A Terrible Beauty: A Story of Love and Loss in Bolivia (Abridged Version)
It was the towering Illimani mountain that drew my husband, Jim, and me to the window as our airplane lifted off from La Paz on the last leg of a 7000-mile journey to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Much like on majestic Mt. Rainier, which crowns our home state of Washington, ragged glacial crevasses gave visual warning to the dangers en route to the summit.
Looking at Illimani, my thoughts ranged to another Bolivian mountain, where in May of 1998 our 25-year-old daughter, Krista Hunt Ausland '95, lay dying in a remote Andean ravine. In one midnight moment, she and our son-in-law Aaron Ausland '96 were resting peacefully in a microbus, holding hands as their puppy Choclo snuggled on their laps. In the next terror filled moment, their speeding bus plunged over a cliff, tossing passengers out the windows like rag dolls.
It was August when we began the pilgrimage to the land of our daughter's last days. Krista and Aaron had lived in Bolivia just six months, part of a three-year commitment in community development with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a church organization that sends volunteers to work at the grass-roots level around the world. After language studies in Santa Cruz, they had moved eight hours away to the rural valley of Bañado de la Cruz, where more than 50 families farm along the Rio Comarapa. MCC had given them a chance to live out their dreams of international service and invited us to see the land and people that captured Krista's heart.
Family and friends questioned whether we should go. We had celebrated our daughter Susan's wedding, two years in the planning, exactly one month after her sister's death, taking our family on a roller coaster ride of immense joy and sorrow that added to our fatigue. Knowing we needed to travel the same dangerous mountain roads Krista did fueled our family's fears.
But we knew if we didn't do this now, remnants of Krista's story could be lost forever. We had lost too much already with her future; we could not bear refusing to know the last six months of her life. Nor did I want to freeze-dry Krista's image with memories that left out her daily actions in global service. We longed to meet her friends in the Bolivian village cooperatives and in MCC, and see the fertile river valley that she wrote gave her a "peace which seeps into my soul." Most of all, we wanted to be alongside Aaron as he faced closing up the first real home he and Krista shared.
While we hungered to become acquainted with our daughter's life in Bolivia, Aaron was haunted at returning to a land filled with red-hot memories of his wife. On the way to the airport he showed me a thoughtful letter from a friend. She quoted a poet who perfectly expressed Aaron's and our sense of loss: "How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?" And so we chose a journey into terrible beauty.
A mountain of mourning
When we arrived in Santa Cruz, a city of more than 1 million, friends of Aaron and Krista welcomed us at the airport. From them we heard a little more about the international mission of MCC, which emerged in Europe in response to the ravages of world wars. Like Krista, who grew up in a Presbyterian heritage, almost half the 900 volunteers in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America come from other denominational backgrounds. They serve in more than 50 countries, often among people suffering from poverty, conflict, warfare or natural disaster.
After two days in the city, we climbed into an old Toyota pickup to drive the nine hours to Krista and Aaron's village home in Bañado. Knowing we would pass the accident site along the way, we stopped at the outdoor market and selected brandy-wine roses, daisies, snapdragons and carnations to bring in remembrance. We bounced along for almost four hours, occasionally passing through adobe towns that altered the arid landscape. Even major highways in Bolivia can deteriorate to wretched roads, challenging drivers seeking to avoid sand traps, mud holes, cracked surfaces and swirling dust devils in the dry season. Finally we began the ascent up the mountain range, where hairpin curves, unprotected by guardrails, hug the cliffs. "We're almost there," Laurie, an MCC volunteer, gently warned shortly before we arrived at what newspapers had called "the death curve."
Two crosses covered with gaudy plastic flowers marked the site. The bus had recently been removed and now a long swath through the dense brush scarred the mountainside, looking much like a ski-slope in summer. Too steep to descend, we started down a rugged path that zigzagged left of the scar. Cheerful high shrubs with sun-yellow daisy flowers gave no hint to the May 20th night when four persons lost their lives and dozens suffered injuries as the speeding microbus flew over a bank of trees before crashing down the mountain.
