Jimena and I sat outside her home, giving out food cards and discussing what else was needed, when a tall, dark, buxom woman arrived. She picked up a food card and then sat on the front steps along with Jimena while Jimena furiously worked on the woman’s phone.
“Lily [not her real name] is illiterate in both Spanish and English,” Jimena later told me, apologizing for leaving me a while, ”and I had to register the woman’s children for soccer activities and extra-help classes in the school. Now everything is done online but she can’t do it, she only knows her password.”
She leaves me to reflect on what it is to be illiterate in your native country and make your way illegally across the border all the way up to the Northeast, into another culture and language where you’re illiterate twice over. It’s not that there are no free classes in English here, there are, but most of these parents work long hours on the farms and rush home to take care of their children.
More important, they’re vulnerable. They’re afraid to make any waves, raise a voice, do anything that calls attention to them. And don’t many of us want to call some attention to ourselves? How many of us have lived an entire lifetime trying to stand out in the crowd, our system shouting: Me! Me! Me! Look at me! Listen to me!
Not if you’re in Lily’s situation. Or Hilaria’s sister, for example, who is taking care of Hilaria now. Hilaria, as you know, deaf her entire life, was hospitalized for seizures and came home after several weeks. Her sister took her in to take care of her while Hilaria waits for the brain swelling to come down and get stronger so that she could undergo needed surgery once they work out how to do this without medical insurance. Her meds alone, without insurance, are a lot of money.
The sister’s landlord saw Hilaria in the apartment and immediately insisted she leave. Jimena told me the story:
“I went there and explained what happened to her and that she needs care. She’s deaf and had seizures and was in the hospital for a long time. I told him she had her own apartment and her sons are there right now, but they can’t take care of their mother. She wasn’t trying to move in with her sister illegally, she just needed care for a while. He said she’s using water for her showers and therefore must leave. I told him they pay for their water, not him. It took a long time till he left them alone.”
“And her sister? Did she say anything?”
“They don’t say anything, Eve, they’re afraid. They pay their rent, they pay utilities, they work very hard, but anybody can say something crazy to them and they won’t speak up because they’re afraid.”
They’re vulnerable. People can hurt them; people can deport them; people can deport their children. There are many families with just one parent because the other was at the wrong place at the wrong time. So, they stay quiet. Their children, too, learn to stay quiet. They feel the sharp, raw edge all around them; it could give at any moment. They acquire new accessories: a mask, a cloak of invisibility, a muzzle on the mouth, or a toughness to scare away the terror.
“I think I’m going to die very soon,” my mother informs me when I call her this morning. “They can’t keep on beating me and beating me and expect me to just go on living.”
“Who’s beating you, mom?”
“They. I go in to see the doctors and if I don’t give the right answers they slap me in the face.”
“What doctors, mom? What answers?”
“Chavale, don’t pretend you don’t know. Doctors. And they ask me questions that I don’t know and I get a slap in the face. Every day! One day my head will just fall off.”
“I’ll talk to them, mom, I promise.”
“I will talk to them and tell them they can’t beat you anymore, mom. We’ll all call them and tell them that, and they’ll stop.”
“You think they’ll listen?”
“I’m sure they will listen, we’ll give them no choice.”
I long ago learned to accept my mother’s stories arising from her dementia. If I try to persuade her that it’s not real she’ll hang up the phone. When things like that arise, we promise her we’ll take care of them, and that soothes her, at least till the next time. It’s very sad that experiences of Holocaust and an impoverished, neglectful family life come up for her day after day after a lifetime of brushing them off and trying to out-tough shadows and memories.
I wish my vulnerabilities and fears could be soothed so simply. When I look closely at what lies hidden behind confusion and stress, it’s old fears of messing up and failing, of again being unloved, again being abandoned. Same old same old.
What soothes me? Putting my hand through Aussie’s soft black hair as she nuzzles against my knee, reminding me that the computer isn’t alive but she is, that the screen has no heartbeat but she does, and that old voices in the head are nothing like two brown, bright eyes and dark, smudgy eyebrows. She’s saved me with her physical presence many times, just like my sister came to my mother’s home in the middle of the night a few days ago and lay alongside her in bed so that if a cult was coming to kidnap her, they’d have to get through her daughter first.
Marta [not her real name] asked for money to send her mother in Mexico. Her mother and family ran for their lives when a river flooded their Mexican village. Their small home was damaged beyond repair and they lost everything, including their beds. They are staying temporarily with relatives, but they asked their daughter for extra help just so they could eat. The family they stay with barely has food for itself, never mind for another family, so their daughter asked me for help to send them more money for food.
I don’t usually solicit money for people to send their families back home (they all send whatever they can afford back home), with one exception, and that was when a woman lost both her parents to covid in Ecuador and the undertaker wouldn’t release their bodies for burial till he received $400. We sent her that money. But this time, too, I thought to ask for money for this woman’s family because I thought of the floods in Tennessee, New York, and New Jersey, people drowning in basement apartments and cars.
They’re no longer the only vulnerable ones; so are we. The scale and substance are different, but in essence vulnerability’s the same: the sense of life lying in ambush, ready to overwhelm and even destroy, losing track of what, if anything, holds us up. I share that with Lily, I share it with Marta and with Jimena. With my mother. Except that they haven’t put on their masks as I have, haven’t told life they could beat it hands down.
They ask for help.
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