“I have never seen so much paperwork in my life! Aren’t you supposed to rest in peace when you die?”
“The deceased rest in peace. It’s the survivors who do all the work.” The JAG, a military lawyer at Camp Pendelton, faced her across a metal desk partially obscured by an unruly ivy plant.
A Major in his early forties, he had clearly been in this position before, and he slid the thick folio across the desk to her with practiced compassion.
“The way it works,” he started, opening the folder and pointing to the first form, “is first to prove your husband died on active duty. Which we have done. That qualifies him – and his brother – for a small sum to help with interment costs. From there, you will receive this sum here,” he pointed with his pen to a small figure half-way down another page, “as the payout of his life insurance.”
“In other words, you bury him, I support his mother on that.”
“Essentially, yes, if you chose to support her.”
“Well, I’m not just going to let her die.”
“Is she better? I understand she was in the hospital the day – of the accident.”
“She was. Kidney failure. To much something-or-other in her diet. Whatever. They have her on medication, now. Basically, she has to start eating more than ramen noodles.”
“It’s too bad she wasn’t his official dependent – we could have continued her medical care. As it is -”
“I know, right? Now we have to figure out where to house and feed her, and how I’m gonna pay for it.”
“Well, you have his life insurance.”
“Yeah. And that’ll get her through, what? A month at an assisted living home?”
“What about relatives? Or Medicaid?”
“She’s a widow.” Like me, Rosana realized. “And Medicaid is useless,” she continued, “because we’ve got citizenship issues.”
The lawyer shook his head, pushing back in his chair and crossing his legs. “So, what are you going to do?”
“Whatever I have to.”
The Delacruz women buried Marcelo and Carlos side-by-side in an annex of the San Diego military cemetery when Norma was released from the hospital two days later. Norma trembled and sobbed throughout the Mass, offered in the base chapel by the Catholic Chaplain. The Marine funeral detachment played ‘Taps,’ and fired a one gun salute for each of the deceased. Rosana straightened the fake grass over the top of the graves while Olinda wept.
When it was over, the Base Commandant shook their hands, gave Rosana and Olinda the folded flags which had covered their husbands’ caskets, and offered not to charge them for their stay at the BEQ, even if they had to stay a whole week.
It was New Year’s Eve.
It was hard for Norma to sit still. Even when seated, she rocked and twitched as if pins pricked her from all angles. In her bed, she moaned and rolled, her calves rock-hard as if they were gripped by a hundred terrifying thoughts.
Olinda and Rosana did what they could to make her comfortable in the BEQ room they were all sharing. No one wanted be alone, but deep down, Rosana longed to stand at the beach for long hours and paint a landscape of the ocean of their collective widowhood.
Carlos and Marcelo. They spoke of them in the past now. “Marcelo went,” “Carlos was.”
And all the while, through two sleepless nights and bright but empty days of looking across the water which had stolen away the men who had brought them together, rode a nagging thought.
It was the topic of conversation in their room as they picked at the take-out pancit noodles from a restaurant near the Commissary.
“Olinda.” Rosana pointed her empty fork at her sister-in-law.
“Yeah?” The girl’s eyes were green-bagged with exhaustion. She blew her nose for the hundredth time, but Rosana didn’t have the energy to be annoyed.
“What’re you gonna do now?”
“I doan know…” Her voice trailed into a plaintive squeak which threatened a full-fledged cry. Rosana jumped to prevent it.
“Okay, okay, but what would you do if you could do anything you wanted in the whole world?”
“I’d go to Ensenada with Carlos for our honeymoon! Fourteen hours, Rosana! We were married for fourteen hours!” The revelation brought on a fresh wave of tears.
“I wish I smoked,” Rosana muttered, marching to the bathroom to find a cool washcloth for her disconsolate sister, “then I’d have a reason to go outside!”
“I can’t go back home,” Olinda wailed, taking the proffered cloth and pressing it to her swollen eyes. “I can’t face my Mom. She’s just gonna say, ‘I told you so.’”
Rosana smirked in mirthless agreement. Although I’m sure your mother will find a way to help spend Carlos’ life-insurance money, she thought.
“But what -besides being married to Carlos – do you dream about doing? Teaching? Working in a store? Being a secretary? Working with kids?”
Olinda shrugged, blowing her nose again. “Maybe work with kids. I could be a nurse. I wanted to go back to school and get my LPN certificate. I could help sick kids.”
