Sixteen years ago and change, I was in the hospital having my son, and I was wicked, wicked sick. Sick enough to be rushed into the OR in the middle of the night, sick enough to have an out-of-body experience where I watched myself having seizures from above. Sick enough that a nurse, who’d seen me on a Monday and came back on Friday, was surprised that I was still alive. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Bedbound, too, unable to stand without fainting. Quite a mess, I was! All sorts of drama.
But who cares about that? I want to tell you about Maria.
Maria was my CNA, my certified nursing assistant. You know. The ones who do the dirty work. She’d get me from one johnny coat into another. She’d change the sheets without me needing to get out of bed, and on at least one occasion, she fed me. She didn’t speak much English, and probably didn’t know why I cried every time she gave me an efficient sponge bath. She used Dove soap, the same brand my grandmother used.
Maria took care of me like I was her daughter. I was alone in the hospital, McIrish taking care of our not-quite three-year-old and working fulltime, our one-and-a-half pound son upstairs in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My mom would visit, but she was terrified, as any mother would be, seeing her formerly strapping child unable even to lift her head. But Maria had seen worse, no doubt. She’d sing to me, and tsk over my tears. “You okay, you okay,” she’d say as she did her job.
I got better, obviously. Once I got out of the hospital, I went back every day to see Dearest Son, who was a scrappy little thing. And then, one day on the elevator, I saw her. “Maria!” I said, my eyes filling with tears. “Maria, it’s me.” Then, realizing she took care of hundreds and hundreds of people, I clarified. “You took care of me.” She just smiled and nodded. Patted my back as I hugged her. I don’t think she recognized me.
The nurses and doctors at Yale were great. But they didn’t wash me. They didn’t feed me. They didn’t wipe my eyes when I was too weak to lift my arm. Maria did that.
I don’t know that I’d recognize her again. She was a short Hispanic ladies in her 50s or so, and she worked in a big-city hospital filled with many women matching that description. It was sixteen years ago. But maybe, someday—maybe even when I die, because I’m schmaltzy and like to believe in any version of heaven that lets me thank people—I’ll see her again, and there will be no language barrier, and I’ll say, “Maria, I never forgot you.”