I Will Not Dress in Black

Story by: Amarilys Bernacet and Dorian Block

Photography by: Myra Iqbal, Amarilys Bernacet and Dorian Block

Taking care of other people is all Rosa Mendoza has ever known.

 

She raised her two sons and created a community for them in an unfamiliar country where she spoke only a little bit of the dominant language. She cooked a hot dinner every night for her husband when he came home from work. She cared for her mother when she was sick and dying, and then her father. And then when her husband became ill, Rosa cared for him too. Rosa maintains an easy sense of humor, but has lived out of a sense of duty.

 

Then, suddenly, in September of last year, there was no one left to care for.

 

Rosa’s husband of 55 years, Julio, died of complications from a heart attack. Rosa was bereft. She lost structure, order, purpose and what was known. Rosa was 85 years old and felt time both stretch and shrink before her.

 

She sought wisdom from her mother, who had died 30 years earlier. Before her death, Rosa’s mother gave her clear instructions. After she would die, Rosa should mourn for three months, but then she should resume her normal routine – including attending parties and wearing festive clothing. She had to find joy again and celebrate life.

 

In December 2014, exactly three months after Rosa’s husband Julio died, Rosa got a call from a friend from church asking her to come to a small New Year’s party. Thinking of her mother’s instructions from long ago, Rosa said yes.

 

Starting that night, the year 2015 has been about Rosa figuring out how to live life as a widowed woman, living alone for the first time.

 

Despite managing high blood pressure, diverticulitis and chronic back and leg pain, it is Rosa’s goal to laugh, to listen to music, to say yes when people invite her places and to smile when she goes outside. She is sad, depressed even, but she says she is forcing herself to push through. She prays on this daily.

 

“I do not want to be one of those grumpy bitter women you always see,” she said. “Before Julio died, I told him I will not dress in black.”

Rosa grew up on an army base in Cuba. Her father was in the military and was a teacher.

 

In 1960, when Rosa was 30 years old and newly married to Julio, Fidel Castro came to power. Amidst the uncertainties and policies of the new regime, unrest amongst the populace grew. Rosa and Julio, just starting their family, joined the masses afraid of the highly-contested Patria Potestad, a law under which the government would have guardianship of all Cuban children from ages 5 to 18. An exodus of Cuban families ensued. Between 1961 and 1967, thousands made their way to the U.S.

 

In 1967, Rosa, Julio, and their two children, Julio Jr., 5, and Carlos, 2, were amongst them.

 

In order for Rosa and Julio to be able to travel to the U.S., they were forced to lie about Julio’s professional and technical skills, claiming that he was a menial laborer, not an engineer, as he was. Rosa and Julio abandoned all of their belongings, starting a new life, with nothing tangible to reflect on their former one.

 

They first lived with a sister-in-law who charged them $30 for one room for all four of them and then in a house in Brooklyn with other family members. Julio was fortunate to find a job in an airplane factory in Queens and was paid well. Eventually, they saved enough money and found a place to rent on their own in Astoria.

 

The Mendozas were a rare sight in the complex, where most neighbors were Greek, but Rosa, Julio and the children quickly got to know their neighbors. They found allies both in other Cubans they found in the area and in their new American friends.

 

Not long after moving to Astoria, Rosa, Julio and their sons joined the Immaculate Conception Church, a church with a large Cuban population, on Ditmars Boulevard in the middle of the neighborhood’s main shopping area.

 

At the time, the priest of the church was a recently ordained Irish priest who spoke Spanish and was very proactive in the community. He worked with the community to form couples’ groups and family groups to bring together the neighborhood’s Cuban immigrants. The church became the center of Rosa’s social life.

 

In 1972, Julio helped bring Rosa’s parents to the U.S. to join them, an act for which Rosa feels forever grateful. Within the first year of their arrival, Rosa’s father had a stroke, and both he and her mother moved only a block away from Rosa and the family. Rosa juggled attending to her children and husband, and taking care of her parents for 14 years.

