An organic essay, by Marti Matthews
Basement. Folding chairs.
Eligio’s body, open casket.
Cement floor. I had given the family money to help with the pine casket. All was quiet, as a Visitation should be. Friends and relatives came, passed by respectfully, and then sat here and there on cold folding chairs in the chilly basement room.
I saw Stefan, the oldest son, who’d snuck across the border in the dark with them when he was six, thirty years ago. They’ve all struggled here on the fringe, keeping a low profile, supporting themselves however they could, never taking government help.
Stefan looked silent and sad, as always. He carried his little daughter in his arms, never put her down. She must have been four? He avoided the casket.
When he wandered out of the room with her and sat on a bench, I went and sat beside them. “Many traditions say that the spirit of the dead stays around the earth for a while” I whispered to him. “Many say the dead even come with curiosity to their own funeral. Go and speak to your Dad. Tell him truthfully everything you want to say. He needs to know.”
The son got up and went back into the room. He gave the child to her mother, went up by the casket, and knelt for at least 20 minutes. Only Eligio and God know what that conversation was, but this always-sad and quiet young man had held much in his heart.
The family had not gone to church for years. A priest or minister, friend of a cousin, was supposed to come, but we all waited and no one showed. No one led us in any prayers. I began to think I should do this; though I’m not Hispanic or part of the family, I am experienced in leading prayer. I felt I’d rather not. Finally, the man arrived and we all said some Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s in Spanish and English, and that was it for Eligio.
Deeply drunk, he had slipped off the leathery sofa onto the floor and smothered to death. In quite a mess.
He and Elena had been sleeping on a mattress on the living room floor for several years so the younger son and daughter could have separate bedrooms. Stefan was out on his own by then. Eventually, Elena moved into the daughter’s bedroom with her, and then Eligio could drink and sleep in the living room. He was too old to work now; the only job he could get was at the liquor store where they paid him under the counter; he, of course, bought liquor with his paycheck. Now the young ones came home regularly to find him drunk, having made a mess in the living room and bathroom. The son, Tomas, ignored it all, but the daughter, Elisabeth, was furious and disgusted at her father.
I had gotten to know Eligio as his counselor in the community college. He had grabbed my heart, and after leaving that job, I kept in touch with this and with several other families.
We had all tried to get him to go to AA meetings (“Double A”, as they say in Spanish.) He’d go; then decide that AA wasn’t for him. He did go to the gym to swim and work out; I paid for that for awhile but I finally had to connect it with going to AA.
Then he stayed with AA for at least six months! We were hopeful, and he was chosen to give speeches at other meetings. Then – he relapsed. Because of his good history, he got into a live-in AA place and again we had hope. I rode with them as Tomas drove us all to this facility and left his dad there to stay.
Eligio stayed a night and then walked home; about 200 Chicago blocks he walked. No one knew where he was, but he turned up back home asleep on the sofa. It was a first-floor apartment, dark and small, and he’d climbed through the window. Then the family put locks on the window and tried that whole routine all over again, but again he left and found his way home and slept in the car. This was a nightmare for the family.
So, his eventual death was a blessing. No one, including Eligio, had the strength to save him from the slavery into which he’d wandered.
“Retirement.” One day when Eligio had come to my counseling office, he pulled out of his shirt pocket an envelope with $10,000.00 in cash! He explained that it was his retirement money: he’d saved it over some years and carried it around with him because he couldn’t legally have a bank account. He put it under his pillow at night.
I was agape. Several thoughts jumped up at once. “How easily this money could be lost or stolen!” And sadly,” how insufficient $10,000 would be towards retirement! How many months of living would that support?” and yet, “How difficult it must have been to save this while trying to raise a family!”
Inevitably, Eligio lost his job one day and had to use that money for the family to live on. There’s no unemployment insurance for the illegal, nor any pension, even though in the factories where he’d worked as a forklift driver they’d deducted money for Social Security contributions. He could never claim that, as his SS number was illegitimate.
And so, when the time came that his old body couldn’t work much, there was a financial dilemma. Elena didn’t drive, but found work caring for a doctor’s four children in their home and cleaning for another family. She would fearfully ride home alone at night on the almost-empty bus. By then, the young ones were college-age and trying to get training in whatever they could while working in stores or factories. I paid for some community college courses for awhile to get them started. The family assured Eligio that they could handle the rent and expenses so he didn’t need to work. But then, what to do with his time? I made suggestions and tried to find volunteer work, something to do so he could feel useful. He did work out at the gym, but wouldn’t get involved in church, began to stay home, and to feel worse and worse about himself. The rest became history.
Other memories: One day he came to my office with a rose. “You are my angel,” he said. He always kissed my hand when he greeted me. Actually, many of my counselees in the Adult Basic Ed Dept of the Community College have called me their angel. I knew the details of the massive challenges they faced and I would try to find resources for them, and cheer them on as they struggled along. Some, like Eligio, got deep into my heart and stayed there.
