A Hero on Board

One thing I remember clearly about the incident is the question I asked the man in Singapore who sold me the ticket for the ferry.stock-vector-sumatra-road-and-national-park-map-174876929

“Is it safe?”

“Oh yes,” he assured me with a smile.

At the time I wasn’t sure why I asked that question. Of course, it was safe. People had used the ferry from Singapore to Sumatra, a two-night journey, many times in the past. Why would I even ask?

Later I realized I had had a premonition. The ferry that I boarded in 1984 was anything but safe. But where there’s lack of safety, there’s usually a hero nearby.

The voyage started off predictably enough. My private indoor berth was laughable. From atop the main deck, where dozens of people sprawled with baskets, buckets, bags, boxes, and blankets, stairs descended into a long narrow room packed with three rows of interconnected platform “beds.” It was a dormitory of sorts, except there wasn’t one person to a bunk. On most beds, an entire family and their belongings sardined themselves.

I found my assigned platform, which already supported a young man huddled at one end. His eyes pleaded, “Please let me stay. I won’t bother you. I’ll just use a couple square feet.” He looked so forlorn.

I wasn’t sure why I didn’t kick Edward off my private bed. Maybe I was swayed by the photo he showed me. He said he was a math teacher, and his photo showed him sitting at a desk in front of a chalk board. The photo looked staged, as though he had concocted it specifically for convincing foreigners that he was legitimate. He looked far too young to be a math teacher.

I hoisted my backpack onto my bed, covered the thin mattress with a shawl, noted I was the only Western traveler onboard, and settled into the ride. Edward scrunched into a ball at my feet. The ferry pulled away from the Singapore dock and headed to Pekanbaru, Sumatra.

The engine was loud, the pace was steady. Because I had already spent two months in Indonesia, I could converse passably in the Indonesian language. After I chatted with Edward, I left him to “guard” my stuff, which was entirely unnecessary. We were all one big family in that below-deck cabin. I wandered to the upper deck–the discount ticket area–where I could barely move amidst the people and their parcels.

On the lower deck at one end were a couple of crumbling doors to closets with holes in the floor. The green waters glinted through the holes. I suppose that was preferable to capturing the human waste in a big vat, which would have been dumped in the water anyway.

The scenery was idyllic, the passengers seemed in good spirits. A father and his child were having great fun flying a plastic bag on a string from the railing as the boat chugged along.

Eventually the boat left the open waters off Singapore and entered Sumatra via a broad river with vegetation distant on both sides.

My ticket included meals. A couple of “chefs” squatted on the wood deck and chopped and stir-fried vegetables and cooked rice in woks. Their kitchen was a few square feet of one of the walkways. They whisked away their portable stoves after they prepared food for the 100 or so passengers.

After eating and using the closet with the hole in the floor, I settled on my berth, confident that Edward would keep my feet and only my feet warm for the night. Even through the loud engine noise I slept. But the enclosed cabin was quite warm, and I was a sticky mess of sweat by the next morning.

Luckily the ferry stopped at a small settlement along the river where I paid to bathe in a room with a dipper and cistern of water. Edward and another interloping young man who had moved onto the end of the adjoining berth warned me against using the bath. Both asserted someone would rip me off. But no one bothered me, and I felt much better after the bath. And they felt better after I bought them tea.

The ferry chugged off again. By now the river had narrowed. Thick vegetation flanked both sides. Here and there simple wood dwellings emerged through the greenery on shore. Fishermen in small boats shared the waterway.

By that evening, I was feeling the rhythm of the adventure. People seemed relaxed and congenial, shared food that they had brought, and passed the time chatting and napping. Edward kept guard at the foot of my platform as the skies darkened and our wooden ferry boat headed deeper upriver to the Sumatran interior.

I had fallen asleep to the chug-a-chug of the boat’s engine, then jerked awake. There was no more chug-a-chug, just a bunch of clatter, yelling, movement. Edward looked wildly about, then yelled in English, “Come on, come on!” Something was terribly wrong.

The cabin floor was no longer level, a sure sign the boat was taking on water. People were grabbing their kids and their belongings. I patted my waist bag secured around my middle containing my passport, money, and camera. Looking at my backpack I said to myself, “If I’m going to swim, I don’t want to be wearing that.” I left it on my bed–clothes, toiletries, souvenirs, and other supplies I had been carrying around for the last five months of travel.

Edward helped me up the steps in the dim light to the lower deck. People were everywhere, some of them dragging heavy bags. A thin moon glinted through the shore vegetation onto the water’s agitated surface.

From nowhere a small boat appeared—night fishermen, coming to rescue the passengers of the sinking ferry. I was one of the first to board the rescue boat, along with 10 or so other passengers. They motored us to a rickety dock several hundred yards away, then went back for more passengers.

I was so grateful—grateful that I didn’t have to swim in a murky river, grateful that I was safe on shore, grateful that I had my essential travel documents with me. But as Edward and I and others watched the fishermen shuttle the passengers, I started voicing my worry aloud.

“My backpack—everything was in it. It’s going down with the boat. I’m traveling for another five months and I won’t have it.” Edward heard me. Then left. He boarded the rescue boat and went back to the sinking ferry.

