Gail reached inside the small shed that was the storehouse of the Samaritans’ operations in Tucson. Inside was a map, t-shirts, hats, clothing abandoned by migrants in the desert, and water – jugs and jugs of it in clear plastic containers. As volunteers, it would be our job for that day to drive out into remote parts of the Sonoran Desert looking for signs of migrants, and to leave those jugs of water behind.
I imagined us hiking into the desert, leaving the jugs in hard-to-reach places. I was excited about doing something positive in the face of daily reports of migrants dying in the desert for lack of water. I thought we’d be called upon to hike many miles into brambles and snake-infested bushes.
The reality was different. Gail drove and we listened as she explained the many reasons water can’t be left on Indian land, or the wildlife refuge – huge swaths of land where migrants are probably traveling or are lost. To do their work day in and day out Samaritans have to be careful to abide by the law; that means not leaving behind trash, like water bottles in a wildlife refuge.
I posted earlier about our efforts to help that day and received dozens of responses of people proud of our work that day. But really, I had to recognize that what we did was so little. We took a day off work, drove around in a comfortable car, and on occasion, got out to drop off a jug here or there.
Gail was the true hero here, driving in and out of these parts day in and day out, taking newbies like myself out to the middle of nowhere, teaching us where to step, and where to not. In her 70s she does this work relentlessly because five years ago out in the Sonoran Desert she once came upon a man who nearly died for lack of water; because she knows every week people will continue to die unless she continues to do this work.
Gail and the water.
It all made me think of someone else in my life: my grandmother, who in her mid 70s took on the task of taking care of me when my parents and brother became refugees trying to get, like millions today and millions since the founding of this country, to America. I stayed back in Hungary with my grandmother. My family could trust no one else, and in all likelihood no one else would have agreed to take on the task.
The house in which I was left had no running water. And though there were several others who lived in that house younger than she was, less stooped and more able, it was my grandmother who woke up at dawn every morning—rain or shine, winter or summer—to fetch water from the well. She’d get on her knees, lower a pail on a frayed rope into the ground, and bring up clean water for us to drink, to bathe, and to cook. She did this every day for thirty years or more, and every day that I lived with her from the time I was five to the time I was ten. I don’t remember anyone once offering to fetch the water in her place, not on Easter, not on Christmas, not on her birthday. And never once did she complain. I’d been left in her care. My aunts, uncles and cousins didn’t seem to notice her work. She would do the work before her. She would do what needed to be done.