health

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.

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.

¡Viva México!

On top of the stresses of my mother’s ever-so-agonizingly-slow decline, the ongoing territory battles of the cuatro gatos, the occasional armed robbery and murder here to keep us on our toes, we have had to deal with the outcome of Arnold’s PET scan, done just before we went off to Puerto Vallarta. Sure enough, as Arnold’s Mexican cardiologist, the wonderful Dr. B., suspected, the PET scan showed some additional problems in his heart, and he wanted to get in there to do an angiogram – and probably put in at least one “estent” (stent) as soon as possible.

So our choices were – A) Go back to New York, where Arnold is in the hospital’s system and Medicare plus his insurance would pay for the whole thing. He mused, “We could go back to New York, I could go into the hospital overnight and then be out and guess what – we’d be in New York! We could shop and play and eat and see some performances and yippee! If we’re going to be spending all that money anyway.” B) Have it done in Guadalajara, where we would have to pay for everything ourselves, but one would come back from the procedure to one’s own home and bed – and garden terraza (terrace), with vodka and tonic at hand rather quickly – in a matter of an hour or so after being released from the hospital; no hotel rooms, flights or going through customs required. I did a rough calculation and figured that it was pretty likely to be a wash, or close to it, with New York hotel prices, airline tickets, food, and such. So it was really up to Arnold, where he wanted to have this done.

He really liked the idea of going back to New York; everyone in the hospital speaks English, and they have even more fancy technology there (or so we thought) than they do here, should something go wrong. I wasn’t sure I agreed; my wifely instincts were telling me we shouldn’t mess around with this, getting on what amounted to four plane flights, the stress of traveling and then staying in a hotel, and the general hassle of it. What if something happened to him on a plane? And there was the nagging question as to why the wonderful specialized American cardiac center had utterly missed this possibly fatal blockage in the first place. In the process of putting his pacemaker in they had done god knows how many echocardiograms and x-rays during the time he was in there. But it was his decision, so I said  “Of course, whatever you want to do” even though my gut said we should hie ourselves off to the catheterization lab in Guadalajara like NOW.  Dr. B., who deals with Americans all the time, said “I get it about wanting to have Medicare cover it, but don’t delay on this too much longer” which for a Mexican is pretty much a five-alarm bell, at least in my view.

Still, Arnold, undaunted, persisted in wanting to go back to the Ancestral Homeland. He got on the phone and contacted my cousin’s highly regarded cardiologist in New York City. Well, not exactly the doctor himself, but his office, whose Patient Care Coordinator told an eager Arnold rather briskly that unfortunately the first available appointment was mid-October and this was mid-July. Welcome to the U.S. medical care system. So, good news, you can have it done in the U.S. and Medicare and your insurance will pay for all of it. Bad news, if you wait five more months with a couple of badly clogged arteries you could be dead.

Poor Arnold then called Dr. B. and said with a bit of trepidation, “Okay, okay, I get it that I can’t wait till October. Let’s just do it here and get it over with; tell me what I need to do”. “Stop by the office and we’ll make a plan”. So we go, and Arnold regales the doctor with his disappointment in the folks in New York, who wouldn’t make the institutional waters of the great and famous cardiac center part for his stent procedure. The good doctor listens patiently while Arnold vents about the whole situation. While Arnold talks about it all, Dr. B. intently studies his arm, saying “let me see your hand; make a fist, open it, close it, now turn your hand over”.  He then pronounced, just as Arnold put the finishing touches on his lament about Nueva York; “Great, we can go in through the wrist”. “What?” we both asked; “not through the femoral artery in the groin, with the eight hours of a sandbag on you and you cannot move an inch?” “No, he said, we don’t do it that way any more; nowadays we go in through the wrist. Much better, you can get up and move around, go to the bathroom, even go home in a few hours although we generally keep patients in overnight just to observe them. ”

Then he said, “How about day after tomorrow? I’d do it tomorrow but I have appointments with patients.” Be at the hospital at 8 a.m. and I’ll schedule it for 8:30. What? You are worried about getting to the middle of downtown Guadalajara on a weekday morning, a good hour away from where you live? No problem, we will send a car and a driver for you and your wife.”

The nice driver called us at 7 a.m. to say he was stuck in traffic himself coming from the city, but “no hay problema”, he had already texted the hospital and they were expecting us despite the delay. When we walked into the hospital’s reception area, a lovely gentleman in a while lab coat, Dr. B. SENIOR (our Dr. B.’s father, also a cardiologist, who works with him, it turns out) whisked Arnold away immediately to the catheterization lab. He told me to go in to his hospital room and wait, after I had filled out a bunch of paperwork. His room was basic, nothing fancy, a bed, a private bathroom, a TV, a couch for a family member to sleep on, and a bashed but very comfy old recliner. “Disculpe”, the doctor said, “this is a very old hospital and there are newer and prettier ones around, but this is the one where all the cardiologists work because this one is where all the best equipment is”.

An hour and a half later the younger Dr. B. called me and said “Come downstairs, I want to show you the images of his angiogram. I’m very happy you both decided to do this here and I’ll show you why in a minute.” I went downstairs into the lab and there Arnold was with a bunch of tubes coming out of him and a big pressure bandage on his wrist; he was wide awake and very happy it was over with. I noticed that they had rushed him in there so fast that they had left his wedding ring and watch on. There were six big computer screens over the table above his feet; Dr. B. said “I want you to look at this” and showed me “before and after” – what turned out to be a 98% blockage in the left anterior descending artery.  This is a really serious one; turned out he was a sitting duck for a massive heart attack. He explained, “The PET scan showed us there was a problem there, but sometimes we just can’t tell how bad it is until we actually get into the catheterization and can really see what is going on. He is very, very lucky – now he will be fine. We can do miracles repairing peoples’ hearts these days but believe me, it is so much easier BEFORE the person has the heart attack than it is afterwards.”

