Your Horse Has Diabetes (But I'm Much Better)

During Prohibition, there was an urban rumor circulating that went something like this.

Once there was a guy named Mac who loved his gin and whiskey  so much -  he stocked up on a bottle a week (sometimes a bottle a day) during all of 1919 as the country faced the countdown to Prohibition.
Years later, when Mac’s supply ran out, he discreetly asked a few friends for a referral and had a few unfortunate disappointments before he found a bootlegger who brought him the smoothest,  mellowest moonshine they nicknamed “Mama’s Milk.”

Just when Mac was coming to rely on his new treasure, Mac’s bootlegger gets arrested. 

Or was it shot? Yes. He was shot. Dead. No more moonshine for poor Mac.

Instead of moping around, Mac gets an inspiration.  He fills a tiny shot glass with a sample of his precious remaining jelly jar of Mama's Milk moonshine and has a courier deliver it to the local pharmacist  in a paper bag with a discreet note (wrapped around a $1 bill) requesting all possible tests be done to determine the liquid’s content. 

Three weeks later, a thin envelope arrives from the Pharmacy: Your horse has diabetes.

When I finish telling the story to my history class, I pause for a second as students scribble pieces of the story down. 

Hands shoot up into the air.

A guy in the back row sitting towards the lecture hall’s back door asks, “Was it horse pee? Really?
I shake my head.  "Urban myth. Remember? That’s how I started the story?"

Heads nod. Most of them understood. 

A few girls in the middle of the room  are still writing so I take another question.

A guy in second row from the back offers, “I peed in a bottle once. At a football game….

I shake my head at the randomness of his statement and the class laughs.

He continues, “these people kept stealing our beer….” 

And this is it. I fall on my knees looking to the sky, silently asking "Why is this student telling us this? Why?"

 He continues, “you know those beer balls?....” and continues his college-esque story about punishing some random thieves with urine and, well, I didn't really listen because as I  allowed him (this once, and only this once) to ramble on, I remain my knees,  on the floor, holding my head like "I'm losing my mind, what do I do?"

I'm teasing. 

They know I'm teasing. 

I run my classes like a totalitarian dictatorship -- no cellphones, no computers, no talking, no tardiness, no getting up and coming back in. I do my best to not waste their time, so that we have digressed for less than a minute is forgiveable in the course of a semester.

After we laugh together for a moment or two, I pop back up, brush myself off and redirect our attention to Prohibition, then to the  Scopes Trial.  

I’m not sure the class knew it (they will know it now) but somehow, when I fell down today, I got back up whole again, laughing again and ready to write again. 

Its no coincidence the healing happened in my one class who already knows the whole story behind this book.

Tale of a Town Founder, Queen, and Pioneer Medicine Woman

Subtitle: What Would Genghis Khan Do?
Sub-Subtitle: My Adventure on the Electronic Oregon Trail


If you have noticed I haven't written much lately you might think I'm busy with Marvin's Book coming out any second.

You'd be wrong. I'm done with Marvin's Book, there is nothing left to write.

I have been busy taking care of my special little frontier town nestled between the fish-filled lakes in Oregon that lives on my iPad.

At first I loved my special town, and I happily spent my limited energy (why do they limit my energy?!) clearing trees, planting tomatoes and building a happy little pen for my irrationally calm and non-violent flock of ducks, pigs, chicken and cows.

I fished. I hunted. I visited other towns and helped them harvest.

As queen, founder and richest person on the block, I built houses too - mishmash groups of cheap huts, moderate Victorians, log cabins and luxury townhouses.

 A one-woman political machine, I collected their rent and used the money to build medical facilities, a sheriff's office, a school house so they could hear stories of their wonderful town.

When floods came,  I rebuilt the little frontier homes.
They loved me.
I accepted their praise.

When buffalo tore through, I replanted the virtual crops.
They cheered.
I built them a glorious new town hall.

When my courageous settlers were bitten by snakes or fell sick to measles, I  did my best to save them by producing the magical mix of "things" needed to get my settlers to produce in order to cure them: herbs, splints, a mortar and pestle, bandages. 

At one point I had 8 medical facilities churning out the ingredients for these cures,  each of which required a constant supply of of lumber and food, so I'd have to send myself on endless romps through my expanding (healthy) frontier town,  planting crops and chopping down trees to fuel my medically advanced utopia.

Due to limited energy, all I could do is fuel this direly important medical mission.  As soon as I cured one settler, another fell ill. 

I stopped collecting rent.

I stopped fishing for cute catfish.

I didn't visit other towns to help them harvest.

I stopped visiting town market,  the tavern, the saloon and I didn't even have  energy left to shoot a disoriented black bear as it tore right by me through my frontieropolis.

All I could do was stay in a tedious cycle of production and consumption keep making medicine to keep my people alive.  When the game forced me to run out of energy after a certain number of turns, it offered me an option to spend real cash to keep playing and keep my settlers and their little town going. Tempting as it sometimes felt (especially late at night) I knew better and spent my time-outs playing game after game of Spider Solitaire.

