Nonfiction by Robyn Goodwin
The plight of all women with children employed outside the home is the same—childcare. A lucky few have grandparents who live close-by, and are willing to take on this responsibility, but many of us have to find a different solution, especially if we’re divorced. We need childcare, and we usually employ other women to fill this need. Many come from countries so poor, they are forced to leave their own children behind to care for ours. Much of the Women’s Movement relies on riding the backs of these unfortunate women in desperate circumstances. Until I went through my divorce, I’d managed to somehow be a “stay-at-home mom,” while growing my commercial cleaning company. When the reality of my divorce set in, I realized I was going to need help.
Marie was small as a whisper, and strong as a curse. She was Filipino and had a knack for folding herself up, all knees and feet, like a flattened grasshopper pressed between the pages of a phone book. She had the world’s smallest Bible, a duffel bag that unfolded into an air mattress, and a dozen or so medals of saints hanging from her slim neck. Her hair was cropped short and she wore a barrette, pinning her black bangs to the side, like a seven-year old. She wore jeans from the kids’ department, and layers of clothes on her tiny body, because she was always cold, especially in the fall.
Marie had come to the States on a tourist visa, courtesy of her sister, Julie, who was a nurse in Jersey City, New Jersey. Marie was considered a low risk for overstaying her visa because of her age. While visiting the States, Marie traveled to Virginia to reconnect with a childhood friend; it happened this friend went to the same hairdresser as I did, and convinced Marie to come work for me.
Therefore, I hired her. This was the beginning of a long, tiring process of sponsoring Marie for U.S. citizenship, a process that has taken more than seven years, a process that has changed my life, and everything I thought I knew about love. Marie was in her mid-fifties, widowed, and the mother of three sons in their late teens to early twenties. She was one of eight siblings; Julie already lived in the States, working as an RN, and another sister would soon follow in Marie’s footsteps. Marie had been trained as a lab tech.
When she started, there was no rhythm to my home. I specialized in chaos, with a side order of disorderly conduct. I was an emotional wreck, grieving the loss of my marriage, tending to my young sons, navigating the waters of a new romance, and managing all the aspects of a business that was becoming increasingly apparent, I had no business running. My boys took to her like an auntie, and I took to her like a second mother. When I had to work at night, I’d come home to an orderly home, Marie squatting in a dimly lit corner, reading my New Yorker magazine, a pot of spaghetti simmering on the stove. If she ran out of chores after doing puzzles and playing Pokemon with my kids, she’d make tiny origami boxes out of old newspaper for their Lego blocks. Marie could fit a small general store into my hall closet that was half the size of carry-on luggage. She was industrious—obsessed with organizing canned goods and cleaning out the refrigerator.
One afternoon after a long day of sweeping for my commercial cleaning company, I came home to find both my boys napping, and Marie sitting on their bedroom floor with rosary beads in her hands. I kissed both their cool cheeks, then asked Marie a question I hated to ask.
“Is everything okay?” I inquired, terrified of the answer I might hear. In her country, everything was possible—plagues, monsoons, and dictatorships.
“My daughter-in-law is giving birth.”
“Oh Marie, this is so wonderful.”
“It will be wonderful when I hear from my son that everything is alright.” That was the fattest sentence she had ever uttered.
“Marie?” I asked, “since you already have your rosary out, will you say a prayer for me?”
I was asking a woman who had left her kids, home, and family to come to a country where she knew approximately four people, to pray for me. This was a woman who for thirty years got up at 3:00 a.m. to cook her family’s meals, before walking a mile to a bus stop in insufferable heat, where she’d have a two-hour commute to her job in Manila for a salary that barely covered a bag of rice. This was a woman who wouldn’t get home until nine, five nights a week, whose husband died unexpectedly and who was left to support three boys on her own. This was a woman who never seemed to have envied, complained, or questioned her crappy lot in life.
She was such a blessing to my family, that when my friend Corrine needed a nanny, she offered to sponsor Marie’s sister, Myra, who was still living in the Philippines and in dire need of a job. Myra accepted, even though her children were younger than Marie’s. I couldn’t begin to imagine the enormous sacrifices that she and Marie were making for the sake of their families. As it turns out, the sacrifices would be great for Myra.
