Aging Parents

QDEP Mom and Dad – April 5, 2015

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Wendy welcoming all the guests.

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The three of us.

We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy's coffee table.

We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy’s coffee table.


Well, I guess I am back to writing – true confessions, I just got too wrapped up in other things for awhile. But people seem to have missed my posts, as rare as they have been, so I have been convinced that I should sit back down at the computer and try to be little more prolific. I mean, let’s try to not have months and months go by without saying anything at all, I told myself. Even Arnold, who is the soul of discretion when it comes to urging me to do anything — I am eternally grateful that he never has hassled me about my weight, for example, no matter how much I was tormenting myself about it over the years – implied every so subtly, in about five well-chosen words, that he thought I might be well served (somehow) to get back to my blog.

Actually, a few significant things have happened – we did go up to Los Angeles for ten days, and scattered my parents’ ashes (Ava’s were scattered on Lake Chapala) back in April. We had a memorial service for both of them in under the big trees in Wendy’s back yard and we were surprised that well over thirty people remembered them enough to want to attend, even after a couple of years since their respective departures.

Wendy found a very nice, very Reform, rabbi to officiate so we actually sent them off – even if a bit late – with Kaddish and the 23rd Psalm and a few other ceremonial niceties in a quite lovely afternoon gathering, followed by an enormous feast procured from what everyone told us was the best Jewish deli in the San Fernando Valley. We figured the “nosh” part they would have loved, especially my dad. We ordered a platter of whitefish in his honor. Arnold made up a collection of music they both loved to be played – some Mahler, some Joshua Bell, and of course a pastiche of some of Dad’s music. But the rest of it — they were both so anti-religion, both so totally secular all their lives, that up till the end we had some misgivings about whether this was what they would have actually “wanted”. But Wendy wanted it and some of our older relatives found it very moving and appropriate. And Wendy still insists that our dad once confided to her that he wished he had had a bar mitzvah and certainly as he grew older – well, both of them, really – more Yiddish crept into their speech. Ultimately, being Jewish was certainly a big part of who they were, no matter how you slice it.

We had gone back and forth – for a couple of years, really – about where to scatter their ashes – here, in Lake Chapala or somewhere nearby? back in L.A.? Venice? We had always joked with Mother about scattering her ashes in the Beverly Hills Saks. But at the end of the day we decided that Mexico wasn’t right, a memorial park (even a nice Jewish one in the Valley somewhere) wasn’t right, the ocean or a forest somewhere wasn’t right either. Actually, other than gathering for cocktail-hour drinks around their pool in Encino they were the least outdoors-y people you would ever meet. Thus, for a long time, and maybe that was just adjusting to the finality of the whole thing, nothing seemed quite right, so they stayed in my bedroom closet in their nice Mexican urns on a high shelf for a couple of years while life went on and unconsciously, I suppose, we sorted it out in our minds. For Mom, hanging out in my closet with all my (and some of her) clothes and Ferragamo shoes seemed perfectly comfortable, at least for the time being. Dad probably would have wanted to be near her (though inevitably they would have hissed at each other and fought) so that part seemed all right as well, at least for the time being.

But we all felt we had to do something more with their ashes, and WHAT to do with them was always in the back of our minds. As horrible as it was, the thought of US dying with them still stashed in my closet was not something we wanted to contemplate. So we mulled it all over and invariably talked about it when the three of us were together, around their – now our – dining room table here at our house in Mexico.

At the end of this process we felt that Encino was, in a weird way, where they had perhaps been happiest – young and glamorous, with the replaced-every-few-years red Jaguars and the restored-every-few-years MG in the carport, and family outings to various restaurants and concerts at the L.A. Opera or the Philharmonic. So the Encino hills felt right and Wendy discovered that since much of the mountain range behind their old house has since been made into a state park, that you could actually drive up into the park and look out over the San Fernando Valley and have their old house pretty much directly below you. The trees had long grown up too tall to see the house itself, but we knew exactly where it was from various landmarks – the water tank on top of the hill at the end of the road, where we had often taken walks, their street itself, the neighboring houses and empty lots where both of us had hiked and wandered around as kids.

A few days before the memorial service we went over to the deli and asked to speak with the catering manager to put in our order. Of course he wasn’t in any way Jewish – he was a Mexican from Jalisco and before we even got down to talking about the food for the event we spent a half hour chattering away with him both in English and Spanish about Mexico and his life as an immigrant in Los Angeles, and how he had started as a dishwasher in the deli but now had worked his way up to being the catering manager. He knew more about Jewish food in his pinkie than I ever will. He so enjoyed meeting us that he sent us back to Wendy’s with (gratis) bags of rugulach and hamentaschen, apart from our catering order. We knew we were probably ordering way too much food but we figured we’d share it with everyone in doggie bags – they even gave us a stack of takeaway containers because “this always happens” – and in the spirit of Mom and Dad, we sort of didn’t care, we just wanted it to be a great spread reminiscent of their own great parties. One thing we knew for sure was that they both would have approved of a fiesta.

Early the morning of the memorial service Arnold, Wendy and I drove up to the park with a discreet bag containing both sets of ashes and we hiked up the main trail. Other people had similar-looking bags, so we figured we were weren’t the only ones with this idea. It was very nice up there, actually, and since it was a Sunday, there were all sorts of folks walking around up there, riding bikes, hiking up or down the more difficult trails. Wendy carefully opened the bags and scattered their ashes – some together, some apart – on a promontory right where they would be overlooking their old, much loved, home on Gable Drive – with the valley spread out below them. It was a slightly foggy morning – but we knew there would be those clear days when you can see every detail even of the mountains ten miles across the Valley where Wendy lives now – and at night, of course, it is a carpet of glittering lights – très Hollywood – and on smog-free evenings, we used to enjoy that view all the time from our living room windows when we lived up there.

We all felt better that evening, after the last guest had gone. I guess there had indeed been some “closure”, and for Arnold and me, who never get deli food down here, the reception after the memorial service was a highlight. It was good to see so many friends and family members there. We tried hard to do whatever would have been appropriate and “what they would have wanted” but as we all know now, with 20-20 hindsight, they were increasingly incapable of dealing with even the most important details of their future lives as they aged. Having any kind of conversation about them about their inevitable ends proved to be impossible (though every once in a while, in financial planner mode, I would take a doomed stab at it), so we ultimately just had to wing it. We did the best we could. Que En Paz Descansan.

Perseverance Furthers

I remember waaay back when I was in college there was a huge rage for the I Ching – my first husband, Bay Area music writer Jeff Kaliss, who is still a very dear friend, was then my boyfriend and he introduced me to the mysteries of the I Ching. He would toss the coins whenever the need to make some sort of decision confronted us. He got really good at it after a time, and I of course never figured out how to do it, being convinced it was all hokum and one was better off to just rely on good sense and one’s instincts to decide where to go next. I used to humor him by letting him toss the coins and drag out the tattered old gray-covered I Ching book and tell me what it was I was supposed to do, but it was more young girlfriend elevating young boyfriend’s ego than a genuine belief in what the spirits might be telling us to do. Nowadays, I would be much more inclined to take the coins’ messages seriously. Maybe I should even find a good used copy of the book; I can use all the guidance I can get these days, in fact.

