When I moved to Dubuque five years ago, for the first time, I found myself living alone.
It was not for me.
I could tolerate it in the summertime, but as the leaves began to fall and the days grew shorter, I found it increasingly harder to come home at the end of the day. A terrible chill that cut to the bone, a pain in the gut.
By December I was coming home to a cold, dark house. “That was your choice,” a friend pointed out when I recently told this story. But it seemed incredibly wasteful to leave a light on all day in an empty house. So I’d stumble in the dark at my door, turn the key, remove my shoes, and only then turn on a light.
I had a recurring nightmare where someone broke into my house and then approached my bed with intentions of doing the worst possible harm. Again and again I woke up shaking in terror.
Dorothy Day says the answer to the long loneliness is community. I began dating a Catholic Worker, a divorcee with three children whom I absolutely adored. I got to know his parents, his brother, his aunt. Soon, I was regularly volunteering at the Catholic Worker House – praying with the community, helping to serve and occasionally cook meals, attending the house’s events.
For a year, all was well. But I gradually began to feel like I was a character in someone else’s book. I yearned to write my own.
Instead, I tore up the pages.
After a few bad decisions and equally bad consequences, I again found myself in an empty apartment.
But then, someone came to join me.
Her name was Magdalena. I’d met her while serving as a volunteer interpreter for an organization that assists Guatemalan immigrants in Dubuque. Local immigration attorneys were looking for US citizens to serve as legal guardians for undocumented immigrant minors looking to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, one of the few viable paths to citizenship open to them (though getting less viable all the time).
The idea of becoming a legal guardian seemed daunting. What would be expected of me? I was told that it was mostly a legal formality. It did not come with a financial obligation or an expectation to provide housing – most immigrants lived with family members who could not serve as guardians due to being themselves undocumented.
I don’t know what it was about Magdalena – the warmth in her eyes, the brightness in her smile. Something jumped inside me, and after a few meetings, I was inviting her to come and live with me, to attend the school in my district, to no longer spend the wee hours of the morning on a weekday mopping the floor of the restaurant where she worked, but instead to go to bed early and rest up for the next day of school.
A few months later, she said yes.
And then, I found myself coming home each night not to a dark, empty house, but to soup boiling on a stove, a beautiful young woman sitting at the kitchen table doing algebra homework, evangelical Christian music ringing in the background.
One year later, on her graduation day, no fewer than 60 people – her family, friends, community members, even teachers from school – came to celebrate.
A few days after her celebration, we were called to immigration court in Omaha. I had real reasons to fear I’d be returning to Dubuque without her. Two images kept flashing through my mind: Magdalena in a graduation gown… followed by Magdalena in a terrible orange jumpsuit.
“I’m going to tell you something important,” my psychoanalyst told me before our fateful day. “When you go…leave a light on in your apartment.” I broke down in tears, again afraid. I needed to be prepared, once again, to return to an empty house.
Thankfully, Magdalena returned with me. The light left on over the kitchen stove seemed absurd when we got back the following day. But I was glad to see it.
Since then, so many times when I’m still in the office at night, or out with a friend, I call her with a request. “Leave me a light on,” I say. She does.
That light is my “why.”