Then it dawned on me.

I must have planted my frontier town somewhere in a sickness-filled pit like Jamestown.

No wonder the land was so cheap.  No wonder the natives didn't fight me for it. It was crappy land, and the people were going to die, or I was going to die of boredom trying to keep them alive.

So I dug deep into my heart and decided it was my responsibility to use the best medicine for everyone - the current and future generations of my little frontieropolis.

I asked myself, "What would Genghis Khan do?"

And then I knew, I really knew.
Before another electronic settler in my frontieropolis could break their arm, drink brown water or be bitten by a snake, before another little girl could fall ill to measles,  I did the best thing I could as their leader, their medicine woman, and the town's sole founder, only politician, queen, empress, dictator and resident nuclear physicist in training.

I deleted my little frontier town and saved them all from their inevitable suffering. And I did it, without warning or permission or any discussion at all.

I think Genghis Khan would be proud; maybe Colin Powell, too....

Pounding the Meat

It is the usual evening summer evening around here.

Zack is competing against the world on MarioKart Wii.

Zoe is skyping.

I'm in the kitchen getting dinner ready.

I'm just following step #3 of a recipe when Zoe shouts out over my clanging and banging to her skype friend, "I can't hear you! My mom is pounding the meat!"

She pauses and says, "That sounded so wrong."

Then she sat in silence and so I offered, unsolicited, "Tell her 'My mom is banging the pork chops!'" but she ignored me.

It is the usual summer evening around here.

Chapter 12: The Queen: There You Are

The phone rings in our L'Union hotel room in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

 It's Mom's cousin, the one with Abuela's eyes. She is here to be with us today. Its dawning on me that Tita and I haven't set foot out of the hotel without a relative to keep and eye on us and wonder if we are allowed to be unescorted, if somehow she received a government notice like "Hey, your crazy relatives are coming to town - keep them in line. Love, etc."

She's downstairs, so is Machete, who will be driving us around again today. After a kiss kiss hug hug, she shows off that she's wearing new shoes, the ones my Mom took off for her to try on last night as she left when the rain stopped.

 My Mom loved those shoes but what the heck, next week she can go to Steinmart and  buy some more. They have 50 years of Christmases and Birthdays to catch up on anyway.

Machete is parked where the huge European bus had been.  I walk out, take one good smell of Cienfuegos air, and duck into the airconditioned Kia minivan, the one we rode in on our way from the airport a lifetime ago.   I slip into my same seat in the back, next to my Mom's cousin who holds my hands and hugs me a lot.

Mom confirms with Machete that we are going first to the old cemetery. He takes us out of the colonial downtown, out of all I'd seen of Cienfuegos, and off through a long street lined with house that looked very much like the mix tiny and grand Coral Gables (one that had never recovered from Hurricane Andrew, that is) and after that down an industrial area.

The further out we drive from the city center, the worse off the houses seemed to be.

We passed horses pulling carts and people pulling carts and people carrying food, and people carrying wood.

We passed people who were walking off to get something to carry home.

On the second floor of an old apartment I see a Dalmatian jumping up up up trying to get into the shady house through the window.

A teenage girl weaves out into the road and off on a side street, holding an infant with one hand and steering the bike with her other.  No one around her looks shocked, they just go on with getting things, getting rid of things, getting through another day in Cienfuegos.

By the time Machete rolls us down a rocky gravel road that looks to me like a low, small, cemetery I'm under the impression there is some sort of bold survival lawlessness among of the Cubans that I hadn't expected.   I like it.

My Abuelo has showed me a picture of this, and pictures of other landmarks in this city, I'm sure, but now, here, this is real and it is beyond delightful.

It is U shaped, with the top of the U closed off (mostly) to limit entrance.  Dark muscled men wearing blue colored jump suits walk on top of the wall, carting this and that, shouting down to a woman who looks very much in charge.

We slip out of the minivan, leaving Machete in the air-conditioning, and walk towards the entrance. The lady in charge says only Welcome, Welcome (in Spanish) and we pass by.

 I'm sure she lets us go in because we have flowers, we are here to visit Someone. Which means WE must be Someone. I like that and give her my best ladylike walk, even though I needed a shove at first because I I could have stood at the entrance for an hour.

 Rising up from the rubble is a colonial cemetery in a city founded by someone from New Orleans is cemetery that compete with any I've ever seen Uptown and by the French Quarter.  Because the site is above sea level, city founders got permission to bury their loved ones above ground, but only just a little.

The inside of the cemetery held about four rows of shamelessly ornate expressions of neoclassical grief and with a light touch of religion, like a dash of salt.

The interior of the outside wall was lined with markers. I was pretty sure it was soldiers and I checked back and bingo, I was right.  Cuba rose up for independence in the 10 Years War (1868-1878) and the 1895 Revolution (you know the one I mean - the one with Teddy Roosevelt, and Jose Marti,  the one we renamed the "Spanish American War") and only now,  here does it dawn on me that the Spanish soldiers, caught in what must have felt like a Civil War, died here.

