Mice

i know you are
tired, love.
lie now,
lie still.
close your eyes and
i will watch
the breath slide
in and out of
your chest.
i will curl here
with the cats.
you can sleep
and we will keep
the mice away.

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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.

Bill Ulmer, Two Years In Prison

Two years ago today, Bill Ulmer was arrested by federal officials at the Denver International Airport.  This is a link to the first news story to come out a few days later.   The reporter mistakenly states that Bill was attempting to travel to Hawaii with his brother’s passport on that day.  This statement is not true.  Bill was arrested in 2015 for traveling with his brother’s passport in 2010, when he fled from Costa Rica to North Carolina after the suspicious disappearance of his girlfriend, Barbara Struncova.

I’ll venture to say that seeing badges flash out and being read his rights was big surprise for Bill, and certainly his worst nightmare.  Ok, no, not the worst one.  His worst nightmare hasn’t happened yet–that would be the unlikely discovery and identification of any part of Barbara Struncova’s body.  It must have been a terrible day for his wife, who believed she was leaving for her honeymoon with him in Hawaii.   She will probably not ever thank her lucky stars that he was arrested before they boarded the plane, but she should.

Last year, on the first anniversary of Bill Ulmer’s arrest, he was still waiting to be sentenced.

For me personally, as Barbara’s friend and someone committed to telling her story, Bill’s arrest was a bittersweet victory.  And although he has not admitted to doing anything to Barbara, nor was he charged with doing anything to Barbara, her name and her story have been woven into his arrest and his sentencing.  A document filed by the prosecution at Bill’s sentencing describes the findings of the Costa Rican OIJ, removing this information from secrecy and making it public knowledge.

Sometime within the next 12 months Bill will be released from prison, we can suppose.  Two years, of his three year sentence, have been served.  He’s capable of all kinds of charm and good behavior, so will he be released sooner?  I don’t know yet.

What will he do then?

Go home to his wife?  Bounce around the country spinning tall tales?  Get a job and become an upstanding citizen?   Show up in the oil fields again?  Move to Hawaii?  I wonder if, with all the time he’s had to think, he’s come up with any interesting new stories about what happened to Barbara.  He’s told so many different ones.  Why stop now?

I would like to invite him to start over, to do honest work (which he is capable of), to be faithful to the woman who loves him beyond reason.  I would like to recommend a support group for anger management.  There’s not a lot left to lose.

Barbara Struncova is a ghost who will haunt Bill Ulmer through Google searches.  If he remains faithful to his devoted wife, it shouldn’t matter.  If he goes on the prowl, Barbara Struncova will be here speaking the truth from behind the screen, beyond the grave, to anyone with the sense to listen.

Barbara, because she is gone, will never go away.

Barbara Struncova at the airport in 2008, on the way to Costa Rica.

 

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.