 

Julio eventually became the owner of a machinist shop, often doing work for the city.  Rosa babysat groups of neighborhood children in her home to make extra money.

The fall and winter following Julio’s death are hard.

 

Rosa spends most of her time inside her apartment.  Nights are the worst. Rosa wakes up and reaches over in the bed only to rediscover and mourn again that Julio is not there.

 

Rosa says her marriage to Julio was up and down and often a struggle, and that she does not want to idealize it, now that he’s gone. She says this has not made the loss feel any less.

 

Rosa eats an egg and bread with cafe con leche around 9:00 a.m. everyday for breakfast, as she used to beside Julio. She tries to eat something for lunch, but is usually not hungry. She also avoids napping because then it is too hard to fall asleep at night.

 

Rosa finds company and a window to the outside world in Facebook. Everyday she looks at the photos and messages her children, grandchildren and friends post.

 

Rosa also uses her computer to search for and listen to old Cuban music. When her mood is low, she occupies herself with long song sessions, singing along to the music. Rosa also treasures a video recording of her and Julio singing “Quiereme Mucho” together – “their song” which they sang together at many events.

 

Rosa’s eldest son, Julio Jr., lives in Forest Hills and works for an insurance company. He has three children. He has begun a new ritual of calling Rosa every morning around 8:00 a.m. and then again mid-day. He comes to visit most days. Rosa’s younger son, Carlos, is a public school teacher and coach on Long Island. He has written a musical comedy “Valencia” about a group of people in a senior home that is closing and who decide to put on a telethon to fundraise and save it. Two of the characters are modeled after his parents. He has a wife, stepdaughter and two grandchildren and lives in the same building as Julio Jr. He visits Rosa regularly on the weekends.

 

Sundays remain the most consistent part of Rosa’s life. Rosa has belonged to the church choir for the past 50 years. She sings with them during the Spanish mass at noon. Practices are held at 10:30 a.m. in the basement level of the church beforehand, and Rosa also practices the songs at home during the week. Sundays keep Rosa going during her hardest weeks.

 

Lately, it has been too painful for Rosa to walk. Her circulation is poor and less walking begets less walking. Julio Jr. regularly urges her to walk at least a block or two a day, to keep her legs active. Rosa says she looks stronger than she is.

 

Rosa’s sons have been investigating getting Rosa a home attendant so that she is not on her own all day. Rosa herself recognizes that she could use having someone around to help her with things. One day recently, she fell from her bed and was unable to get up. She was alone and it took her hours to figure out how to lift herself up off the floor. Another day, she nearly collapsed trying to carry several bags of groceries and hail a cab, the only way she could get home. A woman offered to hold the bags for her. Rosa said that helpful individuals often appear, “as if by the grace of God,” when she needs help.

By the spring, Rosa has a new home attendant.

 

Julie comes four hours a day to help Rosa with everyday activities, and perhaps as importantly, to keep her company. Rosa says she uses Julie as her assistant chef and likes to teach her to help prepare her favorite dishes (“Yo soy la profesora,” Rosa says. I am the professor.). With Julie around, Rosa has been cooking more - pollo hecho en coco (chicken cooked in coconut milk), stewed black beans, and arroz moro (rice with beans).

 

The warmer weather also has Rosa more preoccupied with her appearance than she usually is.

 

Yesterday, Rosa has Julie accompany her on a trip to Sears – which requires much walking - to buy a new pair of leather sandals.

 

Then there’s today’s mission – Rosa’s first manicure and pedicure since Julio died.

 

Rosa wears a navy polo shirt, blue jeans, and a big bright orange purse. As she steps out of her doorway, she smiles and says, “A la mano de Dios.” By the Grace of God.

 

She has not walked even two blocks before she runs into two longtime neighbors who happily greet her, asking how she is doing and how she has been. They exchange pleasantries, and Rosa tells the women of her leg pain and the difficulty she is having walking today. The women nod and exchange notes of their own daily struggle with pain.

 

Finally, one of the women says, “We just need to have mucha paciencia.” A lot of patience.

