Who Would Have Thought

Who would have thought that being tired could be a symptom of something so sinister?  It seemed so normal, especially for someone who works as hard as my husband does.  Especially in Costa Rica where it’s so hot.

Who would have thought that the pain in his shoulder wasn’t a strained muscle or a pinched nerve?  Who would have thought that it was a reflection of things going wrong in an organ that can’t feel pain–his liver?

Who would have thought?

But then pain started under the right side of rib cage, and the tiredness grew into a constant sort of pallor and an uncharacteristic exhaustion.

Who would have thought that when that ultrasound showed something that the doctor would refer to as “metastasis” in my husband’s liver, I would be the one having to lie on the floor with my feet up because of the dizzy spell that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go?

Who would have thought, or even begun to guess, how many things were silently going wrong?  But blood tests don’t lie.

Who would have thought I would find myself sitting at my desk on a Thursday afternoon, refusing tears, buying plane tickets for Italy two days later?

Not me.

But that is exactly what happened.  As an Italian citizen, his medical care will be nearly free here, and let’s not compare the doctors in Milan with the ones in Liberia.

Who would have thought that it takes 10 days to get the results of a biopsy?

Who would have thought 10 days could take so long?  When you watch your husband become weaker by the day and all you can do is smile and try to breathe, it seems like 100 years.

Who would have thought I could put on my shoes in the morning, go outside for a run, and could run 7 kilometers before I was tired enough to stop?  Not me.  I don’t even like running.  Although I like it better than waiting.

I keep reminding myself of what I wrote a few months ago about being fearless vs being brave.  Right now I am being brave.  Because I am scared to death.  I’m afraid of what might happen.  I’m afraid of what might not happen.

Who would have thought that exactly two years after my husband and I came to Italy on vacation we would be back in the same city, staying with the same brother at the same time of year, but with for the purpose of saving his life?

A month ago, he was complaining about being tired.  He thought he had dengue.  Two months ago he had a sore shoulder.  Three months ago we were getting up at dawn to go surfing.

Who would have thought life could unravel this far in two weeks?  I guess, really, all it needs is a minute.

How to Make Mistakes

Where I come from, girls learn how to play the piano.  If that sounds Victorian, well, now you know something about where I come from.  I don’t have much to show for the time I spent and the money my parents spent on that endeavor, but it wasn’t optional.  Every week, from 3rd grade to 8th, I went to piano lessons.  I liked playing the piano when I was allowed to play what I wanted–but most of the time my teachers made me practice boring exercises and songs I didn’t know.  So, even though I wasn’t a terrible piano player, I was pretty terrible student. At least that’s how I remember it 30-some years later.

The most important thing I learned at piano lessons, I learned from Mrs. Swan, the elderly lady who sat 12-year-old me in her dark living room at her doily-draped piano after school on Thursdays.  She made me play the most dreadful drills.

Another thing girls do, where I come from, is play the piano in church.  This is an honor and a privilege, and it is freaking terrifying because all the older girls who have been taking lessons longer than you have and can play without ever making mistakes will hear you if you mess up.  Everyone will say you did great and it doesn’t matter if you made a little mistake.  But still.  Even the preacher will hear you mess up.

So one Thursday afternoon, I was playing particularly badly for poor Mrs. Swan.  She seemed so discouraged by my lack of love for her lessons, that I confessed.  I had barely practiced my lesson at all that week.  I’d been asked to play the piano in church, and I was madly practicing… “Whispering Hope,” I think it was.  This relieved and delighted poor, discouraged Mrs. Swan.

“Play it for me,” she said.

I gingerly began picking out the notes, pausing where I was uncertain of my finger placement, not wanting to fail at this as well.  When I got to the end of the song, Mrs. Swan gave me a significant piece of life advise which I have called on many times and repeated often.  Whatever the words she used, the message was this:

“Don’t you be afraid to make mistakes.  You just play that song with all your heart, and if you make a mistake I want you to make a big, enthusiastic mistake that everyone can hear.  No little wimpy mistakes!

Something to that effect.  She told me to play it again.  So I played it again, loudly and confidently.  I made some loud, confident mistakes and I had to admit she was right—it sounded a lot better, mistakes and all.

Mrs. Swan isn’t living anymore–if she were she would be 100.  And I can’t play the piano to save my soul, but I know how to make a good mistake.  Big.  Loud.  Not fearfully or shamefully.  I’ve had lots of practice and I’m fabulous at it.

