18 months, part I

“What are you drawing, Brent?” I asked, closing my Book of Mormon.

“Nothing,” he said, quickly closing his sketch pad and putting in the drawer. Brent was always drawing, but he never let me see what he had drawn.

I could tell he was really getting tired of staying in the apartment, but we had no choice. For almost a week I’d been in bed with salmonella, fever raging and every part of my body in pain, especially my stomach. But, like the good missionary I tried to be, I had propped my Spanish Bible against the wall and had lain on my side, reading until I couldn’t hold myself up any longer.

Today I was finally well enough to go and do something. As district leader, I’d been meaning to visit a sick elder who, like us, lived in the Alto San Pedro neighborhood of La Paz. Too weak to walk, I suggested we take a taxi. We rode along the rutted dirt road, every bounce causing me to hold my stomach in pain. I started to think that maybe I wasn’t ready to go back to work.

The missionaries’ house was finished in plaster, painted turquoise and white. We knocked on the door, and a Bolivian missionary in white shirt and tie answered the door. He took us to the bedroom, where Elder Sheldon lay in bed. When he had arrived a few months earlier, he had been what you’d expect from an Idaho farm boy: tall, broad, and strong. Now he looked tired and gaunt in the bed.

“How’s it going?” I asked, trying to appear cheerful.

“It sucks,” he said.

“You’ll get better soon,” I said, though I wasn’t sure he would.

“This place sucks, man. I gotta get out of here. I just need to go home,” he said. “The doctor says I have paratyphoid, whatever that is. All I know is I feel like I’m going to die, and I really just want to get out of here.”

“The mission president is working on it,” I said, again not sure if he was or not. “Is there anything else we can do to help?”

Sheldon glared at me, his eyes blazing, “Yeah, get me the hell out of here!”

Brent was staring at Sheldon, as if some unspoken understanding was passing between them. “We’d better go,” I said.

We said nothing on the trip home, as usual, and when we got home, I was so tired and sore I had to lie down. I woke up a few hours later and turned to see Brent still drawing.

“I think I’m well enough to work today,” I said Friday morning. “At the very least, we need to visit Antonio and his family.”

We took a micro up the mountainside to Pampahasi, our area. A sloping plateau above the city, perhaps half a mile wide and two miles long, Pampahasi was a poor neighborhood, and the ward met in a rented adobe house with dirt floors. I liked it there. The church members were humble and kind, and every Sunday the talks and testimonies alternated between Spanish and Aymara.

The sky was dark and the wind was blowing, but we were excited to be on the Lord’s errand again. We got off the bus about half a block from Antonio’s house. Through three months of illness and other problems, Antonio had been a bright spot. He was enthusiastic about the church and had committed to be baptized on Sunday. When he answered the door, he didn’t look up at us but kept his eyes focused on his shoes. He managed to choke out, “La guagua ha fallecido.” The baby has passed away. “I don’t think I can talk to you elders anymore,” he said and then closed the door.

We had no other appointments for the day, so we decided to knock doors. After we had gone about half a block, it started to snow. My overcoat was no match for the large, wet flakes, and soon we were both drenched.

“I think we’d better go home,” I said.

“But there might be someone waiting to hear our message today,” Brent said, looking hopeful.

“No, I really need to get home,” I insisted.

The next day, Saturday, I was feeling miserable. Weak and tired, I could hardly move. Brent read for a while and then went back to his drawings. Around 5, I showered and told Brent to get ready. It was stake conference, and we weren’t going to miss the Saturday evening session. We took a taxi to Sopocachi, the wealthy neighborhood where embassy staff and wealthy Bolivians lived. We took a seat in the back, and two sister missionaries, both nurses, sat next to us.

“You look terrible,” Hermana Stevenson said.

“Really?” I laughed. “I wouldn’t know, since I feel so great.”

The meeting began, and I tried to concentrate on the talks, but I was so tired and sore I could barely hold my head up. Suddenly, Brent put on his overcoat and turned to me. “I can’t take this anymore!” he almost shouted, and then he stood up and walked out of the chapel. Heads turned as I put my coat on and tried to follow him.

I stepped out into the cold night air, wondering how this was going to end.


One Response to 18 months, part I

  1. Mina says:

    I have a lot of comments, but first I want to say, you know you have your book, don’t you? This is it. A good, solid manuscript is developing; one that has not only publishing potential but, more importantly, human value.

    The conditions you detail are deplorable. I’ve had salmonella, I’ve even had campylobacteriosis (check out the CDC listing on that mother!)—people suffering from these things need medical care, not being left in a room by themselves and hopefully visited by other sufferers. The irony of that visit to Elder Sheldon is so telling about the mismanagement of the missionary program. I guess the whole situation could be described as byzantine maze of interlocking ironies…

    While your descriptive skill and eye for detail are especially strong, my favorite aspect of your developing style is understatement. It works so well with the sense of futility you are writing about and the attendant questions about what constitutes decent human relations raised by the situations you found yourself in.

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