"There was an eerie silence after we crashed," recalled Aaron as he described scrambling down through dense foliage into the ravine and calling for Krista. He, their puppy Choclo, and Krista's shoe had been thrown out at the top of the hill, where he landed on his head, injuring his shoulder and neck. "It was a cold, pitch black night with only a finger moon, almost a surreal scene," he said as he pointed to where he had noticed a body hidden under the brush. "That's about where I reached over and touched a face in the dark and sensed it was a big man, not Krista."
When we neared the bottom where the bus landed, Aaron showed us the place he remembered first seeing Krista's body. "She was the last thrown from the bus," he said as he tried to reconstruct his memories.
I placed the flowers where Aaron thought she died, a gesture that felt completely unsatisfying. Then Jim and I sat side by side, confronting the unimaginable truth that our beloved daughter breathed her last breath in this Andean ravine, so far from home.
Questions surfaced in the heat. I wondered if she was conscious during those last few minutes of life, alone before Aaron could find her and hold her? Did her eyes see the stars of heaven, so abundant in Bolivia's nights? I thought of Aaron's trusting prayer for safety shortly after the bus left Comarapa, a natural expression of his intimate relationship with God, and the theological questions her death ushered into his life, scarred already with the recent loss of his mother to breast cancer.
I cried for her, for all the days of lost love; for Aaron's bewildering pain; for the unborn children no one will ever know; for Susan and Jeff, a sister and brother who will lose a lifetime of familial friendship; for Jim, whose father's heart broke into as many shards as the shattered bus. And I cried a mother's tears, for the child I first knew in the womb, whose light illumined every day of our family's life and filled my own with such joy.
A community of survivors
From the morning we first learned of Krista's death, we knew it was a communal tragedy. The bus was filled with school teachers going to Santa Cruz to seek months of back salaries. Our sorrow was forever linked with other Bolivian families who also lost loved ones. During the summer weeks of grieving at home in the States, friends visited and brought gifts to nurture our spirits. So when we arrived in Comarapa, a city of 3,000 where Krista's villagers traveled for the weekly market, we sought out the widow of a local school director who was killed in the crash. We hoped a gentle gift might ease her pain a little, too.
When we found her house, a dignified woman dressed all in black greeted us. In this country, which places such high value on family relationships, it is customary to wear black for a year as a symbol of mourning. Chris Woodring, a 29-year-old MCC volunteer from Kentucky who initiated the work in Bañado, explained our visit to her and she invited us in. We gave her a small red book called Love, with watercolor hearts on the cover. The inside pages included spaces for photographs or drawings and pages for writing. We mentioned the possibility that friends could write memories of her husband and then the book could be passed down through the family.
Señora Lijeron, also a teacher, paged through it with delight. She spoke with obvious pride as she told us about her husband, displayed his soccer trophies, and brought out wedding and family albums showing their two sons. Also a survivor of the accident, she and Aaron began comparing memories.
"I told my husband I didn't want to go on this bus because I didn't know the driver, but he ignored me," she lamented. Now alone, she spoke of her great loneliness and her trust that God would help her and their sons.
Tears crossed international boundaries as we sat in shared pain.
The valley of love and delight
After attending a Quechua church service, we began the 15-km ascent up a twisting primitive mountain road that then dipped down into a delightful river valley. Now the dry season, 40-foot spiny cactus and prolific scrub cacti testified to the desert-like terrain. Yet, as we ascended toward the Rio Comarapa, an elaborate mosaic of irrigated fields created a fertile oasis of bountiful crops. We saw a farmer plowing with two oxen, tilling fields much like his ancestors.
The community of Bañado de la Cruz had no village center, but included subsistence farms spread along the river, often at great distances from one another. Aaron and Krista worked with these families through a women's cooperative and an agricultural cooperative.
More than any part of the trip, it was my daughter's valley home and her community of friends I most longed to see. I recalled Krista's disappointment when she first saw the one-room adobe house connected to the community center: "We romanticize adobe in America," she wrote, admitting to her "borderline depression" at the sight. "In fact, I live in a mud and straw house with a little cement which has been baked in the sun, and it looks like it's going to disintegrate in the first rain. It looks like crap." Without electricity or plumbing, they needed to use a dry latrine and outdoor bucket for showers, gathering water from a distant spring and the river.
