Legacy.com Katrina's Lives Lost
Brought to you by The Times-Picayune Monday, October 20, 2014
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In Remembrance
Benilda Caixeta
Age: 55
Parish: Orleans, LA
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Benilda Caixeta

Elizabeth Mullener
Staff writer

By all accounts, Benilda Caixeta wore her disability lightly.

Friends say she never lost her sense of fun or her sense of style. She never failed to paint her fingernails or put on her makeup. She never lost her charm or high spirits. She never told her age. She kept up with all the latest Internet humor and forwarded good jokes to her pals. She tooled around town blithely in her fancy electric wheelchair. She even made clothes for herself, clever seamstress that she was, that flattered someone in a seated position with a curved spine.

But in fact, her physical limitations were profound. In recent years, she had lost use of everything but her forearms and hands.

The word "grace" comes up over and over again when people try to describe Caixeta. "Benny was the essence of grace," says friend Muara Johnston.

Born and bred on a farm in Minas Gerais, Brazil, Caixeta emigrated to the United States for treatment when she developed a rare form of muscular dystrophy as a teenager in the 1970s. She came alone to Washington, D.C., and a few years later, after a short marriage and a long stay at the National Institutes of Health, enrolled at the University of New Orleans and earned a degree from the business school in 1987.

She made a career for herself as an advocate for the disabled, and she volunteered with various groups to advance the cause, frequently emerging as the member people turned to for advice or support.

She took her volunteer career seriously.

"Benny received SSI money for disability," Johnston said. "And she didn't believe in taking money from the government for not doing anything. She believed you should work for your money. So she gave it back by volunteering."

She took her independence seriously, too. Resourceful and inventive in her drive to be self-reliant, Caixeta confected a tool to use in her eastern New Orleans apartment to turn the lights off and on. She fed herself by lifting one hand with the other. She even managed, for the most part, to run her own kitchen.

"She called me one time and said she was washing dishes," said Mimi Grisoli, a friend. "And I said, 'How are you washing dishes, girl?' And she said, 'Like a normal person -- with water.'"

Caixeta had a personal assistant who visited daily to help her dress and bathe and get in and out of bed. The assistant was with her, in her apartment, as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.

Although Caixeta was determined on Saturday to ride out the storm, she had decided by Sunday that she wanted to get out. By then it was too late. The two women weathered the storm by candlelight, and on Monday morning, Caixeta called her friends and said she was safe. Then came the water.

When it rose high enough to be threatening, Caixeta told her assistant to go, to save herself. In a last act of generosity, she gave the woman her cell phone and address book.

It was three days later that the assistant was airlifted off the roof of the apartment building. It was 34 days later that a Brazilian television crew, alerted by Caixeta's family, discovered her, dead.

Benilda Caixeta had a hard life and a hard death. But she was graceful to the end, drowning in her own apartment, next to her wheelchair, wearing a violet checked skirt and a blouse she had made herself.

Published in The Times-Picayune.

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