A second funeral, reintegration into life in America and my final day in Antigua

When we travel intentionally — looking for the presence of God — we learn to celebrate that which is unusual to us, realizing that difference is the essence of God.”

Andre Henry

Originally posted on Medium in 2018.

Tears streamed down their faces as they carried their father in a casket above their heads. Rudy is 18 years old, the youngest of three siblings and a graduate of Escuela Integrada. His sister and brother have children of their own, three of whom currently attend the school. When Don Magno died on July 30, he left behind a wife, three grown children, and four grandchildren, all intricately connected to Escuela Integrada and the greater GRACES community.

This is the second parent funeral I attended in the two summers I have been volunteering in Guatemala. Last year, four girls lost their mother. The funeral and procession through Paramos was the day before I returned to the U.S. This year, Rudy lost his father. The funeral and procession happened 36 hours before I flew home.

As Hannah and I walked with the family from the church through the streets of San Felipe, I leaned over and said quietly, “Maybe I shouldn’t come back. Maybe I’m bad luck,” to which she responded, “No, death is frequent here. It happens all the time.”

Earlier this summer, the father of a first grader died. He died of alcohol poisoning, which, unfortunately, means he died by his own addiction. The mother who died last year likely had a curable illness, but could not afford a visit to the doctor or time away from making tortillas to support the family. Don Magno died of complications from diabetes. Doctors amputated his leg last year, and he suffered multiple infections in the year since. When people from the school went to visit him in the hospital the day before he died, the line was too long and they were not able to see him.

Three parents from Escuela Integrada died in the last 12 months. That’s reality in Guatemala — lack of access to health care, lack of sufficient doctors, lack of medicine, lack of time or transportation to go see a physician, and, as a result, high mortality rates in infancy and adulthood for families in poverty.

I landed in Denver late Thursday night and spent the past few days re-acclimating to the comforts and conveniences of the U.S. The first day back I needed to go to the grocery store, my fridge and cupboards empty from the last two months away. Yet, I resisted. I remembered how overwhelming it was last year — I walked in one door and right back out the other. Grocery stores in the U.S. bleed abundance and excess after spending time in a developing nation. It is not only the size of the stores, but the number of choices available for every kind of food.

When the pickup truck pulled up outside Evelyn’s house in Antigua on Monday and Wednesday mornings, we bought the fruits and vegetables they happened to have with them that day. They sliced pineapples for us to try, and displayed the in-season produce with pride. The majority of my produce came from the truck this summer. Meat, cheese, rice and pasta came from Caoba Farms, a small organic farm at the base of the Agua Volcano on the south side of town, and supplemental gluten-free treats came from cafés and specialty stores, if and when they had them available.

The process of grocery shopping is perhaps the clearest, or at least most understandable, element of reverse culture shock when returning to the U.S. There are many others.

For those who travel to or serve in developing nations, the reintegration process is difficult. Everything seems very clean— sterile almost—and very spread out. People drive their own cars rather than jumping in and out of a microbus at the nearest street corner, where the cobblestone street turns into a one-way. Everyone follows the rules, rules of the road and rules in terms of societal expectations.

We text before we call. We call before we visit. We clean our homes before welcoming visitors.

Church is different too. At the funeral mass for Rudy’s father, the priest spoke in broken Spanish, a dog rolled on the cool tile floor within feet of the casket, and townspeople sold street food at the back of the church. Family members, friends and strangers walked in and out throughout the mass. People wore whatever they had on for work or school that day and left their place work or study to attend the funeral at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

When I went to mass on Sunday, I worried about what to wear, made sure I was on time, sat in the same place I always sit in and sunk back into the rote repetition of the prayers I know so well. The mass was in English, the first English language mass I’ve been to in nine weeks. I didn’t have to follow along in my Spanish guidebook to know how to respond. And I cried through the whole thing.

That was breakdown number one.

