My mother has her own eccentricities—such as her passionate distrust for technology. Sure, we had appliances you would normally find in any modern home—a television set, a refrigerator, and other gadgets considered necessary for comfortable living—but you would never find a rice cooker or a washing machine in our house. When it came to household chores, my mother resolutely preferred to do things the good old way. Rice was cooked on a stove top using a pot; clothes were hand-washed and hung outside on a clothesline to dry.
Since my mother could not be persuaded to buy a washing machine, it was decided that a laundry lady would come once a week to help us wash our clothes.
The laundry woman’s name was Lily.
My earliest memories of her were from when I was seven years old. She was of medium height, rather stocky, and for as long as I could remember, her grey hair was always cropped. Lily lived in one of the poorer parts of the city. The clothes she wore were usually faded and her skin was dark from always working under the sun. She was often quiet, but when she opened her mouth to speak, it always surprised me to hear how loud and jolly her voice was. My mother would always invite her for a meal after her laundry work. They would talk and whenever there was something funny, Lily would break out in the most boisterous laughter.
Lily was with us for so many years. Every Sunday she would come and wash our clothes. I remember how every Christmas we would go to the malls and buy her holiday goodies. My parents would carefully place everything in a basket and Lily’s eyes would glow when she received her gift.
My parents trusted Lily so much that whenever we went out of town, they would ask her to be the temporary caretaker of our house. It’s funny how little we knew about her though. As much as we trusted and valued Lily, she inevitably became just a passing shadow in our lives. Her only role was to come to the house, wash our clothes, then leave. Smiles and simple conversations were exchanged, but nothing else transpired that allowed us to know the true Lily.
I must have been eleven years old when I first learned how to wash clothes. Yes, we may have had our own laundry lady, but of course we washed our own delicates. Sometimes, if the week’s laundry load was heavy, we would help out and wash some of our own clothes before Sunday came around.
I remember feeling rudely surprised the first time I did my own laundry. I’ve seen my mother and Lily do it many times before and I was under the impression it was easy. I was out there in our backyard where most of the laundry was done. I used a small, low chair so I could sit near the outdoor faucet. Within minutes of washing my clothes, a dull pain started spreading across my arms. It also didn’t help that it was sweltering hot outside. In my solitude, my young mind began to realize how difficult Lily’s job was. I began to muse on how tiring it must be to wash other people’s clothes for hours and how weary Lily must feel at the end of her working day. I started to feel sorry for Lily. My eleven-year-old heart strongly felt that Lily and others like her should be paid thousands of pesos for doing such a tedious job.
Years passed and I grew into my twenties. The world around me changed, but my mother’s attitude toward technology remained the same. Aside from never learning to use a rice cooker or a washing machine, my mother is absolutely clueless about computers. Thankfully though, she learned how to use the cell phone. She really didn’t have a choice. She ran a business with my father; a mobile phone was absolutely necessary.
As the world changed, Lily also changed. As she aged, she grew thinner and started to get sick more often. She did not smoke, but somehow, her lungs grew weak. She was often in and out of the hospital. Even when her health was obviously getting frailer and even after my mother had gently advised her to stop working, Lily persisted in her job. Perhaps because it was her only means of support. Lily lived alone in a rented room. She had children who were all grown up, but it seems they were not a close-knit family. No one was exactly taking care of her.
One day, we learned that Lily had been rushed to the hospital again. Her pneumonia seemed to keep coming back. We made plans to visit her, but something always came up and we kept putting it off for another day. I guess at the back of our minds, we believed she would be just fine, and that she would recover in no time like she always did.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way. One night when I came home from work, my mother greeted me with glassy eyes. Lily had passed away.
My mind went back to the past few days when we kept talking about visiting Lily—and the horrible fact that we never did. That night, I thought about this woman whom we only knew as our laundry lady. I thought about the fact that even though I knew her since childhood, there really wasn’t much that I knew about her at all. I thought about the years—all the time she spent doing our laundry, suffering the pain in her arms for hours just to wash our clothes. She gave us such good service for seventeen years...but we couldn’t even spare a few minutes to see her on her hospital bed.
I cried. They were tears of shame and tears of guilt. They were tears of grief. Lily must have thought of us as she lay in her hospital bed, growing weaker by the minute. She must have wondered if all those people she worked so hard for even knew that she was dying. She probably wondered if those people even cared.
We cared, Lily. We cared. We just didn’t take the time to show it.
I don’t know if my story will mean much to anyone. Perhaps it isn’t much of a story, but it definitely made me realize one glaring truth.
We all crave to be loved. We all crave to know that we matter. But even though we all share this hunger, we don’t always make an effort to satisfy the hunger of others. There are people who enter our lives and sometimes, it’s enough for us to just let them be shadows. Perhaps it’s the odd guy at the office who sits alone during lunchtime—or your personal maid whom you always talk to but never have any real conversations with. It’s funny how we always look for people who can make a difference in our lives, yet we rarely ask ourselves—“how can I touch someone’s life?”
Lily, this is for you. Even though in the last moments of your life, we weren’t able to say goodbye, know that you are always remembered. We were never able to thank you for everything you have done, but know that we will always be grateful for your loyalty, your kindness, and your heart
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