"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo



Wednesday, February 7, 2018

My Mother's Visit from PR


"Your mom came to visit yesterday. We're worried about her health. She looks terrible, emaciated. Have you considered taking her to a doctor in Maryland for a second opinion? Her doctors here aren't sure what exactly is wrong with her."

The text was from my uncle. I was at work, in the ICU kitchen preparing food for one of my patients when my phone buzzed in my pocket alerting me of the message.

My stomach plummeted to somewhere around my feet when I read it.

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It had been a mission to get my mom to finally agree, back in October, to coming to visit for the holidays, to just take a goddamn break from the situation on the island. I had to beg and cry and have a fit of rage on the phone with her, who also cried and raged on her end. I get my bull-headed stubbornness from her, after all.

Me: "JUST COME. We'll pay for the flight! Just let us bring you here!" This was only like the eleventy-billionth time I had pleaded with her on this. Except now commercial flights were actually leaving the island consistently and on time, so I had that in my favor.

Mom: "I can't. I can't leave my sisters alone without power. I have to be here to help them."

Me: "It's only one week. They are adults and you are not their mother. They can survive for one week without you." And then I had blurted, "You are MY mother and I want to see you!"

Mom: "It's too expensive. Every time I visit we spend way too much. And I don't want you to spend too much either."

Me: "Mom, I DON'T CARE about the money! We'll pay for the flight, and we'll pay for groceries and I'll cook. [She always feels obligated to buy our groceries and cook these incredible spreads for us. It's awesome, but it really is not necessary!] Just come and take a break and relax." I knew Carlos was all-in on this because it had been discussed multiple times. In fact, he had encouraged me to insist she come.

We ultimately locked horns over the issue, neither one giving in, and I hung up a mess of angry tears. I was furious that she wouldn't let me give her some reprieve. I had been driving to work when this argument went down and had just parked at work when I hung up. I sat in the car with smoke coming out of my ears, spinning the wheels in my head. There had to be a way around this...I knew there was a way around this...

And then, in a moment of illumination, I had picked up the phone and texted my Aunt Lucy, my mom's oldest sister and one of the two aunts that lives with her, to get her to help. This was a last-resort move. My Aunt Lucy and I used to butt heads constantly when we all lived together under the same roof because we were wired exactly the same, but she had become a good friend and one of my #1 fans once we had put an ocean between us. Funny how distance does that with people who are exactly the same. ;) Now, I knew she would take my side.

 "Lucy, you have to help me convince Mom to come visit for the holidays. I told her Carlos and I will pay for the flights and anything she needs during her stay. She won't let me do it."

10 minutes later, a text from my mom: "Okay. I'll come. :)"

Jesus Christ Superstar. Thank you, God. And Aunt Lucy!

Aunt Lucy and the sea
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She told me she wasn't doing well sometime in late November, close to Thanksgiving.

Several years ago, when Carlos and I were still living in South FL, she had developed colitis/gastritis-type symptoms that involved her body not being able to keep anything she put into it. In one end, out the other. For months. She started a bland diet and went to doctors and specialists and had every diagnostic under the sun done. Sidenote: due to an even higher standard of education than on the mainland, doctors in PR are excellent, and tend to be more thorough, and faster about being thorough, than doctors in the US East Coast who will send you through an endless circle of death of specialists before you can hope to get a diagnosis on whatever odd thing ails you. A fear of doctors still runs in my family, and some of Carlos's work experiences have only increased that fear on my end.

I remember like it was yesterday, the day my mom called me to let me know what the colonoscopy results were. I had just arrived at work at my ICU job back then in Fort Lauderdale, and I was sitting in the car with the AC blasting and the brilliant hot sun glaring off of every metal surface in the parking lot. 7:50 am and it was already close to 95 degrees outside.

"Everything was negative," my mom said. "They think it's some sort of stress gastritis. My regular doctor wants me to gradually start introducing lean red meat into my diet again."

I had sighed a huge sigh of relief at the time. She had gone on to slowly transition herself back to her normal diabetic diet (low sugar, moderate protein, low to moderate fat. The healthy foodie thing runs in my blood) without any major problems. It was like once she knew what the problem was, she was able to convince her body to heal.

This was the first time in nearly 8 years that this problem was resurfacing. My first instinct was a parasite, like giardia, which is common in untreated water. Untreated tap water has been a recurring problem in PR since Maria because of the electricity problems: you need electricity to treat water at the plant. My mom and the aunts had not been great about drinking only bottled water, which made me want to scream only slightly insane. Especially when I was told by my Aunt Sari (my uncle's wife) that they were using Britta filters instead of the camping filter they had been sent. ANYWAY. Her doctor immediately put her on an anti-protozoal antibiotic (aka Flagyl or metronidazole) and ran a battery of tests that all came back negative. She was put on gastric meds as well. She was already on a bland diet. And...nothing helped. The symptoms continued.

She is always doing physical work. She gardens, does all the housework (like I've said, she is still the mom) and the grocery shopping and the cooking at home. She is also an art teacher, which involves standing for long periods. Add to that the stress of driving in a city with no electricity anytime she needed to run errands or just get to work, and then sleeping in the tropics with no electricity: 90% humidity + 85 degrees at night + no fan or AC = horrible sleep quality. I had sent them a small army of battery-operated fans thanks to Amazon, which helped somewhat, but summer and late fall nights in PR can still be stiflingly hot even with a full-sized electric fan...and these were 5" battery fans. There's only so much wet, hot air they could move.

The end result was that her body was massively stressed out. Which was then compounded by her sciatic nerve flaring up from the stress. I am my mother's daughter...of course, instead of resting, she continued doing her daily routines and overcompensated with her other leg, injuring the ligaments in her knee. Which ligaments? We STILL don't know because her doctors continued ignoring the injury despite repeated visits where she asked for her leg to be examined, which was incredibly frustrating. I wanted to reach through the phone and wring a few necks.

My uncle sent the text at the beginning of this post a week before power was restored to my mom's neighborhood. She lost power on September 20th along with the rest of the island. Her electricity was returned on December 12th, exactly 13 days before she was scheduled to arrive in D.C. (In case you're not counting, that was almost 3 months without power, for someone living in Guaynabo, one of the major cities just outside of the capital. Guaynabo was minimally affected compared to 75% of the rest of the island. My family doesn't live in one of the mountain boonie towns. Again: this is how Hispanic-hating presidencies affect my people in times of need!)

