By Dana Brozost-Kelleher, Medill, Immigrant Connect
I run into Lilia at our neighborhood grocery store, expecting the usual embrace. We are the only people in the frozen food aisle. I’m in high school at the time and she’s a housekeeper, who lives and works in the Washington, DC neighborhood where I grew up. I see her a few times a week—whether it’s at the store, the dog park or just passing each other on the street. We’re family friends by now.
This time she almost walks right past me. She’s startled when I ask her if everything is okay. She struggles with English. She’s from the Philippines, and though she’s lived in the states for close to 30 years, she says that as a housekeeper, she doesn’t need to speak English much. She lives in a Filipino neighborhood and her church caters to the Filipino community. She often jokes that the longer she’s been in the country, the worse her English seems to get.
Lilia’s eyes are tearing as she tells me that her mother, who has remained in the Philippines, is sick. She’s been ill for quite a while but it isn’t until recently that things have gotten worse. For a time, her mother’s doctors had differing opinions on the illness so no one was quite sure how bad it was. Lilia just learned that the doctors now believe her mother won’t live much longer and she’s afraid she won’t get a chance to say goodbye. Lilia confides that she’s wanted to travel home but can’t afford the expensive flight and she can’t take time off work.
As a teenager, I have no idea what to say. It isn’t a situation I can understand. I try to imagine being that far away from my own mother, let alone with something like this happening. I hug her and tell her I’m so sorry.
I see Lilia again about a week later. Her smile is still gone but this time when we reach each other, she pulls me into a big hug. She tells me that her friends and family helped her buy a plane ticket to the Philippines and that she arranged with her employer a way to take time off work.
A few days after that, Lilia flew home. She got to spend time with her mother and say goodbye before her mom passed away.
I know that it will take Lilia a long time to grieve the loss of her mother. I also know that when she returns to the states, her community of support will be waiting to help in any way they can.