The stucco is on, both interior and exterior. The floor is poured with expansion and contraction lines cut. The stairs to the roof are under construction. When they are finished the roof will be sealed and our albañiles will be done. Thursday, tomorrow, we’ll drive to La Paz and order the windows and buy some wood for our front door. Next up are the Gypsy Carpenters or, I should say, the Gypsy Carpenter. I’m semi-retired from that line of work. The elbows, wrists, and hands just can’t do that kind of labor for long. And this job is small. Burt won’t need much help. I’ll hold up some studs or cut a board if he needs me but mostly I’m just going to tell him what I want aesthetically. What do I want? Quién sabe? Hmmmm…There’s no rush. I’m leaning towards wabisabi industrial in lavender and gray with apple green accents.
Life is rebooting into our normal routines. The Todos Santos Bridge club added an open duplicate game on Friday afternoon. Burt and I are very happy. Playing once a week was no way to advance our understanding of the game and our partnership. It was too hard to remember anything in between Mondays. The kids are coming back around now that I walk down to their house and escort them past the very friendly dogs they think are dangerous. The migratory birds are leaving but we’re still birding.
I have two book recommendations for you. It’s rare I read a book with the damn phone addiction and music and bridge and birding and yoga but I’m trying to reinstill the habit. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and When Breath Becomes Air. Both are about death and they are both great to read and completely different. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes made me want to be an undertaker (again). It’s funny and informative about the death industry. If you don’t feel like reading it let me advise you to avoid embalming at all costs. You don’t want to know. When Breath Becomes Air is the sad and inspiring memoir of a young neurosurgeon as he dies of lung cancer. The takeaway was find what you want to be and be it. And that can change. Adapt. Live. Love. Serve.
Have you read a graphic novel? How about a memoir? Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist, captured the last years of her parent’s lives in her book Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? I read this book a little while ago when I checked it out of the library. This month, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lewis and Clark Library is giving this book away and sponsoring a month’s worth of events on aging and dying. Roz Chast herself will be here to discuss this book. I picked up our free copy today. Our society’s refusal to face the facts of life must change. Where all headed down the same road. Let’s stop pretending. The book comes with a calendar of events and they all look interesting. Burt and I plan on attending several. Firstly there’s Roz’s meet and greet. Then there’s a talk on home funerals and green burials. And finally we hope to make it to the death cafe, a tea and cake event where we gather with strangers to talk about the one thing we all have in common: Death. There are also talks on hospice and Alzheimer’s disease and fitness events. We’re gonna skip the work outs. Laying flooring and setting tile on top of fishing and tennis has us whipped into shape this summer.
Two weeks away from phones, computers, and social obligations can be a time of productivity and room to try new things and time to just be. The first week went by easily. I never looked to my phone to see what was happening. I cooked. I laundered. I drew. I birded. I walked. I practiced my fiddle. There are new tunes in my fingers and sketches on my pad to prove I was productive. Time passed easily and I got a lot done. Around day ten I noticed I was having a hard time getting things done. I was staying in bed later. I was sitting and staring longer. I hadn’t drawn a plant. I hadn’t practiced my fiddle. The boys were cooking more. I had walked all the roads I could reach from our base camp.
What was going on? My mood was sour. I wanted to accomplish more but nothing was happening. I was in a malaise. One things was clear: I was reading. Reading has gone by the wayside for writing, birding, and social media-ing. I read three books in the back country. Most notably I read a sweet and moving novel called The Little Paris Bookshop. Nina George wrote this stunner. The book is superficially a fluffy chick-lt piece. It reflects on life and lost love. I was sucked in and my mood became melancholy. There were some painful and insightful parts about living in fear or living in love. I finished it and moved on to some manly Jim Harrison as a head clearer.
I couldn’t shake my sadness. I walked and sat and read. The boys worked on the casita and fed me. Then I remembered it was the one year anniversary of my mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease. Her birthday was at the start of our trip and then I dreamt of her and finally I realized we’d reached the date of her death. I was extra sad that I couldn’t quite recall the exact date. I knew it was between the second, third, or fourth. I was sad because even though I had called my father in advance of leaving and reflected on the upcoming time, I wished I could call him again. I was surprised at the intensity of the loss and the yearning to be comforted and provide comfort to those people feeling the same loss.I’m saying this was good for me. I think I would have been able to push this sadness away if I had more to occupy my mind.