I was not aware of his intention. Maybe he went to help with the rescue efforts. He returned in dripping clothes, hauling my sodden backpack on to the dock. It must have gained 20 pounds from the water it had collected, but my hero was determined to bring the foreigner who shared her bed with him her luggage.

All the passengers were rescued and delivered to the dock with their salvaged belongings. Someone had saved their stationary bicycle, and there it sat on that wooden dock, waiting for anyone who needed their early morning aerobics. People were spreading wet garments out to dry and staying close to one another. Some of them were laughing to ease their tensions, others appeared worried about how to continue their journey to Pekanbaru.

As the gloom lightened, I waved down a small boat traveling upstream, and into the boat I pulled Edward and the interloper young man who had warned me not to take a dip bath. I was fortunate—I had the cash to pay the boatman to transport the three of us. We motored to a small town upstream and caught a bus for a wild ride to Pekanbaru, where Edward and his family warmly welcomed me into their home.

Before we left the river, we cruised  past the sunken boat, with only the uppermost captain’s cabin peeking above the water’s surface. Several men in their underwear were diving, attempting to reach luggage and goods trapped inside the boat below.

Speaking in my broken Indonesian, I learned what had happened. The captain had steered the boat onto a submerged tree, puncturing its haul.

But the most remarkable part of the story involved Edward. When he went back to the sinking boat to find my backpack, he first found two children in the cabin who would have surely drowned had he not pulled them to safety. Then he returned to my backpack, hauling the sodden bundle through the water-filled cabin to the rescue boat.

He was not only my hero. Edward was everyone’s hero for saving those children. I was very glad I had not kicked him off my private bed

Moments of Glory in India

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After giving a talk at the Gandhi Museum, Madurai, India 2007

I really didn’t want to do it. I was on a three-week vacation, after all, and didn’t want to do anything that resembled work.

But I couldn’t say no to my dear friend Rengasamy when he asked me to give some public programs during my visit to Madurai, India in 2007. We knew each other from when I was a college student in Madurai in 1974-75, when he assisted the American students there for study.

On my return visit, I had scheduled just a few days in Madurai, and had hoped to wander the busy streets, visit old friends, and walk around the famous Meenakshi Temple.

But Rengasamy thought I should offer my vast wisdom and experience as an American to the people of Madurai. After years as a professor of economics at Madurai University, Rengasamy was now director of the Gandhi Museum, a post that gave him much satisfaction. He was respected by many. And here he was trying to honor me by asking me to share my perspectives and knowledge.

He wanted me to give an illustrated talk at the Gandhi Museum for the staff and some local college students, which required me to search the internet for photographs for a PowerPoint program. He also wanted me to talk to teachers and students at a local school. Just a small talk, he said.

But he had informed me about these talks just a few days before the planned events.

I agreed to do it. He and another official at the museum discussed with me possibilities for the talks. They assured me it was no big deal. Just a few interested people would attend. They wanted me to talk about my work as a park ranger, national parks, preservation and such. Okay, I could do that—at least for the Gandhi Museum talk.

But the school talk puzzled me. I would be speaking with a group of teachers about my work. I envisioned sitting around a small table with a dozen or so teachers, having a cozy chat for 15 minutes or so, and a question and answer session. I could be informal. But then I would do a presentation to the students. Eegads, what would I say to them?

Rengasamy’s daughter suggested I talk about life for teenagers in America. Great idea. I had two teenage sons. I could draw from my experiences of being a mom and the students would find it fascinating, or so I thought.

The fateful day arrived for the school talks. I was driven to a local secondary school and fed a delicious traditional lunch. The founder and head mistress of the school ate with me in a small room and she commented on how little I ate. That’s because I don’t usually eat three cups of rice as most Indians in the south do for lunch. I remember there was a curried eggplant with the meal. I assumed the teachers would file into the room after lunch and we’d have our cozy chat. Nope. She led me out of the small room down some hallways and through a door.

Into an auditorium. With hundreds of chairs lined up. There were at least 60 teachers watching me enter. Mostly women, sari-clad, with dark faces and white teeth flashing. A podium with a microphone was in front of the audience, and a vase of flowers sat on a table nearby.

My worst nightmare had just materialized–my recurring dream of walking onstage in front of an audience naked, or showing up to an examination not knowing what I would be tested on.

I could feel the sweat dampening my armpits. And it was probably running down my temples, too.

The head mistress introduced me and I greeted everyone.

“How much time do we have?” I asked.

“Oh, an hour,” she said.

I’m usually good at this type of thing. That is, standing in front of an audience and saying something intelligible. But at that moment I was seriously doubting my abilities. I had not prepared an hour talk for 60 teachers, I had prepared a talk for some teenagers and nothing for my cozy brief chat for a handful of teachers.

My mind whirred. I probably swallowed. I probably smiled. I probably looked composed. The adrenaline was flowing and they were all looking at me.

I launched into a talk, of sorts. I wandered from one topic to the next, following my intuition on what to say. My job, historic sites, preservation, the importance of places of the past, a range of topics. Somehow, somehow, most of it made sense, (I think), and the teachers were warm in return.

At the end, teachers approached me and asked me to spend a few minutes talking with a class about tropical rainforests, another about patriotism. Hmm, patriotism. I would encourage the students to not blindly accept what their country does, but question always, and voice their objections. I briefly entertained a patriotism talk, then declined, explaining I had a tight schedule.