I do remember one coin toss that resulted in the answer “Perseverance Furthers” and that keeps popping up in my head these days. Here we are, just waiting for the stars to finally align, or do whatever it is they do, so that we can get on with our lives and begin to shape this last third age, our own “tercer edad”. I am now officially an adult orphan, with both my infuriating, complicated, and much-loved parents forever gone. Now we are eager to get through the slogging of estate-settling paperwork and communication with attorneys, brokerages, insurance companies, realtors, and such as soon as we can, and just have some fun after all the years that both of us spent dealing with their maladies, their situation, their dwindling assets, their increasing need for care, the whole nine yards. But we can’t go there quite yet, we have to persevere, stick to the program, until we get untangled from all of it – which may still be quite a long time.

We are a little bit more optimistic, however, about our immediate future. We did see a house we both liked a lot at a good price, and we are both enthusiastic about putting a deal together with the owner if we can. Behind the Wizard-Of-Oz screen, the financial services bureaucracy is grinding away retitling accounts and sending lots of paperwork our way but the stream of forms to fill out is diminishing ever so slightly as we begin to see results, things set up now as ours that were theirs and required our unending explanations and proof that we had both their health care powers of attorney as my parents were completely incapacitated mentally for several years before their respective deaths. We still haven’t had more than a handful of showings of our house but we are ever-hopeful that we will still luck out and that one person for whom it’s the perfect place will emerge out of the gloom. And we’ll be able to make the big switch to a new house and a fresh start one of these days. I keep telling myself “hang in there, this period of adjustment and reorganization really cannot last forever”, and hope that I’m right, that it will turn out to be true.

Ghosts of Dinner Invitations Past

My mother has been gone now for just over a month; I am adjusting to life without her, and life is definitely going on.  Arnold and I are both dealing with mountains of paperwork, the closing of accounts and opening of new, retitled accounts, the various bureaucracies one has to deal with at a time like this, ending some things, starting new things. In retrospect, it is a good thing I was a financial adviser all those years; the required procedures and paperwork are all at least somewhat familiar. Looks like we will have to head back up to Santa Fe for a few days to have some meetings about the final closing down of my parents’ estate. Arnold thinks it’ll be weird to be back there, staying in the guest house on their property which is now inhabited by renters; but I’m actually looking forward to it.  Things do change, the old saw about one door closing so that another one can open was never truer than in our case just now. We are still numb from it all – not only the fact of her death but my father’s death and the two years leading up to her passing, and we cannot even begin to imagine what our lives might look like going forward, when hopefully things have shaken out somewhat.

So a trip “outta Dodge” will be a good idea for us, not only because we really do have to have these meetings, but it will be a break in the routine. We’ll see old friends, eat at some of our favorite old haunts, check out what’s new in town, and see what is gone – some much-loved old stores and restaurants have disappeared; gone out of business, victims of awful tourist economy up there. But friends tell us there are some new places to eat and shop and such in between our appointments. There has been absolutely zero activity on the sale of our house, so nobody is moving any time soon. No buyers, everyone still scared to move to Mexico, or having trouble selling whatever house they have to sell to purchase a new one; no nada. We might as well head up to Santa Fe, and have some sopaipillas and green chile stew!

One odd thing about my mother’s death is that while I haven’t had “visits” from her, I don’t think, like Maria has, touching me or communicating some kind of reassurance, I have lately remembered her phone calls to my office, or to our house in Santa Fe, over the years. She would always announce herself by saying, cheerily, “this is your mother calling”….and now several times since she died, I have heard her voice in my head – exactly as she used to sound when she was far younger and far healthier – identifying herself that way. I am wondering if it really IS my mother calling, and how I’m supposed to pick up the psychic phone, and what am I supposed to say? If she’s calling from The Other Side, she probably already knows I’m okay, and all that. In the old days, in this life, she would have been calling to invite us to join her and my dad for dinner, or some such thing. Unless it’s a rehash of Don Giovanni, THAT isn’t the reason for her call. The weird thing is, I never thought about her phone calls till she died and I began hearing her voice in my head. As a practical matter, she didn’t even call all that often. On top of which I’ve never seen, felt, heard, been around or encountered anything even remotely resembling a spirit or a ghost, so I’m at a loss to interpret any of it. Perhaps  something is going on but I am so hopeless at interpreting other-worldly phenomena that I have no clue what it might mean. Where is John Edward when I need him?

Q.E.P.D.

My impossibly compromised and frail mother finally died last Sunday. No matter how you try to soften it; she “passed away”, “made her transition”, “left us”, “crossed the rainbow bridge” (though I think that’s reserved for Wagnerian gods or pets) or whatever, the bottom line is that she died. And to tell the truth, her demise was horrible to watch. Thank god she was pretty much unconscious for the last twenty-four hours of her life for she was in pretty bad shape. The doctor examined her, and pronounced that she wasn’t going to last too much longer; her lungs were perforated from the emphysema, and everything else was starting to fail, too. She was, after all, 90, and had been in the process of dying slowly for at least eighteen months; and in failing health for a good ten years before that, so none of this came as a big surprise.

When it was becoming apparent that this was probably going to be it, (no more amusing revivals where after two comatose days she abruptly woke up in her hospital bed to ask for chocolate milk), Arnold and I felt that we should just stay there, with her, in her little room at the home, until the very end. Which is what we did. I will never know whether she knew I was there or not though I tried to comfort and reassure her through her last night. Although actually watching her die was heartbreaking, since there was nothing more anyone could do, perhaps when my own time comes having seen it will make me a little less frightened. At least now I sort of know the stages one goes through, from my dad’s death as well. Who knows, maybe it isn’t so final after all; now all these books are coming out even written by formerly disbelieving, atheistic, humanist scientists, that have gone through near-death experiences for one reason or another, and they’re starting to say “Gee, there really IS something out there, many people are reporting the same thing and now I’ve seen it for myself….”

Well, however the end comes or whatever follows it, I sat with her till hers came, dealt with the doctor and the funeral home and the people who run the convalescent home where she spent her last days, then came home and collapsed, exhausted emotionally and physically, into bed. A week later, I feel a little bit like an animal that has been down in a cave hibernating for years, and is just coming out into the bright sunlight, sort of blinking and stretching. It has been a long slog with poor Mother,  and both for her sake and mine I am very glad that it is over. 

Over the past couple of days I have been thinking I about what best to do to memorialize her, since at least for the moment, we don’t have plans yet finalized for a memorial service, although we are thinking about doing something for both my mother and father back in Los Angeles, the closest thing there is to a “homeland” for both of them. Even though Wendy and I had divided up all her jewelry a long time ago, I never felt comfortable wearing any of it while she was alive, even though there was obviously no way she was ever going to be getting dressed again. Yesterday one of her favorite silver chokers caught my eye in my jewelry box, and I glanced past it looking for something else of mine, as I always did, until I suddenly remembered that she was gone now. I figured “Well, it’s mine now, for better or worse, I’m gonna put it on and wear it.” Then I decided that to incorporate her things into mine, I would try to wear one piece of her jewelry every day for a month. Sort of like the cats, let the various pieces, mine and hers, all get used to each other in the drawers.

