All the Money, Part II

One of the headline news stories in the New York Times the other day was about the Providence hospital system, a “non-profit” organization required by law to provide free care to patients who make 300% below the poverty rate.

The deal they have with the IRS is that “in exchange for not paying taxes, they must provide free care to the poor in the communities they serve.”

Apparently, this is not what’s happened, and they’ve been exposed for hounding patients into paying for their care after all (sans itemized bills, of course) and sending them to collections agencies. Many of the patients’ credit scores are ultimately ruined. Doing this was, of course, illegal, but guess who paid for it? Absolutely no one… except for the victims. Doesn’t this just seem to be the way things work lately?

My mother worked at Providence Hospital in Waco after training as a respiratory therapist in the ‘90s, her first truly middle-class job. She liked her work and was proud of what she’d accomplished in learning an in-demand skill that could support herself and her daughters.

Still though, at least from what I can piece together from my memories, she was forced to take on debt to keep all the moving pieces together.

She switched jobs a couple of times as she moved up the ranks in reputation for her work, but in the spring of 1996, was fired, essentially scapegoated for a higher-up’s consistent mistakes with patients.

I first remember us getting several calls a day from collections agencies as a middle school student. In the beginning, I’d dutifully and politely pass the phone to my mother when asked. She’d try to tell me to say she wasn’t there, but I’d just stare helplessly as I tried to get her to take it (I’ve never been a good or willing liar).

Soon, she’d taught us to always say she wasn’t available for one reason or another when anyone called asking for “Miss DeVries” (always pronounced the wrong way), as they were always collections agency representatives.

I was not comfortable with it at all. I hated lying, and I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t just do what she was supposed to do so I wouldn’t have to. One time when I told a bill collector that she was “in the shower” he became aggressive. “I know you’re lying.” “No, I’m not!” I said nervously and hung up the phone. My heart raced for at least 15 minutes after that.

Now, I get it. And I wish I could apologize to my mom. She was literally doing the best she could, a realization that I think all parents hope their children have at some point in their lives.

It’s not that she simply didn’t feel like paying them back or was trying to chat anyone out of their money, which is what the cultural message was (and remains) about those who fail to repay their debts. But rent had to be paid, car payments had to be made, groceries had to be bought, and it would also be nice to give her kids some Christmas and birthday presents, which I now see she made a great effort to do.

I also see a few more layers of context at this point. First, the macro: our economy is built on debt; it enriches a lot of people and keeps things going, and keeps people spending on things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If everyone decided to “be responsible” and not use debt to buy anything, our economy would collapse, full stop. When people can’t pay, we scold them, but if everyone ceased to use it because they can’t pay, this would all be over.

A bit closer to home for me was the debt post-divorce.

I remember several tirades growing up from my father as he railed against credit cards and credit card companies. “They want people to spend money they don’t have so they’ll have to pay back even more money!” I didn’t pay much attention since I didn’t totally understand the concept of credit; I just knew he was against it.

Fortunately, for him, he could afford to eschew the system entirely. If things got tight, and they often did, he could always obtain “personal” credit through his older family members, and was helped out in ways that counted for so much… ways in which I can’t even imagine being helped myself.

How must my mother have felt seeing him being gifted several cars over the years, as well as the house where he lived (to be fair, half the house officially belongs to my sister and I, which is the only inheritance I’ll see) as she struggled to support us, even with child support, as debt collectors kept her own phone ringing more than ten times a day for years? Did she know about the shoebox full of “IOUs” that my uncle once gave to my dad as a Christmas present, all his “debts” forgiven? And how much was she kept up at night worrying about how she’d get everything paid for and about her daughters’ obvious discomfort with “covering” for her several times a day as if she were some sort of criminal?

Thinking about it inspires so much sadness and compassion.

Things got better when she married my stepdad, another respiratory therapist. Suddenly, we had money to spare. We moved to a nicer apartment, and got a better car, finally trading in the only new one my mother had bought years later.

But then, double-tragedy struck: Richard had a heart attack and needed bypass surgery. Right around the same time, the hospital they both worked at shut down from one day to the next for mismanagement and fraud. It declared bankruptcy, and, as far as I know, completely got away with having let go all of its workers at once, as well as not having paid the insurance premiums that had been taken out of their paychecks. Low and behold: the surgery wouldn’t be covered by insurance after all, and they were both out of work. Back to square one.

They both got new jobs, but my mother was not the same. She started having some more serious health problems around this time, and they soon realized she couldn’t work. And though she was fainting frequently, hitting her head and breaking her bones, she was rejected for disability benefits; “falling” isn’t a disability, they said.