As I recall, I had a bit of a break before the next talk. But my armpits were still dripping. Soon the students filed in, girls on the left, boys on the right, crisply uniformed and all looking nearly identical. They filled the auditorium.

Now I can have fun, I thought. This should be a breeze, talking about things I’ve personally experienced. Raising my two sons.

I was familiar with the typical life path for a child in India. Work hard in school, memorize examination material, earn “top marks” in order to enter university, study a subject chosen or approved of by the parents, perform well in order to get an outstanding job, earn financial stability and achieve material wealth to attract an appropriate marriage partner—usually chosen by the parents, get married and have a child within a year. The “issue” would repeat the cycle.

My sons were not following that path. As I talked that day, I didn’t hold back much. I talked about how my older son dropped out of school at age 16, and went to work as a welder. Although a brilliant child, he just didn’t thrive in the school system. My younger one was still slogging away in school, however. I noted a few troubled looks on the students’ faces, and the teachers still hanging around probably didn’t know whether to stop me or applaud.

My sons were both on the wrestling team, a sport that has a long tradition in India but is not as popular as other sports such as cricket and soccer. I told them my son’s first match was with a girl. There was an audible gasp from the students and many covered their mouths in shock.

Then I talked about kicking my son out of the house when things were getting a bit tense from some problems. That’s when those proper Indian teenagers with their predictable lives really looked troubled. Mouths were hanging open. Someone asked a political question about President George Bush to change the topic.

Not all of my banter was so scandalous, however. I’m sure I covered mundane topics about raising my two sons. But I think the students were relieved when we moved to the question and answer session.

Then it happened. A girl raised her hand and asked, “Will you sing your national anthem?” Other students were smirking, wondering what I would do. I was trapped.

And stunned. The Star-Spangled Banner? Everyone knows that song is nearly impossible to sing. And it’s about fighting and killing and so depressing. But how could I refuse to sing my country’s national anthem?

The one thing I knew was I had to start on a low note so I could hit the high note later. Into that microphone I began singing the national anthem. Or at least my version of it. Just me and that auditorium full of students and teachers. I sang it loud and I sang it proud. But wait, are the ramparts gleaming or streaming? Who knows, I mumbled something and kept going at a lively pace so I could get it over with. I even inspired myself at the end when I was acutely aware that all eyes were on me. I had to end with a bang, so I leaned into the microphone.

“…Or the land of the freeeeeee, (big pause….) and the home (pause) of the (pause) brave!”

Yee-haa, I did it. A lone student started clapping, he was so moved by my rendition.

A student from the audience stood up and said, “Well, we have had such an unusual speaker today. We would like to thank her for her warmth and honesty.”

The students clapped and I was feeling good. Or maybe I was just relieved it was over.

Rengasamy had not attended, but he picked me up from the school.

I described my singing and the unusual twists in my talk.

“I will NEVER forget this day, Rengasamy, NEVER!” All Rengasamy could do was giggle.

The talk at the Gandhi Museum the next day seemed rather anti-climactic. Somehow, I muddled through, and I was again asked to sing the national anthem. Rengasamy laughed and laughed at the side of the room and stared at me as I mentally smacked my forehead. Not again! But I could not refuse, so I sang. And I still didn’t know whether the ramparts were gleaming or streaming.

How I Learned

My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Hume, wore horn-rimmed glasses and dark dresses. I remember little else about her, except that she placed me in the bluebird reading group and seemed very old.

The year was 1960, an election year. Even though I was only six years old, I was aware that two men, Kennedy and Nixon, were both hoping to win the contest for president.

person dropping paper on boxMy father did not like Kennedy at all. Whenever he appeared on television, Dad called him names and gritted his teeth. Both he and my mother were voting for Nixon. If I had been old enough to vote at that time, I would have voted for Nixon also.

On the day before the election, Mrs. Hume brought it up in class.

“Who are your parents going to vote for?” she asked. Perched atop a small desk, she listened and nodded slightly after each child in each even row of desks responded. A couple of children did not know who their parents were voting for. But by the time about half of the children announced their votes, it was apparent that Nixon would win. The rest of the kids knew it too, so the remaining ones yelled out Nixon’s name as though they were running his campaign. The few who quietly admitted their parents’ choice of Kennedy heard boos and hisses from the rest of the class.

After everyone had proclaimed their parents’ vote, several children asked Mrs. Hume in chorus, “Who are you voting for?”

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “Oh, no, I can’t tell you that. It’s my secret.” She clutched her throat and raised her eyebrows as she said the word, “secret.”

Silence swept over the first graders as we digested this announcement. We had just told her how we—our parents—were voting, but she wouldn’t tell us how she was voting. We each had told her because she had asked us. We had no choice. She expected a response. She could do that.

The silence continued as the powerful truth settled. This truth gripped me through many of my student years. She was big, I was little. She was old, I was young. She was teacher, I was student. She could do and say just about anything, and I would not challenge it, not until I was big, old, and a teacher also.

Thus began my formal education.

The Trouble Tree

I found an old journal entry from several decades back. At that time I was exploring the language of the natural world while wrestling with love problems, work challenges, self-doubt, and general heaviness in my life.