“Be a nurse. You be a good nurse!” interjected Norma.
The two chattered in Spanish for awhile. Rosana sat back in her chair, arms folded. But what are we going to do, Norma? she wondered.
Where would they live? Not in LA, that’s for sure, she thought. Now that Marcelo was – gone, she’d have to move out of base housing at Cherry Point. Not that she would miss the duplex with the wafer-thin walls, but it had been home. At least for a little while. They could live for a year or so, maybe two if she stretched it, on Marcelo’s life insurance. That is, if she did all of Norma’s care. Hiring help would eat through the small sum quickly, which brought Rosana face-to-face with the concept of a job.
“I’m going out for a smoke,” said Olinda, shoving back in her chair and returning Rosana
to the present.
When her sister-in-law closed the door, Rosana turned to Norma. “Come on, Mama. You have to eat. Here. Let me cut this for you.” She sliced the pancit noodles into tiny pieces and guided Norma’s spoon from the plate to her mouth. “See, the problem is, – here, wipe your mouth – I’ve really never worked. Not a real job. My Mom paid for everything up until I got married and Marcelo took over. Everything. School, rent, paint, clothes, food – the whole enchilada. So, I’m just trying to figure out what the heck I’m going to do to support us. What does an art major do to earn money? Teach? Paint murals? Portraits?” Norma returned the question with a look of confusion.
“What the heck I was thinking, living like that without a job? Well, probably that I’d marry someone wealthy. Or keep living off my Mom.”
“I go home.” Norma put down her spoon and looked into her daughter-in-law’s eyes.
“Where’s she going?” Olinda appeared at the door. “Adonde va, Mama?”
“She says she’s going home, are we going back to LA?”
“Eventually. When we figure out what we’re doing. You wanna go back to LA, Mama?
“Si, a Los Angeles, y entonces a mi tierra.”
“Tierra. Land, right? Your land? You want to go to LA and then to your land? Do you mean to the Dominican Republic?”
“Si, si!” Norma’s eyes brightened for the first time since Rosana walked into the Emergency Room bay and pulled back the curtain to tell her the news. “Mi tierra, la Republica Dominicana.”
“Where’s that?” asked Olinda.
“An island in the Caribbean. Half an island, really. Haiti is the other half of the island.”
“Haiti? Isn’t that where the big earthquake was? Mama! No quieres ir a Haiti!”
“Haiti? No, no, no. La Republica Dominicana.” Norma’s voice was firm.
“Oh my gosh, do they even have running water there? Isn’t it like outhouses and stuff?” Olinda wrinkled her nose.
“I’ve never been. Probably parts of it are like that. What part of the country are you from, Norma?”
Olinda translated. Rosana sat down to hear her Mother-in-law’s story in the mixture of English and Spanish which was the women’s common denominator.
“I was born in the Capital, Santo Domingo, at the big hospital. My family have always been farmers. We owned a mango orchard along the south coast. It was small, but we were part of a larger cooperative – several small farmers who shared the picking, packing, and shipping of their crops.
“My husband, Eduardo, was from the family which owned all the big orchards in the valley and on the foothills of the mountains. His grandfather was from the Spanish family which settled the whole area a long time ago, planting the mango trees.
“Eduardo’s grandfather had one son and one daughter, Eduardo’s father, Eduardo, Sr., who was given control of all the farms when he came of age, and Elena, who married into a family of exporters from the Capital. Elena had four boys and two girls, my husband’s cousins, all of whom grew up in the Capital.
“Eduardo, Sr. had only two sons. One, my husband, and the other, Jaime.” Norma wrinkled her nose. “He is not a good man. He had a wife, but she left him and now he spends his time and money on – many other women.
“My husband’s father split the orchards between his sons. My husband took the half close to Palmar de Ocoa, and Jaime took the half on the hillsides closer to Hatillo.”
“How did you meet him?” asked Rosana.
“Eduardo, Jr., joined my father’s Cooperative and we met at harvest-time, picking mangos.”
“So, then you got married?”
“We got married two years later when my father finally decided Eduardo was the better of the two sons.”
“You mean Jaime wanted to marry you, too?”
Norma nodded, but her pursed lips warned her daughters not to pursue the matter.
“So you married Eduardo.” Rosana pressed.
