing these words, which reflected her quiet determination to use her talents for others, compounded my sadness. How much our world needs hearts and minds like hers. For our 30th wedding anniversary, Krista had made a taperecording which we found among her papers the next morning. "A creation from your creation" she wrote in the note to us waiting to be mailed. Her buoyant voice permeated the room as we listened closely to her tales of the first few weeks. She told stories of hosting their first work project building 11 dry latrines (a low-tech, high-sanitation toilet) with a group of MCC high school students who visited from Saskatchewan, Canada.
"The families fed them and were incredibly generous. To see 20 North Americans working on latrines with the Bolivian families, building relationships and learning about another culture was wonderful," she remarked with obvious pleasure in her voice. "For a 15-year-old to realize not everyone has MTV really can be life shaping."
I thought back to the birth of her interest in Latin America, the summer of her 16th year, wben she lived in Guatemala City as an exchange student. Clearly, that teenage experience shaped major life choices: a college study-service semester in Latin America, work in a Honduran medical clinic with the poor, teaching inner-city high school biology in Tacoma, and volunteering with MCC.
She chattered about Choclo's cute antics, how parrots ate their blossoming com crop, Aaron's experiences helping farmers harvest honey, learning to bake bread in Felizidad's outdoor oven, eating goat liver and stomach at a neighbor's feast, washing clothes in the river, hearing BBC West Africa on their short-wave radio, and her excitement at her sister Susan's upcoming visit and wedding. She described their isolation when the river swells, which makes visiting friends or town impossible, cancels school, and plugs their spring for drinking water. She ended the hour long-tape saying, "I'm in awe of the beauty here. I love life and am thankful vou gave it to me."
Hearing her voice, so natural in the ways we talked about anything and everything, made me feel that if I turned my head I might see her walk through the front door, lifting all with her joie de vie.
We walked down the lane to the nearby school house where the Women's Cooperative had gathered all morning, fixing a lunch to welcome us, a country feast of chicken, rice, lettuce and tomato salad. Their quiet love and sorrow for Aaron was immediately evident as they each came and offered him condolences.
Several of the mothers, with babies slung on their backs, looked younger than Krista. It was these women who initiated the latrine project for their families, fed the students in their homes and treated Krista with such kindness. "We will never forget her," so many said to us, their tears flowing freely.
We gave them a framed picture of Krista and their dog Choclo, taken in one of the women's cornfields, and thanked them for the many ways they extended a welcome to Krista and Aaron. I thought of their determined effort to get to Comarapa when they heard she had died. "We've built a small waterfall and pond in the backyard," I told them through Lori who interpreted my English into Spanish. "We want to have words engraved on rocks which friends felt described her. Did they have any they want us to add?" we asked. "Alegria!" responded Dionisea immediately. Women murmurred their assent to this Spanish word for joy. Each woman eagerly joined in words of remembrance:
una amiga buena????a good friend
muy divertido????very funny (I liked this)
una reina?????a queen
una mujer trabajador ???hard worker
amante de ninos y animales ??a lover of children and animals
muy amable?????so kind
muy alentisimamente???so encouraging
The genuine affection these 12 women held for an American woman demonstrated the power of mutual openness and respect; a power that allowed women to bridge the barriers and boundaries of culture. They sensed this blossoming friendship and clearly grieved for their loss.
Then two of the women told of dreams they had of Krista, a very personal gift to us.
"ln my dream I met Krista one day at the river," said Nikolasia, a young mother nursing a baby. "Krista, I thought you were dead," she remembered saying.
"No, I'm fine."
"But how can you be fine, you're dead?"
"They took my heart in a box to the north and fixed it," explained Krista. "I'm fine. But Aaron's not doing well."
How true, I thought, knowing Aaron's searing loneliness.
Then another woman told of a similar dream where Krista came to visit her at her home.
"I thought you went over the hill in the micro," she said, when startled by Krista's presence.
"No, I'm fine."
"But you are suppose to be dead."
"No, I'm just fine. Look at me!" More tears came to the women as she told us her story.
During lunch toddlers wandered in and out and the older women shared in the care of the many children. I wondered if the heart of Krista's work was giving isolated women a sense of value; that they could dream together to make some changes in their world. With no libraries, no health care, no fresh water, no refrigeration, no local schooling after 6th grade, they were starting to dream of possibilities. Their next project was building a separate meeting place for women, a room of their own.
As we left the lunch, Chris and Lorie expressed amazement that private women shared such intimate dreams. "They usually don't talk this openly, even among themselves," Lorie said. I'm grateful for their generous gift of stories.
