Better Than Nothing
Updated: Mar 1
(by Karen Gonzalez)
My mom is courageous, determined, and hardworking, but I understood so much more about her when she suffered her stroke ten years ago. I learned more from her pain and her regrets.
I was six years old when we left Nicaragua seeking political asylum. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to make the decision to leave our home, our family, and friends, taking her own two children and a teenager who had lost her parents to a home raid.
Permission to leave Nicaragua was granted only if there was a premise of returning, so my mother had to purchase four round trip tickets to Mexico City. We stayed for one year, and it was a happy place, with mariachi music in the plaza, folkloric dancers in their bright colors, and delicious treats like churros. Mexicans put chili powder on everything, even fruit, but the more we tried it, the more it grew on us.
One night when I was six years old, my mother whispered happily in my ear, “It’s time to go to the United States.” With nothing but the clothes I was wearing, I was to go with a man who was a stranger to me. I gripped my mother’s torso with all my might, but she said, “It’s our only way. Be my strong girl.” The man said he knew my parents since childhood, and as we walked to his car, a boy just a little older than I opened the door and said, “I guess you’re my sister for a short while, huh?” Later I was told that traveling to America was arduous, and I was too little to go the distance. My older brother waited to cross with my father, and my mother traveled with our teen companion. I didn’t see her for what seemed like an eternity but was probably three months.
My mom made it a point to learn English and become a U.S. citizen. We moved to San Jose, California, where she worked as a housekeeper, and enrolled in night school to become a certified nurse’s assistant, then went back to school to get her certification as a sterile processing technician, in charge of the inventory for all the sterile items used in operating rooms. During dinner, she loved discussing the surgeries she had witnessed that day, which we thought was gross. She had little time to cook, and mostly prepared what made her feel connected to our roots—our staple was peor es nada: better than nothing (eggs and tortillas). I did not take PB&Js to school; I was the kid with gallopinto (rice and beans). Embarrassed, I finally convinced my mom to sign up for school lunches. When I was eating the same things as my classmates, I felt like I finally fit in.
When our family was together again, my parents relocated to Carson City, Nevada, where they bought their first home. My mother was proud to be managing a hospital department, and believed that she was helping her family by taking no days off, but her health started deteriorating, and after my parents divorced, she put even more time and energy into her career.
On the day my mother had her stroke, I was restless, sitting at my desk, staring at my phone, waiting for it to ring. Sometimes when I get restless I simply surrender to it, taking a moment to sit still and listen, to messages that may be hard to hear if I’m too hurried. When the phone rang, it was my brother. I could sense the fear wrapped around his words: “I’m driving Mom to the hospital. She’s not making sense, and something isn’t right.”
When I got to the hospital, Mom was sobbing, and the few words that were audible were painful regrets. Regrets I never knew she had. Regrets about not traveling enough, about working herself sick, about not standing up to my father when she knew he was lying to her. As I reached for her hand, she pushed me away, not recognizing me. When the doctor came into the room, she confirmed a grim diagnosis: “Your mother has a long road to recovery, and she may never be the same again.”
During her recovery, I read a passage from Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, an education center that focuses on wellness, spirituality, and creativity: “When you feel yourself breaking down, may you break open instead. To listen to the soul is to slow down, to feel deeply, to see ourselves clearly, to surrender to discomfort and uncertainty, and to wait.” My mother’s regrets taught me to take the time for self-care, travel whenever the opportunity arises, and claim my own freedom by telling people what I really feel, even if that means the end of a friendship or relationship.
My mother has come a long way. She travels at least once a year, volunteers twice a week at our local senior community center, enjoys my son’s baseball games, and is testament to living one day at a time. When she was able to cook again, the first dish she made was peor es nada. It was my favorite as a kid, simple and delicious, reminding me that mothers are miracle makers, especially in the kitchen, even with few ingredients. Her effort nourished my spirit as much as it filled my stomach.
Karen Gonzalez (aka Karen Karatz) is co-owner of G6 Builders, a general contractor in Brentwood, California, and is an aspiring writer and actress. She can be found at https://www.g6builders.com and on Instagram.
Peor es Nada (Eggs and Tortillas)
1/2 c. corn oil
6 corn tortillas, stacked and cut into 1-inch squares
salt to taste
salsa and/or avocado
Heat corn oil in a large frying pan.
Test the oil by adding one square of tortilla, if it starts to fry, oil is ready,
Add remaining tortillas and fry until browned and crispy.
Add salt and stir to coat tortillas.
Crack the eggs right on top of the tortillas and mix, scrambling the eggs and tortillas together until eggs are cooked.
Serve with salsa and/or avocado.