A few weeks later, I woke up alone in a Waikiki hotel and thought, “What have I done?” Thinking back, I have to laugh at myself. My perception of the risk I was taking was so inflated and my denial of my fear was so unconscious.
But before I arrived in Hawaii, I took a wonderful bunch of teenagers to San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico and for a week, we helped build a very modest house for a very poor woman.
The kids and I were slogging away at our manual labor in the oppressive heat and humidity and this big gringo showed up in a beat up van. He called himself an electrician and said he was a friend of the home owner. He brought tools out of his van and started helping us. I was suspicious at first – I had a bunch of teenagers I was responsible for - but after a few days of working together, I concluded that he was an honest, genuine, sincere fellow. He was plenty bright, had a good Spanish vocabulary (though his accent was atrocious), and he seemed to have some perspective, as though he had learned from his life experiences.
I asked him to tell me his story.
He used to live in L.A. He was a machinist in the aero-space industry. He made a ton of money. He had a wife, big house, new cars, … all that stuff. He had a daughter. Though he made plenty of money, they never had enough. His wife was miserable, resentful and bitter. His daughter became a drug addict and lived on the street, turning tricks to pay for her habit. Work was stressful, everything was always a crisis, projects were chronically over-budget and behind schedule.
One day, he found out that his drug-addicted, homeless, prostitute daughter had given birth to a child. He tried to locate the child. He wanted to adopt it, but the State of California had taken possession of the child and, for whatever reason, would not consider giving the child to him. He went back to his life, but knowledge of his grandchild had changed him. He imagined his innocent, vulnerable grandchild adrift in a cruel, ugly world. Whatever feelings he had before – anger, defensiveness – changed into sadness and grief.
From his new perspective of grief, his life became tragic, and one day, he walked away. He divorced his wife and gave her everything – the money, the house, the cars, the debt – and he drove an old 1970’s van south to Mexico where he licked his soul wounds. He scratched out a living as an electrician, barely making enough money to eat beans and tortillas and put gas in his van. He found community with the very poor. He married a Mexican woman.
Somehow he got word that his daughter was pregnant again. He returned to L.A., found his daughter on the street, and took care of her until the birth of his second grandchild. He arranged for his daughter to be sterilized during the delivery and obtained custody of his granddaughter. He took his granddaughter back to Mexico and he and his Mexican wife are raising the child as their own.
At the end of his story, he told me, “We’re dirt poor. We barely survive. But we are happy and life is beautiful. I wouldn’t go back to my old life for anything.”