The Least I Can Suffer by Barbara Cameron

It is 10 days after the birth and three days after the death of a baby born to Carlos Hernandez, a young line cook at the upscale Beverly Hills restaurant where I have worked as a waitress for 13 years. Two years ago, I was promoted to assistant manager, a position with a pay cut and a trade-off: more hours and less money without tips in exchange for a chance for advancement. On this Saturday in the early morning of November 3, 2012, I get ready to go to the funeral. No one else in the restaurant’s kitchen, “BOH,” as in “back of the house,” can attend; they either need the money or, if they are off that day, they must work another job. It’s my day off, so I choose to go, offer my condolences and represent us in Carlos’ dark time.

Because Carlos and I are war buddies, meaning we pump out lunch in an upscale restaurant that only the elite frequent and make sure everything comes out perfectly and everyone is happy. It is like working in a first-world war zone. Once, when I asked a guest how I could help after she complained, she shrugged and said, “I don’t know, I’m just not happy.” That is our life, and Carlos, a sweet man in his early 20s, with a warm smile and aspirations to become a sous chef, is unjaded. Like myself, accommodating by nature, he never rolls his eyes or argues when I plead, “Please remake this, it’s so and so, and they’re flipping out it came out wrong.” Like the time a woman demanded I bring the raw steak on a plate for her to approve before we cooked it, insisting, “I need to see how fatty it is first before I agree to order it.”

Mario, the sous chef, refused.

“I know she’s crazy,” I said frantically. “That’s not the point. We can’t say no.” Carlos helped me, even when, after the displeased customer sanctioned it, she then asked us to wash it under cold water before preparing it so she could be sure it was “pure, no spices on it.”

Patiently, when I had to learn how to expedite, Carlos showed me how to organize 15 food tickets in the window and orchestrate with the cooks what was coming out, explaining the most efficient way to sort the orders, avoiding disasters with customers.

By choice, I am a single mother. I gave birth to Jack when I was 45 years old, and he grew up in the restaurant. For years, while waitressing, I brought him to work at 8 a.m. every Sunday, and Edith Solano, a hostess and a friend, picked him up an hour later and drove him to her home in East Los Angeles, where she babysat him, along with her nephews.

Closing sometimes is difficult. Aftercare at school ends at 6, so I leave work at 3, while another manager is still there, pick up Jack from school and bring him back to the restaurant, where he waits for me until 8 p.m. As we walk through the kitchen, everyone waves, greeting him and treating him like one of their own. Carlos often prepares Jack’s favorite dinner, his famous “crispy chicken” he makes for employee meals, which everyone, including the chef and general manager, love, but won’t put on the menu because it doesn’t “fit in with our brand.” (Although, the few times we have run it as a special, it has sold out.) Jack eats while doing his homework at one of the empty tables.

We all have private lives, but I feel, often, the lives of the Latino employees are marginalized into a featureless, generic collective, void of detail. Yet others, self-absorbed fellow servers and managers, talk about their personal lives until I think I cannot bear knowing another thing about them. For too long, I’ve witnessed Latino workers in the restaurant industry discriminated against when it comes to coveted server jobs they are often far more qualified to perform, and left to assist less-skilled employees for a smaller percentage of the tips. Top management never comes out and says they don’t “look” the part for a certain job in the front of the house. They say they are “concerned about their English.” They are asked to do jobs their white counterparts would never be asked to do, for instance, lift heavy furniture or clean some crap mess by the coffee machine left by lazy white servers. Missing a day of work because of childcare issues is never understood the way I’ve noticed co-worker actors’ (somehow always white and blonde) requests for taking time off for the “audition of a lifetime” are granted with enthusiasm. Yes, there are bonds and friendliness. But rarely do the white colleagues of Latino employees ask about particulars of their lives, and they don’t provide them. Because I take the bus to work sometimes to save money, I am apt to say, “Sure, leave a little early if it means catching that bus” because I know what it feels like to just miss one and wait another half an hour for the next to arrive. So, yes, I am closer to Carlos than fellow managers who have nannies because I had to leave Jack in a dilapidated daycare when he was 3 months old to work, which broke my heart. I had no choice, the way Carlos had no choice these past 10 days but to come to work.

