Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Perfect Cast Party

I never told David I was coming to visit.

We chatted online every so often over the past couple months, and if he mentioned the subject of me visiting, I would simply tell him that I hoped to see him soon. So I knew I wanted to surprise him. I just didn’t know how. When we arrived in Managua on Thursday night, I still didn’t have a plan. But a spur-of-the-moment on Monday afternoon took care of that. 

“Stop the van!” Dr. Ross yelled that day from the front seat. We were headed home from our first full day in the barrio, a bus full of worn-out workers. “Stop the van! Hey Lee, look out the window!” I looked across the street to see what Doc was yelling about. The only thing I could see were three ladies walking down the sidewalk. 

Then I recognized who it was. 

“Let’s surprise them!” I shouted up to Doc. “Can we get out here?” The crew was looking out the side of the van now, trying to see who it was we were shouting about. I was in the back seat, so I climbed over arms and legs to get to the front. 

“Who’s out there, man?” Mike asked as I passed. 

“It’s David's mom and sisters! We’ll be right back!” 

Doc and I hopped to the curb and walked around the front of the bus. We were going to try and sneak up on the girls, but David’s sister Judith was much quicker. The gig was up before we even crossed the street. 

“It’s Lee!” Judith yelled from their side of the street, pointing and waving. David’s mother Carmen and his other sister Louia looked and started to wave frantically too. By the time we dodged through Managua rush hour to reach them, they were in full celebration mode. 

We couldn’t talk for very long, but I promised that I would stop by the next day at the house to visit. The following morning, they swung the door open for me and I was once again guest of the ever-smiling Morales Espinoza family. 

I was more thankful than ever not to have a family assignment on this trip, since I ended up going back to David’s house every day that week to spend time with the family. My arrival tended to start quite a ruckus at David's house. The woman who calls herself my Nicaraguan mother ran to the door every morning as if I were a long lost son returning home from war. The girls would dash around the kitchen, fixing drinks and snacks, as David and I caught up on what we’d missed since I left in July. I learned he was getting over a rough breakup with a girl that he really liked, and we spent some time laughing over the international mysteries of the female kind. 

“She says that she does not want to go out with me anymore, but then why do I keep getting messages from her!” he would say, his head in his hands. “What does this mean?!” 

“Listen, David,” I told him. “As a friend of mine always says, cut her loose and set her free. If she comes back, it was meant to be.” David stroked his chin, nodding.

“Yes, I think I see what you mean, my friend. Ahhh, girls. They are not worth the trouble!” 

And David’s mother, though unable to speak English, would just refill our drinks and chuckle, probably assuming through motherly intuition that we were speaking of such things. 

I had brought many things with me to show David involving the ChangeALife campaign back home. The family marveled over his appearance on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette…

…and the girls loved our billboard so much, they made David and I recreate it for them there in the front room. 

Later in the week, Carmen presented me with a present from her. It was a collection of childhood photos of her kids, mixed in with photos of my visits to their house. On the front, it said ‘bragbook’. She is quite the proud mother of her kids…

….which reminded me of my own mother, who had sent Christmas presents with me for everyone in the family. Carmen loved her new nightgown, and insisted that I bring my mother with me on my next trip. Did you hear that mom? 

Next time, I’m not allowed to leave you at the gate.

So somehow, it’s the end of the week. In some weird paradox of time, the incredibly long days that crawl by with a seemingly endless agenda have all disappeared in a flash, and just like that, it’s Friday afternoon, and thus the hardest part of all. The part where we say goodbye. 

I’ve told David and the family that this will be my last visit for a while. So when I knock on the door for the last time Friday morning, I’m taken back by what I find. 

The house is completely decked out. There are streamers strung across the ceiling, with balloons all over and a Spongebob Squarepants piñata hanging from the roof. At first glance, it would appear as if one of David’s sisters is having a birthday party. But on one wall of the home, there is a dry erase board, and today it spells out the reason for the decorations. 

 “My friend, we have a farewell fiesta today!” David says in greeting me. “My mother says you must bring all your friends here!” 

I am speechless. The day before, his mother had asked how many people were with me in my group. She had been planning this all along. I felt horrible at first, knowing this was not on our group's agenda. Friday is already a very tightly scheduled day for us, and we are already behind schedule. But I promised them we'd be there anyway. We would make it work.

After inviting them to the health fair, I run down to the clinic and find Doc in the exam room. 

“Doc, we have a problem.”

“Why? What’s the matter?” he asks. 

“We have to go David’s house before we leave.” 

“What? Why? I don’t think we will have time with the health fair and all.”

“I know, but I just came from there. They have their whole place decorated for a party. For our entire group.”

“You’re kidding.” Doc scratches his head. “All right, we’ll figure something out. But we can’t stay long.” 

Thankfully, the health fair goes smoothly, followed by the piñata for the children. During the presentations, we usher David and his family into the back room to debut the ChangeALife commercial for them on Dr. Ross' laptop. They watch it in silence, all of them with huge smiles on their faces. 

To Ray, Kyle, Larkin and everyone else who made this moment happen - I'm proud to tell you that they loved it.

Outside, the students made their way through the crowd on the veranda, giving final hugs and leaving addresses, promising to return....

Before long, Dr. Ross encourages everyone to move toward the bus, but once we’re all outside the clinic, he announces a swift change in plans. There’s a party at David’s and we’re all invited, he tells the group. For just about everyone except me and Doc, this will be the first time everyone has even met David. In a terrific show of exhausted teamwork, they trudge up the street toward the house, where they are welcomed as honored guests.

Somehow, there are chairs for everyone. There are cold drinks for everyone. There are club crackers for everyone. Carmen is in her element as a mom, directing people to sit and relax and feel at home. Dr. Ross and I are blindfolded and made to dance while striking at the tiny piñata….

And of course, everyone wants to hear the trumpet that they’ve heard so much about. My commercial co-star is more than happy to oblige.

Thunder starts to roll through the air outside. But it doesn’t matter. Inside, there are Christmas gifts to be opened. 

For me, Carmen has picked out a beautiful traditional Nicaraguan camisa. David laughs at the color, but I don’t care if purple is my color or not – it’s a wonderful gift. 

Outside the rain starts to fall, just like it did on the last day of the ChangeALife shoot in July. But we are safe under the solid roof here in David’s house, and thanks to their hospitality, the only one left out in the downpour is…well…..

….poor Megabus. 

Unfortunately, we have to say our goodbyes here. 

In one last beautiful display of entertainment, David’s sister Judith twirls through a classical Latin American dance in her finest dress.

As she spins around and around, a bright red blur in the center of the room, the trip strikes me as such: a beautiful blur that ends all too soon. 

Watching Judith dance, I remember there being talk of having a cast party for everyone on the ChangeALife team back in Pittsburgh. But this is so much better. I lean over to Dr. Ross. “I don’t think we could’ve planned a better cast party if we tried.” He nods.

“You’re absolutely right. This was perfect.”

We pile into the bus a few moments later.  I take my seat in the back corner of the bus, all of us waving profusely at the Espinoza family. 

All four of them stand in the rain, crying, and watch us go.

The bus starts down the bumpy road through the barrio on its way toward the market. I put in my ear buds to distract myself from thinking too much about what just happened, and everything that happened before it. But wouldn't you know, Carrie Underwood pops up in the shuffle, singing her song Change

There’s simply no better song that could bring this whole wild ride full circle. For me and everyone else who has stepped foot in this barrio, the words of this chorus are an anthem of hope that will stay with us forever...

The smallest thing can make all the difference
Love is alive, don’t you listen to them when they say
You’re just a fool, just a fool to believe
You can change the world.