Tending Hands

READ: How the produce aisle looks to a migrant farmworker | Public Radio International

Credit: Mike Blake - Reuters

Vegetables at a Whole Foods Market in La Jolla, California. Much of its produce comes from the state’s Central Valley, where it’s picked by migrant farmworkers. Credit: Mike Blake – Reuters

The fields my family worked required weeding with machetes and garden hoes. I still remember the taste of the pesticides and coughing my throat raw after a crop duster would fly over us and spray. Sometimes I didn’t know if it was sweat or pesticide residue that caused the burned in my 10-year-old eyes. I’m thankful we never picked fruit or vegetables, though my best friend did and he still has problems with his hands to this day. He doesn’t think it’s related to his farmwork as a teenager, but I know better.

There are many life-threatening dangers for children and adults in these fields. This PRI story notes one — that sometimes the people who work the fields cannot even afford the food they tend.

I’m not going to say that I whisper a prayer with each apple I put in my grocery cart, but I often I think about the hands that weeded, picked, and packed the fruit and veggies. I look at the colorful shapes and I calculate the difficulty of tending and picking certain fruits over others. Sometimes the stickers will note from which state the fruits came. My mind forecasts the temperature there. Do they have to bundle up to keep the hot sun off their backs or do they have to wear extra socks to keep their toes from the cold?

At the meat cases I routinely think about the men and women who work in cold meatpacking plants and that they surely cannot afford the meat they process because I certainly can’t. I imagine the assembly line as it moves carcasses through the plant with each worker slicing, cutting, chopping, packaging until the marbled meat reaches my store.

Sometimes I have to push those thoughts and images from my mind because people aren’t supposed to contemplate how their food came to the grocery store and, honestly, sometimes I just need to get out of there.

It’s when I’m at home cooking that I allow my mind to consider the food before me. As I slice onions, cilantro, red and green peppers, as I smash and chop garlic cloves, I thank the hands that brought me this food and I hope they are well.

Of course there are times when food sits in my refrigerator too long and I have to throw out wilting spinach or rubbery carrots. It’s frustrating not just because it’s wasted money but because instead of eating a salad, I ordered a pizza. It’s also disrespectful to those who put their bodies and their beings at risk in order to bring that food to market. I’m literally throwing their efforts in the trash.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have deep thoughts about my food each and every time I walk into the store. It’s only been since I’ve started leading a writers workshop for migrant youth. They make me think, they make me remember. I want to be more mindful about my food, the food they and their families help put on my table.

I try to say hello to the produce workers sorting and stacking the fruit in the store because usually they’re Latinos. Sometimes it’s just a head nod, sometimes they help me pick out the best veggies. Most of the time it’s just me wanting to acknowledge them as fellow farmworkers because … well … they are.

Brown hands tend fruit in the fields, brown hands tend them in the store, and my brown hands tend them at home.

The Last Day

Today I’m 47 years old.

I’m now as old as my mom when she died.

I’m conflicted about this day. This blog didn’t turn out the way I’d hope it would when started it a year ago. I let it falter. However, it did have an internal effect on me.

I thought a lot more about my mom than I have in previous years. You see, I’d sorta relegated her to holidays and birthdays. In the past, it’s proven dangerous for me to think of her on a daily basis. I slip too easily into a depression. So, I only allowed myself to think about her, on those days I went to visit her grave. Sometimes she’d find her way into my writing but that was different from thinking about her. When I write about her, I find new memories and somehow in the creative act, I can integrate those experience more easily than I could if I allowed myself to sit in the living room crying and staring at her pictures, trying to recall the sound of her voice.

When I came across the information about mom’s pharmacist possibly cutting her medication, it floored me. It still does. It opened a door to “what if.” I’d walked a maze of “what ifs” in the first ten years after she died. I held tight to my grief and to those “what ifs” as if they could somehow keep her alive enough for me to … to want to get up the next day … to want to take the next breath. I led myself out of that maze by focusing on social justice and honing my craft as a writer.

Don’t get me wrong, I still needed that grief. And there were times I’d still find myself missing school and work. Though the duration of those absences was shorter. I soon began to anticipate these episodes and could use saved vacation days or work ahead on school work. As I became more adept at managing my depression, I learned to stay away from triggers. I learned to hold in my grief for graveside visits on holidays and birthdays.

When I took on this project, I wanted to find a way to explore a way to recall those times without fear of finding myself in that claustrophobic maze. I wanted to be able to visit my mom’s grave without completely losing it. Truthfully that’s why my visits were starting to become fewer and fewer.

While I failed to use this blog to document my experiences, I did have some wonderful things happen that I wouldn’t have been open to if not for taking these steps.

I became a Macondista. I applied for and was accepted into the Macondo Writers Workshop. There I met supportive and nurturing Latino/a writers. Since so many of the Latinas at Macondo where mothers, that energy was comforting and filling. I submitted work for publication, some was published some wasn’t. I’ve started new writing projects and collaborations. I accepted a leadership position in two writing organizations: the Latino Writers Collective and the Fabulous Queer Writers. I’ve been honored to meet, and call friends, writers whose work I’ve admired for years. I’ve also been fortunate to know new and emerging writers.