The Saturday morning of the funeral, I am getting ready in our one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, where I sleep on the couch and Jack sleeps in the bedroom. At first, Jack said he wanted to come with me. Now, he says, “I can’t go, it’ll just be too sad.” At 11 years old, he is responsible enough to be left home alone for a few hours, and he decides to clean his room instead to earn $5.00 to contribute to the collection I took up ($464.00 — almost all the workers from the restaurant added to it, whatever they could afford) and put inside the card that I bought, signed by everyone.

Buying the card and collecting money was the least I could do.

Dressed in the gray suit only for funerals, a forest-green silk blouse and uncomfortable shoes I don’t wear for anyone anymore, I say, “You’re right. It will be too sad for you,” knowing that it will, of course, be sad. Jack lifts his face toward me as I rub his cheek, my fingers in a tight fist, until I feel the heat from the friction and then kiss that warm spot, as I have done since he was an infant. “Stay,” I say.

Arriving early, I sit in a pew, not knowing anyone. Two young men along with Carlos — the father of the dead baby, looking unfamiliar out of his white kitchen coat and in a black suit and gray tie — have carried the coffin in and placed it on a small stand. And opened the lid.

I light upon a little girl, maybe 8 years old, with worn sneakers that light up when her feet hit the ground and a pale-blue dress that twirls when she spins. Quickly, she returns to a pew three rows back from the coffin, crouching, peeking at it. It looks like a child’s toy chest, simple, painted white with small golden handles.

I have never seen a coffin this small.

The young girl hops out of the pew, approaches the coffin and then retreats, afraid to venture up and look, although others have. God knows what lies in it. God and the others who have dared to look, including Camila, the mother of the dead baby. Maybe 20 years old with long, wavy hair tied back with a black ribbon, dressed modestly in a black wraparound dress, Camila is off to the side now, being comforted by friends.

I vow: There is no way I am looking into that coffin. That I cannot do.

The coffin is positioned at the foot of the elevated stage that is, in effect, the altar. Again, the little girl sneaks toward it. Abruptly she stops and turns. Smiling or trying not to cry, I cannot tell. Contorting her face, thinking, deciding? Tears streamed from my eyes the instant I saw it. This little girl intrigues me, as she is intrigued by the white doll’s box that holds no such thing. Only to take three small steps forward, and then turn again and run. No one is paying attention to either of us until a woman in her mid-20s softly calls, “Jorgina.” The little girl that I am watching waves to her, and the woman goes back to her conversation with Carlos’ wife.

It is a small church in a strip mall on the Westside of Los Angeles near Venice Boulevard, with doors that open wide in the front and the rear. Christian, but not Catholic, and physically unlike any church I have ever seen. There is no steeple, but there is stained glass. Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I was raised as one, and I stare at the cast of familiar characters: Christ with the dripping blood, his holy mother, Mary, his corporeal father, Joseph, and God the Father. All of them permitting the light through the glass and transmitting color: They bathe the space in purple, green, yellow, orange, red and blue. Awash in the tinted glow that warms the otherwise cold room, I find surprising relief. These images are known to me, and they are comforting to me in this unfamiliar atmosphere, as I cannot speak Spanish.

Involuntarily, my head falls in prayer, recalling the many times during my pregnancy — having saved, begged and borrowed for both a sperm donor and egg-donor embryo that “took” after five years of trying everything else and failing — that I prayed for a miracle. When it finally happened, I felt like I appreciated impending motherhood more than other pregnant women. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, I prayed to a God, in theory, I no longer believed in.

