Welcoming the Stranger: Family Opens Home and Hearts to a Dying Woman
COMMENTARY: As secular waves whisper assisted suicide, the world is full of Guadalupes — men, women and children who have washed up alone on rocky shores — offering us as Catholics the opportunity to show true compassion.
Guadalupe moved in with us for six weeks, almost three years ago.
She had been renting a room from my neighbor Nery, a kind, elderly woman who needed the companionship much more than the nominal rent she charged Guadalupe. Nery came to see me one day to ask if we could offer Guadalupe a place to stay for a few weeks while she visited family in California.
We knew Guadalupe, as, indeed, everyone in our parish knew her. She was a little Mexican woman, just a little over four feet tall, with skin as brown as a nut and the quiet dignity of the honest, working poor. She was a masterful cook, with a great relish for invention, and had she drawn a different number in the great lottery of life, she would have been a great chef, I think.
In the kitchen, she used her culinary flair to conjure up delights like Chiles en Nogada, in which stuffed poblano peppers lounge in pools of creamy walnut sauce, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds like drops of blood on snow. She ran an informal catering business, coming to her clients’ houses early on a Saturday morning, for instance, to prepare an elaborate first Communion lunch for 50 while the family was at Mass. She did this many times for me — heaven sent — for to say that I am helpless in the kitchen is not an exaggeration. She also catered parish events, like the after-Mass lunches on Our Lady’s many feast days.
The story of her life was one of bitter poverty and many cruel trials. Born in Mexico in the late ’50s, by 12, she was working as a live-in kitchen maid in Mexico City. Perhaps you have to have grown up in that country, like I did, to understand the crushing weariness of her long work day.
She married for love, at 15 or 16, and was widowed soon after, when her young husband fell from a great height while working in construction. This happened in Texas, and I never asked her how they managed to cross the border. Her son, Andres, was born after his death, prematurely and with severe facial deformities. She raised him by herself, nursing him with adoring tenderness through many surgeries — all of this while working as a maid and cook. Only God knows how.
I remember Andresito well. He was painfully shy, and though I saw him many times, I never heard him speak. Only a little taller than his mother, one side of his face was larger than the other, and he always tucked his head down and tilted it in a way he thought disguised the asymmetry. He was the beloved son of the parish as he grew, trotting after Guadalupe, carrying her dishes and pans, working tirelessly at her side at every event that she catered; long into the night sometimes, when little boys should be asleep. He was a constant acolyte and did little jobs around the church for the pastor because he was a man of service long before he could shave.
When he was 12, Guadalupe’s kidneys failed, and the leaden weight of dialysis was added to her burden. Three times a week she would leave for dialysis at 4am and be at work at 8:30, not resting until that night. This was a herculean feat — and one she did with great cheerfulness. She was “so happy to be able to work,” as she told me several times. She shone with thankfulness for the work.
All these crosses were nothing, it turns out. Andresito earned a scholarship to a college in Colorado, as he, like his mother, had a fine brain. With much effort his mother was able to help pay for a studio in a squalid apartment house near campus. There was a drug dealer in the building who conceived a great hatred for Andresito, ridiculing him spitefully when he passed him in the hallway. One night, in a drug-fueled rage, he beat poor Andresito to death.
He became the Man of Sorrows, and Guadalupe the Pietà.
The day the news came, we came to her in the church plaza, where she sat on a bench keening her anguish. We surrounded her, many of us, men and women, sobbing in disbelief and incomprehension. Was there so much evil in the world? Yes, there was, and it had taken the boy from his mother, leaving her shivering and alone.
We buried him with every honor, with pomp and circumstance: wake and cortege and motorcycle cops leading the way for dozens of cars. Four priests celebrated his funeral Mass, and we bought him a grave in the prettiest cemetery in Miami. Mariachis sang unbearably sad songs as they lowered his coffin into the dark hole, and his mother watched hollow-eyed, stupefied by grief.
Guadalupe sank to the bottom of the abyss at the death of her son, a place inaccessible to human help — but, of course, not inaccessible to the God who traveled there on purpose to lead his children out. And lead her out he did, into cheerfulness and gratitude, lifesaving work and friendship. And faith, always faith.
Of course I said “Yes” when I was asked to give her a home for a short time. We had a little room, empty, with its own bathroom. We outfitted it with a single bed and a little night table, and she came to stay, bringing a single suitcase that held all her possessions. My husband, who knew Andresito better than I, was very happy about this. He had often thought, in the three years since Guadalupe’s son was killed, that if he had been more attentive, more helpful and present, he could have prevented the tragedy. My husband felt that Andresito, who was surely in heaven, was pleased that his mother wasn’t anxious about rent and that she could cook for us, which made her so happy.
We always told her to rest, that she didn’t work for us. But it was a gift she could give us, and receiving gifts is a work of mercy, sometimes.
Before many months had passed, Guadalupe had become part of our family. She lavished her love on us, mainly through food, but also with her calm and ever-present good humor. She and I would cry together over the few photos she had of Andresito, sometimes, it’s true. She would say, “It is very hard, very hard.” But mostly she expressed her steady, sustaining belief that God was, after all, very good to her — hadn’t he given her 19 years of a mother’s love? She would be reunited with her son someday soon, of that she had no doubt.
Nery did not return from California, and Guadalupe developed heart trouble before the year was out, needing open heart surgery. We took her back home when she left the ICU and nursed her back to health. I was scared of the added responsibility and work, I admit it. But she was so cheerful and grateful, especially when our children helped her. My husband, especially, took such good care of her, as he loved her very much. I learned to love her a lot also, when I cared for her physical needs. That’s the way God works, you know. He made us to know our duty before we could love it, and doing it, we learn to love it.
She became steadily sicker, her poor heart failing. Only three months ago, back in the ICU, the doctors told her they had done everything they could. She must enter hospice and await the end. She took the news bravely, even gaily, comforting the doctors who had developed an affection for her.
She asked us if she could die at home. We said, “Yes.”
So Guadalupe died at home, exactly five days after her last dialysis treatment. What can I say about this? It was terrible. It was beautiful. It was a great burden. It was a great gift. It broke my heart that it was I holding her hand and not Andresito. I was extraordinarily glad that she was not dying alone.
The world is full of Guadalupes — men, women and children who have washed up alone on rocky shores. When we find them in our path, they sometimes become our responsibility, though they aren’t family or even friends. It’s hard to understand the spiritual calculus of all this, but it seems to me that, yes, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,” but he does it by having you, or I, build a warm and cozy sheepfold for his little ones.