TRIGGER WARNINGS: Hate crimes - mental health - terrorist attacks
I was a 15 year old teenager living in Texas when I saw in the Rider's Digest magazine, back in 1984, an advertisement of a woman in her late 40s wanting a pen pal. Her name was Isidora Carvajal Díez, a Chilean woman willing to practice her English in exchange of a friendship and the teaching of some Spanish words in her letters. Her double surname and her Latin American origin caught my attention. Therefore, I sent her my first letter, telling Isidora that my name was Samantha Robertson, that I studied at high school and that I dreamed of studying English Literature at college. Isidora answered me with a lovely letter written in a stylized and round calligraphy, telling me that she was a lawyer, not for choice but because of family pressure, and that she owned two cats, called Crema (“Cream”) and Bigotes (“Whiskers”) respectively.
Since that first contact, our friendship developed slowly but steadily. At first it was funny to compare and contrast our different cultures. Here we ate hot-dogs, while there she ate completos, which is the same that a hot-dog but with a wider variety of ingredients, such as avocado and onion. My mother was famous for preparing the best Texan Ranch Chicken casserole of all Dallas, while in Chile Isidora ate pastel de choclo (a corn casserole with ground beef and onion) and pastel de papa (the same that pastel de choclo, but prepared with potato instead of corn). Isidora and I shared roughly the same religion, I being a member of the Baptist Church and she being a Catholic woman, but both doing charity to those in need. Finally, both of us enjoyed to travel the world in the commodity of our homes through the white pages of a good book. Because of Isidora, I got to know the witty prose of the Chilean writer Isabel Allende, the profound songs of Violeta Parra and the magnificent poems of Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. I, on my side, shared with her my tastes of children books, such as The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which she thought was both profound and entertaining. I also wrote her fragments of Maya Angelou’s and Emily Dickinson’s poems, my favourite female voices.
We did not only talk about cult topics, but also about personal experiences. I told her about the boys I liked and my friends in high school. Isidora, being herself more than twice my age, gave me valuable advise that helped me more than once to cope with the challenges I had to face, like preferring friends over boys.
When I graduated from high school in 1987, I sent her for the first time a photograph of myself. In return, Isidora sent me a photograph of herself at court, and I got to see her appearance for the first time: she was blonde, blue eyed and fair skin, just like me. Since then, we started the tradition of sending photos to each other: Isidora, from her holidays in the Patagonia and the Easter Island; I, from my holidays at Yellowstone National Park, Hawaii and the Great Canyon. The landscapes were so different and so similar at the same time that it made me feel that, regardless of the place, we belonged to the same planet. Later I sent her photographs of myself studying English Literature at the New York University, of Benjamin Browne, my boyfriend, and the birth of Angelina, my first niece, daughter of my sister Anna. My favourite photos were of myself and Benjamin, both looking like a vanilla and chocolate dessert.
“You know, after all these years, I keep only two of the 65 pen pals with whom I befriended, and you are by far my favourite one” once confided me in an email shared in 1993. We had started emailing us when this invention appeared, because, as lovely as it can be to receive a letter, it was expensive and slow to communicate in that way. I answered her something similar: through the years I had changed friends a ton of times, but she was the constant one in my life.
That same year I got married with Benjamin Browne, my first husband, and got pregnant of my little angel, Stephanie. I suffered a miscarriage just two weeks before I gave birth, and none of Isidora’s comfort words was enough to ease my pain. Two months later, I suffered another loss: my husband was shot by a criminal white supremacist that the police failed to identify. My grief was so profound that I fell in a heavy depression. I started losing contact with all my friends, including Isidora. Only my sister Anna stayed by my side. Isidora wrote me several emails which I failed to answer, until she stopped doing it. Later, I just felt too embarrassed to reach her back, and scared that she would reject me if I tried to. That way, Isidora, our shared letters and emails remained as a sweet memory of my life while I was trying to rebuild myself again.
I started working as a copywriter in Google, met Alessandro Candiani through Tinder, got married again, moved together to Pittsburgh and adopted Moses, a lovely Egyptian orphan. Inspired by the Chilean laws that Isidora taught me, I refused to change my surname. I kept my maiden name and, additionally, Alessandro and I agreed to use both our surnames, Candiani and Robertson, after our baby boy’s name.
My rainbow kid was my pride, and I could not be happier of my newly formed family, so I obviously posted every moment shared between Alessandro, Moses and I on Instagram. Our followers were witnesses of Moses’ arrival to our home, of his first day at school, his school plays, ourselves riding camels near the pyramids of Giza, the city where Moses was born, and our holidays in Naples, eating pizza at Alessandro's granparents home in Italy.
