Couple needs a hand after serious stroke

Belem and Alicia Gomez know what it is like to work hard, to struggle and to live through disappointment.

That knowledge was in their eyes the other day as they sat together in their small apartment in Napa while Belem discussed their latest predicament.

It all started two years ago, he said, when Alicia had a stroke. Suddenly the woman who kept everything together – shopping, cooking, making clothes and supplementing the family income cleaning homes and working in restaurants – could no longer walk or talk. She also began suffering from epileptic seizures.

Belem, 67, who speaks only Spanish and cannot read or write, had to quit work and take care of his wife. It was tough to switch gears, especially for a man who had spent his entire life toiling in the fields, supporting six children and eventually finding work and a home in America.

It was nevertheless something that had to be done, he said, gazing at his wife, who can understand everything, but cannot form words enough to speak.

Until recently, the Gomezes lived in an apartment on the second floor of a complex in downtown Napa. With a bad knee and chronic back pain, it was difficult for Belem to maneuver his wife’s wheelchair up and down stairways.

They needed a place better suited for someone with disabilities, but the rent for the apartment their social worker found them was nearly double what they were paying for their old apartment.

That’s when The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing stepped in. The charity paid the deposit and first month of rent for a ground-floor apartment with a ramp and shower chair. Belem can afford the rest of Alicia’s care since he is listed as the primary caregiver and qualifies for Napa County In Home Support Services.

Still, life is not easy. The Gomezes don’t own a car, so Belem must ride his bicycle across town three times a week to buy groceries. The two rely on buses to bring them to medical appointments.

Things were once very different. Belem and Alicia met at the age of 14 in the state of Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico. He said he had worked in the fields with his parents since he was a boy. Alicia went to school to become a dressmaker.

The couple moved in together when they were 17 and went on to have six children, four of them daughters. Belem said his wife used to take their daughters window-shopping so they could pick what they liked, then she would go home and make the clothing they chose. For many years, Alicia made all of her husband’s clothes.

The couple moved to the United States in 2000, and he began picking grapes in Fresno. Two years later they moved to Napa, where they both worked at a restaurant at the Napa Valley Country Club. Alicia, who was a part-time dishwasher, also cleaned people’s homes for extra money. She was in Mexico visiting family in 2010 when she had the stroke. The doctor there said she had only three days to live.

“Before she had the stroke, our life was perfect,” Belem said. “I used to enjoy going to work, spending time with other people.”

Alicia has made dramatic progress since she began physical therapy a year ago, but she can still barely move her arm or leg on her right side and must take 18 pills a day to control seizures.

The couple rarely see their children even though one daughter lives in Napa and two sons live in Vacaville. They hope to someday be able to visit their three daughters in Mexico.

Belem reminisced about the good times and how everything changed after the stroke, but it was clear as he talked that sickness could not extinguish the enduring bond that still ties them together.

“I will be taking care of her until one of us passes away,” he said, looking tenderly at his wife as tears suddenly formed in her eyes and began rolling down her cheeks. “We’ve been married 50 years.”