Here is Chapter 21 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
In the morning, mom is a new woman. Bright spirits of the night before have returned. Her explanation of being tired was true, much to my immense relief. Every day without exception since she returned home from the nursing home, whenever I have turned the doorknob to enter her apartment, I have wondered: Is today the day? Is today the day when she will suffer another stroke? Is today the day when I will enter her apartment to find her lying in bed, glassy eyed, gasping for breath, unsure of who or where she is? Is today the day when she will be stuck forever in a persistent vegetative state? Is today the day when she will die?
In many ways, finding her dead would be the best of an admittedly horrific set of choices. If she dies immediately from the next stroke, her suffering will end. However much it pains me to admit it, my dilemma will end as well. I will be enshrined in my family’s lore as the “good son” who cared for his mother in her twilight days. I will not have to wrestle with the wrenchingly painful, morally confusing choices about what to do with my mother and how to care for her.
If she suffers another stroke, she probably will be left in worse shape than she is now, assuming she survives. Then what will I do? If we cannot take care of her at home, she will have to be institutionalized. That is the horror of horrors, the scenario that haunts me at night and robs me of sleep. The thought of mom sitting in some dark corner in a hospital or nursing home, hooked to fancy, expensive, beeping machines that regulate her body temperature and void her kidneys even as her brain atrophies is a scene from a cheesy horror movie. All the phone calls in the world to my cousin Philip will not meet those challenges or make the hard choices that must be made.
Seeing her alert and happy, very much my usual, stroke-addled mother, fills me with hope. I may yet find her stricken a second time — the odds are high that I will — but for now we need not think of what may occur in an uncertain future. We can concentrate on the here and now. That advice, after all, applies to each of us still strong enough and lucky enough to remain vertical and sentient.
Satisfied that mom is not sick, I stand on the balcony nursing a cup of coffee and look to the horizon. The clouds are mostly gone, and we are ready for our day.
Paula slips behind me and wraps her arms around my waist. “So. What’s on the agenda?”
“Something outdoors. Sea World, perhaps? Maybe the San Diego zoo. It’s world class, I hear.” Snapping my fingers, I head for a phone next to the couch. “I think I’ll call Robert. I promised him I would. If he’s got the time, he might drive down for a visit.”
Robert Mellette is my first cousin, my Uncle Billy’s son with my aunt Bonnie Poindexter, as well as Martha Neale’s brother. Only 11 months my senior, he and I came of age in adjacent states and were close friends. I am a South Carolinian by birth and temperament; he is a North Carolinian. Many years ago, after we visited Billy, Bonnie, Martha Neale and Robert for the Thanksgiving holiday when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother and Bonnie became entangled in a quasi-heated debate about which state was superior — North Carolina or South Carolina. During our drive home, whenever we spotted a shotgun shack or a dilapidated tarpaper barn, mom would criticize the signs of poverty that littered the landscape. “We’re still in North Carolina, right? Do you call that sophisticated?” I was never sure when we had crossed the border. As far as I could tell, it was evidence of poverty, whatever state we were in at the time.
In many ways, Robert was my hero when we were children. That may sound strange considering he was only 11 months older than I, but consider my situation. I was a small town country boy, the only child of a single mother. I had lived a sheltered life. Robert and his family had more money, traveled more than we, and seemed to know more of the world. In retrospect, it may sound silly, but his family’s proximity to the metropolis known as Winston Salem, North Carolina, struck me as impossibly cosmopolitan at a time when I did not know what the word “cosmopolitan” meant. He liked the Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and I couldn’t for the life of me understand it. He wanted to grow up and be a black-hole scientist and I had no clue what the future held for me.
He now lives in California. Like many dreamers and schemers, he is struggling to make it in Hollywood as an actor/director/writer. He snags bit parts in feature films and occasionally appears on daytime dramas such as “Days of Our Lives.” I once accidentally spotted him in a Ricky Schroeder made-for-TV-movie on late-night television, but mostly he scrimps and scrapes for recognition in an industry that seldom favors the underdog, despite the myths that abound in the celluloid features cranked out by the movie studios.
