Bernadino Guzman can’t be blamed for choking on the words as he tries explaining what happened to his wife.
It was just seven months ago that Leticia Castro walked into a Charlotte hospital complaining of nausea and fever, never to return home. She died a day later, just minutes before she was to be discharged from the hospital, he says.
In that instant, 33-year-old Guzman became both a grieving widower and single father of three girls, ages 11, 9 and 3. He and Leticia had been married 12 years.
Christmas will be a difficult day for many reasons, including the fact that it was Leticia who played the role of Santa’s helper, doing all the Christmas shopping.
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Even now, Guzman is not exactly sure what his daughters – Alesandra, Jennifer and Aracely – want from Santa, which is why he’s so grateful to the Salvation Army’s Christmas program. The three girls are among 10,400 children registered to get toys from the program this month.
Most will be “adopted” by anonymous donors, who will buy the toys. In cases where donors don’t step up, Observer readers cover the expense by giving to the Empty Stocking Fund. Last year, it provided toys for 3,300 children. The typical age range of children in the program is 4 to 10.
“I worry about my children,” admits Guzman, who works at a firm making customized granite counter tops. “They don’t understand what happened. I ask them how they feel about their mother being gone, but they don’t say anything.
“Only the youngest seems to cry and she does it whenever I go to work. I think she is afraid that I will not come home one day, like her mother.”
Guzman is a native of Mexico, but not a newcomer to Charlotte. He moved here 14 years ago to be near brothers, one of whom has lived in Charlotte nearly 20 years. They are all examples of the success immigrants forge in the city, finding full-time work, marrying and raising a family.
Charlotte's foreign-born population increased 17 percent to 124,400 from 2007 to 2015, census records show. And that growth is reflected in the Salvation Army’s Christmas program. More than half the families enrolled this year are headed by foreign-born parents. This includes not just Latinos, but families from Russia, Eastern European nations and Africa.
Feeling ‘she’s still here...’
Guzman and his girls are living with his brother’s family, which he says is helping them cope with his wife’s death. This way, the girls never have to be home alone. “The hardest part,” he says, “is the feeling that my wife is still here, just in the next room. When my phone rings at work, I think it’s her, calling to find out why I’m late. I feel she’s still here.”
Like many immigrant families, the Guzmans weave older traditions from their home country into Christmas.
Guzman says his family does most of the celebrating on Christmas Eve, including church services, a gathering of extended family for a big meal, then opening gifts at midnight.
He smiles talking about how they will eat their fill and then some, including plenty of homemade tamales.
Thinking of his mother
Doctors eventually gave him an explanation for his wife’s mysterious death, or rather, a term for it: lymphocytic myocarditis.
That’s an inflammation of the heart. But he still doesn’t understand how a 32-year old woman can be perfectly fine one minute and dead the next, while sitting in a hospital bed.
Two funerals were held for Leticia, one in Charlotte and one in Mexico, where she is buried.
What’s oddly coincidental is Guzman’s mother, who still lives in Mexico, became a widow at the exact age he is now. Stranger still, Guzman was the age of his oldest daughter when his father died.
He hasn’t seen his mother in 11 years, but he says he’ll be thinking of her on Christmas.
“My mother sacrificed everything to keep her family together after my father died, and there were six children,” he says, noting she was a vendor who sold vegetables.
“I figure if she could do it with six, then I can do it with three. When I am sad, I think of her. She makes me strong.”
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone's memory or honor, we'll print that person's name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.