I made a couple of trips back to the home to empty out her room, and I was struck by how sad it was that my mom, who painstakingly remodeled and decorated several wonderful houses throughout her lifetime, was reduced to having just a pitiful handful of her things around her when she died. Just to make the room feel more like “her” place, Wendy and I brought over some of her Japanese prints, a couple of her tables and lamps, put some fine old Mexican textiles on the bed and dresser, and tried to make the place look a little less spartan. She did manage to barely whisper, on several occasions, that she really liked her room and was happy to have ended up there, which made us feel good. Having inherited her decorating genes, I know we did make the place look much nicer for her. But now the time had come to clear all that out and make way for the next poor ancianito who will spend his or her last days there; I brought all the stuff home in a couple of carloads and with some help from Rosa’s son-in-law, who has a pickup truck, and that was the end of that.

The next day I stopped by to see Maria, the wonderful lady who really took physical care of Mother, changing her diapers, feeding her chocolate milk with a spoon, pulverizing all her food because she could no longer swallow, turning and bathing her. I wanted to thank her and I gave her a photo of Mom as a beautiful younger woman, which I had promised her. We chatted for awhile and Maria said “You know, Señora, the strangest thing happened….I was down on my hands and knees cleaning in the bathroom after you left the other day, and I missed your mother so much that I was crying, But I felt this soft hand, almost a caress, running down my back to console me, and no one else was in the room…I just KNOW it was her”. I told her that I bet it probably was her, that I have read and heard about such things happening. “Maybe she was trying to tell you that she is okay now, that she is at peace”, I added. Maria thought that was true, that she was with my dad now, and all that. It helps a lot to be religious, I guess. But there might just be something to it, one cannot know from this perspective, maybe it will become evident from the top of the Rainbow Bridge when one arrives there.

In any event, with this chapter over, I am one step closer to my own death as I move up a notch into the slot of “probably-the-next-generation-to-start-dying-off” in my family but I also feel that in a weird way, now that I have indeed discharged my filial obligations to the best of my abilities, I’m about to be reborn somehow. The “Third Age”, tercer edad, the Mexicans call it. If I’m lucky, I’ll have another twenty years or maybe even a bit more, si dios quiere,  so I think my task over the next few weeks and months as I mourn my mother, however that turns out, is to think about what I want to do with the time I have left and then get busy doing it. Listening to a lot of Bach these days, ageless, timeless perfection. Tempus really does fugit.

Q.E.P.D

(Que En Paz Descanse)

Happy Birthday, Mom

Prior to my surgical adventure, in full Princess mode, I had planned several weeks lying abed in frothy negligees being waited upon hand and foot by everyone around here, time to read stupid magazines, do my nails, feigning agonizing discomfort so I could string it out a bit longer. Well, as they say, not so much! I sort of HAD to call a halt to all that after a couple of days enjoying the obligatory painkillers, and get out of bed and resume my life. Oh well, next time.

The saga with my mother goes on and unfortunately it requires, to some extent, that I be on my feet and functioning. Both my parents – as my sister so aptly put it – somehow managed to be fifty years old until one day they woke up at 85 and were completely bewildered as to how to respond to what was happening to them both physically and mentally. We both theorize that because in both their cases – family members on the East coast had done all the “elder care” for their failing parents and in addition to those responsibilities, had seen the other members of the family age and die ‘up close and personal’.

Gradually, after my father’s passing, my mother’s world has shrunk from the beautiful houses she shared with him over the years, to a hospital bed in a convalescent home here in Ajijic, where she lies week in and week out, bedridden and blind, not even really able to speak any more. Her care is wonderful, the Mexican ladies who work there dote on the patients; she and her airy room, which has a sliding glass door opening on to a pretty garden, are kept immaculate. It’s as good as it could possibly be for her given that she is growing weaker month by month and losing what little she has left of her faculties. She’s not in any pain, though, and seems to be happy “wherever” she is mentally – and that is a blessing for all of us.

The only good thing you can say about me, Arnold and my sister having to deal with this situation ourselves is that we have learned a great deal about aging and planning for it, the hard way. After watching both their decline (and my father’s death) over the past ten or fifteen years, we are big into carpe diem these days, whatever that might mean to us at the moment. But it is terribly sad and it has just been, truthfully, a colossal burden for all of us. The taking apart of their much-loved house in Santa Fe was horrible; for years before he retreated into whatever shell he constructed for himself, my dad kept saying “one of these days we will have to move to a smaller place” but never could or would take any concrete steps to move in that direction.  So in spite of insisting  that he didn’t want to leave that enormous undertaking to the three of us, as a practical matter, as both of them faded away, there the house was, intact, staring us in the face.

We finally had to at least get them both out of Santa Fe, for a whole variety of reasons. I tell friends it was like some opera where conflict and confusion dominate the plot and then there’s an intermission where you mull over the fates of these characters, until whatever the final act’s resolution might be. In Rossini, those closing ensembles where everyone is completely at their wits’ end can be hilarious, but in our case it was no fun. We had the neurologist telling us my father had some form of dementia resulting from mini-strokes and a brain hematoma, and the worst possible thing for him would be to remove him from his familiar surroundings.

Then my mother’s doctors, seeing her suffer from (in addition to diabetes) COPD and emphysema, insisted that we needed to get her to a lower altitude than Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet, and someplace warmer for her crippling arthritis.  She was on oxygen 24/7, and the machine was cranked up to the highest output a home machine was capable of – next stop for more oxygen was in a hospital. My father retreated further into himself and only wanted to sleep on the couch all day, stopped listening to music, stopped reading, stopped talking for the most part. My father who spoke several languages, rather well.

We spent a couple of years going back and forth trying to figure out what on earth to do, during which they only declined further. We tried desperately to get them to think about coming to be nearer either me or my sister, but by then neither of them were capable of planning such a giant move, nor did either of them want to leave the house they loved. The financial stress on them and on us only made it worse. Finally, we got them down – with their two cats (now ours, see earlier posts) to Mexico “just for the winter” (they bought the ruse), where at the very least, they were a ten minute drive away from us and it was sunny pretty much all the time. We knew they were never going back to Santa Fe, but they didn’t. Indeed that winter, there was a major break in a gas distribution line somewhere in Texas, and much of New Mexico was without gas to heat their homes as the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and stayed there for several days. When the house caretaker finally made it up there, she found my dad’s piano in four inches of water because the pipes in the living room had frozen and burst. Meanwhile my parents, happily enough, were sitting in shirtsleeves on the terrace of the house we had rented for them, watching the hummingbirds zip around the little garden, and gazing out at the view of Lake Chapala below, glittering in the sun.

