When a 6.0 magnitude earthquake shook her motor home in the middle of the night and bounced her from side to side, Maria Abigail de Haro first thought someone had crashed a vehicle into her motor home. But her 33-year-old son, who was sleeping in the other room, knew better, and he shouted that the trembling was coming from an earthquake.
Maria and her son, like so many others, sought refuge at the American Red Cross center at the Crosswalk Community Church in Napa, one of two evacuation centers opened that morning. I first met them at lunch, by which time the evacuation center had become an overnight shelter. The Red Cross would be providing a safe place to sleep, food, showers, emotional support, personal hygiene kits and information to help residents start to recover from this disaster.
I was wearing my Red Cross gear, and sitting at lunch with her son, when Maria cautiously approached me. The first thing I noticed were the deep lines on her face that etched years of hard work, laughter and worry.
"Can I ask you a little question?" she asked, hesitant to interrupt.
Of course I said yes, and Maria sat down.
“Does the Red Cross provide assistance with replacing TVs broken during the earthquake?” she asked.
My heart sank, because I knew televisions aren’t items we typically replace, it wasn’t likely we would. She had just had a traumatic experience, and I didn’t want to give her more bad news.
I was going to have to tell her “no,” but before I could, she continued with her story.
For Maria, the television set represented a long-held dream, hours of work, and years of saving. She had done odd jobs for people who lived in her motor home park — she’d washed the neighbor's laundry, she’d taken care of another neighbor's children — slowly filling a bottle with her hard-earned dollars. That first bottle wasn’t big enough, though, because when she broke it open and counted the money, it fell short of what she needed to buy her dream.
But this was a goal that Maria was determined to meet. "I had a very humble childhood," she said. "So saving up for something I really wanted, my TV, was something I dreamed of."
She washed more clothes and cared for more children until finally, two years ago, she had enough to buy her dream TV. When the earthquake struck and tossed her TV to the floor, it cracked the screen, leaving only a small corner of the screen to display her favorite novelas (Spanish soap operas).
Maria paused her story, looked at her son, and then gazed into the distance. Perhaps she recalled other moments when the ground seemed to shake beneath her for better and for worse — the migration to a new country where economic opportunity grew on trees and ripened on vines, the birth of her son and his continued health struggles into adulthood, the purchase of their first home (and the fulfillment of the American Dream), and the passing of her husband two years ago.
She returned her focus to our conversation. "Well at least we're still alive," she said.
Truth be told, I dreaded telling her that we might not be able to help her. But she didn't need the answer from me. She found her own answer from deep within in a matter of seconds, and, along with it, she found a new awareness and the restored ability to bounce back.
On the surface, what we gave Maria and her son was a free meal, a place to rest, and an ear on the day after a disaster took one of her prized possessions. But there was much more. I could see it in her face when she brought another family in need to the shelter, and I could hear it in her voice when she spoke to a reporter about how the Red Cross had helped her.
Maria had stopped off for lunch and to ask a question. And after a few moments of conversation, she walked away with the hope that life would be better and the conviction to save up for another dream.
UPDATE: Days after the earthquake, Maria and her son noticed a television sitting by a curb. A hand-written sign announced that the television was free to anyone who would haul it away. Not believing their luck, the two loaded the set onto the truck and hurried home to plug it in. It worked!
Barbara Caldwell contributed to the story.