Do you ever approach the store cashier with your credit card in hand and wonder about the smiling young woman taking your money? Of course you do. I even have one in mind.
What you wouldn't know about her is that her low-paying job is a life-saver. She is bone-tired from nursing a sick mother and caring for two younger sisters. Her clothes come from a thrift shop, and even then bought by price tag. Her life is one of unending service. You wouldn't know her name. It's Daisy Martinez.
The polite old man is familiar on the streets of Fallbrook. He shoulders the plastic bag with its growing bulge of aluminum cans. His 85-year-old legs move slowly along the pavement. Bending over for an empty Coke can is done in stages. He hopes his nickel redemptions will help his granddaughter pay the bills that make crushing demands on her small wage. The granddaughter is Daisy Martinez.
The middle-aged woman looks old. She feels worse than old. She feels deathly ill. She has cancer. She thanks God every day for the daughter who nurses her and makes her feel loved. Her nurse is Daisy Martinez.
Daisy Martinez is the type of daughter expectant parents pray for. She's 23, with big dark eyes framed by a pretty face with a blush of Indian bronze. She is amazed that anyone would admire her, though she is intelligent and has a willpower that would cross deserts. Those black eyes widen in disbelief when told her soul has the beauty of old gold.
Do I gush? Don't judge just yet.
When Daisy arrives home in Fallbrook from her cashier's job at Camp Pendleton, she parks her used Corolla at 1:30 a.m. knowing she will have to be awake in four or five hours.
She wearily walks up to the apartment her mother was able to secure from Section 8, government-subsidized housing for low-income families. It has two bedrooms, a living room, a small kitchen and a single bath. Her sick mother and the 15-year-old sister sleep in one bedroom, Daisy and her 20-year-old sister in another. The grandfather sleeps in the living room.
Daisy is grateful for the roof that covers them, but Laura Hughes, who met Daisy by volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store where the young woman shops, has an impartial view.
"You should see where she lives," Laura says kindly. "It's depressing."
Daisy's friend continues: "She has such spirit and determination. She never wavers; she always puts her family first. I've seen it firsthand."
Daisy's mother, Elodia, came from Mexico before Daisy was born and became a permanent resident. She toiled for years in factories and in kitchen work at Camp Pendleton.
Elodia was the sole support for her three daughters, even though she lived with a partner. He departed a decade ago and has since died.
Daisy says there was such discord between the couple that the children were briefly sent to foster homes when she was about 10.
She slowly shakes her head at the memory. "Having my sisters and I being apart and foster care (personnel) coming in and separating us, saying this girl will go to this home and another girl will go to that home, was a horrible experience."
Daisy says she never met her birth father, doesn't know his name, what he looks like or where he might be living, if indeed he is alive.
"I sometimes wonder what I would say to him. He had another woman pregnant at the same time my mom was pregnant," she says.
Elodia devoted herself to providing a stable home for her girls, as best she could. That included being granted their rent-subsidized apartment in what Daisy calls a "calm" neighborhood, thus avoiding the Fallbrook "ghetto."
(I associate bucolic Fallbrook with avocados, not ghettos, but Daisy knows where she lives.)
"My mom raised us to avoid gangs, drugs and alcohol. She tried to make up for us not having a father figure in our lives."
In 2012, when Daisy was 19, her mother became stricken with cancer. What followed were several surgeries that involved the partial removal of her stomach, and a wearing down that has resulted in almost constant bed confinement.
From that day more than three years ago, Daisy has been the family breadwinner. She finished high school and somehow managed to graduate from an eight-month course at a local business college, the type that gives students basic skills for beginner jobs.
The household budget that Daisy has to manage would make a CPA shudder. Her mother has disability income of about $800 per month, of which half goes for health insurance. An additional $300 pays the subsidized apartment rent.
Daisy's take-home pay is also about $800. Out of that must come remaining expenses - food, clothing, medications, car payment and insurance, gas, school expenses and - that's it. There's nothing left.
Fortunately, the grandfather is in good health, but he is 85.
So now you know what Daisy does. But how about who Daisy is?
Addressing that question is awkward for her, because few people have asked it. She goes to work, comes home, tries to stretch inelastic dollars, cooks and does caregiving. No time for anything else.
I ask what she wants for herself.
Daisy matter-of-factly says, "My wants are crossed out. Everything that is necessary comes first. My mom's needs have to come first, then anything for my younger sister has to come before me."
