Di is eight and a half months pregnant, her swollen stomach taut, belly button protruding like some vestigial organ, her eyes tired in this confusion of summer heat and winter rains. Rio de Janeiro can’t decide what season to adopt this November. Heat must be better than cold though, with the low ratio of blankets to bodies on the streets, and so I hope that this cold spell leaves before she gives birth. I’ve promised to come visit her in the hospital, if I find out in time.
Di has a “namorido,” a Portuguese neologism that combines “boyfriend” and “husband” into one compact new category. Brazilian law makes marriage difficult for the poor, so they’re just commonlaw. He is, however, the father of all four of her children. It’s written in their faces: each one of those girls has his thick, expressive unibrow! They’re a surprisingly intact and relatively functional family, in spite of their jaunts on and off the street. And so Di is one of my heroes. She manages to be a wife and a mother in situations so daunting that anyone in their “right” mind would probably throw themselves off a bridge or disappear and try to start life over again in another city, another name, another anything.
Last week we sat and talked for hours on her blanket, laughing at the commuters and their nosy curiosity, placing bets on which of the suited nervous guys were getting ready to smoke maconha, playing with her daughters, and talking about God and poverty and everything in between.
That happened with M- too, a friend who has lived on the streets since she was 9. M- lived through the Candelaria massacre. She lived through the random murders. She knows that any night, someone could drop a rock on her head while she’s sleeping, set her on fire. It happens here. She’s already nursing a broken foot from where a taxi driver ran her over. But she keeps on fighting. She’s trying to get off the streets, and at 34 or so would love to learn how to read. Her four children are in two different shelters and will be returned to her just as soon as she finds a place to live. With her husband, they manage to visit the kids two or three times a week, even though they’re in very distant areas of town from where she sleeps and begs and prays. M’s tears flow freely as she talks about Leticia in school; her mother’s heart aches for her to be with her, even in the most abject poverty, and yet her mother’s heart is willing to leave her there, with strangers, in spite of Leticia’s anguished cries every time she has to say goodbye...
Joana doesn’t live on the streets but in a favela, where she spent the last six months caring for a husband dying of untreated stomach cancer. He’d run away from the hospital once already, and she couldn’t force him back. He was as light as a broken bird, his limbs thin under paper skin. I thought of a paperback book we once had as children, a sort of war pornography, carelessly exhibiting photos of prisoners of the World Wars: their heads too large for their stick bodies, arms and legs hanging haphazardly from bodies too weak to carry them, stomachs oddly distended, at odds with the fragileness of the frame. That was what was left of her husband, a man who once worked on the docks, carrying heavy sacks as if they were tea bags.
The disease left him cruel, angry, bitter, the pain mounting into violent verbal and sometimes physical attacks. She stopped by my home one night, hoping for a little assistance to buy some pain medications. They had run out, and in desperation, he had attempted to stab her with a pair of scissors. She feared for her son and she feared for herself. Had things worsened, had she been in true danger, she was prepared to leave. But she saw the anguish in his eyes, the pain that warped him, and told me, “I don’t fight him because if I touched him, I would break his bones. He is so weak...”
Joana stayed with this man out of love, a love deeper than passion and deeper than even charity. She stayed because she hoped that her love could transform him, allow him to die surrounded by caring family, not in front of machines and an uninterested public hospital staff. Her commitment to this man who was day by day making her life a living hell speaks not to a masochistic bent, nor some kind of twisted “Christian” love, but a love that knows “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Joana’s sacrificial love lasted for a season. Her husband died a few weeks ago, and we were all relieved to know that his suffering was over. But her witness lives on.
These women are heroes to me not because of anything extremely heroic they’ve done, but because of the everyday heroism of their lives. The heroism of not giving up in the face of truly insurmountable obstacles. The heroism of finding food for your family day after day, of raising daughters on the street who say “please” and “thank you” and still know how to laugh as they play tag and dodge the urine pools. The heroism of loving someone else even when that love causes you to suffer. The heroism of fighting for a life, a life in society, at an age most street children don’t dream of attaining.
I am proud to know these women. They are my heroes in Brazil. They are my reason for hope, they are my prayers in the night, they are my sisters, my friends.
(names changed to protect identities)