MY EMPATHY WALK WITH A GRANNY

Helio Borges
9 min readJun 13, 2020
Fortuna García

2017. Today I did my empathy walk. I accompanied an 88-year-old granny to collect her retirement in the bank. It is good to clarify that in Venezuela elders do not get their pension checks by mail, they have to go to the bank in order to collect. Therefore, by the middle of each month, one can see outside the banks the rows of elderly people waiting in line in order to collect their pensions. This time there were fewer people than usual and we left the bank relatively quickly. It was 11.00 am, and I asked her what she wanted to do. Without hesitation, she said, “Let’s eat.”

I was surprised because it was very early in the morning, but I should have known better because that lady happened to be my mother. There is one fact that has not changed in all her life, when we talk about food she immediately reacts; she has always been a food lover. She likes to cook because she likes to eat what she cooks. She invents dishes with the ingredients that she has on hand, one of her favorite dishes still is “callos a la madrileña” (tripes Madrid style), a typical Spanish tapas dish. Going out with her has become a very pleasant routine for both of us because after going to the bank we always go to have lunch together. It is like having a date with my mother. Moreover, for me it is a small opportunity to thank someone who has been a bastion in my life. And it’s also an opportunity to remember …

The home we inhabit is a mold where our personality forms as we grow. There are things that we inherit from our ancestors, such as physical features. Also in our families, there are people who influence positively or negatively in us. In my particular case, it is my mother; her name is Fortuna, just like the Greek goddess. She says that her name has given her good lock all her life. She has always been a woman not so much of words, but of action.

With her, I always felt that I was with someone I could trust my most intimate feelings. I remember her always in the kitchen, which was her office, and also the confessional of the house. I remember running there when I was a child, in order to accuse José, my younger brother of having beaten me. Or, later on in my life, when I told her in the same kitchen, that I had met the woman of my life. I feel privileged to have a mother like her.

I remember when we lived in the house of the colonial zone of Caracas. Two rooms of the house were filled with wood, foam and another paraphernalia, and little by little, through the magic of my mother and the Popular Mechanics´ blueprints, they became beds, chairs, tables and sofas that would then furnish our new house in the suburbs of Prados del Este. When we lived in Maracay, our house became a museum-workshop from which she produced altarpieces with Velázquez´s Meninas and of Leonardo´s Mona Lisas that decorated the houses of the city. She did not do it for recognition. As far as I remember, the only recognition she received was from the Marist Brothers, for being the mother with the most children at St. Joseph’s School, six in all, a record. Nor did she do it for money, although her earnings complemented and even exceeded my dad’s meager salary. She not only did it out of love for her family but also and more importantly, to unleash her creativity and energy.

She studied up to sixth grade, enough to work as a secretary until she married my dad. But when she grew up, she took the baccalaureate seven times, once for each child. At one point, the house looked like a school; she sat with each one of us to study mathematics, history, geography, Spanish, and so on. How did she raise seven children, and do what she did in her spare time? I cannot explain it to myself today, but at the time, it seemed most natural to me. She did it for creative passion and love. She could not sit still for a second, just like her own mom. It was in their genes.

Today she is 88 years old. She is a resilient woman and a veteran of multiple battles. She survived my father’s death from a degenerative disease when she was 52 years old. She was with him until the end, and then cried for a whole year. During that year, there wasn´t a moment or situation that did not remind her of my father, and immediately she would cry disconsolately. At the end of that year, she phoned me and said, “Tomorrow I’m going to travel to the Middle East.” A month and a half later she returned full of vitality and energy. I could not believe it.

Ten years later, my brother José was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, not Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is lethal and quick. He suffered from the type of sclerosis that degenerates the vital functions of the person slowly and irremediably. She attended my brother during his long-suffering and was with him throughout his long agony. When I remember those painful moments, it comes to my mind the image of Michelangelo´s “La Pieta”. A few years after my brother’s death, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She faced her illness as everything she had faced in her life — with incredible courage. Twenty years later that is one more page in her history. She walks with a cadence, a rhythm, a tumbao, as we say in Venezuela. She developed that characteristic way of walking after having surgery on both knees for the implantation of prostheses. Every time that I visited her, she showed the manuscript of a book of her memories. She spoke to her niece Anabel, a journalist, and asked her to edit it, and she located an editor to publish it. One year later she organized a big event launching her book “Memories of a Village in the Plains”, inviting all her family and friends.

Now, in her old years, she has to face the farewell of my younger sister, the apple of her eyes, her pillar, and her emotional support. My sister is an anesthesiologist MD; she is one of the more than 2,000,000 Venezuelan professionals who have been forced to leave their land in search of better horizons. She had to leave because of the shortage of medicines in this country is so acute, that it is impossible to anesthetize patients without running the risk of threatening their life. She is too good a physician to do that. It is a sad affair for our family, but it is much more so to my mother.

I observe her well and I notice that she does not talk much anymore, she is not so cheerful and proactive anymore, and her gaze is lost in space as if searching for something. I realize that time is running out, so I tell myself that I should spend more time with her.

2020. And so I did, but for the next year her health was fading, her energy was gone. She slept all the time and just got up to eat. Andrés and I began to take turns to feed her and attend to her, but her deterioration continued. Somehow, I sensed that she had made a conscious decision, like all the ones she had made in her life. She made the decision to go to the train station; she was just waiting for the train to arrive. Two years ago, the train was approaching, we called my sister so that she could say goodbye to her. Chiquinquirá flew back and did not leave my mother´s room in a week. In that week she took care of her, talked to her, fed her, slept with her. My mom’s gaze lit up again and she miraculously got out of bed.

She made the decision to let that train pass and took the plane with Chiquinquirá to Ecuador. Her health improved and every time we talked to her by video call, she was groomed, combed, her cheeks pink, her nails painted. In one of those calls she was eating something, I asked her what it was, and she said peach and oatmeal. Oats? I asked her. Andrés and I gave you oatmeal and you didn’t like it. She answered me. “Thank goodness I came here; if I stayed there you would have killed me!” Rosalyth, Chiquin’s friend, had the opportunity to visit Venezuela in November last year and brought her to visit us once more. I was in Bogotá with my wife and my mom came to Andrés’ house. Dulce, his wife, took great care of her. My mom spent a week in her country and the rest of the family went to visit her, I had the opportunity to see her once more. At her farewell in the airport, she asked me, “Helio, what is that business?” It is an arepa restaurant mom, I replied. “I want one of ‘Guayanes’ cheese!” She said farewell to the country doing what she did best, eating.

This time she did go to the train station and did not return. She had already seen what she had to see, she had enjoyed her daughter once again, she had said goodbye to her children, and decided that no longer had anything to do on this plane. On 06/11, I received a call from Andrés, exactly at 11 in the morning. When I saw the phone, I already knew what he was going to tell me. When I hung up, I called Chiquin. She said that our mom had passed in peace, with a smile in her face, listening to La Traviata.

I feel that every time something is wrong in my life, or I am tempted to do something that is not right, or when I have doubts, or when I have felt hopeless for some reason, that powerful woman who in some way has always been present in my consciousness, guides me towards what I should do. Even my gestures and my way of expressing myself resemble hers.

She was primarily a storyteller. When she came to my house, our kitchen was her auditorium, my children, her audience because they were happy eating the delicacies that she had prepared and listening to her stories. Now, I am a storyteller thanks to her, and every time that I write, it is a homage to her. Mom, you have been, you continue, and you will continue to be my inspiration, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges