The map leading to that high road people take from time to time is found simply by reaching inside for the best in themselves.

I thought of that high road just this morning after a conversation with Maria, the dear lady who cleans my house. We met almost 11 years ago when she and her family lived in the condo next door to my late fiancé Ben and me. During that first conversation, I found out she not only cleaned houses for a living but had a magic touch in the garden. Hog diggity!

Maria was just the person we were looking for. Over the years, I've gotten to know Maria's sweet personality, honesty and good work ethic. But our interaction isn't just about the work. It's the words of Spanish she has taught me, the exchange of holiday gifts, the hugs, the moments of laughter and personal stories we have shared.

Maria confided to me her interest in caring for hospice patients, if only time would permit. Little did we know that this would become a reality in a most unexpected way.

When Ben had triple-bypass surgery in August 2002, we thought it would be a temporary setback. After all, we knew friends who had undergone triple bypass and had many more years of productive living. Only with Ben, it didn't happen that way. Within about 10 weeks of his surgery, Ben started to develop symptoms that led to a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was given six months and that is exactly what he got.

Ben's last five days were spent in hospice. Our friends and co-workers weren't exactly lining up at the door of his room. But Maria came unasked every one of those five difficult days. On June l5, 2003, Ben was in a coma, as he had been for the past two days. Maria came in the late morning while I was taking a brief respite and told him that it was OK to let go, but that he should wait for Barbara to come back later to actually make the transition. Did he hear her?

All I can say is that I returned to hospice about 1 p.m. Ben's condition was exactly the same as it had been when I had left late that morning. I held his hand and spoke to him. Ten minutes later he was gone. I'll never forget Maria's desire to reach out in a situation many others could not face nor her strong belief that Ben heard her talking to him.

But in just the past year and a half, Maria topped even herself on that high road. After a l5-year marriage that included a renewal of vows just three years ago, her husband Marcos decided that he didn't want to be married any more. Maria was the first to admit that there were amends to be made on both sides, but Marcos wasn't even willing to try.

Since Maria could not make the house payments on her own, she was forced into an unfurnished apartment; their two daughters stayed with him in the lovely four-bedroom home the couple had purchased together and that she had landscaped with flowers and fruit trees. Maria had to borrow thousands of dollars for lawyers' fees and attend hearings, where she was grilled by his counsel. She bore it all bravely.

And then it happened. Marcos got a tumor in his throat and needed surgery to remove it. The biopsy revealed that it was precancerous; he would have to be evaluated every six months. Marcos admitted to Maria when she came to visit him that he was scared.

"I told him that if he needed anything he could count on me," she told me this morning. When I asked why she had shown Marcos such a forgiving heart in spite of all the hurt, her answer was immediately forthcoming. "It's better for me not to dwell in a spirit of anger. I prefer to think of the happy times we had. And you know, I make a good chicken vegetable soup that might make him feel better."

I've learned a lot more from Maria these past 11 years than how to clean house and tend to a garden.

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