I wonder if their families know where they are, I wonder if their granddaughters and greatgrandsons know to follow me, come here, come to Cuba.

Why did the Cubans rise up?  It's complicated, but standing here in a cemetary named "The Queen,"  I feel like that's the cue I'm supposed to start this story with.  The cemetery was built during the reign of Queen Isabella 2, the one I bet you haven't heard about.

The namesake of Spain's most beloved (to Spaniards) Queen Isabella, wife of Ferdinand, mother of Spain and a dynasty, Queen Isabella 2 was born into a complicated post-Napoleonic Europe. Her mother was Maria Cristina, a Bourbon from Austria, related to the Bourbons in France (and namesake of Bourbon Street).

Well, unmarried Isabella 2's ascension to the throne was enabled by the Spanish Cortes' suspension of Salic Law, the code that says that excludes women from inheritance and titles.

 When she took the throne her father's brother lead an uprising against her. She would eventually be ousted in the 1868 Revolution and her son would later rule.  History remembers this queen as having had twelve kids, none of whom were suspected to have been related to her French husband, who she publicly scorned.

So while Spain was going through her issues in the 1860s-70s, some people in Cuba rose up for political and social and economic equality. And by that, they meant equality with other nations, not equality among people in the Island, although the abolition of slavery was on the table at the time.  It didn't work, and she remained Cuba's colony until the next revolution, a generation later.

Mom walks down the cemetery's main aisle to almost the last spot before we hit the bottom of the U shape.

"There you are!" she proclaims and we hug and do a little victory dance for ourselves and for Abuela.

The Staircase Part 6: Abuela & The Keys

When I was satisfied that I communicated well enough in our limited improvised Spanglish I let Abuela go and I called my Mom. I described the windows, the air, something familiar that I knew was Cuba.  She accepted it immediately and proclaimed that she was named after me.

Named after me?


This whole time? And I didn't know?

Nope. She laughed. I laughed. We are happy to find each other and keep each other this time around.

After years of therapy I ended up in Cuba, in the soul of family. Real or not real it felt completely right deep down at the core of  my imaginative heart.

I kept teaching college, working extra jobs to make ends meet.  Here and there I wrote chapters of a novel I started calling "Finding Cuba."

Then a student of mine, Marvin Scott died.

A week after that, I found out I was pregnant with Zoe.

I didn't go back to therapy again.

I taught. I mothered. I had another kid. I taught some more.

I earned tenure and in between all of that I grew closer and closer to Abuela who now wanted me to call her "Tata," the diminuative of Marta.

In June, 2007, not knowing Abuela would not live to see the end of that year, I wrote a story about escorting her to her death.


My grandmother comes from a particular class and culture in Cuban history where women were not permitted much freedom.

Girls always took chaperones on dates, lived at home until married, knew how to embroider and play the piano.

Such a cultured and protected woman could expect a fine marriage with a Papi-style husband, one who works hard, cheats only when he's out of town, takes care of all the money, and -- of course! -- drives his wife wherever she needs to go.

After fleeing Cuba for New Orleans, Abuela had to take streetcars to work in a cafeteria where no one else spoke Spanish.

Later she carpooled to work with her married daughter to a job a downtown lab where she stained and read pap smear slides.

In all these years Abuela has never ever learned to drive.
Many times over the years she's gotten angry, gotten scared, gotten some backbone and threatened to go to driving school.

When Abuela was about 75, I offered to teach her to drive.

Heck, I taught my brother, I'm pretty relaxed, and hey -- this is Dad's car anyway -- why not?

Abuela said no.

Every time I came home for vacation, for holidays, for whatever, I'd shake car keys in front of Abuela.

"OK! Vamos!"

She would laugh and say "Ay! Si! Vamos!" but she wouldn't get up.

For years Abuela has continually refused the joy and privilege of learning to drive from me.

So about two years ago I started to threaten my Abuela.

Here is the story I told her.

I'll wait until she was completely deliriously old and frail, then I'll ask her to drive me somewhere.

If Abuela says she doesn't know how to drive, I'll make up some wonderfully accurate and descriptive stories about all the places in Cuba she's driven me.

Abuela will then feel a sudden burst of confidence, snatch the keys from me andwe'll be off.

Of course, when she actually does drive she'll kill herself, but that would be *fine* because her brain was expiring anyway.

Abuela and waves her hand at me, "Psssssht. I'm not afraid to die. I think it will be fun."

So when I went home this past week, I made sure to wave keys at Abuela, reminding her how much I love her.....

That November Abuela suffered greatly from back pain which turned out to be a massive heart attack.  On November 27, after talking to her from her hospital bed,  I wrote "About those Keys"

Abuela was in the hospital.

Cardiac ICU.
No, don't come down yet.
Just stay in Tallahassee, wait.

Great. So I did stay here. 

And I made up my own rules.

If I couldn't go down there, then no one could call me with bad news.
Not until after 5pm, after teaching, after lecturing, after I was a grownup all day.

