Late March 15, Peru’s president declared a state of emergency, ordered ordinary people like me to stay home, and announced that no one would be allowed to enter or leave the country. By closing the borders, he threw up a wall, a barricade against the coronavirus that was already spreading through the country. But I felt it as a gulf, an infinite abyss that had opened between myself and my father, 3,500 miles away in a senior residence in Baltimore.
In the 30 years that I have lived in Peru, I have felt that distance in different ways. But never has it been so absolute. For the next two weeks, I cannot leave the country. If my father, who is 93, has an emergency, I cannot be with him.
It took me back three decades, to the year I arrived in Lima as a lay missioner with Maryknoll. Public services were spotty — there were frequent blackouts, and with luck we had running water for a few hours a day. A phone line cost $700 and there was a 10-year wait, so almost no one had one. When a family in my neighborhood finally made it to the top of the list, there was a block party. The rest of us used pay phones that took a nickel-size slug called a “rin” — because when the telephone rang, it made “rin-rin” sound. A 10-minute phone call to or from the United States could easily cost $100.
So we wrote letters. Hundreds of letters. My father wrote faithfully every week, and the first thing I did every Saturday morning was answer him, in longhand, because computers were still a rarity. There was always a time lag — the shortest transit time we clocked was a week — but the ritual was a constant, binding me to family with an invisible strand as tough as spider silk.
Barbara reflects on her first three-and-a-half-year contract with Maryknoll Lay Missioners–during which returns home were discouraged–and on her decision to return for a second contract after visiting home in 1993.
Last week, when the video call was impossible, I picked up a couple of postcards and some note paper and wrote my father a letter. There was something reassuring about going back to our old ritual. Putting pen to paper was the next best thing to touching hands. … I wrote the cards and mailed them from the same place where I posted those letters 30 years ago.
Then came the announcement — … Suddenly the mail was no longer an option. Even if I were permitted to walk to the post office, it would be closed.
… An abyss opened for me when the borders closed. In an emergency, there is no way I could travel to be with my father. No way to bridge the distance. Living in Peru is a choice I made, but as the years passed and Lima took on the modern face of any big city, it seemed a safe bet. Flights were cramped but reliable. Video calls revolutionized communication and email faded into the last century.
Now I’m looking to the past again. This time, I’ll send the email to my sister, who will print it and mail it to our dad. Together we will spin that gossamer thread, a combination of high and low tech, weaving a web that will cradle our hearts in this time of coronavirus.
Read the full story at Catholic News Service here.