On the evening of March 7th, I cried at the dinner table. "How can life really be this beautiful?", I thought. I was surrounded by a crew of men in starched white button down shirts and black, tuxedo pants. Their eyes were bright and genuine. They had the kind of energy that even one who lacks depth could feel. Infectious. They sang a Dominican rendition of "Happy Birthday" with pride.
Within that circle sat my 6-year old daughter, who looked into my eyes to ensure that the source of my tears wasn't sadness. She stared carefully in search of a smile so I gave her one. Her eyes brightened with a sigh of relief. My husband held my left hand and I thanked him mentally in a language that only we understand.
Three slices of blueberry cake were placed in front of me, with a lit canary yellow birthday candle that stood on the middle piece. I glanced at the candle and imagined the 29 others that should have accompanied it. I blew the candle out quickly so I could relieve the restaurant staff. I blew the candle out quickly because I didn't need to make any wishes - I am living via past wishes that were granted to me.
I did not want to be celebrated on my birthday - instead I chose to celebrate life. A week in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic with my family. No work, no texting, no emails and limited access to social media (I love Instagram!). Can you say bliss?
It was my daughter's first time on a plane and I shared her excitement! We swam in fresh water lagoons at the Indigenous Eyes Reserve and I drank fresh water from a coconut that my husband knocked out of a tree. We danced to the Afro-Carribean beats at Carnival and we adored every colorful costume. We indulged in delectable Dominican fare and my daughter was so proud of all the seashells that she picked out for me.
At night while my daughter was asleep, my husband and I would step onto the balcony and look at the stars. They were so clear and big. He sang to me. The beach's fragrant zephyr did too.
Every night, I would see a woman standing near our room. She worked for the hotel and dressed in a khaki uniform. She wore gold, oval rimmed glasses and had a radiant skin tone. Her lips were plum and heart shaped. She was a middle-aged woman who I knew had children. I never asked her if she did, I just felt it.
Her name was Altagracia but I didn't find this out until our last day in Punta Cana. I started out with greeting her, but on island time days feel like weeks. Our brief hello's turned into conversations. I was really concerned with her shift since the sun set while she worked. She worked until 11pm and lived 2 hours away in Santo Domingo. She did not have a car and rode to work in a shuttle that picked up other employees in local towns too.
She did not speak English so we spoke in Spanish. I think that gave her ease. I would ask her the same two questions every day: 1) "Did you eat?" 2) What time do you leave work? She answered the questions identically each day: 1) "No." 2) 11pm. She was a housekeeper. Somedays she cleaned our room and left us extra goodies. We felt loved.
One day I sent my husband out to her to ask if she wanted something to eat. I know that women are prideful with other women so I was hoping that my husband could woo a "Yes," or "Sure," out of her. That didn't work.
The next day, I saw Altagracia and she handed me a manila envelope. In Spanish she wrote on the envelope, "I am so happy that you are my special friend. May God take care of you and your family forever." I gave her a hug and went on my way as I could see that she was busy. I opened the package later that night which contained a pair of gold elephant earrings. They are gorgeous.
I went to the ATM, took out $1000 Dominican pesos (about $23 US currency) and placed it in a envelope that I requested from the front desk. On the envelope I wrote " Here's a little change for your lunch, you have to eat!". I wrote my phone number and address in hopes that she would send me a letter or come to visit us.
I left my family in the hotel lobby and ran around the resort to find her. When I stumbled upon her, she was with a fellow employee. I sneaked the envelope into her pocket when he wasn't looking (not sure if that exchange could have gotten her in trouble) and ran back to the lobby.
She knocked on the door at 9:45pm on our last night with a note that read: "Safe travels. I will visit you soon. I don't have an email address or computer but you can call me." I gave her a long embrace and we said things to each other in the same language that I only thought my husband knew.
When I got home, I could not stop thinking about her. I googled her name even. Altagracia means "High Grace". Altagracia is also a patronal image and protector of Dominican Republic.
I laughed with the universe when I read that on Wikipedia. She was a protector and my birthday goal was achieved. I celebrated life and not myself.