Anibal and Orianny Were My Teachers Too.

Through her friendship with teenage siblings Aníbal and Orianny Moreno, who have sickle cell anemia, Milena Pérez was able to grasp the meaning of a phrase she used to hear at mass when she was a little girl: «Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.» She learned how small acts of solidarity can change lives, not only that of others, but her own. This is the second installment of our #HaySegundasPartes [#SecondParts] series.

Fotografías: Álbum Familiar

  In 2017, when I was just 19 years old, I began to teach in a Sunday Bible school at the Evangelical Light of the World International Church, a religious congregation established 52 years ago that I have attended with my mother and sisters since I was a child.  I listened to the stories of the little ones who went to my classes. Many came on an empty stomach, had family problems, and lived a complicated life. I remember repeating to them phrases that I had heard all my life, such as «Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.»  In November 2019, I met Aníbal, 14, and Orianny, 16. The siblings were my neighbors in the El Viñedo, a community with a population of over 37,000 located in Barcelona, state of Anzoátegui, in eastern Venezuela. The Moreno brothers suffered from sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease that originates from an abnormality in hemoglobin and causes red blood cells to debilitate, the immune system to weaken, and makes individuals more prone to illness. People with the disorder frequently experience pain and fatigue, and are dependent on long-term medical treatment. I had seen them a couple of times at the temple, which was situated one street away from their house, but they could not attend often because walking any distance, however short, was a painful experience. The disease caused their hands and feet to swell and made them dizzy and lightheaded, and they could fall down easily. They only had one wheelchair to move around; so, Yaritza, their mother, had to secure a wooden board on the chair’s armrests to make for a second seat. When I approached them, I wanted to gain an in-depth insight into their lives. I wanted them to be the protagonists of a story I was to write for La Vida de Nos and its Semillero de Narradores [Seedbed of Storytellers] real-life storytelling training program that was touring Venezuelan universities. I participated when I was into my 10th semester of social communication studies at the Oriente Campus of Universidad Santa María. I made this video with simple illustrations: The focus of my story was the change that studying at the Ciudad del Niño school brought to their lives.  Their lives happened in hospital corridors, so they naturally longed for more colorful days. The contact with books and crayons, and the new friends they made at school, took their mind off the exhausting blood transfusions they needed. I would visit them whenever I could. I loved to sit around and listen to their school stories. They would show me their notebooks and read to me what they had written in class. Orianny dreamed of becoming a great painter who would exhibit her art in galleries. Aníbal wanted to be a computer whiz; he had first laid eyes on a computer in the library that was their classroom, and the machines had caught his attention. They would talk non-stop about their selfies with their teacher and about how nice she was. Despite the cognitive deficits and motor impairment they had been left with following a series of strokes, we were able to communicate well. I tried to help them with their homework, but sometimes all they wanted to do was draw. They got easily distracted. Orianny was always the first to put the books aside as soon as she completed a line of her handwriting assignment. Aníbal loved to practice his writing, but not so much as he loved playing. They used their notebooks for tic-tac-toe competitions, drawing their O’s and X’s. Every time I passed by their house they would go:  “Milena, draw me a picture!” “Draw me as a princess, with a pink dress and high-heeled sandals,» Orianny would ask me “I want you to draw me in an evening suit, with shiny shoes and a tie,» said Aníbal. I could not visit them without bringing them the drawings they had asked for. Their house was located right across the street from mine, so I could occasionally hear them yelling. They would get upset and fight with each other when they were hungry. There were days when their parents would forgo food themselves so that their kids could have a bite. Whenever I visited them, I tried to bring them cookies, or fruits from my family’s home garden. The ones they liked the most were the pomalacas, or Malay rose apples, those sweet white-fleshed fruits with red or pink skin. Yaritza told me how hard it was to make sure they were stable healthwise. Every single month, they had to be taken to the Rafael Tobías Guevara Rojas Children’s Hospital, next to the Doctor Luis Razetti University Hospital, for blood transfusions. And to add insult to injury, there had been a shortage of antibiotics and anticonvulsants over the last few years, and hyperinflation had eroded the household income. Aníbal senior, Aníbal and Orianny’s father, had some experience in welding, electricity and brickwork, and was always working here and there to pay for the children’s health expenses. In May 2020, Aníbal had a seizure while at home. Orianny desperately shouted for help for his brother. The neighbors immediately tried to summon someone’s assistance, but the cars of the people who lived nearby had ran out of fuel, and public transportation was not an option because it had been reduced to a minimum due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no way to get him to the hospital. His mother managed to stabilize him with some techniques she had learned over the many years she had been taking care of him, and arranged for a doctor from the community to go see him. “At moments, I thought he was dying,» Yaritza told me, recalling the event. The neighbors collected money to buy vitamins and anticonvulsants. I myself decided to raise funds among my friends to help them with some food. Yaritza had told me that they had been eating pasta with a sauce made of seasoned ground leftover beef and chicken meat and skins, which has become a staple meal in recent times because it is cheap and easy to prepare. It made Aníbal’s tummy hurt and caused him vomiting, but it was all they could afford. I saw his skin getting paler, and him weaker and in more pain.  