She likes the name Iryne, so let her keep that name. Let me tell you about her.
She grew up in what we Americans would think of as grinding poverty. She knew real hunger. When life was good, the family would get rice and corned beef. She, her mom, her dad, and her nine siblings would have a small bowl of rice and *one* can of corned beef (sometimes it was Spam) shared among all of them…and her mom would always serve her dad half of the can. Sometimes her only meal was a small bowl of rice with a slice of banana. Sometimes it was a small bowl of rice with a sprinkle of salt. Sometimes it was nothing at all. There were times she went to bed but couldn’t sleep because of her hunger.
But you know what? She never felt sorry for herself, for at least she and her family had a home, and she knew many who had far less, and who were hungrier.
She came here to America on a tourist visa (it’s a long story) and got away from the tour group as soon as they got off the airport, leaving all her luggage behind. She met with the only person she knew in America, her brother-in-law (whom she barely knew) and was brought to a family in another city. The family allowed her to work and stay with them, and she didn’t see her brother-in-law for a long time after that. She knows she was very lucky, for she was never abused.
Imagine, if you will, going to another nation at the age of nineteen, with no money, knowing no one there except for one brother-in-law whom you’ve rarely seen, and striving to build a life for yourself…as an illegal immigrant. She did this and felt she had to, for the future of her family depended on her. That’s real courage. That’s bravery.
Some time passed and she was able to get a “real” job at McDonald’s. She was handed her very first paycheck (she was so proud of it at that moment), set it down to continue her work…and later found that someone had stolen it. She didn’t know she could have told the manager who could have stopped that check and issued her another one, so she continued to work with no money.
Time passed, and Iryne eventually went to work on a farm as an accountant. She knew many other illegal immigrants there from different nations (mostly Mexico), and she remembers how nice they were. It was about this time that Reagan signed the amnesty act for illegal immigrants into law, and she became a citizen. During this time, she also got married and had a child…and her husband turned out to be a real piece of work. Being from a culture where divorce is illegal, she tried for years to make the marriage work, but no matter what she did, he would try to tear her down, to embarrass her in front of others, to try to make her feel small. During all this time, she still worked, still performed her duties at Church, still cared for her child, and still sent as much money as she could home to the family every month.
The marriage was eventually annulled (which is a story in itself) and took their child up to Washington state, again with no money, but by this time her sister (whose husband had initially picked her up at the airport nine years before) was able to let her stay.
In Washington she worked odd jobs, cleaning, painting, and eventually became a nurse’s aide. It was about this time that we met. I lived in a small house across from her with my then-wife. There was no thought of an affair. We were just two families that lived next door and visited each other as neighbors do. Time went on, I got divorced, and one day did one of the few smart things I’ve ever done…and knocked on her door.
That was twenty-seven years ago. In the meantime, she became a licensed nurse, we took medically-fragile children into our home, helped several of her family and friends back in Manila to go to school to better their own lives, and she was eventually able to open her own business, an adult family home for elderly with dementia. It had been her dream…and it was taken from her by a worker who was jealous and made false accusations. It was a very hard time for both of us, not physically, but emotionally. It nearly broke her spirit. But it didn’t. She recovered and became a Realtor, and her pride and self-esteem have returned.
What you should know about her is that when her entire professional life was melting down around her because of someone else’s malice, what hurt her most was that she was no longer able to help other people. That’s what her whole life has been about: helping others.
Iryne is the bravest, most courageous, most honest person I know, and it is the great privilege of my life to be at her side. International Women’s Day is meant to celebrate people just like her, the women who work their fingers to the bone and bear such great emotional burdens and heartbreak while striving to raise their children and keep their households together. By doing so, they’re actually keeping our whole world together.
One last note: men often wonder why women love to watch tearjerkers like soap operas and dramas (like that bane of all testosterone, The Notebook). I asked her, and she said that it’s because they like to see how other women handle such situations. I thought on that for a long time and finally realized that we men love watching violent movies (what man hasn’t watched The Gladiator and wanted to be General Maximus?) because we’re physically stronger; ours is the realm of physical conflict and pain. Give us more pain, we can take it! (unless it’s the flu, in which case we become babies in bed). Women, on the other hand, watch dramas because they are emotionally stronger. They are able to bear far greater emotional burdens than most men…and it’s that emotional strength that gives them a degree of courage and bravery that we men often don’t recognize for what it is.