I actually hand myself Mrs. Swan’s advice quite frequently when I’m surfing—who knew that piano lessons could speak to that?  “Don’t worry about making a mistake,” I tell myself.  “Make a giant mistake.  Take the wipe-out of the day.”

I do.

Mixed with my rides, I get me some almighty wipe-outs.  I consider them a success in their own way.  Sometimes going all in is more important than what happens next.

 

Semana Santa

I love Semana Santa. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all. I love the chicharras. I love the air that’s too hot to breathe and smells like wood smoke from a fire in the mountains somewhere. I love the hazy stars. I love the badly-acted religious movies from 1970 that they play every year on TV. I love the maranones. I love the jocotes. I LOVE the rosquillas.

When I first came to Costa Rica as a student in 1991, the only time I got little case of Montezuma’s Revenge was because I ate too many rosquillas in Semana Santa. Gotta watch those little buggers with all that manteca. Talk about indigenous cooking. Ground corn, manteca, that hard salty smoked cheese, salt…am I forgetting something? Probably.  They don’t look that good. They don’t sound that good. And the first time I saw my host mother dump a handful of those odd little round biscuits into her tall glass of sweet black coffee? Bleagh! I thought in my innocence.

Oh silly me. Once you start on them, you can’t stop.

I love Semana Santa.  I love everything being closed in the middle of the week.  I love families sitting in the shade of trees in their yards. I love families playing with their fat little babies on the beach. I love drunk uncles lounging in the shade beside coolers full of cold drinks, tuna and soda crackers. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all.

It’s been a year since I’ve been back in Costa Rica, back home.  Immigration renewed my residence, considering me to have been a resident even during the time I was gone.  (I never thought an immigration document could make me almost burst into happy tears but when I read that, I had to take a deep breath.) I missed Semana Santa so much.  Not the chaos-at-the-beach part of Semana Santa–all the rest of it.  If you live in Costa Rica and you have no idea what I’m talking about, my sincere condolences.  There’s more to it than traffic jams at the coast.

They say every year on Sabado de Gloria, it rains.  And honestly, it usually does.  Maybe it’s the moon, this “Christian” holiday being situated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.   The monkeys are in the trees calling for rain.  The chicharras call for it.  The cenizaros don’t make a sound, but you can see them beckon if you watch.

I love Semana Santa.  I missed it so much.  Easter is a nice day, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Latin America knows how to celebrate a thing in a way that North America never will.  Sorry for all the grumpy gringos.

50 Different Words for Children

Who would like to join me in a toast to funny-shaped families: non-traditional, hard-to-explain combinations that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter no matter how you turn them?

Cheers!

. . . . .

The boys have grown into men and they roar up to my house on motorcycles. They peel of their helmets and pick me up off the ground when they hug me. When they were little and I was their dad’s wife, they didn’t call me mamá, but now they do even though I’ve been gone for much longer than I was there. You can divorce an adult, but the kids are another story.

I re-married and have a new set of step-kids who, unfortunately, live far away. My ex’s kids love my husband and he loves them right back, so when we get together it’s a very odd combination of laughter and pizza and reminiscing about things that not all of us remember. But it’s alright. You can open your heart to the people who want to love you, or you can close it.  Heads or tails.

But the language breaks down–all the ones I know do.  Here’s a question: What do I call my ex-husband’s daughter? If I call her my step-daughter, that confuses her with my husband’s daughter. And my husband has a daughter. He has a son, too, so what do I call the young men on the motorcycles? My ex-step-sons? That sounds terrible. Their dad is my ex—they are not any type of “ex” to me. Our relationship is very much in the present.

So here’s another one. What if my ex-step-daughter has a baby? Because she did. What do I call the baby? My ex-step granddaughter?? I’m laughing now. I’m a little annoyed with Webster’s lack of imagination. We don’t have a word for this. We need one.

I need one.

You know what I don’t like about the options my language gives me for naming children who aren’t mine? I don’t like identifying people who I consider family primarily by who they are not. Like calling the infant I hold in my arms my “ex-step-granddaughter.” That language removes her from me twice before giving her to me. It’s backwards. (And I would never call her that anyway, of course!)