This is not Daisy on a cross. There is no self-pity or martyrdom in her eyes or on her face. It's just the way it is.
Why do you give so much?
"Because I love them, and there's no one else."
Daisy, I ask, when you came to talk with me today from Fallbrook, you went through Carlsbad and Encinitas. You see people doing quite well. How do you feel about that?
"It gives me hope that if other people are able to succeed in life, I will find a way to succeed. It gives me motivation. When I was younger, I did question the fact that, ‘Why can others live better than I do?' But envy only belittles the person who has it."
I'd like to hear one of your dreams, one that's for you alone.
Unexpectedly, Daisy's eyes fill with tears, and she reaches across the table for a napkin to dab them. She takes a long moment, then takes a deep breath.
"I think eventually pursuing again my education. I still keep dreaming, and I know I'm going to get there."
Why are you crying?
"My struggles. I think my struggles. I haven't really ... excuse me. I don't think - I've not really thought about what I've gone through until right now. I just believe that life's going to get better. God will provide.
"My goal is to find a way to pursue my education. My dream is to be a [registered nurse]. Taking care of my mother, I've learned I have a gift for giving care. In the hospital, when the nurses come in, I watch them and I understand what they're doing. Sometimes I even correct them on medications and things.
"I haven't learned the education side of it, but I definitely have learned the hands-on. It just comes natural to me.
"My mom always told me her dream has always been to see me as an R.N. I'm going to make that happen, even if it's going to mean that I have to wait on it, but I will be an R.N.
"I've learned that I'm very giving. I'm willing to give to see somebody smile, to see somebody happy."
Well then, what would you want, just for you?
She smiles shyly. "Someday, I'm going to travel."
"I've seen pictures of Bora Bora. Do you know where that is?"
I've been there. It's an island of Tahiti.
"Is it as beautiful as the pictures?"
Yes. In Tahiti, green cliffs rise a thousand feet straight out of the sea.
"I will be there. Even if it takes me years, I will be there."
You know, Daisy, your mother probably doesn't have much time left.
She nods. "I'm having to do even more for her, like help her shower, change, fill her IVs, give her medications, use the restroom. She just gets tinier and tinier. I see her bones sticking out, and I know I don't have much time with her. She knows that. She knows that. Her body's exhausted. Her body's worn out.
"When cancer comes to you, it comes to you."
Daisy tells me she has no romantic interests and no social life, explaining there is no time for it.
(My intuition is throbbing, but I hate to "go there," acutely aware that there's a difference between interviewing and prying. However, I think what I am about to ask is integral to how Daisy has been shaped, so I follow intuition.)
Daisy, feel free not to answer this: Have you ever been sexually molested?
She stares at me, searching my face for trust. Then, sobs shake her shoulders and she averts her eyes. After a long moment, she turns back.
"I told my mom when I was 17 or 18 that I was molested. I think I was 10 years old."
"I don't want to say the name. It would hurt people."
She pauses to choose words.
"Everything's supposed to have a purpose in life, but that's not a purpose. That horrible experience is not a purpose.
"I held that secret for many years. The one time I told my mom, I cried like I never cried in my life."
Has that experience affected your feelings toward men?
"Yes. I don't trust men. I have tried to forget that part of me, but I think that's always going to be there, even though I don't talk about it."
Ever had counseling on that?
"I haven't. I know counseling is important, but I have to forgive, and I have to heal on my own in order to be fully at peace with myself. I want to believe there's good men out there, because I know there are. When I do, I can have a family and home of my own."
She gathers herself and changes the subject with a big smile.
"Down the road, I think life will definitely turn around, but for now my focus will continue to be my family. Then, I will find a way to pursue my dreams."
Daisy is forcing herself to acknowledge that one day, possibly soon, her mother will be gone. Then she will lose the Section 8 apartment and will have to find other housing. Her middle sister plans to go out on her own, so that will leave Daisy, her 15-year-old sister and grandpa.
In the meantime, the family will celebrate Christmas this week with a tiny tree in mom's room, with nothing much below it except love, but that in abundance.
This young woman's burdens won't go away tomorrow. But there will be another tomorrow in her future, in which the world will open up to a nurse's pin and green mountains rising into the sky above a warm azure sea.
A kinsman, the late poet laureate James Dickey, wrote:
More kindness, dear Lord
That is where it all has to start:
With the simplest things.
More kindness will
save every one of us.
How do I feel after learning Daisy Martinez's story? I feel smaller.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net.
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.© Copyright 2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.