Two M’s

M lived a precarious life. As an immigrant, from a poor country, a country that the world thought had nothing to give but poor, untrained, backwards masses – and speaking with such a heavy accent – she faced discrimination every day. And, having had very little schooling, her skills were basic: she could cook. And so she took a job as a cook.

It was hard, dirty work and, when she finally was accepted for employment in a rich home, she felt she had made it. It was a relief not to have to worry about where she would sleep, not to worry about where her next meal would come from, to be able to put even a tiny bit of money by, to donate to her church, to help save her soul so her afterlife wouldn’t be as miserable as her current life.

M had few friends; she couldn’t really afford them. She worked all day by herself in the kitchen and, at night, she fell into bed, exhausted from the manual labor. She didn’t really need friends; she had herself and her job and her church. She was going to be fine.

Except that M just couldn’t catch a break.

Just as she thought things were starting to look up, just when she thought she’d have a respite from misery, the family she worked for got sick. A lot of people got sick – it was probably the clams. She wanted them to get better; sickness in the house was bad for her. When people got sick, M worried that she would be blamed. Dirty immigrants was the way people often thought of her people and, though they might let them into their home to do the work that they didn’t want to do themselves, if something went wrong, the dirty immigrants were going to get blamed.

Think about it? Who are you most likely to catch a disease from? People in your family, in your own social circle? Or the person who travels in other social circles, the person whose personal life is unknown to you? Who knows what they do when they’re not living under your rules?

The truth is that the contact tracers are finding is that you are more likely to become infected by someone close to you, someone in your family or someone you work with, someone you trust, someone like you.

M was an exception.

M, sensing what was in the air when the 11th person got sick, quietly found another job and slipped away just as people started dying.

The new job wasn’t quite as nice as the last. The household not quite as rich, but almost. Close enough that she could step her way back up eventually. M settled down to work quietly there, to be the model employee.

Except she really couldn’t catch a break. People in that house started getting sick, too. People started dying. M quietly packed her bags, found another job, and slipped away.

It was a little harder to get this job, they wondered at the employment gap, the lack of recent references, but she seemed like a hard worker and they gave her a chance. And they regretted it when people started getting sick, there, too.

Once again, M left to find another job. She didn’t understand why all these rich people were getting sick. Maybe it was the seafood. A lot of people were sick – you couldn’t escape illness, it was all around you – and she guessed that the rich people, for all they pretended to be better than you, were just human. She was lucky she hadn’t caught it herself!

M didn’t realize it but people were looking for her. Contract tracers had started to realize that the one shared factor in the pattern of disease that they were tracking, was an immigrant woman who had worked for the seven families where so many people had died.

When they found her, she resisted the idea. You’re just blaming me because I’m an immigrant, she said, because I’m different from you. You always blame my people.

They needed a stool sample to confirm it. She refused to participate. Denied she had worked for those families. She was fighting for her life. They tried to trick her, to steal her poop – can you believe it? – dirty old men! And liars, liars, saying that she, one person, could be responsible for all those people who were sick around the city, that was crazy! Then they sent the police for her, arrested her, her a good god-fearing woman who had never done anything wrong in her life, they arrested her. Now it would be even harder to find a good job.

And, dirty men, they insisted that she poop for them. They waited.

Her poop tested positive.

But I’m not sick, she said. I don’t feel sick, I’m strong and healthy. I don’t believe you.

The diagnosis meant that she lost her job. They said that the illness was deep inside her, where she couldn’t see it, couldn’t feel it, and that it made its way into the food she prepared, and infected others. They said they could cure her if she’d let them cut her open and take part of her body out. An operation! A painful, risky thing – they had no anesthesia then or antibiotics, and doctors didn’t even wash their hands much of the time – she could die. She said No.

So they locked her up. For three years, while they tried all sorts of “cures” that weren’t really cures and tried to persuade her to have her gallbladder – the organ where the disease hid – removed. Then someone took pity on her and let her out. And they told her that she must not take another job as a cook. They didn’t understand that it was basically a death sentence.

Cooking was skilled work, work that she had the skills to do. She hadn’t worked this hard, come this far, to give up everything she had worked for. She tried.

