Juanita pulled the thin, old sobrecama bedspread down to her waist. Cold wind blew down from the mountains, but she felt unusually warm. She turned over to her left side, kicked the sobrecama farther down to her ankles and glanced at Miguel, her youngest brother, huddled snugly between his two older brothers on the bed against the north wall of the room. Among all her siblings, Miguel was the most special to her. But right now, it was frustration she felt—not love.
She wanted to take the job at Señor Pablo’s convenience store. It would give her money and freedom and independence. She could stop babysitting and start living. Was it wrong to have a dream? Was it wrong to think that her siblings stood in the way of that dream?
Juanita always vividly remembered the whole incident of his premature birth. Every detail would flash through her mind just like this evening. It was early afternoon mid-week in July. She was playing with her younger siblings in front of their apartment as usual when her mother suddenly screamed for help from her bedroom.
“Juanita, help me! Come here right now!”
Eduardo, her father, was at work. Before dashing into the house, she appealed to her siblings, “Listen all of you, do not run anywhere, particularly out into the street. Just play right here. Mama needs me.” Her mom, Teresa, had been lying helplessly on her bed, clench- ing her left fist while she was trying to massage her lower back with her right hand. Juanita never saw her mother, a strong woman, in such pain.
“I feel the baby coming!” she cried to Juanita.
Juanita was taken aback, because she knew that the baby was not due until another two months. “What should we do, Mama?”
“Go fetch Julia at her house. Tell her that the moment has come!” Teresa moaned while gasping for breath.
Julia, the midwife, had already attended to Teresa with the birth of three of her children starting with the fourth child. Juanita had only faint memories of those times, but she never recalled them to be this urgent. She was only six years old when the first of the three was born. She just watched with a child’s curiosity by the door of her mother’s bedroom since no one prevented her from doing so. Each time that a new baby was born every other year, Juanita simply watched. In such a very tiny apartment it was impossible not to see. Each new birth that she saw appeared to be a simple process to a naïve child. Her mother would let out an agonizing scream a few times, Julia would say, “push,” and then out came the baby. But this time her mother was in such excruciating pain that it didn’t seem so simple.
“It is so painful, Juanita, I am afraid I might lose the baby.” Juanita gently stroked her mother’s arm. “It will be okay, Mama.
You’re good at birthing babies.” Her stomach churned inside as she struggled to be composed and strong, to comfort rather than cling.
“You really must go fetch Julia,” Teresa pleaded.
“Yes, I’ll be right back,” Juanita responded with the caring tone she imagined a nurse would have. “Hang in there, Mama. Call on Serena if you need help. I will tell everyone to stay in our bedroom.”
Juanita ran to the front door of their apartment.
“Hey, all you guys, please come in,” she called out to her younger siblings. “Mama is about to have the baby. I must get Julia at her house. Serena,” she shouted to her next younger sister, “please keep everyone inside the house and listen to Mama when she calls for help. Everyone, please try to be as calm as possible. Mama may not be bothered by your noise because she is in a lot of pain. Stay in our bedroom and do not go out into the street until I come back in a few minutes.” She spoke to them just like a mother would — in many ways, she had acted in the role of mother for a long time.
Juanita never ran so fast in her life to Julia’s modest house that was about three blocks from the edge of the tenement housing sub- division. Located in one of the poor areas of San Carlos, a bustling and progressive Latin American city, the subdivision was developed over the years by the Sisters of Charity Foundation. Fortunately, Julia was home.
“Let’s go!” Julia grabbed her ever-ready midwife’s bag which Juanita knew contained sterilized medical tools and first aid stuff for emergencies.
Juanita heard Julia’s labored breath behind her. She turned, mid stride. “Let me carry your bag for you, so you can run faster.”
“Thanks,” Julia panted.
Juanita remembered taking the bag from her without effort while both ran, gasping for breath by the time they reached the apartment.
“Thank you, Juanita. Let’s see how your mama is doing.”
“You need to go to the hospital, Teresa. If not, the baby might die!” Julia said the minute she arrived and spent a few minutes checking her condition.