Back in 2000, he wrote and directed an independent film, “Jacks or Better.” It was a well-made film, but he never found a distributor. It remains indefinitely shelved. Robert may not be a formidable force in Hollywood, but he is not without talent. He always hopes the next project will be his ticket to ride, and who knows? Maybe it will be. I tell him repeatedly to hurry and make it while we are both young enough to enjoy it. I am looking for coattails wherever I can find them. Whatever else I can say about him, though, he is tenacious, a trait I greatly admire.
I find his telephone number in my day timer and push in the numbers. After a few seconds, I recognize his voice.
“Robert, it’s your cousin, Mike.”
“Hello, Mike. Whassup?”
“Well, Paula, Shelby, mom, and I are here in San Diego, as I mentioned to you before. We wanted to see if you had time to come down for a visit.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. I thought I would have an acting gig this weekend, but it fell through at the last minute. SAG says I still get scale for the first day, but it also means I’m free.”
“Great. So you can come down?”
“I’m leaving right now.”
While we wait on Robert to drive 100 miles down to San Diego, Paula cooks a big breakfast. As usual, it is one of mom’s favorite parts of the day. She loves nothing better than to savor her bacon, mull over her bagel, or slowly chew her eggs. We park her wheelchair in front of the sliding glass door so she can face the ocean as she consumes the meal. I drape the bib across the front of her blouse while Shelby moves the table so her Nana can reach the plate.
Later, as we are clearing the breakfast dishes, Shelby corners Paula and me in the kitchen. I am surprised by this action; Shelby normally is not one to approach adults unless forced to do so.
She leans into us so her voice can’t be heard in the living room. “I didn’t know if I should say anything, but I saw Nana spit her pills into the trash can.”
“Keep your voice down, Mike. Did you see if she spit all of them or only a few?”
Shelby shrugs. “I dunno.”
I feel my temper slipping. “Which trash can?”
Shelby points to the plastic container next to the dish washer.
Paula is standing closer to the receptacle, so she reaches down and retrieves it. Pushing past crumpled up paper towels, egg shells, coffee grounds, the morning newspaper, and several old soda cans, she reaches the bottom. Holding it up and tipping it to the side, I see three or four crushed up pills.
Paula can see from my face that I’m angry. “It doesn’t look like she spit everything out. Just the ones she says are sour.”
“The potassium. The fish oil tablets.”
The stroke affected mom’s ability to swallow, so she is forced to chew her pills, grimacing all the while. I have asked for prescriptions to be filled with liquids and capsules that can be pulled apart and mixed with food, but such an arrangement is not always possible. She has taken liquid potassium for years, even before the stroke, but Dr. Carr recently prescribed a huge potassium pill as a supplement. Unfortunately, it is not available as a liquid. Mom often complains bitterly as she chews the new pills. I tasted a potassium pill when she first mentioned the bitterness, and she was right. It was god awful, almost as though it was nothing but a glob of salt. Still, her doctor insists she take the medication, and I trust his judgment. I tell mom to quickly chew the pills and swallow juice or coffee immediately afterward so she can remove the bitter aftertaste, but it remains a challenge to guide through her morning and evening regimen.
Paula touches me on the arm. “I can see you’re angry.”
“Can you do me a favor, please? Just one favor?”
“Robert will be here soon. It’s not raining now, so we can have a nice day at Sea World. If you fuss at her now, it’ll be a big scene. She’ll pout. She’ll refuse to go, and I know you. You won’t want to go without her, so it will turn into a big thing.”
“But, Paula, this is serious. It is a big thing.”
“I know. I know. But it can wait. We’ll talk to her tonight when we get back. Better yet, we can wait until we’re home. Plus, by then you won’t be so angry, so it will come across much better.” She folds her arms and looks at me as if challenging me to defy her logic.