Then, of course, I'd be ready to handle it.

On Monday I threw on my lucky dress, and taught my AMH 2020 class then took a field trip to FSU to lecture on Teaching College History.

On my way home, I called my mom and talked to Abuela

She sounded tired and distracted.

Of course, she's a celebrity in that hospital, probably getting foot rubs and extra morphine. 

Lucky her. 

I told her I loved her and that I'd see her when I drive down with the kids on December 18.

She laughed and told me I'd better bring down the keys, soon. She's ready to drive.

I think -- although I don't want to -- that I understood her, completely.
The next day I write about weather.

Forecast: Peaceful Waters

Mom loses her voice under stress.

Which is fine, because she has her blackberry.

This also fine because it means that people can't call Mom and constantly ask for updates on Abuela's conditions.

Being a PR/Media specialist, Mom has found a way to manage this situation.

She's issuing written updates to my father whose job is then to stick to his script and disseminate the statements by phone.

And of course, there is a protocol.

First, dad calls Abuela's other children, Milly and Vincent.

Then he calls my brother Winn.

A fter that he should call me, then other cousins.

The noon update, today: "She continues to deteriorate."

This is a particularly meaningful and appropriate analogy for a family who resides in South Florida and New Orleans.

I imagine Hurricane Abuela, once a category 5 storm with a well defined eye and winds of over 200 miles per hour, downgraded to a category 1.

Then a tropical storm.

Then a disturbance.

Then peace.

After that, I wrote about, well -- you know.

Happy First Day

I woke up at 3:50am with a beeping phone.

I rolled over Zoe and swatted around the floor of the dark room for a second before finding the blinking source of the noise.

One new text message from Tita, telling me to not wear perfume when I came down today.

I knew that, I remembered that, but I guess after five days of being at her mother's side for 24 hours, my mom just wanted to make sure that every single detail was in line.

texted her back "Thank you. I love you. Can you rest?"

She didn't text me back.

I couldn't sleep, so I roamed the house, took a shower, finished some laundry, packed the car for my ride to Fort Lauderdale to take part in exactly what I wasn't sure.

What I did know was that it was time to for the drive.

On Friday morning, during a tearful conversation, I asked my mom, "Isn't it time yet? I want to be there. Please say I can come."

Her response? A deep sigh, a sniff, resignation. "Almost. It's almost time."

That was enough for me.

My mind was made up. I heard what I needed to hear, and I made the decision no one could make for me.

Within hours I'd rented a car, arranged to cancel classes for part of the upcoming week, and took my brother up on his offer of a place to sleep.


At almost exactly 6am Saturday morning, I was all set in my rented PT Cruiser, about to pull out of the driveway when I decided to text my mom again. "I'm leaving now. No texting from the road. I love you & Tata. Happy First Day of December!"

See, we have this little (but fiercely competitive!) game of wishing each other a "Happy First Day" first. This game, which involves our extended family and friends, has gone on for decades.

When I arrived in Pompano Beach, dad and I grabbed lunch and then headed to the hospital.

Abuelo was happy to see me, and told me how proud he was that I was giving a speech in Miami. That was a lie, of course, but I understood. Mom told her parents I was coming down for work, that way they wouldn't think that I .... that I was here for ...

So I only spent about 10 minutes in the hospital room.

My abuela was suffering much worse than I'd imagined.

She was suffering so badly that I was only really allowed to make brief eye contact and touch her cold tense hand before being shooed out of the room.

I had never before seen Abuela unlaughing, rocking, seized with pain.

Gone, already, was her her twinkle, and her wonderful splendid shamelessness.

My father and I caravaned toward the beach where he keyed me in at my brother's rental house.

Alone with my thoughts, I had a nice hard run, unpacked a few things, checked email, and considered a shower.

Beep. A text message.

Before I checked my phone, I prayed..... Please God don't let this be a text telling me she's gone. Please, please not yet.

It was my dad telling me to stop by Publix and buy something for mom.

Hooray, finally, I was part of things.

I arrived at Holy Cross at 6:05pm and headed to the 4th floor.

As I walked down the corridor I could see my abuelo (Holy Cross Hospital's Volunteer of the Year) still in his work clothes and tie, eating potato chips and looking out the sunset out a large long window.

"Geez," he greeted me, "you are too much!" Then he hugged me and whispered in my ear, "You're my number one." Together we returned to the hospital room where my mother's sister, Aunt Milly, and my cousin, Samantha, were sitting with my mom, comforting Abuela.

Abuela's attention was on my mom, like a baby bonding with its mother. "Mari... Mari..." then she'd try to breathe, hold her chest, lean back, lean forward... the entire time focused entirely on my mom.

For a few minutes I sat behind my mom, holding her while she held her mother, then -- in order to keep the room peaceful -- I left the room with Abuelo and stood out in the hall for a few minutes.

A male Filipino nurse joined us for some small talk.

Abuelo told the nurse that Thursday, December 6, would be their 63 anniversary. Did he think that Abuela would be home for that?