Privilege of Another Kind
"Why not go with Aaron and visit some families?" suggested Chris, knowing that this took much of Aaron and Krista's time during their first weeks. In Bañado de la Cruz a neighbor honors another when they visit because one must sometimes walk for miles and wade several times across the Rio Comarapa to reach a distant home.
In late afternoon we crossed the river to visit three families in the cooperative. Sun lit the rocks as we stopped to chat with Emma, the president of the cooperative, washing clothes in a curve in the riverbank. Afterwards, Jim and I select some flat river rocks to bring home for the waterfall to etch the Spanish words given by her new friends. "Krista and I washed clothes together sometimes," said Aaron, showing us their spot down the way. "We knew this broke the cultural norms, but it didn't seem right for her to wash all my clothes by herself. It takes hours. But I never went alone or they'd think she was lazy." We passed a group of campesinos digging and filling large bags of red potatoes to truck into the market on Sunday. A farmer, a member of the agricultural cooperative, shook hands and hugged Aaron, and insisted on giving him a hefty 50 pound bag of potatoes. He offered to bring it to the evening meeting when he realized Aaron's still-injured shoulder prevented him from carrying anything.
We climbed up the hillside to a dark adobe home that looked over the river. One of the women we met at lunch beamed in welcome at our surprise visit. She disappeared inside for a moment and brought out a rich red and orange woven blanket for us to sit on the bench. Aaron was fascinated by the beauty of her unusual weavings. We talked for a while, and she showed us how she spun the wool, used natural dyes and then painstakingly created these family heirlooms. "Would you ever want to make these for sale?" Aaron asked, knowing they might fetch a price which would significantly augment the family's subsistence farm earnings.
"No, " she said, showing us her gnarled hands. "They take so long and my hands hurt making them. I do them for our family." She apologized that she had no drinks or food to offer us, but brought out an orange and sectioned it for us. We watched her pet parrot perched on the porch, and the cats, piglets and chickens that roamed the barnyard near her new, dry latrine, luxurious sanitation in the compo.
"A lot of these crops and income-generating additions like the beehives have emerged through the Agricultural Cooperative and MCC," explained Aaron as I tried to stay far away from the Africanized bees while we ambled along the ridge to Felizidad's home. A petite 25-year-old, Krista had written about the day Felizidad let her help bake three types of bread in the outdoor ovens. She and her husband shared the farm with her mother-in-law and they greeted us with El Gordo, their nickname for the chubby baby who required an emergency caesarian for delivery. "Her story is the reason we'd never have wanted a baby here. She needed to be rushed by ambulance eight hours away to the closest hospital. She almost died, said Aaron.
"If a married couple doesn’t have babies here, they think you’re lazy and not having sex. Krista assured them we enjoyed sex and showed them her birth control pills," laughed Aaron. "Though they had heard of these, it seemed like she was the first woman they knew who actually took them. Our pat answer on why we didn’t have children was it wouldn’t be fair to our mothers to be so far away from home. They understood this immediately," said Aaron. So do I.
Watching Felizidad’s sparkling eyes and engaging personality as she conversed with Aaron, I understood why Krista felt they might enjoy a natural friendship. With dusk coming, the chickens flew into the trees to roost for the evening. A gentle breeze cooled the dry air as the night peace settled around the farmstead. Even the piglets snuggled quietly together. I could see why our nature-loving daughter kept writing to everyone, "I just love it here." I wondered if Felizidad was the woman Krista tried in vain to explain the pig story in Charlotte’s Web?
Walking home along the burro road, I sensed how privileged Aaron and Krista were that MCC provided this global opportunity to serve others. I knew some considered Aaron and Krista’s decision to commit three years of their life, while earning only $60 a month, a sacrifice. Perhaps even foolish. But all their housing, food, transportation and basic living expenses were paid for through donations raised by MCC. And they need to raise their own financial support, as Aaron did a year before while interning in a college ministry program at the University of Puget Sound. Unfettered by the expenses so demanding for most young people in the United States, Aaron and Krista were freed to concentrate on contributing to others. It also gave them a needed pause before their next dream of graduate schools. As I watched a flock of chartreuse parrots fly by, I marveled at this adventurous foundation for a young marriage.
In early evening, Lorie and I made a chocolate cake to fulfill a promise of Krista's to the two town library committees we planned to visit tomorrow. We laughed easily together as we created a cake the old-fashioned way, an art almost lost in our instant society. When one layer fell apart coming out of the pan, we used frosting to fix our fiasco. She taught me a repair trick as she added water to a knife for a smooth, almost Marzipan frosting.
