A cold wind whipped my face as I stood in the back of a pickup truck with my sister and five other women. Rural Guatemala blurred by, the surface of Lake Atitlán flickering in the shadows of three enormous volcanoes. I didn’t dare reach down to pull my jacket out of my daypack, because I couldn’t risk taking my hand off the railing and falling out of the truck.
At a wide spot in the road, we hopped out and joined a group of Mayan women and their babies. They were meeting in the community room at a preschool, and a woman in the front had everyone’s attention. She spoke Kaqchikel, a particularly foreign sounding dialect, but because of her passion, intonation, and visual aids, even I could tell she was talking about food.
During a lull in the presentation, I pointed at one particularly beautiful child and whispered to my sister, “Peg, check out his hair!” It was a thick black mop streaked with reds and blonds, so exquisite that I yearned to touch it. Maybe his dad is American, I thought.
My sister whispered back that his unusual hair color is almost certainly a sign of malnutrition. A moment later, I heard the translator tell us that half of the children in that particular village suffer from severe hunger, and my heart broke.
Many years ago, a woman named Sharon must have had a similar experience. She was in Guatemala and saw the overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done. But unlike most people, she stayed there and does that work.
Sharon co-founded an organization called Mayan Families — a thriving, somewhat chaotic force for good in the world. While I was there last week, I saw young men learning to be carpenters. I saw elderly people celebrating a birthday, and I saw toddlers having lunch at a preschool. All of these miracles, and so many more, exist because Sharon had vision and grit.
Over the decade or so that my sister has worked with Mayan Families, she’s told me a lot about Sharon, and I hoped I’d meet her. Instead, I met her daughter Zoe, one of two Mayan girls Sharon adopted and who now is heading up the charity Sharon had to leave behind. For the second time in her life, Sharon is fighting a cancer diagnosis, and she’s in Australia now to get the specialized medical care she needs.
“When you visit the preschool,” Zoe told us, “I want you to do me a favor. Make a sign that says ‘It Will Work,’ hold it up, and take a photo for my mom.” She explained that people from all over the world are sending photos of themselves and a simple message: that the treatment Sharon is undergoing will work. It’s an offer of encouragement, and for me, an affirmation of the mind’s power to heal.
Zoe’s face glows with youth and exuberance, but I could see the fear behind her smile. It was easy to recognize because I see it still sometimes in the face of my husband who lives with a perpetual question mark dangling over his head. We both wonder if my cancer will come back, and if it does, what will happen. For Sharon and her family, that horrifying question mark became a reality.
“I know this sounds weird,” Zoe told me, “but my mom is the happiest cancer patient in the history of the universe. Her doctors can’t even believe it.”
But I can believe it. Cancer has a crazy way of putting extraordinarily good people in our paths, and their presence is uplifting. Cancer reminds us that every sunrise is a gift, that attitude is a choice, and that people are mostly kind — even the ones who are having a bad day.
So, when we got to that preschool, we gathered those Mayan women and their beautiful babies. We distributed supplies to combat hunger and malnutrition and angst. Then, we held up a sign.
“It Will Work.”
That preschool — a vibrant, life-affirming project of Mayan Families — is a physical manifestation of the power of an idea. It’s proof that the mark we make in the world is more powerful than any disease, and that it lives on after our physical presence on this planet is long gone. It’s hope. And it works.
If you’d like to extend a message of hope to Sharon, make a sign that says “It Works” and post it to Sharon’s Caring Bridge page. Look for the “Thoughts and Well Wishes” section at the bottom.
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