Spicy Smoke, A Cat and A Farewell Hug
We received some sad news. Gonzalo died.
Gonzalo and his wife Lucia were among the founding families in the community. They were among the first to meet us, among the first to host us in their home, among the first whose names and smiles were etched into our hearts.
We haven't seen Gonzalo for a while. It has been hard to visit homes in the community since 2013 when the gangs made some strict rules about that. Gonzalo and Luci lost a son to gang violence. Every now and then I see Lucia selling food from a little table out in the street. Her face lights up the moment she recognizes a friend from the hermandad (sister church). Lucia has always been a good cook. One time, almost 20 years ago, my friend and I spent a week walking from home to home in the community, visiting with families, and I wrote about a particular visit with Luci...
Lucia invited us in. She gestured for us to sit down on the sofa, near to the fire so we could chat while she continued her cooking. I remember that sofa was so worn and low to the ground, it practically swallowed us up. As we sat and talked about our families, our eyes began to burn. Pastor Santiago sat in a chair a little further away and seemed oblivious to the situation. Lucia wiped her eyes from time to time with the corner of her apron. Pretty soon we three women had tears running down our faces. Lucia burst out laughing, "These are some pretty spicy chiles. I didn't invite you in to make you cry." We pried ourselves out of that sofa and finished our conversation outside.
Over the years when we have had a chance to be together, one of the three of us will say, "Remember that time with the spicy smoke?" and we start to laugh.
Lucia has Covid. Gonzalo did too.
One day, near the end of last year, I heard someone call my name from the back of the church. I walked over to a man who was seated on a plastic chair. "Do you recognize me?" he asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Of course I do! Gonzalo!" I said. His face lit up. I could see he was having trouble getting to his feet so I gave him a big bear hug right there in his chair. I sat next to him for a while and we chatted about this and that. He looked at photos of our grandchildren on my phone. He told me times were a little bit hard, but that they were going forward. Then he had to go. "Say hi to Lucia for me," I said, giving him a farewell hug.
Gonzalo was an optimist. He started up a little TV and small appliance repair business back in the day before he could afford to have electricity connected to the house. I remember asking him about how that would work out. He told me he'd pray and it would.
A few days ago I sent my friend a text, sharing the sad news of Gonzalo's passing. She texted me this: "Oh my heart...Rest in peace, Gonzalo. I remember you as a good man with a great spirit of hospitality, an electric smile in your eyes, and a tender spirit like I imagine Jesus has."
I texted back, "Do you remember the spicy smoke?" and she replied, "and Greg and the cat."
From 2001, here is the story of Greg and the cat:
Katy and I were to stay with Gonzalo and Lucia, who have a small, one-bedroom adobe (mud brick) home, half of which consisted of 2 beds (1 for them, 1 for us). Katy was needed to [help with the language barrier] in another home, that left me alone with Gonzalo and Lucia. On these trips you discover where you have cultural block or barrier in appreciating the way others live. I realized that it is uncomfortable for me to stay in a home with a dirt floor. That first night I knew I was feeling out of sorts, but decided to hang in there.
Gonzalo snored like a bull elephant. I mean, "shake the adobe, terremoto" type snores interrupted only by rooster crows 5 feet from my head. In the middle of the night, something jumped on my bed. I had no idea what it was. Some creature, obviously, but I could see nothing in the dark. On night number 2, I laid half awake determined to find out what was going on. One of their cats hangs outside the house until 2 or 3 am. Then, he climbs the adobe wall to the top of the roof, squeezes through an opening between the top of the wall and the roof, and launches himself onto my bed...or rather, his bed. It's a rather impressive 6 foot dive through mid-air.
Immediately upon waking up, I resolved to politely but firmly share with Gonzalo and Lucia that while appreciating their abundant hospitality, I just couldn't sleep with snoring and things that jump in the night. However, My dictionary had no word for snore, and I still had no idea the creature was a cat. Moreover, in the morning light, over a cup of hot instant coffee, their deep appreciation of my visit was clearly evident. These simple country people, so incredibly poor in human comforts, were rich in faith and abundant kindness. the look on their faces convinced this gringo to hang in there as their guest.
Thank you, God, for the life you gave to our brother, Gonzalo. May you comfort the hearts of all who grieve his passing, and give healing strength to Lucia who continues to fight for her own life. Help us to remember well the example Gonzalo shared with us, to be light and live in hope. Amen.
For another short story which features Gonzalo, read The Coolest Tecomate Ever
Contributing author, Greg Van Dunk from his 2001 El Salvador Reflections