Our economy, after all, is not made to help people that aren’t in optimal working condition. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick and can’t work. Though she clearly couldn’t work, the assumption was that she was a drug addict who was trying to live off the government because she didn’t want to. No one gets lectured on “personal responsibility” more than those struggling to survive, it seems.

I’ve had much better luck than my mother. To start, I had a great mother who took care of me the way she never had been through a childhood of abuse so bad it was a wonder she even survived long enough to have us; I also had two great dads, and a grandmother who was often there to help fill in the gaps with our care (and payments for ballet classes and braces). My uncle, the one who forgave my father’s debts and gave him the house, paid for the college of his nieces and nephews in full, so I am mercifully not saddled with student debt.

I am saddled with debt now, though. Partially, it’s just life: it’s expensive. Sometimes you have to pay unexpected taxes, or travel to another country because your mother is dying, and those things can get you into just deep enough a hole that the “what the hell” effect kicks in (what’s a little more debt?). It’s usually later that you realize your financial optimism was not a great position, and an endless string of independent contractor and freelancer gigs stop being as consistent as they once were. Savings are accumulated, then spent plus some for rainy days that come because gigs are, by definition, not that steady. A global pandemic hits.

But debt collectors don’t stop calling. Money from the poor doesn’t stop rolling endlessly up to those who have more money than they could ever spend. And we’re the ones who feel bad about it.

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Mother’s Day, Again

On Mother’s Day two years ago, my daughter sobbed.

We had just moved to a new house after my separation from my husband a month or so before. Lock-down had begun a mere two weeks after we moved in (remember when we thought it would last for, at most, a month?). I’d worked hard to get us settled in and ready for a housewarming party, but we were destined for isolation.

We both desperately needed the support of our village, and we’d just recently been isolated from everyone.

I tried to keep her busy and excited about our new life by painting murals outside, picking blackberries to eat outside, turning our new stove box into a little house, going on walks. But she wasn’t having it.

“I hate coronavirus!” she sobbed. “I want my daddy to be here!”

I cried with her.

This is the event that I think of when I think of Mother’s Day: my daughter’s raw pain, my guilt at not being able to give her what she wanted nor at having anything she’d consider a reasonable explanation for why we were suddenly very, very on our own. I don’t want to think about it, because it makes me sad. But if there are tricks for tuning out painful memories or reframing them, I sure haven’t figured them out yet.

Since I became a mother myself, Mother’s Day has been fraught for me. I have loved my daughter more than any other being since the day I found out she was growing inside of me, but motherhood has been anything but a smooth ride.

As a baby, she was almost never happy. We’ll never know why (doctors diagnose “colic” when babies cry all the time for not apparent reason), but it certainly felt as if it must have been all my fault. How was it possible that I couldn’t comfort her? Getting her to stop crying was a Herculean task, as was eliciting a smile. She’d try to Shamu-flip out of my arms. How could it be that my baby, who I loved more than anything, seemed to be repelled by me? And why did I seem to be the only mother around with that problem? We’re hardest on ourselves, I know, but even if I’d been on the outside, I’d have concluded that the problem had to have been the mother.

Mothers, of course, are the ones who get side-eyed when something’s not right. The buck doesn’t stop with anyone else but her.

And when you’re raising a baby in a different culture from you own and away from your own family, things get extra complicated, the explanations mostly being that a foreign mother is just not doing things the right way. It’s also possible that absolutely no one was judging my mothering skills badly, and that I was simply projecting my own insecurities about my abilities onto them.

Now, thing are better. She can talk, which was pretty much the only thing that replaced all that crying (thankfully, she began talking much earlier than I’d expected; all the books say bilingual kids stay silent for much longer, but she just had too much to say to keep observing, I guess). Once we’d finally exhausted all other possibilities and went to the dreaded sleep-training at 8 months, she finally slept through the night, which helped (it worked — within 3 days, she was sleeping 12-hour stretches). My woo-woo explanation of her unhappy infanthood is that she’s an old soul, sure that she was at the doors of Nirvana. She was born as a human again instead, and it pissed her off a lot.

Or maybe it really was just painful gas.

Having a kid, for me, has been way better than having a baby. She can talk, and argue cleverly, and show affection, and express herself in ways that are a mystery to me but that I nevertheless find fascinating. She loves little kids smaller than her. She wishes she had a twin sister. She likes to draw, and simultaneously perform her favorite musical scenes in movies, and challenge herself to do things that scare her like standing on a high ledge. I often do not understand her — she is so different than I was as a child, so much less concerned about gaining the approval of the adults around her. She likes to be in charge and feels no need to make it seem as if she doesn’t. She’s not a people-pleaser, something that makes me practically weep with gratitude since I know how much pain and wasted time it will save her.

Last Mother’s Day was better. She met my current partner for the first time and we had dinner at our house. He brought me flowers and her a chocolate egg with a toy inside, sugar being a direct line to her heart.

