Dear Ohio – The Last Installment
From my new place in the soul of the universe, where I have resided only days, I look down at my worthless life as an immigrant.
Who am I, Hermelinda Barbachano, to say my life was of value to my fellow Americans?
I leave behind useful but few belongings – minimal furniture, used clothing, some old small kitchen appliances, extra medical supplies, a wheelchair, a portable commode and a walker. Beyond that, I fear you might be blind to the gifts I have given you. After all, we live in a time when material things are the only gifts that matter.
I never really meant to become an American. My youth was one of severe hardship and abuse, but I was determined to make something of myself in my own country.
This was not easy, because I had little formal schooling. I had to teach myself everything from books. I found one book that opened a whole new world for me. It told about the manners and courtesies of people who were educated, people who had nice things and lived in nice houses.
I learned everything I could from that book, and slowly, I felt at home with the language and customs of a people for whom I was only a servant.
I was a legal resident of the U.S. when my marriage failed and I was left to support my daughters by myself. I took any job I could, working for a series of families who needed child care and housekeeping.
To these families, I gave my heart. I treated them like they were my own blood. I made sacrifices that others might never think of making for someone who was not family. I worked unpaid hours when parents were kept at work. I stayed up nights with sick children so parents could sleep. I did not get sick leave. I did not get health insurance. And many times, I did not get Social Security or disability.
I stayed with them when they were afraid, even if I was not paid for the time. I thought to myself, this is what I want when the day comes that I need care from someone else.
The elderly were always so grateful. After all, America is one of the hardest places to grow old. You have no meaning to the young. You are only a burden. In this setting, every kindness is a gift, and I showered this gift upon the elderly I cared for.
Eventually I lay dying in my own bed. By now I was an American citizen, eligible for subsidized housing. If not for that, I would have been on the street. On my dresser near my bed were the pictures of some of the children I took care of, standing proudly with their children, smiling faces filled with the confidence of being loved. I do not think it is too much to say that I contributed to that confidence by doing my work with love.
There is nothing of material value I leave to my own children, for the labor of love does not pay well. But I believe the gifts of decency, honesty, kindness and self-sacrifice are priceless, and if they were to be compensated at a fair rate, I might leave to my own children a small measure of what the families I cared for will leave to their children. Instead, I leave a few dollars in my bank account and some used furniture.
Among the immigrant friends I leave behind are many people just like me. Women who give their hearts to the work they do and the people they do it for. They receive very little pay, and in most cases, no benefits.
They go to work when they are tired, not feeling well, worried about their own children, wondering how they are going to pay for doctors, car repairs and rent.
Yet, as soon as they set foot inside the house of their employer, they spend all their energy making life better for the adults and children they are hired to take care of. They fill in all the gaps that busy Americans either cannot or will not fill.
Where is the ledger of my contribution and theirs? Where in the conversation of powerful people is there a recognition of what we have given? I was never able to find it anywhere.
I leave this earth a worthless immigrant in the eyes of my adopted country. But in the moments before I left this life, I was empty, having given everything I had to the people I served. Don’t say I never gave you anything.