A Death in the Dominican Republic


I had forgotten she was arriving, but there she is, sitting with my neighbors in their front garden. Her face gives her away.

Shit, what am I going to say?

Morena has come to the Dominican Republic to take care of things. To finish up. To finalize the paperwork. Leo had called her and said, "I don't know how much time I've got, get here as fast as you can."

She couldn't get a flight in time.

He was making arrangements for their new life in this country, building a home near Santo Domingo when it happened. A random act — shot twice, one bullet passed through him, the second found his aorta.

Here's the dilemma, the doctors told him: We remove it, you bleed to death in moments.

"How long do I have?" he asked.

"Until the bullet moves."

He began to make arrangements. In this country, it's best if she is here to sign away his life while he is still alive. For two weeks, he made arrangements. She couldn't get a flight.

Not possible, I had thought. She doesn't want to be here. Until I saw her face. Yes, Germans love this country. They love the girls here too, the blacker the better. No flights.

"This is the friend I was telling you about," Bob told me.

A heart-shaped face, shockingly lovely. A child's huge, round eyes. She looked at me directly.

"I can't believe what happened," I said. "All of it. I'm so sorry you couldn't be here in time."

"It's been difficult," she said in perfect English. "I have to do the paperwork now, that will be difficult." Soft-spoken, matter-of-fact. "And we have a young son too." She broke down.

A young son? I didn't know.

"That's it, honey," Bob said, "Let it out. Brandon will cover for you."

I see my neighbor in a new light. Compassion. Real. Brandon is their daughter's newborn baby. She came here from Britain to teach English and married a Dominican boy from the campo. Her parents followed.

I smile too. "Brandon covers for all of us when we feel like crying."

She laughs through her tears. I ask her how long she is here. Three weeks. We talk freely, all of us. I tell her I will see her when I get back.

But now I have to go, am crazy busy getting ready to leave for Colombia on Sunday. How absurd.

***

It took two weeks for the bullet to move. I guess if they'd had the money, Leo would have been flown to Miami. Sometimes the practice of medicine here is better than good — doctors make old-fashioned house calls any time of day or night. And I've heard from a few people about specialists finding answers to chronic mysteries when first world medicine had failed. But traumatic heart and brain injuries are best cared for in the U.S.

I had to escape work Friday night, so stopped by the Voodoo lounge for some live music ... a fundraiser for shoeshine boys without shoes.

Morena was there. The neighbors have taken her into the fold. We downed a couple of tequila shooters and talked. I didn't know her husband was Dominican. He was one of the few who worked their way out of this country, against great odds. He sent money home to his parents every month, so they had rice on their table always. That is the level of poverty he left. He sent his younger brother through school, the only one in his family with a real education. Yet the brother learned nothing.

On one trip, Leo found out this brother was spending the monthly funds in the bar; it never reached his parents. He and Morena were told by various cousins and sisters and aunts and uncles that they were "lucky, and God had given them much." This was why they had a car and a nice apartment in Germany and money to spend. He was furious whenever he heard this and told them, "God has given us nothing."

Cultures of poverty rely on God much more than those of prosperity. Haiti is known here for cult-like religions springing up; Haitians are much poorer than Dominicans. The founder of one of these religions lives across my street. But don't picture suburbia, the cows pass by this street most days. I've spoken to the preacher or whatever he's called, he and his wife are Italian, and he is the typical charismatic shyster. They tried to interest my neighbors in their church soon after they moved here; they have never mentioned it to me. But let him try! He must see it in my eyes.

One day, years ago, Leo's brother put a gun to his head and demanded $10,000 U.S. or he would kill him. After that, they never spoke until the days before Leo died.

I wonder how many different ways we die ... millions? Disease and old age are givens. Also natural disasters. But the freak accidents that kill us directly due to our technologies and our civilizations... falling down stairs for a simple one. I wonder how many neanderthals fell off cliffs? I suppose we have always tripped over roots.

Yes, a bullet is different, not an accident, and our species has never had a problem inventing ways to kill. We're good at that.

***

People drive cars here and they don't know how to drive. It's a freak show. They understand little about how to use the machine, a weapon on the road. Flesh and bone doesn't hold up well under the crunch of metal. Or the zing of metal.

I see the old, old people way up in the hills. They ride burros. The pace of life is, no, "pace" is not the right word. Life drifts. When the young ones come to town and eventually buy cars, they drive as though still riding burros. They stop a line of traffic to chat on the main street of town. They drive every way but upside down, and in such a carefree manner it reminds one of a carnival show.

They don't know technology, but they use it, they're being pushed from behind into the 21st century, and they're like bewildered children. But they understand violence, and bullets.

Friends arrived yesterday from Santo Domingo. The autopista, a four-lane highway from south to north, shut down at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning of a long weekend. A man driving a huge truck with one of those extendable buckets hit a pedestrian overpass. Half the bridge fell immediately across half the highway. The rest crumbled more slowly, but the debris closed the one major route in or out of Santo Domingo.

Haitians carry their burdens on the crowns of their heads. Not long ago, I sat with a friend at a small hotel and watched a street vendor carrying his wares on his head, a flimsy wood bookshelf (likely his week's work). The hotel's entrance gate was made of wrought iron, with a decorative arch overhead. The man saw us and began to walk through the gate. Smash. For a moment he stood there bewildered, the shelving unit a pile of sticks at his feet. Then he gathered up the sticks and hurried away.

I am ashamed to say I wondered if that crane truck driver was Haitian. Unbelievably, there was only the crunch of steel and the crumble of concrete. No one was killed.

Not to be deterred by the closed autopista, my two friends looked at a map and drove another way. No one else thought to do the same. Turned out to be a goat path, nearly impassable. People along the way stared as if aliens were passing by. One little dog would not move from their path, he froze like a deer in headlights. A couple of hours into the goat path, they crossed a speed bump made of concrete.

***

There was a connection between accidents and bullets but I've lost my train of thought ... perhaps the endless ways we lose our lives. And then there's the simple ways of simple people who take it one day at a time, not far removed from the day to day lives of other animals; a direct connection between ignorance and happiness, and I see it all the time here. An acceptance of the quirks of fate. God plays a part too, because anything that cannot be understood is attributed to God.

Convenient, and there's always the afterlife.

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