Thursday, April 9, 2009

In Memory of Mrs. Sal

Mrs. Sal was Marie Salamanca. To those who knew her better, she was many things, and there were many things within the city of Melrose, Massachusetts, with which she was involved. But to my family, Mrs. Sal was simply the crossing guard whose post was right outside our house. We live on a corner and Mrs. Sal would park her car on the side street in front of the side of our house (if that makes sense) and take up her post every morning and afternoon as kids walked to and from the elementary school just a few properties down.

I never saw her much, as I left for work before the school rush. But my wife and our two-year-old daughter Stella became friends with her. At first, they would just wave to her from our dining room window. Then they went out one day and my wife introduced herself and Stella to Mrs. Sal. Eventually, Mrs. Sal came to know Stella's personality and knew when she was sick (which is often, as she has asthma). My wife would bake treats for her, and she would give us gifts as well.

This is very much the defining thing that separates my wife and I as creatures on this earth. In a million years, with all the time and opportunity in the world, I would never once wave to a crossing guard I wasn't being crossed by, and I certainly would never introduce myself or strike up a conversation - much less a friendship - with the person. Not that I'm a mean, ornery loner, but I just don't find it practical. Maybe I'm selfish in thinking if there's nothing in it for me why make an effort to connect with another human being, but to me it's more a question of utilitarianism. I don't need to do it, I don't perceive the rewards as being worth the effort, and given all the time and opportunity in the world, I'd just rather spend it some other way.

My wife is different. She's all about connecting, she's all about community. She pays forward, she does unto others, she's a one-woman village willing to raise anybody's child. So, fine. Mrs. Sal came into our life. I've met and spoken with her only once, and I've waved a few times. More than a few times I've driven past her without waving. Just because.

I do have positive feelings towards Mrs. Sal, and I valued the fact that she thought kindly on my family and especially on Stella, for whom she quilted a small blanket that Stella adores and insists be on top of all her other blankets so it can always be seen. Mrs. Sal even wrote on one of the squares a note to Stella, whom she called her "morning star."

A couple of months ago, Mrs. Sal began working a different crosswalk, not far from our house, but not within view. As such, we hadn't seen her as frequently. Her home is next to the playground, so we have seen her there on occasion. Last weekend, in fact, my wife and Stella were at the playground and my wife suggested they walk over to pay Mrs. Sal a visit. Just then, my wife saw a friend of hers, someone who knows everything that goes on in town, who told her that Mrs. Sal had suffered a serious asthma attack and had coded. She was in the ICU at the local community hospital, and had been declared brain dead. She had been taken off a ventilator the night before and eventually passed away last Monday.

When my wife heard the news she was in shock. She called me at home, where I was doing yardwork, and asked me to come to the playground to play with Stella while she made calls and tried to get more information. She spoke with Mrs. Sal's daughter. It's doubly hard for the daughter because her father is critically ill and no one could have anticipated that he would outlive his wife. Finally, my wife came to me to tell me everything she knew, and then she started crying. I told her to go home and I stayed with Stella at the playground for a while longer. Stella doesn't know, and I'm not sure it makes sense to tell her. She doesn't ask about her very much, though "Mrs. Sal's blanket" remains a treasured possession. I suggested to my wife that she write a letter to Stella about Mrs. Sal, that Stella can read when she's older. I also suggested to my wife that she write Mrs. Sal's family a letter and include a photo of Stella sleeping with Mrs. Sal's blanket.

To be perfectly honest, in this moment of sadness and regret, I'm not sorry I didn't know her better, but I do finally see the value of the relationship my wife forged with this woman. In doing so, she gave Stella an opportunity to get to know an older person, a person working in the community, a person from a very different background than her family. She also gave Mrs. Sal the chance to be a light for someone, to spread caring and joy to a neighbor. There is, I know, an inherent value in making a personal connection with other people; it doesn't have to pay off in gifts or favors, and when it does it spawns a reciprocity rooted in altruism. These aren't transactions, they're expressions of gratitude, concern, and affection.

I know I often close myself off to that reality. I'm not a people-hater, but I'm also not someone packing large amounts of extroversion and empathy. I can handle being alone and I don't need a lot of people in my community to know me. I wish sometimes I could be more like my wife, I think it's a noble ideal, but I know it's not me. And that's fine. However, minus my wife, Stella would never have had that opportunity to get to know Mrs. Sal, and Mrs. Sal would never have known what nice people live in that house she parked alongside of.

So now Mrs. Sal is dead. She leaves behind many people, I'm sure, whose lives she touched as she has touched ours. And I am truly grateful for the kindness and caring she showed to my wife and Stella, and thankful to my wife for having made that relationship happen.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Sal.

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