The last smile

A true story for a day like today, when we celebrate the feast of St. Joachim and St. Anne.

Juan Ignacio Izquierdo Hübner-July 26, 2022-Reading time: 8 minutes
last smile

In my memory of the last months of Margarita's life, there is a mixture of pain and sweetness. She was a tender and strong woman who, despite the inclement circumstances of her life, had the virtue of keeping her smile afloat.  

Rodrigo met her in 2016. At that time he was a business student, I was a law student, and together with a group of friends we were trying to move forward with a social initiative. We wanted to put young university students in contact with grandparents who were abandoned in their own homes. It would be a win-win dealWe would learn from the experience of the elders and they would be relieved of their loneliness. 

We chose to start in a vulnerable area: La Pincoya, a sea of 60-square-meter houses set among asphalted but narrow streets, whose zinc roofs reach the foot of the hills that enclose Santiago de Chile to the north. There we went to explore. At the local police station, we were advised to arrange visits on Saturday mornings, because that is when the drug traffickers rest.

The pastor, for his part, suggested that we wear white T-shirts so that people would associate our presence with that of the parish volunteers working on other initiatives, as this would give us more security. We then went door to door asking where grandparents lived who were interested in receiving visitors for a chat.  

In spite of our initial fear, the people welcomed us with warmth, we became familiar with the neighborhood and discovered that the problem of loneliness was frequent and heartbreaking. Saturday after Saturday, we visited grandparents to listen to them, congratulate someone on their birthday or give them a moment of conversation. We were not doctors, psychologists or social workers, but just inexperienced young people who left each visit with a full heart and a moved soul.

Very soon, Rodrigo met Mrs. Margarita. He was introduced to Mel, a young French missionary who had been working in the area for a few months. At that meeting, Margarita was happy to talk and Rodrigo told her that he would come back. The appearance of this lady was eloquent regarding her need: when she said that she was born in 1942 and that she was 74 years old, he was surprised, both because of her confidence in giving them this delicate information, and because she seemed to be 15 or 20 years older.

She was short and somewhat plump, wore a high hairstyle that sprouted like a field of white wheat on her head, was wrapped in a loose blue fleece jacket and a scarf (on subsequent visits she exchanged it for a much more elegant black sweater with gold buttons); she had large, expressive eyebrows, and was blind in her left eye. She walked with difficulty and complained that the muscles on the right side of her body ached. Her biggest problem, in any case, was not physical pain, but loneliness. She was a widow and lived in her little house accompanied by two small dogs and one of her six children, whom she unfortunately saw very little and who also made her cry with alarming frequency, as he was a severe alcoholic. She saw the other children "late, badly and never", since all but the daughter were also alcoholics. 

Two Saturdays later, Rodrigo returned accompanied by José Miguel. Mrs. Margarita was impressed by the fact that the young men had kept their promise, thanked God and welcomed them into her home with excitement. They sat down in some low armchairs in the living room and quickly got to know each other. First he spoke to them about his childhood in the city of Talca and then he moved on to topics that concerned him more, until he reached his children. There she finally opened her heart completely and told them, with trembling lips and shy words, a black sadness: the previous week the son who lived with her had died of alcohol poisoning. 

This poor man had been suffering from this addiction for a long time, but when he was told that his only son had hanged himself because of problems with drug trafficking, he lost control: he became desperate and clung to the bottle like a castaway to a plank. He spent a year like that, mired in the most dreadful anguish, until his body could take no more and he gave up living. 

Margarita recounted these misfortunes to Rodrigo and José Miguel as if they had been friends for a long time, at length and in detail: she managed to talk, lament and cry. After an hour and a half of catharsis, she felt she had finished: she wiped her tears with a handkerchief and looked my friends in the eyes, or what was left of them, for at that point they were as if petrified by the shock. Margarita gave a childish smile and thanked them: "If it weren't for you, I would have had no one to unburden myself to... now I feel more relieved. Thank you.

They replied briefly and realized they were running late, so they said goodbye. As she opened the door, she winked at them with her healthy eye and, pleading with her eyes for them to come back, she added, "I'll never get bored of you, I promise!". They parted and she directed their steps to the kitchen to prepare lunch, with a smile on her face, while the wall clock resumed its usual slowness.

Rodrigo returned fifteen days later. This time with the surprise that he was accompanied by José Tomás, a chubby and friendly student who was born in Talca, just like Margarita! The conversation was endearing and was interspersed with laughter and jollity, they even took a selfie. The farewell ceremony had a more festive ending: "My doors are open to you, and even more so if a Talquino comes," she told them, beaming with joy.  

In the following months there were three more visits, in which Rodrigo was getting more university students to accompany him: some more photos were taken, one day José Tomás gave Margarita two of those framed photos, she made jokes to the talquino and said goodbye with tender and varied phrases such as: "Thanks for coming, kids, I have you as my family" or "I have to thank God for sending these kids to my family" or "I have to thank God for sending them to my family". lolos so handsome to see me". 

