I walk a lot. I usually have an actual or imaginary purpose for my walks other than just wandering around. I walk to the grocery store, the pharmacy, a street market, or I explore a new street. There’s something I’ve been thinking about while I walk. Hablando sola. I’ve been talking to myself about it for a long time and I haven’t known how to break it to you. I think a lot of things I can’t say, because there are things you say when your husband has a late-stage metastatic cancer, and things you don’t. Trust me.

This one, I think I’ve got broken down into bite-sized pieces.

So when you find out that a loved one has something bad that isn’t going to go away, people reassure you with things like, “Be positive. You never know,” and, “I’m going to pray for a miracle,” and, “Ten years ago my uncle had stage 4 brain cancer and how he’s running marathons and writing computer software,” or some such thing. And when you first find out there have been monsters lurking in the shadows all this time, those things are very reassuring. Obviously, Hope is essential for Life and Survival, and the last thing a sick person should do is give up hope. Same for his wife.

I’m just going to say that personally, three months in, I’m a little bit beyond the everything-might-be-alright stage. Nothing is alright. And when you tell me to “be positive,” I feel like you don’t get it. I’m not mad. And I’m not going to leap off the balcony. I’m just saying.

Before I go on, let me state that gigantic, cataclysmic miracles are always invited. I know they happen, and they are welcome any time. But if they were normal, or something you should hold your breath for, then they wouldn’t be called Miracles now would they? They would be called Normal. So forgive me if I’m not counting on one. I would love one. You can keep praying for one. But please don’t frown sideways at me if this is all I have to say about miracles. Thanks.

Pio is a really positive guy. He always has been. Me too. I think we’re both about as positive as they come. So don’t tell me to be positive. I was born positive. Pio was born ridiculously positive. Nobody is sitting around the house moping, and all things considered, I think that should serve as evidence that we both ARE positive. Even our blood types are positive.

But I’ve been talking to myself a lot about what “positive” looks like when you have metastatic stomach cancer. Or your husband does. Two months ago, the doctor told us that this isn’t going to go away. So where’s the line between being “positive” and sticking your head in the sand? Hm? A month ago the oncologist told us that she didn’t even want to agree to give him chemo at all, and here he is 3 treatments in and still fighting like a badger. They told us the chemo, if it is successful, could slow down or stop the progress of the disease. Did they actually use the word “stop” or did Pio add that in? I don’t remember anymore. At any rate, let’s not pretend we think they meant “stop indefinitely,” if they even used that word at all. Or, oops. Would that be not-being positive? Is there any value in being realistic? How about reasonable? They very specifically stated that this does not have a cure.

I can’t tell you what’s going on inside anyone else’s head; I can only tell you what’s going on inside mine. And in some ways it isn’t fair, because I’m not the one with anything wrong with me. I feel a guilty doing all the talking, and fear that I may be misunderstood as trying to make this all about me. So, read on at your own risk. Yes, this is about me. It isn’t about cancer. It’s about holding on and letting go.

To me, today, being “positive” means putting my big-girl pants on every single morning when I get out of bed.  It means finding the courage to be a cheerful presence in the house–not too much; just enough.  It means finding a reason to go out for a walk in the fresh air, and going. Being positive means looking right at all the ugly things that are happening and taking a deep breath. And naming them. It doesn’t mean pretending they aren’t ugly. Or pretending tomorrow they might wake up suddenly pretty. Or pretending that any day is going to be better than today for a long, long time. Being positive right now, means acknowledging that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, because I’m sorry but it is, and it doesn’t help you or me to pretend it’s not. And it means believing that someday things are not going to be like they are today.

Being positive means that I find the good things about each day and deeply enjoy them. The red ball of the sun rising quietly over the Duomo at 7 AM. Whatever crazy neighbor that is who has a ROOSTER in Milan that I can hear crowing before traffic noise starts. Giggling with Pio at breakfast about his crazy hair. Peaches. Proscuitto cotto. Homemade chocolate pudding. A visit from Kiara. A silly tv commercial that makes us laugh. The bread Pio suddenly got up from the couch and made on Saturday. Thunder. A rainbow. A long walk during which I talk to myself like a crazy lady, sneak out a few tears, hum a song, buy an ice cream cone. Checking the surf on the surf cam in Tamarindo. Watching the evening news with Pio as night falls. Getting up to click the light on so I can keep crocheting while he snoozes. Drinking chamomile tea together. Listening to him breathe while he sleeps.