The day after I recognized what was bothering me my mood lifted. Consciously saying I miss my mom made it easier. And a day or two later it was time to head back into the world at large. And here I am.
I’ll admit it I got a little tipsy last night. It wasn’t on purpose. We went out for a pizza and a movie and the margartita was enormous and strong. I don’t normally enjoy the sensation of intoxication but it felt right in the moment and I’m fine today. A little tired and still sad but okay. Mimi had a seizure this morning on top of it all. She started having seizures about three years ago. They were rare until this month. So rare that we only observed three in three years. But this month we’ve seen three in a bout 5 weeks. There’s no telling how many we are missing when we are away. After a few minutes of convulsions and drooling she regains her composure and appears normal. La-di-dah, I guess I’ll go eat, I feel fine now that’s over. At 18 years of age it’s hard to take these as a crisis. I presume one day she might give it up mid seizure. She’s had a long and pampered life. She has been a bonny road warrior. It would be a fine and dramatic end to the creature I’ve spent more years living with than any other in the world. But also an enormously sad end. Of course I was relieved she came out of it today. It’s not that I’m ready, it’s that she’s so old I’m trying to accept it as imminent. Yesterday when I was messily bawling she rolled over and over and rubbed on me trying to cheer me up. The dogs ignored me. People that say cats aren’t connected are idiots.
When people said we were brave for taking on this bird I didn’t understand. Now that my heart is broken I realize they meant brave for leaping into the chasm of doomed love. We could have left him to his fate that cool night a week ago. It wouldn’t have been the wrong thing to do. It would have been easier to walk away and let nature take its course but we didn’t. We dared to care, we tried to help and now we suffer for his loss. I am always shocked by how the death of an animal can feel so sharp. Someone provided comfort by explaining that love is what motivated us. A short lived but powerful love.
BH’s wound was simply too serious and the resources for repair do not exist here. He would have died without our help and he did die with our help. I wonder if our arrogance caused him more pain or I wonder if humans all over are better because we simply try. That we all collectively care is important. We need to hang on to our desire to help people and animals.
It is sad but also we learned some things. Maybe next time we will leave an injured animal to its fate but maybe not. Maybe we will seek medical care sooner. Maybe we will apply our new knowledge. Maybe we will succeed.
Burt and I perched an hour from the border between the USA and Mexico. Tomorrow we plan to meet Rosemary and Ed and cross over into our winter in Baja. More and RR and Ed later. Today I want to try and cover a subject that was set aside when my mom died: What could have gone wrong working in Virginia and did not.
When we agreed to take on the rehab and remodel of a home in Alexandria, Virginia we did so with a couple of caveats. One, we bid the job high because we had no idea what we would find when we physically arrived on site. We had a home inspection report but those are not reliable and certainly not geared towards home remodeling and repair. They are for home sales and negotiation. Burt and I are not impressed with the industry on a whole. Both of us have had home inspections fail to turn up fundamental flaws and over blow minor problems. Two, we could get kicked off the job at any time by either the building department for not having permits or the police for illegally camping on the street. A quick perusal of Fairfax county building codes revealed only a couple of areas where permits were required. Small, inconspicuous areas. When we learned that the most disruptive and visible work (replacing all windows) was permit-exempt we thought the job was a low risk enterprise. Still, we can’t guarantee a neighbor won’t turn us in. Our client was ready to take that chance. She knew we were fast and reliable. Her efforts to manage local builders from 2,000 miles away had been frustrating and expensive.
Dear readers might wonder why the owner didn’t simply get a permit. It’s not that easy. There are many reasons. Permitting a kitchen remodel can add significant time. Time means money. Also, permitting required an application by the actual owner. The boss on the job was the owner’s child. The actual owner is 89 and in poor health. No chance the owner was coming to Virginia to fill out paperwork. The only work requiring a permit was minor electrical and plumbing for the kitchen. Demolition, cabinets, windows, floor, painting, cleaning….all of this did not require a permit. Weighing the options it was worth the risk to the owner. Remember, a permit issue is the owner’s problem. We can legally work for anyone, anywhere. But as responsible business people we don’t want to knowingly get a client in trouble. We let them make the choice.