The setting is the Southwest, among sandstone boulders and cavorting ravens and a canyon head and high desert vegetation. I had visited this particular place many times seeking comfort, and always left feeling full.

…I went in search of a tree to see if I could communicate. I walked to the pour off and found a small bonsai pinyon clinging to the wall of the pour off.

“Is that it?” I questioned. I had in mind a large juniper, all gnarled with age. But this tree had long and hard experience, so why could I not learn from it just as well. I sat next to it and ate my apple. I hesitated a bit, because I really didn’t quite know how to approach it.

First, I walked all around it, and admired its beauty. It was small but vigorous. Its short trunk twisted into a barely perceptible crack in the rock. Several handfuls of brown needles below its branches had collected along with a scattering of windblown sand. Spots of dark moss took advantage of the nourishment there. Its body, all bent and contorted from years of battles with the wind, stood sturdily and proudly gracing that rock slope. The branches spread to meet all available sunlight. Rosettes of green needles glistened. Pure drops of pine resin dripped from its branches; they were its life force and jewelry.

Kristie's pinon
Photos by Kristie Arrington

This tree seemed to have grown in a very inhospitable place, but it expanded joyfully into the world, fully and lovingly. I admired its strength and courage. Even though it seemed handicapped, it nonetheless gave itself to me. I found it hard to concentrate on entering it, but I did reach its spirit in a way. I pressed my forehead to its prickly needles and breathed love on it. I cradled its layered bark and imagined its root traveling for a short way into that rock, dissolving its hardness as it went. This tree was a little old lady, but it was happy to be where it was. It was determined to live its life fully.

Thoughts of my upcoming visit with (a person) invaded my talk. So instead of ignoring them, I told the tree my problems. It listened without judgement.

I called it my trouble tree. Before I left, I felt it would be right to take some of its resin to remember it. Before I put the resin on some paper, I impulsively rubbed a dab on my forehead. I thanked it for its kindness and left…

 

After reviewing that entry, I thought, I’m that little old lady now. I hope I am as gracious to the young people who seek my ear as that bonsai pinyon was to me.

 

Very Beautiful: A Cultural Perspective

I hoped he would go away soon. My friend and I were sipping our fresh coconut waters in a restaurant on an island in the Maldives. But the restaurant manager/owner was trying to be friendly, probably so that we would feel welcome to visit again and spend our tourist dollars there.

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Sunset in the Maldives

“Hello, where are you from?” he asked.

“I’m from the US, and my friend is from Canada.” This chat won’t last over a minute, I thought.
“What is your age?” He smiled, but all I could think was, huh?
Why does he want to know my age? And who asks a paying customer from another country her age within one minute of greeting her? Okay, sure, in my Asian travels people have asked my age after an extended conversation. That’s because the questioner wanted to know how to respectfully address me, and my age would determine whether I would be “mother,” “auntie,” “sister,” or “grandmother.” I was rarely addressed as “grandmother,”—only by the youngest–and was usually “mother” or even the dreaded “madam”—a term most frequently used in India.
But as a customer sitting in a restaurant for a drink, this question seemed abrupt and unnecessary.
So the dark-haired man stood there, expecting me to tell him my age, and I didn’t want to tell him. I just looked at him, saying nothing, until he said, “Oh, let me guess.”
Danger. Yeah, DANGER.
Never, I have learned, NEVER allow someone to guess your age. Especially in another country. Especially in an Asian country, where people appear ageless, and their skin always looks smooth and beautiful. Where even wrinkled skin is beautiful. And never do this if you’ve not fully embraced and made friends with your wrinkles and your uneven complexion and your thinning eyebrows and sagging jowls and….you know what I mean. And don’t do this if you’re from a culture that is obsessed with appearing young, where people spend thousands of dollars on creams and makeup and diet pills and surgeries and “health” products all geared toward fooling the eye of the beholder. Including the beholder in the mirror. And don’t do this if your mother carefully applied her face daily and frequently commented on your appearance.
So here was this man—who was probably about my age, I thought–wanting to guess my age. I wish I had said, “No thanks.” But I didn’t.

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Holding a screw pine fruit in the Maldives.

Maybe a part of me wanted to hear him say, “Fifty.”
Oh, to be fifty again…Or to appear to be fifty again.
“I can tell from looking at you that you were once very beautiful,” he said. He couldn’t wait to say that. I said nothing, and had to consciously maintain a neutral expression as my thoughts went wild. Once very beautiful? You mean I don’t appear beautiful now? I’m old and wrinkled and saggy and undesirable? Was he looking at my double chin? Furrowed neck? The creases around my mouth? Could he tell that I still apply highlights in my hair in a vain attempt to camouflage the creeping grey?
Did he think he had just given me a compliment?
I looked at my friend across the table. She was grimacing. Her turn was coming.
“I think you are sixty-five?”
“No, I’m sixty-four,” I replied. I didn’t just reply, I almost spat those words, and thought, stop now, buddy. Just stop.
I had just turned sixty-four. And he was even standing on my good side—the side of my face with fewer wrinkles.
Then he turned to my friend. Don’t do it, I thought. Just walk away…
“And you, I think you are seventy?” He smiled again, speaking slowly, mustering all the Maldivian hospitality he could. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. You see, my friend gave up coloring her hair years ago, and instead wears a lovely helmet of grey. I hadn’t seen too many Maldivians with grey hair. Or maybe I just hadn’t been looking. Of course, most of the women in the Maldives wear the hijab, covering their hair.
“No, sixty-five.” She wasn’t amused. How she managed to say her age with any semblance of pleasantness is beyond me. He was only one year off for me, but he had aged her by five years! Plus, he didn’t tell her she was once very beautiful…But wait, that wasn’t really a compliment, was it?
“Well, I hope when you return to the Maldives you visit us again.” He turned and walked off. He probably uses hair color, I thought.
My friend and I looked at each other, mouths open, heads shaking.Then we thoroughly discussed the exchange–that moment of cultural intersection that slapped us both on our wrinkled faces. We didn’t return to that restaurant during our visit to the Maldives.
We did try to laugh more, and explore, and appreciate the sunsets, and poke fun at one another, and enjoy the fact that two women in their mid-sixties were traveling in a remote corner of the world and enjoying the heck out of it.

