We knew we would name her Carmen. Long before Alec and I moved beyond the abstract concept of having children, we decided it. That if we had a baby, and if it was a girl, she would be called Carmen. Carmen was Alec’s nanny, his segunda mama, the woman who gave him her mother tongue, the person who showed him what unconditional love meant. The twentieth of 21 children, she grew up in a small village in Costa Rica that still has only dirt roads
Carmen—the first Carmen, that is—came to New York City in search of a better life. She found Alec’s parents, and Alec—then just a baby. She got married, had her own boys, but lived close and came back to work when her children went to school. Alec brought me to meet her after we had been dating awhile. We took the shaky elevator to her apartment, an immaculate flat high in the projects three blocks from where Alec had grown up.
The voices of children and the smell of rich food met us before we reached the door. Carmen, a tiny woman with the warmest brown eyes, emerged from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. She looked at Alec with a mother’s pride as he took her in his arms. We sat at the small formica table in the kitchen, Carmen bringing us plate after plate of arroz con pollo, salad, maduros.
At some point, the point at which we had been together long enough to have those abstract conversations about having children, we told Carmen. We told her that our daughter, were we to have one, would be her namesake. She refused to believe us. “Why would you name your child after a peasant like me?”
And then Carmen fell ill. Cancer. She got treated, felt better, felt normal, got worse. The cancer would hide and then return, retreat, sleep, emerge.
I became pregnant. It was summer, and we were living outside the city; I had to return for a sonogram, the one in which we would be able to see the parts of the fetus, learn its sex. Carmen had taken a turn for the worse and her doctor, Alec’s best friend, urged us to visit her at Mount Sinai.
She looked so small beneath the white sheets, her tiny, capable hands quiet as she lay there. She opened her eyes as we approached the bed, smiled as she focused on Alec, and then closed them again.
I held the blurry black and white printout we had gotten at the doctor’s office in my hand.
“Es una niña,” Alec said. “Vamos a llamar la Carmen.”
Carmen’s eyes flew open. She reached over to place both her hands on my swollen belly. I felt something like a current, a deep connected charge that passed between us. She lay back, spent from that small effort, and closed her eyes.
Carmen died two days later, but part of her left the hospital with me that day and lives on in my daughter.
-Lisa, Brooklyn, NY, USA