Once we got their new care arrangements in place, full of dread, the three of us trooped back up to Santa Fe to deal with the house and its contents.  I was not really surprised to discover that my parents indeed left the whole joint – including zillions of dollars of deferred maintenance- kind of frozen in place like Pompeii. There were dried-out toothbrushes by the sinks, clothes still in the laundry hampers, with more dead toothbrushes and the like scattered in all the bathrooms, and it went on from there.  Like so many “adult children” who find themselves in this situation, dealing with the house was de facto left to us because the house was big, crammed with two lifetimes’ worth of possessions, and as my parents aged and failed physically and mentally, they totally lost control of it.

It took a couple of months out of our lives to be up in Santa Fe working twelve hours a day to figure out what to do with every pillow, pan, item of clothing, piece of furniture, book, CD, DVD, music score, piece of art, along with the plethora of balls of string and rusty coffee cans every Depression-era senior citizen seems to save. Our wonderful friend Sylvia came to help, as did others, thankfully. We filled a couple of moving vans and Goodwill trucks, and closed the house up. Their house is STILL sitting on the market, price reduced ad absurdum, but still no one wants it because it is now such a white elephant. Very sad for us, who have wonderful memories of family dinners and parties in that wonderful spacious living and dining room.

Of course we are certain that if we do something impulsive to give ourselves a break from all of this, like try to nip off to Europe for a couple of weeks, that will be the moment she chooses to make her exit, and we’d have to turn around and come right back, so for several years now we haven’t gone anywhere terribly far, though we are (pun sort of intended) dying to. This week Arnold wants to go to Cordoba. Not happening right now, alas.

Now that Mother is pretty well settled in at the convalescent home, where, barring something really unforeseen, she will remain till the end, as things have stabilized, however, we are ever-so-cautiously asking ourselves what WE want to do next for ourselves. Thank god she is here in Mexico where things are so much more affordable and she could live on indefinitely and it won’t break the bank. Having of course inherited my mother’s love of buying, remodeling and decorating houses, in thinking about our future, my first impulse has been to start looking for a new and in all likelihood, a bigger house.  Some people never learn.

Well, since yesterday was her 90th birthday, Arnold and I brought her some flowers, and set the arrangement by her bed in the home. I’d asked the lady at the flower shop to pick bright colors she could see, so she put together some enormous orange and yellow lilies, and hot Mexican pink Gerbera daisies, one of her favorites.  A couple of people she knows also brought her flowers and those were by her bed too. But when we brought ours over, she didn’t open her eyes, didn’t even really try to talk. Maybe after we left she was able (or chose to) see them, but we couldn’t tell. We just said “Happy Birthday, Mom, you made it to 90!” To which there was no response whatsoever , not even the blink of an eye trying to open, and after sitting with her awhile in silence, she nodded off, so we came back home.

A Fond Farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

In recent news, Arnold and I have decided to put our house on the market and uproot ourselves once again looking for a house that better suits the way we are living these days. It will surely be an adventure, and hard for me, who doesn’t do well with big uncertainties, to say the least.  I wish we had the money in hand to just buy whatever new place we fall in love with and sell ours later, in a leisurely fashion, but we don’t. And friends here who tried that gambit ended up not able to sell their original house and now have it rented out. They are enjoying being landlords and having the extra income but we – alas – will need every penny we can wring out from the sale of our present casa to propel us into the next one.  As our real estate market here is so tied to whatever is going on in the States, the market for sales is awful, and as you’d expect, the market for buyers is full of relative bargains. There are loads of absolutely beautiful places up for sale here so finding something that we will both love will be the least of our worries, I think, once we know how much we can get for this house and have an offer on it that looks reasonable so we can forge ahead.

The good news about living in Mexico is that with few exceptions there are no mortgages. Every sale is “all cash” which frees you from the stress of worrying about those horrid payments every month. Being free of debt in a house I never could have afforded back in the States was one of the things that I found attractive about the idea of retiring in Mexico. But propelling yourself out of one house and into another is in a way more crazy-making, because no matter what price you negotiate on both the sell side and the buy side, you still have to arrive at the notario’s office on the day of your closing with the requisite fistfuls of cash for the entire purchase wired to your seller’s account. So you dare not fall too much in love with any house that is more than what you can scrounge up in real money  – but on the other hand if you don’t go out and look you have no idea what is really, truly, out there for sale in your price range, so it is a little bit crazy-making, but  this is where we are right now. First step, get ours on the market and see what happens over the next few months. Our real estate agent is telling us – and we know she’s right – that right now, when all the snowbirds are in town till April – is a good time to be putting it up for sale. In spite of all the bad publicity about Mexico, there are at least a few buyers out there, apparently.

It will tear me up to leave this place when the final days here come, especially the garden, which I carved out of what was basically a cobblestone parking lot. It has become really beautiful, a sanctuary for birds and butterflies, with two fountains and dozens of flowers everywhere, plus we are growing all kinds of fun things – bananas, mangoes, papayas, limones, avocados, and all sorts of herbs and spices – all the bounty that a Mexican garden provides year-round as a matter of course. I am hoping that someone else will in turn fall in love with it on the spot and want to live here. But there is no doubt in my mind – nor Arnold’s, I suspect – that in many ways we have outgrown the house itself and need something with a different configuration. Short of remodeling this place, which doesn’t make economic sense as we have way more into it now than we’ll ever get out, given how the market has declined – to get the space and quiet we are looking for these days, we will have to move.

So this week the preparations have begun.  I called our trusty construction guy, Ricardo, last week, who has sent over three or four workers who are now crawling around painting, plastering, repairing, redoing the floors – the cosmetic stuff you know you should do when you are simply living in a house (but never get around to). Of course these repairs become imperative once you decide to put it on the market, and it has to be if not impeccable, then more presentable than what you just ignore most of the time before you make the decision to sell. It’s weird; we have even rearranged some furniture and reorganized things  “for showings” and realized that we should have made x change years ago because it looks so much better now. Why didn’t we do it before, why didn’t we see it before?

It is interesting how a stay in the hospital for surgery, heart procedure, whatever, can change your perspective on your life. In my case, my ailments were painful and inconvenient but not life-threatening; but Arnold’s heart adventures – plus the fact that he’s ten years older than I am to start with –  have made him more aware of the passage of time in recent months.  It seems like getting into, or approaching, your seventies can put your own mortality into sharper relief. Especially dealing, as we do every day, with the agonizingly slow departure of my mother, who will turn ninety in a few days, but has spent much of the last third of her life in an inexorable physical decline (much of which she could have fought against but didn’t) that has left her completely bedridden and unable even to talk these days. Thus we are both in a “if we are going to do things, we need to do  them NOW” kind of place, and dealing with the house, the inevitable addition of some of my parents ’ treasured Mexican furniture, and the changes in the way we are living these days, is inevitably pointing to moving rather than trying to patch something more accommodating together here.