“You know very well that we have no money to pay the hos- pital bill. It is simply impossible with Eduardo’s salary. Otherwise, my children will starve.” Teresa’s words were squeezed out between contractions.
“I will do everything that I know to help you give birth. But your baby is premature and will need to be attended immediately by a specialist at the hospital. The baby must be incubated, and you must go too. You have no choice, Teresa,” Julia explained while tenderly massaging Teresa’s shoulders to comfort her.
“Okay then, if that is the only way to keep my baby alive,” Teresa agreed still sobbing in pain. “But I don’t know where we will get the money to pay the hospital.”
Juanita thought while hearing this argument, why would my mother still have to worry over money instead of simply be concerned about her baby’s survival?
“Don’t worry, Teresa, I know of an organization that helps people in need. I will make sure that you will be provided for.”
“Bless your heart, Julia. You’re very kind.” Teresa’s smile was short-lived. The contractions were coming more often, and Juanita knew the baby would come soon. She prayed that both her mother and the baby would survive.
While Julia was comforting Teresa through her labor pains, she turned to Juanita with urgency. “Juanita, you will have to phone an ambulance. The only person I know who has a telephone around this area is Señor Pablo who owns the convenience store.”
“Yes, I will go right away.”
Before going, Juanita quickly peeked into the other bedroom and saw her siblings huddled together. Serena was leading them in praying the rosary. “I am glad to see what you’re doing. Just stay in there. Sorry, I have no time to talk. I have to make a phone call for an ambulance.” She closed the bedroom door and immediately ran out into the alley in front of their apartment toward an empty lot behind a building on the west side, turned right into a small alley that connected to the main street, then turned right on the main street. This time she ran even faster than when she fetched Julia. Her anxiety intensified. She didn’t want to miss the birth of the new baby. The convenience store was just a block over on the east side.
Rushing into the store, she gasped, “Señor Pablo, may I please use your telephone? I have to call an ambulance because my mother is about to give birth.”
“Let me do it so it will go faster,” Señor Pablo offered.
“Thank you, sir. Please explain to hospital emergency staff that my mother is giving birth to a premature baby. Julia, the mid-wife is attending to her. Please tell them where we live.” He knew just about everybody around the area and where they lived.
After Señor Pablo made the phone call, he said to Juanita, “They are sending the ambulance right away. So, when did your mother start having her labor pains? I thought she was not due until two more months.”
“She suddenly started feeling the pain just about an hour ago. I am sorry, Señor Pablo, I really must hurry back. Thank you for making the phone call. Bye.” Without waiting for his response, she dashed out of the store and ran faster than ever.
Reaching the small alley, she cut across the empty lot to save on the distance to run. Forgetting that there was gravel underneath the tall wild grass, she tripped on one of the pointed stones. She cut the skin on her left knee and bruised both of her palms.
“Aw, shucks, why did this have to happen now? Silly stone.” She got up, kicked the stone, and continued to run.
Juanita not only watched her mother give birth. She assisted Julia whenever she needed something from her midwife’s bag or from the kitchen. She cried each time her mother moaned or screamed in pain. She thought, this is my fourth time to watch her give birth, but why am I squeamish? She felt her mother’s pain. She agonized with her when she screamed as the baby was about to come out. She cringed as Julia supported with her hands the head and then the back of the baby when he was being born. “He is so tiny and helpless, Julia. He is only slightly bigger than your two hands.” She felt so sorry and sad at the sight of her new brother.
“Juanita, get the pair of sterilized scissors from the case inside my bag so you can cut your new brother’s umbilical cord.”
“Oh, he is so frail. Will he live?” While cutting her brother’s umbilical cord she felt a strange and indescribable sensation. She would realize only years later what this sensation meant to her. She was literally giving him his freedom to live on his own. This moment was so powerful that it gave her a special bond to him unlike what she had with her other siblings.
“Many premature babies survive and grow up strong and normal,” Julia consoled Juanita. She then turned to Teresa. “What will you name your new son, Teresa?”
“Eduardo and I decided to call him Miguel,” Teresa answered with pride while her tears flowed.
