It took me a long time to find a new home for the belongings he left behind.
My husband and I shared a narrow, shoebox-shaped closet in our home here, his clothes facing mine from double-hanging wardrobes mounted on the walls. After he died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 1, 2017, a month after his diagnosis, I’d often wander into the closet to search for his smell on his shirts. My mother caught me one day sniffing his shirts and crying, and said, “You can’t keep doing this forever.”
“What should I do?” I asked.
“You need to find the right people to give his clothes to,” she replied.
I packed his shirts, slacks, shoes, belts and ties into the gunpowder-gray suitcases we’d bought for our trip through western Ireland years earlier. That same day, a Federal District Court judge in San Francisco ordered the Trump administration to keep on renewing the permits that gave young undocumented immigrants permission to temporarily live and work in the United States, as prescribed by the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
I noted the events in my journal in short, unemotional sentences: “Cleaned closet, packed Mike’s stuff away;” “Good news of the day: DACA still alive.”
I parked the suitcases in a corner of my garage, where they stayed for 16 months, gathering dust as the president made a mess out of the country’s already messy immigration system.
In these months, my daughter’s nanny, a naturalized citizen, lost her brother in Mexico, where he had been deported last year after living illegally for 26 years in Phoenix. (His wife and three children still live here.) The nanny said that he’d died of a broken heart.
Also in these months, accounts of Central Americans released from immigration detention and dumped at the Greyhound bus station in town began showing up in my news feeds, followed by reports about Central Americans lost in the punishing desert that straddles the Arizona-Mexico border, or about children falling ill and dying in overcrowded Border Patrol stations.
I had written articles of my own about the conditions inside these stations during my stint as Phoenix bureau chief for The Times. I’d also written a report in 2014 from inside a makeshift shelter that the Border Patrol had set up for migrant children in the border city of Nogales, Ariz. Then, as now, despair had led thousands of people to leave their home countries in search of what so many of us in America take for granted: the right to live without fear of being kidnapped, tortured, killed.
What I saw at that shelter stayed with me. The children sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, in dirty clothes, under blankets that looked like sheets of aluminum foil. These memories, and the new crop of migrant stories on my news feeds, only added to the grief of losing my husband at the relatively young age of 44 — and to the anguish of raising our daughter alone and far away from my family, in a country that is legally my own but that has made it tough for me at times to feel that this is the country where I belong.
My husband was a proud American, the son of a nurse and a gas-meter reader born and bred in a blue-collar mill town in Central Massachusetts, where, like him, almost everyone was white. He was curious enough about the world to marry me, an immigrant from Brazil. When our daughter was born, he spoke proudly about the jumble of heritages coursing through her veins — Scots-Irish and French Canadian from his side, and indigenous, Portuguese and African from mine. I sometimes called her “a mutt.” He called her “the perfect American.”
He was an optimist and in the days right after Mr. Trump’s election, he kept his glass-half-full attitude, telling me that the unorthodox president-elect might be just what was needed to get things going in Washington. But that didn’t last long. I remember the glum expression on his face as he checked the new president’s Twitter feed while silently sipping his coffee. I urged him to find another morning routine, to check out of social media for a while.
He told me, “I wished Trump knew the immigrants we know, all these good, honest people.”
One morning this spring, I logged onto his email for only the second time since his death. I typed my name in the search field, watched the results populate the screen and scrolled through the messages, contemplating the simplicity of our life, the tenderness of his words, the intimacy we shared, all of it contained in subject lines: “cool summer camp ideas,” “add to nanny to-do list,” “miss you while you’re away.”
One such line caught my eye — “The toll it’s taken,” it read. The message, dated Nov. 16, 2016, was in the drafts folder. I clicked it open.
I haven’t been sleeping well since last Tuesday. I’m really upset about the election. Was in denial there for a few days and tried to put a good face on it. But I just need to express how angry, frightened and disgusted I am. You know me — I don’t like to emote — but I am really crushed by this. So deeply disappointed in my country and in many people that I know.
I’m sorry. I love you.
Just that week, I had received a text message from a friend, asking if I might be willing to volunteer as a Spanish-English interpreter when the next group of Central American migrants seeking asylum arrived at her church. The church is one of dozens to have banded together to offer a safety net of sorts for these migrants, giving them basic health checks, some toiletries and clothes, and making travel arrangements so that they can reunite with relatives already settled in the United States. I was on the fence about it, in part because I was afraid to face the migrants’ sadness.
I found the courage I needed in my husband’s unsent message to me.
By then, the migrants at the church had come and gone. But I knew that another group would be around soon.
The next day, I got a text from my friend: “It looks like 11 a.m. Please don’t tell anyone.”
I put the suitcases in my car and waited for instructions.
“When you get here, ask for me directly,” she wrote.
I drove south and west from my house. On the way, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” the album that my husband played for me on our first date. I cried. I talked to him.
I got off in a part of the city full of warehouses and big, empty lots. I walked into the church. Just as my mother suggested, I had found the right people to give his clothes to.
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