My mother told me that one day in the early 1960s, she was strolling past a row of file cabinets at the insurance company in downtown Dallas where she worked at the time, when a man who had a history of playing pranks on his coworkers suddenly leaped out and popped her bra strap. At a time when people could normally get away with such shenanigans in the workplace, my mother said she didn’t think twice once she saw the smirk on the young man’s face…and smacked him across his face, sending his glasses to the floor. She cursed at him – something that most people, especially women could NOT get away with in those days – and merely walked away. Trying to play the victim, she said he complained to his manager who subsequently called her into his office. She reiterated the entire scenario, which generally would be a true case of he-said-she-said. But she had a supporter. Another man had witnessed the incident and confirmed her version. The bra popper was merely reprimanded verbally, and my mother was forced to drop the incident.
Not until years later did she reveal that to my father who surely would have stormed into the office and cracked a few heads of the all-male management. In fact, she told me she never told my father most of the stuff that happened to her at work – the ongoing and pervasive sexual harassment she endured in the old days – because she feared his retribution upon her male colleagues. But really didn’t need to do that; she could fend for herself.
My mother, Maria Guadalupe De La Garza, passed away last Monday, June 22, at the age of 87. She had endured a lengthy battle with dementia and the effects of a stroke she suffered last January, which almost completely rendered her left side immobile. After a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation center, I had to bring her home in May; whereupon she entered home hospice care. That, in and of itself, was an ordeal.
But I knew her time was coming to an end.
My mother had a difficult start in life. Her mother, Esperanza, was seven months pregnant with her, when her parents traveled to Taxco, a town just outside of México City, to attend some kind of family gathering in December 1932. While there, Esperanza suddenly went into labor. My mother barely weighed 2 pounds at birth; she was so small they carried her home in a shoe box and used her father’s handkerchiefs for diapers. She was born on December 12, which to Latino Roman Catholics is Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe). Thus, her parents named her Guadalupe. Knowing that she had slim chance of survival – like most babies born prematurely in the 1930s – a local priest baptized her and gave her last rites in the same ceremony.
But she did survive – and fought various battles throughout her life with that inborn sense of determination and perseverance. I still believe the unique mix of German and Mexican extraction only accentuated her unbridled individualism.
Esperanza died in México City on Christmas Day 1940, just 11 months after giving birth to her only son, William. They had wanted to name him after his father, Clarence, but no one could a Spanish language version of that name. Esperanza’s mother, Felicitas Basurto, stepped in to help Clarence raise his 4 children. Felicitas had lived in the United States for a short while and worked for a U.S. Navy admiral as a governess to his 2 children. She had actually taught herself English. Felicitas returned to México in the summer of 1940, as Esperanza’s health began to fail. She was there when her daughter succumbed to an abdominal infection.
In the September of 1943, Clarence moved his children and mother-in-law to Dallas where he’d found a job working an auto plant. He wanted to return to his native Michigan, but he spotted an ad for the job in Dallas.
It was a rough transition for my mother and her 3 siblings. None of them could speak English. Many strangers thought my mother and her older sister, Margo, were Americans because of girls’ fair coloring. But their maternal grandmother helped guide them into their new lives.
My mother met my father, George, in 1957, and they married two years later. I’m their only child.
My mother’s strong personality made her almost fearless. At some a gathering in the early 1950s, a nun got angry with my Uncle William for some unknown reason and called him a “spic”. My mother was nearby and slapped the nun across her face. That got her into trouble with the church and her father and grandmother. Shortly before my parents wed, a priest told my mother that he hoped she’d do the “godly thing” and have lots of children. My mother said she didn’t want many children, but the priest insisted; telling her it was her duty as a married woman. She then agreed – and told the old man she’d bring all those children back to him so he could help her raise them.
Her sharp criticism of some people – especially other women – was boundless. She called Paula Jones – the woman who accused Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her – a “dumb broad” because Jones apparently believed that she really was going for a job interview at his hotel room at 10:00 at night. In May of 2004, my father’s second oldest sister, Teresa, died of cancer. At the rosary, we spoke briefly with the husband of one of my cousins. He was a police officer and mentioned that he was part of the security detail for former First Lady Barbara Bush when she came to Dallas and had to carry his gun.
“Why did you need to carry your gun?” my mother inquired. “I mean, who wants a piece of that old hag?”
I burst out into laughter, as my cousin’s husband tried to keep his eyeballs from falling out of their sockets.
She called another former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, a “screaming banshee”; said she didn’t realize how fat Oprah Winfrey was until she saw her in jeans, when the talk show maven visited Dallas; and denounced Monica Lewinsky (the woman who had a sexual tryst with Bill Clinton in 1996) as a “cheap-ass whore”.
