Forward: I attended a funeral for a former coworker this week. The man was from Ecuador and raised two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, here in the U.S. I didn’t know Carlos very well, but I did know him to be a family man. I saw him with his wife and children from time to time, driving around town. Carlos was not rich as money went, the job we shared did not pay all that well and was not the most pleasant of work to undertake. I learned at his funeral that Carlos was a man of faith, which I had not previously supposed, to my eternal loss…since it is something that he and I had in common.
Watching his children, now adults, speak at his funeral in perfect English, I was reminded of a short-fiction story that I wrote once for a contest at Cowboy Logic Publishing. It told of another child who, like Carlos’ children, had parents who came to the U.S. knowing that the opportunities that they built were less for themselves and more for the generations to come.
So today, in honor of the late Carlos Arroyo, loving Christian father, formerly from Ecuador, I share with you the story “Choices”.
“My children thank you, you know,” I said.
“Wa oo oo eeh?”
“What I mean is, when you don’t floss, you help pay for their braces.”
There is a popular myth among my patients that I took a class in dental school on how to understand what they say, even when their mouths are full of my fingers.
“Yep,” I said, angling the drill a little, “braces are very expensive.”
The truth is I talk to my patients so much while I work, that I simply just got used to it.
“Hill raheh hell ee?”
“No, your teeth are straight enough. You have very healthy teeth, but you really should floss more.”
I finished the filling and left him to the assistant to clean up. In my office, while looking through the mail, I found a letter from my father.
I hope you are well. We are fine.
I received the money that you sent. You know I wish you wouldn’t, but thank you.
My neighbor is rebuilding his house today, so this letter will be short. The last of the adobe is finished setting and baking, and he’s eager to get started early.
Your mother and I are so proud of you. I tell your cousin Miguel about you all the time—about the things you do to help people’s teeth be healthy, and he yearns for when he can go there too. He’s doing it right. I’m glad.
Well, I can hear my neighbor getting out his ladder, so I’d better go. I’ll write next week and tell you how it went.
I looked over at the logging photo on my desk and it took me back. A friend of my father’s took the picture, a month before Stephan died in his accident.
At least the yard boss was kind enough to let us search the river for his body. He was a mile downstream before I spotted him, floating among the logs. Father couldn’t see him at that distance, but he swam out in the direction I pointed until he found Stephan and pulled him free.
Father cried every night for a week. I didn’t see my mother’s grief, but I’m sure it was awful.
Father taught us boys well, taught us honesty, integrity, reliability, and hard work. He told us that those things would make us successful one day…and he was right. He told us that crossing the border was the only dishonest thing he ever did. It wasn’t strictly true, but that’s what he said. We all did dishonest things sometimes.
Like that Christmas when my friend Emilio and I broke into the dentist’s office, so I could fill that lower bicuspid that was bothering him. Father was furious.
“What are you trying to do, get us sent south?”
“It was the Christian thing to do, Papa; you know he couldn’t afford to pay to have it done. It was my Christmas present to him.”
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Son, do you really think that Christ would want you to steal Christmas presents?”
“How much damage did he do getting in?”
“None. The lock was faulty, and the alarm system…I don’t know how Emilio does it, but he just turned it off, just like that. He even reactivated it, and locked the door behind us after we left. I wonder if anyone really understands how easy it is to get past such things.”
“Only for people like Emilio, son…while you go to college to learn dentistry, he spends his nights learning to do break-ins. What is the value of the things you used?”
“Well, we didn’t use the X-Ray machine, I just filled his tooth. About forty dollars…I guess.”
“That’s not too bad, take this basket, please. Tomorrow, go to the store and fill it with that amount in groceries. We will go by night and leave it on Dr. Haskil’s doorstep. He’s a good man. You shouldn’t have robbed him.”
The police caught Emilio breaking into Dr. Haskil’s house the following week and deported him. I heard that the Mexican authorities sent him all the way back to Venezuela.
I was stupid to take such a chance. After Stephan died, all the family’s hopes and dreams went with me. When the logging company closed, father took any job he could get, and worked extra hours, to keep me in school. I spent my summers, and weekends, working beside him at whatever job he had. Those were good times, when all we had was each other.
When I finished dental school, father went back to Peru to be with mother. She had been caught and deported when I was two and they hadn’t seen each other since. No two people in the world ever loved each other more than they did. He said that, with me finishing college, his reason for being in the States was complete.
I wanted to pay to bring mother back over, and to educate father. I wanted to give them something back for all they sacrificed. He said no. He was born in a mud hut in a small village, and that was all he ever wanted for himself. He said I could either stay in California and work and fix teeth, or I could go home to Peru and work and fix teeth. I was a U.S. citizen and I had choices. That was all he and mother ever wanted for us boys.