I woke up intentionally early yesterday – at 5:00 a.m. – so I could get on down to the corner here in San Bernardino to catch the bus to Asuncion, avoiding the work crowd that fills the bus early in the morning, leaving no place to sit for the two hour ride. Turns out I wasn’t early enough and had to stand in the aisle. Umphh. The word in Castellano for “to take” a bus is “tomar” which is the same word used for “to drink” and definitely, at times I feel like I’m gulping quite a bit on these bus rides. It’s treacherous trying to hold on tight while standing in the aisle packed in like that. I’m too short to hold the overhead bar for support so finding and latching onto the handle found on each seat-back is important and I found one hidden down in-between the people standing so closely together. Sometimes it’s a trick to get your hand on the handle without becoming um, personal, but those around are usually aware of one’s plight and they make a way. The drivers seem to brake and accelerate so hard you’d think they were very, very angry. Seriously. But I’m thinking it’s the combo of a tight time schedule and the brakes and gas pedal of these fine old Mercedes Benz buses that cause the body-wrenching lurches and halts. So, I sing out with great abandon: “Buen Diaaaaa” with a big smile directed to the driver when I board the bus, just in case my lilting, melodious, let’s-be-happy voice will somehow calm him.
I landed at my correct stop in San Lorenzo; however, I next caught the wrong connection, boarding the “other” Linea 56 (apparently there are two!) and found myself in Luque, miles from where I should have been. (Luque is the home of the famous harps of Paraguay and is the place to go to see how they are made or to purchase one. You can read more about them here:
That’s the web address of an article written by my friend, Dr. Alfredo Colman, who grew up in Asuncion and now teaches at Baylor University).
Although I would have enjoyed it, I really couldn’t stay in Luque and had to continue my endeavor to get to my destination. So I caught a taxi back to square one so as to get in the proper trajectory for reaching Peace Corps headquarters, another 45 minute ride. The taxi driver was an interesting young man. He was very attentive and conversational. I admired his work-of-art spiked hairstyle as he and I talked, me in the backseat, he in the front. He gave me slow, repeated reassurances that I was now on my way as he dropped me off at where I should have been originally, at the throat of Avenida Mariscal López, where I could catch the bus straight up to headquarters. I saw that he stayed behind watching ’til I got on the bus. Kindhearted people abound in Paraguay.
I was headed to Asuncion to attend the memorial service for Porter Knight, our fellow Peace Corps volunteer who passed away on March 25th. You can read more about Porter and his journey here:
Porter was very hardworking, sometimes timid, truly kindhearted, detail-conscious, really smart, already quite accomplished at the age of 28, and always smiling. It was important to me to attend the memorial service of this remarkable young man.
When I arrived at the gate of headquarters I was greeted so amiably by the always-smiling security guards. Today their faces exuded gentleness, too. “Hola Señora…” and I handed them my ID to be kept until time to leave. As I walked up the drive to the front doors I found myself stopping, folding my arms, resting my eyes on what I was seeing and enjoying the beautiful manner in which our grand headquarters building was adorned. I thought about the planning and the care that had gone into preparing for Porter’s memorial service. Flowing down from the second floor balcony and leading to the front doors were yards and yards of luscious white draping. Flanking the entrance were two large white pedestals holding urns filled with flowers. It was touching to see how the building’s facade and it’s large garden area and patio in the middle of the compound had all been adorned throughout with this same lovely draping along with a big white tent to protect us from the strong-willed sun or impulsive rain of Paraguay. Flowers were everywhere, inside and out. Tables full of arrangements, photos of Porter, compilations of messages for Porter’s family – every detail thought out to make the statement that this was a very important service memorializing our friend Porter.
Everyone was seated and then the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Paraguay, James H. Thessin and his wife, along with staff from the Embassy, were escorted in with their security guards standing in the periphery. The service began and was executed perfectly by Porter’s teammates. It was given in both English and Castellano as well as Guarani, before a crowd of more than 200 people. Doug, one of Porter’s teammates, was the Master of Ceremonies, and he did a superb job. At one point he spoke at length completely in the indigneous language, Guarani, and it sounded like a song, he did it with such grace and ease. I sat up straighter in my chair. I was so proud of this young man and his excellent knowledge of Guarani. I know that it spoke to the hearts of the people in the audience who were raised speaking that language. It certainly spoke to my heart and the manner in which he spoke allowed me to understand completely what he was saying.
Everyone was given a chance to speak about Porter and their memories of him. There was a professional videographer recording the service and I watched as he became emotional with the messages given.
The service was very healing but I believe it also fortified the relationships within Peace Corps Paraguay. I know that all of our volunteers must have felt very loved because so much was done to soothe our souls and give us an opportunity to begin the healing process. I know, too, that at the same time, we were left feeling very proud to be a member of this organization.
Director of Programming and Training, as well as our Associate Director for the Environment sector, (which was Porter’s sector) conveyed very meaningful messages from Peace Corps Washington, DC and Peace Corps Paraguay, as well as sharing their own personal thoughts and memories, in a very heartfelt and supportive manner.
Porter’s teammates contributed so beautifully by recounting so many fun, crazy, great moments they’d shared with him and several provided music and a reading that I know Porter would have enjoyed — ukelele, guitars, and poetry.
