Originally published May 13, 2012
This is a simple story about an unsimple woman. You do not know Diana Gaitan, and except for this column, you would never know the name. If you passed her on the sidewalk, she would go unnoticed except for the unusual person she would be pushing in a wheelchair.
We have developed a well-crafted skill at not seeing people. And because of that, we miss a lot. Diana is a 52-year-old woman living in Escondido. The loftiest position she has ever occupied was grocery clerk. It was a job she loved and took pride in doing and earning her own way.
In 2006, however, she faced a “Y” on her life’s path. Her 85-year-old mother — who had taken care of Diana’s invalid brother, Carlos, for many years — was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia that results in certain death after a few years of sliding down to insensibility.
Medical advisers said both her mother, Maria, and Carlos could be placed in nursing homes. In fact, it might be the best thing.
Diana, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, as was her mother, prayed to know the right thing. Believing she had the answer, she quit her job, gave up her own apartment and moved into a crowded unit with her mother and brother.
Except for a brief, childless marriage in her 20s, she had lived as an independent career woman. “I was happy living by myself and I loved my job at Stater Brothers. But I asked Jehovah how I could show I love him, and then I knew what I had to do.”
Now, I should tell you about Carlos. He is the type of individual who will inevitably get a second look. Maybe a stolen third look.
That’s OK. Diana isn’t offended. Carlos is 69 years old — an old man, but also a dwarf standing slightly over four feet who has the mental development of a 1-year-old that doctors can’t trace to a cause. He is diapered, and he can’t shave himself. He can walk only by shifting his hands from couch to chair as he moves slowly, carefully across the room.
Carlos’ current medical record reveals 17 acute or chronic conditions, from heart problems to respiratory failures. Still, he bears his ailments with an innocent smile. He is jovial and appreciative. And though he has no vocabulary to speak, he can tell what kind of person you are by interpreting tone and body language. He will knit his brow in the company of someone he doesn’t trust.
Carlos has a game in which he has developed considerable skill. I’ll give it the name of catch-the-fly-and-eat-it. It requires concentration and fast reflexes. With great glee, he reaches out and grabs an imaginary fly, then puts his hand to his mouth and gobbles it down. You will gain his favor if you join in.
I confess to being unskilled at the game, but Carlos never misses. Each success is followed by a gleeful chuckle, whether at his skill or my failure, I don’t know which. I quickly tire of the game, but he never does.
When Maria was nearing death in October 2010, Carlos would wander into the bedroom pensively. He would sense something wasn’t right, and then retreat. He would return and leave repeatedly during the hours of the final decline. After their mother’s last breath, Diana summoned him, took his hand and put it on Maria’s forehead. “It was cold, and he seemed to understand,” Diana said. Then she told him, “Yes, mother is gone, Carlos.”
Carlos loves to be put in his wheelchair and go on a trip, usually of no more than a mile or two. This day was special to him because he got to go to Denny’s for lunch.
“Wherever we go, people are kind to him,” his sister says.
Diana was happy for the complimentary lunch because she wouldn’t receive her government check for another week and a half, so she hasn’t been able to buy Carlos the fast-food hamburger he cherishes.
“I only have two dollars extra and that has to last, so this is a special treat.” To most of us, two dollars is a modest tip, given unthinkingly.
She orders fish and chips for each of them. Carlos attacks and cleans the huge plate of food plus the salad with the focus of a surgeon. His world has narrowed to the plate. Diana nibbles at her fish and saves the French fries to take home for Carlos.
That’s a gesture a dedicated mother would make. Though Diana is not a mother, her life of sacrifice represents the spirit of motherhood.
Diana lives on about $1,500 each month, split between Carlos’ Social Security disability payment and the government money she gets for making a home for Carlos. Her rent is $795 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in a low-income seniors’ housing complex. She does not get a rent subsidy. She is not on relief, on the dole, or receive charity. The money she is paid for Carlos is a good deal for the state, considering the cost of institutional care.
Diana takes pride that her family came north legally from Chihuahua, Mexico, and even more pride that she exchanged her green card for citizenship at age 18. Her mother suppressed her fear of failure and passed her citizenship test at age 79. Carlos remains a resident alien.
It’s expected, I guess, to say that Diana represents the storied Latino family values, but that’s something of a cliché. All groups and ethnicities have family values. There’s nothing proprietary about that. However, Diana is a member of a more select and smaller group, one composed of persons who devote their lives to service and sacrifice. They come in all varieties.
“I’m low-income, but I don’t think I’m in poverty,” she says. “I lack nothing. We don’t have money to buy anything or everything we might want, but I have no complaints.”
Learning the story of Diana and Carlos stirred emotions I rarely visit. It made me a little sad, but it was a smiling sort of sadness, and it would be good for me to feel that way more often.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].com.
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