My mother first started showing signs of dementia more than a decade ago. Recipes for the simplest things sometimes eluded her. My father and I finally got her to start seeing a neurologist in 2011. In the four years since my father died, she occasionally referred to me as her brother, William. A few times I had to call the paramedics to help me deal with her increasingly erratic behavior. Their sudden presence always managed to calm her down. I believe it’s because they were all men, and my mother was partial to men.
At the end of this past January, she suffered a mild stroke. I didn’t realize it at first, but noticed she couldn’t get up out of bed. I had her transported to a local hospital where an MRI discovered bleeding on the brain, which had already begun to heal. It had paralyzed her entire left side.
I had to make the difficult decision of admitting her to a rehabilitation center to help her recover. I found one nearby, but I developed a sense of dread the night the hospital transported her to the facility. I felt like I was abandoning her. I had promised my father many years ago that, if she should die first, I’d do everything I could take care of her. And, of course, he died first.
The rehab center turned out to be incredible. Physical therapists helped her regain mobility in her left arm and even her left leg. I brought her back home at the end of March, as the COVID-19 calamity was unfolding. I’d reports of residents at similar facilities contracting the novel coronavirus and even dying.
I contracted a health care agency to help me care for her. But, after a week, things didn’t turn out well. She became increasingly hostile and combative. She also developed a urinary tract infection, but I thought she was experiencing another stroke. After one night at the hospital, I had her readmitted to the rehab center. Unfortunately, health care in the United States is still very much an actual business. Her Medicare benefits were exhausted, and the facility had to discharge her in May. I wrote about this in an essay a few weeks ago.
After returning home again, she entered a home hospice care program with same health agency. They were quite phenomenal in helping me. I couldn’t depend too much on relatives, friends or neighbors. But her health continued to decline. I had told a long-time family friend who lives nearby – a woman who’s known my mother for close to 50 years – that I didn’t feel my mother would make it to the end of summer. Our friend was shocked, but when she came over to visit on the 18th, she realized I was probably right. My mother had grown incoherent; she didn’t seem to recognize anyone, even me; and would often lie in bed staring at the ceiling or a wall and asking for her sister, Margo. Margo had died of cancer in June 1989.
It’s incredibly frustrating and sad to watch someone who raised me descend into the depths of cognitive bewilderment. The once vibrant, strong-minded woman I’d known my entire life had reverted to a child-like state of mind. Now I know why dementia is often called “the long goodbye”. You see your loved one disintegrate before you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about.
In the few weeks preceding her death, I often felt we weren’t alone in the house. I had prayed to my Aunt Margo to come get my mother, and I actually began to sense it was her moving about. I also began to see shadows of a small animal trotting down the hall or the sound of tiny footsteps. I realized immediately the figure was my dog, Wolfgang, who died in October 2016; just less than four months after my father. In many cultures, animals, birds, and butterflies are often seen as either an omen of death or a conduit between our world and whatever other world might exist. Both my parents absolutely loved that little dog of mine. He actually became our dog. Since I never married and had children, Wolfgang became their pseudo-grandson. I even mentioned Wolfgang as a “canine grandson” in my father’s obituary. On just a handful of occasions, though, I actually did spot Wolfgang – but only for a second or two. I needed no further reassurance that my mother’s time here was coming to a close.
There’s no easy way to say goodbye to a loved one. As a friend told me, that person can live a thousand years, but their demise is still painful. I’m at peace, though, with what happened. I’m glad I could get her back home to die. She and my father had worked very hard to get and to keep this house. We’ve been here almost 50 years. And I couldn’t let her die anywhere else.
“Every day when you’re raising kids, you feel like you could cry or crack up and just scream, ‘This is ridiculous!’ because there’s so much nonsense, whether it’s what they’re saying to you or the fact that there’s avocado or poop on every surface.”
“After we got home from the hospital, I didn’t shower for a week, and then John and I were like, ‘Let’s go out for dinner.’ I could last only about an hour because my boobs were exploding. When the milk first comes in, it’s like a tsunami. But we went, just to prove to ourselves that we could feel normal for a second.”
“Twelve years later the memories of those nights, of that sleep deprivation, still make me rock back and forth a little bit. You want to torture someone? Hand them an adorable baby they love who doesn’t sleep.”
“[Having four kids is] endless stuff. It’s endless entertainment, it’s endless stress, endless responsibility. Everyone’s at different ages and levels, everyone’s into different stuff. But everyone is into slime.”