"Looks good," we admire as we sampled the leftover cake stuck to the pan.
"Tastes good, too." I thought of last fall's afternoon when Krista and I cooked in Marianne Frase's kitchen, a family friend who shared her expertise in baking tender flaky crusts for apple pies. Once again I know it is the little moments in shared family life that I will miss dearly.
"Hey, come see this," said Aaron as he showed me the last love letter he wrote to Krista when they were apart for a few days.
I was reviewing our photos when I came across these two that caused me to pause. In both I was struck by just how incredibly beautiful you are. As I marveled at your beauty, that familiar ache flooded over me. I ached to hold you, to simply touch you and feel your life next to me. It's like love, or maybe lost love. It's the pain of winning the lottery and losing the claim ticket on your way to collect. You're so close to me, but when we are apart, you become like a dream or something I only longed to have and now can only experience in memories.... I think your beauty must spring from your loveliness, everything else that makes me love and desire you.
I read a few more tender paragraphs and then come to his last words: I am so lucky to have you as my life friend, partner and lover--my wife.
Krista, you are irreplaceable, unequalled, dynamite. You wow me. You don't just complete me, you re-create me.
I am yours completely,
While I read this letter, Aaron began taking her skirts, t-shirts, jeans, and nightgowns out of the armoire to pack up their home. I glanced up and saw him bury his head in a handful of her clothes as he took a fleeting whiff of her scent. He took out the Christmas gifts they had bought for friends while in Cochabamba, and her sister Susan's wedding gift, another antique ahuayo with subtle shades of copper, burnt umber and cream weaving. "We took two hours going through stacks of these to select this one for Susan and Peter. Krista wanted it to be just right." When Aaron brought out the long flowered rayon dress I found for her one day, I had flashbacks of her elegance at her grandparent's 60th wedding anniversary, her tall, willowy, brunette beauty secondary to her warm grace toward others.
For a couple of hours we sorted belongings of their past life, trying to pack with only a hunch at Aaron's new future. I found a half-written letter to Wilson High School, a Tacoma, Washington, inner-city school where she taught biology and math, and a long funny letter to the Jay Jacobs clothing store singing the travel praises of a wrinkle-free skirt that she could stuff in her motorbike backpack and take out to look professional for a local meeting. The straw hat, worn in her last photographs, hung on the wall. "Let's give this to Val," said Aaron, thinking of her college roommate and soul-sister. Her jewelry, clothes, journals and papers went into a suitcase for the States; we packed Aaron's books to store in Santa Cruz, in hopes he'll return; he gathered some clothes for a few nomadic weeks or months in the States. Packets of garden seeds I had sent for Krista's dream garden lay unopened: marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, daisies, lemon cucumbers, spaghetti squash, basil, snapdragons and more, waiting for the spring planting season. I decided to bring them home, not quite sure yet why.
Soon we heard the local farmers coming to the agricultural cooperative located in the room adjacent to their home. They were holding a special meeting to see Aaron and talk about their future with MCC. Lorie and I slipped in and she translated the conversations for me. The walls showed Aaron's creative cartoons and artwork which explained the value of solar panels, listed the goals decided upon by the cooperative, touted the benefits of a new drought-sustaining corn, and analyzed a recent communication problem in the group. Men expressed their sorrow for Aaron's loss, their appreciation for the work he had done and their desire to continue with an MCC volunteer in their community. Chris explained that MCC will advertise for another couple, but it may take a year to find someone wanting to come. Aaron spoke of Krista and how he hoped to return to another assignment in Bolivia, but not back in their home where he would be living alone with the ghost of memories.
One farmer spoke for the group. "Aaron, could you find the strength inside to return?" he asked.
Aaron chose his Spanish words carefully. "It's impossible to imagine at this time," he answered. "If I start a new assignment, I can't leave in the middle even if I feel more able than now," he tried to explain. I think of the luxury and burden of choice which affluence and education brings–and how Krista's death sabotaged his budding dreams with the coop. Practical grass-roots improvements like experimenting with a new strain of corn, marketing chirimoya fruit, purchasing a community truck for farmers or buying solar panels to allow refrigeration to ease the grind for housewives.
"I hope to visit some if I return to Bolivia," he assured the men, and Chris promised to occasionally assist in the coop until MCC found a replacement.
I walked out into the starry night, an evening of celestial beauty that one can only see when no electricity brightens a sky. But I don't feel like looking up to these stars which wowed Krista, reminding her of camp. Though heartened by the love I saw expressed to Aaron from the men they came to serve, I am almost overwhelmed with sadness by these days of seeing dreams die, exhausted by the mingling of such sorrow and love--the visions of beauty, which ended so abruptly with her terrible death.
