The Mission San Xavier del Bac dozes in the Arizona sun just south of Tucson, haunting the desert with its memories of the early Spanish colonization of the New World, the Apache raids that emptied the territory of Spanish settlers, the Mexican war of independence, and the area’s abrupt adoption into the United States with the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. The mission’s story is as old as any written history is in this young land. Well over two centuries ago, local craftsmen constructed the present building of low-fired clay bricks, protected with a coat of white lime against the extreme desert conditions. The doors are of mesquite and pine, and the timbers of the roof are mesquite too, overlaid with the skeletons of ocotillo cactus and covered with adobe—all local resources, suited to its place and its timelessness. Despite the passage of centuries and the fact that the church has continued to hold services ever since its construction, one of its two bell towers remains unfinished, its domed top strangely absent.
I have always wanted to see San Xavier, to discover if there are bells in the towers and to hear them ring their ancient tones across the silent landscape. But somehow we’ve never made the effort. If you live in Arizona, as we have for over thirty years, Tucson is the sort of place you drive through on your way to somewhere else. Bird-watching in the Chiricahuas, for instance, or zipping on past the Mexican border to the seacoast on the Gulf of California. Or, as we had originally planned for the Christmas holiday, visiting friends one state over in New Mexico—an eight-hour drive, snow likely, and plenty of mountains to cross.
Mountains used to be a special pleasure for us, the intoxicating scent of Ponderosa pine, the lush green of the forest closing in on both sides of the roadway and the chance spotting of a white-tailed deer on errands of her own. Not anymore. As a side effect of my breast cancer surgery over a decade ago, I live with lymphedema—swelling in my arms, chest and back caused by the removal of lymph nodes to test for cancer spread. The swelling can be reduced with consistent pressure in the form of tight-fitting compression garments. But ascending into the mountains, where the air pressure is lower, means an increase in the swelling and extra efforts to contain it—by wrapping both arms in multi-layered bandages and donning a clumsy quilted vest stuffed with chipped foam. We resign ourselves to Tucson instead, a two-hour drive from home over good roads, great weather, and no altitude changes. Five leisurely days, admiring the Chinese gemstones at the University Mineral Museum, hiking in Sabino Canyon, marveling at the solar telescope on Kitt Peak and—at long last—listening for the bells of San Xavier del Bac.
I pack along all my lymphedema supplies anyway—the bandages, the quilted foam-stuffed night garments and several changes of the compression sleeves and gloves I wear daily. But that’s only the beginning. Daughter Dara’s diabetes supplies are even more critical: a blood testing meter and plenty of test strips to go with it, all the gear required to change the canula on her insulin pump every two or three days, emergency supplies for low or high blood sugars, and of course the insulin bottles stored securely in an ice chest. Husband Bob requires provisions for his sleep apnea in the form of a machine that blows air past any obstructions in his airway while he sleeps.
And son Tony—ah, Tony! With his autism we can never guess what he will need, so we tote along everything that might help. Quantities of drawing paper and marking pens, books about insects and hurricanes, a stack of his four-wheeler magazines, cocoa mix, snack bags full of granola, and his favorite tool: a reacher for cleaning up parks and pathways. And of course his service dog, Dude, 85 pounds of furry loyalty with an uncanny ability to sense impending disaster and the unflappable will to intervene before it gets out of hand. Dude’s needs are not inconsequential either, involving dog food and bowls, grooming supplies, training treats, chew toys, leashes, a sleeping mat, health records, and his service dog vest. By the time everything is packed, double-checked and loaded into the van, it’s past lunchtime. Rather than delay any longer, we stop along the way for a late meal, arriving at our hotel in late afternoon.
For our first full day in Tucson we plan to take it easy, adjusting to the delights of hotel living. Like breakfast together at the hotel buffet. Tony is tickled with the make-it-yourself waffles. Dara’s blood sugars are within normal range. No one challenges our right to have a service dog in attendance. All good. Then a walk to explore the path behind our hotel that stretches beside the Santa Cruz river. Or rather, the riverbed. The arroyo, in desert terms—a seasonal stream that surges, bank to bank, with the run-off of monsoon rains or nearby mountain snows, and is otherwise dry and drowsy, a dusty rut some one hundred yards across and twenty feet deep. Today it’s dry, cluttered with the debris of former floods and the detritus of a throw-away society. As we walk we make a verbal inventory of the litter below us in the arroyo, everything from car parts and chunks of carpeting to a crumpled air conditioning unit. Even a couch, its cushions still intact.
Tony loves such things. He considers himself an environmentalist. With his gloves, reacher, and a plastic bag, he picks up scraps he finds along the trail, all the time gazing wistfully at the out-of-reach garbage in the river bottom. We stroll for a mile or more, waiting from time to time for Tony to catch up after a venture into the brush to collect a beer can or an errant fast-food sack. Heading back again toward the hotel we cross a footbridge spanning one of the concrete spillways that drain the Tucson streets. A spot of color on the bridge rail catches my eye. A wind chime, handcrafted by the look of it. It sports a ceramic flower and fat ceramic beads in sun-bright colors, with a rustic bell hanging below, ready to sound in a desert breeze. Charming, but oddly out of place.
My immediate impulse is to protect it. Here on this lonely path someone is sure to spot it—steal it or smash its fragile decorations. Almost immediately, though, my suspicions surface. What is it doing here, captive against the bridge rail where it can’t possibly ring? How could anyone lose a wind chime on a walking path? And who could have hung it on the bridge?
