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When a Number Becomes a Face and a Name

As of this writing, over 317,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. As of this writing, 25,841 Texans have died from covid-19. As of this writing, I know one of these victims by name.

My friend, Lenis, died on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. She was 52 years old, a mother and a grandmother, a hard-working, deeply spiritual immigrant from El Salvador. Lenis was my cleaning lady for nine years, but she quickly became more, celebrating my daughter’s graduation with us and blessing her marriage with a prayer. She always asked about my grandsons in Tucson and shared pictures of her own grandchildren in New Jersey.

She greeted me with, “Buenos dias. Como estas?” as she carried her own vacuum and cleaning supplies through the door and past me to the kitchen. And when I left for the university, she always prayed, “Vaya con Dios todos los dias de tu vida.” When my daughter Nicole suffered a stroke and my own faith had been sorely shaken, she reassured me, with every confidence, that Jesus would heal her. Like my mother, who prefaced everything with, “Prota o Theos”, Lenis always said, “El Senor es Primero.”

She was fluent in English, but she was more comfortable in Spanish, naturally, and I enjoyed the opportunity to improve my skills. We talked about everything – family, politics, travel, money, her novio, her health, including her onset of menopause. She was short and stout, a borderline diabetic, and she went home for her annual check-ups. She could visit her family and get the 50,000 mile tune-up (I taught her that expression!) for way less than she would pay in the states. Kill two birds with one stone. I taught her that as well, but Lenis didn’t like the idea of killing anything, even metaphorically.

She never missed El Salvador enough to want to return permanently, however. She’d made a good life here in Houston. She owned her home and was very proud of how she had decorated it. She especially loved throw pillows. They were everywhere. All shapes, sizes, and colors. I wondered how long it took her to strip her bed each night. She made fun of my American minimalism – just five pillows on a giant king-size bed. Why didn’t I have more? She would scroll through pictures on her smart phone while I still used a flip phone with stamp-size pictures I had to show one at a time. Lenis didn’t live long enough to see my upgrade to the 21st century.

When the pandemic hit, we kept in touch via texts, also in Spanish. She was quarantining, like everyone else. As a custodian in the Katy school district, she was on lockdown until the fall semester, when Gov. Greg Abbott opened the schools because … I wonder if that’s how she contracted COVID.

The last time we texted was for Thanksgiving. A month later, Lenis was gone.

I was riding my recumbent bike, taking a break from grading finals, when my daughter called to tell me the news. I didn’t think I had heard her correctly. “What? Who?” She had read it on Facebook. I just froze, numbing to the knowledge that a friend, someone I was very fond of, someone who was regularly in my home, who knew and loved my family, had succumbed to this awful killing disease. We can’t attend her funeral, which compounds the loss for everyone. No communal consolation. Just grieving in isolation.

The picture in her obituary made me smile. Her long black hair hung sleek down her back. I’d never seen it loose. Not practical when you’re bending into ovens and scouring commodes. She always braided it out of her way. She never wore make-up, and even in this picture, all she wore was a smile. I was so used to seeing her in jeans and T-shirts that the dress she was wearing in her picture stunned me – so simple and pretty. A dark blue bodice and floral skirt, with a maroon ribbon cinched around her waist.

The Bible verse in her funeral notice was perfect for her: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7.

Of course it was in Spanish. I translated here for you, but I read it in Spanish and understood. Lenis would have been very proud of me.

May her memory be eternal.

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