Image: Unsplahs, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/iaHUtwh-71Y) 20.05.2023.
Travels and Traditions
"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined."
--Henry David Thoreau
In the world between life and death, hallucinating and screaming from the excruciating abdomen pain in my lower right side, my Tío Guillermo, a medical doctor, came to our house and drew a blood sample. Earlier in the week the family pediatrician had correctly diagnosed bronchopneumonia, but misdiagnosed the burst appendix. Tío Guillermo's lab results showed peritonitis, a serious infection rapidly spreading inside my tiny 4-year-old body. And that's when I first saw my parents crying because they might lose me.
Clutching my favorite doll, Rosita, Mami bundled me up in my blue wool blanket and whisked me into Papi's arms. Our family's chauffeur drove at a fast speed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. When we arrived, Tío Manuel, a top surgeon in Lima, and his surgical team were in the operating theater. My uncle spoke to Papi in hushed tones, while the nurses lifted me onto the operating table. Mami took off my nightgown and the nurse put on my white hospital gown and started the IV. Mami kissed my cheek and held my hand. She smiled when I asked about the shiny bright lights hanging over me and the trays filled with tools. Tío Manuel held my hand and told me I would soon be asleep with a special powder while he operated, and then covered my eyes to administer the ether anesthesia, a powder with a distinct smell used at the time in developing countries.
Even though I was under anesthesia during the lengthy surgery, I found myself transported out of my body, looking down, and floating towards the bright light in a long tunnel; I did not see my guardian angel and did not enter the tunnel. I remember waking up during the lengthy surgery, asking my uncle to take off the sheet covering my eyes, but the surgery was still in progress. And I overheard Tío Manuel instructing the anesthesiologist to administer a sprinkling of the ether powder. The next time I woke up was in my hospital room bed with IV drips and surrounded by a huge oxygen tent. Mami and Papi were at my bedside, as was Tía Mechita, Tío Oscar, and the chaplain from the Peruvian Navy. My parents told me I was a brave little girl who must stay inside her special dollhouse with Rosita, just a little bit longer.
Penicillin was in short supply after WWII. In 1949 there was none available in Peru. It was my Uncle Bill, Mami's brother, in Washington, DC, who came to the rescue. The penicillin was flown to Miami where just by chance our Panagra, Pan American-Grace Airways, pilot neighbor was waiting for flight crew arrival before heading back down to Lima. Even with the penicillin therapy I was not out of the woods. It was very painful when the only available veins in my body for a blood sample draw were those in my tiny feet. The IVs galore were in my arms and hands with hematomas everywhere.
My tíos and tías had masses celebrated at Catholic churches in the area, lit votive candles, and prayed to El Señor de los Milagros, a dark skinned Christ, for my recovery. And to keep my spirits up our relatives made pilgrimages to visit with me at the hospital. On one occasion I remember asking Tía Mechita if I could borrow her emerald green compact to comb my hair and look at my face. Then to the family's surprise I asked for a matching shiny emerald green patent leather purse, like my fancy Mary Jane black party shoes, with a hankie, rosary beads and a comb. Papi's cousins Rosita and Martita were on a mission to buy a green patent leather purse. They visited downtown Lima's stores and the big mercados in surrounding areas to no avail, but a bodeguita in a nearby district had one for sale. What a joy when my three aunties, Mechita, Rosita and Martita, brought the coveted tiny and shiny green purse filled with goodies to my bedside.
Following the ICU stay, I was moved to a spacious suite with comfortable chairs and an extra bed so Mami or Papi spent the night with me. I missed the blue sky, birds, butterflies and flowers in our garden, so I asked for my bed to be moved near the windows. Tía Mechita brought me a bouquet of daisies and flowers from her garden. She kept me company most days reading from La hormiguita viajera/ The Traveling Ant, by Uruguayan author Constancio Vigil. The colorful illustrations sparked my imagination and kept me entertained for future travel adventures. Mami, pregnant at the time with her fourth child, went home to be with my two little sisters and rest.
One afternoon Papi surprised me by bringing a small bedside radio, so I could listen to my favorite music. I was feeling better and asked Mami to bring my favorite Beatrix Potter books, along with the matching set of Peter Rabbit china dishes for my hospital meals! I loved reading and looking at the beautiful color illustrations.
My appetite was much improved, maybe it had something to do with Peter Rabbit and cute little animals on my favorite dishes, but slowly I gained weight. One tiny step at a time I would walk down the hospital hallway sans my wheelchair, but with a nurse. So, after a 30-day hospital stay, with Tío Manuel's blessings, I was discharged. When I returned home, a private nurse visited to take care of my daily needs, monitor the surgical site, and update Tío Guillermo during weekly medical visits.