In October I joined the plan to visit Margarita for the first time. By then there were 6 of us in the entourage. I remember that we parked at the local police station, as we used to do, and started walking around the town in our white T-shirts.

It was a very blue and warm Saturday morning, cloudless, the drug gangs were sleeping despite the loud reggaeton that flowed from some houses like musical jets, the ladies were leaving their houses pushing little canvas suitcases on wheels to buy vegetables at the neighborhood market, the children were playing soccer in the street and stopped the ball to look at us with some skepticism.

When we arrived at the corner facing our grandmother's alley, we realized that something had happened. On many front doors, the neighbors had hung white balloons. In the background, at the house with the white gate where Margarita lived, we saw a crowd of people.

Rodrigo smiled, although with trepidation: "He told me that his daughter was getting married, but I didn't know it would be today. Let's go! We followed him and as soon as we reached the front steps, we saw the door open and about 15 very serious and casually dressed but dignified people looking back at us.

In the middle of the group, a middle-aged man stood out, leaning on the shoulders of the others to watch us with particular intensity. He was bald, wearing sport pants and jacket and dirty sneakers. With a quick movement he took off his sunglasses and leaned out to get a better look at us with his reddened eyes. He seemed to recognize us, made his way through the crowd and descended the three steps that separated us to greet us with a grimace of bitterness, remorse and gratitude: "You came, you came, I can't believe you also came to my mother's wake, thank you, thank you!" he exclaimed, warmly shaking hands with each of us, while we processed what was happening.

We entered the house and he introduced us to his brothers, three fat and badly shaved men whose flat faces showed a dense and cryptic sadness, and a broad woman who seemed more empathetic. They greeted us with a look of deep respect and we saw ourselves, suddenly, in the front row, surrounding the coffin where Mrs. Margarita rested in peace. The surprise we got was enormous, we did not expect it at all!

Through the glass that showed the face of the deceased, I saw that she was smiling, for the last time. She was expressing pure joy, as if she wanted to leave us her strength, her trust in God, her gratitude for life. The relatives were watching us from the walls, but we had remained absorbed, with our eyes fixed on those closed eyes, those calm eyebrows and that sincere smile. The son who had welcomed us, with difficulty due to the tears that kept escaping like a badly turned off faucet, broke the ice. In a confidential tone, although with the obvious intention of making himself heard by everyone, he said to us: 

-It's been two or three years since I've been to see Mom. We talked on the phone, although very occasionally. The last few months she only told me things about you and asked me if I knew when the guys from the university were going to visit her again..." He wiped his tears with the sleeve of his tracksuit, sighed as if to catch his breath and continued, although looking at the floor, with a groan, "We had abandoned her. 

The brothers looked down too, we waited a few seconds and he continued with difficulty.

-And while we were busy doing our own thing, you came to replace us. You gave our mother a family in her last months of life. That's why we wanted to..." He looked at his brothers, they nodded, and he pointed to a small table in the corner of the room that he hadn't noticed until then. Ahem, we wanted to place here, at the Virgin's feet, the two photos you took with my mommy. 

There she was, indeed, in front of a plaster statuette of Our Lady of Lourdes and a photo of her husband and another of her deceased son, in the front row, the two of them in the front row. selfies framed pictures that José Tomás had given Margarita some time ago, facing the coffin. We did not know what to say, our throats tightened and we could not respond: Rodrigo was the first to cry, then José Tomás also broke down and we all ended up crying, we and Margarita's children, united with the rest of the relatives who had witnessed the conversation, all holding hands around the coffin. We prayed an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be, all together in an unforgettable moment of communion, while we contemplated that face, as tormented as it was smiling, of the deceased Margarita, that smile that attracted all eyes and consoled us with the thought that she was in a better place, freed at last from the sufferings of the earth, embraced perhaps by her husband, her son and her grandson in the hereafter; so much pain suddenly transformed into happiness, as a rose opens after being watered with tears and blood. Her smile comforted us: "You have come! -she seemed to want to exclaim with incombustible joy-, you have even come to my wake, children, thank you! By the way, I look sensational. When I arrived here I contemplated God only with the eyes of my soul, but then a very handsome seraphim lent me some of the eyes he carries in his wings, and you can't imagine how well I see here! Come soon, children, and don't worry too much about the pain you suffer in life, because all that finds its consolation here. Come and see me here too, don't delay too long!

We went out into the street in silence, accompanied by the brothers with the seriousness of a Holy Week procession. We looked at each other and did not know how to say goodbye. First a hug, then another. Promises of prayers, new thanks, a photo. In the end we managed to separate and walked back to the car, in silence, aware that we would always carry Margarita and her smile in our hearts. We were not doctors, nor psychologists, nor social workers, it is true, in that we could not give her professional help, but we had been fortunate enough to be adopted by Margarita as her grandchildren, and that is what we will remain for all eternity. 

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