Friday, December 30, 2011

December: Marathon`s End

Stany`s last month in the U.S. would be like the finishing of a marathon. The last week of classes would have him lecturing more than normal in his four courses, even as I was exceptionally busy with my five. A good moment captured would include half of my PS 201 U.S. Government class volunteering to pose in a group picture with Stany and I. This group had become acquainted with him as he sat in on the course as it met twice a week for the past 11 weeks.

Shelter week at Ascencion Church happened to fall on that same first week of December, adding to our collective exhaustion even as we sought to make Stany`s last days with us more memorable. After one overnight sleeping at the shelter. There was a need for someone to drive the families in the morning to the day shelter where they could continue efforts to find employment and subsidized housing. Pictured here are two of the children waiting in front of the bus I would soon drive. Kenny and Christopher are brothers who have, with their Mom and Dad, been homeless for over four months now. Prospects for finding a three bedroom place are bleak, but such is needed as these two need space separate from one another in order to avoid fighting. Their father is permanently disabled, using a specially trained dog to assist him. Their mother, while patient and generally cheerful, is almost always exhausted with the task of coping with constant stress. As we now approach the holiday season, in a land of advertised plenty, their reality wakes us to the fact that the American Dream for some is a nightmare. Though they are thankful to be sleeping on cots in a warm room protecting them from the cold winter air, being transported in a school bus as if they were the age of their sons must be disheartening for the parents. So it is not surprising they desired not to be in this photograph.

Considering the plight of this family, as well as the challenges faced by many of my students, complaining about my Final Exam work week would seem somewhat petty. Still, 86 hours in seven days pressed me to my limits. A deadline of Monday at 5pm had to be met for submitting course grades for the 140 students in my classes, or many of them would risk losing financial aid for the new year… Aid which several, I know, use to live on and avoid becoming homeless themselves. So it is that their stress becomes mine. Many are unable to but the textbooks, so I have multiple copies in the library. If they are fortunate enough to have jobs, they put off tasks when they can, just to support themselves and their families. This resulted in a more late papers being submitted than ever before in my 25 years of teaching in Portland. Over 70 late papers from 140 people added about 25 hours of grading to a weak normally overfull….

On the night before my grades were due, Stany insistent upon taking us out to NAMASTE buffet for a tasty Indian meal. My daughter Mira and her friend Naomi joined Kris and I , Stany and Shaman. Good conversation was enjoyed by all, including memories of how Mira and Naomi had fallen ill while visiting Stany at his home in Kerala nearly two years ago. Nursed back to health with the help of Shanty, these have become fond memories. Pictured here is yet another fond memory – of my son Shaman enjoying a beer with Stany as drinking buddy! If I were not so strictly against drinking alcohol, maybe my stress could have been reduced by more than good food!

The stress of such long working hours meant that my wife ended up doing virtually all of the Christmas shopping and preparations, as well as the planning and cleaning associated with a sendoff party for Stany. Naturally, that sendoff party was set for the evening of the day my grades were due! Thankfully she had some minimal help in preparing for the party from our son Shaman, and daughter Sonrisa: that could be their Christmas gift to us! Our friend Evonne baked a huge treslaiche (three milk) cake which was also a huge success at the party. The Maldonado family made about 10 gallons of seafood chowder which all of the non-vegetarians loved. Many guests brought deserts of drinks which, when added together, created quite a feast! Nearly 30 people came to the Sonnleitner home to bid farewell to Stany, including a great many people who had invited him to their homes during these last four months. Although personally exhausted, I was energized that evening by all who came, and by the appreciation which shown in Stany`s face.

Pictured above is one scene from Stany`s party. To the right of Stany is Christine Chairsell, PCC Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. Then Chris, and English Instructor at Cascade Campus who was Stany`s officemate there. Then Bryan Hull, Chair of the PCC Internationalization Steering Committee. Stany had just been presented a certificate of appreciation when this photo was taken, and now folks were returning to the socializing which most contributed to the fond memories that would remain.

Mohandas Gandhi spoke of Ram Rajya. Martin Luther King of the Beloved Community. At Stany`s party we could glimpse what they meant. What a wonderful mix of people all getting along so well together: Ages 3 to 70, Caucasian and not, straight and not, ethnically ranging from Mexican to Palestinian, Indian to African, military veterans and pacifists, Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Agnostics, and Atheists. To one on all my wife would say ``Me Casa Su Casa` (our home is your home). As can seen from the photo of the front of the house that night, it is as if a light was shining from within it! The Kerala Star on the front porch, of course, is a reminder that wise men were drawn to see the birth of a miracle so many years ago. As for now, is not every birth a miracle? Are not the birth of lifelong friendships and communities built around them among the most miraculous events of all?

Two days after the Party Stany would be transported by us to the airport, to return to his wife Shanty and other family members within 36 hours thereafter. They would spend Christmas together, as would we, separated half a world away. Kris and I would host another crowd of about 25 people, including all of our children, three siblings of Kris (together with their families), Margarita and her family, as well as our friends the Maldonados. A full house of joy to share – though a little more empty for the absence of Stany and Shanty. Christmas Day evening we were able to successfully Skype to India and could fill the space in our hearts with at least a visual of our former housemates. Stany and Shanty looked so happy together! As we said goodbye, my final photograph of Stany waiving to us from behind the security line at the airport came to mind.

Peace Be With Us, One and All.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this story Michael. As always your life's journey brings smiles and tears. You have always had a way of bringing people together and bridging gaps that most would not and it makes the world such nicer place to be in even if we are not occupying the same physical space it brings me peace to know that somewhere you and Kris are making the world a better place. Peace, love and warm light to all of you in the coming year. -serena