However, within days she grew to love her new home as she and Aaron looked forward to giving it their own touches. I knew she especially liked the spacious windows overlooking the bucolic view of farmlands and mountains, and listening to the sounds of the river from the porch hammock. Many friends shared letters with us that spoke of her contentment. To us she wrote, "I love it here and am increasingly content and happy with my new home. I love that there are more donkeys, pigs and goats roaming the road than cars. I love taking hikes. I love getting strong by carrying water. And I love what being here does for our marriage."
Minutes before arriving, Chris, the MCC volunteer from Kentucky, realized he had forgotten the door key back in Comarapa, so he dropped us off at Krista and Aaron's home and borrowed a farmer's motorcycle.
A barbed wire fence and gate, built earlier to keep goats off the fruit trees, surrounded their house; newly planted chirimoya trees, gifts from neighbors, stood shriveled from neglect; a pile of unused adobe bricks lay in a corner near dead wildflower and vegetable gardens. We absorbed this dismal scene as we waited on the porch for Chris to return.
Within minutes, Dona Dionisea, a widowed neighbor, came running over when she realized Aaron had returned. "Aaaaron, Aaaron," she shouted exuberantly. She shed tears openly as she talked about Krista and invited us over to her porch for soda pop.
"Krista called her the Tina Turner of the community," Aaron told me as we stepped carefully around the spiny cactus. "She has such strong legs. She's almost 50 and a mother of 12. Krista marveled at how she still works in the fields and walks miles back and forth into Comarapa. She also knows a lot about traditional herbal medicines."
After drinks, Dionisea walked us down a path along the irrigation ditches through her five-hectare farm, land she treasured. We passed harvested tomato fields, ripening potato and cabbage crops, and chirimoya, grapefruit and mango trees.
Hearing Chris' motorcycle, we returned to Krista's home. Aaron went inside alone for a while, then lit some candles and invited us in. Rather than the chill I feared, the one-room home filled me with a warm sense of Krista's presence. Exquisite antique Andean tapestries hung on the white plastered walls near two old mahogany armoires that defined the "bedroom" section. A vibrant hand-woven bedspread and pillows created an artful space. A red enamel tea kettle, bought at the local market, waited on the gas stove to be used for guests, and a blue patterned tablecloth brightened the corner.
I browsed at the books on their over-stacked bookshelves. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Carlos Fuentes, Barbara Kingsolver, Carl Jung, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tolkien, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What a feast of friends for the long nights of quiet so rare in American society.
Other books spoke of their work: The Complete Bee Manual, Building Dry Latrines, The Andean Network, The Jungle Camp Cookbook, Where There Are No Doctors, How to Train Community Health Workers. Old copies of magazines and journals-Wilson Quarterly, Nature, The Atlantic Monthly, Popular Science and The Economist-lined the bottom shelf. I picked up Toni Morrisons's Tar Baby, one of the last books Krista read, and thought about her lively, thoughtful mind. How much I will miss our rich conversations around the dinner table or over a latte as she tried to merge her absorbing interests in women's literature, politics and biology.
As I sat on their bed, I wondered silently if Krista had any idea of how many other people mourned for her-of the hundreds of friends at three memorial services, of the six days of solid rain after her death, so unusual in eastern Washington that her father asked one day, "Is heaven weeping with us?"
About then Chris told us we needed to move all the furniture and stay outside as he sprayed the baseboards for scorpions, tarantulas and vinchuca beetles before we could sleep safely.
"We found 15 dead scorpions after the last spray," remembered Aaron, and I'm reminded again that what looks romantic can harbor dangers for the unwary. "Look at Krista's tarantulas," said Aaron, as he showed me two jars with giant spiders she had preserved. Even dead, their big black furry bodies caused me to wince. I relished her sense of curiosity, alive since childhood, toward all living things. I could imagine her wanting to show these to the inner-city biology students she once taught in Tacoma.