Everyone is asking us – since our present house is two stories – and actually three, if you count the rooftop mirador where I take my morning coffee for a view of the mountains and the lake – if we’re downsizing and looking for something on one level. Typical of us, al contrario, the one house we both managed to fall in love with is three levels as well, with breathtaking views of the lake from high up on the mountainside. If we get serious about it we will have an elevator guy come from Guadalajara to look at it and tell us whether and how they could eventually put an elevator, or one of those chairs that move up and down stairs, into it. But we don’t want or need to anticipate being incapacitated just yet. Neither of us needs it now and we seem to be doing fine with the stairs in the house we have , so we can know it’s possible and leave it at that until or unless we need it down the line. Since my surgery, I have not been allowed to do the kind of exercise I was doing before, so the stairs actually are about my only exercise right now, for the next few weeks, at least. Arnold refuses to do the “look at a one story place” routine; we’ve always lived in two-story houses and I think for him it’s a kind of surrender. Anyway, pun intended, many steps before  we get to the rearrangement of x new house wherever it may be and whatever tweaking it might need.

We shall see!

Back in the saddle?

Day of the Dead, midnight, Ajijic. Where I left off writing in November....

Day of the Dead, midnight, Ajijic. Where I left off writing in November….

Surely I am not the only blogger out there who has taken a break from writing for awhile.  Once again, life intervened and obliterated my good intentions to write at least SOMETHING over the past couple of months. But, in brief, here are my excuses.

We decided, for financial reasons as much as anything, to move my mother yet again, into a nearby convalescent home, basically, and begin the process of taking apart  her house here (we keep having to take apart houses my parents – or now, just my mother – have lived in, and it’s time-consuming and draining, to be candid). Since she is now pretty much blind and bedridden, keeping her where she was, in her own private home, was not making financial sense any longer.  But this time we found a much more economical and reasonable solution for her, where honestly, we are pretty sure this will be her last stop. They take terrific care of her there, as only doting Mexican ladies can, feeding her wonderful chicken caldo (broth), vegetables and, by doctor’s orders, chocolate milk whenever she wants it, which gives her enormous pleasure after years of obsessive dieting and diabetic diets. She has been so weak and immobilized that now she actually can use the calories – and the enjoyment to keep her spirits up. To whatever extent she is capable of rallying now, she does have occasional moments of more lucidity and we even get to see faint glimpses of her old wicked sense of humor, which is heart-wrenching in a way, but also lightens the load a bit. Much of the time she is just asleep, but in the rare moments when she is candid, it is good to see that for that moment, at least, she’s still “in there” and can manage a faint smile.  She will turn ninety in January, and when I reminded her of this and told her we’ll have a big party in her room at the asilo, she barely could get out a whisper, but she did say “wow, amazing”. And so it goes.

Then I was surprised in November by a couple of medical problems that pretty much required immediate surgery – I tried to figure out alternative therapies or ways around my medical issues, but after all my hesitation and resistance, I finally had to surrender to the reality that I probably couldn’t fix things on my own, and I had to face the situation head-on and deal with it. Mid-December, I had a three-day stay in a private hospital in Guadalajara that was just terrific. Through that experience, I also found wonderful new doctors who can take good care of me going forward, so in that respect, it was fortuitous. Now, I’m on the mend and surveying the wreckage of everything (I seem to have utterly missed Christmas this year, and my birthday December 23!) that was left undone and littering my path before I disappeared from view for awhile. Well, surprise surprise, all that stuff is still right there where I left it lying around while I dealt with more pressing matters – unfinished projects, unanswered e-mails,  and of course my poor lonely blog. It’s all still here, sort like our dog Reina lying patiently at my feet, none of it went anywhere, so I guess I can pick up where I left off.

The good news is that we are about to start a new year, which gives me an excuse to say about this last one that – well, I’ve seen better. As I have gotten older I seem to feel that way at the end of every year, and last year I had a REAL excuse for giving 2011 a bad review because we did go through my dad’s death. I mean, that would have seemed a much better reason to wish the year was over and hope that next year would be better. This year we had a horrific crime wave here in Ajijic that terrified all of us but now when we look at it from the perspective of the murder of all those children in Connecticut, the random murder of people, especially young people, doesn’t seem any weirder here than back in the Ancestral Homeland. Whether you get snatched from the street in a kidnapping or mowed down at your school, your friendly local mall or at the movies, what’s the difference? The final outcome is the same, I guess, for you and the people who love you.

So we stay – cynically perhaps? here in our paradise, which, after all, by now is home, and hope for the best. Undoubtedly the weather here is better than anywhere else we can think of and if for no other reason – and inertia – here we shall most likely stay, year after year, enjoying the sunshine and flowers. Sometimes we talk about a different house, but as a practical matter it isn’t something we can tackle right now. Perhaps mañana.

My mother is still alive, doing as well as can be expected in her pretty and, as such spaces go, large and bright room at the rest home. Arnold, Wendy and I brought in a few decorative items and linens of hers from the storage unit when Wendy was here a couple of months ago, so on the days when she can see – some days being better than others – she knows that some of her own things and art are in there; we made it as nice as we could given that her real world has shrunken down to a hospital bed with occasional moves to a wheelchair for bathing and such. She has sliding glass doors out to an eternally green garden, and I hope that she makes it long enough for us to have her crack a few more jokes before she takes off.

Is It Or Isn’t It?

Between the cuatro gatos,  my mother’s ongoing deterioration, adjusting to the new realities of Arnold as a “forever” cardiac patient, we have been just twitching from stress. We decided we needed to escape for a little while; just a short break from all of it to play somewhere. A few weeks ago, the perfect deus ex machina appeared in the form of an email from Christie’s in New York, saying they’d like to have a look at my mother’s violin.

I must digress a bit to share the history of this violin, which has been, for better or worse,  a telling part of my family’s in-house folklore for my entire life. My mother insisted to all who would listen that it was at least a part Guarnerius, and always referred to it as “The Guarnerius”, showing anyone who exhibited the slightest bit of interest the tiny little label inside that said “made by Joseph Guarnerius, Cremona”. My dad, the guy with the actual, real, Ph.D. in musicology, always dismissed mother’s airs about the “fiddle” being some rare, priceless thing. “Yeah, sure, Shirley,” he would sigh; “we know at best it’s only a partial Guarnerius, don’t get your hopes up.”  Even though the violin indisputably has this label, he would remind her that “we just don’t know enough about it, it could well be a fake, one of these days we should have someone really look at it definitively” (which of course he never did). But the violin repair people who HAD looked at it over the years, even casually, concurred that it was probably at most 1/4 or perhaps ½ a Guarnerius with a new neck and various other parts cobbled onto it over the centuries. It is, after all, an eighteenth century instrument; it has been around a long time. Clearly it has been damaged and repaired, so we  know from the outset that chances are overwhelming that we aren’t going to have one of those Antiques Road Show moments where all the cameras are on you when it’s determined that your funky old treasure is actually worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For decades, we all tolerated mother’s flights of fancy about the supposed staggering value of this instrument and basically ignored her inflated notions about it. We did know that it had been a wedding present to her from my paternal grandfather, George Steiner, also a distinguished composer and musician. The part of the story we thought was true, confirmed by my dad’s sister, was that George had almost certainly brought the violin with him to the United States when he emigrated as a very young man from Hungary, in the first decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t at all far-fetched to imagine that my grandfather, who had studied composition with Kodály and was first violinist of the Budapest Philharmonic at the age of 15, would somehow have come into possession of such a fine violin in the first place.