“But she’ll just keep spitting out the pills.”
“We’ll watch her like a hawk when she takes them. She won’t do it in front of our faces.”
“I don’t know. I’m pissed.”
“I know, and I don’t blame you. Just hold off while we’re on vacation.”
I sigh. “All right. All right.” I know sound advice when I hear it.
“I’m sorry if I caused any trouble.”
Paula sighs. “No, Shelby. You did the right thing.”
I already feel my pulse returning to normal. “Yes. Ratting out your Nana may feel bad, but it’s a good thing to do.”
We finish cleaning up the kitchen. I mosey into the living room and sit on an ottoman facing the ocean. Mom seems lost in thought. We sit quietly for a couple of minutes.
“What are you looking at, mom?”
She points to where the waves are breaking. “This one, this one, and this one.”
I follow her gaze down to the breakers. The surfers are back in full force.
“It’s a much better view today, mom.”
“I know it.”
“Are you excited about seeing Robert?”
She shrugs. “I can’t say something for yourself. Are you excited about seeing Robert?”
She looks down at my chin and frowns. “This lawn is good for the mowing.”
I know what she is talking about. Rubbing my chin, I laugh. “I skipped shaving today. I figured hey, we’re on vacation. Live a little.” I cannot help needling her a bit. “We all get away with things on vacation we couldn’t get away with back home. Do you know what I’m saying?”
Mom sighs as if to say, this young generation. You never know what they’ll do. She misses, or deliberately ignores, any other points I might make.
“Do you remember the time a couple of years ago, before you were stroking out, when I needed a haircut? You told me, ‘Mike, it’s time to get your hair cut. You’re a corporate counsel not a hippie!’ Do you remember that?”
“Well, anyway, I guess that’s what you’re saying now. I should shave so I don’t look like a hippie.”
“Yes, yes. Don’t look like a hippie.”
“Okay. Mama knows best.”
She nods vigorously. “Yes. Yes. Mama knows best.”
“Because, if mama ain’t happy….”
Following an old tried and true routine, she finishes the sentence. “Ain’t nobody happy.”
Robert arrives shortly after I finish shaving. He pushes the buzzer in the lobby, so I walk down to greet him while everyone else slips into their jackets.
Robert sometimes comes off as Mr. Hollywood. He talks about “the business,” incessantly. I don’t usually mind — sometimes I learn juicy tidbits about the foibles and follies of tinsel town’s most illustrious denizens — but on other occasions I find my mind wandering. When he greets me in the lobby of the condominium, I am pleased to see that he is wearing normal, non-Hollywood attire — no fancy hats or silly berets are in sight — and he does not seem predisposed to regale me with tales of the rich and infamous.
We ride the elevator to the 10th floor to collect our group and we head out to Sea World.
I step behind the wheelchair and pop the brake. “Are you ready to rock and roll, mom?”
“Yes, yes. Ready to rock and roll, mom.”
I will not dwell on our visit to Sea World that day, or the on-again, off-again soggy adventure traipsing through the world-famous San Diego zoo the following day, except to mention a photograph. As we enter the zoo on the second full day of our trip, a photographer steps forward and snaps a shot of our family just as we push our way through the handicapped gate next to the general admission turnstiles. It costs us $20.00 to purchase an 8 x 10 print, but it is worth the price. It is a treasured reminder of that long-ago day.
I have that photograph framed. It sits in my office near the word processor. I look at it periodically when I think of our family and the toll the years have taken. Whatever came before and whatever is to come, the photograph catches us at a happy moment. Everyone except Shelby is smiling, but I hardly expect a teenager to smile when she is trapped with her family, far removed from the friends and acquaintances that have become so important in her life. Mom is smiling as she holds the fingers of her injured hand with the fingers of her uninjured hand. Paula, Robert, and I mercilessly mug for the camera. We are a happy crew. As the memories fade and the details are lost in the deep recesses of the brain, I am grateful for this photograph, a memento of our grand California adventure with mom.
