By Ava Nadel
In February of 2013, I traveled with a group of 16 individuals from my high school on a foreign exchange trip to Ecuador. The most meaningful part of the trip took place in Pucará, a small village of about 200 people. Each of us took part in a home-stay while in Pucará and for the next five days, I had the pleasure of having a home-stay with a young woman who had an intellectual disability. I hadn’t taken a Spanish class in over a year and my home-stay family didn’t speak a word of English. What Norma had helped me to see was that relationships, especially familial ones, do not need much foundation to sprout. And so, this piece is my thanks to her.
“¿Cuantos años tienes tú Norma?
“Dos?” I thought. That’s odd. Norma had to be older than 16. Later that night, after dinner, my home-stay mother, Carmela, told me that Norma has an intellectual disability, is 28, and does not know how to read or write.
Because my Spanish wasn’t entirely perfect, I was unsure of how I should go about communicating with Norma. I had tried conversing with her using my Spanish, but even then she seemed not to understand basic phrases I was saying. So I sat there, at the dining table, shelling the lima beans for dinner. I could feel her staring at me, smiling as I plopped the shelled beans into a bowl. She then stuck one of them in front of my face. I had put the noon-shelled lima bean into the bowl with the shelled ones. She started laughing both with her mouth and eyes, and I did the same. We may not have been communicating using words, but using our emotions was just enough.
For the next four days, I did not feel so nervous around Norma anymore. I found that just by smiling and laughing, we could read each other’s minds just fine. The next few mornings, I would be applying sunscreen in the bedroom and she’d come in, freshly showered, combing her long, silky black hair. We’d sit there in silence, taking care of ourselves separately, but fully aware of the other’s presence. Much like peeling the lima beans, I found that if I pulled off humorous actions, we would improve our communication. I would play around with the stray dogs and cats and have her try and throw food in my mouth. One way or another, she would burst into a fit of giggles.
Through forming this sisterly bond with Norma that existed with hardly any speaking, I learned perhaps one of the most valuable life lessons that any teenager could learn at my age: relationships do not need to be built on much. Norma and I surrounded each other with smiles and laughter, and I had come to realize that positive energy and emotions were all we needed.
On the last morning of my home-stay, Carmela was cooking us breakfast. Norma turned up the radio, humming along to what I assumed was her favorite song. She took me by the hands and started dancing with me. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes–the tears that I refused to let fall because I knew that if I showed her how weak I was, I would not be able to explain it.
I miss her. I miss her cooing at the stray cat underneath the dining table. I miss her combing her wet hair as she watched me spray sunscreen on my mosquito bites before I left to weed the garden, and I miss the dimples on her cheeks that would appear once she fell into a fit of giggles and could not stop laughing.
Sometimes the best love is the one that can exist without words.
Ava Nadel is a freshman at Guilford College, a small liberal arts school situated in the historical town of Greensboro, North Carolina. While she is currently undecided about her future major, Ava hopes to be a Peace and Conflict Studies major with a dual minor in Spanish and English. These interests stem from her trips abroad to South Korea and Ecuador and her participation in Girls Write Now, a non-profit organization that pairs high school girls with professional women writers who meet weekly as they work on various creative writing pieces, attend monthly genre workshops, and perform their work at literary readings. Additionally, Ava has extensive experience in volunteering with people who have intellectual/developmental disabilities. Her experience stems from her participation in Best Buddies International non-profit organization that promotes friendships with people who have disabilities. She is also extremely active in a few on campus clubs such as Pride, the outdoors club, Project Community, the Community AIDs Awareness Project (CAAP), and practice with her cross country team. In her free time, Ava enjoys going on long runs in the woods, writing in her book “642 Things to Write About,” sleeping on the grass, and photography.