I arrived here in Uruguay mid-May 2014, not having any clue what to expect. It was Thursday. I arrived in the morning and even before unpacking, came to my first meeting with other Expats. Here in my town, the Expats meet in a local restaurant twice a month to speak together in English. Most of us are from USA, and most are retirees. Right now our meeting place is on La Rambla, a long road that runs along the seashore, east to west, or west to east, depending on which way you choose to travel. I’ve since learned that La Rambla can be a quiet and peaceful place to enjoy an early morning run, because Uruguay is a country of late-risers. But that day, Thursday, I found myself dizzy with excitement. I’d been up all night on the cross-continent flight. I had no clue what an Uruguayan Peso looked like, nor how much it was worth. I didn’t know how to order a cup of coffee, or, rather, café. I decided to follow everyone else’s cue, and drink what I was given. It looked enough like coffee. I was going to be okay. I am indeed okay.
I looked around. I wondered about this crowd. I was younger. Would I have trouble fitting in because I wasn’t a retiree? I had nothing to retire from. Did I have to worry about fitting into anything at all? Or was the idea of “fitting in” something I should have left behind at junior high school? Maybe my years, or rather, decades of discrimination from living with fake mental illness label, arbitrarily given to me by a “doctor,” made me worry far too much about such things. I was going to be fine. Maybe it would just take time to learn.
It must have been a month later. A man came to my home to help me split some wood and fix a light switch. His name was J. He was white-haired, bearded man who seemed handy with tools and rather friendly. He told me he and his wife had come together with their two dogs a while back. He said they had kids. I said, “What did your kids think of your coming here?”
He said, smiling, “They think we’re nuts.”
I asked, “Does that ever change?”
He answered, “No, they’ll always say that.”
Somehow, this seemed comforting to me. Simultaneously, I was being told my own move to Uruguay was “crazy” by various folks in USA.
I told J, “Maybe the folks in the USA are the crazy ones, eh?”
He smiled at me and got back to work splitting the wood. It was getting colder out back then. Winters here are mild and muddy. I don’t know why they seem to last forever. He warned me that the first winter here, for many, can be tough.
Then, he stood upright. He just stood there and looked at me.
I didn’t know then, but I know now. I know he saw something in me. I’m not sure, exactly, what it was that he thought he recognized. Even now, I wonder if he guessed correctly. I met M, his wife, the following October.
Last fall, it was spring here, that is, the weather was warming up, and days were getting longer. I was coming out of my initial shyness. I decided to attend an Expat meeting, though I had shed the label Expat in favor of perhaps Refugee, or simply, Immigrant. Sometimes, I think: Escapee. But I’m only human, aren’t I? Or maybe I just suck at Spanish so far.
M was sitting across from me at our long table. She mentioned that her husband’s name was J. Could it be the same J? She mentioned two dogs. Could it be? Of course, J is a common name in the USA, as common as can be.
What was it that caused M to bring up, almost immediately, right in my presence, that she had suffered from anorexia as an older person? She said she’d gotten over it, that she was okay now.
Why did she mention it to me? Because it takes one to know one, and she knew.
I wonder, now, about that look J gave me, back when he came to my home to help me out. I wonder if somehow, instinctively, he knew I’d been through that very same thing, that starvation disease. Did he see it? Or maybe he’d seen something else. That was some faraway look in his eyes. Or was it the coming winter….
I feel like a fool sometimes at the English-speaker’s meeting. Our table is so large that we take over the restaurant. I wonder if the locals resent our presence. I wondered if anyone resented the depth of the conversation between M and myself at that moment. We spoke as if in code. People who care about eating disorders can get quite passionate on the topic, and often forget that others don’t share as much energy as we do. That’s because it’s almost as if it’s part of our heritage, or lineage. We’ve been through it and lived it and breathed it. Many live it for decades, and many die of this starvation affliction.
She explained why, in her opinion, it all happened. I will try to recall her words, though perhaps not exactly: “I didn’t like the food at first, when we arrived. It seemed disgusting to me. J and I were both losing weight, only I kept on losing. I liked losing weight. It made me feel good.”
I responded, “I know how it is when you feel very high from starvation. I feel that, too. Almost like you enjoy it when you are empty, like you want that even more.”
M got excited. She said it made her feel good knowing another person knew exactly how it was for her. She explained that she had to adjust, as we all do, to a new place, and new food. She had to learn how to shop and prepare it, and also how to learn the Spanish words for each food.
She told me she’d been to a shrink here who knew English. “It wasn’t the language barrier that was the problem,” she told me. “It was that the shrink assumed I was just like an adolescent. The shrink kept asking me about body image. I told him that had nothing to do with it. I had to keep reminding the shrink of my age. I’m over 50. I’m not someone out of a textbook.”
I said, “We aren’t all alike. That’s the problem with those people. They try to stereotype us. It only will work for those that fit into their very narrow view of who we are, which is like, no one.” We laughed.
We shared our experiences together. I was somewhat embarrassed because I felt we were excluding others from the conversation. In other ways, I didn’t care at all. It felt so important to connect with M. It seemed like a rare opportunity.
I didn’t know just how rare.
The next time I came to the Expat meeting was only a few weeks later. I had a decent time. I wasn’t one to show up often. Just as I was leaving, I heard someone say something about someone being in a hospital. I figured most likely, it wasn’t anyone I knew. Ididn’t pay much attention. A few days later, I heard the description of who it was.
We didn’t want to gossip. But we do care. I was out having coffee with a few folks at a coffee shop out by the Interbalnearia, the highway. They didn’t know, at first, why M had suddenly become anemic. Why, then, she had complete organ failure. Someone said, “Liver. Cirrhosis. She’d been warned. Told to stop drinking.”
I said, “Huh? That too?” This, I assumed, was speculation, and I wasn’t one to assume anything. I’m still not. They said J was stressed out, running back and forth to the hospital, in need of support and love right now. She might be dying.
Someone said, a few days later, they’d had to put her into a coma because her organs couldn’t hold up. Every day, they tried to get her off the respirator. For weeks, these efforts continued to fail.
It has been a sad time. M died this morning.
I weep for that one connection I had here. That one woman I knew. That one person here that I’d met in person. She said she was happy that she’d met another that knew, too. I will cherish this memory I have of her, that Thursday afternoon, in October.
Julie Greene, Tuesday, January 13, 2015