I had already been debating taking her to a doctor here, but PR insurance isn't always accepted on the mainland. Mainland insurance works in PR, but not necessarily viceversa. As it would turn out, once my mom had electricity and she was able to sleep with the AC on like she normally would have, she improved significantly in appearance because she was finally able to truly rest. Her sciatica improved, but the knee pain and gastritis symptoms persisted.

"You will heal me," she said simply and with absolute conviction when we talked about it yet again on the phone, a couple of days before her trip.

No pressure there, guys. O_o

But I already had a plan in place and had carefully stocked up the fridge and pantry in preparation for her arrival. Even if she had not stated it, I was ready to move mountains if I had to in order to help her heal.

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I parked at the Ronald Reagan International Airport on December 25th in the early afternoon. Because of plane ticket prices, my mom was flying in on Christmas Day. I had already announced to everyone I knew that was willing to listen that she was my Christmas gift for myself.

Not everyone is as close to their mom as I am. Some people find it weird, especially here in the US. It was so refreshing when I met my friend Mio in tech school in Miami: she is also Puerto Rican and is as close to her own mom as I am to mine. As in talking-on-the-phone-everyday close, and my-mom-is-my-confidante close. It was nice to feel normal again hanging out with her.

Two Puerto Ricans hanging out at Tijuana Flats in Orlando.
Fun fact: 10 years into our vet tech careers, Mio is also still teching. And she has done two Figure competitions!
#boricuapower ftw!
Hispanic families, Puerto Rican families included, tend to traditionally be knit very closely together. It's a cultural inheritance from all three races mixed in our blood: Spanish, Native and African. All three are family-first cultures.  Even now in the 21st century, it is not unusual for children to live well into adulthood with their parents (and grandparents!) until they either move away for college or to the mainland or because they got married/moved in with significant others. In fact, the house I grew up in was a classic example of three generations living under the same roof together, which was a fairly common thing among my friends' households too. You can read more about that tradition here. It's a very different norm from what you typically see in the US.

You know how some people just clearly know their mission in life from the time they are born? My mom had wanted to be a mother from the time she was a child herself. It was her Ultimate Dream. There are journals that she kept growing up, where she was already writing letters to her firstborn child...me. My existence on this earth was wanted; I was not an accident. I was planned for and waited for for seven years of marriage and through one miscarriage.

There's a funny story about how when I was a tiny baby, my mom and her sisters, my Aunt Mary and Aunt Lucy, were hovering over the crib baby-talking and cooing at me and doing the cute things that adults normally do around babies. Instead of doing what normal babies do, where they laugh and smile in response to this type of antics, apparently I just stared back at them stone-cold serious. To the point where all three of them started to feel very silly and stopped the baby talk.

From that moment on, my mom spoke to me as an equal. Obviously subjects were modulated for a child and having a very active imagination was encouraged (at age 6, I wanted to grow up to be a unicorn! She never told me that that was impossible) but when I asked questions, I got real answers. Like when I asked how puppies are created. (My lifelong love of animals is telling in that I didn't ask how babies are made, no. I asked how puppies are made!)

Nope, she never said being a unicorn was impossible.
Instead, she made me the unicorn costume in this photo from scratch and I wore it to school for Halloween.
(Yes this was the '80s, as noted by the Alf costume on the far left!)
I don't know if that was what made me grow up adoring her so much. Maybe it was the fact that I had been wanted so fiercely for such a long time...or maybe it was both.

I am the child in this photo.
We were at Sea World. This was my first time seeing dolphins.
And yes, as an adult I am the spitting image of my mother.
It was an unspoken agreement after the divorce that it was her and I against the world. My brother was a toddler, only 3 years old and too little to understand what had happened when my dad left us. I was 7 going on 8 that summer.

She never let us see her grief after the divorce. She was able to explain to me what had happened in a way that I comprehended, without setting me against my dad, even though she very rightfully could have. (My dad left his family to run away with another woman. I knew about it because I had eyes and even at age 7 could recognize cheating: he would arrive home way later than anticipated, often with groceries as his excuse despite my mom keeping the fridge and pantry stocked; my mom crying when she thought no one could hear; the general sudden absence of my dad from our lives as he chose to work later and later at the hospital. I noticed because I adored him and felt the change in him. At the time of the divorce, my mom did not tell us that that was the reason why he left. It would be discussed later, when we were older and started asking more pointed questions. My brother and I would get to meet the other woman a couple of years later, and while neither my brother nor I really liked her, we tolerated her and did our best to get along with her because she so obviously made our father happy. He never had any other kids.)

My mom with my brother at El Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park) in Old San Juan.
Photo taken during our first year living permanently on the island after the divorce.
(Sidenote: see the girl in the yellow shirt off to the right? That was me. The boy in the blue T-shirt next to me is Carlos!)
When I was growing up, my mother had the strength and will of a goddess. Her word was infallible and in my mind she was incapable of making mistakes, a perception that was probably shaped by the fact that she would admit when she made a mistake...which made imperfection seem like the most absolute perfection. She has always had a talent for remaining subjective about advice and point of view, even when she didn't fully agree with something my brother or I were doing. She would admit to us that she didn't agree because she didn't like it or understand it, but as long as we weren't endangering ourselves, she would still listen and be supportive of our interests. She was there for every jump lesson, for every show, even though years later she admitted to me how much it used to terrify her watching me fly over fences at speed on sometimes unpredictable OTTBs.

My mom and my brother, taken when we all flew to Ohio for his wedding back in 2009.
She was absentmindedly stroking his forehead like she used to do when he was little.
As an adult myself now, I don't know how she did it, and it is yet another quality of hers that I have come to admire even more as a grown-up.

My mom in the center, with my grown-up brother and me.
She went to school to become a Spanish teacher but she never used her bachelor's degree. At a year and a half of age, I picked up a pencil and began to draw with a talent that was unheard of for one so little. The aunts, especially my Aunt Mary, and my grandmother, had always been involved in the Puerto Rican art scene and we had close family friends that were celebrity island artists. One of these artists saw my work and told my mom, "Don't put her in art lessons. Just encourage her to continue and let her develop her own style."

So my mom educated herself in art in order to help guide me. And once we were living on the island she became an art teacher herself, teaching alongside the aunts at one of the big art schools in Old San Juan.

