Toward the end of my stay in the mission office, I began to feel like an old-timer. A lot of my friends and companions had gone home, and a large number of missionaries had come into Bolivia since I had been in the office. At the end of April, a small group was heading home: two welfare hermanas and an elder.
One of the hermanas, Hermana Thomas, I had known since I got to Bolivia more than a year before. We met that day a couple of days into my mission when I handed her a stool sample. Since that time we had been through a lot together, in El Alto and later in Tarija. I hadn’t seen her for a while, but it was good to reconnect. She came to the office with Hermana Jackson, who was from New Zealand, the day before they were to leave for her final interview with President Nichols.
Hermana Thomas had cut her auburn hair very short, and she looked like she’d been in the sun alot. She had been in Santa Cruz, in the hot, humid lowlands. I told her she looked nice with short hair.
“I got it cut at a beauty college,” she said. “They saved the clippings in a plastic bag because they’d never seen hair this color before.”
I couldn’t believe she was already going home. It hadn’t been that long since I was sitting with her while Beck was showering at their house in Ciudad Satelite.
“We have some errands to run before we leave,” Hermana Thomas said. “Would you mind giving us a ride?”
Dannelly was busy in his office, so I got permission to take them; as long as there were two of them, it was OK. I had some last-minute immigration stuff to do, so I told them I could take them as long as they didn’t mind making a few stops.
I drove the president’s Land Cruiser, with Hermana Thomas next to me and Hermana Jackson in the back seat. We went to the immigration office, and then we started on their errands. First we picked up some souvenirs they had bought at a tourist store.
“Now I have to pick up my dress from the dry cleaner,” said Hermana Thomas.
“Do you know where the cleaner is?” I asked.
“Oh, no, I don’t,” she said, looking a little worried.
“Let me have the ticket,” I said. “That should tell us where it is.”
The ticket had only the name of the cleaners and number on it.
“I know it was close to the Plaza Central,” she said, trying to be helpful.
“It’s OK. We’ll find it.” With that, I began driving around the city looking for a dry cleaner.
While we drove, we talked about all the things that had happened to us. She reminded me of passing a bread line in El Alto, when the people in line started throwing rocks and shouting that the rich gringas should buy everyone some bread.
“I wanted to do something to help, but what was I supposed to do?” she said, a little tearful. “And then there was that time those guys followed us home late one night and tried to climb over the fence into our house.” The men had been drunk and had threatened to rape the two frightened missionaries. “I’ll never forget that,” she said.
She told of helping to deliver two babies. The first time a “midwife” was there, but her idea of helping childbirth along was to place a warm pan of water between the mother’s legs. When the baby had come out with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck, the midwife had panicked, saying that she’d never delivered a baby before, especially not one like that. So, Hermana Thomas had calmly reached down and removed the cord from the baby’s neck and helped her deliver the baby.
Another time a woman in their ward in El Alto had gone into the city to give birth, but the baby had died during delivery. “She had to ride all the way back up to El Alto on the bus, carrying the dead baby,” she said. “She was so distraught and in so much pain. We helped her find a place to bury the baby, and then we helped her heal from the delivery.”
I tried to change the subject to more pleasant topics, like our time in Tarija together. “That was about my favorite time of my mission,” she smiled. “Everything seemed to be going well, and we all just worked together, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, that was a good time,” I said. “You do know that Lewis and Howard are engaged, don’t you?”
“I’m going to be one of the bridesmaids,” she said. “That didn’t take very long, did it?” she laughed.
We kept driving, and soon we were stopping at every dry cleaner we could find. She told me about her last few months in Santa Cruz in a “threesome” with an American who was constantly screaming (“Perpetual PMS,” she said.) and a German who had nothing but disdain for Americans and ridiculed her for shaving her legs. “I just tried to keep smiling,” she said, “and we ended up getting along just fine.”
The sun had already gone down when we found the dry cleaner. She got back in the car with a blue dress that smelled like kerosene.
“They’re having a party for us in Cala Cala,” Jackson said. “Can you drop us off?”
We drove up there and found the rest of the office missionaries. “Where have you guys been?” Dannelly asked. “The president would really like his car back.”
So, we got back in the truck, just Hermana Thomas and I, and Dannelly followed us in the other truck.
“I’m really going to miss you,” I said, suddenly realizing she was really going to leave.
We pulled into the president’s driveway, and we could see him unlocking the gate. We were both horrified that he had seen us alone together, but when we got out, he just smiled and said, “It’s hard to say goodbye, isn’t it?”
The next day we took the three missionaries to the airport. Alexander, a farm boy from central Utah, was wearing perhaps the worst-looking suit I’ve ever seen: a light blue-gray and very shiny polyester with a matching fedora. On his feet he wore gray and tan alligator-skin cowboy boots.
I gave Hermana Thomas a hug goodbye, and they were gone. Beck said, “She’s a really good person. You should look her up when you get home.”
“Yeah, maybe I will.”
Not long after that, I learned that a few weeks after she got home to Idaho, she had been riding her bicycle to work when she had collapsed on the side of the road. The doctors in Idaho didn’t know what was wrong with her and decided she was suffering from exhaustion. After nearly a month in the hospital, they discovered that she had contracted Chagas Disease after being bitten by the “assassin bug” in her last area in Santa Cruz. Fortunately, she was treated and recovered.
I think she made a lovely bridesmaid. And an even lovelier bride.