In the aisle, another slight spin at the waist, clearly scowling now, Jorgina plays out her drama in her own little world. This time, she gets closer. Almost there, she freezes. Her heel lifts and her sequin-covered toe-cap twinkles pink like a springtime Christmas tree. Her calf strengthens into an active muscle, and then relaxes and weakens as she drops her heel. Shoe lights off, motionless, she watches another child, smaller, maybe 4 years old, race up, peek inside the coffin, and then run back down the aisle and out the back door so fast that if you weren’t paying attention, as the two of us are, you wouldn’t have seen the silent howl of shock on her face.

I revow: If Jorgina looks, then I will.

Jorgina does it this time; hesitatingly, she moves to the coffin, takes a cold look and then skips away, laughing.

What on Earth are these children seeing?

Children. Children everywhere, maneuvering beneath groups of mourning parents. Behind them, running around them and then hiding between their legs, only to take off again, seamlessly the parents move to allow this symbiotic dance I am fortunate enough to know. Struggling late in life to conceive, many days, fertility drugs deep in my bloodstream, the self-administered needle freshly stinging, I drove to work because I had to work. Later, I worked up until my due date to pay off credit cards. There was no extra money.

Shame burning the way it had as a young Catholic child, I lower my head in prayer and in the nape of my neck feel a sharp rush of forgiveness. Three seconds behind the others, I drop to my knees and bow to the inevitable.

The service begins; a translator stands behind the pastor on the podium. The pastor explains, “If the children want to leave, they will be supervised outside,” and any child old enough to run does, leaving through the wide doors that open to a parking lot. The infants stay in their mother’s arms, rocked to keep them from crying.

One short prayer and we are asked onto our feet. Song after song in untranslated Spanish, I stand respectfully, thinking about the wide eyes on Jorgina’s face. I decide: Her smile was bravery, the translation of her fear into action. Her laughter, relief.

From years of working in restaurants, my ruined feet swell with an ache. The cement floor is uncarpeted, but I stand. Tempted to sit, I come up with excuses why it would be OK. I could concentrate better, give myself over entirely to the service. But I remain on my feet.

The least I can suffer is to stand.

In Spanish, now translated into English for me and a few others, the pastor mostly speaks about the baby being with God. God is in control. These parents are part of his audience, part of his flock: His.

“God chose to return this baby to Him in heaven.”

If they don’t believe him, there is no peace.

“If we want to be with those God has already chosen, we must live good lives,” he pontificates.

If they do, there is no peace.

Writhing, trying to remove the hurt as quickly as it is being inserted, Camila weeps this way and that, unable to find a bearable position to grieve in the comfortless pew. Carlos picks up a mustard-colored shawl from beside him and wraps it around her shoulders, even though it is a warm spring day. Immediately, she rejects it.

As if he hasn’t dug deep enough, “There is no other way to meet up with them, but to be good,” the pastor continues.

Crying into Carlos. Yanking away and crying onto the end of her pew. Finally, Camila drops to her knees, wailing forward into her own arms. Stiff, dumb to the pastor’s words, I decide he is nothing but a religious thug. Administering religious threats. Forcing this poor woman to rifle through her past for sins, no matter how small, which might keep her from meeting her child in Heaven, whatever and wherever that is. Although he has been, he says, “by the parents’ side, every day through all of this, the way a friend of mine was by my side when I lost my brother.”

For the next 18 minutes – I time it – he imparts the story of his loss of an adult brother and not a 10-day-old baby. I look for the laughing girl, Jorgina, but I don’t see her. Must be with the other children waiting for the reception. “There are food and drinks for all afterward in the Social Room across the parking lot,” the pastor prefaced before he began, mapping out this service like a journey through a place anyone was prepared to go.

My journey to have Jack began with prayers to the God the Father I had grown up with, and ended with all prayers in any shape, form or religion. Presents from friends or bought by me. I placed angels everywhere in my apartment; every version and manner of prayer, on my nightstand, in the bathroom, on my desk, as well as my “corner-watching angels” on each doorframe. They remain as humble thanks for their years of active duty. Bringing Jack into the world was a war with the odds, and they helped me win. I believed in those angels. I still do.

