Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lost In Translation

I wrote this before I started TPN but I had to have one of my firends check my Spanish for accuracy before posting ;)

Gloria has been our housekeeper for over 4 years. A friend of a friend recommended her after we fired our first cleaning woman because we had a difference of opinion about whether or not taking out the trash was included in her job description. So Gloria entered our lives unassumingly and on a once a week basis.

At first Gloria and I kept a polite distance. I felt very awkward about having a housekeeper because I felt like I should be able to do things myself. But scleroderma causes severe wounds on my fingers so cleaning is difficult and painful. We are fortunate that we can afford this luxury. To assuage my guilt I tried to make Gloria’s job easier. I stripped the beds every Friday and I tried to remove clutter from the bathroom and kitchen counters so it was easier for her to clean. In doing these things, I made myself feel like Gloria and I were a team rather than part of some hierarchical relationship.

Over time, Gloria and I started to communicate more. I spoke to her using the Spanish that I remembered from high school. She spoke back to me slowly in her native tongue or in the English that she was learning in school. I learned more about her and her children: two boys and a girl. My Spanish and her English improved and, when nothing else worked, we used gestures.

It did not take long for our friendship to bloom despite all our differences. I have learned that between two open hearts race, ethnicity, educational status and all those other barriers matter very little. Gloria and I came to rely on each other. She took on increasing responsibilities in my home as I needed more help. She often asked us to help her when she need to perform tasks via the Internet and I learned how hard it must be to function in our technology driven world when you live on the other side of the digital divide. Her daughter, Ruth, spent a few weeks living with us when Gloria had to return home to be with her dying mother.

When Gloria had her fourth child, I visited her home for the first time. She proudly showed me her new daughter, Michelle. Michelle was only a few weeks old but she had the most enormous crop of hair I had ever seen. Gloria and I visited while Amelia and Ruth cooed over the baby. Gloria showed me pictures of her and her 11 siblings. In one photo they were all young children posed with her parents. The black and white photo reminded me of a photo from the 1920s, but Gloria and I are almost the same age. In another photo, they were all gathered together at her parents’ 50th anniversary celebration, all beaming with their great grins. I learned more about her childhood & her life. She grew up in a rural area and her parents had a small dairy farm. The made cheese and sold it in the local market. She spoke lovingly of her mother who had died just a few weeks after Michelle was born and showed me the altar she made in her mother’s honor. Her small home was filled with love: photos of her children and her family, frijoles simmering on the stove, and four beautiful, respectful children treating each other and their mother with great kindness.

As my illness worsened, I tried to explain it to Gloria. She understands that I am very sick and she knows that my lungs are badly damaged. One day, after the feeding tube was placed, I was lying on my bed crying in pain. She lay down next to me, “Gloria, I don’t want to die.” I told her in Spanish. “No te preocupes [Don’t worry],” she consoled me with a loving embrace, “¿Quieres que te de un pneum? [Do you want me to give you a lung?].” This tells you everything you need to know about Gloria, she would give until it hurts.

Last week, when it became clear that I needed to go on TPN, I told Gloria that I needed to speak to her. I tried, in my best Spanish, to explain the situation and what was about to take place. I told her that if the TPN did not work, that I would likely die in a few months. She cried, “No! No! No!” We held each other and I tried to calm myself. I explained that I was too weak to continue to cook every night and I wondered if she could come one more day a week to help me cook. Gloria wiped her tears and grew very serene. She spoke to me slowly so that I could understand her. She would do whatever I needed her to do. All I had to do was ask her. Her boys would care for Michelle, and she would be with me as much as I needed.

We continued to speak and it was as if I was channeling Sister Angela, my high school Spanish teacher. Sr. Angela, who we affectionately called Hermana Rana [Sister Frog], was a rarity in so many ways. First of all, she was African-American. How she ever ended up in an order of Polish nuns is beyond me. When she wore her white habit, she joked that she was a reverse Oreo cookie. She had an amazing sense of humor, was relatively young, and had actually dated before entering the convent. She even had a prom picture to prove that she knew all about dating boys. Her candor made for very interesting advice and conversations. “Now girls,” she would embark on one of her funny speeches, “when you go down to Senior Week and you have your bosoms hanging out all over the place, don’t be surprised when the boys are bothering you.” I’m not sure what the point of the speech was, I was too overcome with the exaggerated way she said “bosom,” to keep listening. So I never got if we were
supposed to cover our bosoms or just be prepared to deal with the consequences of partial nudity.

Suddenly I could understand Gloria far better than I usually can and I was finding Spanish words that I hadn’t spoken in years. I poured my heart out to Gloria. My fears and worries about myself, Bill and the kids tumbled out of my mouth. She looked at me with her deep brown eyes and calmly told me, “Tranquila [Be calm], Tú estarás bien. Los niños estarán bien, Todo estará bien. Dios es grande.” She shared her hopes that the TPN would make me well and she told me that I must be hopeful so that my body could accept the treatment. Then she braved darker waters. She spoke about her mother, a good person who loved her children and worked hard her whole life, but who has passed away. Meanwhile her father – a drunk and lazy man – is still alive. “It makes no sense,” she continued in Spanish, “We ask God, why?” And then she told me the answer, “Because God needs angels, too. And if he takes you it is because he needs you.”

When I was in my early twenties, academic pedigrees impressed me. But my years in the Ivory Tower and my experiences out in the broader world have taught me that educational attainment and wisdom are completely unrelated. My mother always makes self-deprecating remarks because she did not go to college but she is an incredibly bright and resourceful woman. She writes and speaks beautifully and has a knack for rigging unique solutions to life’s problems. Because my father attended college and was a successful engineer, my mother assumes that her five children got their smarts from him. Over the years I have tried to tell her that not being educated does not mean that one is not intelligent. I have tried to explain that my own love of writing comes from her. But my efforts have fallen on deaf ears.

As I sat with Gloria I thought about how she teaches me often and poetically. One day I felt badly because I was not able to speak with her because my cough was too severe. “Lo siento que no puedo hablar contigo. Quiero hablar pero es muy difícil para mi. [I’m sorry I cannot speak with you. I want to but it is difficult].” “No te preocupes [Don’t worry],” she responded, “Escucho a tu corazon [I listen to your heart].” Felled by her eloquence, my eyes welled with tears.

Gloria and I finished our heart-to-heart and she resumed cleaning the house. When Bill arrived home from work, I told him about the conversation. I told him all the loving words Gloria had spoken and how amazed I was that I was able to understand her. Bill, always practical, then asked, “So what days is she going to come to help with cooking?” “I dunno,” I answered, “I missed that part.” He looked at me with his face schrunched up, “You understood everything else but you didn’t understand what day she is coming.” I shrugged my shoulders, “I understood the important part. The day she comes is just a technicality.”


albischof said...

Boy how you just brought back some good memories! I almost forgot about the Hermana Rana nickname! We sure did have fun in Spanish class.

McCaffery said...


I am Shannon, Ann's best friend from Wisconsin. Frequently, I ask Ann about how you are doing. You write with beauty and courage. God bless you and your family!

Lori said...

I stumbled across your blog. I live in St. Louis but have family in Greensboro and Charlotte!

This posting made me laugh and cry all at the same time.

I lost my mom exexpectedly when I was 24. I have often wondered about conversations we would have, advice she would have given and lessons we would have taught one another.

Your blog is very touching and it is one of the wittiest, smartest and most honest things I have read in a long time.

I applaud you for doing this and for putting it all out there! So now you have someone thinking of you in St. Louis and hoping that you are doing well each day. Hope you don't mind that I stop in and check on you now!