In the morning we packed up the pick-up truck with the tangible gifts their friends had brought by--a sack of potatoes, eggs, oranges, honey, chirimoyas--and we left carrying intangible gifts of memories from Bolivians who gave us their heart stories, tears and friendship. Dionisea, other neighbors, children and dogs came to bid us farewell.
Without a nearby church community, Aaron and Krista read a daily devotional book to encourage their walk of faith. On August 4th, the day we closed their home, I looked at the meditation. It happened to focus on the symbol of home. "Home is a place where we are truly ourselves, our natural habitat," the author stated. Both Krista and Aaron had written how much they liked what their new home was doing for their young marriage. Without the distractions of television, telephones, evening meetings or night classes, they received the great gift of time for one another. Rather than tiring of this, they reveled in it. A leisurely cup of coffee in bed, good books, meaningful work, prayer times together, budding friendships, a puppy to play with and creative challenges each new day, supported by others with a shared vision. Even in these few months, Aaron and Krista grew in respect for one another. She provided encouragement as he struggled for fluency in Spanish; he proved to be her cheedeader while she learned the art of motorcycling. "We both felt our best selves were emerging," said Aaron as we talked about this later. "We got to spend so much time together and we loved it."
They also experienced blessings by what they did not have: no national bombardment of sensationalist news trivia; no constant-consumer advertisements luring them into Visa debts for things one does not need. Their home truly became their natural habitat, a place of great peace.
A Legacy of Literacy
We drove along back roads for three hours to go to Chilon, a small town which Krista traveled to on her motorbike to work with the local library committee. Just weeks earlier, Krista and Aaron helped inaugurate the new one-room Chilon library by the Bolivian custom of cracking a bottle of champagne, much like the launching of an American naval ship. MCC collaborated with local citizens who raised half the cost of establishing a town library. Unlike Bañado, Chilon had a central plaza, a few stores, a school and a church. The sunny one-room library housed children's books, a table and chairs, and an intriguing bug collection on the wall that identified each of the threats to the health of Bolivians. Children peeked through the street windows as a group of teachers, business men and farmers took off work to meet us and honor Krista. They welcomed us with soft drinks, lunch and speeches about Krista.
"She was dinamita," said one middle-aged teacher when the leaders told us why her dynamic presence will be so missed. They presented us with a formal calligraphied plaque "in recognition of her invaluable cooperation in the establishment of the library for the benefit of the children's studies" and introduced the two artists who drew this. Their unabashed affection for her, their open grief, and their gifts to comfort us drew us into the common experiences of humanity. Whether mother, father, husband, teacher, child, librarian or friend, we mourned together the loss of a young woman who wanted the best for others.
When we gave them the framed picture of Krista and Choclo for the library wall, they passed it around with obvious pleasure. "What happened to Choclo," they asked, remembering how she often motorbiked in with the puppy on her back. "MCCer's found him two days later, paralyzed with a broken back," explained Aaron, repeating an oft-asked question. "We flew him up to America to see if vets here could help him, but they couldn't." I remembered that sad day when a family vet came to our backyard to put him to sleep. In three days with us, his puppy antics and calm spirit, even in the midst of his injuries, brought touches of joy into our animal-loving family. "At least he's buried in Krista's home instead of dying of starvation in the woods," said Jim, trying to find something good in this.
Lorie served everyone the chocolate cake, an immediate hit with the women. "Linda, do you remember the recipe? They all want to make it; it's unusual here." I chuckled thinking of how this small attempt to keep Krista's promise might launch a desire for chocolate cake in Chilon, a sweet memory of her in their lives. How many times Krista and I found an excuse for a chocolate fix--splitting a bon-bon, making Hershey s'mores over a campfire, baking chocolate chip cookies to welcome her dad home, or mixing hot Mexican chocolate on snowy Spokane's winter days. We recreated the recipe to the women's profuse "gracias, gracias."
As we left the library and saw Chilon's chestnut-eyed children hanging out near the library door, I thought of these friendships that no longer can be. But what a lasting legacy, to have been a partner in this embryonic effort at encouraging literacy. I know we will frame their beautiful tribute on a wall at home and treasure this visual memory of her care for children in a far-away village of the world.