My Instagram account was private, obviously, so it took me four months to realize that I had a message request from @isidora.c.diez: “Hi, Samantha, is it you? My Texan pen pal? It’s me, Isidora! I miss you so much!”
There she was. I had forgotten Isidora, but she never gave up of our friendship. I apologized for neglecting her for so long after the loss of Stephanie and Benjamin. Isidora forgave me of everything and did not blame me at all, “I am so sorry to hear that you had to pass through all that pain. I hope you can find peace in your heart. I just would be glad to stay in touch if that doesn’t bother you”. When I read her words, I got so emotional I almost cried. I promised to never ignore her again and I took those words by heart.
Later I asked her to tell me how her life had gone since 1993 to that current year, 2019. Isidora sent me a long voice message. It would be the first time I would listened to her voice, and I was so nervous I almost did not play the audio on purpose. I finally heard her raspy voice with strong Spanish accent, but regardless fluid English, telling me she had been twice engaged but never married, that she started a photographer career, that at the age of 82 she finally assumed herself as a lesbian woman and that she started a relationship with María Rosario, her best friend at her nuns high school. To that date, both of them lived in a flat with their dog Príncipe (“Prince”).
I told my family I had held this conversation with my fellow pen pal. Both Alessandro and Moses were excited to have a video call together with Isidora. We had never called ourselves around the 1980s and 1990s because long distance phone calls were too expensive, but now we could talk for free through Whatsapp video call. Isidora and I exchanged phone numbers, we called each other and both families got along so well that it felt like we knew each other since forever. In that video call, we promised to meet in person even if it was just once in a lifetime.
Alessandro and I bought tickets to travel to Chile’s capital, Santiago, on October 20 of 2019. Moses was so excited to get to know the Saint Cristóbal Mountain and the Santa Lucía Hill! Unfortunately, two days before, a national rioting and terrorist attacks to the Santiago’s international airport occurred, so our flight was canceled. The next days were not better, as the generalized violence in all the country made it dangerous for us to travel. Therefore, we rescheduled our trip to March of 2020 for reasons which Isidora obviously understood.
However, afterwards the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and again all our flights were canceled. The lockdown forced us to stay home all day. It was dull, but somehow we adapted to it while Alessandro developed cooking skills and Moses learned to create origami figures. Unfortunately, Isidora was far from being comfortable. Isidora and María Rosario did not obey the lockdown at first, as they thought the pandemic was fake news. That way, both of them got sick of COVID-19 when the vaccines did not exist yet. The last news we got of Isidora were of her and María Rosario being hospitalized because of respiratory complications. For three months we feared the worst, until I received a mail voice from Isidora. Coughing, Isidora told me that she had been intubated for two months, time she did not remember anything at all because she was under the effect of the anesthesia, and that somehow she managed to survive. Unfortunately, her girlfriend María Rosario did not. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, my pen friend could not attend her girlfriend’s funeral, only being able to see it through Zoom. “Now life is tasteless and I feel weak, but at least I’m alive” wrote Isidora before telling us to wear face masks everywhere, as no preventive measures was exaggerated in order to avoid catching the COVID-19 illness. We still wanted to see each other, but it was currently impossible —travelling restrictions made it almost impossible to visit her in Chile or get to receive her in the US.
At November of 2022, Isidora announced me that she would be travelling to New York on 2023 because of a photography exposition that she was holding on the International Center of Photography (ICP). There, she would be presenting to the world a set of pictures of the Flowering Desert, a natural phenomenon that only occurred some years, when a few drops of rain fell over the Atacama Desert and allowed the flowers to bloom in spite of the extreme environmental conditions. It was the perfect metaphor of our friendship, which was like the seeds of the flowers waiting patiently for years that a little bit of water fall down over them so they could grow again.
My heart raced —it could be the last opportunity I could get to see Isidora in person. Isidora’s health was deteriorating and I almost lost her before even having the chance to meet her. Also, travelling from Pittsburgh to New York was not a big deal. Without thinking it twice, I used a Black Friday discount to buy a flight travel for us three to see her photography exposition at the ICP. On May of the current year, the World Health Organization announced that the pandemic was over. Thus, there were no excuses for not travelling.
Alessandro, Moses and I entered the plane. The airplane took us to New York. We left our luggage at the hotel. We took the subway. We arrived to the exposition.
And there I saw her.