JUST NOT MY MOTHER

The rainwater we had froze overnight, leaving small puddles of ice in the woods like the one above. I was captivated by the lines the ice made this morning. Within minutes, as it got warmer, the ice dissolved, but the step-by-step process was very pretty, before it all cracked and gave way.

Often, I wonder how to write about human suffering—losses, catastrophes, illnesses, heartbreaking disappointments—without invoking pity, without causing human beings to disappear indiscriminately into some big pit marked Unfortunates. Or Victims. Or Suffering Beings. Or Losers, as Donald Trump might call them.

I can blame the Buddha, whose First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. No such thing as gain without loss, hope without setback, joy without sorrow. When we do suffer, we suffer in different ways.

A couple from Guatemala came across the border, their town overrun by drug cartels. They managed to bring their two younger children with them, but the older ones didn’t want to come. Think of your own teenagers who have their friends, whom they don’t want to leave behind. Some months later a drug gang entered the family’s house in Guatemala and killed 18 people, including the two children who’d stayed behind and their grandparents.

Or the woman who cleans this house once a month. She’s here for over 20 years with her husband and son, and several years ago had another baby girl. But she left a grown-up daughter in Guatemala whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years. She can’t fly down to see her because she has no legal documents, and the daughter can’t come up here. It’s not clear the two will ever see each other.

She always smiles when she comes here, but I believe that inside, the face is marked like the Ice above.

And smaller things. Like what? Sophia and her daughter, Elena, make it here after Elena gives birth enroute, in Mexico. Elena goes to high school and does well, has plans for a career, but the baby is not well so she leaves school to take care of her. They need a pediatrician but can’t get one without medical insurance, and the ER hasn’t been able to stabilize the baby.

And then the bureaucracy begins: If Sophia could work a certain number of hours at the local farms, she can get medical insurance. But the farms are closed right now, and once she does get the insurance, it’ll cover her and Elena, but not the grandbaby.

How do you tell these stories without exhausting yourself and your readers? People get tired and feel overwhelmed.

“Dogs, too,” says Aussie. “If Henry the Illegal Chihuahua tells me one more story of how he got here, I’ll kill myself. I hate suffering! What am I supposed to do about it?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it’s not up to me to end it all; I can do just a little bit—and that’s important. Last weekend I mentioned an unhoused woman who lived through a Tennessee winter in a tent, then came up here and spent a New England winter with her dog in a truck with a broken window. She’s begun working in a fast-food outlet, but still can’t afford much here. I have learned a great deal over the past years about working poor people, who work full shifts every day, also weekends, and can’t afford rents or medical bills.

I sent out some emails and posts. A nice man replied that he may have a place for her and the dog for a few months and asked that she call him. Two others wrote that while they don’t have a room for her, they can help in other ways, one by buying her the dogfood she needs, the other to help repair the truck window.

I find myself getting stuck on the big needs and overlooking the smaller ones that may be just as important, and more doable. Get some dogfood, fix he truck window, get some shelter from the cold and rains for a while. Later, something bigger maybe, like permanent housing and another chance at rebuilding a life. But small things are important.

On Saturday night I took out Jimena and Byron Pareja, not just to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary but also as gratitude for facilitating connection with our local immigrant families. Jimena told me that now, in her evening job supporting immigrant teens in their schoolwork, she brings in their parents. Why? Because since Massachusetts legalized driver’s licenses for immigrants (legal and not), their parents are taking road tests, but English remains a big roadblock. She has their kids testing them:

“What do you do if the tester asks you to turn right and park behind that white car? No no no, you don’t park right away, you first turn right and then park.”

“What do you do if he tells you to turn left? No, not right—left!”

“What lane do you drive on to turn left?”

“The kids get very frustrated,” Jimena chuckled. “You know what they say? ‘Get me another parent to work with, not my mother!’”

We laughed out loud as we shared a big strawberry margarita, toasting their work over many years. 180 people had come to celebrate their anniversary. Parties, laughter, food, a shared strawberry margarita, telling stories. Those, too, are responses to suffering.

Meantime, if you can, please donate to immigrant families using the button below. Do it in honor of Jimena and Byron Pareja. Thank you.

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