The nurse looked at me uncomfortably, stammered a vague answer.

interuppted. "Abuelo, she can't stay in this pain for another five days..." 

He nodded his head, but I don't think he really heard me.

We returned to the room, and surrounded Abuela, gently.

She wanted to go, it was clear that she needed to go, but she couldn't.

Not yet.

Sam, Milly, Mom, Abuelo and I shifted turns so each of us held her cold hand, felt her anxiety, offered her a tiny drop of solace in the sea of pain that was drowning her.

Abuelo sat in a hard chair, saying a rosary.

At 7:25, Abuela called her daughter's names, and then called for Sam.

She didn't call me -- not by name -- I figured I was next so I stood before her, joining the circle.

Abuela took a deep breath, looked right at me, then at Sam, then she didn't breath again.

A tangible explosion of love and peace shot through the room, filling us all, expanding through the room and to eternity.

At 7:25, December 1, 2007, Marta Carmen Polo Fornias slipped out of her suffering and into heavenly peace.

Happy First Day, Abuela!

And then this
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known"
Corinthians 13:12

It's about 8:15pm on Wednesday December 5 , and I am home in Tallahassee after a long drive from Fort Lauderdale.

I am surrounded by love, hugs, coloring pages and candy canes, all things that make me thirsty.

I open the cabinet, grab my favorite aqua cup, the one with the Mickey Mouse insignia so subtly and artistically etched on it, then cry.

This was HERS, I sob to the unlistening sink and the empty 2 liter of Sunkist.

Wave after wave of sadness and guilt wash over me.

I stole this cup from Abuela.

I did.

She had a set of 8 that my mother bought her at Downtown Disney a few years ago. One day I poured myself a "to go cup," stuck it in my car, and never returned it. 

Every time I've used it, I've thought, "nope, not going to give it back... not until I get myself a set..."
I always loved that set, and each of the countless times I've been to Downtown Disney I haven't made a single sincere effort to buy myself Mickey Mouse cups. 

Maybe I didn't really want my own cups. 
Maybe I just couldn't be honest. 
Maybe the truth was just too ugly.
What I wanted was Abuela's cups.

The cups aren't that old, and maybe they aren't very special looking, but they mean something to me.

I imagine that other people -- maybe people who aren't descended from refugees? -- have heirlooms like great-grandpa's rifle, great-great-Grandmother's teapot, lace curtains, WW2 letters, tiny silver spoons.

We don't.

So instead of things, we have traditions.

We lie. 

And then, of course, tell stories about our lies.

For example, my abuelos lied to their children when they were leaving Cuba in 1960.

Instead of saying "tell everyone goodbye, we are OUT of here!" they told the children it was just for a vacation.

This is forgivable.

Tearful goodbyes or packing sentimental things-- baseball gloves, love letters -- were red flags that have jeopardized their safety.

Just a small lie, but a memorable one nonetheless.

Years ago, my abuelo's sister -- Tia Fifi ( stayed at with Abuelo and Abuela house while recovering from a heart attack.

During her month-long visit, Tiafi's son Eduardo had a heart attack.

She kept trying to call him at home, but he wouldn't answer.

Because, of course, he was in the hospital.

Finally someone -- I won't point fingers here -- told her "Oh! Didn't you hear? Eduardo is in the Keys."

For awhile, every time someone was sick or dying, we'd say, "Oh? Visiting the Keys?"

Lies, lies, lies.

One year while I was home from graduate school for Winter Break my mother confided in me that she had three tickets for the Orange Bowl -- don't tell your father

Later that same day, my father pulled me aside to show me the three tickets he bought for the Orange Bowl -- don't tell your Mom!

When the three of us were together, Mom would rant about how she wished we could go to the game, how we couldn't afford tickets, how there were no tickets to be found.

Dad kept making speeches about how he wouldn't dream of going to the Orange Bowl and missing other games on TV.

Keeping their secrets and watching them lie made me physically ill.
This went on for a painful long week until game day, when they both broke it to me there really only was only one set of tickets.


They laughed.

I cried.

We still see that as a positive family experience.

And then there's last Saturday, December 1.

I guess we couldn't tell my abuelos why I was really driving down.

Imagine "Melissa is coming here to say her last goodbye."

That's too deep.

Too real.

Too honest and painful.

So when I got to the hospital, Abuelo asked, "Where is it that you're giving a lecture again? University of MiamiOn Cuban History? That's something! " I stammered, said something vague, changed the subject.

When I sat next to Abuela, my mom elbowed me, and I dutifully looked the woman right in the eyes and let out a string of lies.

"Aren't I lucky to be here, now, giving a paper? What a wonderful coincidence that they brought me down right now, and I can see you?" 

Abuela pulled her hand out from under mine, narrowed her eyes.

I could hear her thinking all sorts of curses for me.


And worse.

She knew why I was there.

And now that she no longer sees things, "through a glass, darkly" I just knowAbuela forgives me for lying to her on her last day on earth.