In August, my mother, my sisters and I were forced to move out from the area because our house had sustained severe flood damage from heavy rains. Floods are frequent in El Viñedo, for the housing development was built on invaded, unsuitable terrain that sits next to the bed of the Aragua river.   Our house’s entire yard was under water, and we had to skip puddles on our way in and out, barefoot, for fear of damaging our shoes.  Our beds, furniture, and appliances were soaking wet and we had nowhere to put them to dry inside the house. My bedroom looked like a colander because of the holes in the ceiling. We also lost several of our crops. I stopped hanging out with the kids, but I tried to visit them every time I went back to the area. Sometimes, I would find them sitting on the sidewalk, shoeless. They owned only one pair of shoes, which they wore only when they had to go somewhere else. “Where did you buy those meat shoes?” I would joke, and they would laugh their heads off.  That was until November 8, 2020. I had gone to my old house to collect some water, only to find my neighbors heartbroken. I walked past the front of the Moreno siblings’ house and saw a group of women talking.  “He used to sit on the sidewalk with Orianny,» said one of them.  I kept walking and saw more people gathered. My heart went racing. Something bad had happened. I was trying to open the gate to my house, but my hands were shaking and I couldn’t find the right key. Eventually, I managed to get in. I put down the containers I was carrying and stepped outside to ask my next-door neighbor what was going on. “Aníbal died from respiratory arrest while at the hospital,» she answered. I just couldn’t make sense of it. I began to reproach myself for not having been there with him those last days. I began to look back on my every visit. I thought I owed him a drawing.  Later that day, I went to his house to be with his family. Orianny would not stop crying, asking for her brother. Her elder sister, who was nine months pregnant, was very upset and people were trying to get her to calm down. Yaritza would not utter a word.  She was glazing blankly. And suddenly we saw Aníbal’s father approach, carrying his son’s coffin with the help of some neighbors.  The crying got louder. Aníbal’s sisters shouted themselves hoarse. They hung on to the coffin and would not let go. I felt I could not support myself on my feet. I held tightly to one of the pillars of the porch where we sat, and closed my eyes. I kept hearing people wail desperately.   I still live in El Viñedo and have walked on by the area several times. It is so hard to see his family cry… Sometimes I do not know what to say to comfort them. At the end of November, a 5-month-old child from the community got sick to his stomach and had to be admitted to the Rafael Tobías Guevara Rojas Hospital in Barcelona, the same hospital where the Moreno brothers were taken. The members of the church organized a fundraiser. The little money I had on me was to purchase some stuff for my own house, but I still decided to make a contribution.  I recently went to the emergency room of the Doctor Luis Razetti University Hospital in Barcelona with a relative, and was surrounded by people in need of treatment that could not be provided. I leaned against the wall, held the stretcher where my aunt lay in a vegetative state, closed my eyes, and prayed for everyone: for the lady on a chair who was howling in pain; for the half-asleep elderly man carrying a bottle of saline solution that hung from a TV stand; for the young girl shivering on a stretcher that had no mattress; for the more than 30 people around me. I have been getting up on Sundays earlier than usual for a few weeks now to fix 20 empanadas or 20 arepas and a pitcher of fruit juice for the children at church school. I am no longer their teacher, but I love to share with them. You can hear the loud noise of voices in the porch where Sunday classes are imparted. But there is silence when we pass out the food. The kids are focused on chewing. Once they are finished, they all say grace and start talking again. I think about how my life has changed since I met Aníbal and Orianny, and I feel grateful. They taught me that with genuine acts of solidarity, however small, we can make a difference in others and in ourselves.   Esta historia forma parte de Hay segundas partes, un proyecto editorial desarrollado por nuestra red de narradores, en el 3er año del programa formativo La Vida de Nos Itinerante.
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Licenciada en comunicación social egresada de la Universidad Santa María, núcleo Oriente. Trabajo en el periódico El Tiempo. Soy anzoatiguense, soñadora y actriz de teatro. Desde niña me gustó la fotografía, pero como no tuve una cámara preferí plasmar lo visual en dibujos. #SemilleroDeNarradores

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