After another hour negotiating rutted roads, we pulled into Saipina, a thriving town and transportation center for the region, with hotels, stores, churches and several schools. The streets were all tom up in preparation for a much needed new water supply system. "The water makes everyone sick here," said Chris as we wandered the city for a few minutes. "This new system is part of a government long-range plan to improve health conditions." Near the large town square I peeked inside a microbus, similar to the one Aaron and Krista crashed in, while Aaron and Chris played a game of outdoor foosball with local teenagers. I'm surprised at how spacious and modern the bus looked, with large reclining padded seats, not at all like the battered buses often seen in Latin America. How seemingly safe. "What an illusion," I thought, knowing their accident was only one of hundreds each year where malfunctioning equipment, bad roads and dangerous, even drunk, bus drivers caused deaths and injuries. I could imagine Aaron and Krista snuggling contently with Choclo, blissfully unaware this night would change their destinies forever.
Around 20 town officials, teachers and library committee members greeted us with a dessert feast in an upper room of a city building that also houses their present library. Leaders gave speeches of condolence about Krista to Aaron and us. During conversation over cake, a man across the table told us a story. He also rode a bus from Comarapa to Santa Cruz the same night Krista and Aaron traveled. "Our bus left earlier," he explained, "and I was really surprised when their bus passed us later on the mountain highway. The driver had to be speeding. I'm really sorry for you." His story corroborated the newspaper accounts quoting many passengers upset over the driver's careless speeding.
Later they gave us a tour of their established one-room library, overflowing with books for both adults and children. We were intrigued to see how many included critical analysis of Latin American politics and issues, books like Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
We were surprised when the librarian said, "We're moving soon to a new library, and the committee wants to name the new library after Krista." Another committee member stopped us and explained. "Krista came to Bolivia to help us, and she lost her life here. We want to remember her forever." Then she asked, "Would we give them our official permission to name this after her?"
We assured them we would be pleased. "We need to get formal approval from the government," she said, "but that shouldn't be a problem."
They invited us to walk a few blocks to see their new space, a large, beautifully designed building. Workmen were putting on the finishing touches, adding shelving to the walls as we walked inside. In a land where dingy adobe walls prevail, I was thrilled to see the fresh butter-yellow walls, creamy ceiling and big windows, which illuminated the large room with sunny ambiance. "Krista would love this," I said to Jim, knowing how much she craved sunlight pouring through windows in any room. "What a great place to read."
The officials asked us to pose for formal pictures in front of the building to show at their upcoming inauguration. Just then, groups of uniformed school children marched by, practicing with pride for the Bolivian national holiday parade coming soon. "Despite its many problems, Bolivia is a land with hope," Krista once wrote. As we admired the children, we knew that literacy would nourish their hopes for themselves and their country. Jim and I were both touched by this community's desire to keep a young American woman, here so briefly, as part of their living memory.
We left to return to Santa Cruz, which meant we needed to go by the accident site again that night. None of us wanted to stop. As we rounded the curves of the unlit mountainous road, an enveloping darkness descends. With no moonlight or electric lights, we sensed afresh the terror Aaron must have felt searching in a pitch black ravine for Krista. After we passed the site, Aaron described the accident and aftermath in great detail; how he landed on his head, his injuries, the agony of finding and then leaving Krista, his confusion. "I remember lying on my back in a hospital gurney, looking at the ceiling in shocked confusion wondering, "how did a small town Montana guy end up here in Bolivia on a hospital bed. . . with his wife lying dead five hours away in a mountain ravine?" He fingered the Celtic cross, a gift from a friend, that he wore on a chain around his neck with Krista s gold navel ring, and told us more about his search for understanding, and his wrestling for insight on the sovereignty of God.
Back in Santa Cruz the next morning, Pedro, a Bolivian staff member at MCC beckoned me into the library. "Come see my daughter's Quince party," he urged as he watched a video of his daughter's 15h birthday, always a major celebration for Latin girls entering womanhood. I joined him and suddenly pictures of Krista came on the screen, looking alive in a way no still photograph captures. Dressed festively for the night, she danced with Aaron, their abundant love of life and each other shimmering in the film. Later a scene flashed to Krista dancing gently with Jeremy Funk, an MCC volunteer with cerebral palsy. I thought of the poem "Joy Dance" he wrote about her, such a gift to us and others when read at her memorial services. Words I had reread so often now came to life on a small screen:
Later in the green elegance of a quince party
Aaron escorted you to the turf to dance a love dance. Lively from love, drinking juicy band music, you asked me to join in a joy-dance.
You held both my hands and I shuffled on the lawn, feet heavy as stones
The camera panned to other scenes where she would walk by and lightly touch her new friends, a gesture of acceptance none will ever feel again. I know anew why Jeremy's poem said:
If cannot prolong your dance,
I will proclaim it.
I will proclaim your dance to God
and to the world.