It was, after all, a cherished and unbroken family tradition.

And after that, I stopped writing for awhile. 

Spiral Staircase Part 5: The Circle of Life

I turn the radio on in my hot car and out blasts that song, The Circle of Life. I laugh. It's a coincidence. There are no coincidences.

Everything feels like the end of a mystery movie where the pieces fall together and everything and everyone looks a little different.

I call Abuela from my car phone, the one I only had about 100 "primetime" minutes for and had already used because I didn't understand the concept of "primetime" minutes.

Whatever this call cost, it was worth it.

She answered Hallo.
Abuela, I said, listen. 
What. What 'chu want? she replied.

I just went though this thing, I can't explain, but Abuela, remember how your Mom died right after you were born?

She answers me with silence.
Who expects a call like this?
In the middle of the day?

Abuela, I know this is crazy, but I'm your Mami.  What do you think about that? 

She laughed.

I can't tell you how much she understood, if she understood, or if she thought I was just playing a two-year-old game, but her answer was a delightful, "Maaaammmmiiiiii! Te quiero!!"

Time to Shop for the Veterans (AGAIN!)

Please fill a reusable shopping  bag with food to fill the food pantry that is a heavily used resource for Veterans from across the Tallahassee area.

 Each bag should focus on one of the following.
1) Breakfast food. EXAMPLES: Boxes of Cereal. Oatmeal. Cereal Bars. Coffee. 
2) Boxed and Canned Meals: EXAMPLES: Hamburger Helper.  Chili. Cans of Tuna. Cans of Chicken. Pasta.
3) Snacks: Nuts, Chips, Popcorn, Ramen Little Debbies.  Cookie mix, cake mix.
4) Perishables: Bread, fresh produce, milk, eggs, etc*  If you want to bring perishable items (fruits, vegetables, breads) please bring them on Tuesday 7/3 or directly to Veterans Village. 
Option 1: You can bring them to the HSS building and leave them with the staff. They will lock your donation in my office. Make sure your name and class is clearly marked on your box***
Option 2: You can drop donations directly off yourself (Veteran's Village is @ 1280 Kissimmee Street) - just make sure to take a picture of your donation and get a note documenting your donation. 
I will be in my  office on 7/3 with my kids from 10:30-12:30 and we will drop off the donations at 1pm. 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (June 30, 2011) - Beyond fireworks or barbeques or pool parties, the Tallahassee Community College students in Dr. Melissa Soldani-Lemon’s history class have something special planned for this Fourth of July weekend. The TCC professor is coordinating with her students to collect and deliver food for Veterans Village, a transitional residential community for homeless veterans. Around 1 p.m. on Friday, July 1 Dr. Soldani-Lemon and her students will deliver their collection of goodies to Veterans Village. The food will be for an Independence Day party for the veterans, as well as for stocking the facility’s pantry.
“My students wanted to make sure the veterans at the village can share in the Fourth of July celebrations,” said Dr. Soldani-Lemon. “After all, it’s due to the veterans’ sacrifices that we’re able to celebrate.”
Established in 2009 through a partnership between Volunteers of America, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Administration, the Veterans Village gives homeless veterans a transitional place to live and offers counseling.  It is located on the corner of Lake Bradford Road and Kissimmee Street. Those interested in contributing can drop off items at Dr. Soldani-Lemon’s office, room 204 of the History and Social Sciences Building.

The Spiral Staircase Part 4: I Don't Even Know Her.

My Dad reads about my drowning in the last chapter and says its a metaphor for depression.
I say maybe.
Another relative emails that she remembers the story.
Maybe she heard it told at family gatherings.
Maybe she was there.

It's a mystery.

For now, at least. And I'm OK with that.

Meanwhile Mom reports that Abuelo is lost in the story. Is this still about Cuba,  he wants to know.  She tells him yes, just wait. She knows just where I'm going, she sees it on the horizon.

We are almost there.

So back we go, upsides down and backwards. 

If I remember correctly -- and my fashion memory is usually impeccable, I remember what I wore when I met someone, when I went somewhere, it sticks forever -- at next therapy session I show up in a black polka dotted dress. This is a huge change from my graduate school standard dark loose hooded sweatshirts (even in the summer) and size 6 jeans.  No big deal that my size 6 jeans felt a little tight and the dress was a size 8. It looked good, it felt right. I ate a little more. I felt lighter.

I'd started to gently let let go of a wordless burden that didn't serve me in becoming who I was intended to become.

 I couldn't both hold on to something and be open to something new, something better. It was like a kid was being coaxed from holding a dirty ragged piece of  old battered blanket and being given something valuable like a suitcase full of empty journals or new shiny black shoes.

The universe - or my brilliant therapist? -- had my attention because suddenly I felt like I lived in a bigger brighter place. There seemed to be something more interesting to do than think about than how rotten I felt about myself and my corner of the world and how sad I was, how wrong everything seemed.