“Yes. We were married and mostly happy. Marcelo was born, and a year later, Carlos. There was also a baby girl, who died when she was one.” The memory filled her eyes, which soon overflowed.
“And now, all your children are dead,” Olinda stated flatly, ignoring her sister-in-law’s glare.
“Why did you come to the US?” interjected Rosana quickly.
“Oh, there was a time of terrible drought. Trees died, water was so scarce. No crops would grow. A very hard time. We had no more money. We left after three years. Eduardo asked Jaime to take care of his half of the orchards and his house while he was gone, in the hopes that we would come home some day. He sold the all the furniture, the work truck, and his mother’s jewelry and used the money to bring us to this country. When we came to California, he worked as a produce picker up and down the Central Valley.”
“Marcelo told me he was fourteen when you came, so you’ve been here ten years?”
The old woman nodded. “But now, see? Now there is rain and the crops are good in my country. Eduardo died too soon. He would have taken me home again. I know!”
“He died two years ago?”
“Cancer. This country has taken my family. They are all gone!”
Norma’s eyes overflowed again. She rocked back and forth in her chair, tears streaming down her furrowed cheeks. Rosana held her hand.
“I’m going out for a smoke,” said Olinda, hurrying for the door. Rosana glared at her until she sat down. “You have to translate for us,” she demanded.
“Mama, what will we do in the Domincan Republic?” asked Rosana when several minutes of sob-punctuated silence had passed.
“I have nieces in Santo Domingo, and friends in Palmar de Ocoa, and I can live in our old house in Palmar. Jaime will have to make space for me.”
“He doesn’t sound like a person we want to be around.”
“What harm can he do to a bent-over old woman?”
“He could try. But I won’t let him.”
Norma patted Rosana’s knee gratefully. “You are a treasure. But you will stay in your country. You and Olinda.”
Norma held up a hand. “You are young. You have life ahead of you. You must forget Marcelo, you must forget me. I will go back to my country, and you will go back to yours. We will live and die and then, God willing, meet in heaven. There.”
“Forget it, Norma. You are my mother, now. I married your son. You’re stuck with me.”
“So you will be single all your life, then? I am too old to marry. Maybe I get lucky and find another husband – you will wait until I raise more sons for you to marry?” She laughed bitterly. “The hand of God has turned against me. I’m going to die!” Olinda wiggled nervously at Norma’s cries.
“God’s gonna have to turn his hand against me, too, then, because I’m staying with you. Not even death will make me go away!” She patted Norma’s hand with the expression of a teacher with an overwrought child.
Olinda looked at them both, trying to translate everything. Rosana, dry-eyed and immoveable. Norma, weeping and shaking her head at her daughter-in-law.
“No. You stay here. Go to your father’s house.”
“And you’ll travel alone to a different country, to a house occupied by someone who might let you stay, to friends who might welcome you, and do what? Hope food and medicine might appear?”
Norma cried silently, rocking in her chair. Rosana gave her a tissue and went to the bathroom, closing and locking the door. She leaned heavily on the counter and stared at the face in the mirror. Pale. Eyes bagged and tired. But there was something else in them. Something Rosana didn’t recognize. She rummaged around in her vocabulary and came up with two words: ‘determined’ and ‘purpose.’ The eyes were tired, but not weak. They were filled with purpose. Even if purpose was nothing more than being needed by an old, sick lady.
“Other than Jamesey, I’ve never had a purpose,” she whispered to the stranger in the mirror, “but it looks good on me.”
She washed her face with handfuls of cool water, slowly. Rosana heard the balcony door slide open and knew Olinda had gone out to smoke, leaving Norma alone. She growled at the girl’s thoughtlessness and hurried to join Norma.
“Olinda,” called Norma tremulously. “Go back to your family. Go to your mother. She needs you. She has many children to take care of. Go to school and be a good nurse. Both you girls go find new husbands.”
Rosana waved dismissively.
“Then who’s gonna help you get to the Dominican Republic? Rosana can’t do it by herself! She can’t even speak Spanish!” The red-tip of the cigarette drew circles in the evening air.
Rosana bristled. “I’m learning,” she retorted.
Olinda shrugged, “I can go back to LA with you and help you pack up. Then I guess I’ll go home.” The circling ceased. “I can’t believe this is happening! Why did Carlos have to die?” Rosana took Olinda’s cigarette and stubbed it out, pulling the girl back inside before her cries disturbed the entire building.