The experience was so intense and emotional that Juanita would never forget it. She relived every second of it each time she remem- bered it. She was thankful that throughout the birthing, all her younger siblings stayed quiet inside their bedroom as she requested. Later Serena told her, “We were all praying for the safety of Mama and the baby. We knew that there were a lot of things happening in there, we were curious, but we did not dare go out of the room until
we heard that Mama was leaving for the hospital.”
This deeply touched Juanita and realized how profoundly her mother’s faith had influenced them. They may be poor materially, but they were rich spiritually. She confirmed this to herself after everything turned back to normal following the commotion and excitement of Miguel’s birth.
Fortunately, the ambulance arrived within a few minutes after Miguel was born. The arrival of the paramedics roused the children. Serena opened the bedroom door for a moment to see, then closed it immediately. Juanita was amazed at how quickly and carefully the paramedics worked. She watched their every move – how they cleaned the infant, wrapped him in a blanket, attached the oxygen cannula to his tiny nostrils, and laid him in a special domed bas- sinette that was battery-warmed. Meanwhile, Julia was cleaning up Teresa and getting her ready to leave.
One of the paramedics remarked to Teresa, “Señora, we’re so thankful that your apartment is on the ground floor and there is no staircase.”
Her mother smiled weakly in reply.
They did not waste any moment and had to take Miguel first to properly set him up in the ambulance.
“The nurses at the hospital will look after you, Teresa. Don’t worry about your children. I will look after them until you’re allowed to come home.” Julia followed as Teresa was taken to the ambulance.
Just before they lifted her inside, Teresa struggled to raise her hand to stop them for a moment. “Señores, just a second.” She had difficulty to speak. “Julia, you are so kind. I don’t know how we will repay you for doing this additional task. I wish Eduardo were home to do this, instead of you. We have only enough money to pay you for your service as a mid-wife. Juanita after I leave, please get the shoebox behind my blouses on the top shelf of our closet. Get the money that we’ve been saving and pay Julia.”
At this time, all the children came out. Juanita could not stop them. She knew that they were listening to everything. They were crying and rushed to Teresa on the stretcher.
“Mis hijos, I am sorry, but I must go to the hospital with your new brother.” She cried while speaking. “Don’t worry, Julia is here to look after you and your papa will take you to the hospital to visit me.”
“Señora,” one of the paramedics had to interrupt her. “We don’t have time. We must go.”
All the children, still crying, stood there until Teresa was trans- ferred to the bed inside the ambulance. Juanita would never forget this sad moment.
While Juanita was helping clean up her parents’ bedroom, Julia smiled and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Besides being a beautiful girl, you’re growing up to be such a fine, responsible young woman. I was very impressed by how you carried yourself the whole time. I saw how you were commiserating with your mother in her agony, but you were composed and brave. Thank you for your assistance. I could not have done everything without your help, and I think you have a natural talent as a caregiver.”
“You are welcome. I was very happy to be of help.” Juanita said rather softly. She felt the beginnings of a blush warm her cheeks and she looked down. Wasn’t what I did obviously the only logical thing to do under the circumstances? Should I have done otherwise? So, why should Julia thank me? Since she was a little girl Juanita never made a fuss over being appreciated for doing things right. Being logical for her was being right and being right was natural and needed no appreciation. She found this by herself observing how flowers con- tinued to bloom naturally whether they were appreciated by people or not. After they cleaned up the bedroom, Juanita remembered, “Oh, Julia, I have yet to give you the money in the shoebox.”
“You don’t have to do it now, Juanita, because I’ll still be here until your father comes home. Besides, I’ll be back here every day until your mother is released from the hospital.”
Miguel had to be in an incubator longer because he was still underweight after Teresa was released. But Teresa had to be picked up by the van of the charitable organization to go to the hospital every day to have her breast pumped and to carry Miguel close to her for a while. One Saturday when Juanita accompanied her, she was extremely uneasy. “Mama, why do I feel anxious about Miguel, but my younger brothers and sisters don’t really care about him?”