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Read more about my trip to the Maldives at my travelblog.

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Warm waters in the Maldives

 

 

My Journey of Lost Memories

I stood hanging on to my shopping cart, mind blank. A fog had descended. I stared at the guy in front of me, picking through vegetables. I remember him, because on the back of his navy blue shirt were the letters, “EMS.” I would meet him a little later.
“Can I help you find something?” A store employee looked at me. I wanted to answer, I really did, but my mouth moved and I made no sense. She took my arm and guided me to an enclosed room and made me sit. I grabbed my purse from the cart. I’m pretty sure there was some produce in the cart—things I had no recollection of putting there.
I knew something was not right.
So started my most intriguing journey of lost memories.
Just before I had dashed into the store, I exercised for a couple hours across the street. I was pooped. The last thing I did in my workout were five one-minute planks, with one minute rest periods in-between. I was proud of how strong I felt at 63 years. I was making great progress. Once a week I did strength training under the guidance of a trainer, and four or five days a week I rode my bicycle for 50 minutes on the dirt roads near my house.
But now I was sitting in this darkened room. The woman and someone else were asking me questions. I was underwater—the air felt thick, sounds were muted. She looked at me, her mouth moved, I tried to answer. A water bottle appeared in the chair next to me. How did it get there?
Then I met the EMS guy. He asked me questions: when did you eat breakfast? What did you have? What is your name? I didn’t remember breakfast, but I knew my name. And I was told later that I kept correcting him. “It’s Terry, with a “T.” I don’t remember doing that, but I often make sure people hear my name correctly.
He told me to repeat a phrase, something about the sky. And I remember thinking, I can say that, and I did, I thought, and I enunciated clearly. But he kept asking me questions. He was right next to me, and he said something like, “I want to take you in.” And I said something like, “yes, this isn’t right.”
It was the heaviness, the pea soup, drifting around me. Ordered thoughts were just out of reach. They were there, lurking about, all the information I needed was there, but I could not snag the right thoughts and spit them out.
Physically I felt alright, just tired from my workout. No weakness, no tingling, no paralysis. When Lorenzo the paramedic took me to the ambulance conveniently parked outside the store, he firmly gripped my arm. I wondered why he was clutching me so tightly. He asked where my car was located. “Over there,” I said. Somewhere.
In the ambulance I asked him how long he’d been a paramedic, and said I had been an EMT. His report that I saw later stated that I was repetitive. Really? I was just being chatty and pleasant. But the dense air filled the ambulance, splitting my thoughts, which swirled around with no particular order. A blood pressure cuff went on, and an IV went in. I learned later that placing a second IV is standard procedure for certain patients—stroke patients—just in case they had to use the clot busting drug.
He asked my birthdate. That was easy, but I could see each word streaming from my mouth, as though my mouth were typing the words. He asked my age. I couldn’t remember if I was 61 or 63. Very disturbing. He pulled out his calculator and figured it out.
His demeanor was casual, but he was moving rapidly. I felt no alarm, really. Instead, I felt rather removed from the situation, and gazed out the back window. Then the sirens raged. What fun. For some reason we needed rapid transit.
I looked at Lorenzo, and said, “This is a stroke, isn’t it?” I wasn’t scared. Lorenzo didn’t say anything.
After an ambulance ride that took at least thirty minutes but seemed like no more than ten, they rolled me into the ER. Six people looked at me. Someone commanded me to do all kinds of things, but I’m not sure what. I remember getting a Cat Scan.
I was there for about five hours. I still wasn’t scared, didn’t feel ill, and was mostly curious about the whole thing, thinking something’s amiss, but what was it? All my tests came back clear—no blockage in my head arteries, nothing seemed wrong. I was still having trouble retrieving information about myself, but things were getting better. Except I had to listen to the patient who was loudly cursing hospital staff and apparently spitting blood on a doctor outside my room.
The ER doctor released me with a diagnosis of a TIA—transient ischemic attack—a mini-stroke. There was a blockage that resolved itself, apparently. But when I saw the neurologist a few days later, she was certain I had experienced TGA—transient global amnesia. This is a relatively uncommon condition marked by a sudden inability to make current memories. Sometimes it is triggered by physical exercise, but what causes it is not clear. It is not likely to happen again and it appears that it does not cause lasting problems, although I felt a bit scattered for the next few days.
The event evoked a range of emotions. A TIA—that’s a warning for a deadly stroke. I’ll be on drugs forever, I thought. This isn’t fair—I exercise, my blood pressure is low, I don’t eat meat, I’m not overweight, what else am I supposed to do? And I could have died in a flash. I wrote my son and mentioned updating my will. Bad move. He called immediately, voice shaking. I hugged my other son, and told him I was proud of him and loved him. Death seemed imminent.

