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Guilt and gratitude are common companions. I should know. They have been on either side of me in the past three years, my escorts, ever since a woman called Hermie began to care for my elderly parents.
My mother died a few months ago, after an illness of five years. My father, who is still living, has also had serious health challenges.
In the first years of my parents' decline, my three siblings and I pleaded with them to move from their home in a small southwestern Ontario village. None of us adult children lived nearby, and we grew increasingly worried as my father's dementia worsened.
One day, I got an e-mail from my eldest sister, saying she had been in contact with an agency that hired caregivers from the Philippines. In fact, she had interviewed a potential caregiver on the phone. What did I think, she asked.
Well, I had strong misgivings about the Live-In Caregiver program. It seemed to me, and still does, like a form of indentured servitude. The program strikes a bargain with immigrants: Submit to reduced rights for two years, and, if all goes well, you will gain residency in Canada.
The potential dangers of the program are obvious: low pay, long hours, abusive employers, separation from loved ones, social isolation in Canada, and a doubling of time as caregivers because of the long wait for papers to be processed. Most of the workers in the program are women from the Philippines, people who want a better future for their children.
The candidate's name was Hermie, short for Herminia. I was worried that she'd end up working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, carrying the responsibility that was rightly the family's. My sister was convinced that we would be offering Hermie a chance for a better life for her family here in Canada. It turned out we were both right.
What I feared came to pass. Hermie has worked brutally long hours. As my parents aged, my mom became bedridden, and my father's dementia grew worse. Somehow, Hermie managed to keep an immaculate house, cook beautiful meals, care lovingly for my parents, and have a life (albeit curtailed) of her own. For Hermie, all this was only a beginning.
My father lost his driver's licence, so Hermie got hers. At the age of 50, Hermie passed on her first attempt. Soon, she could not leave my parents alone even for a minute, and we wanted her to have more help.
When we tried to hire privately, we were not successful. One candidate was racist; many were not up to Hermie's exacting standards; and no one was like Hermie, according to my mom and dad. Hiring her own replacements became yet another job for Hermie.
The past year was particularly difficult. In March, 2011, Hermie completed her two years in the Live-In Caregiver program. She went home to the Philippines to see her children, husband, and extended family. It was very painful to leave them again after a month, especially her youngest child, who was 11 at the time. However, Hermie returned to Canada to file her papers for residency and begin the long wait.
The health of my parents continued to decline, and some of Hermie's days must have been nightmarish. When I suggested that we put one or both of my parents in a nursing home, Hermie was full of anguish. Some people thought she was worried about her job. Of course she was. But I know she was also absolutely committed to my parents.
How has she survived? Karaoke, for one thing. ("Let's go sing," Hermie would say when they were down in the dumps.) A deep Christian faith. And Mariette, who lives in the village and has stood by my parents and Hermie with daily visits and countless hours of work. (Mariette is another story.)
Hermie is also sustained by the knowledge that her work here supports not just her own family but others she doesn't even know: people in her home province to whom she sends clothes and food. I tell her how extraordinary she is, and she says, "I'm just doing the right thing."
I am struck again and again by the deep respect Hermie has earned from the community. Everyone who knows her recognizes her strength—the doctors, the neighbours, the pharmacist, the bank tellers, the women at the post office.
I was with my mother when she died, and so were Hermie and Mariette. But it was Hermie who sang karaoke to her in her last hours because only she knew all Mom's favourite songs.
One of Mom's favourite books was To Kill a Mockingbird. She especially liked the scene where Atticus defends Tom Robinson. Tom has been falsely accused of raping a young white woman. The jury finds Tom guilty, and as Atticus leaves the courtroom, the African-American observers stand in a show of respect. One of them leans down to Atticus's daughter and says, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin.'"
It has been more than 50 years since Harper Lee wrote that book. Some things have changed, some have not. I hear my mother's voice joining mine now when I say, "Stand up. Hermie is passing."
Kate Girard lives near Nanaimo, B.C.