I thought my year would be filled with experiences that paralleled my mom’s journey but when that didn’t happen, I was disappointed. However, looking back, I did have some of those. This  year I was terribly and annoyingly sick. Nothing serious like cancer but just a series of colds, flu strains, stomach viruses, aches and pains of the body, in addition to the still lingering foot issues I’ve had since I broke my foot in 2013 and had to use crutches for almost five months and a walking boot for eight months — well into 2014. For the first time in my life my body prohibited me from doing the things I wanted. I thought about mom and how she was always in pain and had to surrender to her failing body.

I slipped into depression because of this inability to control my physical body. I also gained weight which further added to my depression. I missed a lot of writing deadlines for some REALLY good projects. I thought about how mom loved to go visit churches and prayer groups and how she missed some really good fellowship opportunities.

I don’t mean to compare my aches and pains to that of a cancer patient in her final stages, I was just open to new information. In all my years of grieving for mom, I never really thought about her daily struggles. I never thought of how difficult it was for her to bathe until I couldn’t. I never thought about her pain and ability to self hear until I literally had to crawl up the stairs to bed and do the same.  I never thought about her loneliness until I cursed my walking boot and threw it across the room because one of its straps had broken. I wasn’t able to use it and therefore couldn’t go to a reading where I’d be with friends, which I desperately needed.

This year when good things happened it was terrific and brought ecstatic smiles and laughter. When bad stuff happened it was tragic and it brought me to tears. This year I was quick to anger and felt my soul shift to a negative default when I opened my mouth. Being nice, being happy, being civil was an effort. I’m certain my mom experienced a similar temperament shift but I didn’t see it. Maybe my sisters did because they were around a lot more in her final days.

Last year at her grave I cried and told her that I couldn’t keep coming there every year and having a meltdown. It was killing me. So I woke this morning knowing — really knowing — that it wouldn’t happen today.

Well, I was right. It didn’t  happen today because the cemetery was closed.

I wanted to be pissed off about it. I wanted to feel bad. I wanted to cry. I wanted to have some drama. I wanted to demonstrate somehow that I was in pain because that would mean I cared, right? But I didn’t do any of that. Sure, I was upset that the cemetery was closed — on a Sunday. That’s just weird.

Yes, today was significant but this unexpected change doesn’t diminish my love for her.

I’ll go tomorrow. I won’t just pull stray grass and brushing dirt off her marker with my fingers. I’ll pack grass clippers, a container of soapy water, and sponges into one of those canvas bags I get from all those writers conferences. I need her site to be clean, bright, and well maintained. Then I shall offer her fresh roses and read the poetry she inspired.

Toxic

So I got a bit of a bombshell dropped on me. I haven’t had the courage to write about it and that’s why this blog abruptly stopped.

I was talking to my sister in early February. She asked me how my manuscript on the migrant kid was coming a long. I told her it was slow but I’m allowing myself the distraction of attending both the AWP and Split This Rock conferences before I jump back in it.

She said she had an idea for my next project. Now, when people say stuff like that I usually take a deep breath. I mean, I can barely get my own ideas on the page, what am I gonna do with someone else’s ideas? But for the record, I’ve gotten some really good ideas from family members. I guess they just get me. Unfortunately, their ideas (and others) sit in a folder called “Stuff I need to write.”

Anyway, my sister suggested I work on a project based on the effects of  Kansas City pharmacist Robert Courtney’s drug diluting crimes. Uhm. Okay. That’s kinda weird.

“Two months before his arrest in August 2001, the pharmacist who in 1990 listed his gross income as $48,000 had amassed $18.7 million in total assets. During approximately the same time frame, Robert Courtney would, by law enforcement estimates, dilute 98,000 prescriptions for 4,200 patients.” 

via The Toxic Pharmacist – New York Times.

My sister suggested the story unfold from the point of view of a Latino family dealing with cancer. She explained how I could use our experience with our mom as a guide.

Wait. What?

“You know, because he probably diluted mom’s cancer medication.”

I’d forgotten mom was on an experimental treatment but I remember watching news reports and wondering if he’d been mom’s pharmacist. I buried those thoughts along with most of my memories of that last year.

Now my sister brought it all back by saying mom’s medication came from Courtney’s pharmacy.

Researching and reading about that devil of a man would probably consume the rest of this year not to mention conducting interviews and court records. It could be well into next year before I even begin to tell the story. I’m not intimidated by the work. My journalism background would help me organize and tell the story but — I’m afraid.

I’m afraid to know that all those times she cried in pain were deliberate. I’m afraid to accept that instead of advocating for her, instead of helping her through it, I dismissed her pain as part of the disease. I’m afraid to accept that I purposely kept myself ignorant of her disease and that I averted my eyes as cancer slowly and painfully consumed her.

I’m afraid that while his actions may have been toxic to her body, mine were toxic to her spirit.

Watch full episode about Courtney on “American Greed: Deadly Rx for Greed”