And then she quietly changed her name and took another job. As a cook. For a maternity hospital where people soon started getting sick and dying.

When they caught up to her, she was sent to live in isolation in the poor house on an island not far from where I live today. She was imprisoned there for over 20 years, and died after a lonely, bitter life, friendless, with only her religion to sustain her.

M is the woman we call Typhoid Mary.

Last Tuesday, a different M didn’t feel well. She had been working so many hours, in menial work, work she was happy to have because she didn’t have the many skills that she would need to get a better job. She couldn’t even imagine someone giving her a better job, because she was an immigrant, and her English wasn’t very good. And so she worked as many hours as the service would give her, taking care of people who couldn’t take care of themselves.

Tuesday, she was working for the old lady in the big house. She didn’t know why the lady needed such a big house, it was just her and her dog. The lady was smart, not like some of the people M worked for, strong mentally but weak physically. The lady was on oxygen and couldn’t walk. M did a little cleaning, washed the lady’s sheets, but mostly M sat nearby, made her food, helped her to the bathroom. Sometimes the lady tried to talk with her, but they didn’t have much in common and M didn’t know what to say, what the lady wanted to hear, when she asked the questions that she asked. So mostly they watched TV. The lady often fell asleep while she was watching TV and M sometimes dozed, too, although she was not supposed to. She was just so tired.

That Tuesday night, while the lady was watching TV after dinner, M felt sick to her stomach. It was probably something she had eaten – it was hard to get good food on her pay. Maybe she should have thrown away those leftovers instead of eating them. When the nausea became unbearable, M couldn’t make it to the bathroom upstairs, and ran into the lady’s bathroom on the first floor to be sick there. She knew she wasn’t supposed to use that bathroom but they wouldn’t want her throwing up on the floor, would they?

The lady was very nice about it, said not to worry, asked if she felt better. The lady was generally very nice like that, although her daughters were meaner. They insisted that M wear a mask in the house, even though she was there all night, as if M were dirty, a disease-spreader.

“Our mother is like paper,” they told M. “Her lungs are so bad that even a cold would set her on fire and consume her. We need you to wear the mask and wash your hands and, except when you’re helping her, stay 6 feet away. Any cold you bring into the house, the flu, the virus, will wipe her out.”

The daughters had caught M a couple of times not wearing a mask and had reported her. The service had told her she had to wear one. So now she carried one with her and put it on when she got to the house. She wore it whenever she was around the lady, although she sometimes took it off after she had helped the lady to bed at night, or pulled it down while the lady was asleep, or when M was in the kitchen and the lady couldn’t see her.

That night, after the lady had gone to bed and the dog had settled down, M sat quietly in a chair in the living room. The nausea had made her even more tired than she usually felt. She closed her eyes, just for a moment.

And then suddenly the dog was barking and one of the lady’s daughters was standing in front of her. Although the daughter wore a mask, M could tell she was angry.

“You fell asleep,” the daughter said.

“Only for a moment,” M replied, confused with sudden wakening.

“She was calling you and you didn’t respond,” the daughter said. “She needed your help and she couldn’t get you. So she called me on the phone and I drove over. It’s why we pay you, to stay awake in case she needs help in the middle of the night. What if she had tried to get out of bed on her own? What if she had fallen again? I need you to stay awake.”

M felt terrible. Now the daughter would complain and the service would yell at her. She kind of worried that they would stop giving her shifts, but she also knew that they were having trouble getting enough people for all the work they were getting. She liked working for the lady, aside from the loud dog and wearing a mask, it was pretty easy and not too gross, except when the lady had to go to the bathroom.

All week, M worried, and she felt more tired than ever. Instead of giving her fewer shifts, the service actually gave her more. On Saturday – Halloween – a lot of people were taking off. M wished that she could take off, too. But she had to keep working; she needed the money. Other people in her family had been working in restaurants or in stores, and they had lost their jobs. Her work was essential work, so she had to keep working or nobody ate and they couldn’t pay the rent. But M lucked out: she got a double-shift on Saturday, and with the lady, so it wouldn’t be too bad. Maybe she could even sneak in a few minutes of rest while the lady had her afternoon nap.

The next day, Sunday, M tested positive for Coronavirus.

They are testing my mother this morning.

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