The next day we walked down the lane to the nearby schoolhouse where members of the Women's Cooperative had been all morning fixing a lunch to welcome us, a country feast of chicken, rice, lettuce and tomato salad. Several of the mothers, with babies slung on their backs, looked much younger than Krista. It was these women who initiated the project to build dry latrines for their families with the assistance of visiting Canadian church students, hosted and fed them all in their homes, and treated Krista with such kindness. "We will never forget her," many said to us as they offered Aaron condolences, their quiet love and sorrow for him so evident.
We gave them a framed picture of Krista and Choclo taken in one of the women's corn fields, and thanked them for the many ways they extended a welcome to Krista and Aaron. As we gathered around the table for lunch, they took turns offering words that described her. "Alegria!" said Dionisea, and the women murmured their assent to this Spanish word for joy. Others mentioned she was "a good friend," "helpful," "beautiful," "a hard worker," "very funny," "so caring," "a lover of children and animals," and "so encouraging."
The genuine affection these 12 women expressed demonstrated the power of mutual openness and respect; a power that allowed women to bridge the boundaries of culture.
Two of the women told of dreams they had of Krista, a very personal gift to us.
"In my dream I met Krista one day at the river," said Nikolasia, a young mother nursing a baby. "Krista, I thought you were dead," she remembered saying.
"No, I'm fine."
"But how can you be fine? You're dead."
"They took my heart in a box to the north and fixed it," explained Krista. "I'm fine. But Aaron's not doing well."
How true, I thought, knowing Aaron's searing loneliness.
Then another woman told of a similar dream, in which Krista came to visit her at her home.
"I thought you went over the hill in the micro," she said when startled by Krista's presence.
"No, I'm fine."
"But you are supposed to be dead."
"No, I'm just fine. Look at me!"
Tears came to the woman as she told us her story.
Later, back at Aaron and Krista's house, we heard the local farmers coming to the agricultural cooperative located in the adjacent room. They were holding a special meeting to see Aaron and talk about their future with MCC. Inside the room, the walls showed Aaron's creative cartoons and artwork that explained the value of solar panels, listed the goals decided upon by the cooperative, touted the benefits of a new drought-sustaining corn, and analyzed a recent communication problem in the group.
The men expressed their sorrow for Aaron's loss, their appreciation for the work he had done. One farmer spoke for the group. "Aaron, could you find the strength inside to return?" he asked.
Aaron chose his Spanish words carefully. "It's impossible to imagine at this time," he answered. Chris promised to occasionally assist in the co-op until MCC could find a replacement.
In the morning we packed up the pickup truck with the tangible gifts friends had brought-a sack of potatoes, eggs, oranges, honey, chirimoyas-and we left carrying intangible gifts of memories from Bolivians who gave us their heartfelt stories, tears and friendship. Dionisea, other neighbors, children and dogs came to bid us farewell.
Love in a strange land
After returning to Santa Cruz, we visited the host family where Krista and Aaron lived during their first three months of language study in Santa Cruz. The father, a Baptist pastor and teacher, and the mother, a school principal, welcomed us warmly. When we arrived, a little Pekingese-mixed breed dog greeted Aaron and me with ecstatic joy-jumping, barking and squealing. I recalled phone calls from Krista when she told me about the family's little puppy that she pampered and let on her bed.
During lunch, the eldest daughter, a pharmacist, told us how such exuberant behavior was very unusual for this dog. She then described what happened the night of the accident. "The dog started crying and scratching frantically that night, and when we let him inside the house, he went right to the bedroom door where Krista and Aaron had stayed. Then he cried and scratched more," she said. "There's a belief in Bolivia that when someone dies, their soul returns to their homes and dogs recognize the soul. We thought Grandma had died."
The next day MCC staff came to their home and told them of Krista's death during the night. Stunned by the news, the mother, a woman about my age, then told us of her love and care for Krista. When she heard Krista was killed, she rushed to the hospital morgue and found Krista's naked body with only a sheet covering her. "Evidently, her clothes were so dirty and torn from the accident, officials removed them," she explained, so she rummaged through Krista's backpack. "I found a clean blue shirt and skirt and dressed her."
I knew she was also the woman who had come alongside Aaron when he was released from the hospital, helping him take down the sheet to see and tenderly touch Krista's injuries-her broken neck, jaw and back. "So many of her injuries were internal, she still looked beautiful," recalled Aaron.