 

Rosa continues slowly walking next to Julie, distracting herself from her leg pain and the heat of the day by telling Julie quiet jokes and laughing.

 

The walk takes 30 minutes overall, but the salon is the closest one to where Rosa lives.

 

Rosa has to stop several times to give her legs a break from the shooting pain. She suspects it is a result of all the walking she did the day before on the trip to Sears.

 

After the fourth stop, Julie suggests that Rosa takes a break in a clothing boutique to rest and peruse.

 

The saleswoman greets Rosa and Julie.

 

“My legs hurt a lot today,” Rosa says.

 

“Oh really? Well you should sell the pain! Sell it away!” says the saleswoman.

 

“I can’t. It loves me too much! – I’m going to Ditmars, to the parlor.”

 

“Good! Enjoy that, forget about the pain.”

 

Rosa used to get a manicure and pedicure about once a month. She says that she has not been to this nail salon in almost a year, since Julio became seriously ill.

 

Just outside the nail salon, Rosa comes across a long-time friend and they immediately begin laughing. She is a 93-year old woman who, like Rosa, is originally from Cuba and has lived in Astoria since 1967.

 

Their kids went to school together, and they still see each other regularly on Sundays at church.

 

Once inside the nail salon, Rosa sits back and relaxes as the nail technician gets to work. It is not long before yet another friend of Rosa’s walks in, greets Rosa, and proceeds to another nail technician to get a manicure.

 

Once the pedicure is complete, the nail technician helps Rosa walk over to get her manicure done. When he asks her whether she wants her nails filed in a square or round shape, Rosa confidently responds, “redondas.” Rosa points out that the round filed nails are back in style now.

 

Rosa looks admiringly at her hands, smiles, and proudly says, “you know, I still don’t have freckles on my hands.”

 

She walks over to the nail drying station, sits, and is soon joined by her acquaintance. They catch up on how they are doing, exchange stories of living with various chronic conditions.

 

“Eso viene con la vejez,” they agree. All of that comes with old age.

 

Rosa says that living in a neighborhood where she knows so many people makes her feel less alone.

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Rosa lives on an very tight budget.

 

Having never worked "on the books" herself, Rosa receives $1,077 worth of Social Security income from Julio. Out of that money, $800 goes towards her rent, which has remained $800 thanks to the availability of the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE), a program that freezes rent for senior tenants who make less than $50,000 a year. She also qualifies for food stamps, but only $18 worth – enough for a month’s supply of milk, Rosa half jokes.

 

The remaining amount of monthly income - $277 - Rosa stretches as best she can for the rest of the month, a skill she developed as a stay-at-home wife raising two boys. It is used to pay her internet, cable, phone and electric bills, for the month’s groceries and occasionally for transportation.

 

Every once in a while, Rosa has a bit left over to treat herself with ice cream from the grocery store or a pedicure or haircut. She cannot afford to do other things she once did often, such as buying new clothes, or books and magazines or even gifts for her family.

 

She makes the most of having a computer in her home. She reads and keeps up to date by reading online.

 

One of Rosa’s biggest financial stresses is her teeth.

 

Rosa is terrified of the dentist and even though she has done her best to take care of her teeth, she has neglected regular visits for check-ups out of avoidance and cost.

 

She has been forced to visit the dentist to have several teeth removed and to have root canals done. The procedures are expensive, and she has had to save up to have each one done over extended periods time.

 

Today, she is embarrassed by not having her full set of teeth and would like replacements, but at a cost of $3,000 for the full procedure, she cannot afford it.

 

Medicare does not cover dental care for any of the country’s 49 million older adults, leaving many older people putting off preventative care and critical treatments or spending savings during years when dental care tends to be most expensive.

 

Rosa has Medicare and a Medicare Supplemental Insurance plan, but the supplemental plan has very limited dental coverage. She has been told that she may qualify for Medicaid – insurance for those with low incomes which covers more dental care. Her sons have been trying to help her sort out whether she qualifies and whether Medicaid will pay for her current doctors and the dental care she needs.

