Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bravery Is An Unknown Woman

When I was around 15 years old, I remember walking up Springfield Street, after taking the Fullerton Avenue bus home to Logan Square, and taking very slow, calculated steps along the mostly single-family home block. I’d look at the red brick on the corner, the yellow brick two houses later, then the white stucco, the grey sandstone siding right before mine and then, finally, the yellow aluminum siding that encased my family. My steps grew even slower because I didn’t really want to go home. During this time, home wasn’t much fun. One of my brothers was deep in drug use and depression, and this usually set the tone for the day, I was angry and alienated, and my parents didn’t understand me – the typical American family.

By contrast, on most of the weekends and during half days and holidays, I’d spend time at my best friend Nancy’s house. She didn’t know that we were best friends then, but I did. Both of her parents weren’t as educated as mine, so things didn’t get discussed as much at her house. Instead, it was assumed that life was difficult – both of her parents worked multiple jobs while raising their large family and anyone else who might stop by – so the order of the day was to, and I say this as a command, “HAVE FUN!” Nancy’s mom, Zoila, and her husband, Arturo…well, Arturito, really, always had food cooking for guests and made sure to welcome anyone into their steamy kitchen and home with good drink and lots of laughter. There were always relatives and friends sleeping over. Despite working nearly every day of the week in factories and cleaning suburban homes, Zoila was always one of the last to go to sleep and one of the first to wake up. Sometimes we would want to sleep late, but she would come into the bedrooms “to dust,” she would say but later would admit that if she was up and alone she would get lonely. Arturo was always playing his guitar, even though Zoila would cruelly tease him about his ambitions (ah, even she had a few vices), and I happily joined him when he sang “El Rey” or “Guantamera” or “La Bamba.”

Their house was a respite from the neuroses of my own home. In my house there were discussions and analyses of every action and endeavor. In Nancy’s home nothing was analyzed. We all knew we were crazy and overworked and mistreated and we laughed anyway. In my home it was quiet and very tense. In Nancy’s home it was only quiet at about 5 a.m. when everyone was definitely asleep, even Zoila, but you knew she’d be up in half an hour. Some judged Nancy’s family as irresponsible, and perhaps they were in financial matters or those kinds of things, but they were rarely irresponsible with each other. I always felt love in that house and my hope was that would stand for something eventually. It always pained me that they weren’t able to go on as many trips as my family. They deserved it because they worked just as hard, I felt. And it also pained me that their dream of buying a home, not just cleaning other people’s homes, didn’t seem to be coming true.

You can imagine how happy and proud I was when years later, after I moved away from Chicago and settled in the New York area, I heard that the Del Cid’s finally bought their very own home! When my husband Vincent and I went back to visit and we saw the place, it was splendid! Nancy always had a great sense of style and the four-floor space looked modern and comfy, with bright, spicy colors and cool lighting fixtures. The Del Cid’s are very close, some might say smothering, but I say they are a great team. All of them, Nancy and her husband Roy; Norma (the older sister), her son Sebastian, and Lisbett (the younger sister); Holger (the younger brother) and his wife; and the two parents all worked together to create a space for themselves. Each grouping has its floor in the home, so it works very well.

However, such hard work against the odds does take its toll on people. Arturito, after working with lumber for many years, finally had the inevitable accident. Several of his fingers were sliced off when he was asked to work on a machine he wasn’t trained on. I tried to find a lawyer for the family when I heard that all he was getting was worker’s compensation. That didn’t sound right to me, especially when his bosses broke the law, but I couldn’t find anyone to take the case because I was working from across the country without many connections. Despite this great injustice, Arturito still plays the guitar, God bless him.