Again I went right to the chair, ready. She turned on the white noise machine and we got to work. Now that I look back on it (now that I let myself look back on it)  I wasted a lot of time with her in chatter.  Finally whatever was supposed to happen was happening.

The cute dress was icing.

My therapist counted me backwards, down to the quiet.  She led me into the dark peaceful place then turned on the lights.

This time, she didn't ask me to look for a hallway.

This time, she asked me where I was, and I knew what she was doing by changing the question and told her and we laughed so hard. I was still me, I just didn't feel that awful dread of being trapped in this skin.

She leaves me to silence while I look around wherever it was that I found myself.

I see gauzy curtains barely blowing by the window next to my bed.

The air is stale. There are two women bent over in old angular leather stiff chairs, there.  I am in bed. Definitely in bed.

The doorway is tall with a transom over it. The walls were plain, austere almost. The furniture thin, beautiful.

I know this place, I recognize it in the corner of my mind but I have no names for these faces.

Tell me what you see, she finally asks, and I tell her.

They are my daughters, they are so tired, it's been days now they've been here waiting. The windows behind them are high, tall, narrow. The bed is high, too.

I'm so tired I can't take a deep breath.

You can breath, my therapist reminds me, and I keep breathing, now.

Keep talking, my therapist coaches and I do, to myself, to her, so I would remember.

The baby, I just had a baby.

 I cry with the words then fall back into the silence  remembering the room being still and humid.

I try to move and turn and find a cool spot on the bed but the thick air holds me down.

I had a baby, that's why everyone is so sad. So bittersweet. This is when I leave, and she just got here.   I don't even know her.

My therapist prods me again to tell her her, to narrate.

This is where I have to let go, I say out loud, and then I feel it, like a rubber band being pulled to shoot off.  I can't stop it. I feel my chair start to spin and remember the bed spinning like that. Not fast, but deliberate. Like unspinning from where I was sent, back home.

The story ended there.

I don't know if this story fit perfectly into 55 minutes of therapy or if she started to end the session early because I was crying so hard.

That was something, I said to my therapist and she nodded, a little teary herself. Yes, something.

I left the room walked down the concrete steps to my car and turned it on.  The  air conditioning was broken so a blast of hot air shot at me from the vents.  Part of me wanted to race off and get something cold to drink but I sat there, in the heat, and let myself think it through.

Then it hit me like I remembered the end of a dream.

I turn the radio on in my hot car and out blasts that song, The Circle of Life. I laugh. It's a coincidence. There are no coincidences.

Everything feels like the end of a mystery movie where the pieces fall together and everything and everyone looks a little different.

I call Abuela from my car phone, the one I only had about 100 "primetime" minutes for and had already used because I didn't understand the concept of "primetime" minutes.

Whatever this call cost, it was worth it.

She answered Hallo.
Abuela, I said, listen. 
What. What 'chu want? she replied.

I just went though this thing, I can't explain, but Abuela, remember how your Mom died right after you were born?

She answers me with silence.
Who expects a call like this?
In the middle of the day?

Abuela, I know this is crazy, but wouldn't it be hilarious if I'm your Mami?  What do you think about that? 

She laughed.

I can't tell you how much she understood, if she understood, or if she thought I was just playing a two-year-old game, but her answer was a delightful, "Maaaammmmiiiiii! Te quiero!!"

We laughed. I healed. 

Staircase Part 3: Keep Going

After reading the last post I talk to my Mom.

You drowned? she asked. Yes, I tell her, then wonder why I hadn't told her before.

I thought we talked a lot, and I guess we always have, but I haven't always talked as easily as I do now.

And also, this was before email, before texting, before free long distance and a gazillion rollover minutes on the cellphone plan.

Then I told her that this was the way through it, straight to Abuela and to Cuba and to finally unravel the riddle that she already knew and Abuela already knows and really is only a riddle to you.

 This is how I got there, this must be the way to go, I explain.  She understood.

My dad sent me a one line email. It said "Keep going."  He gets it.

Now that I know what I've learned I want to go to Santo Domingo (now), and write about that. I want to go to New Orleans (now), and write about that. I want to understand the first settlers of Quebec, the ones who walked with Champlain, the ones who left and became the Cajuns. They are my family, too.

Every time I look in the mirror I nod at my very French self. But that is now.

Let's go back to then, back to where we were, back in my history, pulling the roof off and letting the light in.

Outside of therapy part of my mind had awakened to the realization that I was profoundly bored and underchallenged.

  I used to have a dream someone was holding a gun to my head; the idea would make me so scared that  I  I would shake in my sleep and then wake up paralyzed.  No more. Having genuinely felt like I'd gone through some sort of dying I lost almost all my fear.

I started painting pictures of coffee cups.

I painted planter pots bright colors and decorated them with roses, swirls, quotes, fish.

I planted seeds and stared at them, hopefully. I  painted coffee cups on  tiles and coffee cups on murals.

I decorated tiles and planters and murals with lyrical depictions of fruit bowls,  pie slices and flower arrangements.

