A Jewish friend of mine told me that if you do a charitable act…you kinda aren’t allowed to talk about it. Obviously, an office charity fundraiser requires group knowledge; a marathoner gets pledges; a wife will need to know about a sizable gift her husband wants to give this year, etc. That’s all fine. The point my friend made is that if you do something nice and go around crowing about it, it can all but cancel out your good deed. Your gesture toward your fellow man becomes about you and this great thing you did. “Suboptimal,” my friend said, and I agreed.
So in telling you the story I’m about to tell you, I am taking a risk. But it’s a story about a quilt, so I gotta. I also want to tell you about Alameda* and what happened to her this week. By doing that, perhaps her ball of grief will dislodge in some cosmic way and allow her to rest.
Alameda works in the receiving room in my building. It is a depressing, windowless box in the back hallway. She’s been there about four months, I’d guess; she came on when the management changed. Alameda is from Mexico. She’s around twenty-four, I’d guess, and smart. She’s funny, too, and upbeat, even in that dank, horrible room, and we chat whenever I’m picking something up or shipping something out; Alameda and I have become friends, because there’s a lot of shipping in my life.
Yesterday, I picked up a package. Alameda came from around the desk to take it and she looked awful. “Puffy” didn’t describe her eyes; they were red-rimmed, swollen, spent.
“Oh my,” I said, quietly, because there were other people behind me. “Are you okay? Have you been crying, Alma?” She nodded. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said, and smiled a “thanks for asking” sort of smile. I gave her a furrowed brow and a pat on her arm and I left.
Later that afternoon, I had to drop something off for UPS. I went in and no one else was there. Without being terribly nosy, I made the attempt to talk to her if she wanted to talk.
“Can I ask what’s wrong? You don’t have to… If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s totally cool.”
Alameda paused. “My brother died yesterday.”
I clapped my hand over my mouth. I asked her if it was an accident. It was not. Her brother killed himself. The entire family was at his house for Sunday dinner. Alma’s brother went downstairs and hung himself in his room. She said they “heard something” and didn’t think anything of it, kept eating dinner. He had been very depressed, she said. He was working three jobs, he wasn’t a citizen, he had a bad breakup, he was scared and anxious all the time. And he ended it on Sunday, right there in the house, while his two-year-old daughter sat in her booster seat eating mashed peas.
When she told me all this, I was too shocked to burst into tears, though it’s so awful, I wondered why I didn’t. The truth is, I cry less than I used to. When she said that his fondest wish was to join the Navy, get a pilot’s license, and fly, that’s when the tears burbled up for both of us.
“The potential,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, and put her hand over her face.
It was hard to leave her. As soon as I did, I knew I wanted to do something for her for the holiday. But what? I called my sister Nan and asked for her sage advice. She didn’t disappoint.
“What do I do for this girl?” I asked Nan. “What do I give her?”
Nan paused. “Well, I reckon you should give her a quilt.”
I slapped my forehead, which hurt a lot because I was outside in the Chicago icebox. “Of course,” I said. “Of course.”
“People in crisis, they get quilts,” she said. “Think about the Red Cross. Floods, tornados, family crises — it’s quilts that bring people comfort.”
So I’m going to give Alameda a quilt from my collection. I’m not sure exactly which one, but I have an idea. And I’ll put a label on the back and I’ll put it into a big box, wrap it up pretty, and stick an enormous, obnoxious bow on it.
He hung himself. He hung himself downstairs.