Then I was happy. Elated, in fact. I was walking and talking. And I could pet my cat. And the sun was warm. And the mourning dove had such a lovely coo. But then the daily regimen of aspirin and statins made me sick, anxious. Dark thoughts emerged. Not fair. I had so much left to do in my life.
Thankfully I saw the neurologist who corrected the diagnosis. Now it’s a good story I can tell. With a happy ending. How lucky I was to be shopping for vegetables at the same time as Lorenzo the paramedic. He told me he never got to buy his vegetables. If I ever see him again, I’ll buy him vegetables, whatever he wants.
Life is so darn short. So short. Every moment, every moment is a precious now. I want them all. I want every single now. I want them to keep going. And I want happiness around me. And love. A blanket of love.

 

My Mom’s Criminal Past

Earlier this year my 96-year-old mother passed away. Mom assigned me to tell this story at her funeral services. When I was a girl she and Dad had bought a small farm in Indiana, where on weekends he enjoyed playing farmer and she enjoyed out-fishing her husband. The kids fooled around mostly—we swam and fished and hiked around and pulled ticks off our legs. Then we drove back to our home in Cincinnati and looked forward to the next weekend at the farm.

Mom made me promise to tell her story the night she, Dad, and I went to dinner, after they had sold the farm some 25 years later. We all had a drink, and were getting kind of loose-tongued.

That’s when I learned Mom was a criminal.

She said she’d always wondered what all the fuss was about with marijuana. She decided to find out. At age 60 or so, when the kids were gone and she was spending a lot of time at the farm, she started her own cannabis patch. She said she’d gotten some seeds from one of her children. It wasn’t me, so that leaves one of the other three. Seeing that they looked similar to radish seeds, she said she stored the dope seeds in a radish seed envelope she had emptied. I thought that was clever.

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My mother Genevieve, age 90, ready for a little canoe trip.

 

 

One day she collected a bucket of composted manure from the barn, and hauled it to a place she said will never be revealed, but it was near a wooded area. She dug a hole, filled it with the fertile compost, and planted seeds. Rain did its work, and two seedlings emerged. One of them in particular thrived, growing as tall as my mother. She visited her cash crop every other week or so, monitoring its progress, hoping that the farmer neighbors wouldn’t get suspicious at her going to this place on her land which she would never visit otherwise. She said Dad knew what she was doing. He thought she was foolish but didn’t stop her.

Mom was cautious and conservative in a lot of ways. I don’t remember her ever talking to me about drugs. I do know that she served on a jury where the accused was charged with something having to do with possession of marijuana. She told me the jury convicted him, one of the reasons being that she thought marijuana was a gateway drug and he was headed for heavier stuff.

So back on the farm, Mom raised this really big healthy marijuana plant in conservative rural Indiana. The details about consuming her gateway drug were a little fuzzy, but she does remember that she harvested some of the leaves and took them to the farmhouse kitchen. She vaguely remembered having some white paper, and generating smoke by burning the leaves. She said she got smoke in her mouth, but she never inhaled, just like the president. Her husband, who was watching, told her, “Get that stinkin’ stuff out of here.” Which she did.

As she told me this story, I was incredulous. For one thing, she smoked the leaves, not the buds. What a waste of homegrown weed. And what happened to her plant? She said she stripped it of its leaves so no one could identify it, and never visited again. For all we know, it continued to grow, reseeded itself, and now a healthy patch of marijuana is growing in the backyard of some unsuspecting farmer who now owns the place.

Recently, when I spoke with Mom about her adventure with drugs, she said, “I was stupid. It probably would have been very bad.” And she begged me not to write the story down, but I reminded her that she made me promise to tell the story, so I had to get it right. It is, after all, your legacy, I argued. She was laughing over the phone, quite tickled over the whole thing. I asked her, “Mom, do you really care if people think you’re a criminal for what you did 35 years ago?”

“Not really,” she said, and added one more thing. “Back then, I couldn’t understand why it would be so bad to grow a plant.”

After reading this account to my memoir-writing class, the oldest student, at 88 years, said, “I want to meet your mom.”

I wish he could have.

