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Editor's Note: Read Part I of "Touching a Stranger" here.
We loaded ourselves into the van and bumped along the dirt roads to another township. The homes here were less so huts than they were the Peruvian equivalent of desert ramblers: We pulled up before our destination—a home the same color as the sand. The modest building had a rather low wall on its front face with the door reminding me more of an entrance to a garden than a house. Overall, the home was long and narrow with one bed and a small cooking area covered in ash. Though the home was bigger and sturdier than the blind man's, it still lacked first world comforts. While I knew I wouldn't miss not having a TV set, I knew I would miss not having a stove or computer, for example.
The moment we stepped out of the van, children clung to us. This time the driver joined us, too. She, like the nurse, worked at the parish and was only a few years older than me, perhaps not yet 30. We started singing to the kids and I dug out the raisins and peanuts I had in my purse. Back in the States, I knew plenty of kids who wrinkled their little noses at raisins. In Piura, the children devoured them.
Now we visited an elderly woman with severe rheumatoid arthritis. She was curled up on her bed, her hands balled into claws, her feet contorted and covered with reddish purple splotches. Because of the woman's limited mobility, her hard bed was her domain. After we greeted the woman, the other missionary and I sat on the bed and helped lift her up. The woman could not sit up by herself. Throngs of children zipped into the house to watch. They all appeared healthy save for one who had a bad case of pink eye. The nurse explained to us how gentle we had to be in combing and braiding the woman's hair, clipping her nails, and cleaning her limbs. I interpreted for the other missionary and we set to work.
I had never really brushed straight hair before. I come from a family of curly and wavy hair. My own hair coils into corkscrews, my mother's bounces in soft waves, one sister has big curls, the other slight waves. I never really brushed friends' hair growing up because that's simply not a game we played as little girls. As a child of the '90s, even my Barbie dolls had poofy, teased hair. When there's a knot I can't brush out, I rip it out because, frankly, I have a lot more hair to spare.
This woman did not have hair to spare. It came out very easily even with careful combing. While I was used to shedding, I knew that straight-haired folks are not supposed to lose this much hair in brushing or combing. I looked at the nurse, but her eyes told me to continue. I balled up the strands collecting on the comb's teeth and tossed the newly formed hairballs in my lap. The woman had already lost most of her ability to move; a few extra strands of hair seemed insignificant in comparison.
Combing took a while, so long in fact that the woman would thank the other missionary and me every couple of minutes because we had been at it for so long. The woman had not had her hair combed in a week. Eventually the nurse said we could begin braiding. I separated the woman's hair into three sections while the other missionary started clipping her fingernails. I would take care of the woman's toenails and we would both wipe her limbs with moist towelettes. Inevitably I thought about taking care of my parents when they grew old. Suddenly the endeavor seemed less frightening than it had at one time. As that thought faded from my mind, the driver began reciting poetry by Octavio Paz. I don't remember what. I only remember recognizing it.
The children surrounding us scampered off when somebody from another house called them. A hungry cat followed. The nurse patted me on the shoulder and said we were finished, so we packed up, said good-bye, and loaded the van in silence.
Later that year, I visited one of my fiancé's aunts for the holidays. As I hugged her to leave, my hair got stuck on her watch. She looked horrified. Without hesitation, I ripped from hair from her watch so I could get on my way. She gasped and stated that, as a woman with short, thin hair, she would never dream of doing what I just had. I shrugged and said, “I have so much.” And I wasn't just referring to my hair.
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