The guy married to my sister is my brother-in-law. The woman married to my other sister is my sister-in-law. Those names give the relationship first and take it down a peg second. I like that order better. My sister’s wife is first my sister—and second, not-really-my-sister.

I guess the supposition is that when you divorce someone, the relationship is broken and the family is broken, so therefore the language identifies the break before it reflects anything else. I imagine that most times it is that way. I just wish we had a whole different word for it, is all, if you aren’t estranged. Like a language that has 50 different words for snow. I wish we had 50 different words for children. We have 3: kids, step-kids and grandkids.

Fail.

I especially dislike the vibe of the prefix “step” in front of family relationships. I accept it, but I don’t care for it. Tell the truth: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “step-mother?” A wicked woman who won’t let pretty girls go to parties at best, and feeds them poisoned apples at worst. Please. Being a stepmother is wretchedly difficult, and no matter what you do, it will be the wrong thing in somebody’s opinion almost all the time.

I wish we had a word for my husband’s son that doesn’t start out by telling you that he doesn’t really belong to me. I wish I had a word for my grandbaby’s mama that doesn’t showcase what we are not.

Of course you are thinking, “Just say ‘daughter’ and ‘granddaughter’.” And I do, and I will.  I just feel the need to put my finger on a very personal place where language and life do not match up at all.

When I was college age, I used to say that I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to have children, but that I thought I would make an excellent grandmother.  I didn’t expect to pull that off, but look at me now.

And, dear English Language, please evolve.

 

italia

Feed the Good Wolf

I feel the need to weigh in on the political situation in US of A. I do not believe that I have anything new to say, but when I think that I will therefore not say anything, that feels wrong.  So this, today, is my statement.  Followed by a story that gives me a way forward.

I am not happy with our new president.  I was not happy with him as a candidate, and I am not happy with him now.  I don’t like what he says or has done regarding issues of immigration.  I don’t like his arrogant, self-absorbed demeanor.  I read things that disturb me regarding how he is placing white supremacists in powerful positions around him.  I am told that hate crimes and hateful actions are on the rise.

I know good people who like him, who brush off what I find intolerable with a shrug of the shoulders and say this is the liberal media, not the truth.  All I can say is, I hope you are right.

I still don’t like him.  I feel betrayed by a country that I thought I understood a little, but clearly I don’t.

In the face of discrimination, hate and fear, I feel compelled to wage love.  Wage kindness.  Wield it like a sword.  No one, no matter how hateful, can take away your ability to be compassionate.  Do it expansively.

Here is a small Native American story for us to keep close to our hearts, to give us a way forward, personally.  It doesn’t speak directly to politics, but to individuals–to me.

A grandfather tells a young child that inside each person, there is a good wolf and a bad wolf.  The bad wolf is hate, anger, and arrogance.  The good wolf is love, compassion, and kindness.  The good wolf and the bad wolf are locked in a fight.

The child thinks about the wolves and, as children do, asks, “Which one wins?”

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

Feed the good wolf.

 

 

An Inch Too Far To The Left

I wanted to lie in my hammock and look at the moon. It was shining onto the porch through the trees, so if I lie with my head at the feet end, and my feet at the head end, I would be able to watch it rise. Up until that Wednesday night, I kept the hammock tied high and tight. It took some talent to get into, but it’s a much more comfortable position once you’re in, than half-sitting with your knees hyper-extended like what happens to me in normal hammock position.

One second, I was trying to wiggle up into the hammock with my left hip. The next second something slammed my head so hard I knew it was trying to kill me. That is literally what went through my mind: an attempt on my life.

I was lying on the floor. What? The cement floor under the hammock. On my porch. It was very hard to think about things, to understand that one second I was balancing into my hammock and the next second I hit the floor head-first on the other side. Sober, in case you’re wondering. Mortally clumsy.

It seemed clear to me that I might die. The sound I heard inside my own head as it slammed the cement echoed. I put my hand to my head and a soft, hot lump like the skull of a newborn filled my palm. If it’s swelling like this on the outside, what is happening on the inside? Am I going to die?

I called for Pio who was inside watching tv. The moment before, I kissed him and said I was going to go out onto the porch to lie in the hammock for a while. At 8 PM on a Wednesday. The night before full moon when I can’t bear to be inside. Then I was lying there trying to scream for ice.

*****

Clearly, I didn’t die. I walked around in a fog for a few days, and I still have a black eye even though the hit was nowhere near my face.

