People born in the Dominican Republic are some of the cleanest people on this planet. They take housekeeping very seriously. For Dominicans, cleaning is an art form. I feel I can say this with authority, because I am a homecare physical therapist who works in the town of Perth Amboy, in the great state of New Jersey. There are many people from the Dominican Republic who inhabit this small city.
I began working on a case this past November, treating a gentleman named Ramon. I knocked on the door and a woman answered it, with a mop in her hand. She was around my age. “Come into the living room and meet my father,” the woman said in Spanish. I walked into a room with white tiled flooring, a fireplace, and a man lying on a hospital bed. The woman who had answered the door resumed mopping the floor and I introduced myself to Ramon.
"What country are you from?” Ramon asked me in Spanish. I told him I was American. “Where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?” I explained that I began watching novelas (Spanish soap operas) in my early twenties, and that I used to put the closed captioning on the bottom of the screen, so that I could read the words and listen to them simultaneously. Ramon laughed, and we began discussing the various novelas that we liked.
Ramon had undergone an abdominal surgery a few months back. Something had gone terribly awry, and he went into septic shock. This had resulted in a seven week long hospital stay, wherein Ramon had lost his strength to walk. When he returned home, his family had no choice but to rent a hospital bed and place it in the living room. Right next to it sat a commode, as Ramon could not walk across the apartment to the bathroom. I realized then what a tremendous sacrifice this had been for his daughter, as she cleaned throughout the entire duration of my first home visit. I could tell that she used a very specific ammonia-based product to clean the floors. It is called Fabuloso, and is violet in color. People from Hispanic culture commonly use this cleanser. It is supposed to smell like lavender. While you may not imagine yourself in a field of purple flowers in Southern France if you buy it, this product has a good aroma and is very effective. I use it myself.
For his first visit of physical therapy, Ramon stood with a walker for three whole minutes. This was not only exciting for both me and my patient, but his four year-old grandson came into the living room with pristine floors and shouted, “Abuelo, you are standing up!” This boy had round, dark eyes and a widow’s peak. His name was Juan and his grand-father called him Juancito. (This translates as Little Juan).
As time wore on, Ramon learned to walk a few feet. He did his exercises faithfully when I was not around, which is not typical of my patients. His goal was to walk forty feet to get to the bathroom, so that he would no longer require the commode at his bedside. And on the day that this happened, Juancito was there to rejoice with us. “Abuelo can walk to the toilet!” Ramon let go of his walker with one hand and gave me a fist bump.
Now that the Christmas season was upon us, I came to Ramon’s house on a day that it was snowing. I felt guilty as I entered the home, knowing that my boots were snow covered, and that Ramon’s daughter would have to mop the floor again after I left. (Of course, she would not mind this. Cleaning was her personal joy.)
I entered the living room and saw Ramon standing up. The commode had been removed, and in its place stood a Christmas tree. My patient was decorating it and beamed when he saw me. “Look what I can do now! This is going to be a good Christmas!” He exclaimed. I was jealous of his glee. I have never really been a Christmas person. There are so many heightened expectations of having transformative experiences on Christmas, à la Ebenezer Scrooge, when in reality, very little actual magic occurs.
On that snowy day, Ramon and I finished up our physical therapy session and his daughter offered me a plate of mangu. This is a Dominican dish made of mashed plantains and garlic. The smell of the cooking and the cleaning product Fabuloso intermingled and I savored each bite of food. Ramon had returned to lying on his hospital bed and was chatting away about his favorite novela.
Juancito was playing with trucks on the floor and his grand-father told him, “It is your naptime now. Go to your room and lie down.” But Juancito ignored this and climbed into the hospital bed to snuggle up to Ramon. I typed a report on my computer, trying to delay finishing it, for I did not want to leave. But I knew I needed to, and by the time I was done with the report, Juancito was fast asleep. He was curled under the crook of Ramon’s shoulder and the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree alit the two in beauty.
I trudged through the snow, back to my car, and drove to see my next patient. The snowflakes covered my windshield, and I thought to myself, Maybe Christmas will be okay this year. As I decorated my own Christmas tree, I tried to summon the magic I had witnessed between Ramon and his sleeping grandson next to his own tree. But I felt nothing and shrugged it off.
When Christmas does not deliver the potency we had counted on, New Year’s Eve spans that dreadfully dark week as a beacon for something wonderful to happen. Right? The only fly in the ointment here is that the week between Christmas and New Year’s often feels like a let-down. The pine needles on our trees turn brown and cover the floor. The Christmas gifts we did not like have to be returned in crowded malls. The wrapping paper goes back to the basement, and gains cobwebs and mold for another eleven months.
It was on the Wednesday after Christmas that I had my final physical therapy session with Ramon. He had met all of his goals and I was glum about the thought of not visiting his lively home anymore. Juancito was at the home of another family member, so our last day together was even more lackluster. I kissed Ramon farewell, as his daughter led me to the front door.
“It is so cold outside,” she said in Spanish. “Please take this hat. I got it for Christmas, but you need it more than I do.” She pulled a grey woolen hat over my head and grinned.
“I cannot take this hat from you,” I told her, as I reached to pull it off.
She grabbed my wrist to stop me. “Of course, you can take this hat. You got that commode out of my living room,” she replied.
“How did you do it?” I asked her. “All of those weeks. You never said a word about the commode. You never complained.”
“Because he is my father. That is how I did it. Happy New Year!” I walked to my car on that bitterly cold day. The sun was setting at 4:58. And it finally hit me. I remembered seeing my father this past summer. He was in need of a total knee replacement. He could barely walk and I felt the lining of my heart rip open as I watched him stumble when hobbling on uneven sidewalks.
It is one thing to watch people get old and feeble. It happens to everyone after a certain age, and we all get annoyed when shopping behind someone slow with their walker at the supermarket. But when that person happens to be your parent or loved one, something very different is at stake. Seeing my father become an old and feeble man had been dreadful.
I had known that feeling last summer, when my Dad could barely walk. When the world was open and the sun was high. It had not been open for me then; not with my father becoming that old person who could no longer get his mail on the front porch. Where was the able-bodied man who had gone to little league games, weddings, baptisms, graduations? Where was the man who had crouched under my trundle bed to do puppet shows when I was Juancito’s age?
Yet something did happen. I recently saw the man who had written my term papers as a teenager. I saw my father on Christmas, since his total knee replacement. He was walking around like a young person. There was still a limp, but it was barely visible. Something magnificent had come back.
I had received the hat from Ramon’s daughter in the piercing cold weather. She had wished me a good New Year. I thought of what it meant to watch an old person do younger things. I thought of her words. Because he is my father. That is how I did it. That is how she had cleaned her living room with a commode. I decided in that moment that 2018 wasn’t just going be a good New Year. It was going to be Fabuloso. People from the Dominican Republic know what this means. Now I do, too.
*Ramon’s name has been changed to protect his privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.