 

In the first few months of the year, Rosa has paid $600 for a root canal and other procedures with a credit card. This makes Rosa uncomfortable and vulnerable, as she isn’t anticipating any new sources of income in the future.

On a Sunday in July, Rosa answers the door with a smile as bright as her Sunday outfit: crisp white pants, a bright turquoise lace top, and a pearl necklace and earrings.

 

She looks refreshed and ready for the day, but as she walks back and sits down, a look of pain crosses her face. Her lower back has been hurting since the previous day, she explains. Her legs are also hurting quite a bit from another outing with another good friend the day before.

 

After noting that she went to get her haircut Thursday, and redid her manicure herself, she says, “You have to put your mask on when you go outside.”

 

While she waits for her son Julio Jr. to arrive and drive her to choir practice, Rosa shows photos of the 4th of July celebration she went to in Long Island last weekend with her family and friends on Facebook (“This is my friend, the computer,” she says). The July 4th party is held every year by the son of a friend who has lived in Astoria for as long as Rosa has lived here. The gathering brings together six generations of friends and families to catch up, dance, play dominoes, and enjoy good home-cooking together. Rosa was able to see friends she hadn’t seen in years, she says. She was hit by a frisbee in the back of the head and still feels a bit of the pain, but she laughs it off since overall, it was a great time.

 

She is looking forward to another BBQ in August, hosted by two girls that were orphaned in their teens and whom she and her neighbors watched over. The girls now live in Massapequa and invite their Astoria family for the BBQ every year.

 

Rosa flips through images on the screen and she smiles as she points out her older and younger granddaughters, her daughter-in-law, and others, explaining tidbits about each of their accomplishments and endeavors. “When I’m with them, I feel good,” she says.

 

She says she is as proud of her three grandchildren –Tara, J.C. and Gaby - as she is her two sons. J.C. recently graduated from college and is looking for a job in marketing and advertising. He came to visit Rosa the day before to take her grocery shopping and stayed overnight to keep her company.

On the way to church, during the car ride with the windows down, Julio makes quips about the wind messing up Rosa’s hair, and Rosa plays along, laughing.

 

“She is not your typical 85 year old woman, that is for sure,” he says, largely referring to her sense of humor.

 

At the rehersal, Rosa says hi to everyone and to the choir director. She sits down.

 

“I think I should leave and come back later. I am here on time and that is too early,” she says.

 

The director gives her a stern look, but it does not take long to realize that it is all in jest, and that the same sort of humor is shared by all in the room. Every time a latecomer enters the room, the director stops to make a quip about their tardiness, and everyone laughs, and so it continues. Rosa keeps joking along as well.

 

At one point, when she gets singled out for singing too quietly, she touches her head, looks at the choir director quizzically and says rather bizarrely, “I just thought I felt something crawling on my head. I may have lice.”

 

The director waves her hand in exasperation and walks away from Rosa, as Rosa shares a mischievous smile with the group.

 

At about 10 minutes to the end of the practice, Rosa points out that she has to make her way up the steps to make it to the balcony level of the grand sanctuary where the choir sings. She has to do this to give herself enough time to get up the several flights of stairs.

 

“Let’s see how I do today,” she says.

 

After two rest stops along the way, Rosa makes it to the balcony level, out of breath and rubbing her legs from the pain. The other choir members slowly trickle in and take their places. Rosa asks one of the choir members, a good friend of hers, for a back rub because her shoulder and upper back feel very tight. The friend obliges.

 

At noon, the choir stands around the organ on the balcony, and begins to sing the opening hymn. The congregation stands. People continue to trickle in: mothers make the sign of the cross before shifting into their aisle, younger couples make space for older women joining the pew, and the priest enters in his regal white and red robes, followed by altar boys and the deacon and scripture readers of the day. They all make their way up to the altar, take their positions, and the priests begins the mass.

 

People continue to scurry in during the opening prayer, the profession of sins, and the first reading from the old testament. Finally, all 150 people stand and the choir forms their semi-circle round the organ. They sing “Hallelujah” particularly spiritedly. Rosa's voice soars on the higher notes.