It was very moving to hear the message from one of our doctors who spoke representing the whole Peace Corps medical team. His emotional words demonstrated the great care and concern they showed for Porter and the excellent support they provide for all volunteers. Tending to the needs of volunteers who are so far from home, many fresh out of college and so removed from family and friends, causes a special bond between us.
Porter’s host family from his site, a sweet family of people short in stature but tall in courage, conveyed something very important to us regarding the close relationship between a host family and their volunteer. It was so very brave of them to get up to speak about such an emotional topic. They spoke to us about their love for Porter and the times they shared with him. They directed some extremely kind and insightful comments to all our volunteers, telling us of the love our host families feel for us. I know that I will never forget what they shared. What wisdom they showed in exclaiming to our volunteers the important place they each hold in the hearts of their Paraguayan families.
The time came for open tributes to Porter. So much had gone on in my head over the days since Porter’s death and I grieved deeply for Porter’s parents. So each day I sang from a distance, sending reassurances to them way up into the sky, hoping a cloud would capture my messages and take it all the way to them, to their broken hearts. I was singing reassurances regarding their loss of their only son, but also singing reassurances to myself as I looked at my map on the wall showing how many countries there are between me and my children. I’m grateful for my grandmother, Allie Verta Chambers Kinard, for giving me so many melodies that now run through my veins – beautifully worded hymns that are always there and available inside me in time of need.
I hesitated as I held the message I had prepared and from my seat I looked over the crowd of people, some of whom would understand my message best in English and some of whom would understand it best in Castellano. I had practiced it the night before, trying to loosen up my tongue for such words as “periodicamente,” “emanaba” and “esfuerza.” I rose from my chair, went to the podium, adjusted the microphone – “Can you hear me?” – then nodding came -“yes”- and I gave the message I’ve included below. Later, I was surprised to hear from the mothers and fathers in the audience who felt that I had represented their feelings too. I am now so glad that I put all hesitation aside. I should remember the phrase I’m consistently repeating to the folks here in my site – “It only takes the first step, then the rest will follow.” Here’s my message:
Esta es una carta para los padres de Porter.
Estimado Jon y Mary,
No me conoces, pero tenemos algo en común. Estoy sirviendo en el Cuerpo de Paz Paraguay. Mis hijos son casi la misma edad que Porter. Cada día pienso en ustedes y la pérdida de su precioso hijo y lo pienso desde la perspectiva de una madre. Mi corazón y mi mente no pueden comprender lo que deben estar experimentando. Ustedes amaban a su hijo desde lejos y lo amaban con toda su esfuerzo, como yo a mis propios hijos. Y con eso, simplemente no hay palabras para describir la magnitud de esta pérdida para ustedes.
Me acuerdo sentando junto a Porter en una reunión y periódicamente me incliné hacia a él y le pregunté algo sobre el tema. Porter se volvió a mí y con una sonrisa tranquila y un brillo en sus ojos, me respondió. Era todo un caballero. Más tarde, seguimos conversando, y sus rasgos de personalidad eran obvios. Él emanaba sinceridad, inteligencia y un espíritu generoso.
Siento pena por su pérdida y palabras vienen con dificultad. Sólo les diré que mi canción para ustedes, que viene automáticamente de mis labios cada día desde que Porter nos dejó, es la canción que escuchaba cantar mi abuela.
Las palabras van así:
Dios te acompañe hasta que nos volvamos a ver;
El va aconsejar y fortalecer,
Con sus ovejas firmemente envuelven
Dios te acompañe hasta que nos volvamos a ver.
Jon y Mary, le pido a Dios que te envuelva en su amor y sane sus corazones heridos. Ustedes han criado a un hijo ejemplar que había logrado mucho durante su corto tiempo aquí en la tierra. Nosotros aquí en el Cuerpo de Paz Paraguay vamos a continuar a trabajar arduamente para lograr cosas buenas, como Porter habría hecho, y vamos a llevar su memoria con nosotros siempre.
This is a letter to Porter’s Parent’s.
Dear Jon and Mary,
You do not know me, but we have something in common. I am serving in Peace Corps Paraguay. My children are near the same age as your Porter. Every day I think of you and the loss of your precious son and I think of it in the context of a mother. My heart and my head cannot comprehend what you must be experiencing. You loved him from afar and you loved him strongly, just as I do my own children. And with that, there simply are no words to describe the magnitude of your loss.
I remember sitting next to Porter in a meeting and periodically I leaned towards him and asked something about the topic being presented. Porter turned to me and with a quiet grin and a twinkle in his eye, he answered me in earnest. He was such a gentleman. Later, we had more conversation. His character traits were obvious. He exuded sincerity, intelligence, and a generous spirit.
I am so very sorry for your loss and words come with difficulty. I will just tell you that my song for you that has come automatically from my lips each day since Porter left us, is the song I heard my grandmother sing many times.
The words go like this:
God be with you til we meet again;
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you;
God be with you til we meet again.
Jon and Mary, I ask God to enfold you in His love and heal your broken hearts. You raised an exemplary son who did great things during his short time here on earth. We here in Peace Corps Paraguay will continue to work hard to accomplish good things as Porter would have done and we will carry his memory with us always.
I won’t go into detail about the bus ride home last night. Suffice it to say, 5 o’clock rush hour in Paraguay continues way into the night. I should have stayed in Asuncion at the hostel with the rest of my buddies. The good thing is that today I’m here at home resting from yesterday, getting some project work completed and having a chance to recount to you my friends, my view of a very meaningful experience here in Paraguay.