This Mother’s Day, we’ll have a meal together as well, out this time. I sheepishly admit that being celebrated when it’s time to be celebrated is important to me; I want attention, recognition, and maybe a present, even if it’s homemade. Really, I want to be told by the only person whose opinion on the topic matters, “Don’t worry, you are a good mom.”

So every year on this day, I’m weepy. It’s the day I most worry whether or not I’m doing it right. I still don’t always feel confident in my mothering skills, but I’m trying (both to be a good mother and be more confident). I miss my own mom, and the reassurances she would surely give me.

Day of the Dead, Solitary Gringa-style

Day of the Dead is upon us, at last.

It’s my favorite Mexican holiday by far. Things are a bit more tampered down this year as the coronavirus has us scrambling to not add ourselves to the ranks of the dearly departed, but if the dead are your business, well…there’s always business.

A quick trip to the market where I usually get my altar supplies made for a beautiful and familiar scene (scents included) of bright cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, sugar and chocolate skulls, and jamoncillos, which are these little sweet doughy candies that can be dyed and formed into the shapes of different animals, traditional foods…even “novelty” shapes like pizza or aliens. They’re delicious, and I don’t think there’s been a single year in which I haven’t polished a few off before they made it home to the altar.

Also present was the papel picado, that thin colored tissue paper with scenes for the holiday cut out in them. I already had my baskets and a few “offerings” from last year to set out, though I’ll need to go back for the clay incense holder…who knows where it went? Mixed in with the Christmas decoration, no doubt.

As my personal number of dead increase with my own impending mortality, I’ve had to be more selective about who gets a place on the altar. This year, it’s my mother and my grandmother, and that’s it. As this is my first Day of the Dead after separating from my husband, I’m assuming he’ll take care of the offerings for his side of the family on his own altar. Loss is loss, but loss makes room.

My mother would appreciate this effort if she were around, especially given the sweet treats set out for her (I 100% inherited my sweet tooth from her). Is she around? In a literal sense, she is: I have her ashes in an urn on my dresser. She’d always told us she’d wanted to be cremated. While she never specified what she wanted done with her ashes afterwards, I know that she really never enjoyed hanging out by herself, so I brought her home to Mexico with me in an urn she would have surely picked out on her own if she’d been up for such a macabre shopping trip.

My grandmother is another story. She was quite a bit older when she died at 92, but as she climbed up in years, her tolerance for religious practices not sanctioned by her Presbyterian congregation decidedly decreased. She would worriedly proclaim to my sister and I, “But Girls, the Catholics worship the Virgin Mary as if she were Jesus! I just don’t think that’s right!” Suffice it to say, the 92-year-old Mimi would not appreciate being on my altar. But I think the cosmic Mimi would, as would the 60-year-old and younger Mimi, back before she started worrying so much about getting the specifics of religious tradition exactly right, as aging people do. The Mimi who was a vegetarian because she couldn’t bare for animals to die for her sake, the Mimi who woke up every morning to do yoga before it was cool, the Mimi who went off to live in Iraq for four years in her twenties — I think she’d be charmed.

And anyway, the altars are for the living much more than for the dead.

The traditional belief is that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead make their way back home to hang out a bit with their living relatives. They follow the trail of cempasúchil petals from the cemetery to the altars in their homes, lit with candles and filled with the treats they loved in life. Their pictures are there. But mostly, we’re there, waiting for them.

If there are spirits that have returned, I haven’t seen them. Oh, but how I long to spend an evening or two with my mother and my grandmother! Will Mom come have a concha and some hot chocolate with me, and tell me how in love with my daughter she is? Will Mimi sit and chat with me about how she was able to start over from the ashes of her own marriage that couldn’t be saved? They probably won’t, but I’ll wait for them anyway.

Maybe the magic is to simply remember: endless trips to the swimming pool, my mother healthy and happy as she sped-walked through the mall with her best friend or drove us around town listening to country music on the radio; her squeal of excited joy when I told her over the phone I was pregnant, her face filled with love the first time she laid eyes on my daughter. The year we took so long to take the Christmas tree down that we decided to make it a Valentine’s Day tree instead. How she’d hold and rock my sister and I when I cried, emptying out her entire heart into ours so they wouldn’t ever feel empty. And Mimi: the Girl Scout meetings in her living room, watering the plants in her garden early in the morning before breakfast on the patio, baking chocolate chip cookies, the smell of her laundry detergent on the bathroom towels, the stories about clowns we’d beg her to make up for us; how we’d roll our eyes when she’d tell us to “give warm fuzzies, not cold pricklies” and then later realized what good advice that was.

Whatever or whoever comes this year, I’ll be waiting.