My Aunt Mary is the adult on the left. That's me on the right. We were working on a dinosaur painting with tempera paints. If you look closely, I had painted a sauropod, a Diplodocus to be exact...note the shading!
And that's my brother in the background. This was in the big house's living room floor, which would be the setting for creating most of my larger-than-life artwork for the next decade and a half.
With Aunt Mary. She has always been the free spirit of the family. She was in her teens during the hippie movement of the late 60s-70s, and her dream was to be one of them. Of course my grandmother didn't let her run away to live in a commune, but she still had that rebellious streak. She teaches art to both children and adults at the college level: she is a professor at one of the island's private universities.
Anything I needed art-wise, be it in the form of materials or skills I wanted to learn, she would magically make appear for me.  Later on when I needed someone to criticize my work, it was her that I would ask. She played an enormous role in shaping the artist I would become.
The three of them taught there for over 30 years. Growing up, La Liga de Arte was my second home on Saturdays and summers, and the portal for all of my adventures in Old San Juan, which I grew to know like the back of my hand. I was a constant presence in my mom's or Aunt Mary's classrooms, sometimes doing my own thing and sometimes participating in the day's class activities. 

That's me with the glasses in the back; in the forefront was my college friend Breda. We were doing one of my mom's projects with the kids, just for funsies. Yup, even as an adult you would often still find me in my mother's art classroom on Saturdays!
Later on I moved on to take classes with other instructors, like ceramics and photography. When I turned 16, I held my first job there as my mom's assistant in summer camp. I loved it so much that I did that every summer for the next 7 years. I loved teaching the little ones to draw without having the responsibility of being their head instructor; I was just there to help. I've never wanted kids of my own, but I did enjoy working with children, especially the ones that were taking art classes because that's what they wanted. I met some really special young humans and revelled in being loved by them. 

My 19th birthday, celebrated at the art camp with all of my mom's students.
There's just something awesome about having a little one that is not linked to you by blood choose to sit next to you out of the blue and cuddle up wordlessly against your chest. It was a privilege to be trusted like that...and I found all of this at the art school, in my mom's classroom...Though it was always a relief to send the kids home to their parents at the end of a very, very long day of running after them and keeping them out of trouble! :)

On Saturdays, my mom would finish classes before her sisters, so her and I would wander around the old fortress city, grabbing coffee together, scoping out The Bookstore for new reads, or window shopping in the unique little stores down Calle del Cristo. She was always the best company: we could yak away about anything or just be together in silence, each lost in her own thoughts. 

House balconies down Calle del Cristo.
(Not my photo)
Park in front of El Convento Hotel (yellow building on the left). It was originally a nunnery for over 300 years. After that it was turned into Puerto Rico's first luxury hotel. There are some pretty cool local stories about it.
You walk past it on the way down Calle del Cristo. (Not my photo)
Five years ago, the administration of the art school changed, and not for the better. My mom and the aunts weren't happy. They are so well-known in both art and education circles on the island, and had such a following of devoted students and parents, that I encouraged them to open up their own school. The door opened up around that time to allow this possibility (#universeconspires, again...) Mom was concerned about finances so I crunched numbers with her...and it turned out that it would be financially beneficial for her to finally go solo! Like, by a lot. So that's what her and my Aunt Lucy did...and they have been wonderfully successful. Aunt Mary still teaches at La Liga on Saturdays, mainly because her classes take place outdoors in Old San Juan. 

My mom still says she wouldn't have ventured out on her own if I hadn't helped her see the light. After everything she has done for us, for me...it was the least I could do, you know?

Co-parenting is a key component of Spanish culture that has been retained by Puerto Rican families. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and godparents aren't just people you see every few years at funerals and family gatherings, no. You spend time with these people at birthdays, baptisms, births, graduations, holidays, long weekends, and vacations. They get a say in shaping the person that you become, for better or worse.

So you see, my aunts weren't just my aunts: they were my second mothers. Like my mom, they too are survivors in their own ways, whose stories I'll tell sometime when I pick up the Bloodline series again. Basically, Practical Magic was one of my favorite movies growing up, and later also one of my favorite books when I discovered the movie's origin, because the aunts in the story reminded me so much of the trio of my mother and her two sisters.

It was Aunt Mary's birthday. She's closest to the camera, with her wild curly hair temporarily tamed,  playing with a Mickey Mouse toy for the amusement of my cousin Javier (my uncle Rafa's son) next to her.
That's my Aunt Lucy clapping behind Mary.
I'm the one in the green tank top, laughing at their antics.
Together the three of them were, and still are, magical in a way that is hard to put into words.

Surrounded by the three most powerful women I know.
When you're raised by a trio like this one, you have no need to look further for female role models.
And that is why my mom can't just drop everything and come live here. That is why she couldn't just leave and run away to visit us when the family was still in dire straights immediately after the storm. And it is also why I can't just uproot all three of them and bring them here: they have solid lives on the island that have taken decades to nurture and grow. I was young enough when I moved to the mainland that I was able to re-invent myself away from the arts, but when you're in your 60's, it's a little much harder to do that.

My dad used to pressure my mom to be thin: as a result, she always ate healthy and was super active but without ever being obsessive about it. Naturally after the divorce, she decided to eat whatever the hell she wanted in an act of rebellion...and her weight ballooned...in a completely deliberate act. For many years she was the only one of the three sisters that was overweight and she always said that the day she felt like losing the weight, she would. She just didn't feel like it. She was always up and at 'em on her feet, so she had a fantastic baseline fitness regardless.

Diabetes runs in my family though. Both of my grandparents on my mother's side had it and died of complications from it, my grandmother because she didn't take care of herself, my grandfather despite taking care of himself.

My mom was diagnosed right before I moved to Florida to live with Carlos, and it was bad enough that she had to go on medications to help regulate both her blood sugar and her cholesterol.