“I’ve conquered a lot of things … blood clots in my lungs – twice … knee and foot surgeries … winning Grand Slams being down match point … to name just a few, but I found out by far the hardest is figuring out a stroller!”
I stood alone in the darkness of the den last night and wondered how it got to this point. My mother had a mild stroke one week ago today; paralyzing her entire left side and essentially rendering her immobile. She is now in a rehabilitation facility. With dementia clouding her judgment and comprehension, I almost felt like I was abandoning her to a bedridden life.
Both of my parents were among the roughly 100% of the population declaring they would never end up in a nursing home. In the months before he died, my father insisted on returning to this modest suburban home to pass away. He did not want to be in a hospital or any other facility hooked up to machinery, barely surviving off IV drips. I was able to grant him that wish. Who wants to die in a hospital anyway? I believe only a workplace is the least desirable place to expire.
But here my mother is in a place filled with elderly and disabled people. I got a bad feeling from the moment I stepped into the building. The representative I had spoken to on the phone earlier on Friday told me the structure was older. Indeed, it is! With severely off-white walls and ceiling light fixtures the color of Neosporin, the place looks like it’s witnessed every national event since the Vietnam War. I didn’t expect the rooms to be equivalent to 5-star Bahamian resorts. But they’re Spartan appearance is just one step above a prison cell.
Aging building features aside, I have to concede the staff seems nice – at least the ones I’ve met so far. That, of course, is far more important than cosmetics. The facility has a high rating from business and health associations. I’m concerned mainly because the state of Texas has become a critical focal point in elder abuse within nursing home facilities.
I’m also worried because I’ve never been put in this situation before. I had promised my parents I’d never let this happen – being placed in a…facility. But how does one prepare for such an event?
Life takes such a strangely circuitous route. When we’re born, we’re totally helpless; dependent on others to ensure our survival. As we reach the end of our lives – hopefully many years later – we enter another stage of fragility. The human body winds down and shows its age. Like a building.
So how did we end up here? It’s just what happens to many people. My primary hope right now is that my mother can endure proper physical therapy to get her ambulatory enough to return home. If she could walk – even with an aid – that would make a world of difference. Besides, I’d promised my father years ago that – should he die first – I’d take care of my mother. And I feel if I violate that oath, he’ll return to cripple my hands where I can’t tap on a keyboard to write my stories and make snarky comments on this blog.
Shortly after moving here in December of 1972, I stopped my father amidst the unpacking and asked if he’d noticed something unique: silence. We’d moved from a garage apartment near downtown Dallas to this newly-developed area. It had been mostly ranchland and, for years, a large pasture stretched out behind our house. We’d often see cows grazing, along with the occasional bull. But relocating from a heavily-trafficked urban neighborhood to here was utopian.
I kept asking myself last night – having downed plenty of vodka and orange juice – how we got to this point. Things happen, I finally realized, and people get old and disabled. The alternative is not too pleasant. But this is the way it is. And it’s not infinite. It’s this anomaly called life.
“Goodnight, little boy. I love –” I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room. He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears. Wolfgang was gone.
I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years. I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes. I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.
I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows. Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat. I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.
I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.
I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels. It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it. The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.
In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had. The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining. I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.
For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents. But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me. Some of the hotel staff came to like him. The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room. There mere sound of his voice frightened her. But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.
That little thing can make that much noise?!
Yes, he can!
One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth. Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency. Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark. Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.
A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet. He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell. I laughed.
I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone. It’s the same with my father. Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind. It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.
Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them. It’s such a weird feeling. How could this happen? Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together? Talk about timing!
Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house. It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years. In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him. I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever. It was gone before day’s end.
At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines. “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father. Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic. I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.
But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious. There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca. A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories. Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper. It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy. I was about 5 when I wrote that. And he kept it! As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible. But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.
And yes, it also made me sad. But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine. It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.
Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there. It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless. After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.
At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father. I try not to get emotional in public. Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together. But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised. It must have been the margarita swirls. I was already on my second one.
Pete knows how I feel. He lost his own father 12 years ago. Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos. “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone. I didn’t understand. All of Pete’s grandparents were dead. What was he trying to – aw shit! I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.
I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV. His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth. I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him. His mother had lived to age 97. Why couldn’t he? What is the proper time of year to die? It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days. Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy. As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S. Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?
A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time. I’d feel the pressure change in the house. But it wasn’t a frightening sensation. I knew my father was nearby. He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs. If I did anything right, I feel it was that. I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.
There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone. And the house is otherwise quiet. I’ve never felt pain like this before. But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed. My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead. I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.
“Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has instilled within each of us a powerful biological instinct to reproduce; this is her way of assuring that the human race, come what may, will never have any disposable income.”