 

After the priest’s homily, the choir leads the congregation in a few more songs - one while offerings are being brought up to the altar, another while everyone is shaking hands and offering each other a sign of peace. Throughout the mass, Rosa herself seems very much at peace, until the choir sings the last song. Rosa is crying.

 

“The song got to me,” she says. It reminded Rosa of her mother and brought her back to Cuba instantly.

 

The director and her friend offer her words of comfort, as they all make their way to the celebration of the Virgen del Carmen, a Catholic tradition that is celebrated across various Latin American countries.

 

As churchgoers make their way into the event hall, the smell of home-cooked food and freshly made afternoon coffee wafts throughout the room. People of all ages come in, have a seat, and wait for the prayer and announcement for the celebration to begin.

 

As guests chatter and get in line for food, a local Argentinian artist sings songs from all different parts of Latin America - guaguanco, boleros, and paso doble to start. Though the genres are associated with a slower beat, the rhythm takes life along the food line, where people patiently waiting to make a plate for themselves start dancing and singing along in place, including Rosa.

 

“La musica esta bien rica,” she says, as she sways side to side. The music is great.

 

Three of Rosa’s friends dance along with her in line as they wait. Because of her appetite, Rosa only takes a very small sandwich.

 

After lunch ends, children and adults visit each table to pass out various types of desserts - cake, fruit cups, cups of rice pudding. In the interim, the last songs are played, this time more rhythmic - bachata, samba, and merengue.

 

By the last song, almost everyone - from a 93-year-old friend of Rosa’s, to a toddler at the front of the room - is dancing along to the well-known merengue song. Once the room settles down again, raffle winners are announced, small tokens of the virgin are distributed for guests to take home, and a final prayer closes out the event.

 

Rosa is happy.

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At the next week’s choir practice, Rosa arrives more than 30 minutes late.

 

The other choir members jokingly greet her with “Good evening!” and they go through another round of the songs to be sung during the service.

 

During a pause, before they practice “La barca and la playa” and “Gracias, Senor” once more, one of the women is looking at her teeth in her pocket mirror. Rosa smiles mischievously and says, “Te lucen bien." They look good on you. The woman laughs. “I had a bagel and I felt like something was stuck in my teeth!”

 

One of the members who wasn’t there last time, Edgar, a middle-aged man, says he loves having Rosa in the choir and how great it is to have the older Cubans in the congregation.

 

“She is a wonderful person, we all love her and her friends. They always invite us out with them. It has been years now.”

 

He notes, however, that all the members of the choir are getting older, and they can’t seem to get younger members to join to keep the choir going.

 

“Some come and go, but none stay. We need new blood.”

 

As the mass begins, the choir gets into the usual semi-circle around the organ, and begins to sing.

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On July 1, U.S. and Cuban relations are restored for the first time in 54 years, since before Julio and Rosa fled to the U.S.

 

Embassies open in both countries. President Barack Obama holds a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

 

Rosa is not happy with these developments and says that Julio would be very angry if he were alive.

 

She shakes her finger and her head.

 

“This will solve nothing,” she says, “Castro has already made it clear that this will not make him change his politics.”

 

Rosa sees herself and her family as refugees from the Castro regime, and a visit back to Cuba in 1998 only reaffirmed her convictions.

 

Rosa took the trip with her son Carlos, his wife, Toni, and her niece. She was struck by the inequity and quality of life she saw. During a visit to Varadero beach, a popular tourist destination, she saw how Cubans living on the island were treated as outsiders, including one resident who was taken away in handcuffs because he was not a tourist. On another day, Rosa learned that her sister could not cook for Rosa and her family because she had run out of her rationed kerotene. And that children beyond a certain age are no longer permitted to drink milk.

 

“Can you imagine?”

 

As for the houses, she says, they all look nice and well-painted in the front, but behind the facade, she could see that infrastructures are falling apart.