This photo was taken a year or two before she was diagnosed, during one of my last birthdays celebrated at the Arroyo beach house before moving stateside. Looking back through the photos I was shocked to see how overweight she had been...I never saw it. I just saw my mom, you know? You love your mom no matter how she looks because you don't see her body, just her spirit and strength. That's how it's always been for me at least.
She made this particular birthday happen. Everyone I loved showed up for it, some of them unannounced and having travelled from one end of the island to the other...just for me. It was such a beautiful day. My mom cooked all the food from scratch  like she always did, and made this killer sangria (shown in the photo). It was amazing...so much in fact that I got quite unexpectedly drunk from it because I kept having glass after glass of it!
She took it all in stride: she already knew what she had to do. She cold-turkey did a complete diet overhaul without starving herself and without doing an extra ounce of exercise...and dropped all the weight within 6 months. Her diabetes stabilized and she was able to come off of most of the meds. She didn't just lose the weight either. She kept it off, which as everyone knows, is even harder than losing the weight to begin with. She made it look easy.

A year after losing the extra weight. She never weighed herself then nor now, so we don't know exactly how many pounds she lost...but she was close to half what she had been prior. She's fluctuated ever since, like most women naturally do, but always staying within a weight range that makes her diabetes manageable.
My love of animals comes from her. My love of books comes from her. My will, my stubbornness, my drive and my determination come from her.

With her heart dog, Amaretto. Amaretto was born at home and he was a true Lab/Boxer mix. He followed my mother everywhere like her shadow, usually with a toy in his mouth if he really, really wanted attention. He never had any formal training but he understood everything my mom asked him to do. They had a connection that was as close as you can get to psychical with an animal. He was like the kind of dog you see in movies as a kid, except he was real. He got very sick around the last time she came to visit us three years ago...and she basically flew back to the island from Maryland to take him to the vet to be euthanized. He was 15, and irreplaceable.
A piece of each of our hearts died with him, but especially my mom's. She grieved for months.
I thought of all of these things as I parked my car and hiked down to the terminal where she would be arriving.

I was 20 minutes early, which was perfect because the plane was 15 minutes early! Mom texted immediately after landing.

Airports are magical to me. They are the gateways to other worlds and cultures and people that we would most likely never get to experience if it weren't for the gift of flight. As a military family, we spent so much time in airports when I was little...and even back then as a child I used to love waiting at the terminal so I could watch people: friends and family members arriving and leaving...and always so much love. There was joy in reunions and sadness in good-byes, but love was a constant: you can't feel the happiness of a hello if you don't love that person, and you can't feel the sorrow of good-bye if you don't love that person. I would watch these interactions, silently making up stories in my head for the people I observed.

Photo by me. This was our first big trip with the in-laws; we were all waiting at the Fort Lauderdale airport for our flight to Puerto Rico. I love the dynamics here.
I got to be one of those people for 6 months while having the long-distance relationship with Carlos, before I moved in with him. I would sit at the plane window seat so I could see when we were getting close to Tampa, FL even before it was announced over the plane intercom. And then I'd be running down the jet bridge with my carry-on bag in tow, to leap into the arms of this man for whom I would ultimately drop everything.

Another airport photo.
During that time, I was one of those people about whom I would have made up a story, except my own story as an adult was better than anything I could have dreamed of as a kid.

And so now, at Ronald Reagan waiting for my mom, I watched people trickle out of the gate and reunite with the friends and family waiting for them. And I grinned involuntarily as I observed them, listening to the Cuban and Puerto Rican accents as excited hellos were exchanged, while waiting expectantly for my own reunion.

My uncle had texted a couple of days before the trip to let me know that Mom looked so much better, that she was so happy about coming on this trip that it had perked her up significantly. I had breathed a sigh of relief then, but I wondered how different she would look now from three years ago.


These were taken the last time she visited, shortly after Lily's surgery the summer of 2015.
Carlos took these two photos...I'm pretty sure my gesture in the first of these pics was over me telling him to angle the camera differently: he tends to hold the camera at his waist and aim it upwards, so it makes everyone look like they have huge double chins! lol Carlos always has some outrageous excuse for everything he does, which my mom always finds hysterical. As you can see in these pics. ;) I love her.

Finally one person walked down the hallway towards me alone. I saw the knee brace first, strapped on over too-baggy jeans. My eyes travelled up as the person hobbled closer, across the black jacket and the polka-dot backpack, and the very short gray hair that was now so much whiter. And that's when I recognized the first face that I saw on my first day on earth.

It was my mom.

If I had been carrying anything, I would have dropped it right then, like they do in the movies. Because just like they do in the movies, I took off running and flung myself into her already-open arms, despite me being the taller one for the last 20 years or so. And we both burst into tears in the middle of the aisle.

I finally pulled away as more people walked past, "We should probably get out of the way," I said sheepishly. My mom laughed, took my arm, and walked next to me to the end of the aisle.

"I look terrible," was the first thing she said. "The storm aged us 10 years. All three of us." She burst into tears again.

I wanted to deny it, to ignore what I was seeing. But she looked tired, haggard, her skin ashen. Her temples were hollowed, sunken in, reminding me of my oldest patients in the hospital and of how close mortality can seem when they reach that gaunt state. If this was an improvement, I didn't want to think about what she had looked like before. I wanted to tell her that she was fine, but I choked on the words; they wouldn't come out. I fought back the urge to cry and scream in rage, because a devastating storm and the irresponsibility of two governments had just shortened the life of the one person I love more than any other. I wanted to beat up every person that told me back at the beginning of 2017 that I was overreacting and being unnecessarily paranoid. "This is why I was worried. This right here. This is why. Because of the effects a Hispanic-hating president would have on the people that I love the most. I get to feel it in the flesh." One day I'll cool down and let go of that anger. Maybe when I stop seeing the direct repercussions of a government's decisions on those I love, if that day ever comes.

Everyone in my family dies at age 74. Everyone. Just like we lived on a piece of land where my Aunt Lucy saw fairies as a teen, in a house that was like a fortress that kept us safe from invaders and storms, where ghosts saved our lives, and a new stray dog showed up at our doorstep every time one of our resident dogs passed away to keep the canine household count at 6 (we never had no more and no less than 6 dogs...until it was time for the cats to come into our lives. That year, no dogs came to take the place of the ones that had passed away)...For whatever reason, age 74 is our magical expiration date. I tried to mentally not do the math, to forget that my mom had just turned 64, to keep my mind from wondering if looking like you had aged 10 years would actually count as being 10 years older.

I redirected the conversation to something more productive: to talk about the island and how things were truly going over there, to her trip and the adventure of catching a connecting flight in Miami. And it worked: she talked about these other things as she walked slowly, slowly next to me (Despacito...) while I led her down to baggage claim, her hand threaded through my arm while I carried both of her suitcases. And tried to not look at her too much...