Reconstructing the family history as best we can, as he was transitioning himself from the violin to the viola, giving the “Guarnerius” to my mom was probably a logical and very cool thing to do. As a young woman, (my dad was her accompanist when they were college students) she was a gifted violinist, a student at the Oberlin Conservatory, and if nothing else we figure George knew she would play the bejesus out of it, love it, and take good care of it, especially under my dad’s incredibly compulsive and watchful eye. The good news about the family history we know to be true is that it places the violin in our family throughout World War II, so at least we don’t have to worry that it was stolen from some family by the Nazis and would now have to be repatriated.

And the “Guarnerius” did indeed, throughout the earlier part of its life in our family, see a great deal of use and even as a kid, listening to my parents and their friends play chamber music in our living room, I could tell this violin was quite wonderful, with a special sound. The fact that it happened to have a beautiful sound just fed my mother’s unwavering belief that it was indeed a real Guarnerius.  Back then, it was indeed played and enjoyed; but as my mother grew older, frailer, sicker, sadly, it was increasingly relegated to life in its case. My dad obsessively put humidifiers and thermometers in there, to protect it, especially once they moved to the high desert climate of Santa Fe. But as something to make music with, its voice was heard no more. I found this all terribly depressing, being the sort of person who likes to see fine things be used for whatever purpose they were intended.

With my mother now blind and immobile, incontinent and entirely bedridden, obviously her days of playing her beloved fiddle are now over, and Wendy, Arnold and I had a pow-wow about what to do with it. There wasn’t anyone in the family seriously studying violin, and certainly no one at a level that would merit a gift of this stature. No, we thought; our hope is that someone begins to play this thing again and bring it back to life — we need to sell it. Let some younger person have it, hopefully, as a thing that actually produces music instead of serving as a wannabe status symbol.  And whatever we do get for it when we sell it, we’ll do something to remember Mom by – maybe all nip off to Venice, a place she loved more than anything, and raise a glass to her at the bar at La Fenice or order a fifty dollar plate of pasta at Harry’s in her memory. She would love that, too.

So Arnold began contacting dealers in New York to see who might be interested; Christie’s asked us for a series of rather detailed photos, the taking of which made me decide that on our next trip I was going to update my camera (topic of another blog post!). I did my best photographing it just as they required, with special attention to that mysterious little paper label inside the f-hole. Not an easy job but good enough so that they got back to us and said “yes, we’d like to see it”. Soon thereafter we packed it up in its case and off we went. We had to hand-carry the violin with us onto the plane; for whatever it may turn out to be be, it is not the sort of thing one sends to Nueva York via Correos de Mexico in a box, or even via Fedex.

As I mentioned above, in any event we were dying for a fall foray to Nueva York, and right after we got there we took the violin to Christies’, for our appointment with their fine instruments expert, which turned out to be utterly fascinating. They asked us, of course, to tell them what we knew about the violin, which we did, to the best of our ability. It occurred to me in the course of that part of the conversation that an unintended consequence of my dismissive attitude toward the whole business of my mother and her bloody violin over the years was that I never had the slightest interest in actually asking her – or my father – anything about it. Sad, because particularly my father, could actually have recounted in a trice how it had come into George’s possession.

At the end of the day, It’s unfortunate that my impatience with my mother’s tendency to self-aggrandizement ultimately resulted in my failure to be able to add much in the way of factual history to the whole story of the violin which now lay, denuded of all its embellished attributes, under a fluorescent light on an examining room table at Christie’s. As though they were studying a patient on an operating table, they pronounced the label inside to be of uncertain origin “probably Dutch” (e.g. not Italian and possibly fake but maybe not); it has some sort of indeterminate catalog number and they need to figure out who catalogued it and when. And, they noted – that the entire instrument was warped and needed some serious repair work. Finally they said “it’s been played a lot, and it’s been played hard”. You could see what they were talking about as they pointed out every little flaw and crack and repair to you. It was actually totally cool. I thought “Poor little violin, now after decades of lying mute in a case, this may be the very first steps in someone beginning to actually play you again – just be patient, and soon this awful period of silence may be over….” Anthropomorphic, to be sure, and silly, but that’s what I felt.

Well, they said, before we can properly assess its value for auction, here is what we’ll have to do to find out more about this instrument. “We would like recommend that it be sent to London for dendrochronology studies and then we’ll know what we have here.”  It turns out that this is what they do with anything made out of wood where they’re trying to determine the age of the object in question.  In the case of antique musical instruments, these experts in London can look at the wood patterns, analyzing the summer growth and winter growth, and they can match what they see to a database of hundreds of thousands of wood patterns to see, first of all, how old it really is. Then, they search for a match to the documented wood grain of any known Guarnerius violins. Because these workshops traded pieces of wood from time to time for use in specific instruments for various reasons, they also check against the woods used by other renowned violin makers of the time – Stradivarius, Del Gesú, Amati, and so forth. Apparently, these makers would just order up a whole tree, cut it into pieces, and age the wood – and use many pieces from the same tree or trees for various instruments, just as violin makers would today.  These folks in London actually have a database of a certain set of trees on specific forest slopes in Austria that were favored by the makers of that time. So, if you get a match to the grain, voilà, you might actually have a real Guarnerius. Or at least part of one. We shall see.

They also were interested in the two bows – seriously shedding hairs and obviously in need of some work – in the case. They even carted the bows off to a lab upstairs to be x-rayed and further studied. One of them may turn out to be valuable but there are mysteries connected with that as well – the pins are wrong to be from the maker the label says it’s from, and on it goes. Even at Christie’s, though, oddly enough, no one put bow to string to actually hear how it sounded. I guess it will have to wait awhile more before anyone gets serious about playing it. But, perhaps, in the lifespan of a thing that dates from the mid-1700’s, hopefully not too much longer.

Anyway it was all fascinating and no matter what the outcome we will have learned a great deal! Too bad WE don’t get to take it to London, though.

Well, there you have it…or something!

The Kitty Psychiatric Ward

The cuatro gatos are still battling each other for domination of our household, four months to the day after their “introduction”, and we have just about had it. Just when you least expect it (like when you’re in the shower) one jumps another and you have to race to wherever the confrontation may be (probably diagonally across the house and either up or down a flight of stairs), squirt bottle in hand, to break up the fracas. Both of us have struggled with what to do about the fact that they just seem not to be adjusting to one another, and it has become for us a terrible moral dilemma. Tabitha, my mother’s hugely overweight tabby female, and jet-black and big-eyed Luigi, the male, arrived on the scene just wanting lots of love and attention from us, but the minute they spotted their two rivals in the living room, war was declared.