The two sisters were united in Virginia where they found a house with three other Filipino women—all employed as domestics. It was important for Marie to live with women from her culture. She said no American could take the pungent, vinegary smells of their typical dishes, but I later learned that Filipinos are private people with intensely close family relationships. Indeed, in all the years she worked for me, I never saw Marie go into the bathroom except to clean it, and I don’t think she ever saw me leave the bathroom except to go to work. She was private, and incredibly discreet, something I only associated with people not belonging to my family.
During the seven years Marie worked for me, my business was in fits and starts. She was my constant. While I was out cleaning, marketing, or buying supplies, she was at home scrubbing my toilet, chopping vegetables, and checking expiration dates on my son’s asthma medicine. Without my having to ask, she took over my filing, minor vacuum repairs, and addressing envelopes. We were a team. Through Marie, I learned what it meant to be a true partner—the kind of partner who did things because they needed to be done. She was my employee in the sense that every week I gave her cash, and a chicken potpie, but she was also my family, so enmeshed in my life that she once declared, I would go back to the Philippines if I weren’t so worried about you, Robyn. I answered her as unselfishly as I dared—you should be.
What I wanted fluctuated, but what Marie wanted was unwavering: her sole purpose in life was to get her three kids through nursing school so that they’d be given the opportunity to come to the States. Her siblings in the Philippines considered Marie the lucky one—she got out. So did Julie, and Myra. They got out, but as older women who would miss the birth of grandchildren, and be responsible for picking up the unending financial slack in the extended family.
Things don’t always work out the way you imagine them. Sometimes, you can’t imagine things so bad. It was four in the afternoon when Corrine called. She was very upset, trying to catch her breath. I could barely understand her. She’d come home from teaching CCD and found Myra collapsed in her kitchen.
“Bring Marie to Fairfax Hospital right away,” she said. “Rick and I will meet you there.”
Fairfax Hospital is one of the best hospitals in the country. It’s particularly known for trauma injuries. As I drove Marie to the emergency room, I talked endlessly about the quality of the medical staff, about how someone I knew once flew in from Dallas, Texas to get a knee operated on—a godforsaken knee! Who needs a knee that bad? I made promises I had no business making, but believed them because I also believed you’re not allowed to die in a foreign country, especially if you’re poor. Marie, quiet on a good day, was stony silent, her body closed in on itself.
She seemed confused—occasionally asking if Corrine was sure it wasn’t just one of Myra’s migraine headaches. She was in shock, though I didn’t recognize the signs until much later. We were stuck in rush hour traffic—nothing was moving but my mouth. By the time we got there, Corrine and her husband, Rick, were already in the lobby trying to get information on the case. Because Myra was in the early stages of being sponsored, she had no papers except her passport that she kept in a safe in her bedroom. Because she had no identification with her, she was registered as “Jane Doe,” the name the hospital gives any patient without proper ID. Corrine had told the EMT’s Myra’s birth name, but it took forty-five minutes for the hospital staff to realize that Myra Gao was “Jane Doe”.
“Her name is Myra.” Corrine said. “What’s so hard about that?”
The four of us were led to Myra’s room, where a team of eight was rushing around with medical equipment, inserting tubes into her. She looked so little, so much like Marie. Her shiny, black hair was spilled over the white sheets like an ink stain. Her mouth was shrunken, her false teeth, along with a few medals of the Virgin Mary, were in a Ziploc bag beside the bed. Marie took her hand, speaking softly in Tagalog. The feeling in the room was one of hurried resignation—there was a sense of going through the motions without any emotion. I thought about how terrifying this must be for Marie—to be in an unknown country, making decisions that affected so many lives.