Goodbye to Grub

I was in Laos, visiting a place called 4000 Islands, when I got the news by email: “Grub is not doing well.” My big boy Grub, the fattest cat in town, had not eaten for four days and was in the kitty hospital.
As a youngster, he loved to eat, probably because he was a starving kitten when rescued. He was also white, with blue eyes. The name “Grub,” then, was a natural. Over years of limitless food, he ballooned to 26 pounds at his heaviest. He was a favorite at the vet’s office, and rivaled the size of the vet’s cat, Bubba, who was a mere 21 pounds.
The only other pet I’d had was Pal, the Airedale terrier that was the family dog when I was a girl. And then later there was my crustacean Hermy, the hermit crab that lived in a giant brandy snifter.
But Grub was my first real pet. He had a sparkling personality, huge paws with sturdy claws, and a grand purr. He was inseparable from my son. In his younger years, Grub chased Dylan, taking him down as a lion would, just for fun. He slept next to and on top of Dylan, edging him out of the bed. When Dylan’s dad play-fought with Dylan, Grub joined the battle, protecting his boy and batting at his dad. KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Aside from his boy, Blackie the cat puppet was Grub’s favorite plaything—he’d drag it around, fall to the ground and rip at its head, overcome with a weird sort of bliss. Sometimes he played like a dog, fetching a rolled-up pipe cleaner I tossed for him.
In the mornings he joined me in the bathroom, where he hopped on the sink and drank directly out of the faucet. Then when I tapped my shoulder he put his front paws on me, and I carried him to the living room and plopped him on the couch, where he would spend the next 20 minutes. When he got too bulky to be very active, he sat outside underneath the bird feeder, and looked up at the birds now and then, never making a move to grab one.
So here I was, traveling with a friend in this distant land, far from my cuddly monster Grub. When I got the disturbing news, I recalled the morning I left my house about six weeks earlier. It was 6:00 AM, and Grub was sitting next to his empty food bowl. He looked at me with his regal blue eyes, begging for food. But he was on a very strict diet to help him lose weight, so I declined to give him any, even a snack. Instead I gave him a scratch, and said, “You’re going to be here when I get back, aren’t you?” He just looked at me.
The updates indicated that my 13-year old cat was very sick, but he was receiving lots of tests, antibiotics, an IV, and lots of attention. My hopes were high that he would pull through. I looked at his photo on my I-Pad, and sent him lots of love and good wishes. I really wanted to be by his side, but thinking about him was the best I could do.
In the evening I sat in the open-air restaurant, by the river there in Laos, listening to the water and thinking about Grub. Suddenly the head of a scruffy dog pressed on my lap; his eyes looked up into mine. I was so surprised, I almost shooed him away. His rank odor made me pull back, and here I was getting ready to eat. But instead, I reached down and scratched him behind the ears, and whispered, “good doggie” to him, and kept scratching. His eyes bore into mine. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude from this dog, as though it was the first time he had ever been scratched behind the ears. I thought about Grub, who often heaved his bulk into my lap like this, looking for a little attention. And I’d scratch him and whisper endearments to him, just as I was doing right then.
After a few minutes, the dog lay down at my feet, and I ate dinner.
The next morning I got the dreaded message. Grub died in the kitty hospital. Taking into account the 13-hour time difference, he passed right about the time the dog planted his furry head in my lap.
Through my tears, I told my companions. The Laos guide’s eyes widened when she heard my story. She spoke with the restaurant hosts, who told her they had been very surprised the evening before when the dog put his head in my lap. That dog was usually afraid of people, they said, and never behaved with people as he had with me.
My sweet Grub came halfway around the world to say thank you and goodbye. I’ve never grieved so much for the passing of an animal as I did for Grub.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

A Second Chance

I rescued the quivering ball of fur from the jaws of my cat. Its tiny head stuck out of one side of Coco’s mouth, a grey tail trailed from the other side. I wasn’t even sure he had anything, but as I followed him on our evening walk, he had crouched and flicked his tail. It was the hunting crouch.

The creature had wandered away from its nest, shoving its little body inch by inch into the brave new world, then it lost its way. Not more than a few days old, I surmised. When I realized he had something I grabbed the scruff of Coco’s fluffy black neck and told him to drop it. I scooped up the creature; Coco paced.

Sometimes I detest my cat. Especially when he kills small creatures–lizards, baby rabbits, deer mice, packrats. He’s even taken down a fully grown jackrabbit. So I stood there with that baby trembling in the palm of my hand, its eyes barely open, and I could only think ill of my cat. That was so unsporting of Coco. There was no challenge to the hunt, no courtesy, no consideration at all. The poor thing had not a chance. It was a baby, for gawd’s sake. But since I retrieved it so quickly, Coco had not yet gotten to the crunch.

It was a kangaroo rat, with oversized hind legs, long face, and brown and white fur. It was so smooth and tiny, weighing barely an ounce. Little claws dangled from little padded toes. Its long tail curved around the back of my hand, almost clutching it, like a prehensile digit. I stroked its back, feeling for broken bones, looking for punctures, blood.

Its warm heart pounded. I put my ear close and heard its cry–like a teeny whimpering puppy. Coco sat down, admitting defeat, but he was on the lookout for more prey on this fine summer evening. The juniper trees fluttered their needle-like leaves, and I stood there.

The den was nearby, under a massive juniper tree branch. All the holes dug in the dirt appeared to be plugged, making it impossible to identify which ones were actively used. I didn’t dare put the little fellow down while Coco was about. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and asked my son to get off his computer action game and help me with the situation. I had a cute kangaroo rat in my hand and I couldn’t manage the rat and a slobbering cat at the same time.

My son appeared and transported Coco back home, while I contemplated my new charge.

So warm. So helpless. So alive.

