“Good thing healthcare is free!” the matriarchs in my family would trill together when I would walk into the kitchen soaked in blood. I have broken every bone in my hands, some even twice. I broke my leg because I fell asleep on top of my favorite fig tree after eating too much warm, ripe fruit and my arm trying to build a treehouse. Always a rambunctious boy (before even realizing that I was a boy) and a sickly child before (being diagnosed at 25 with a chronic illness) my childhood in Uruguay was overwhelmingly spent in the ER.
I was seen by my orthopedic doctor so often for sports related bone injuries that I even developed a crush on him after he gave me tickets to see his soccer legend brother play en el Estadio Centenario.
The summer before moving to the United States I broke my left ankle.
I had just had my cast removed after three itchy, long months due to the fig tree incident and was still very weak from mending a bone with limited mobility at home when I stepped on it funny, sending me right back to my handsome doctor’s office.
He gave my mom little choice: he’d have to re-cast me up to my thigh for fear that I’d move and hurt myself more. She tried for my sake to negotiate the length of the cast since it was my ankle that was visibly broken and not my fibula again but to no avail.
My mother then proceeded to call my grandmother from his office with the news. After a few uh’s, buenos and si mami! She hung up and told our trusted doctor, that we would go to nuestra Curandera first and if this did not work, we would be back. He told her to call him personally that evening and let him know.
A lot of folks get stuck on this part of the story.
In the USA you’d expect a doctor to call my mother an irresponsible teen mom and have CPS rip me from her arms. In Montevideo, the city capital of a country so small that the doctor and my mother knew each so personally (we are all from Barrio El Buceo) my doctor knew whom my grandmother had in mind to heal me.
Our next door neighbor Rene was a Saint. Nine year old me only saw her as a mysterious cat lady, lovingly feeding stray cats in her backyard, washing clothes and growing her own herbs and roses. The neighborhood kids knew her as a good witch, and although we’d politely wave, we never dare speak to her just to be safe.
My mom took me to her home, roses in hand before sundown: She brought us into her dark, spicy living room and offered us mate dulce con leche and cookies. Unlike Carmen my tutor and the neighborhood Candomblera, she did not have candlelit altars, figurines and flowy skirts. Unlike my grandmother, she did not keep dried herbs and flowers hanging from her kitchen to whip up a cough syrup or a toothache pill in a moment’s notice. Her magic, I realized, was different than theirs, than anyone that I had ever met. She looked over my swollen ankle and poured some kind of numbing oil. She gave my mother a list of things she needed to get from the beach, from the botanica and from my grandmother’s garden. She then instructed my mom to bring me over her house for the next three days before sundown, at the same time with the items in her list and leave us.
The next three days in my memory are very hazy, her home was very warm and it always smelled like roses and cinnamon. I don’t remember our polite conversations before getting to work. She would rub oils and ointments, purified my wounds with words and objects and did a ritual chant which she had me learn and not repeat again. After the first night, the swelling went down significantly, taking away a lot of the pain and discomfort I felt. By the morning number four, I was walking to the flower guy a few blocks down and back to her home with a dozen white roses to thank her, she graciously accepted them but assured me that payment was not necessary. I will never know how or why it worked. I can barely remember what was done.
Rene died while I was still a teenager in another county: before I moved here she honored me by asking me one last time to visit her home before sundown. There at age 11 she read my tea leaves and promised me a hard life filled with loneliness and sorrow, but a beautiful life, well lived and inspirational. Her prediction did not disappoint and years later, as I write this I realize that Rene healed me more with the words she imparted on me than when she restored my ability to walk.