Over the first couple of weeks of May, a time when so many of us celebrate mothers, I kept running into moms in different places here on the border. Two of them struck me in particular ways. The depth of one mother’s sorrow, and her ability to express pain left me speechless. The hope of another mother reminded of there is so much of life that escapes me. Lessons for me, by mothers.
The first mother I met on the first Saturday of the month. She was from Honduras, and someone had called me from the local shelter concerned that the woman could not seem to not stop weeping. The woman was seated at a table with her two teen-aged daughters. They were waiting for their bus would start to Minnesota. The mother had left Honduras a couple of weeks ago, with the two teenagers, and as well as a two-year-old nephew that she had raised since the day that he was born.
Now, however, the mother was without the boy she had raised as a son, and she was bereft.
“My sister lives on the street,” the woman said by way of explanation, “and so she gave me the little boy at birth. She knew she could never take care of him. But when I was in immigration, even though I have the papers giving me custody over him and everything, they still took him from my arms. I knew that your government sometimes separated families, but I thought that they had stopped,” she said.
As she recounted her tale, she began weeping again, the two girls on either side, trying to hold their mother’s heart together. I called a friend of mind who has dedicated her life to healing, or, lacking that, at least to holding together broken hearts. I asked my friend, herself a mother, to come sit with this woman’s grief for a while.
My friend dropped everything, came over to the shelter and sat with the small family for a good two hours. After a while, the tears dried up, although it was hard to know if was therapy, or exhaustion or that wonderful elixir of care shared between strangers.
When I finally left them at the bus station, the mother had dropped into a deep sleep, laying across her daughters’ knees, ever so much a pieta, clearly deeply missing her baby. The daughters, young teenagers, had again taken their places on either side of their mom’s prone figure.
I met the other woman on the following Wednesday, when I went to visit a shelter for immigrants in Matamoros, the Mexican sister-city to Brownsville, Texas. Our team of immigration advocates had been looking forward to the visit, as there are very few shelters for immigrants in Matamoros, and we wanted to get a sense of what the existing ones looked like.
The refuge was extraordinary in every way. Located in the middle of a poor neighborhood, the program managers for years had offered hospitality for the abandoned and the dying. On the day that we visited, there were several elderly women with what appeared to be dementia, a middle-aged man bed-ridden with paralysis, at least four people confined to wheel chairs—and about fifty Central American and Cuban refugees. “We had our hands full with our sick, but no one else was helping these people (the immigrants), so we opened up our doors to them,” the kindly director told me.
The immigrant women stay in a dormitory on the second floor. While most of them were waiting at the international bridge for the unlikely chance that the US would respect its own laws and allow the asylum seekers into the country, there were two women who had just arrived. One of them, Natalia, from El Salvador, told me that it had taken her a year to cross Mexico.
Natalia had sad eyes and a worried air. “I am not sure that my cousin will even allow us to live with her,” she told me, “It has taken me so long to get even this far.”
The windows were open and we could hear the sound of children playing at a playground that was part of a primary school next door.
“That is a happy sound that they make, all those children” Natalia said, and I nodded in agreement.
Her son, a long-legged thirteen year old, had a sweet smile that told me that he knew of his mother’s love for him. “Happy Mother’s Day, a little bit early,” I told her, and she looked at her son, and she said, “Yes, I am happy to be his mother.”
Her son gently took her hand. The wind blew through the windows, the sound of children’s play rising above us.
We could have been anywhere. The children’s laughter was contagious, the breeze was warm, and the hope in these mothers’ eyes still visible.
“It is a very long walk from hell to wherever it is that we are going,” the woman said, referring to what forced her to leave behind all she had.
“Do you think we will make it?” she asked me.
I said, “Of course you will, and you will be fine.”
It was Mothers’ Day, after all, and that gleam in Natalia’s eye was not illusion. It was a mother’s hope.