The $80 Coffin


I paid for an $80 coffin last week.

I met “C” through a mutual friend a few years ago. She was living in one of the poorest areas of the greater San Jose area, Los Guido. She was typical in many ways of those who live there. She was scantily educated and had never held a real (official, tax paying, with benefits) job. She cleaned house for me for a while and would call me from time to time to say hello, and sometimes ask for a little money to buy some food for her and her son.

A little less than a year ago I ran into her and she informed me she was pregnant. (No, not by me). I wished her well and thought to myself “you’re going to need it.” She was living with her mother and assorted family, and they didn’t get along well at all. I had helped her out before buying bus fares for her and her son to go live with her father in Cartago, as her mother had kicked her out of the house. I can’t tell you what the problems were, but they were enough to force her to move more than once. Her father was as poor or poorer than her mother. For whatever reasons, “C” moved back to Los Guido eventually every time she moved to Cartago. I never went into much detail with her mainly because she speaks too rapidly for my gringo ears.

I didn’t inquire too much about the baby’s father, but I did gather that whoever he was, he wouldn’t be marrying her or supporting her and the baby. The impression I got was that she didn’t expect anything from him. I didn’t ask why, but it’s not uncommon here especially in the poorer barrios. It’s not unlikely that the ‘father’ had no job and no money and it would have been useless to try to get the law involved. Sending him to jail for non-support wouldn’t accomplish anything. And the locals know that enforcement of child support in Costa Rica is a joke unless the father has a ‘real’ job (see above).

So her pregnancy progressed and eventually came to term with the birth of a daughter. And as I expected, she came to me every so often for a little money to buy milk and diapers. Some would say I was foolish to give her anything, that she made her bed, so to speak, now let her lie in it. But I’m a softie deep down, and she never asked for too much.

As time passed, she began to ask for money for medicine. Her little daughter wasn’t all that healthy, it seemed. She was in the children’s hospital several times in the first few months of her life. And while she was in and out of the hospital, the hostilities between “C” and her mother continued, resulting in yet another move to Cartago, and another return to Los Guido a few weeks later.

I got a call from her about two weeks ago to tell me that her little baby was in the hospital again, and could she “borrow” some money for medicine? I gave her the money, and got several more calls from her in the next few days, not asking for money, but just to talk to somebody. She was very worried about her baby. I did what I could to console her, considering how little I understood of what she was telling me and my limited Spanish.

About a week ago I got another call, and “C” was crying. She was crying to the point where I could barely understand a word other than the repeated “mi bebe.” My first impression was that the baby was very sick, but eventually I realized that the child had died. She finally passed the telephone to her mother, who was calmer, and explained that “C” was asking me if I would pay for the little casket they needed to bury the baby. They didn’t have $80 and I don’t know what would have happened if I had refused. But I didn’t refuse, and her mother and sister came over to get the money for the coffin.

I don’t quite know how to end this sad story. I haven’t heard from “C” since, but I suppose I will, since she still has a young son to take care of, and still has no job or education. I wish I could say the story was unusual, but it’s not… not really. Just to be sure, I looked up infant mortality rates in the CIA fact book, and not surprisingly, Costa Rica had a rather high rate of infant mortality, 9.2 per thousand. By comparison, the USA has a rate of 5.98. Cuba has a rate of 5.83 and the country with the lowest infant mortality rate is Monaco at 1.8. (Costa Rica ranks #72, the USA #48, Cuba #40).

[by the way, Costa Rica does NOT have universal health coverage. Care is not free except for emergencies.]

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  1. Jim Lynch says:

    Costa Rica, and the world in general, needs people willing to step forward as you have, Dan. Money well spent. It’s a karma thing.