I boarded my pre-dawn flight to Mexico and gratefully dropped into the aisle seat in Row 15. The woman seated next to me smiled politely and I smiled back but closed off any possibility for early morning chatter by picking up my book to begin reading. When the breakfast cart came, I chose the huevos rancheros and my neighbor took the last burrito. “Yours looks better than mine,” she said softly. She did not push, but I sensed she would have gladly entered into conversation if given the opportunity.
Once I finished eating, I felt inclined to be a little more social. When my neighbor asked, “Do you live in Miami?” I said I did and asked her if she lived in Mexico. She did. Her name was Juana. She was traveling with a family that had two children; she was their nanny.
Juana was the color of caramelized sugar, the skin of her round face so smooth and evenly colored I wanted to touch it. Her eyes were jet black under the stick-straight hair of indigenous people. She was pleasant to look at.
“Where do you live in Mexico?” I asked. She replied that she was from Cordoba de Veracruz, near a shrine to the Virgin who had run out of a burning cave, leaving the image of her charred face imprinted on a rock. “Do you have your own children?” I questioned as my interest in Juana grew. She said she did, two girls aged 21 and 16.
Then, she opened the floodgates, and shaking her head lightly, described how much suffering her oldest had caused her. She spoke very softly, without drama, but not without emotion. She shared that her daughter had become very promiscuous, was never home, and completely disregarded her mother’s supplications that she settle down, finish her studies, stay close to her family. I asked if there was a father, and Juana said he had left them, and that her daughter held her responsible for having failed to keep her father with them. Juana pressed her fist to her chest when she related this, but also asserted that she had firmly told her daughter that she had always been there for her, and always would be.
I listened. I could feel this mother’s pain, and marveled at how she was able, and willing, to articulate it to me, a stranger. She did not elicit pity from me; quite to the contrary, I found myself admiring her for the quiet certainty in her eyes, her patience with her daughter, and her ability to remain sure of her own worth. More surprising still was the feeling that Juana did not so much need to share her troubles with me, as I needed to hear them.
I thought about my Julie, and how lucky I was that she was a good girl, but I realized how easily children can dash the dreams we have for them. And even if they don’t, they grow away and become something you never bargained for. No parenting magazine prepares you for the disappointment of watching your children dash your hopes, or teaches you how to let theirs take hold.
I then surprised myself by sharing my own semi-sweet sadness. “I have a 16-year-old, too,” I heard myself say, unable to contain the tears welling in my eyes. “She is a wonderful child, but I never knew I would cease to be a central part of her world.” When did that terrible, natural process happen?
There it was, the gnawing heartache out in the open, before this stranger who listened and nodded appreciatively. I realized my hurt did not come close to the suffering this woman had endured with her promiscuous daughter, but my own pain was real. Julie, quite normally, was growing away from me, and I was still holding on to a little girl whose world once revolved around me, who defined me. I wondered how a mother can successfully navigate through that time when, for a while, we become irrelevant to our daughters, or worse, our values do.
And at that moment, the field was leveled. This indigenous Mexican single mother of two and I, a well-traveled, professional, single mother of one, were just that: mothers, at a loss over our daughters.
Juana then asked if I was Catholic, and I caught myself saying yes. I wanted to connect with this woman whose gentleness surely belied she had some answer. She explained that her daughter had just recently settled down with a good, hard-working man and now had a three-month-old baby girl to whom she was devoted. And this was all thanks to Juana’s prayers to the Virgen de Juquila, enshrined near her hometown. She had prayed and prayed to her, asking her to guide and protect her daughter because she could not manage the situation anymore. She had relinquished her attempts to save her daughter to the Virgin of Juquila. And the Virgin had answered.
I observed the serenity with which Juana spoke about the Virgin of Juquila, and envied her faith. I wished I could believe there was someone on my side who would make sure Julie would be alright. But I was not religious and did not believe in saints and miracles, as much as I would have liked to know the peace that Juana extracted from her firm belief in the Virgin of Juquila.
Then, without fuss or fanfare, Juana reached into her purse and pulled out a small image of a virgin with a charred face in a cheap, brassy-gold metal frame. “I can get another one,” she said plainly as she handed the relic to me. It was not an offer; she needed to give it and I needed to take it. “She can help you,” Juana said, but left it clear that whether the Virgin of Juquila helped me or not was entirely up to me. And I knew it was about focus, faith, and an unwavering belief that when you let it go, an answer comes.
As I took the little image of the Virgin of Juquila, I thought I had never received a more beautiful gift. My eyes filled again, and I felt that Juana knew something about the power of letting go, believing, and paying it forward. And because she did, the Virgin of Juquila had no doubt placed her in Seat 15 B.