I had promised my mother years ago, when she was still “compos mentis”, that we would take her two in if she and my dad could no longer care for them. In retrospect, my promise to her to keep them with us “forever” may have been not such a bright commitment to have made. And now, to be honest, if I wanted to weasel out of it and give them up for adoption, I surely could, because she is completely gone mentally at this point. Still, a promise is a promise, aside from which the shelters here are overflowing with stray kittens and cats, dozens of them, needing homes (that’s how we got Missoni, after all). But neither Arnold nor I could do that now to both my parents’ poor kitties. They have been traumatized; starting with being brought down here from the States and adjusting to that, then going through the death of my father last year (he adored both of them and they were really disoriented when he died) and then they suffered, not  comprehending, as my mother stopped petting them and talking to them (they used to sleep on my parents’ bed in the old days). They don’t understand why or how she became bedridden, blind and suffering from dementia, eventually not relating to them at all.

I think cats do understand death and dying, and sadly, they both reacted to the loss of their master and mistress by becoming hugely depressed and hiding in a closet in my mother’s house, pretty much all day and all night long.  Well, I’d promised to take them in. So, seeing these two poor cats confused and disoriented, if we have to run a kitty psychiatric ward once they come here to live, I thought to myself, so be it. Guess we’re stuck; and Arnold agreed. In the old days, back in Santa Fe, roaming around my parents’ house and enjoying their affection, they were the world’s sweetest pair of kitties, but they have been upset now to a point where – good news – they get it that we are their new masters, but – bad news – they want us ALL to themselves. Desperately, both of these poor cats want security and lots and lots of affection from us. From their point of view, there is no room for any other cats to compete for attention.

Thus, we quickly found that my daughterly devotion unleashed upon our household two panicky felines who, starting the day they arrived, began incessantly to stalk and attack our two delicate, much more sensitive cats, who are half their size and terrified of these two invaders. As a result, our original two have become nervous wrecks. This turmoil was, of course, on top of the stress we were enduring with Arnold’s coronary adventures and his stent procedure. We tried everything “natural” we could think of to calm them down, and which Dr. Jesus suggested, including various and sundry herbal and flower-based aromatherapy sprays and drops in their food, none of which have really worked, or at least not to the point where it’s made any difference that we can see. In exasperation, one morning I went out and bought collars and tags for both of them, and threw them both out onto the terrace. I had hoped that keeping the newcomers out of the house for much of the day would mean that Group 1, and we, had a break from the catfights and we could go about our lives for awhile each day in relative peace.

At first they were scared and hung out near the door meowing incessantly to be let back in – having been indoor cats their whole lives – but day by day they have timidly ventured further away from the house and thankfully, now they are totally digging being out there, chasing bugs and rolling on the grass for the first time in their lives. Our garden walls are so high they can’t escape and of course Tab is too gordita to climb anything, sadly for her. (That’s our next job, getting her on some kind of kitty diet …I keep saying she needs Dr. Catkins). If anything, her metabolism is now more messed up than mine from stress. Luigi doesn’t have front claws so fortunately he can’t really climb too much either. He was declawed when we adopted him from the shelter in Santa Fe, and luckily, now that he’s older, our garden seems to be plenty big enough for him to explore.

By now they are generally content to find chairs on the terraza and just hang out there.  Jet black Luigi also strolls around contentedly and has found a nice maguey he likes to crawl under for his afternoon naps. The only thing you can see, if you need to find him, are those two huge green eyes! After sundown, though, we still feel we have to bring them into the house. First of all, even though Ajijic is warmer in winter than many other places, the nighttime temperatures here in the winter can get down to the high thirties and frequently the low forties. And the creepy crawlies we do have – black widows, scorpions, and brown recluse spiders, are out there and much more likely to sally forth at night.  So while peace has begun to return during the daylight hours, we still are having battles in the evenings. Missoni and Rosie find high places and just stay hidden, trembling and wary. Winter is coming and the days are already getting shorter. Not good.

Well then, what to do? Mexicans are very paradoxical about drugs – some pills, like Viagra, it seems you can buy by the handful in any farmacia in the country. But anything that might be even vaguely addictive or dangerous is now controlado (controlled) and it’s every bit as hard to come by the stuff as it is in the U.S., even for animals. At my wits’ end and ready for a stay in an asylum myself, I went in to town to see Dr. Jesus, the classical-guitarist vet.  I said “I know you like all this natural stuff and don’t want to prescribe drugs for them, but honestly, we need to try to put at least the two new ones on kitty tranquilizers for a while to see if it ratchets down their “chase and dominate” instincts. It’s not fair to our two: their whole existence now is about being pursued and/or hiding in high places”. I confessed to him that I had dug around and found a few pills left over from when Arnold brought Group 2 down in the plane. Even though the medication had expired long ago, I figured, let’s see what happens – and I tried chopping the pills up into quarters and giving them this small dose. Thankfully, for we were at the end of our ropes, it seemed to quiet things down quite a bit. Dr. Jesus agreed to get us some kitty calmante drops – they have to be ordered from Guadalajara and it takes a few days to get them. We can experiment with different dosages and “medication schedules” to see what works best to settle the four of them down. I am hoping that  we won’t have to  keep them doped up for more than a couple of weeks, I suspect, till their little kitty motherboards are reset and hopefully we can all go on about our lives. Better living through chemistry.

Today, we brought  Group 2 in at sundown and gave ‘em two of the four little pill fragments I have left. Stoned kitties means that we don’t have to race up or downstairs, with squirt bottles in hand, to break up altercations when we hear screaming and hissing from some part of the house where someone has been cornered and is about to be pounced upon. I have enough until tomorrow; I’m praying that Dr. Jesus does indeed get the stuff from Guadalajara for us or we will be back at Square One. For now, at least for part of the evening after dinner, thankfully, Luigi and Tabitha just LIE there, right in the middle of everything, sort of like meatloaves. But no stalking, no switching of tails, no narrowing of the eyes followed by chasing and the inevitable attack.  We are so preoccupied over my mother right now that we just don’t need the house to be insane and tense from the cats. As I write this three of them, for the first time, are calmly in the same room. Rosie is still hiding upstairs in a closet, but I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten. The two newcomers are lazing on the dining room table, eyes kind of glazed (anyone who grew up in the ‘sixties knows that look!) but mellowed out, at least for the moment, with Missoni underneath the table perched on a chair. No one is hissing, no one is growling. I decided to make a run for it, put down my weapon (the squirt bottle), and came upstairs to write this. Maybe, just maybe, peace will reign in the land.