We retrieved her suitcase and made our way slowly back to my car.

And so the adventure of her first winter visit to Maryland began.

My mother was not new to winter by any means: she lived on the mainland for 14 years while married to my dad and was bounced around from one Army base to another. One of their secret games as a couple was to wear these tiny pins that said, "Think Snow" on their sweaters in the wintertime. And so it snowed at every single location my dad was stationed, from the Florida panhandle to Fort Polk in Louisiana, to San Antonio, TX, where we had a white Christmas (in Texas!!!) the year that I turned 5 years of age. That was the first time I experienced snow.

So it was no surprise that less than 24 hours after my mom's arrival, we had our first snow of the season in Maryland. When we saw the forecast, Carlos (who knows my family's stories and has experienced enough of the magic realism that is my life to both know it is real and be completely unfazed by it), myself and my mom all looked at one another, shrugged, and kept on keeping on with our plans.

First snow. It stayed on the ground for the duration of my mom's visit, which is highly unusual for this region.

Just a little frigid!!!
Mom had completely lost her appetite with the advent of her I issues. It was after 3:00 pm when we arrived at the apartment and the only thing she had ingested since 5:00 am that morning was a serving of Glucerna at the Miami airport. With her diabetes, that was Not Okay. So once home, I got to work in the kitchen. I basically put her on my competition diet: no gluten, no lactose, no high fat anything to begin with. I increased her lean protein intake and pulled out all the lower sugar/carb fruits (berries) and veggies (broccoli, spinach, kale). Starchy carbs came from whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa), sweet potato and squash. No bread. (I'm not one of those people that thinks bread is evil. But I like how I feel when I avoid it entirely, even the gluten-free varieties. I like how I feel without it so much that I don't miss it at all. And since my mom and I share half a genetic code, I figured it couldn't hurt to eliminate it temporarily while her system stabilized.) I also talked to my friend Alice about my mom's problems since Alice is also into holistic nutrition to go along with her personal training, and she recommended the anti-inflammatory diet.

When I pulled up the information she sent me, I had to laugh: it was exactly what I was doing already!

The baked ricotta-stuffed chicken breasts and quinoa that I made that night was the first meal that didn't go through her in months.

The breakfast of scrambled egg whites and spinach that I made the next morning was the second meal that didn't go through her in months.

I introduced her to the concept of overnight oatmeal, to Isopure protein shakes (it's isolated whey protein (aka no lactose) and has absolutely no sugar of any type; this particular brand is used for patients recovering from bariatric surgery and goes down amazingly well. It's my favorite whey protein), to almond milk, probiotics, ginger & chamomile tea, digestive enzymes, glutamine, egg whites, truly low sodium cooking, and Clean Eating magazine. Everything else regarding healthy cooking and eating she already knew: she's the one that taught me. But I revived it with an even healthier twist.

By her third day, her appetite was back. Over the course of the last two months being sick, she had actually become afraid of eating because nothing would sit well with her...and now she could eat again without fear. Which meant she was raring to get back into the kitchen herself. :)

It was a strange visit in the sense that we were basically welcoming her into our daily routines. We had not been able to take time off for this trip, hence the extended stay so we could have more regular days off from work with her (both Carlos and I each have 3 days off/week despite both of us having two jobs). Her knee and the uncooperative weather limited what we could do but it worked out in her favor: she needed to rest and so she was pretty much forced to rest. While we were at work she took naps, watched TV, used the computer and read (four things that she doesn't always have time to do back home) and poured over my Clean Eating magazines for ideas for meals for us. 

Apple Turkey Picadillo.
Recipe from here.
Salmon with Quinoa & Citrus-Tomatillo Salsa.
Recipe from here.
Balsamic Pork Tenderloin with Crispy Asparagus. (The dark brown balls don't look very appealing but they are cherries! This recipe is out of this world. My mom made it twice while visiting because we loved it so much.)
Recipe from here.
Seriously, guys. There is absolutely NO REASON why healthy food shouldn't taste so amazing you'd never know it was good for you!

My mom had no GI problems for the entirety of her stay. Her prophecy that I would heal her came true.

*Disclaimer: my mom had been worked up for these problems by two different doctors. At the time of her arrival, she was on 5 different medications for her GI, all of which had worked minimally. She still finished the full courses of medication, so everything that the doctors had suggested was done in the extent that it was recommended. I'm not one to disregard Western medicine in favor of holistic medicine. I believe in using both. Our conclusion is that stress and exhaustion were big contributing factors, which in turn may have worsened what was originally a minor food sensitivity that had been flying under the radar. Both my mom and I normally have iron stomachs, but in my case with the competition diet (which is also an elimination diet, if you think about it) I was able to pinpoint trigger foods that didn't always make me feel 100%...that I had not noticed were an issue until I stopped eating them. It was so awesome to be able to apply this knowledge in order to help my mom, and see it work!

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Upon Mom's arrival, I had warned her that I worked out a lot. She knew this beforehand, but now she would be seeing it. The last time I had been a workout fiend was when I had an eating disorder and used exercise as a way of "purging" every calorie I ate, and I didn't want her to get flashbacks of that era. It is all so completely different now. I was relieved when she took it all in stride, especially when she saw me eat my third breakfast in one morning (#hobbitstatus)...which on this particular day was a hash of sorts made with scrambled eggs, kale, turkey sausage, chopped onions, peppers and diced apples. Sounds weird maybe but I love that contrast of sweet and salty, and this particular creation fits the bill perfectly. My mom agreed when she tried it.

Hispanic culture does not like muscular women. We are expected to be either all-over voluptuous or rail-thin with a tiny waspy waist, wide hips, a big butt and some resemblance of boobs. (You know, totally attainable goals for the average Hispanic woman. *eye roll* Hint: it's not.) Puerto Rican culture is no different. This is heavily ingrained in both men and women, and my family sadly follows suit. As discussed in previous posts, I discovered strength training in college and wanted to get really hard-core into it, but there was this constant feedback of, "You'll get too big. You're already too muscular." "Your arms are getting huge." (I have a weird gift for growing biceps without doing a lick of isolation work.) "You'll look like a man." "It's not feminine." "Your clothes won't fit the same." "Your back will get too wide." And the clincher: "Why?"  Remember the part about co-parenting that I mentioned above? It's really hard to go against an entire family that doesn't want you to look a certain way, when their opinion has so much weight in your life and decisions, you share the same living space with said family, and the negative feedback about your lifting is constant.