I’m writing this to tell you what came to my bruised brain as it bounced around inside my skull and decided to keep doing its job of making my body live. This: Pongase las cuentas al día. Get your accounts in order. Literally. And so-to-speak. Leave a paper trail. Say what you mean. Don’t start things you have no intention of finishing. Don’t start things you shouldn’t finish. Because any day, for any stupid slip-up, you could be gone.  Before you know what happened. All you have to do is lean in an inch too far to the left.

Pio got me ice. I don’t know who was more scared–him or me. I lie on the ground with my feet propped up while he iced them to keep me awake. It helps. Keep ice in your freezer. It might keep you conscious some night, which helps. I thought about Jon and the crocodile attack. He held on for 45 minutes or more lying on the beach while he waited for an ambulance. If he didn’t let go, I wasn’t going to. Not that there is any comparison between falling out of a hammock and being attacked by a crocodile. But I thought about it. No ambulance was going to come for me.

Pio called our neighbor who showed up with his truck, they put me in, and hauled me off the the “emergency room” in Santa Cruz, a very bouncy 30 minutes away. At the “emergency room,” they asked me what day it was, how old I am, looked in my eyes, pushed on my arms and told me I was alright. This is the type of free “medical service” available in Costa Rica. I got my first wheelchair ride. They told me if I started feeling or acting strange in the next days, to come back. I left as terrified as I’d arrived. The town I live in has lost more than one person several days after a head injury.

But I feel better now. I think it’s safe to say I made it. The day I leave this world, it will be because of something else. But you know what? I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m staying right here if I can help it, in this yellow house with Pio and the cats, my dying computer, the wind, the dusty road and a couple of low-slung hammocks that hyper-extend my knees.

2017 Plans, Starting With Coffee

I was talking on the phone to one of my sisters the other day, and she asked me perfectly normal question: “So what are your plans for the new year?”–or something like that.

For one very confusing moment, I had no idea what to say. I mean, I realize that, yes, we have turned a page on the calendar. I even made a resolution regarding how to (hopefully) be a somewhat better human being. But that’s not the same as plans.

For some reason it felt like a confession of something not very noble to say that I don’t really have any plans.  But I mean that in a good way, if you get what I’m saying.  An expression of contentment.  I have nothing to fix because nothing is broken.

Is that terrible?  I know in my heart that it isn’t, but it’s a 1st World cultural thing:  you need goals.  You need plans.  If you aren’t going somewhere–well.  How dare you?  Let me clarify:  this is NOT said sister’s attitude, nor is it the spirit in which she asked the question.  We were just chatting.  And then I got to… hablando sola.

When I sit down and make a list of what I actually plan to do this year, this is what I come up with:

–In 2017, I plan to wake up every morning.  Early.  Early enough to see the big dipper on the horizon in the south, then watch the sky fade from black to gray to blue.  Roosters, then monkeys, then parakeets.

–I plan to drink hot coffee in the mornings.  A glass of red wine in the evening.  In between, plenty of water.  I fully intend to eat far more plants than animals, and that most of the animals will be fish.

–I plan to surf as often and as well as I possibly can.  It won’t be as often or as well as my heart asks, but I plan to be ok with that.  I know my options.  For five cold years I couldn’t surf, ever.

–In 2017, I plan to feed my cats twice a day.  Religiously.   And pet them and pester them and sing them silly songs.

–I intend to go to work 5 days a week, and remember that this alone makes me lucky.

–I plan to be a good wife.

–I plan to visit my granddaughter.  She isn’t my biological granddaughter, obviously, because her mama wasn’t my baby, but I prefer to define things by what they are, not by what they are not.  She will learn to sit and crawl and probably walk.  I have no plans of being a stranger.

–I plan to look at the sky every night.  Search for certain stars or watch the moon.    On dry nights I may lie for a while on my back on the ground under the sky.  Me and the Milky Way.  Because I can.

–I have a hammock, now, and I intend to use it.

–In 2017, I plan to turn 47.  I feel fine about that.  Next year I plan to turn 48, and I’m not afraid to say it.

–I plan to pay attention to poems, to dreams, to wind direction.  If I can get those things right, the rest will follow.

These are my ambitions.  My goal is to be warm.  My plan is to be content.  On both counts, I am fully self-confident.