 Weeks before I'd never painted in my life. The only grade of "C" that I got in Middle School was in Art.  Suddenly I can't stop thinking about colors, about shapes.  Every blank piece of paper looked like gift, a space to be filled with something lyrical, something pretty, something better, like it was waiting there for me.

I didn't realize it at the time but as the days slipped into weeks, I didn't think about my weight as much.

I didn't think about food as much.

I lighten up and loosen up and laugh more, no matter how particularly tight or loose my jeans felt that day.

I kept going back to therapy.


The Staircase Part 2: The Angry Jumper

I have gone over this story so many times in my mind, I know it so well, that if there were a straighter line to connect the story I've been weaving from Cuba to Santo Domingo and now The Captain's House, I promise you I would have found it by now.

This is the straight line. Bear with me, it's a quick road. Let's go back to the rest of that day in the big recliner.

In the silence my mind moved me towards what came next, what ended the Perfect Time.

There I was, under our perfect tree, sitting at the edge of our perfect lake,  by myself.  I can see our house at the top of the hill.

I'm wearing an impossibly heavy dress that seems to be already wet by the muddy water edge.

Now feet are in the water, which is lukewarm in places, cold in pockets.

My dress is dirty, for sure, and I wonder if I can just get a little water on it and get the mud off before I get home.

I stand up and take a step forward and there is nothing to stand on; I sink right down, heavy dress and all.

I laugh and you would have too. Now I'm really dirty and he's going to laugh at me. I turn myself square towards where I had been standing.

I  kick and kick for something to stand on, something to grab on and get twisted in these long hard arms that had to be the tree roots.

 I think to pull the dress up over me and only get twisted more. I can't get up higher. I can't get anywhere. Who will find me under here? I don't want to go now, not yet, I don't want to leave.

 All of this for nothing?....What about him? Will he think I left him? I can't say anything?

Now I try to scream and get a mouth full of choking water.

My therapist reminds me I can breath.

I take a deep breath and remember the bolt of anger from losing everything that tattooed my soul.

One of last things I thought as the spinning started, was that I never, ever wanted everything again.

I felt myself spin and spin, not like bed-spins when you're massively drunk, more like an unwinding rubber band push of energy plus a ]roller coaster.

Nothing bad at all. Much less scary than the 10m diving board.

I went back to the peace, to where all the answers live.  I wanted to stay there but our time that day was up.

When I opened my eyes I realized my shirt was soaked with tears I hadn't felt until then.


The Staircase Part 1: Everything, Everything

 That next week after my "visit to the Captain's house" I hadn't noticed any amazing changes in my interior or exterior world.  

I had not found the dark room of my pain, opened the windows, tore the roof open and let the negative memories fly away. 

I was still me,  feeling something strong and wordless but so acute it was driving me to misery. 

At the start of our next session, my therapist laughed when I dashed right into the big hypnosis chair and reclined.  Maybe she was going to ask something, process something, ask me things you ask anorexics (did you eat? did you exercise too much? did you pass out?) but I wasn't open to that. I wanted to go back again and look for another clue. And my body language said Please.

Again she relaxed me. 

I found myself open and perfectly still, a peace I had never known in 20-something years stuck in my chatter filled head. 

Just finding that place, just knowing it exists would have been enough.  Finding mental peace was like finding out I've had a backyard with a pool and was to busy with tedium to notice.

Again she said to find myself in a hallway.

There goes my voice again saying its a trick, its all Jungian symbolism.

This time, again, I wasn't in a hallway. I was outside. 

I told my therapist that, laughing at my instinctive and unapologetic disobedience.   She laughed too then asked me to describe where I was.

I'm outside on a rolling soft hill. Behind me was a house, our house, isn't it beautiful? it's almost finished. 

It was stone and dark wood with an  iron railing on the left balcony. 

The weather is cool and wet.  

The road goes up between those trees, and I'm waiting for him to return by dusk. Which he does, he always. I used to worry but he returns every time, nothing bad ever happens.

While we wait for him to return my therapist asks me if I can write.

I laugh. I sound and feel like me, except for what I have to say. 

I tell her that I don't know if I can write. I've never tried. 

Anyway, What would I need to write for? Who would I write to? And tell them what? My whole world is here.

Before those words can really sink in, I feel him turning the corner from the woods, pulled by horses.

What is that behind him?  I was drawn to it magnetically.  The most magical wonderful double helix twisting iron I'd ever seen. 

He had to explain it was stairs because I couldn't wrap my mind around it being anything but art.  I had never imagined anything so complex, so beautiful, so intricate. 

He set it up, and we loved it. It was our favorite thing. We had bowls and dishes and linens and youth and time and each other. 

 The story unfolded beautifully, perfectly, actually. 

We had everything, just everything.

I felt like I was watching a wonderful movie where nice happy people were enjoying a life of simple delights.   I wanted to stay there as long as I could and  somehow soak up a piece of that fleeting piece of wonderful.  

The first part of the story, at least.  

But everything is always changing. Everything. 

And what came next, what I saw and what I felt, changed me.