Robert stays overnight and visits both attractions with us. He is a tremendous help, patiently talking with mom despite her occasional gibberish and taking his turn pushing the wheelchair. The latter is an especially onerous chore at the zoo, where long hills with steep inclines are plentiful throughout the park. He leaves at dusk on the second day. Hollywood beckons, and he must return lest he miss the big break that is surely just beyond the horizon or around the next bend.
Early on the morning of our third full day in San Diego, I arise early to find mom already sitting in her wheelchair, looking down at the surfers who congregate on the beach in the wee morning hours. Hearing me come up behind her, she turns. Her face is beaming. She seems as energetic and excited as I have ever seen her. “Where we go today?”
“Today we are going to Tijuana. Remember, we told you about it? It’s a city just across the Mexican border.”
Tijuana is a mythical place for many Americans. For adolescents seeking fun and an adventure largely predicated on vice, it holds an allure that cannot be resisted. For bargain shoppers, it promises extraordinary deals on knock-off merchandise of dubious quality and origin. To people pushing a wheelchair, the options are limited, but the excitement we seek is an escape from the mundane. It fits our bill nicely.
At 7:15 a.m., we stand at the corner of Mission Drive and Orange Avenue, as instructed, while the Contact Tours bus rolls up, exactly on time. I like it when arrangements work as planned. We have told the tour representatives we are traveling with a woman in a wheelchair, so they are prepared. A white-haired gentleman — our tour guide — rushes through the doors as soon as the vehicle has stopped.
“So you are the Martinez family? How are you? My name is Manuel, and I will be escorting you to and from Tijuana today.”
I shake his hand and introduce him to our family members.
He leans down and addresses mom. “Are you ready to enjoy a wild day in Tijuana?”
“Yes. Tee wana. Yes. A wild day.”
“You gotta promise me you won’t get into any trouble now. You aren’t going to be rowdy, are you, ma’am?”
Mom shakes her head and smiles. “Rowdy, yes. Rowdy. Rowdy — I mean no, no. No rowdy.”
“Oh, you said ‘yes.’ You are the rowdy one, no?”
“No. The rowdy one, no.”
Manuel leans up. “Let’s get your mother onto the bus and then we can store her wheelchair. We have a few more stops to make to pick up passengers at local hotels. We picked you up first so you would not have to wait here long if it rains.”
“Thanks. We appreciate it.”
Manuel steps up onto the bus and extends his hand. Paula and I stand behind mom and gently propel her upward. The three of us help mom navigate the four steps up into the aisle.
“Wonderful, wonderful. You did so wonderful there, ma’am.”
Mom is sweating from the exertion. She wipes her brow with her left hand. “Wonderful. Wonderful. I am?”
Paula steps up behind her. “I brought your cane, too, in case we have to step up anywhere else.”
“Yes. Yes. Brought your cane, too.”
Paula helps her twist her torso so she can sit down in the seat.
As we complete our maneuvers, I look out the window past mom to see Manuel and the driver load mom’s wheelchair beneath the bus. We have a nice view, despite the severely overcast skies. As we roll forward toward the first hotel where we will pick up a load of passengers, I marvel at the American Southwest landscape that mom can see from her seat. She seems satisfied to stare at an endless stream of passing automobiles without comment or facial expression. I sit in the seat next to her while Paula and Shelby take the adjoining seats across the aisle.
We stop at six hotels so we can take on passengers.
