After moving from Ecuador to Miami nearly a decade ago, Jacqueline Martillo’s life felt comfortable.
Her husband, a jeweler, doted on their two young children, buying them toys, video games and frequent meals out at fast-food restaurants. She stayed home to care for the kids in a cozy lakeside apartment in Northwest Miami-Dade.
Then in November 2015, her husband died unexpectedly of a lung disease.
For Martillo, this holiday season has capped a year-long struggle to cope with her husband’s death — and suddenly, to be the one to provide for her children, Freddy, 8, and Jacquita, 7.
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She lives off $1,500 a month in disability payments, most of which is eaten up by rent. Money now is so tight that she won’t turn on the air conditioning to avoid running up the electric bill. She sold her car, bought a cheaper one, but has to plan her trips strategically to save on gas.
Martillo is hoping for financial help. But more than anything, what Martillo needs is a job — one flexible enough to allow her to drop off and pick up her children from school because she can’t afford childcare.
She briefly got a job cleaning homes in Miami Beach, but it wasn’t worth it because of the traffic and fuel expenses. But even finding employment is tricky — if the job pays too much, she risks losing the government disability payments, which are guaranteed until the children turn 14.
“It’s just so hard starting from scratch, with children who are so small,” said Martillo, 45, of Miami Gardens.
Martillo’s story started in Ecuador, where she worked as an administrator in a public works department in Guayaquil, a large coastal city in the South American country. There, she met her future husband, Freddy Martillo, through mutual friends — they were both named godparents of a friend’s child.
Freddy Martillo, a tall and engaging jeweler who lived in Miami, eventually married Jacqueline and the two moved to Miami in 2007. All seemed fine until 2013, when Freddy Martillo was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes scarring in the lungs and makes breathing increasingly difficult. For nearly two years, he received treatment for the disease, thinking he’d pull through.
But in 2015, his breathing became more laborious. Simple tasks, like bringing groceries up the stairs to their third-floor apartment, became increasingly taxing.
Soon, he was needing oxygen tanks to breathe almost full time. Eventually, by the fall of 2015, he was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital. Without his income, Martillo had to put living expenses on credit cards.
He died at age 56. His death caught the family off guard — up until the end, Freddy Martillo believed he would pull through.
“He didn’t know the severity of the illness,” Jacqueline Martillo said.
For their two children, who were born in the United States, grappling with their father’s death has been naturally difficult.
Last week, the two played in their rooms, Jacquita, her hair in pigtails, shyly showed off her My Little Pony toys. Freddy turned on a Halo video game from his old Playstation — he recently built a spaceship modeled after one from the series.
Despite his age, Freddy was not unaware of his family’s money woes. “I’d like something expensive for Christmas,” he said quietly. “A Nintendo U.”
Outside of the view of visitors, the grief remains raw.
Around the home, Freddy and Jacquita carry around a T-shirt belonging to their father as sort of a security blanket. In the middle of the night recently, Jacqueline Martillo awoke to hear her son sobbing. “I miss hearing my dad’s snoring,” he admitted.
Jacqueline Martillo crawled into his bed. They cried together.
Their plight caught the eye of the Children’s Bereavement Center in Miami Shores, which has been helping the children with therapy.
“She is an extremely humble lady and her children, they are really soft-spoken and sweet,” said Denise Palacios, a program coordinator for the center. “She manages to maintain her composure — and so do the children — in the face of such a horror. Their story is a nightmare.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.