He often came just wanting to sit and philosophize about “life,” “God,” etc. He had loved the book Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, a fictionalized story of the searchings and life of Buddha. I believe Eligio had only a sixth grade education, the maximum offered in Mexico as free public education. But both he and his family always matched me in intelligence in any discussion we had.
Another time Eligio came to show me bruises on his shoulder and back where Elena had beaten him. I took a photo of it, as he requested. I asked him to bring her in with him and I tried to do a little couple counseling, in which I am not trained. She was just a little woman and obviously having a tough time dealing with her own responsibilities, so I did not pursue any legal effort about this, but I made note in my mind of a family in distress.
As Eligio demised, I got to spend time with the rest of his family.
I found a job for Stefan working in a bakery for a Chinese family who I also counseled. This worked wonderfully for both: Stefan was content to come to work at 4 am each morning in the dark and silently mix bread by himself. He continued this kind of work for many years. The Chinese family had impulsively bought this bakery thinking that “even in hard times, people will always buy bread.” How I wished they’d consulted with me! Their bakery was a block away from a large grocery chain. In hard times, people abandon bakeries and look for cheap bread. They eventually tried to change location, but all of the financial strain brought them down. The last I heard from the Chinese family, their son (doted on by the mother) had persuaded them to co-sign a loan for cash so he could play international poker on the internet, “in which he is very good!” his mother assured me. Another family, another story…
Stefan went on to work in a large bread factory. Inevitably he caught Covid while working there. With no insurance he couldn’t and wouldn’t go to the hospital, so Elena cared for him on the living room floor, covering herself and keeping a distance as carefully as possible.
He had married a very shy Black woman who had an ADD son she could not begin to control. Stefan begat his little daughter, avoided the son, and eventually moved back to his birth family though he continued to support his new family. We all worried for the safety of the little girl with the wild older stepbrother, but time has seemed to guard that along.
After Eligio’s death, I had to move to Indianapolis but I continued to stay in touch with all of them. Tomas and Elisabeth were “legal,” having been born here. Stefan is still DACA, waiting forever for our country to accept him, though he’s been here for 30 years and did not come of his own choice. Elisabeth worked in a supermarket until hot oil spilled on her foot and disabled her for some time. She worked at whatever she could find while trying different training programs, finally landing in dental work. She managed to get the basic training as a dental assistant but couldn’t get the next step up in pay without taking two years off from work to study full-time. Today, that progress is stalled at the lowest level of dental work.
Tomas has found his true love (her name is beautiful: “Amor”). They’re living together, helping each other continue with their education. He will graduate with his B.S. now in three months in something related to computers. When I come back to the city he comes round to visit, but mostly he’s taking care of himself and Amor.
Stefan, being back home, moved with them to a different apartment when the landlord raised the rent. It turned out to be impossibly noisy. The next thing I heard, he had somehow managed to get a mortgage and buy a house! I felt fear when I heard this, that he’d been taken advantage of, that they’d be in over their head, or something disastrous would come of this. But – the silent young man had managed on his own to buy a small house in a decent neighborhood and get the three of them moved!
From then on, when I visited, Elena gave me her bedroom and slept in the living room and we began to have some recovering times together. The house has a yard and one nice large tree so we can sit outside when the weather’s good. She does live-in caretaking for old or sick folks, with a day off a week. There is no close public transportation, so she has to take live-in work. When I come to town, she asks for a couple days off. I take her to refreshing places: the Conservatory or Botanical Gardens or Arboretum to feel the healing presence of plants and trees, or to parks or the waterfront in the summer. And she always takes me to see Senor Mario, a delightful 92-year-old Italian whose wife Elena had cared for. Sir Mario has a gigantic vegetable and fruit garden and small vineyard and fig trees, specifically to keep people visiting him for his free produce. We must be careful about what time of day we visit as his three adult daughters keep vigilant watch over him, lest some young lady should turn his head and take the inheritance. We joke about this and many things, wandering through the garden or sitting in the sun sipping a little wine and listening to his entertaining stories.
I enjoy Elena’s friendship immensely, as I usually do with Mexicans. There is no pretense among these people. “We are just simple people,” she’ll say, though to me she feels as intelligent as I. I have education, but she understands anything I talk about and has her own interesting observations on the world around us. We are two mothers, widows, women with the same enjoyment of Nature, appreciation of integrity, and the same concern for others. I observe her children and granddaughter and give encouragement there as I can. She does the same for me and my family.
Elena will turn 64 soon. It appears that she and Elisabeth and Stefan will stay together as the years go on. I will stay with them, too! There are so many people in the world whom I wish I could help, but one interesting thing I’ve learned in life is this: I can tell when I’m doing right-giving because I feel enriched, stronger, and glad inside myself from the giving. This family cannot take me to grandiose restaurants or events, but I am simply myself when I’m with them, these dear and honest and unpretentious people. To be with people with whom I can be my simple self is a gigantic gift to me!