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Other times, she’ll cook for him in the unit’s kitchenette. A bowl of soup. Some cut-up fruit. Sometimes she makes pancit and chicken adobo, or buys him a small cup of ube ice cream, or king-size bars of Hershey’s chocolate, which Fred eats mincingly, one cube a day — Mary admires his incredible discipline. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, as the days stretch out before them. “I’m living too long. But I’m still here.”
Theirs is an insular world of basic indignities made tolerable by small kindnesses. She ties a tiny bell to Fred’s cane, like a cat’s collar, so she can hear him when he gets up to pee. He closes the bathroom door very quietly at night so as not to wake her.
Later on, he shuffles into the bedroom but pauses at the door, thinking there is someone else inside. “Is the bed all right? Is it the same bed?” he whispers.
“Yes,” says Mary, tucking him in. “Are you cold?”
Over the weekend, Fred is hospitalized with acute appendicitis. He gets pneumonia. “I don’t want to be a sick man,” moans Fred, erupting into a full-blown tantrum. “Leave me alone. I’m done.” Your “blood will run dry” from dealing with patients, say the Filipino nurses. “My blood dried up a long time ago,” Mary decides.
“Is this man paying you to sit with him?” the nurses ask.
“No,” she says, her hours long since exceeded for the week, her neck aching from sitting in the uncomfortable chair. “I volunteered.”
Mary says she will stay with Fred until he dies. Days, months, years. Whatever it takes. She feels a loyalty to him. But she also doesn’t know what she’ll do for work once he’s gone.
There are 12 million undocumented workers in the United States according to the PEW Hispanic Center, recognized as having the most accurate figures on this subject. The largest number of these workers — 2.8 million — are in California. Of that 2.8 million, roughly one-fifth are Filipino. At any given time, there are half a million TNTs in California. Elsewhere, they are maids in Hong Kong and Dubai and Kuwait, cooks and crew on cruise ships, hotel workers, nurses and caregivers all over the U.S.
“I’m getting old,” Mary says, “I can only work eight hours a day now.” She is 58.
Money wins out in the end with the wedding. Mary’s earnings fund the festivities, so her daughter marries in America. It is Mom, not Dad, who walks her down the aisle to give her away. “Don’t lose hope,” Mary tells her newlywed daughter, who can’t find a job. Because her daughters married U.S. citizens, she will soon be able to petition for a genuine green card.
The next time I see Mary, she has started a Certified Nursing Assistant course at a college she read about in an ad in an Asian newspaper. She is learning techniques like how to bathe people who have partial paralysis and how to transfer a patient from a wheelchair to a bed, or from bed to wheelchair.
“We wash their butts. We sweep their dirt. We do their laundry. We’ll wear their scrubs, too?” Mary says to her caregiver friends, thus launching a casual-dress movement among the retirement home private duty attendants. “Let’s make ourselves look better. Sign of progress!” Progress is in evidence when I visit. She isn’t sleeping on a blanket on the floor anymore. She has a folding bed now. She is no longer a “floor leader,” the term she coined to describe caregivers who sleep on their clients’ floors. Fred has rebounded from his bout with appendicitis.
It’s a Friday, and she is wearing pink flip-flops, slim gray pants, a colorful tank top and lipstick. She’ll be going out dancing later in the evening with some other caregivers at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in the Valley. The last time they went, she danced with a Chinese man. “You look so elegant tonight,” he said. “You dance so gracefully.”
She would take a boyfriend, maybe, she says. Who knows what her husband is doing? “I don’t know if he has girlfriends. I tell myself he is a man,” she shrugs. “He has needs.” These are the years they are supposed to have spent together, she knows. Their golden years.
Ultimately, she has no regrets. She has paid off the house, sent her two daughters to school. When her old people “are taken,” she misses them. Sometimes she wishes she could bring these old people to the Philippines, the ones with no more family left, and take care of them there. It would be, as she sees it, the best of both worlds.
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