So there we were enjoying our season of no work when this job offer came our way. Consciously we debated the sanity of taking a job in a place far away with cold weather coming. A job in a place notorious for rules, crowds, Type A personalities. We discussed my mother’s health. We knew we could tack on a visit or two to see mom and dad. My brother and his family were near. The job was in a new area of the world. Google earth photos showed room for us to camp in the back yard. We could say we worked coast to coast. Mom’s health and our interest in the area tipped the scales over to, “Let’s go!”
Here’s what we worried about:
The camping situation.
Ordering windows, cabinets, counters, appliances. How long would it take? Could we get done by Christmas? Could we do it under budget?
Disposal of debris.
The size of the job.
How much could I work on my new heart meds?
On this job, nothing went wrong.
At first it looked like our camping situation was destined to cause problems. The Google Earth photos didn’t show the fence around the yard. For the first two weeks we parked road side. It felt like everybody was staring at us. The neighbors were watching but they were watching with delight as we made the worst eyesore in the neighborhood look clean and welcoming. They were thrilled we were in town and on the job full time. After 2 weeks we took a week off and towed away to visit my folks. This was the last time I saw my mom. Our timing was good. Some might say miraculous. After the visit we figured out a way to pull into the driveway and become less conspicuous.
Building inspectors never showed. Happy neighbors? Discrete work? We kept all debris out of sight and hauled it away frequently. We were quiet. The job was mostly unpermitted work.
After decades of working in the wilds of Montana and the intermountain west the ordering of supplies in the east coast megalopolis was a revelation. Everything is seemingly available at your finger tips. Things that take 6 weeks in Montana take 10 days in Virginia. Half the windows we needed were in-stock. The furnace had to be replaced and they had a new one in two days. Granite counters showed up five days after the cabinets were installed. This job had a coefficient of efficiency we never imagined possible. We had time to play bridge.
The job was just big enough and not too big for two. My heart meds slowed me down but I could work. Overhead stuff is really hard with low blood pressure. I grew frustrated changing light fixtures when my hand and arms didn’t have enough blood and I was gasping for oxygen but I got most of it done.
And then the real miracle. As we closed in on the last week of work my mom began to die. She could have gone mid-job and caused a ruckus. Surmountable but logistically hard. She could have waited until we were three weeks down the road. When turning back would have been costly and time consuming. Nope. She died two days before the job was done. Mighty convenient mom. Thanks for thinking of us. Living this wandering life makes traveling easier and harder. Timing a person’s death and the upheaval it causes is never convenient and always troubling. My mom could not have made it easier for us. It’s crazy that way back in August we thought about how nice it would be to be nearby and we could visit. We even thought about the end. We wondered if she might die while we were there. Someone somewhere was listening. Mom heard us? We heard mom? Our client heard that thing called god? I’ll never know.
Mourning a person so long lost to us is strange. I was told by more experienced people that the real work of grief lay after my mother’s death even though the brain has long since said good-bye. I remember the day over 6 years ago when my mother pointed to a picture of her husband and three kids and asked who they were. When I gently said, “Those are you kids,” she responded with, “I don’t have kids.” Mom was adamant. I tactfully did not try to convince her I was one of these dirty rotten tricks someone was playing on her. This negation of my existence was a step in the disconnection. When she stopped responding to mom and I started calling her Patty was another. It was all very painful. Add to that the years of her being paralyzed and non-verbal, years of no free will and I had to turn away and tell myself she was gone. This shell of a human was not her. I could not bare to believe she was in there. So, of course, I thought my work was done and death would be a peaceful release. And while I was right mom’s passing is a release and I know it is good I have it all wrong. Our suffering continues. It’s a new loss. As some say, Grace isn’t there on demand. We wait for it. It comes.
The first twelve hours I felt euphoric. Flying, light, giddy. I was so glad mom had finally left her tortured body I felt guilty for feeling good. I embraced it despite the guilt. Maybe mom was picking me up. Soon though I was immobilized by despair. Burt carried me through the shock. The wallowing, snotty bawling didn’t last long. By the time we reached dad’s I knew how to do what needed to be done. Now I am jobless and without tasks. Our truck is in for repair and we are in limbo. I can remember the euphoria and it makes me smile. I am glad I noticed. I’m hopeful it’s what we feel when we finally let go. Now I merely burst into tears for about 30 seconds when anyone asks me how I am. Burt says that’s a good thing. Release, compose and repeat.