Zoila has had her own battle, too. She had triple heart bypass surgery at the age of 41, and about a month ago tests revealed that only 10% of her heart was functioning. The doctors that were “helping” her basically told the family that it was only a matter of time and that she should just take medication until that time came. Well, that is not exactly the Del Cid style. Nancy took Zoila on a road trip to the Mayo Clinic and tests there showed that she was an ideal candidate for heart transplant surgery. They asked her if she had any plans should the surgery be successful, and she said, “Yes! I plan to run!” They asked her if she had any concerns about the surgery, any worries relating to it and she said, “Oh yes, the bill!” Well, her adamant love of life was clear to the doctors so they scheduled surgery at Northwestern, close to Chicago. She went into surgery a week ago and because of excessive bleeding and swelling the doctors couldn’t close her up for three days! I didn’t know keeping someone alive was possible this way; when Nancy told me this on the phone, I couldn’t help but look over at my “Hellraiser” figurine and think that somewhere some horror writer thought this twisted thing up. But Zoila, la mas fuerte, lived through this! During the many phone calls last week Nancy said that I was her only friend, her best friend. Well, I already knew that, thank you very much. Zoila is now on the road to recovery and I expect to see her this summer, God-willing.

Hmmmph. Talk about bravery! I feel so fortunate to know this woman, and I also feel embarrassed at my own lack of bravery. I’m terrified of just walking outside and having to look at the trash along the streets of my neighborhood. Her story, her living story, reminds me what is possible. Two humble people, with nothing but common sense and love, came to the U.S. and really created something for themselves and their children. Hell, a new heart is the least this country could give back to them, although I can’t imagine that any heart could be as great as the one Zoila had made herself. And I doubt that Arturo will ever get what he deserves. Still, Lisbett will be the first in the family to graduate from college, and she will be going on to get her M.B.A., okay? And I’m sure Arturo will be playing the guitar at the graduation party, so you can see who the winners are in this situation, right?

The reason I have written about this amazing family in such great detail is because out here in New York we often talk about the stories that the news should be covering. I, in particular, hunt down the stories that I think the common person should know about but doesn’t have access to in mainstream media. The Censored series is always updated in my home. It is where I found out that our “war on drugs” was actually a plan to destroy all plant life in Colombia so that the indigenous people who own resource-rich land will die and leave the land to U.S. developers, for example. Some of the top censored stories that are included in the 2006 volume include articles on worldwide surveillance, journalists being placed in danger, and child wards of the state being used in AIDS experiments. I agree that these stories need to be told on a larger scale, but my whole life I’ve always felt that there was one universal story not being told: the story of the common person. I don’t mean how countless poor are mistreated and taken advantage of. We hear about that all the time. I mean the actual story of the common individual. It is easy to shock people into caring about an issue, for a few minutes, when you reveal how many people are starving in India, for example. However, no one becomes human to us if he is kept veiled in the anonymity of statistical numbers. It is much more important, I think, to tell the actual story of the common person, name and specific actions included. It is also more difficult, supposedly, because we have to take the time to get to know someone.

Isn’t it time that we think of research as something more than facts and figures? Isn’t real research a story? Isn’t real research about relationships? Even if you want to remain in the sciences, don’t we research a subject to find out the relationship between things, such as the relationship between the sun and growth or health, or the relationship between movement and energy? Sure, we need facts and figures, but aren’t those just tools to get to the truth? Doesn’t the truth end up being a story? Doesn’t the story end up being our inspiration to imagine?

I remember being in history classes wondering what actual life was like for someone during 1776, or whatever other year number was thrown at me. The political documents and meetings and battles didn’t mean much. I remember being in science class and wondering what animals had more of this or that mineral in their composition and how that affected what they ate and where they lived. Memorizing the periodic table and breaking down solutions was interesting, but it didn’t mean much. I remember being in geometry and wondering why we didn’t apply the concepts to actual places in the universe instead of thinking of some anonymous plane somewhere. I always wanted the real story, and I still do. What the Del Cid’s story has revealed to me is that love and wisdom, not education, are more important than anything in terms of joyous survival. I think that their story has more use and validity in an American History class than many of the items that are currently being taught. Ah, but for that to happen, we would have to change our entire concept of what history is and what bravery is.