That familiar sense of sorrow flooded over me and when Pedro gave me the video, I fled from the room, hardly able to thank him for his generous gift.
During dinner, an MCC staff member mentioned, "I'm glad to see you and Jim want to talk with people about Krista. It seems wise." Then this man in his 30's told of his mother's death when he was a child. "We never talked about this pain in our family, nor did we taLlc about her much afterwards. This pattern has gone on for years and I think all of our family lost greatly because of it." As hc told me his family story, I wondered why the death of a loved one so often gets buried in this shroud of silence? How could this silence possibly help heal the broken places of our lives?
Love in a Strange Land
The next afternoon we visited the host family where Krista and Aaron lived during their first three months of language study in Santa Cruz. The father, a Baptist pastor and teacher, and the mother, a school principal, often had their extended family of adult children, nephews and nieces, and grandchildren in their home. When we arrived at their suburban house, a little Pekingnese-mix breed dog greeted Aaron and then me with ecstatic joy. He jumped, barked, and squealed at our feet, yet he completely ignored Jim. I recalled phone calls from Krista when she told me about the family's little puppy she pampered and let sleep on their bed, so I wasn't surprised he recalled Aaron. I just assumed he thought I was Krista.
During lunch, their oldest daughter, a pharmacist, told us how this exuberant behavior was very unusual for the dog. She then described what happened the night of the accident. "The dog started crying and scratching frantically one night, and when we let him inside the house, he went right to the bedroom door where Krista and Aaron had stayed. Then he cried and scratched more," she said. "There is a belief in Bolivia that when someone dies, their soul returns to their homes and dogs recognize the soul. We thought grandma had died." The whole family joined in lively elaboration on this story. "The next day MCC'ers came to our home and told us of Krista's death during the night," said the mom.
"There's another strange thing that happened," added the father. "For the three nights before her death, we kept seeing the shadow of a white person walking in front of our windows, both outside the gate in front, and inside by the side windows. Whenever we'd go to look outside, we saw no one." Again, the entire family entered into this conversation, pointing to the spots by the window where they had all seen this apparition-like figure. "There's another belief in Bolivia that when someone is going to die, their spirit knows ahead and visits home. It made us wonder."
Stunned by the news of Krista's death, the mother then told us of her love and care for Krista. A woman about my age, when she heard Krista was killed, she immediately rushed to the hospital morgue. She found Krista's naked body with only a sheet covering her. "Evidently, her clothes were so dirty and torn from the accident, officials removed them," she explained, so she rummaged through Krista's backpack. "A jar of honey had broken, ruining many of the clothes, but I found a clean blue shirt and a skirt and dressed her." I knew she was also the woman who came alongside Aaron, helping him take down the sheet to see and tenderly touch Krista's injuries--her broken neck, jaw, and back. "So many of her injuries were internal, she still looked beautiful," recalled Aaron. I remembered their friend Philip s unintentional ironic comment about her when he went to the morgue to comfort Aaron. "I couldn't believe it. Even after the accident, she was drop-dead gorgeous."
Heartbroken that I could not hold Krista after she died, I felt immensely grateful for this mother's practical love to Krista, for her touch, for her respect, and her compassion to Aaron, in grief and shock so far from home.
She and Aaron reminisced about the decision to have Krista's body brought to the MCC compound so that all their friends could say goodbye. "The frilly lace caskets looked so unlike Krista, I asked two friends to go to the marketplace and find authentic Bolivian weavings," said Aaron, describing how they then created a simple resting place for her. This was the first time we heard that after the embalming, MCC placed her open casket in front of the fireplace in the central living room for the night. "Her friends came all night just to be with her," said the mother. "It's a very important Bolivian custom, but rarely done by foreigners. It meant a lot to us to be able to see her and touch her. Everyone who knew her loved her."
As we left Krista and Aaron's Bolivian family, the dog followed us out the gate and down the street, refusing to leave us when his owners call. Finally Aaron picked him up in his arms and carefully carried him back home. Jim fought back tears as we walked away.
Christ and Kids in Cochabamba
Towards the end of our two weeks, we flew to Cochabamba, a progressive affluent Bolivian city renown for its year round mild climate, one of South America's largest artisan markets, and the immense new statue of Christ de la Concordia overlooking the city. Located in a fertile valley producing maize and wheat, it became known as the "breadbasket of Bolivia." Aaron wanted us to see the city and meet their friend Georgeanne Potter, head of the Andean Information Network that Krista recently joined. The organization's focus is to provide information to American lawmakers on how U.S. policy in Bolivia, particularly the recent emphasis on eradicating coca impacts local peasants. W'th Krista's college major in politics and government and rising interest in law, she had written us of her excitement at finding an organization where she could participate in global concerns.