What to do? I put him down on the dirt above what I thought was the den. He just lay there. I looked around, searching for tracks, other lost babies, open holes, anything that would tell me he’d be alright. A mom, maybe? Nope.

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An adult kangaroo rat.

Oh gawd, what have I done, he’s dead. My heart sank. I crawled back to where I had placed him and picked up the limp bundle. His heart was still racing and he squinted his eyes.

I could not find a clear hole into the den. How did he get outside the den? What had happened? Had Coco massacred the mom and the other babies, leaving one lone baby to be crunched later?

I took him to my neighbor next door imploring him to help me keep a kangaroo rat baby alive. He suggested kitty milk formula in an eye dropper. Hours of caring for a rodent infant filled my head. This sweet creature, now no bigger than a walnut, would grow into a hopping kangaroo rat, hungry for seeds and exercise in my house. He’d be roommates with Coco. Yeah, sure, that would work.

I went out to the would-be kill site again, searching for the den entrance. As I approached, a rodent hopped beneath the juniper tree, then disappeared down a hole I had not seen earlier.

Mom? Mom! She was searching for her kid kangaroo rat. Kangaroo rats never leave their den during the day, instead basking in its safety with all the entrances plugged. Unless a mom was looking for her lost babe.

Giving the little guy one last stroke on his silky fur, I placed him in the hole entrance. With a mighty shove from his spindly rear legs, he propelled himself into the earth, disappearing into its snug shelter.

Breathing a relieved sigh only a mother knows, I waited a few moments, just to make sure mom wasn’t going to kick junior back out the door. Then I imagined her smothering him in licky kisses, scolding him for straying from the nest, and then offering him some milk to soothe his trauma.

I needed a drink myself. But before fetching a glass of wine, I thought about the bigger picture. Was the encounter some kind of personal message?

There’s that children’s book manuscript I wrote that has not yet found a publisher. One of the main characters, King Cyrus, is a kangaroo rat. Maybe the encounter was to remind me that I need to nurture that story, do a little more to assure it would find a life in the greater world.

With glass of wine nearby and laptop on my stretched-out legs, I started pounding out yet another query. Please please let this be the one that leads to the birth of The Dreaded Cliff and its heroine, a precocious packrat named Flora; please let the story find its place in the bigger world. And her friends would go with her–King Cyrus, Dayana the cottontail rabbit, and Paco the porcupine.

And please Coco, please don’t mess with a porcupine. Even a baby one.

Grandmother

I don’t know why I pulled away. I had tried to get the old woman’s photo the day before, and the day before that. Right then was the perfect opportunity. She was practically inviting me to snap her portrait. “Vanga!” creaked her voice.

But I acted as though I didn’t understand her welcome. Everyone watching knew I understood. With the bowl of hot pongal in my hand, I just smiled at her and walked away, and people at the small Kali temple in the Madurai neighborhood kept looking at me. They all knew. They all knew I understood the old woman, and yet I walked away.

 She was curled up on top of her cart. Unlike the previous day, when I saw her sprawled on the doorsteps asleep, she was awake and vibrant, noticing everything around her. Including me. Her lips were drawn around her toothless gums, and her wrinkled arms waved in the air.

 One of her neighbors had told me all she did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep. That meant that her neighbors fed her, noticed her, looked after her. The old woman.

 “How old is she?” I asked at least three people. The first flashed all her fingers many times, open closed, open closed. I couldn’t count.

“Eighty?”

“Hundred,” she said.

 I asked another woman, who had just stepped around the sleeping old woman. “Is she your grandmother?”

“Yes,” she said. Then I realized that a street-dwelling woman that old was everyone’s grandmother.

“How old is she?”

“Hundred,” she said.

 Obviously, no one really knew how old the woman was, therefore she was a hundred. Maybe she really was a hundred years. A century. P1010632

I wanted her photograph, but I thought it would be rude to take it while she was awake. Somehow, it seemed as if I would be taking something from her without her consent, because she probably would not understand what I wanted. It was also rude to take it while she was asleep, but I tried to get the shot anyway, the day before as she was draped on the doorsteps. I just had to make sure no one was watching me; that would somehow make it okay. But everyone noticed me. People emerged from their houses and greeted me. So I slipped my camera back in my bag, and didn’t get the photograph. I instead ended up in her neighbor’s home after being invited for tea.

I could have visited with the old woman that morning as she called her greeting. I could have sat on her cart with her, and held her hand, and listened to her talk to me. She was deaf, someone had said, so I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with her. Maybe that’s what sent me away. Or maybe her age frightened me. I would feel uncomfortable, sitting next to this weathered woman tucked in a worn sari, who had survived all kinds of struggles: having enough to eat, raising children, an absent husband, and life on the streets. 

I could have met her for a little while, and exchanged good feelings with her. But instead, I walked away, feeling a pang inside of me.

Would she be alive tomorrow? Would I see her again, all bright and aware, sitting scrunched up in her cart, watching the world, and calling vanga to passersby? 

As I walked away, I hoped she would be there the next day, awake and alert. I would sit with her awhile, and pass the morning with her, and hold her hand, and smile.

I would meet this ancient woman and honor her. And honor myself.

 

Read more about this Madurai neighborhood and my meeting the Grandmother for the first time on a morning walk at this link to my travel blog.