The following day, I started to unpack the boxes of clothes and shoes I stored in my garage over the summer. I packed up my house in case I was able to find a subletter while I was away. My closet and drawers were empty when I returned. I washed and hung the items I took with me to Guatemala, satisfied with the same few clothes for several days. As I opened the boxes and pulled t-shirt after t-shirt out of a plastic tub, I lost it again. Why did I have so many things? Who needs a closet full of clothes they seldom wear?

Breakdown number two.

Returning from mission work can make you feel like a crazy person. The impact the experience has on your prayer life and your emotional state is significant. Crowds of people are hard. Big cities, big events and big stores are hard. Loud noises are hard. Driving everywhere alone is hard. I find myself easily irritated by what seem to be a litany of complaints about insignificant things, and I could care less about the boasting of very American achievements.

Jumping back into life in a first world country is a jarring experience after living and serving in a developing nation. Relationships change, activities change and the places we choose to spend our time change. We listen to different things, we read different things, and we crave intentional community with people who have done something similar.

As I left Guatemala City last Thursday, I heard two young American women argue with their mother about who was going to sit where on the plane. They criticized the Latin American singer on the television in the boarding area. Both girls had cell phones out and snapchatted selfies of their oversized Dartmouth sweatshirts.

Nearby, a Guatemalan family waited to board the plane, perhaps their first flight ever. Grandma, uncle, daughter and granddaughter waited. I don’t know their story, but the simplicity of their actions as they waited at gate 47 showed that this may well be their opportunity for a new life.

We took off from Guatemala City, and I did not know what to expect for my transition back into life in the U.S. Now, a week in, the only thing I know is that it has been just as difficult, if not more so, than last year. I am not ready to go back to work. The places that have brought some semblance of comfort since I got back to Colorado include places like my neighborhood church, coffee shops and yoga, all things that were part of my regular routine in Antigua. Life is moving slower and my radius is smaller. I am praying through the ideas of full-time mission work, career changes, and further study in a PhD program.

My last full day in Antigua, I woke up early to go to mass at the cathedral. It was August 1, the birthday of my namesake, my aunt Kathleen Ann Jones, and my one-year anniversary of the consecration to Divine Mercy, a 33-day retreat I completed during my first summer in Antigua. After mass, I walked to Cafe Collecto for a final cup of coffee from a place that birthed many stories this summer. I talked with the baristas about my experience and my desire to return to Guatemala summer after summer for the foreseeable future. When I left the coffee shop, I took a final walk under the famous yellow arch, Arco de Santa Catalina.

I had breakfast with Evelyn and finished a story about a family from Escuela Integrada who worked hard to break the cycle of poverty for their children. Around noon, I headed to the school for a final visit with the kids and teachers.

“Gracias, Catalina! Gracias, Catalina! Gracias, Catalina!”

The kindergartners jumped up from their school work and turned me into a human jungle gym as soon as I told them it was my last day. They know me at the school by two names, “Otoño” and “Catalina.” Catalina is the closest Spanish translation of Kathleen. The kindergartners prefer “Catalina” because, “Otoño is a boy’s name since it ends with an ‘o,’” and I am “obviously not a boy,” they say with giggles. They are funny and so smart. And that morning, Kathy’s birthday and the final day I would walk under the Santa Catalina arch, the name “Catalina” had even more significance.

Kathy shows up in my life frequently. In 2012, I wrote about her memory in The Denver Post amidst our family’s evacuation during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Now, six years later, she has a profound impact on my Guatemalan experience. Dad tells me a little more about her each time I do something that she would have done or live somewhere she lived. She was in Guatemala forty-one years ago on her birthday. Dad told me that on her birthday last year and the day I completed the consecration to Divine Mercy, unbeknownst to him. I am grateful for her presence and her ability to help me see the presence of God in my travels.

With her guidance and the guidance of all those I shared this summer with, I am learning to celebrate that which is unusual and to realize that difference is the essence of God. Now, the challenge is to continue to celebrate and integrate those differences into my life in the United States.

Thank you for accompanying me on the journey.

The Faithful Writer

By Autumn (Jones) Hartley

Writer. Educator. Social Media Strategist. Gonzaga ’10 (B.Ed.), CU-Boulder ’14 (M.A. Journalism).

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