I holler to the others, who have spread out along the trail, and we gather around to stare at it. I spot a tag attached near the top and lean close to read it. “You have found a Ben’s Bell,” it says, in thick black letters. “Take it home, hang it, and remember to spread kindness throughout our world.”
A gift, then? Here, on this disused trail beside a junk-infested riverbed? Who could it be meant for? And who is this Ben? Deserts are notorious for attracting eccentrics, loners who value the sparse and the arid, whether to seek answers to life’s conundrums or to retreat from the pressures of a bitter past. Best guess: Ben is just such a soul. I picture him dressed in grungy jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, working in some ramshackle studio to produce these bits of beauty and set them out in the most unlikely of places.
I glance around. Is Ben hiding somewhere in the scrub, watching to see if we’ll believe this outrageous message and walk off with his prize? But I see nothing, no telltale plaid flannel, not even the shadow of a skittering jackrabbit or Gambel’s quail. I reach out to take the bell and find it fastened to the rail with thin, twisted wire, the sharp ends glinting metallically in the strong sunlight. My maternal instinct jumps first to thoughts of danger. What if a child had found it and pricked herself trying to take it down? And yet there’s the message on the tag, the intention of spreading kindness. Are acts of kindness dangerous? Probably. At least, their vulnerability makes them feel that way.
Tony has no such hesitations. “It’s for me,” he announces. “It’s because I’m cleaning up all the litter, and people are proud of me.”
Why not? Usually his contributions remain unnoticed and unrewarded. At his urging I tie the wind chime to his sweatshirt hood strings, where it dangles nearly to his knees. “Now everyone can hear me coming!” he says, his pride evident in his bouncy step and the grin that glows on his face for the remainder of the day.
Thank you, Ben, whoever you are.
But the next morning: same arroyo path, same reacher and pick-up bags, same sunny desert morning: not too cool, not too hot. And me with the same expectations. When will I ever learn?
Something has set Tony off. Dude knows it, and he sticks to Tony’s side, but even his persistent nudging doesn’t distract Tony from his glowering mood. We cancel our plans to visit the mineral museum that day, and I work at wooing Tony out of his unfocused rage with laptop images of the day’s news: a Russian research vessel trapped in Antarctic ice, penguins lined up to stare, like neighbors on their porches when an ambulance shows up across the street. The extreme weather and the life-threatening crisis catch Tony’s attention, but only momentarily.
By the following morning, our third, even the waffles at the buffet are not enough to reverse our son’s escalating unhappiness. There’s nothing for it but to pack up and head for home, where we can hope the familiar comfort of his own room will help to restore him.
And restore me as well. I’m doing my own glowering, jaws and shoulders aching from the effort of stifling the resentment I feel. All the labor of packing and planning, all the delicious anticipation of a few days of refreshment, dashed. The thought of everything I’m missing out on fills my mind. San Xavier del Bac will just have to wait. Again. Along with everything else. I’m angry at myself for even wanting any of it.
Once home, I concentrate on the unpacking. Tony to his room, where he can work out his discontent out of ear-shot of everyone except the ever-patient Dude. Ice chest emptied first, then dirty clothes out to the laundry room to sort and start. Half an hour into my labors I unpack the wind chime. Ben’s bell. Where to hang it?
I pause to examine the tag more closely. Below the message, in small print, is a web address. Do eccentric loners have websites? Not likely. I stop what I’m doing and fire up my laptop, enter the web address and—there is Ben. He’s wearing a grey-green jacket and an open-mouthed smile, and he’s sitting in a toddler swing at a playground. He’s maybe two years old.
Breathlessly I read his story. Twelve years ago young Ben died suddenly, while his frantic mother watched, helpless to revive him. I have to stop reading to absorb this unforeseen disaster. I wanted this story to be simple—some scruffy man in a clay-spattered shack, no cares in the world. But instead this is about a mother: me and you and every mother. About our nightmare, and our grief.
Only, what has it got to do with Tony’s bell? I turn back to the computer. In the months following Ben’s death, when all she wanted to do was die, Ben’s mom began to realize how much small gifts of kindness mattered. A passing smile, a motorist who made room to let her in when she was changing lanes. All of these were ordinary acts by strangers who didn’t even know the grief she carried, yet now these simple gestures seemed to give her back the strength to live. And more than that, she wondered how many others around her were suffering as well, and how she—and Ben—might touch them.
Out of that, Ben’s Bells took shape. What started as a way for one mother to soothe her loss now reaches hundreds of people, not only in Tucson but all over the country, as visitors take home with them the half-hidden bells they have found, then pass along the kindness by hanging them for others to discover. Their stories pile up on the website, expressions of unseen struggles assuaged by this evidence of unlooked-for caring. No surprise, then, that Tony, who is socially invisible, responded to this power of recognition.
Suddenly it’s not just Tony’s bell, but mine too, exactly the gift I need, of kindness shared with invisible others. I hang it next to the arch between the kitchen and living room, where our shoulders can nudge it as we walk by, sounding a reminder of unanticipated love in the face of our disappointment and self-concern.
Thanks, Ben. Apparently you’re watching after all, just not from the bushes. Watching with childlike glee, with optimism. Eccentric? Definitely. What could be more eccentric than to hang beauty on a bridge rail and invite a stranger to take it home?