They moved him to his room, he promptly turned on the Olympics on the TV; I stayed with him for several hours and then decided to head home on the bus. Dr. B. saw him later that evening and said “You can go home tomorrow – how will you get back?” Arnold said “well, I’ll probably just  take a taxi to the bus station and take the bus back.” “Wait, Dr. B. said, I have patients to see in my office in Ajjic tomorrow. I’ll pick you up here at 9 a.m. and run you back there, and your wife can pick you up at my office there around 10:30.” Talk about customer service!

So the next morning, I picked him up at Dr. B.’s office here in the village, and brought him home. The four kitties and Reina greeted him, and later we both went out to the terraza  for our regular evening cocktail and chat. The next day he took off the teensy weensy spot bandaids he had on each wrist – one where the catheter went in and the other where the IV port was. And that was that.

Meanwhile Mexico just won its first Olympic gold medal in soccer and the neighborhood is going nuts, shooting off rockets and one can only imagine how crazy things are in town. Arnold is fine, recovering his equilibrium, paying bills at his desk, after having had the wits scared out of him by this series of events.  I think this means that at least for the moment, life is going to go on.

¡Viva México!

The massive wound left by Arnold’s stent procedure, through the wrist!

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.

A Doctor’s Excuse

I have been so neglectful of my poor blog; a million things have conspired to keep me from writing. But hopefully I can catch everyone up a bit. But I do have an excuse for my silence from a doctor, or a bunch of doctors; I really do. Our best laid plans for diverting ourselves in the big city were changed and our lives and our assumptions about what the future might hold have been altered over the past several weeks’ events  – everything looks different these days and we are still getting used to some new realities.

On May 8 Arnold and I set out for New York City anticipating a week of opera, concerts, shopping, a couple of museums – our usual New York madness. The first few days were loads of fun as we crossed items off our various shopping lists (the things one MUST have that are not available in Mexico) and walked around the city till we had blisters on our feet. But a few days into it, Arnold began to notice that he was having trouble climbing up the two flights of stairs to the apartment we had rented. At first, he thought it would just go away, and I said “maybe you should have yourself checked out”….and it really didn’t make any sense to me because we live in a two story house so one more flight shouldn’t have made any difference. And whatever difference there was should have been negated by the fact that whereas at home we’re at five thousand feet above sea level, here we were at sea level, where I was pretty much bounding up the two flights (at least after we got the luggage hauled up there).

But the shortness of breath came back and Arnold was concerned enough about it the second time around so that he said “yes, let’s get me to a hospital”. But not before he did a bit of research on the internet to find out what the best cardiac hospitals in New York were! We ended up taking him to New York-Presbyterian where they basically took one look at him, ran a few tests, and said “you need a pacemaker, sooner rather than later”.  And they wheeled him off right away to have that done, leaving me to both be scared to death about what was going on but also enormously grateful that we were there, in New York, in the States, where Arnold could speak English to the doctors and nurses, it would virtually all be covered by Medicare, and that actually, if it was inevitable, we were in the best possible place for this to have happened.

A few hours later he was back in his room with the new device installed in his chest and hooked up to a million different wires and computers. The nurses showed me how to interpret what was going on and how to read the different numbers and even I could see that once they got the pacemaker sort of adjusted in there, it was already making an enormous difference in his heart rate. It was actually kind of amazing. Every couple of hours someone would come in to check something or other out, sonograms, x-rays, all sorts of blood tests. They had him stay in a couple of extra days just to be sure everything was functioning properly, and then by Tuesday they did one more final round of tests after he’d been up and around and walking around town again. At that point the cardiologist literally and figuratively cleared him for takeoff, so we could fly home. We tore a page out of my mother’s book and cashed in a boatload of mileage so we could go the whole way back first class. It made a huge difference – no lines, wheelchairs at each stop, everyone was nice to us, we had room to stash our stuff without it interfering with Arnold’s arm, and they even fed us! (That wasn’t necessary after two weeks in New York but, well, why not be pampered?)

No matter how you slice it, though, it made us both stop and think about the fact that we are getting older, that this unexpected medical stuff can and probably will happen to both of us. It has raised a bunch of questions for us about our lives in Mexico, far from family, far from the kind of state-of-the-art medical care we received while going through this adventure. On top of the stress of going through the ordeal itself, we also were faced with a lot of other nettlesome questions about our lives and our future. But the main job for me was to be there for him and so I went off to the hospital, across town to the East Side, every day, and stay with him for awhile. I kept thinking “I think he’s officially a cardiac patient now….” and tried to grasp what, as far as our future plans might be, what this could mean.

Arnold’s doctors told him he has to take it easy for a few weeks and especially not to lift his left arm higher than shoulder height. So far, he’s being very good ! And already he admits to feeling better, and his color is better, too. What a relief. We made an appointment to go back to New York (just the excuse we needed, I’ll probably need some more makeup by then!) in October for them to do a routine check on the pacemaker. For now, we are both exhausted, but happy to be home. Reina, Rosie and Missoni all went nuts when we came through the gate after Luis picked us up at the airport. All in all, rather than being gone for just eight days we were gone for more than two weeks.  We are both relieved and hoping this means he will be around for a long time to come. Still, as they say, always something!

Meanwhile back here we are plunged once again into the increasing crime affecting all of us; the expat community’s efforts – misguided? hopeful? sometimes even a bit effective? to do something about it. And the rainy season is drawing closer every day. The brown hills and dusty gardens are just waiting, waiting, now for the first serious rains to fall.