Now Carlos stands at the microphone. I had checked in with him many times during the child’s 10 days on Earth. The baby, Bella, had been sick all along, but he never gave details, not to any of us. When we asked, he only said, “She is still sick with a weak heart.” One morning, I asked him how he was doing. “I have to be strong for my wife,” he said. “Because she’s falling apart.”

The day the baby died, Carlos called me. Possibly he had been too scared before to explain the severity because that would have made it real. In fact, the baby had suffered two heart attacks and one seizure in her brief lifetime. I was shocked. Why hadn’t he told us that? My guess: hope. He kept it together because he needed the money, but also because at work he had hope, the way those five years, up until the day I gave birth, I had hope. Today, hope is gone. Assumptions I had made smack me back now as quick hits of guilt: He isn’t falling apart. The baby will live. Modern medicine can do anything. Look at my miracle of science, medicine and faith.

Snap. My head falls in prayer again. For their aesthetic beauty only, still, I wear crosses. This day, my silver necklace, a hyacinth zircon (Jack’s birthstone), studded cross dangling — clasps my neck, falling forward into my eyesight every time I lean in, which I am yet again, praying.

As Carlos delicately explains, it was pure strength getting him through this; that every day before he went to work and had gone to see his daughter, he had been in pain because she was in pain. He says he would have — he hesitates so the translator, trying very hard to mimic the fineness, the fragility of his delivery, hesitates — “given my life to have given her a life.”

Agony behind my eyes — a vast reservoir built up, hoarded, shut down and held onto somewhere for survival I didn’t even know that I needed — I cover my face with my hands. Tears stream anyway. I rifle through my purse in hopes of finding something, a paper napkin from takeout, anything. How could I not have thought to bring tissues in the first place? What the hell did I think I was walking into here? I wasn’t thinking. I wipe my nose on my sleeve.

Carlos speaks; the translator translates.

“At the hospital, when the doctor asked me if I was ready to disconnect her …”

Carlos had never said a word about a decision.

“When they asked me about unhooking Bella …” the translator translates again.

I affix my hands to the bench. The young girl, Jorgina, is outside laughing and playing. The baby, Bella, unhooked forever from an existence that holds a capacity for laughter at terror, disconnected permanently from the human touch of her parents. Jack waiting for me at home and not some godforsaken place at the end of my life — if that is, I live it according to people like this pastor’s version of God, if I beg for forgiveness. From whom, from where, I don’t even know anymore, only that in here it must be somewhere.

Carlos finishes. His head falls all the way back and not down. Already Carlos is looking for Bella elsewhere. Why wouldn’t he, I concede, what better place to imagine Bella than in Heaven?

The line to see Carlos and Camila begins at the coffin and Bella, what is left of Bella, is in it. Not knowing whether I can bear to keep my second vow to look, I get in line. I know I will hug Camila hard, hopefully not crush her, although I have never met her. I know I will not submit to the pastor’s hearty handshake (I see him at the door — hear him, jolly almost, telling people to eat, to have some food). What I do not know is what I will see when peering into the box, or how it will affect me. Because the children looked. Because the least I can suffer is to look.

I look. With what cannot be seen by the human eye as anything but a teardrop-shaped moment of madness, I peek. Quick, the beam of a flashlight in the dark, capturing an image before it moves elsewhere to catch another image in a dark world. I hug Camila first, and then Carlos, and leave; there are others behind me they must greet and thank.

Afterward, in my hot car, sun-drenched, I crave Jack. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I decided that I was going to go straight home and tell him that he is perfect. My perfect baby, I called him when he was in my womb. I only want to go home and tell Jack that when he was born, I got everything I ever wanted.

I start the engine and see the family gathered outside by the hearse. I forgot about the card! I have to give him the card.