Around 10:30 a.m., we clear customs and arrive at the Avenida Revolucion, the main shopping drag in Tijuana. The city is enormous, far larger than I had anticipated. Perhaps I have been misled by the motion picture industry — it would not be the first time, nor probably the last — but Tijuana seems far more modern than it appeared in my mind’s eye. I expected to see dark-skinned peasants clomping along on half-starved burros begging for food and money in a pigeon English punctuated with a thick, barely comprehensible accent. Instead, it is a modern western city with all of the problems and opportunities of a modern American city — smog, traffic congestion, litter blowing near the gutters, and a swarm of people at every turn.
After the other passengers unload, Manuel and I carefully guide mom down the bus steps to the pavement. I see she has broken into a sweat. Manuel tells us to meet back at the bus in six hours or we will be left behind. Although we could still get across the border, it would be a major hassle.
We do not need to be told twice.
As we unfold mom’s wheelchair, she points down the street. At first, I do not understand what she is saying. As usual, Paula gets it.
“You’re worried about the roads, aren’t you, Laura?”
To put it charitably, Tijuana is not designed for handicapped persons. Some of the side streets are made from cobblestone. The sidewalks are uneven in many places, and the curbs are tall with no lower curbs for wheelchairs. The shops we can see from the entrance to the bus station have steep stoops and narrow corridors. With a massive stream of pedestrians crowding the boulevard, it will be a difficult feat to maneuver our way along the road.
I put my hand on mom’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay, mom. Remember what you used to tell me back in high school when I complained about having to complete my algebra homework or some other horrible task? You said: When the going gets tough….”
“The tough get going.”
She looks at me with a frown, as if to say, don’t you dare use my own clichés against me!
“You were right, mom.”
“The tough get going but the tough get going in all this!” She waves her left arm toward the people milling about the Avenida Revolucion.
“It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
“Trust me. Lord, trust me.” She rolls her eyes.
We wander as best we can. It appears to be a lost cause until, incredibly enough, mom saves the day. Judging by the furrowed brow, I can see her frustration growing. Finally, she calls out, “mama comin’ through.”
Amazingly, the crowd parts.
“Hey, mom! You’re Moses, parting the waters. It’s working.”
Mom laughs, calling out again, repeatedly, as we roll along the crooked street. “Mama comin’ through; mama comin’ through!”
Everywhere we spy street vendors. Some are congregated in the nooks and crannies of shop doorways, loudly extolling the virtues of their wares and hyping the insanely low prices they are offering for a limited time only. Others stalk the boulevard, holding up copycat Rolex watches, cheaply made souvenir t-shirts, garishly decorated jean jackets, and brightly colored commemorative plates. They are an aggressive lot, prancing behind American tourists to shout out the once-in-a-lifetime deal that cannot, simply must not, be missed.
We have given Shelby a twenty dollar bill with strict instructions to keep it in her front pants pocket. Paula points to the street merchants. “If you see anything you want, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. You’re supposed to bargain and negotiate with these guys.”
We reach an intersection where the mass of people is not as thick. As I start to lower mom’s wheelchair from the curb, a Latino gentleman approaches us. He is wearing a dark velvet button-down shirt which shows off a generous heap of black, curly chest hair. He wears jeans and cowboy boots and his hair is slicked back with a generous portion of pomade. Three-days’ growth of beard sprouts from his cheeks. He reminds me of the central casting version of a swarthy-looking Mexican.
“You want high-quality purse?”
He displays several women’s handbags glittering with gold and silver frills. They are draped over his shoulders and arms like the fringe on a tacky leather jacket. I open my mouth to tell him we are not interested, but Paula overrides my voice.
“For you, beautiful lady, twenty dollar.”
“Twenty dollars for those knock-offs? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Kidding? Why, no. I am not kidding.” He says keed-ing.
“Those handbags aren’t worth twenty dollars.”
“They are worth more than twenty dollar. But I let you have them now, today only, for twenty dollar.”
“They’re worth less than twenty dollars. They’re knock-offs. Replicas.”
He pops open his eyes in mock horror. It is a performance worthy of innumerable over-acting thespians on any high school stage in America. “Replicas? What replicas?”