None of this was necessarily a bad thing. It's just cultural. I have several high school friends from the island that also live on the mainland now, who are all very healthy strong women who all struggle with the same thing when it comes to how their family sees their appearance and the intensity of their workouts. When you're a Hispanic woman who wants to have muscles, this is inevitably par for the course.

I wasn't going to change what I was doing now if my mom decided she didn't like the way I looked, because I'm an adult and it's my body. But I was quite surprised when she said I looked great. At this point in time, if she had not liked it, she would not have said anything negative; she would have just remained quiet. The fact that she admitted to liking it was huge.

And she showed her support for what  I'm doing in every way she could: she would wake up early to have First Breakfast with me before I went to training and would ask questions about the goals, workouts and nutrition with interest. She got to see, firsthand, the difference between me in my normal daily life, and hulked out from the pump of exertion. At this stage in training, we were just beginning to add more accessory work to the powerlifting as we went into the final stage of my off-season training, so even then my "pump" was not what it normally is when I'm doing hypertrophy-type workouts. As described in the bodybuilding posts, the so-called "pump" is that moment during and shortly after working out (I'm talking minutes; while you're still warm) where your muscles are engorged from the increased blood flow to them (so you kinda look like a superhero), which in turn makes all your veins pop if you're at a low body fat %. Powerlifting and the accompanying accessory work (where you isolate and work on the specific muscles used to complete a specific lift) makes you crazy strong, but you don't usually get a big pump afterwards due to the decreased reps (up to 5 reps tops, performed at a normal tempo). Hypertrophy work, where you're lifting moderate to fairly heavy weight at a slow tempo for 8-10 reps, is what will make your muscles grow, both immediately while warm, and long term. So anyway, she got to see a somewhat softened version of what I am now while typing this up, which made it easier for her to agree with it. :)

I was still surprised when, by the second day of seeing me waltz out of the house in workout gear, she commented, "You look like a fitness model. Your clothes are stunning!"

Confession: I have a lot of workout clothes. Three drawers full of them. It's kind of ridiculous. Many of them have doubled as riding clothes over the last couple of years, especially with endurance. I hate working out at the gym in shorts so I have a whole slew of capri pants that I've collected thanks to Under Armour outlet sales. It's been so freaking cold this winter that I slowly started increasing my workout tights collection too, thanks to ads of small mom & pop workout clothes companies on IG promoting their products combined with holiday sales. In fact, I should probably do reviews of some of my faves because the current majority are not well-known brands, and I'm super picky about what I like: pants have to stay put on my ass without pinching my waist, they can't be see through, the rise has to be perfect (moderate rise and slightly lower in front because I'm so short-waisted), I hate bunching up behind the knees, seams have to be flat and smooth, and I like compression fabrics that are soft to the touch. Tops have to be sleeveless: I hate fabric around my armpits and shoulders when I'm sweating. Hate. They can't be cut too low either because half the time I'm working out in front of a guy (Trainer) and the other half of the time I really don't want random dudes coming up to me to hit on me. I also prefer technical fabrics or very light cotton blends that slide across my skin and that don't stick to me when I'm sweating. The point is: I like to look good when I'm working out now that I have a defined sport because it was drilled into me to show pride in the things I do by showing up presentable to do said things. My trainer Ron made us wear tall boots, light-colored breeches and polo shirts tucked in with a belt for every riding lesson: very George Morris. If you wanted to make his eye twitch, you showed up to school horses in jeans, full chaps and sneakers (that would have been me...when I was exercising 3-6 horses/day in exchange for lessons, I wanted to be comfortable!) He would complain about the hobo appearance but it was fine as long as I changed into proper riding attire for lessons. My grandfather drilled into me that you groomed your horse to the nines before you rode him, and you polished your leather boots to a reflective sheen after every ride. This showed pride and respect towards your sport, your horse, and your trainer.

This discipline has seeped into other areas of my life: I show my pride in the things that I do by showing up looking my best for them. For example, for work I always wear neat, well-fitting, wrinkle-free scrubs that move with me (they are an investment, but I choose the expensive stretchy ones because they both look fantastic and will last years.) So it makes sense that I would do the same for the gym.

Mermaid pants!!  By Constantly Varied Gear. 
To go with my neon blue + orange Under Armour hoodie and my Innov8 lifting sneakers.
Yup: my endurance colors have trickled into my workout gear for real. Also: I legit got the men's sneakers in the Inov8s because they were on sale...in my colors!
I was also wearing leg warmers: on this particular morning, temps were in the teens. 
Skull pants in teal and fuschia, also by Constantly Varied Gear. They are insanely outrageous and I love them. I get complimented on them at the gym every time I wear them.
These are actually reversible so you get 2-for-1 pants!
Obviously not one of my mom's pics but I'm posting this one to show that the skull pants above reverse to this. I like the fade to black on the calves. It makes it look like I'm wearing half chaps! :D
In neutrals. Pants by Under Armour (Carlos said they look like riding tights...they really do look like my Irideons!), light gray leg warmers also by Under Armour, and my leopard print Chuck Taylors for Dia de los Deadlifts. With a matching Zombiekins. ;)
On that first morning, Mom asked if she could take pics of me in my workout clothes to send the aunts. I said of course. By the second morning of this, my mom confessed that the aunts had been worried I'd become some sort of monster after seeing this infamous series of photos that took my personal social media by storm.

Compare my arms in these pics to the photos of me posing in the kitchen so you can see what I'm talking about below.
All of those photos were taken immediately after exercising. In fact, those were all taken specifically after hypertrophy-type upper body workouts. So yes: I looked like a tank. That's precisely why I took those photos: because I don't look like that on a normal basis outside of the gym, and taking pics of myself when I look that way is the best way to track the way my body is changing. All those comic book superhero transformations are actually not as fictional as society would lead you to believe. You actually can transform in a similar way when working out in a specific way. It's pretty freaking cool!

So anyway, my aunts loved the outfits AND the way I looked. And that's how every morning when I would head out to the gym, Mom would snag a photo of whatever outfit I was wearing to send to the aunts. There were quite a few outtakes because once I knew why we were doing this, I would have to goof off for the camera, which invariably made my mom laugh, "Stop flexing!" she would hiss in a whisper, as if my aunts could hear. Hence why I'm giggling in all the pics above where I'm posing in the kitchen. It was like it became our secret.

