Reflections on Minga’s Life and Death

I’ve read a number of articles recently about an epidemic of loneliness, social isolation, in our country that is leading people to make choices that limit their life span: drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide. That loneliness affects people in all social classes, those with opportunities and those without.

By contrast, Minga lived and died securely held in a thick web of relationships with family, friends, neighbors, her church community, her cohort of dialysis patients, the nurses who warmed to her and took time to be kind, the visitors I brought to meet her, those who got to know her through the blog or a book event. She had much hardship in her life, but loneliness and social isolation were not a problem for her,  at least not as an adult.

She had a limited life in some ways, and a rich life in others. She was not a perfect human being. She was hard on her daughters growing up, because she needed them to be more responsible than their years. She has always openly preferred her male children and grandchildren. As recently as the week before Thanksgiving, when I was with her in Panama, she mused that her son Angel was the one taking the most care of her right now. Angel indeed was contributing to her care. When she couldn’t walk, he came at 4:30am three times a week to help Ana’s marido Raul carry Minga down the stairs. Angel is the one who got Minga a cedula, even though she had no birth certificate. All of life in Panama revolves around having a cedula, or national identity card. Gloria’s father never had one, and his access to things like health care were much more difficult. Angel was the one Ana called when Minga was in the ICU on the Tuesday she died, and Angel came.

But Ana saw to Minga’s daily care, getting up at 3am to get Minga ready for dialysis, Miley ready for school, and Raul off to work. She accompanied Minga to the hospital for her treatments, waiting there until Minga came out sometime between 9:30am and 11am. On those days Ana put in a full 8 hour day before she got to her own responsibilities: housework, grocery shopping, laundry, meal preparation, and then to her work as a seamstress, which constitutes a good chunk of her family’s income. She often accompanied Minga to doctor’s appointments as well. At night, Ana supervised Miley’s homework, made sure she was prepared for the next day. Ana is 64, not a young woman.

When Minga was touting Angel, I caught Ana’s eye. As we walked out the restaurant, I put my arm around her and said softly, “I know all that you do, and I am very grateful for the care you give your mother every single day.” She gave my hand a squeeze, and avoided meeting my eyes so that I wouldn’t see the hurt in hers. Ah, Minga, mi querida hermana, what were you thinking?

Minga had the life she wanted, the life that suited her. We don’t always know that when we are younger, and busy, and just trying to keep our heads above water. We know it only in retrospect, from the vantage point of our older years.

Minga’s life in the village would be too confined for me, too small. But I’m in awe of the long line of people who carried her heavy casket down the left lane of the Pan American highway, cars and trucks whizzing by in the right lane. I’m touched by the outpouring of grief as she was laid to rest.

Hers was a good life. She was loved, in all her imperfect humanity. Rest in peace, my sister of the heart.


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