On that November morning, everything followed routine. Get up. Brush teeth. Dress. Drive. Someone waited for me at the clinic, but I didn’t hurry. Patches of clouds dimmed the sun overhead and I replaced the mindless drive-time talk with the music of Mercedes Sosa. Her rich Argentine voice soothed the nervous air.
As I made my way to work, a young woman slept in the lobby of the clinic, her small body curled up in the plastic chairs. She was twenty-four, a recent arrival from El Salvador, Central America. Her sister sat bored beside her, both of them oblivious to what that day would bring.
As I drove, I passed the small church which once housed the office of the refugee agency where I served as manager and where I learned to speak Spanish, the language I would need that day. I started working at the agency with a limited Spanish vocabulary that expanded to meet the needs of the job. Words to describe the violence that the Central American clients experienced before they fled their respective countries. Like el juez and abogados to describe the judge and lawyers who controlled their fates in this country. And bombas, fusiles, and heridas—bombs, guns, and open wounds. The court process, the deportation risk, bonds and bondsmen.
Before Spanish made a comfortable home in my brain, I once asked a friend if he wanted to “have revenge” at my house when I meant to ask him over for supper. Another time, I translated a letter from a client’s relative, full of religious references, reading “alas de la guia de la luz” as “wings of the guiding light.” A coworker corrected me—the word was “balas.” The letter described how bullets had severed an electrical wire in the family home. After three years on the job, the mistakes became fewer and Spanish a language I will always be learning.
Language, words, meanings would test me once I reached the clinic that day. But until that moment, I joined heavy traffic along the four-lane road to the north. The construction blocking one lane came as a relief—45 minutes to a place that normally takes twenty.
“Cambia, todo cambia,” Mercedes Sosa sang through a building percussive rhythm. “Cambia, todo cambia.” Everything changes. The traffic flowed slowly, inching through West Dallas.
I finally reached the high rise that housed the Dallas County Health Department where the young woman waited for me, her blood carrying a virus that she was unaware of. I had never before delivered death to someone—the bit of news that kills one life and gives birth to another, very different one.
Inside the building, the young woman from El Salvador sat up when she saw me. She appeared groggy, wearing a coat with a fur-lined hood against the cold in the building, a coat like one I had when I was a child.
Once I saw her, I didn’t hesitate. I called her name and ushered her into the office. Then, I told her with few words. “El examen salio positivo. Tiene el virus que cause SIDA. Tiene VIH.” “You are HIV positive.”
The words stunned her. She didn’t wail like her sister would a few minutes later once she found out. She didn’t throw herself against the wall like another young woman in another part of the clinic a few days before. She only sat there, her eyes staring out into a space filled with something only she could see. Everything changes.
In those two hours after, when her breath and voice returned to her, we talked about her boyfriend who does cocaine and who might hurt her when she tells him. She spoke of her young son living with her mother in El Salvador, a three year old who has many infections. She longs to have him with her. Her sister worried that she wasn’t a Christian and saved.
I kept quiet, but wanted to rail against the idea of divine punishment. Punishment for the sin of marrying the man who infected her? The husband who injected drugs?
That morning, after making her appointment in the early intervention clinic and the discussing partner testing and a plan to confront her partner’s violence, I returned to the day’s remaining tasks. The patients came and waited and went, like always. I don’t remember the time spent with them, the small tragedies of their lives. Only her. I only remember her.
I will never know what life was like for her afterwards. What it was like to sleep the first night, the first time she awoke from the refuge of her dreams. What it was like the first time she returned to her job in the restaurant. What she experienced at the first appointment at the clinic, how she might have paid attention to signs and symptoms or ignored them all. I will never know what it was like for her.
When work finally ended, I walked to the car. Opened the car door. Put it into gear. Moved ahead. Slowly in traffic, I made my way home. The more things stay the same, the more they change.
On the way, Mercedes sang the song again:
“But my love doesn’t change, no matter how far away I find myself
from the pain of my people or of my country.”