And that's how the muscular version of me became 100% accepted by the people in my family whose opinion I value the most.

Even after Mom returned home I'm still occasionally sending her gym outfit pics to share with the aunts.

Moto-style Regalia Tights by Workout Empire.
The little you can see of my arms looks normal, but I'm sporting a nice quad pump here. I was halfway through a hypertrophy squat session.
There were a lot of things happening in the fitness side of my world during the time my mom was visiting, that she now got to hear about first hand since I now knew she was okay with all of this and I could tell her more about it.

One of my favorites was this one:

It was one of my solo training days and I had gone off to my regular gym early in the morning to work on squats and get it out of the way before Carlos woke up so we could then go out and do stuff together all three of us.

My favorite squat rack in the corner was in use, so I had to use the Olympic lifting platform in the center of the gym, which always makes me feel super self conscious because it is literally smack dab in the middle of the lifting half of the gym. So I did my basic squat workout there, focusing on doing 75% of my 1-rep max (aka 150 lbs) for 5 reps x 5 sets, where I was also pausing for 2 seconds at the bottom of each squat (talk about making your jugular bulge...that will most certainly do it.)

My regular squat rack became available during that time and I decided I wanted to move on to work on box squats over there. There is a designated box for this: it is a wooden panel + steel frame contraption that was hanging out next to the Olympic platform. You can also use it for box jumps, step-ups, that sort of thing, as well.

The thing was a lot heavier than anticipated when I went to pick it up. I shrugged, set it back down so I could adjust the way I was holding it, then lifted it up to chest height and proceeded to carry it across the gym.

I set it down in front of the less-fancy squat rack and turned around to go grab my water bottle from the platform...and almost ran smack dab into the wide, sculpted chest of a guy that was probably close to 6'4" that had materialized out of the blue. I took a step back in surprise, trying not to note the thin, waist-long dreads swept back from the angular brow and tied back into a loose ponytail; the sweeping traps, the dark, exposed chiseled arms with veins in stark relief across their length, and the green eyes that were so striking against his coffee-colored skin.

Obviously I noticed, or I wouldn't have been able to describe him!

The dude seriously looked like a taller Africanized version of Jason Momoa. Or like some dark-skinned Poseidon-type sea god. The only things he was missing were a merman tail and the trident.

I mean, really
Guys at my gym are usually pretty average, except for the occasional bodybuilding competitor (once you've been in this world, you can tell them apart from the uber-fit recreational gym goers) and then you get random gods like this one. I wished so badly that Shanna was there right then! This guy would have been right up her alley. Any single friends out there wanna come to the gym with me now? ;)

He said something and I took one headphone earbud out. His voice was a deep baritone, exactly what you would have expected it to be.

"The other day I watched this pretty big guy struggle to lift that box to move it. I was coming over to offer to help you...but you just moved it all by yourself! Damn!"

I burst out laughing in surprise. A compliment of my strength was the last thing I had expected from this man. I had expected him to hit on me and had already been bracing for the awkwardness of telling him, "Sorry! Married!" So there might have been some relief in my laughter as well.

"Well, thank you for thinking of offering to help anyway!" I said with a huge grin. I meant every word. He nodded, grinned back, and we both went our separate ways.

I went on to do my box squats and leg accessory work on the machines with that whole section of the gym to myself, and pretty much grinned the entire way through it all. I waltzed into the apartment afterwards still grinning and told my mom about the 6'4" sea god that came over to comment on how strong I am. Stuff like that doesn't happen every day!

A lot of surreal stuff has happened since starting my journey in lifting sports. This was just one of many. One of my favorite parts of it is the respect I continue to get from men in the gym. It was cool to be able to share some of it with my mom as it was happening.

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Once my mom's GI system was on the mend, my other concern was her leg. 

That first night at home, she showed me her right leg, the one with the sore knee: it was swollen from the knee all the way down to her foot. 

This is Not Good for a diabetic. My mind immediately went to the worst case scenario of lymphangitis and all of its complications. And then I remembered that this kind of thing can happen with just a simple ligament strain, and I reined in my panicky brain. 

I pulled out all of my Back on Track gear and had her sleeping on the larger BoT blanket for the duration of her stay, and wrapping the knee in the mini blanket when hanging out at home. 

She had just purchased an over-the-counter knee brace at my insistence right before the trip when her doctor wouldn't prescribe one for her. She used it diligently anytime we left the house, and as the two weeks went on, her limp and the swelling in her leg improved and she was able to move more freely. Towards the end of her stay, she was going out on our shorter trips sans brace and walking with ease. 

At this awesome little gift shop named Retro-Metro in downtown.


With food and rest, everything else about her improved. The gaunt, ashen look became less pronounced. But I still felt uneasy. 
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One week into her stay, I woke up suddenly, jerked awake by a dream. A dream where we were at the airport and I was saying good-bye to Mom. And I could. not. stop. crying.

And then I remembered that that was still another week away, that we had time. And shoved it all aside so that I could get up and be normal around her while getting ready for work.

Leaving for work was hard, but it was a huge part of what helped her get better. She became besties with Zombie during that time.



She sent me this one while I was at work. She had been cutting sweet potatoes and Zombie was intrigued. She called him her kitchen assistant. <3
Zombie loves everyone. Aengus is, and always will be, my cat only. Mom got to see him in action.


Aengus staring at me in silent adoration while I played on my phone.
My mom took this pic and the one prior.
We took her to all of our new favorite places that she had not seen last time she visited because we hadn't discovered them yet back then.

Cafe Nola is always a must, as most of my readers are aware of...
This adorable Rhodesian was waiting in the foyer for his owner to finish buying coffee.
Creme de la Creme is one of my favorite places to window shop...because we can't afford anything in the store, but everything is so pretty and unique. This was not the first time my mom went there, and she loves it as much as I do.
New Year's Day in downtown. I love how this photo came out.
There's a reason why Frederick is known as the City of Dogs.
The Flying Dog brewery is located here.