Send love. Send light. Send good vibes. Send thoughts. Send prayers. Pray for a miracle if you dare, but pray for an atomic one, which ends in surf boards and motorcycles. I’m not interested in piddly little miracles where we all suffer for miraculous amounts of time. Wish us a good day. Wish us more good days than bad days. Wish us sleep—that’s always a blessing. Wish us peace. Wish us unexpected laugher. But don’t bother with, “Be positive.” I am positive. Absolutely positive. Entirely, and without the shadow of a doubt.


Two And A Half Months In Milan

I’ve been in Milan, Italy for two and a half months—long enough to have “gotten used to it” in a lot of ways, but not long enough to simply take for granted the way things are. It seems, therefore, the right time for me to share some observations.  None of this is related to what’s going on with our health situation–it’s about what surrounds it.

#1. Milan is very organized. The Italians in Milan are very organized. This came as bit of a surprise to me because my experience of Italians was always the crazy ones who left the civilization of Europe for the jungles of Costa Rica. And that is one wild bunch. As one might say of Americans, the calm, sensible, reasonable, judicious ones stay at home. The Italians in Milan live in small apartments on narrow streets with small cars parked either in small parking spaces or in small “boxes” that are box-like garages that go with their apartments. Underground.  The apartments have small, immaculate kitchens with small refrigerators and small pantries filled with small packages of food. Nothing comes in bulk. Small living rooms have small couches. Children (even adult children, if they live at home) sleep in single beds. You do small loads of laundry every day because there is one drying rack and you have to fit everything on it. And in Milan, to my surprise, EVERYBODY IRONS. Religiously. I kind of thought ironing was one of those things people used to do, but I guess not.

#2. Trash is not just trash. Oh no. There are three types of trash, one of which is recycling, and there are three types of that. These items are disposed of separately, and no one would think of saying “the hell with it” and just dumping it all together. That’s not how it’s done. Glass, plastic/metal, and dry paper are separated (by you when you take out your trash to your building’s trash area–because if you live in Milan, you likely live in an apartment). Then there’s “wet” trash and “dry” trash. Food trash goes in the “wet” bin: egg shells, carrot peels, coffee grounds, used paper products, etc. The last category is “undifferentiated” which is everything else, which isn’t all that much. I’m told you get a fine if you do a bad job of separating your trash. I’m not sure how that works as I haven’t noticed any surveillance cameras in the trash area, but I’m trying not to find out!

#3. With the exception of polenta, which might be compared to the southern USA’s grits, it seems that Italians do not eat corn. There was zero sweet corn in the markets this summer. To find corn flour for tortillas and/or cornbread, I had to go to a special international grocery store. Also, there is no frozen corn in the grocery store—only canned. This isn’t a problem for me because the main way I consume corn in in tortillas, but I do think it’s interesting. I know that corn is a grain from the Americas, I just assumed that since in the Americas we eat pasta, in Italy there would be corn. Well. There might be, but it is not in Milan.

#4. Oatmeal is a special health food, not a staple. I searched the supermarket high and low for it and finally discovered small over-priced bags of plain old oatmeal tucked into the Special Health Food row between the organic fair-trade rice cakes and the organic fair-trade soy noodles. Good grief.

#6. Unless there is a special pedestrian signal—the kind featuring a red person standing or a green person running—that directs otherwise, you are supposed to walk directly in front of oncoming traffic at crosswalks. Only at crosswalks, mind you, but you are NOT supposed to stand there and wait for drivers to come to a full and complete stop for you. They hate that. If you do, they will glare at you and make annoyed Italian hand gestures. They know they aren’t supposed to run over you. They’re very organized and hate anything that makes a mess, so you can trust them. They will slow down enough to keep from hitting you, and everyone continues on their merry way. And you don’t have to run, either. Just walk across the street like you own it. You do.