Heartbroken that I could not hold Krista after she died, I felt immensely grateful for this mother's practical love extended to Krista, for her touch, for her respect and her compassion to Aaron, in grief and shock so far from home.
Forgiveness and faith
Aaron needed to go with Chris and meet the lawyers and the insurance company to allow reimbursement to MCC for Krista's death expenses and his medical fees. He returned around dinner time, clearly distraught. "I've just spent two hours with the driver of the bus," he fumed, visibly shaken. "I even had to ride in a car with him while he went over to another lawyer. I didn't realize who he was until about halfway through our meeting," said Aaron, as he described the middle-aged man who still limped from a leg injury caused by the accident.
A husband and father of four children, he had brought his wife along with him.
"I was shocked he was in the room without our being told," said Aaron. "I hadn't prepared myself emotionally for this at all." Needing to get his bearings, Aaron described moving across the room to take a good look at the man he knew was responsible for Krista's death.
"I expected to feel outrage, but as I looked at him closely, I was surprised to feel compassion well up within me. Here was another human being with his own set of consequences and hurt. He looked so full of anxiety, with hunched shoulders and his head cast down. He was living with the guilt of killing four people, had lost his means of livelihood and was obviously injured."
About an hour later, after they had finished with the lawyers, Aaron and the driver walked out on the sidewalk. "I'd been thinking of what I wanted to say to him, to express the depth of the loss. I told him, ‘I want you to know that I hold you responsible for my wife's death. She was a good woman and I loved her very much. She was a beautiful person.'"
Then he told the bus driver, "But because God's grace has been so generous to me, I can't do anything but forgive you." As he told us this, it was a simple statement of fact for Aaron.
"Meeting the bus driver de-mystified him for me," said Chris. "The press reports had demonized him. There's no question he'd been speeding and reckless all night, but he claimed the brakes gave out. Who knows?"
"What do I do with my anger now?" Aaron asked no one in particular, his head buried in his hands. "I don't want to rage at God."
Repairing broken treasures
As we flew back to the States the next day, I knew we had been blessed by this trip into terrible beauty. Though nothing could have prepared us beforehand for an absence the size of Krista, I knew the gift offered afterward would help us reconcile living a new journey without her physical presence. On the airplane home, I reread the letter from Aaron's friend Lynn, which quoted poet Mark Doty's efforts to live with the scar of loss. And I thought of our own questions: How do we live with this crevasse in our lives? How do we weave Krista's memory into the fabric of our family forever?
Lynn wrote, "He describes the ancient Japanese ceramic cups. These cups were once the property of some holy monk, one of the few possessions he permitted himself to keep. Centuries later, the cup was dropped and broken, but even in this condition it was too precious to simply destroy. So it was repaired, not with glue, which wouldn't hold for centuries to come, but with a thin seam of gold solder, thus repairing the break in what could never truly be repaired perfectly. The gold solder added a beauty to the cup, making part of its history quite visible.
"The metaphor, Doty said, offers the possibility to ‘honor the part of oneself that's irreparable-to fill the crack with gold means to allow the break prominence, to let it shine. Wearing its history, the old cup with its gilt scars becomes, I imagine, a treasure of another sort, whole in its own fragmentation, more deeply itself, veined with the evidence of time.'"
To me, this image made sense. The rich stories given to us those two weeks, added to other cherished memories of Krista's life, could become part of the gold solder we all need to heal. We had been seeing the final months in a beautifully textured life of a daughter whose actions lived out her belief in "a holistic faith, in God's love to all creation."
And as she showed this love for all land and peoples, her spirit touched Bolivians from all walks of life. With the wind in her hair, and a beloved husband at her side, she flew with zest on a motorbike across high mountain terrain to serve three communities.
She worked alongside others for basic things: a decent latrine, libraries and literacy for children, a sense of worth and community for women, a home where love dwelled. These were simple acts, done with great devotion, in an unknown river valley. Yet because she was never burdened by a false sense of her own importance, she kept the joy.
Such stories settle in the broken heart, inviting our memories to rest with them when we lose one we love. We are among the most blessed of parents to have seen-and heard the ways she did this, at home and abroad. Memories of gold-to endure forever.