During my time at the hospital, I learned to appreciate the little things I took for granted at home. And even though I was still experiencing pain and on medication, I was grateful to be resting in my cozy bedroom with my loving parents and little sisters close by. One afternoon Mami delivered a portable wooden tray with side baskets to my bedside, a gift from Nano and Boco, my American grandparents in Arkansas. The baskets held my books, cards, paper and pencils. As the first born grandchild in Peru, I loved writing the family's monthly letter to Mamama and Papapa who were living temporarily in Paris, France, where my grandfather was the Peruvian ambassador. My letters and drawings traveled via the diplomatic pouch, and Paris postcards and letters were little treasures that lifted my spirits.
My doctor uncles were pleased with my progress recovering from a near-death-experience, and encouraged me to resume favorite activities that did not involve climbing on a swing set, jumping rope or riding my bicycle out in the garden. That's when Tía Mechita got the green light and she invited me to continue my embroidery lessons at her house in Miraflores. I loved sitting up in the balcony reminiscent of the old Moorish-inspired miradors of Lima's colonial period, and working side-by-side with my great-auntie. While Tía Mechita patiently taught me the art of hand embroidery, she shared family stories about our colonial Spanish ancestors and the women who over the years brought sewing and embroidery traditions to Peru.
Tía Mechita, a skilled seamstress, surprised me with an early birthday gift on that special sunny September afternoon -- a beautiful purple dress, white rope belt, scapular, and white veil. October is the Purple Month in the city of Lima. Each October a procession celebrates the dark-skinned Christ venerated in Peru for his healing powers and that was the beginning of my journey to learn about the history of Afro-Peru. I would be dressed in purple the entire month, so the family's seamstress, Señora Teodorita, had made several purple dresses and apron smocks for daily wear at home. Purple was my new favorite color, and for Peruvians the world over, the color signifies miracles and centuries of devotion to the Lord of the Miracles.
Early October my parents and I visited the Church of the Nazarenas which was built around the original mural of the Purple Christ painted on a decaying adobe wall by an Angolan slave in Pachacamilla, a town on the outskirts of Lima. Interestingly when a powerful earthquake struck Lima in 1655, killing hundreds of people and homes totally destroyed, the mural was the only structure left standing in Pachacamilla, and surviving three more earthquakes, remaining unscathed. The original adobe wall survives to this day in the Church of the Nazarenas. The stories of miracles have grown and are passionately embraced by people who want to believe in miracles, an explanation for the unexplainable.
The padre was expecting us, and a Nazarene nun asked us to wait near the altar. After a short greeting he took my hand, offering prayers of gratitude to El Señor de los Milagros for my miraculous recovery, while sprinkling holy water over me. The beautiful handcrafted sterling silver milagro, with my name and date engraved, joined hundreds of thousands of milagros covering the church walls near the altar. Afterwards, with the help of my teary eyed parents, I lit several candles, while offering prayers to the Peruvian icon, the Purple Christ for bringing me back to life, and to my guardian angel for always keeping me company.
Later in October I joined the family to view a procession in honor of the icon from the miradors at the Torre Tagle Palace. Incense and the sound of horns and bells filled the air. I had never seen so many Peruvians of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds, walking side-by-side singing hymns.
The carving of the exquisite mahogany and cedar miradors was a collaboration between Old World and New World artists and craftsmen, resulting in a harmonious blend of Spanish, Moorish, Asian and Peruvian Criollo designs. Many years later the Torre Tagle Palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
I had visited Papapa at his office in this stunning palace when he was Minister of Foreign Relations, and the mysterious Moorish looking miradors captured my imagination - hidden eyes watching people coming and going in fancy carriages from behind the closed shutters up in the mirador. So, when the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Relations, a friend of our family extended the invitation to watch the Lord of the Miracles procession from the mirador, I was over the moon and felt very grown-up to be staying up past my 8 o’clock bedtime curfew.
I was a healthy little girl growing up, playing with sisters and friends, and adjusting to life in Miraflores. But I most enjoyed quiet time, reading, writing, and spending the day at the home of Tío Oscar and Tía Mechita. I loved reading and looking at pictures in my uncle's National Geographic magazines, dreaming of world travel adventures, and also keeping the Dulanto's family's embroidery tradition alive.
And I also kept my near-death experience tucked away. It wasn't until many years later that I selectively shared that with family and friends.
About the Author: Katacha Díaz is a Peruvian American writer. She earned her BA and MPA from the University of Washington, and was a research associate of the University of California at Davis. Wanderlust and love of travel have taken her all over the world to gather material for her stories. Her work appears with ZiN Daily, Amsterdam Quarterly, Big Windows Review, Anak Sastra, Shimmer Spring, Galway Review, Hibiscus, Barely South Review, Taj Mahal Review, Flash Frontier, Gravel, Westview, New Mexico Review, Foliate Oak, The MacGuffin, among others. Katacha lives in the Pacific Northwest, near the mouth of the Columbia River, USA.