On our way to the airport, a large piece of old cardboard flew onto the grill of the taxi, flapping wildly in the wind. As our driver pulls off the freeway, we assumed he would just throw it on the ground. Instead, he carefully placed it in the trunk. "It's a gift from the road," I said to Jim, intrigued by how the driver saw treasure in what another would call trash. He climbed back into the front seat smiling and announced, "Un regallo de la calle,"....a gift from the road! He used it to line the trunk, protecting his taxi from luggage damage. How many small treasures we have been given in this painful pilgrimage.
Georgeanne greeted Aaron at the airport with hugs and hosted us in her charming apartment filled with folk-art from around the world. Although an American, she grew up in Bolivia and now lived in a home next to long-time family friends, relating to their young children like a favorite aunt. On Saturday mornings she usually took an outing with the kids, so they came over after breakfast eager to play. "Where shall we take Jim and Linda and Aaron?" she asked them.
"To the Christo," they insisted with excitement. So, with three kids on our laps and a beagle dog, we drove a jeep up the winding road to the hill top behind Cochabamba to the Cristo de la Concordia. Built recently for the Pope's visit, this immense statue stands a few meters higher than the famous 33 meter Cristo in Rio de Janeiro. With arms outstretched, this serene white stone Christ-figure appears to offer the contemporary Cochabamba valley residents a blessing of peace and protection. A major tounst attraction, we joined others in the parking lot to admire the sweeping 360 degree view of this city of over 400,000. "Let's climb up inside," begged the children.
Georgeanne and Aaron chose to stay outside, so Jim and I agreed to accompany them. As one entered the base of the monument, steep concrete stairs start the ascent. "This first part is dangerous so be careful with the kids," cautioned the guard on duty. We saw the warning sign "Muy Peligroso" that roused our protective parental instincts . Undaunted, the three children, all under 10, started carefully up the first layer with Jim and me following closely behind. At the landing, Jim lifted each child up to look out the portholes to see the view. For the next several sections, safety wire encased the staircase and the children scrambled up. They waited patiently for Jim to lift them again, eager to see the new perspective they gained as they rise higher above the earth. Finally, we reached the last landing. Here the arms of Christ opened out to the world. We paused for one last look, awed by the vast panorama before us. Located in a fertile valley, the city was suffering through a year-long drought and we saw the dry river beds, empty reservoirs, and parched land, so in need of a blessing from the skies above.
From that lofty perspective, I saw how dependent the burgeoning population is on nourishing rain, and how helpless they were to provide it for themselves. We headed back down, guarding the children carefully in front and behind as they negotiated this difficult descent. George Ann bought them popsicles for this hot day, and we enjoyed their excited chatter as we rode home.
That evening, when Jim and I both were awake in the middle of the night, he held me and whispered, "Wasn't that neat today? Thc children brought us to the arms of Christ." The next morning Aaron showed us special places in the market where he and Krista found her sister Susan's wedding present. For over an hour, we looked at dozens of these large woven ahuayo while shopkeepers told us how the different animal motifs and varied colors represented distinct regions of the country. Llamas, dragons, pumas, owls, dragons, and horses gave design on the horizontal stripes, individualizing each weaving.
As I touched these intricate textiles with rich hues of copper, green, red, blue, or cream, I wondered what family story lived within each one. Who was the individual woman who created such beauty, an art form taught to rural girls through a millennia of years? How many babies did this carry on their backs, what else did they haul in it to and from the market? Each abuayo's beauty, woven on heddle looms, reflected a patient commitment of women to create beauty for a family item essential for their simple agrarian existence. What was once within a particular family now was finding new forms within other families, both in Bolivia and around the world as these reached the marketplace. Rather than a sling carry-all worn around the back, they now served as tablecloths, wall hangings, bench covers, even redesigned into jackets. Their private family story now cast beauty into public places.
As I held these weavings, something in their texture connected me to Krista's story. For the past two weeks, we had been seeing the final months in a beautifully textured life of a daughter whose actions lived out her belief in "a holistic faith, in God's love to all creation." And as she showed this love of all God's land and peoples, her spirit touched Bolivians from all walks of life. Banado peasant women, educated Andean Network activists, MCC community volunteers, teachers, famlers, and children, even the neighbor dogs. With the wind in her hair, and a beloved husband at her side, she flew with zest on a motorbike across high mountain terrain to serve a community. She worked alongside others for basic things: a decent latrine, libraries and literacy for children, a sense of worth and community for women, a home where love dwelled. These were simple acts, done with great devotion, in an unknown river valley. Yet because she was never burdened by a false sense of her own importance, she kept the joy. Like the beautiful ahuayo tapestries, she came from one particular family, but she cast her spirit into the broader world she loved.