It’s been 14 years since I first realized my mom was having troubles with her memory and analytical abilities. Fourteen years since I noticed her repeating questions. Fourteen years since she struggled to drive a stick shift. Fourteen years since she couldn’t read the map of Yellowstone National Park and thought a field of hay bales were sheep marching in formation. It’s been more than five years since she last recognized me. This last visit she no longer seems of this world. She seems like she’s departing. Mom still eats without too much trouble. She had a bad week last week and we were all having the hard talks but she’s rebounded a bit since then. During our visit she ate well. Drinking was a struggle. When I bid her good bye and leaned in for a kiss she took a nibble out of my cheek. Funny and no so funny. Dad was holding up well in person. We get emotional over the phone. I feel okay but threw my back out and caught a cold so that tells you I am not really down with this. I never hurt my back and nobody else had a cold.
I guess we’re all bracing ourselves and wondering how this will go down and how long it will take. I feel like my mom has had a terminal disease for over a decade but only now is she actually dying. My cousin Cara was visiting and we both laughed and groaned with fear at how we both hope she doesn’t choke on the morsel of food when we happen to be the ones feeding her. It’s a grim kind of humor. At times mom’s breath is raspy. One time I gave her a bit of juice and she started to cough a bit and I just had this moment of too much science and imagines little aerosol bits of juice heading to her lungs. Pneumonia? I hope not today. It’s hard to hope for a peaceful end and hope it doesn’t happen on your watch. I’m not sure the anticipated relief will come when mom finally dies.
I remember back to when I had a dream of taking an ax to my mother’s head an all her thoughts spilled out. These days I don’t get the sense that there are any more thoughts trapped inside. Dad will disagree. He feels her love and I believe that is still there for him. I hope she’s not suffering but I can’t be sure she isn’t. As always I am grateful my dad is able to do this as he sees best. The choices are his.
Demolition can make a person nostalgic or philosophical. I spent a lot of time today pondering the transience of all we do. Mentally easy but physically demanding work makes a space in the mind for important thought. My friend Bruce is living out the last of his days in the wide eyed awareness that he is indeed dying. We are all on the same path but his is foreshortened and the end psychically imaginable. I have some things I want to say about Bruce but he’s asked me to hold off. This is his death and so I will. I won’t wait to say this though, this is the first loved one in my life that is facing the end without denial and I hope I can learn from him. I’ve known others (know others) with a terminal diagnosis but none acknowledged the end was near with me. So here I will say, thank you Bruce for not sparing us and sharing with us your thoughts as you consciously near the transition point. I can say this too because I told you when I saw you: You have been a positive influence on my life. A huge and positive influence. You are a positive influence still. You always will be. And I know you can appreciate the work we are doing here in VA since you so recently had an entire estate to manage.
I’m in a mood. Perhaps it’s just low blood sugar. Two days in a row Burt has been gone at breakfast time. I am totally dependent on him feeding me to get out of bed. Yesterday some leftovers eventually saved me. Today the refrigerator is bare. Candy corn leftover from Halloween might get me dressed but I have a meeting in half an hour. Ack. Look at me procrastinating.
On Halloween we went for a walk up the South Fork of Cave Creek. The drainage is wildly overgrown after our very wet summer. My goal was to see if the maples were turning red. So far no. I found a small stand that the bugs had drained of vitality. Those trees went straight to brown but Burt and Carol found a tree with a twinkle of red high up in the canopy. Maybe in a week or so there will be red maples enhancing the already formidable beauty of this place. What I did find was a recently eaten woodpecker. A friend suggested a Cooper’s Hawk. She’s seen the Cooper’s relentlessly chase woodpeckers to exhaustion. This poor soul only left some feathers and the upper mandible of its beak behind. A little while later I noticed a scrum of jays harassing a large raptor. Perhaps the perpetrator of the dinner was being brow beaten by the loud jays?
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the new data on mouse trapping. Candy corn works. Cool weather has soured my mood (hitch itch) and brought the rodents into the gNash. Burt has been finding mouse traps licked clean day after day and no mouse. Yesterday he hit the jackpot with new irresistible and clunk bait. Candy corn is not good for anybody but we all find it irresistible.