Death of a Pajarito and Other News

As so often is the case, there is good news and bad news. Well, sort of bad news, I guess, but maybe it is actually good news. My mother, who has hovered in an undoubted twilight zone for the past year, since my father had the audacity to pass away rather suddenly and leave her behind in this vale of tears, seems to be more responsive than she’s been in a while. But she is also simultaneously starting to be much less interested in food and drink, which may be a signal that she’s fixin’ to die. Death has been on my mind the last couple of days, because yesterday I found a little bird struggling in the fountain, gasping for breath, with what looked like broken neck and a broken wing and it was clearly probably not going to make it. But I got it out of the water and set it down in a sheltered place where at least Reina wouldn’t get it, and thought maybe there would be a miracle, maybe it would recover; maybe it was just in shock, maybe it wasn’t that badly injured.  I couldn’t tell how it got into the water but it was cold and rainy and I know birds can’t survive long once they have gotten that waterlogged . And I was right, the poor little pajarito soon died. It just was one more sad thing upon sad thing that I’ve been dealing with lately.

The other day, I went over to the pretty little house we have rented for my mom and her caregivers, and for the first time in many visits, she was actually awake and seemed to recognize that I was there. She is in bed night and day; they turn her every so often to prevent bedsores, and change her diapers, keep her warm, give her oxygen, adjust her nebulizer, cool her off, whatever she needs; she has the world’s most attentive care from Jose and Sandra. She can’t really talk any more but I made a joke about getting her up and dressed because there was a sale on at Saks Fifth Avenue and there was just the tiniest, tiniest hint of a smile. That’s more than I’d gotten out of her in months. But the horrible thing about it was that it also was proof positive that – as we all say – she’s still “in there” – and what must this ongoing saga be like for her? She is asked repeatedly by the nice young doctor who stops by every few days to check on her, whether she’s in pain, and she nods her head to say she is not. I ask her if she wants anything or needs anything and she nods no. Or barely whispers no. But she – who was one of the most visual people I can remember – admired for her beautifully decorated homes and her personal style, is now completely blind, bedridden, incontinent, and her health has been failing, leading to this final landing place, for decades.  Now, she can’t carry on a conversation any more, and she is ever so slowly fading away, but she is still, for some unfathomable reason, with us, in spite of the ravages of diabetes, COPD/Emphysema, and just plain old age and frailty.

As I’ve noted on these pages before, I’ve been waging a pitched battle to lose the 70 lbs I managed to put on god knows how over the years.  It got more serious for me as I watched my mother disintegrate and I’ve read more and learned that in fact, based on my own history and blood test scores, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that the tendency to obesity, strokes, diabetes, heart stuff, is also genetically encoded in me as well as the various relatives who have died from all this stuff over the past few decades. I’ve read every book I can find about all this and they all sort of drum “diet and exercise” into your head to the point where I finally just surrendered to the obvious, cut all the carbs and sugar out of my diet and started to make excruciatingly slow, halting progress on the journey back down to a normal weight.  From the point where I began, it felt like being at the base of an enormous mountain I was going to have to climb, some monstrous, fog-shrouded Alp or something. I had no idea whether I would succeed. But, with all my “numbers” now in normal ranges, I guess I can say I have won at least the major skirmishes of the battle since nothing else horrible seems to be going wrong with me just yet.

It has been hard, but in a way it hasn’t, when I consider what I’m trying so hard to avoid – the pleasures of having to replace my entire wardrobe with new, NOT-plus-size stuff notwithstanding. Watching so many people around me age, especially my mother, I realized that thanks to the “miracles” of modern medicine, the chances are pretty good that lots of us baby boomers are indeed going to live to a ripe old age, whether we are actually fit to keep living or not. Everyone who knew my dad would have agreed he was one of the most brilliant people they’d ever met – with a Ph.D. from USC in musicology and an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Oberlin. He was brilliantly funny, loved by his colleagues, and successful enough to have kept us all in reasonable Southern California style when I was a kid, complete with red Jaguar and Encino swimming pool. He spoke four languages – five, if you count Italian, required by his musicology degree and love of music; even through the ravages of Alzheimer’s or whatever dementia or depression finally got the best of him. Though he died quickly and with great dignity, his departure was preceded by decades of slow, inexorable mental decline and withdrawal from the world which was a torment for him and an even greater torment for the rest of our family. Then there’s my mother, who absolutely refused to do the exercises prescribed by a parade of physical therapists and doctors throughout her life, as though somehow, as the Queen of the San Fernando Valley or whatever she thought she was, she was going to be exempt from the ravages of mostly preventable illness and old age.

Well, guess what, troops. She wasn’t exempt, nor was my dad. So even at the risk of being a little over-obsessed with it, I decided along the way to look the snarling demon right in his glowing red eyes and take him on. Scary and hard, when all you want is a tortilla with your chile relleno but you have – over and over again – to say no, it’s got too many carbs for me. I’ll just have a salad, thanks. (Well, I’m Atkins enough to have had a steak with my salad, to be more precise).

But the rewards are there, too, now, closer to the end of the trail than the beginning of the daunting project eight or nine years ago. I’ve lost weight more slowly than any other creature on the planet, I think, with stops along the way for various family and professional crises. But I have managed to stick with it and now, getting stronger working out three times a week, it’s starting to be more fun. I told a friend the other day “it’s odd, I look in the mirror now and the reflection I see staring back at me is a NORMAL person. Not thin, not especially athletic looking or sleek or anything like that, and most assuredly an older woman, but NORMAL. For a five foot tall girl who was pushing 200 lbs, this is weird but also undeniably kind of cool. And as I think about it from this new perspective, my hope is that at least while I’m still alive – hopefully twenty or even thirty more years – I can keep my strength and my faculties and enjoy whatever time I have left.  My poor mother could have had a much better time of her late eighties than she has had, that’s for sure.  None of us knows what fate awaits us, of course, and a bus could hit me turning a corner in the village tomorrow, but barring that, it is curious to say “here I am, at sixty-five, in the best shape of my life.”  I know others have had this experience too, from my reading, and at the end of my own life, for what it might be worth, at least I can say I tried. Not that it makes any difference if the diablo with the red eyes has you in his cross-hairs. Which he well might, knowing that we live in the land of vicious armed narcos, loco drivers who drink and text, unstoppable superbugs bedding down in hospitals, and on and on.

In any event, tomorrow I go back to my workouts with my trainer to keep slogging away at this, for what it is worth. The territorial battles of the cuatro gatos continue apace and it’s just so crazy with the yowling and hissing and chasing and god knows what that we honestly wonder if we will have to find new homes for Tabitha and Luigi in spite of our best efforts at some point. We hate to admit it, but maybe this ISN’T going to work out despite our intentions. Our original two are petite, delicate little girl kitties who have ruled their roost for years. But my mother’s two are bigger and stronger, and having been strays rescued at an older age, they were both on the streets in Santa Fe long enough so that they both can be aggressive with other cats, though they never were with any humans they encountered along the way.  We try to separate the four of them and break up the hissfests before they turn violent but today for the first time I heard some screaming while I was out in the garden, dropped my pruning shears and came running in to find a few drops of blood on the staircase. But all four kitties were by then far apart calmly licking themselves. Examined each cat for damage, could find none, checked the ears, the paws. Who knows which of the four got nailed? Now, they’re all curled up asleep scattered around the house. We are trying to be patient, give it some more time. Meanwhile, we seem to have a moment’s peace.