 

During one taxi ride, the driver asked where Rosa was from and she answered:

 

“Havana, but this is not the Havana that I grew up in.” It pained Rosa to return "home" and not feel at home

 

“I cry for my country, and pray for a miracle from God,” she says.

 

After several months of confusion, Rosa's dental care concerns are near being solved. 

 

With the help of a social worker who she met during a visit to the emergency room at Mt. Sinai Hospital Queens, Rosa is enrolled in FIDA, a new New York program to coordinate care for dual eligibles, those eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. The only way for Rosa to qualify for Medicaid (because even her $1,077 monthly income was too much), was to put her montly social security income into what is called a pooled trust, which pays her rent on her apartment directly and in effect lowers her income level. Such pools are offered only in select states to those who are deemed "disabled" and often make the difference between older adults being able to qualify for homecare and, like in Rosa's case, dental care. 

 

Now that she is enrolled, Rosa is waiting for her son Carlos to help her select an insurance group to join within the program, as the task is overwhelming. Rosa has gone to the same primary care practitioner for about 30 years and recently started seeing a new cardiologist; if she wishes to continue these relationships, she must make sure to enroll in a group covered by the doctors. Rosa also must confirm if the dental care she needs will be covered by the insurance plan. She has more root canals scheduled, which she will likely have to pay for out of pocket until her benefits are fully set up and kick in.

 

Rosa is hopeful that the new coverage will allow her to get replacement teeth, which she has set as a final barrier keeping her from taking a long desired trip to Florida to visit her cousin.

 

Rosa has been more active recently. She went out to dinner with Father Sabino and the church’s couples group. She has gotten together with them for three meals this month. She also went with friends to the Repertorio Espanol, a Latino Theather in Manhattan, to see the play “Dona Flor y Sus Dos Marinos”. Even though her diverticulitis caused great pain and kept her from eating the buttered bread and ice cream she wanted to at the dinner after the show, Rosa said she did not tell her friends.

 

"I don’t tell them when I don’t feel well because they start to worry and then they won’t want me to go out.”

 

Although a visit to her gastroenterologist opened up the possibility of surgery to relieve the diverticulitis, the surgeon determined that an operation would not be possible due to Rosa’s age and uncontrolled high blood pressure.

In September, it is the one year anniversary of Julio’s death.

 

Rosa and about two dozen family and friends gather for a mass in the church that is as much a home to Rosa as her apartment. Father John Harrington, who has been the family priest since they arrived from Cuba, spoke about Julio. There was an intimate gathering with sandwiches and cookies in the rectory afterward.

 

Rosa says that the past year has been very difficult, but that having such strong supports – her family, her friends, her church, her familiar neighborhood and her faith in God, has made days easier.

 

Since Julio’s passing, she avoids sitting too long with feelings of sadness and loss; she distracts herself from them and prays often.  

 

 “I was surprised to see how well she bounced back," said her son Carlos. "I know she thinks about him everyday and it’s hard being in the same place, but she tries to focus on the positive and go forward."

 

Rosa expresses gratitude for her life up to this point.

 

“If reincarnation is real, I pray that I will be reborn into the same family,” she says.  

 

God has let her enjoy her time with her grandkids, she has great sons who have done well for themselves and who are admired by others.

 

Rosa is determined to take care of herself for as long as she can, but the day she is no longer capable, she makes it very clear that she does not want to be put into a nursing home, at least not unless her children can afford to put her into a high quality facility, which feels unattainable.

 

She remembers when her husband was placed into an inpatient rehab facility after his stroke. She said nurses let him slump over falling asleep as he sat, that he would sometimes have to wait half an hour before being taken to the restroom when he need to go and that Rosa herself noticed and pointed out when gangrene started forming on one of his toes.

 

Eventually, Julio caught pneumonia in the facility, and was sent to the hospital, where he spent his last four months. Rosa wants to be with her family. And then she wants her ashes to be mixed with Julio’s.

 

“I tell [my kids] at this age, God can take me when he wants. I am not afraid. What else can I ask for? Health and that those around me be well.”

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