Steak & eggs brunch at The White Rabbit Gastropub on New Year's Day.
Carlos was working so it was just Mom and I that morning.
We took Mom out to dinner in the Downtown Crown area. Shanna came along. We checked out this store afterwards; kind of a Pier One concept but specifically for entertaining. We thought it was hysterically funny that we were dressed in our winter gear in this summery outdoor patio setting!
Carlos took Mom to Wonderbooks, his fave book store, and took this incredible shot of her.
I had asked him to take All the Pics during this particular visit. He was amazing as always and did, indeed, take All the Pics. Actually, he was amazing in every way possible: he is always so sweet with my mom. He took care of her on the one day a week that I was working and he was off (Wednesdays), driving her around the area to anywhere and everywhere she wanted to explore. He doesn't have to do that. But he does.
On her last day here, it was just her and I. I took her down to Leesburg in Virginia so she could see the location of my surgery job. It's a beautiful drive on Route 15 through rolling Virginia countryside and I wanted her to experience it. We then swung by the new barn so she could see it too: we were still 3 weeks out from moving the girls but had already given notice at the now old barn. And then ran errands before the ice storm that was predicted for that day hit.

Her plane was leaving at 6:00 the next morning, which meant waking up at 3:00 am. Carlos had been on call and had been called into work that evening, but he insisted on coming along. I drove and he slept in the backseat.

I played my Took a Pill in Ibiza station on Pandora, the one I listen to when lifting or when I just want to decompress while driving home from the ICU job on the weekends. There was fog and the roads were nightmarishly icy and slick, which made for a nerve-wracking drive on my end, and the music helped keep me calm. The music on this station is slow and strange and unlike anything you'll hear on mainstream radio. It just so happened to play all of my favorites during the one-hour drive: Tep No, Rufus du Sol, Kygo, Thomas Jack. My mom loved the music as much as I do.

"When the dog is at his bone, and you run away from home
I'll be here for you, here for you..."

And then we arrived at the airport. I had helped my mom do the online check-in on her phone and pulled up her boarding passes for her on her cell. But when we arrived at the airport, the electronic check-in booths were empty...and something just told me I should print her boarding passes for her as well. So I did. That way she had both options and didn't have to stress if for whatever reason the internet on her cell decided to not work.

We bought coffee at Starbucks and sat down to spend time and wait, like we always do.



And this is the part that I hate about airports: the good-byes. 

We had 45 minutes that went by all too quickly. Before I knew it, it was time, and I tried to not think of the dream that had woken me up abruptly exactly seven days ago. 

For how long do you hug someone when you're afraid that you'll never get to hug them again? The right thing to do is to never let them go. But you can't really do that, can you? Because the plane is going to be leaving soon and she has to return home.


So you release her, and you watch her go, and you take a picture, just in case. And you shove that little worried voice inside your head into its box and slam the lid shut as you watch your mom leave.


She usually turns around one last time to wave good-bye, but this time she doesn't. So you wait and wait and wait, until your gut tells you she must have gone past security by now, and you finally let your husband take your hand and you turn around together and walk back out to your car. 

You take your sadness to a training session later that morning. You complain to your trainer that your bench press sucks and you wish you would get better at it already, while he just stands there silently letting you rant, a small knowing smile playing across his face that you later wonder about. Enough so that after the session you do the math on the plates and barbell that you lifted and realize that on this day, you had unknowingly used your sadness to break your personal record for the bench press. 115 lbs!

And you write about it much, much later, hoping that somehow writing about it and posting it to the world wide web will somehow cancel out the horrible feeling of loss that you have carried with you ever since, while continuing to smile in your everyday life, pretending to the outside world that everything is fine.

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As it would turn out, she would need those printed boarding passes: she was unable to pull up her digital boarding passes on her phone when she was leaving NC for her connecting flight to PR. Yay for gut feelings, though it doesn't make me feel any better about other gut feelings.

After two solid weeks of temperatures in the 20s and 30s in Maryland, the temperature climbed back up into the 40s and 50s in Maryland within hours of my mother's plane leaving, which in turn finally allowed the remaining snow to completely melt.

Remember what I said about her and snow? Believe what you want.

I sent her back healed and eating what used to be her normal diet, but now with substitutes for wheat and lactose. Mom continued the diet after returning home. My concern had been that she would have a hard time finding some of the gluten-free and lactose-free items she had tried with us, but she has been able to find them all and then some. She remains as healthy and mobile as she was when she left Maryland. Her and the aunts continue to have electricity, which is a relief, as it means she can sleep at night. 

My uncle finally regained electricity too on February 3. I had called it: in my mind, I had known they wouldn't get power again until February. I don't know how I knew, but I did, though I had hoped I would be wrong and it would come back so much sooner. 

Top: The celebratory Coronas that my uncle and his wife Sari shared. Bottom: the magical house that I grew up in, the house that was built by my grandfather the civil engineer, the house that my uncle lives in now, illuminated by light after 136 days without power. That is roughly 4.5 months without electricity. Let that sink in. Puerto Rico is a US territory inhabited by US citizens that pay US taxes. They are supposed to receive the same benefits as any state. Would any state here be left 4.5 months without electricity after a natural disaster?
I don't think so. 
Appreciate what you have, guys. The color of your skin, the privileges that you get because your skin is that color, the fact that your first language is English and you live in a country that favors you because of that. Appreciate your ability to flip a switch and have light and heat and air conditioning and hot showers instantly, right when you want them. Appreciate your family while you have them. Tell them that you love them, even if you've never been that close to them. Show your loved ones how you feel with your actions, but don't forget to say it too. Make sure that they know how you feel because time, and life, go by all too quickly. 

I leave you with a quote from my mom's favorite artist, the great Georgia O'Keeffe, one of the most powerful and influential female artists of her era:




4 comments:

  1. So glad your mom came to visit and her stomach issues subsided during the trip! As usual, it's really interesting to hear about your experiences growing up, I love those stories. Hopefully her health will continue to improve now that life has normalized to some degree at home. The situation in PR continues to defy all logic.

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  2. Hugs my friend. Much love to you and your mom.

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  3. It took me almost a month to finish this post and I loved reading every line. Your detail and passion is why I always come back and read your blog.

    I feel awful for your family in PR. I do sort of know what it is like though from super storm Sandy that tore apart the New Jersey coast and where my family lives. It took my aunt and uncle 1 year and 4 months to be able to return home...

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  4. So glad your mom came out! The food looks so good, no wonder she's feeling better. Love all the pics, especially the ones of her with Zombie cat. <3

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