Five years ago I took a summer job working for a nonprofit in Peru. My colleague Eliana and I ran a volunteer program there. We lived in the same apartment, did projects together, and spent loads of time together. I was super excited to spend a summer having adventures in Peru and planned to brag all about it on my blog. However, I only wrote one post my entire time there because my life quickly unraveled.
|We had just spent hours cleaning and assembling |
furniture before the volunteers arrived
During our first week in Peru my best friend who I'd fallen in love with chose to end that relationship. He wanted us to date for real and be boyfriends and I told him that I could only be friends. He then decided that it would be best if we just cut things off. I was devastated. And by “devastated” I mean “crippled by unbelievable pain and sadness.” I didn’t know how I could live life without him.
With my friends and family a continent away, Eliana became my primary support system. No one else in the whole country knew I was gay except for her. She and I talked extensively about my broken heart and how I didn’t know how to move forward with my life. I told her that I was terrified that I would be perpetually lonely and sad and she listened. Since none of the volunteers knew I was gay, we would talk about my life in Spanish and in code which often made us laugh (“I know I’m supposed to like apples, but I just can’t stop craving oranges”). She was my closest friend at a time in my life when I was more depressed and distressed than I have ever been. She could have told me to just buck up and get over it. She could have called me to repentance for falling in love with a man. She could have preached to me. Instead she just listened while we drank cremoladas and ate chifón.
Halfway through the summer I went home early. I felt awful for not finishing my commitment. I felt like I was abandoning Eliana and doubling her work load. And I felt like a failure. I remember looking at my “RETURN WITH HONOR” ring as I was packing and feeling like I was going home an inadequate disappointment. But I had to go home. I was an emotional mess and what I thought would be a fantastic Peruvian adventure had turned into a big pile of sadness.
|Celebrating Peru's independence day last year|
Eliana and I had this song that we always sung together called Me voy (it’s a super catchy song that I highly recommend). I don’t know how it became our song, but we’d always sing it to each other and laugh. Right before I left to go to the airport I walked into her room singing that song. The lyrics in English say, “I’m not going to cry and say that I don’t deserve this because I probably do, but I don’t want it.” The words were surprisingly fitting. She was lying on her bed crying and I asked her what she was feeling. She said that she wished things could have been different. Not that I hadn’t come, but that I could have been happier there. She thanked me for always being open and sincere with her and said that that made things easier. She said she wished I could stay, but that she wanted me to do what was best for me. She thanked me for sharing the stresses of the job with her and said that I was a hard worker and that I’d done a good job. I had felt exactly the opposite just before walking into her room. Her tears and honest words bound up my wounds of inadequacy.
I remember distinctly standing with Eliana in front of our apartment building about to get into a taxi to go to the airport and fly home. She and I had always spoken in Spanish together, but when I hugged her goodbye I said, “I love you, Ely. Thank you,” because the words had just a little more meaning in my native language. And I meant them so much.
Eliana had every reason to be mad at me. I had given her an extra person to worry about while I was there and then I abandoned her. Yet she always made sure I was okay. In the five years since we worked together we have stayed in touch and remained good friends. Last month we got dinner together and she asked how I was doing. I told her how happy I was and all the cool things I was involved in. Eliana was there in one of the darkest periods of my life back in 2014. Honestly, without exaggeration I think that summer really was the worst time of my life. She experienced my emotional distress firsthand. She’s seen me in a way that most people haven’t. She then asked again, “Really, Ben, how are you really doing?” Eliana really wanted to know that I was okay. She had seen me put on a happy face when I was suffering and sincerely wanted to make sure that I was alright. Feeling her heartfelt love for me that day last month was a gift. She invited me to let go of any pretense and just be who I was with her. Who I am is enough for her.
I’ve had some friends for whom I was their Eliana. I was the person that they needed to lean on in their darkest moments. Having people let me into their hearts has been such a gift. I leave those moments not feeling overwhelmed or burdened by my friend's problems, but grateful that I was able to be there with them. As I've considered my parting moments with Eliana in Peru, I imagine that heaven will be filled with hugs and people saying "I love you" and "thank you" in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Because there we will all really know each other.