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7/23/06

Dear Kim:

Tonight I cried about Carmelita, the woman who has been my mother's caregiver for the past four months. Today was her last day of work since the movers were coming and my parents will be spending the weekend at my sister's until I help them fly to New York on Wednesday. Carmelita has lived with my parents full time for four months. Since my mother's heart attack in February.

I am not the only one who has been crying. My mother said that Carmelita wept when she said good bye yesterday. She told my parents that she had tried to care for them as if they had been her own parents and that she had grown attached to them.

My mother did not cry. I think she is preoccupied with the move, with leaving my sister and her friends. My mother is not a woman who cries. I can scarcely count on one hand the number of times I have seen her cry.

One time was when we visited the Tenement Museum which houses a simulacrum of how early immigrants lived.on the lower east side of New York.

"Oh my god," my mother had said as we walked into the dark, narrow building.

"Was it this bad?" my sister asked.

"It was much, much worse," my mother said. And then she was weeping.

So she learned early to be tough and it is difficult for me still, to see where her feelings lodge. She is not like me, a pretty open book.

And it is complicated when some relationships begin and are predicated on a financial transaction. My mother needed help, Carmelita needed a job. Yet the pride and meaning Carmelita took in her work far exceeded any typical definition of labor for the position, if there is such a thing. That was clear on the days when her friend Mary substituted for Carmelita on her day off. Mary did the barest minimum. Scarcely reheating the meals that Carmelita had prepared before she left. Watching the clock.

It was a different story with Carmelita. She watched my mother tenaciously, stirring in the middle of the night if she heard her cough. She jollied her into swallowing the dreaded pills, camouflaging them with applesauce or orange juice.

She made breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. And every dinner was distinct, pulling from her native Filipino menu or favorites of my father's. One Sunday morning when I was there, I awoke to find her making french toast. French toast isn't exactly on my father's diet.

"It's Sunday," she said. "It's time for a treat."

When I noticed how she had cut a few strawberries to put on his plate as a garnish, I had to leave the room. I felt undone by the sweetness, the tenderness of the gesture.

Then there is the fact that she gave up her bed to me the week I recuperated at my parents after my surgery. I felt badly but she insisted and I would see her curled up sleeping on the tiny love seat in my mom's office, her feet sticking out over the edge.

When my parents were fraying under the tension of my mother's illness and the enormous implication of the move and had one of the biggest fights I can remember in years, it was Carmelita who sat with me as I stroked my mother's hand and tried to get her blood pressure down. It was Carmelita who went after my father and said, "Tell her you love her, Stan. Tell her you want her to be your bride again."

My gratitude to this tiny lady is so big, I have a hard time naming it. My gratitude and my admiration. She had the courage to come to this country where she knew no one and spoke no English. The courage to leave a bad marriage and to raise two daughters on her own working as a nurse's aid.

In a household where there is a lot of talk and yet in the most fundamental ways, much is not spoken, Carmelita and I understood each other. It was to me that she came and cried when she felt hurt by my brother's rudeness. When my father was cranky or mean, she and I would exchange a look to help each other sail through that choppy water.

I know that most things—no, that all things—are transitory and that is part of my pain. I know I should simply dwell in gratitude for the sheer grace of this woman who saved our lives at a very difficult time. But a part of me wants badly to hold on. A part can't seem to be content with the recognition and memory of a beautiful connection, even although that connection was always intended to be short lived.

Later,
Joan

Thursday, May 25, 2006

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