“You have always felt concerned about all of them ever since I first asked you to help me care for them,” Teresa responded. Lovingly putting her arm over Juanita’s shoulder while they looked at Miguel through the glass panel, she continued, “You have become like a mother to them. That’s why you feel this way about your baby brother. It’s not that your brothers and sisters don’t care. They are young and playing is more important to them.”
Like a mother to them? Juanita recalled her mother’s words while she lay awake on her cot but this time with frustration as she looked at Miguel, who was almost four years old, sound asleep. Why should I be like a mother to them while I don’t even have any chance to care for my own self?
Juanita never had such a negative attitude toward any member of her family. This emotion was new to her. As the thought about the opportunity to be free to pursue her own dreams came back, she turned around to her right side away from Miguel and kicked the sobrecama onto the floor. This time she faced the bed that was against the south wall of the room where all her three sisters slept.
“Oh, Serena,” she said to herself as she looked at her sleeping next younger sister, “I wish you could take over caring for our siblings.”
Serena was her closest ally among her siblings. She would turn fourteen in the fall —plenty old enough to care for her younger sib- lings as she well knew. The two oldest children in the family shared their bosom secrets, their embarrassment for always wearing the same old dresses about which the boys at school would constantly make fun of them, and their sorrows for being so poor. “I wish we could be freed from this neighbourhood,” Juanita would say. Serena would reinforce her by saying, “Yes, our neighborhood feels like a prison where people never improve in life.”
Juanita closed her eyes attempting to fall asleep. She lay motion- less on her cot and then began to feel cold from the howling wind that seeped through the crack on the wall. She got up to put the sobrecama back on the bed. Why am I feeling cold now? Am I just like the weather that can’t make up its mind? It was already the beginning of summer and yet cold wind was constantly blowing down from the mountains north of the city. Or am I just being bugged by my thought that my family is preventing me from pursuing my freedom? This feeling was the craziest and most exciting feeling she’d ever had.
Oh, why did I hesitate to tell my father the news about the job oppor- tunity? She knew why. Just as she’d opened her mouth to speak, Papa blurted out his news and that was the end of that.
“I almost got killed by a speeding car,” he said, still shaking from the incident. Eduardo was a laborer for road maintenance of the city. He had worked at this job since quitting high school when his parents could no longer afford to send him to school. Since he had no other skills, he stayed on the same job and was never promoted. However, it kept him and his large family alive, albeit minimally. He was satisfied with what he was doing. He would brag to anyone inquisitive about his background, “I am not rich, but my children are my wealth.”
“That’s awful! I’m sure glad that you were not hit by the car. You still look shaken though. Is there anything that I can do?” Juanita rea- soned that the job opportunity could wait until her mother arrived.
“I am fine, mi hija. Thank you.”
When Teresa arrived shortly thereafter, Juanita was about to open her mouth again. However, when Teresa walked in, Juanita knew immediately that something was wrong. Teresa shook as she put her purse on the table and sunk into a chair, head in her hands.
Juanita rushed to her side. “What’s wrong, Mama? Did you almost get hit by a car, too?”
“A car?” Teresa looked from Juanita to her father. “I want to hear what happened.”
“No one is hurt,” Eduardo said. “Tell us why you’re upset.”
Tears flowed through her fingers as she choked out the words. “My employers’ daughter who was about your age, Juanita, suddenly fell ill and died before the family doctor arrived. Today. While I was there. Can you imagine? She was the only child. The doctor said that an autopsy was necessary.”
“Oh, Mama!” Juanita didn’t really know what to say, so she just put her arms around Teresa and let her cry.
Teresa worked part-time as a cleaning woman for a company that serviced the wealthy families of San Carlos. She put in as many hours of work as possible during the weekends and on days when Juanita could take care of her younger siblings.
Again, Juanita was unable to tell her what she was itching to say. Her mother’s feelings were more important to her. “This has been a horrible day for both of you, and . . .” Juanita said, and let the words about her job offer drift away. How could she give them the news that she wanted to work amid all this stress?
Teresa cut her short, suddenly going back to the car incident. “Oh my God, Eduardo, are you all right?”