Forgiveness and Faith
We returned to Santa Cruz for one last day with our new friends on MCC staff. In the afternoon, Aaron needed to go with Chris to meet with the lawyers and the insurance company to allow reimbursement to MCC for Krista's death expenses and his medical fees. He returned back around dinner time clearly distraught. "I've just spent two hours with the driver of the bus," he fumed, visibly shaking. "I even had to ride in a car with him while we went over to another lawyer." He then described the scene.
"I didn't realize that was who he was until about half-way through," said Aaron, as he described this middle-aged man who still limpd from a leg injury in the accident. 'Chris and I had been sitting next to him when we suddenly recognized that this was the bus driver. A husband and father of four children, he brought his wife along with him. "I was shocked he was in the room without our being told," said Aaron. "I hadn't prepared myself emotionally for this at all. " Needing to get his bearings, Aaron described moving across the room to take a good look at the man he knew was responsible for Krista's death. "I expected to feel outrage, but as I looked at him closdy, I was surprised to feel compassion well up within me. Here was another human being with his own set of consequences and hurt. He looked so full of anxiety, with hunched shoulders and his head cast down. He was living with the guilt of killing four people, had lost his means of livelihood, and was obviously injured." About an hour later, after they had finished with the lawyers, Aaron and the driver walked out on the sidewalk. "I'd been thinking of what I wanted to say to him, to express the depth of loss. I told him, 'I want you to know I hold you responsible for my wife's death. She was a good woman and I loved her very much. She was a beautiful person.'
Then he told the bus driver, "But because God's grace has been so generous to me, I can't do anything but forgive you." As he told us this, it was a simple statement of fact for Aaron. He gave the one gift he could give another.
"Meeting the bus driver de-mystified him for me," added Chris. "The press reports had demonized him like when they said he ran away from the accident scene. In reality, he just climbed onto the floata and went to the hospital like every other injured passenger. There's no question he'd been speeding all night, but he claims the brakes gave out on him. Who knows?"
"What do I with my anger now," Aaron asked to no one in particular, his head buried in his hands. "I don't want to rage at God."
Later in the evening, after a farewell dinner with Barry and Brenda Bartel, the MCC directors who recently arrived with their two school age children, we joined others to visit Krista and Aaron's favorite cafe, the Tapekua'. They featured live performances of South American musicians and that night a talented local group played traditional Andean music. We heard the haunting ancient sounds of the quena and zampona pan flute, the ukelele-like charango and huankara, a highland drum commonly enjoyed in fiestas through the centuries. Bolivian patrons spontaneously danced their national dance, the cuccas, where whirling handkerchief-waving couples conveyed a story of courtship, love, loss of love, and reconciliation with verve and energy. As we flew back to the states the next day, I knew we have been blessed by a trip into terrible beauty. Though nothing could have prepared us beforehand for an absence the size of Krista, I knew this gift offered afterward will help us reconcile living in a new journey without her physical presence. On the airplane home, I reread the letter from Aaron's fnend which quoted poet Mark Doty's efforts to live with the scar of loss. And I thought of our own questions: how do we live with this crevasse in our lives? How do we weave Krista's memory into the fabric of our family forever? Lynn wrote,
"He describes the ancient Japanese ceramic cups. These rustic cups were once the property of some holy monk, one of the few possessions he permitted himself to keep. Centuries later, the cup was dropped and broken, but even in this condition it was too precious to simply destroy. So it was repaired, not with glue, which wouldn't hold for centuries to come, but with a thin seam of gold solder, thus repairing the break in what could never truly be repaired perfectly. The gold solder added a beauty to the cup, making part of its history quite visible.
The metaphor, Doty says, offers the possibility to "honor the part of oneself that's irreparable---to fill the crack with gold means to allow the break prominence, to let it shine. Wearing its history, the old cup with its gilt scars becomes, I imagine, a treasure of another sort, whole in its own fragmentation, more deeply itself, veined with the evidence of time."
This is an image that makes sense. These rich stories given to us during the last two weeks, added to other cherished memories of Krista's life, could become part of the gold solder we all need to heal. Stories settle in the broken heart, inviting our memories to rest with these when we lose one we love. Krista expressed a simple but clear vision in her applicadon to MCC. "I am designed to show God's love in action." We are among the most blessed of parents to have seen the ways she did this, at home, and abroad. Memories of gold--to endure forever.