The Tower Journal

Scott Ruescher

Elegy for Omayra Sánchez

I could have stopped watching the reel about the mudslide
That buried the town of Armero in 1985
Any time I wanted. I didn’t need to see, among
The many open windows on the screen of the laptop
Computer in my office, the seismological diagrams
That showed the results of the quaking and shaking
Of the snow-capped volcano, or the footage that followed
With multiple examples of the twenty thousand people
Who died when the earthquake shook loose the lava
And set into motion the wide rivers of sediment
That flooded the valley of Nevado del Ruiz
Before the authorities could plan a mass evacuation.

All I had to do, I knew, was click the little box
In the upper left-hand corner and go on to something else
Waiting on my computer. Even if it was related—
An exposé, for example, on the inability
Of the Colombian government during the 1980s
To do much of anything about the problems in the country—
It would have been more constructive than watching
Clips spliced from reports by television news crews
From a station in Bogotá that someone took the trouble
To post on YouTube, offering the world a close-up view.

I might have spent the time studying the weak attempt
Of one administration after another to keep
Its soldiers from killing campesinos in the mountains,
To pacify the FARC guerrillas, or to capture
Such paramilitarios responsible for the cocaine trade
As the merciless mercenaries of Pablo Escobar,
Who’d invaded the Palace of Justice just the week before
The burial of Armero, destroying the documents
That were about to be used to indict him
And abducting for execution more than twenty judges.
I’d already heard enough about the mudslide anyway
In the international news the week it happened
Thirty years before, and later on in a sad but good
Expository essay by a native of Colombia, busted
For smuggling coke at the airport in Boston,
Who wrote about it for me in my weekly class at prison.

That should have been enough to satisfy me for good.
I didn’t need to sit there staring at the gruesome
Live footage they’d shown on voyeuristic television.

But the first scene, shot from a helicopter, was hard
To turn away from—roiling molten lava making
Billowing clouds of gray smoke and wisps of white steam
Swirl and spiral around the peak of the great volcano
When the melting of the six glaciers set in motion
The massive lahars, those “swift-moving currents
Of hot gas аnd rock” called “pyroclastic flows.”

And then there were the camera’s unblinking stares
At buildings in Armero up to their windows in mud,
Medics rushing the injured on stretchers to makeshift clinics
In emergency Red Cross tents, survivors trembling
In fear and sorrow to see what had happened,
And soldiers pulling bloated, mud-caked corpses
From inundated buildings once the waters subsided.

There were even interviews with several survivors
Who would go on living in the nearby valley towns
Of Guayabal and Lérida, in the state of Tolima,
In this region of Colombia known for its coffee,
Its tropical fruit, and its high-quality cotton,
In the south-central section of the three cordilleras
That run the length of the country, from Medellín south
To Cali, then all the way down to Chile from Perú.

I couldn’t stop looking for the life of me after that—
Especially as I watched the story, at first in awe
And then in tears, of Omayra Sánchez, the teenaged girl,
Symbol forever after of the sorry disorganized state
Of Colombia back then, trapped in rising water,
Unable to budge her legs from the slab of cement
That had fallen on them, speaking to that camera
With an uncanny poise that I wanted to attribute
To the peace of mind Colombians find in simple company.

Over the course of three days, live on camera,
On the evening news in Bogotá, in the presence of strangers,
Rescue workers, priests, social workers, and engineers
Helpless to do much of anything for her, she waited
In vain to be freed, without even her mother, stranded
In Bogotá, or relatives drowned in the flood, there
To hold her—making do with a group of strangers.

All they could do, besides console her, was to help her
To tilt her head back so that she could receive,
Like the wine and wafer of the sacramental host,
Bits of arepa and sips of water, in a beatific twist
On a baptismal religious rite, to keep her alive
With food and encouraging talk, until, toward the end,
From her darkly encircled eyes, she looked directly into
The likewise encircled but unblinking eye of the camera
To say farewell to her family, missing in the mudslide
Or gone to Bogotá on business, and unable to return:

Si escuchas, Mami—If you are listening, Mother—
Te quiero. Les quiero a mi mamá y mi papá, I love you.
I love my mother and father. A mis hermanos y tíos también.
Que todo les vaya bien.
And my siblings and aunts
And uncles as well. May all go well in life for you.
Y para esta gente que me ayude. And for these people
Who have helped me too, yes, for them as well
A final word, in choked-up fragments, of farewell.

Copyright © 2018 Scott Ruescher

Scott Ruescher has been reading from his 2017 book, Waiting for the Light to Change, at various venues in the Boston area, including Gallery 263, the Somerville Armory, the Aeronaut Brewery (for Porter Square Books), the Newton Free Library, the Somerville Growing Center, the New England Poetry Club, and the Cambridge Arts River Festival. He has new work in recent issues of Solstice, About Place, and Pangyrus.

The Tower Journal
Summer  2018