“I’m here, mi amor, so I must be fine. Thank you.”
Juanita continued, “You look quite distraught, Mama. Is there anything that I can do for you?”
“Thank you, Juanita. That’s very nice of you. I am just worried that because of this tragedy my employers may not need me anymore. Sometime ago I heard them discussing while I was clean- ing nearby about the possibility of living elsewhere. I heard them say Barcelona.”
“Mama, why must you think that way? You taught me to always look at the positive side of whatever we do and experience. Now is the time for you to apply what you preach.” Juanita knew she sounded more mature than her age. Older folks often told her this. “Please don’t worry needlessly. It is too soon for your employers to decide on moving away. If they move, won’t they have a lot of things to settle first? Meanwhile, even with the tragedy of losing their daughter, they still need to live in a clean house.”
“You’re right, Juanita. I really should not be negative. I just can’t imagine how awful it would be to lose your only child. Let’s cook dinner. And afterwards, let’s pray for them.”
Juanita was so engrossed helping her mother in the kitchen that she forgot to tell her about the job opportunity. At dinner her sib- lings wanted to know more about their father’s near-accident and the death of the daughter of their mother’s employers. Everyone had a question to ask either Eduardo or Teresa.
“Papa, what kind of car crashed close to you? Was it a sports car?” Mario asked.
“How fast was the driver driving?” was Ernesto’s question. “What was the color of the car?” Miguel asked.
“Was the driver of the car cute?” Lourdes wanted to know.
“Talking about cute, Mama, was the daughter of your employer as beautiful as Juanita?” Serena was curious. Everyone in the family always regarded Juanita as beautiful, which she had diffi- culty accepting.
“Totally inappropriate, Serena. Have some sympathy,” Juanita snapped.
Little Maria did not want to be left out and had her question. Juanita thought that her question was very sensible, especially for a very young person. “Mama, why do people die?”
Both Eduardo and Teresa felt obliged to answer their questions. Their answers led to other follow-up questions by the brood. What turned out as a long question-answer session made Juanita decide to tell her parents about the job opportunity first thing in the morning.
Sleepless in bed, she regretted that decision. I could have told them shortly before they went to bed to save me this sleepless night!
It must already be nearing daybreak and Juanita still lay awake. She tossed herself back to her left side and saw Miguel again. Here was the brother whom she dearly loved but now was in the way of her independence along with all her younger siblings. She could not bear to look at him, so she turned back to her right side and saw Serena again, her only hope. She kept tossing back and forth, left and right, fantasizing about what a job could mean. It would be ter- rific to buy a new dress. I could go to school functions with other young people, instead of being cooped up in our tiny apartment caring for my younger siblings.
The trouble was, guys were attracted to her, but she didn’t want to get involved. If they went out on more than three dates, the guys would know she only had three dresses to her name. How would that look? She shook her head in the dark. With the money that I would earn at the convenience store, I could also buy some make-up and a few trinkets like what some of the other girls wear. Then maybe they wouldn’t see me as ‘poor little Juanita’. Oh, the things I could do with the money that I would earn. I wouldn’t be needing the small loose change
that Mama usually gives on my birthday or at Christmas. After all, those few coins are hardly enough to buy sweets at the convenience store that I always share with my siblings. When I work, I could share more with them, but I could also have more for myself. The thought of sharing lightened up her heart. Yes, that’s what I could do! They, too, need new clothes. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to help more like an adult rather than a babysitter?
Juanita felt calmer as she pictured herself looking good before her friends at school. She felt relieved when she realized she could share her money with her family. The plan made her feel good, so when she turned back to her left side and saw Miguel, she did not look at him with disdain. None of my siblings will get in my way to pursue my freedom. Instead, they will inspire me to carry on. I really hope that Mama and Papa will permit me to work at Señor Pablo’s convenience store. She always dreamed of freeing her family from their misery. As she thought of this, she finally dozed off. The wind had died down. It was strange how the world outside seemed to be in tandem with Juanita’s feelings. She felt calm and positive while she slid into unconsciousness, confident that her parents would agree when she told them about the job opportunity first thing in the morning.