“Those handbags. I know a replica when I see one.”
“Oh, señora, this is the finest quality Louis Vuitton.” He pronounces it Luis Voo-tan.
“No way. The finest quality designer handbags would cost hundreds of dollars.”
“But I give to you for twenty dollar. A bargain. It is bargain basement prices for high quality merchandise — the best in all of Tijuana.”
Paula sweeps her arm back along the Avenida Revolucion. “We’ve passed probably a dozen people selling the same handbags.”
Mom laughs. I doubt she knows the going rate for high quality designer handbags but, like me, so marvels at Paula’s negotiating prowess.
“But not these, beautiful lady. These are handcrafted.” He sweeps his arm in an exact replica of Paula’s gesture. “Others cannot say this. These purses are the finest quality.”
The fellow again swoons as though he has suffered some grand calamity. “Five dollar? Five dollar? What did I do to you, beautiful lady? What did I do to you to have you offer me five dollar for these high quality purses?”
“Five dollars — take it or leave it.”
He clutches his chest. “Five dollar? Five dollar? You insult me, señora. You insult my family.”
“I’m not insulting you. I’m offering you five dollars for that one there.” She points. “That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.”
“I have to put shoes on my children’s feet, señora. I must feed my children. I cannot feed my children or put shoes on their feet with five dollar. I would rather have you call me a friend and bid me farewell than to insult me with five dollar.”
“All right, then. I bid you farewell. Friend.” She steps away.
As Paula continues to walk and I follow along with mom and Shelby, the fellow trails behind us.
“Do not do this to me, señora.”
“Do what? You don’t want to sell me the handbag for five dollars, so I’m walking on. Sell it to someone else.”
He steps in front of her and holds up his arm. “Wait! Wait!”
Paula cocks her head at him.
“Ten dollar. A good price for a beautiful lady!”
She laughs in his face.
“This is not funny.”
I find his tone mildly threatening, but Paula seems amused. Her face betrays a slight grin as though she is thoroughly enjoying the give-and-take of their game.
Leaning in conspiratorially, he stage whispers as though he is worried that other world-be customers might overhear his words. I, for one, can barely hear his voice. “Okay, señora, you win. You win. I take five dollar.”
Paula reaches into her jeans, produces the money, and slips it into his hand. In a blur, she has a purse tucked under her arm as he turns on his heels.
“Five dollar is insult to me and my family.” He continues grumbling as he disappears into the crowd.
I laugh. “Very good, Paula. Very good.”
Mom has enjoyed the entertainment immensely. “Yes. Very good, Paula. Very good.”
“I should get you to talk to John Wise the next time he calls.”
Mom frowns. “Who?”
I ignore her. “Let’s keep walking. Who else besides me is hungry?”
Mom smiles. “Mama comin’ through. Mama comin’ through.”
We consider several restaurants serving authentic Mexican food, but Paula vetoes each suggestion. She is a picky eater, and her fears of dysentery in a foreign country, even one so close to home, are not without merit. We finally settle on the Hard Rock Café-Tijuana. It is hardly authentic local cuisine, but that’s the point. As an added benefit, we can purchase commemorative t-shirts after we have feasted beneath a guitar previously owned by Jimi Hendrix and a Charlie Watts drum kit.
As we enter the restaurant, I point to a gold record earned by the rock group Kiss. “Do you want to rock and roll all night, mom?”
“Yes. Ready to rock and roll.”
“And party every day?”
“Yes. Party every day.” She cocks her head. “Party every day?”
“Yes. Party every day.”
She shrugs. “Okay. Party every day.”
We are seated near the bar. Looking at mom, I notice she appears tired, but at the same time she seems to be enjoying herself. I watch her as she chews her hamburger, the juice traveling a slow arc down her chin before dripping onto her bib.
“How are you doin’ over there, mom?”
She beams. “Near perfect. Near perfect. How you doin,’ Michael?”