Through a coworker, a dishwasher who gave $20 and then threw in another $10, I heard Carlos didn’t have the money to pay for this small funeral. Now, Carlos helps lift the coffin and settle it in the hearse while Camila hangs desperately onto the pastor. I cannot conceive of how he can come back to work tomorrow. But he said he would; he needs the money.

I bought the card, collected the money, put in my own with Jack’s money, $105, and came to the service. Suddenly it hits me, what I have been pushing away: What if Jack were in that coffin? And, finally, I am in the skin of Bella’s parents. If Jack had ended up in that white box, I would have killed my angels dead. I would have heaved those fucking angels everywhere, off the walls, the ceiling and the bookshelf, with sacrilegious thrill and defiance. When all done, Jack in the grave, I would have had to clean my graveyard of wounded soldiers, parts of their heavenly bodies strewn all over my apartment. Now, in my car, I am shattered with remorse, empathy and heartbroken sadness for these young parents, childless and in need of money.

I get out of the car, but cannot move. Sobbing, I hide, crouched between two cars, praying for this family, for myself and for the world until I find the grace and courage get myself into a standing position. To step out.

This is not the right time. There is no right time. I wait until the back door of the hearse is shut. Maybe I could give it to the pastor to give to him, but I don’t like him, and I cannot resist my need to look at Carlos and Camila with my own makeup-smeared face, receive gratitude and meet their suffering face to face. As I place the envelope in Carlos’ hand, he nods and thanks me.

He is polite, but I feel as if I am an intruder and he doesn’t know me, although I know he does know me. This is not the restaurant where he has worked alongside me calmly and professionally these past 10 days, sharing the joy of the birth of his baby and then reporting his solemn news.

Today, this is his world, and modern medicine or not, babies still die, and he is consumed; the wall he has put up the past 10 days he doesn’t have to maintain here. In truth, he is preoccupied with grief; my giving him the money is not about me, and when receiving his genuine, sincere nod and thank you as I hand him the card, at last, something lifts.

Despite my blistered feet and the cold seeping through my thin dress jacket, despite Jack at home waiting, I cross the parking lot and enter the Social Room, suddenly starving. Probably everything homemade, maybe there is something I have never tried. Sadness has gone from this room; women stand behind long tables ladling, scooping and scraping food from chafing dishes for people already in line. In the center, more folding tables and chairs host guests, all eating and enjoying. An elderly woman smiles as she piles green rice onto my white Styrofoam plate, lifts two poached eggs from a pan, places them on top and then pours pitch-black mole sauce over the whole meal. I look for a seat.

I sit in an empty chair next to Jorgina, her plate piled high with sweets as she sits upright, bragging.

“It just looked like a dead doll,” she says, kicking her beat-up princess sneaker against the leg of her chair. “It wasn’t even the baby. You know that, right? They put a pretend baby in there, just for today.”

In awe, another girl asks, “Where is the dead baby then?

“I have no idea,” she says, shoving a piece of sugary Mexican pastry into her mouth.

I had to face it, so I looked.

What I saw doesn’t leave me even with a clear picture in my mind, except the wildness of the lack of hair underneath the bonnet and the moment’s silence in Bella’s mouth uncried. The density in her cold, closed eyes and the glossiness of her gray skin salvaging that one final brazen expression: death.

Later, trying to conjure it, I can’t, only some image that slides away and then back again as a hard, unreal thing. But, as I drive home to Jack, it comforts me that that is similar to what the little girl saw.

***

Barbara Cameron is the 2012 winner of the American Literary Review nonfiction contest, judged by Alice Elliot Dark, and her winning essay, “Hawk Blood,” was published in the journal. It was republished in the Colorado Review as an editor’s pick. Her essay, “In Avalon, She Fell,” was a finalist in a 2017 literary contest, judged by Abigail Thomas. She has studied with Mary Gaitskill and with Tom Jenks, founder and co-editor of Narrative. Barbara is a graduate of Barnard College, a former restaurant server and now manager, a single mom by choice and a resident of Los Angeles.

Image: “Angels” by Frank DiBona via Flickr