Etch-o-Sketch (or, "80% Marias")

Sometimes me and Halen chill in sketchy places. It's a little father-son game we play. It's called "Chill in Sketchy Places." Halen named it. He's not very good at naming things. If I had named it, it would be called "Carburetor Caper." Just cuz. It's not a very fun game. Not like Clue, which is a fun game. Unless you have Mrs. Peacock in your hand because, ugh, she smells like over-the-counter medication.

"Dad, it's not helping that you're wearing a really expensive camera." (San Salvador, El Salvador; Jan 2016) Photo by Ramona Murdock

In El Salvador there are some sketchy places. Public hospitals are sometimes a bit sketch. A couple of months ago I got a call from an elderly Salvadoran woman. She was sick in a bed in a hospital I'd never heard of, in a part of town I had heard of. Sketchy place. She asked for a blessing. I'm a Mormon, and sometimes Mormon people give each other blessings, laying hands on the head of the sick person and offering a short prayer. I believe it's a benefit and a comfort to both the giver and the receiver. I agreed to go visit her. I updated my will.

A friend of mine, a local, came along. The streets buildings grew more worn down, the graffiti denser, as we moved toward downtown. The hospital looked sad and gray and droopy, the asphalt in the parking lot pocked and chipped. The yellow paint demarcating the parking spots was worn away. People swarmed everywhere, the ladies in halter-tops, the guys in jeans and t-shirts and really old polos. 

The guy at the front desk was aggressively turning people away. "It's past visiting hours!" he said, hustling the family in front of us back out the door they'd entered through. "You'll have to come back tomorrow!" I thought maybe he'd shoo us away, too. We approached in our white shirts, slacks, and ties. When you're giving a blessing, you try to dress respectfully. My friend told the guard our business. He smiled. "Good for you! God bless you!" He waived us through.

Something like 80 people got on the elevator at the next floor up. One guy was wearing sneakers and a Tommy Hilfiger shirt from 1995. Everyone called him "doctor," and he didn't correct them. I think he was really the doctor. Which was super depressing and super awesome at the same time.

The elderly woman who had called us in was sharing a hospital room with four other people. No curtains betweens beds. Each lady had a bag of something clear hanging from a hook in the wall behind the bed, and a tube led from the bag to her wrist. It was a really sobering room. Drab walls. Flaking paint. Open windows let in the smell of diesel. We chatted with the elderly lady for a few minutes, then gave her the blessing. The room went quiet.

Afterward, a really, really, really old lady across the room mumbled something and sort of feebly lifted her hand in our direction. I glanced at my companion, because I don't always understand Spanish very well, especially when the speaker is over 200 years old. He shrugged a little. "I think she wants a blessing too," he said out of the corner of his mouth. We shuffled over to her bed, and he leaned down to confirm what he thought he'd heard. She nodded. Her name was Maria. It was written on a warped piece of paper stuck to the wall with a piece of masking tape. We gave her a blessing. Then the old lady in the next bed wanted a blessing too. And the next one too. We moved from bed to bed, reading the names on the sad pieces of paper above the beds, offering short blessings to all five old ladies. Maria and Maria and Maria and Deisy and Maria. That's a lot of Marias. Sometimes it just happens that way. 

We visited with our new friends for a few more minutes. Mostly I just smiled and nodded and said "gracias" a lot, because I couldn't understand a single thing they were saying. At least not with their lips. I could understand what their eyes were saying. And that made all the sketchiness worth it.