#6. All of the history weights on people. Or maybe there’s some piece of it that I’m not able to see clearly, yet. They love their history in the same way that you might love a family member who is suffering from dementia—truly, and yet some selflessness is required in the process. Italy IS History, and to physically navigate Italy, or at least Milan, you must physically navigate through History and its mad twists and turns, reversals, successes, and failures. Nothing simply is. Everything was, and was before. I think about this as I walk or ride around the zillions of round-abouts that are constructed to direct traffic flow around historical monuments like La Porta Romana, one of the gates that once opened into the medieval city of Milan but that now stands in the middle of it. Since you can’t tear down a thing like that, you go around it. And here, there are a lot of “things like that.” All of it acquires some weight.

And here are some other minor observations in no particular order:
–City-dwellers love their plants! Every balcony and available roof space is crowded with them.
–Before noon, if you want to eat something that isn’t a form of bread, you’d better eat it at home because no one will sell you anything else.
–Baby strollers have the baby turned the other way facing mom/dad. Smart!!
–You’re not supposed to smile and say hi to strangers. That’s not “polite” or “friendly,” that’s creepy.
–“Ciao” means hi and bye, but you don’t say it to people you don’t know. To people you don’t know, you say “salve” which also means either hi or bye.  And I always feel like I’m telling the persons to save her/himself which makes it hard for me to say with a straight face.
–All flowers are beautiful, including “wildflowers” which would be known as “weeds” where I come from.
–Grocery carts are locked together. To use one, you have to put a coin into the lock to open it. Your coin rides around in the cart with you, and when you return and re-lock it, you get your coin back. Again, smart!! Guess what country doesn’t have shopping carts all over the parking lot?

La Porta Romana. One of many ways history affects daily life.

Plan C

Plan A was going pretty well. Nobody’s life is perfect, but we didn’t have a lot to complain about. After five years in the USA, we were back in Costa Rica’s endless summer, working our butts off and surfing. Making decent money, having a good time, riding around on the motorcycle, chilling in our hammocks. Something like that is worth aspiring to. That was Plan A, and it was a really good plan.

In Plan A, there are two of us, and we live in Costa Rica.

Then, two months ago, Plan A crumbled in a major earthquake. Pio wasn’t feeling well. Medical tests revealed a malignant stomach tumor that had metastasized to his liver—and had already made a wreck of it. It is impossible to guess how long all of this was going on without giving any indication except for disturbing premonitions that I refused to listen to, because, how can you tell a premonition from paranoia? (And what do you do about it anyway? Say to your perfectly-healthy husband, “Honey I think there’s something wrong with you?” Probably not.) We got on a plane and came to Italy. Things were sliding quickly down a slippery slope.

So I had to wrap my head around Plan B. In Plan B, there’s only one of us. It’s me, and I am a widow. The doctors wouldn’t say anything more than, “This is very advanced,” and “It’s a shame you’re so young.” For about 6 weeks, I worked on that one. Slowly. In very small increments. One dreadful piece of the puzzle at a time. Just because you think about something doesn’t mean it will happen. But it doesn’t do you any good to refuse to think about the possibilities. So I went there. And sat with that for a while.

I have something to say about Plan B. If you haven’t thought about this before, here’s the newsflash:  in general, women live longer than men. Most of us will become widows. Sooner or later. Tumors aside, there was always every chance that Plan B was going to follow Plan A. I’m not being morbid–I’m being observant. Part of me said I knew that someday this was going to happen, and another part answered that I didn’t expect it NOW.

And then the slide down the slippery slope suddenly slowed. So Plan A is still lying in ruins, while Plan B is also indefinitely delayed, thank God.

Which brings us to Plan C.

Plan C is better than Plan B, because there are two of us. But one of us is sick, so it’s not a happy plan like Plan A. It has happy days, though. It has happy moments. It has scary ones and sad ones too because the ghost of Plan B has been introduced to the scene and stands quietly in the corners. In Plan A, you decide things together. In Plan B, you decide them all yourself. Plan C has some of each. In Plan A, you get to do what you want with your life. In Plan B, you do what you want with what’s left of your life (if you can think of anything). In plan C, you stay in Milan and wonder what’s going to happen to you, how long you’re going to have to stay there. You don’t know if it will be for months or for years, and you don’t know which of the other two Plans this Plan C is going to give way to.

But you know it will be one or the other. Sometime. Whenever that is. Whatever is required of you in between.

Rainbow over Corsico, July 2017


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.

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.