The surgeon was a dashing Asian man with long sinewy, hairless arms. He looked about twelve years old, but carried himself with a confidence that must only accompany someone desiring to pursue a career in neuroscience, where you don’t get to deliver a lot of good news. He deserves whatever he gets paid. He pulled our sad little group away from the room, and told us that Myra had suffered a brain aneurysm. It was extremely unlikely that she would recover. He could do surgery to stop the bleeding, but it was only delaying the inevitable. We were given thirty minutes to decide whether or not we wanted Myra to go through the surgery. Marie, stunned and distraught, didn’t want to be responsible for making this life and death decision. She tried to get a hold of her sister, Julie, the nurse, who was visiting their niece in California. Her niece in turn was trying to reach the Philippines to talk to Myra’s husband. The nurses were like a swarm of bees, their plastic shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor. Someone called a priest for Last Rites, and he arrived with damp hair and a crooked collar. Twelve hours away, yesterday almost, it was a bright, shiny morning in the Philippines. The sun was rising. Myra was dying, and her kids wanted her to live. She was only fifty-two years old.
Myra survived the surgery. It was three in the morning. Julie, the youngest sister, would be coming the following day from California. Corrine, Marie, and I sat in Myra’s room until the nurse told us to go home and get some rest. Before we left, Corrine wrote Myra’s name on the message board.
We were back by 8:00 a.m. Myra was resting, a bandage covering half her head. She still hadn’t gained consciousness, and it was doubtful she would. Lifesaving equipment makes a lot of noise—there are beeps, exhales, alarms, all set against a backdrop of a pale, gray room. Everything about that place seemed suspended, a purgatory, something to be escaped only through fervent prayer. Marie was in shock, staring straight ahead, not talking to anyone. I tried to hug her, but she couldn’t look at me; her grief was a private one. Corrine and I cried, prayed, and took turns going for coffee. At 9:45, Myra started to code. Doctors and nurses rushed into the room, checking various readings.
“Let your sister go,” the doctor said to Marie.
Marie shook her head. She wouldn’t be the reason.
“Let her go,” he said again. “She’s in cardiac arrest.”
Marie didn’t get the chance to say no again, before Myra left this world on her own.
She had the best medical care money could buy because she lived in one of the richest counties in the States, and it wasn’t enough to save her life.
Myra’s journey was 8,546 miles—more than a third of the way around the world. It’s a long way from Manila to Reston—roughly the same distance between hope and hopelessness. Myra erred on hope’s side. The community raised enough money to send her body back to the Philippines, so she could be buried near her family, whom she hadn’t seen for nearly three years. It was a strange funeral—being in the room with countless Filipinos who’d known Myra on the periphery, and the many professional women who’d used Myra occasionally to babysit or clean their homes.
My heart broke for Marie—knowing she couldn’t help but weigh the cost of being so far from her own kids. This death, this death had made these decisions intolerable. When I think about all the American Dream has to offer, I’m overwhelmed by Myra’s, Marie’s, and countless others’ interpretations. Their dream had nothing to do with houses. It was much bigger than that, and much less complicated. It wasn’t about Corian countertops, square footage, or three car garages, but something more fundamental. Myra had no property. There was nothing to auction off, no cars to sell, no heirloom jewelry. What she left behind could fill a suitcase. She’d come to the States for one reason: to give her children an opportunity.
After Myra’s funeral, Marie told me she wanted to go back to Jersey City with Julie for a week or so. After seven years, I knew this was our end, but neither of us was willing to say it. This death had changed us both. Her kids were urging her to come home—fearing that their mom too would die in a far away country. Still, her youngest had more schooling, and Marie had no means of paying for the schooling unless she stayed. My kids were now eleven and eight, becoming more and more independent. I was in the field less. Still, I held onto the hope that Marie would come back to me.
A week later, I got a phone call from a woman in New York. She sounded frantic, a baby was crying in the background, while a toddler screamed for milk.
“I need a reference for Maria Paz,” she said, near tears. “My husband and I are both busy professionals, and our nanny just quit without any notice. I have a medical practice. I need someone I can trust. I have three kids under four.”
“Lady,” I said. “You just won the lottery.”
People get sick, fall in love, divorce, get fired, and die every day. Marie keeps her head down and works. She sings, keeping up with all the latest tunes, so long as they’re Michael Jackson tunes circa 1984. She sends boxes to the Philippines for her boys and grandchildren filled with last season’s Abercrombie and Fitch tee-shirts, used Gameboys, Levi jeans, broken computers, phone chargers, canned goods, clock radios, and Crocs. Sometimes, she is tired. Sometimes she wants to give up. And sometimes she has enough hope for just one more day; if she’s lucky, it lasts another year.