Unabridged Me

JUST ANOTHER WRITER

The Two of Us: Prologue

April 2, 2020

“And then probably Morocco in the Spring,” my mom says.

Until this moment I was busy watching the people on the zoo carousel as we wait in line, hearing my mom’s words but letting them float around my head without notice.

“You are going to Morocco?” I ask, turning all attention to her.

“Yeah, probably in the Spring sometime. After I return from Chile in January,” she looks at me, “OAT has some good packages I was looking into.”

“I will go to Morocco with you,” I say in a rush, “it can be our trip you were talking about, the one celebrating our birthdays.”

My mom looks at me, and I can see thoughts are running through her head. I wait for her.

“You know, you should travel when you are younger. Money comes and goes, but age is a one-way street,” she replies.

Surprise stops my response as I process what she is saying. My mom knows I have always wanted to travel, that I am often envious of her trips, but I realize she is also sharing a fear that I will delay taking this trip because of work or saving money or other life circumstances. Things that have interfered with her and me traveling more together. Things that delayed her spending more time with her own parents, delayed until it was too late. Suddenly, my mom looks old and tired.

“Yes. We will go to Morocco together,” answering her fear, vowing that I will do everything possible to make this trip happen.

*

On April 3nd, 2019, my daughter and I were on a plane, accompanying my mom to Morocco.  Two days before, we weren’t sure the fate of our trip. My mom was sent into a quandary whether to continue as planned or cancel after her emergency room visit. One day before leaving, Mom decided to continue as planned.

We began our trip in Casablanca, where we stayed for one night before climbing into a van to start our two-week journey around the Moroccan countryside. The countryside flew past our windows in a blur as we headed towards Chefchaouen, an old medina nestled in the mountains of Northeast Morocco.

I had my first feelings of culture shock in Chefchaouen, along with stress about traveling with a small child and a travel companion who I didn’t know well. Also, it was in Chefchaouen when I had my first anxiety attack about Mom’s health.

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Arriving in Dulles International Airport

Since leaving Denver International Airport, I watched my mom try to navigate airports and traveling as she was accustomed. Unfortunately, by the time we started this trip, Mom had already lost weight and was struggling to sleep and eat. The first night in the blue city was a sleepless night for everyone as we all struggled.

Our road trip from the blue city to Fez was awkward and fraught with the sense of breaking cultural norms with every step, and Fez was filled with miscommunication and health difficulties by all but the youngest member of our group (a.k.a. travel sickness). I could see the wear on Mom as she did not show her usual interest in taking notes, following along rather than listening to our guide as he navigated us through the Medina.  

Despite the obvious strain on her, Mom rallied any time my daughter showed interest.

I struggled with the first half of our trip for many reasons. I noticed how we moved in circles of Europeans and Australians, isolated in tourism bubbles despite maneuvering Mom away from her usual tour bus style of traveling. I did not want a Disneyland version of Morocco; I wanted to immerse and understand a culture that was as opposite from my own lifestyle as possible.

The stronger current pulling at me was the storm building in my subconscious regarding my mom’s health. Although she never opened to me about her thoughts, even later when we lived together during her medical battle with cancer, I could sense my mom’s denial about her situation. I watched her fight for independence and shove down any symptom that she was ill.

I watched my mom’s exhaustion grow exponentially as she struggled to consume enough calories to keep her body going at our fast pace.

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Been through the desert on a camel with no name

The Sahara desert was a turning point for me. Despite my ass hurting 15 minutes into a 90 minute dromedary ride through the desert, I felt a deep peace in the desert. So deep, I felt the calm at the sub-atomic level. For the first time in my life, my inner monologue was silent as I sat 6 feet in the air behind my daughter.

After supper, another meal where Mom ate a few bites of soup and tried to drink a rice based protein shake prescribed by her naturopathic doctor, we settled into our respective tents. That night the wind howled against the tent, an embodiment of the sandstorm that had filled my chest since the first night in Chefchaouen. My dreams filled with jinn and monsters playing supernatural games, and the pre-dawn alarm of my cell phone found me awake and eager to end the night.

My daughter and I rose in the dark, and in the hazy moment between night and day, we walked up a sand dune to watch the sun rise. Balanced on a small metal chair that sunk into the sand with every imperceptible shift, I watched the sun crest the desert and felt the yellow warmth kiss my uplifted face.

We froze in time. My fidgety daughter calmed, sitting still and relaxed on my lap, as I found equilibrium between my core muscles and the haphazard metal chair.

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Dawn after a long night

Wind began to move my hair against my cheek, and like single grains of sand falling in an hourglass, time resumed. I watched the desert breathe, mesmerized by the breeze picking up tiny particles of sand, creating endless waves that crested over a dune’s top to fall on the other side. The desert shifted and settled, moving dunes one grain at a time and erasing foot and hand prints within minutes.

Human existence was a speck in the vastness of the desert, and the desert’s breath blew away traces before they could establish residence.

As we left the desert, I was in shock at the magnitude of what I felt, an experience that would sustain me in the difficult months to come. The night gave me a new understanding how Mom struggled every night, awake and battling the betrayal of her body. But a deeper calm was established, reinforced by the knowledge of how insignificant our lives are compared to a vast entity like the Sahara Desert.

While my ascent occurred in the desert, my mom experienced her own return from Hades in Marrakech. Finally succumbing to our nagging, she took an OTC painkiller before trying to sleep. And she slept the full night, free from the demons that plagued her since the ER visit.

The next morning my mom was able to eat a full meal, and all day she was engaged with our tour and the historical monuments we saw. I began to see the mom I’ve known in my adult life, full of humor and a thirst to experience everything.

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A rainy day in Rabat, before the wear of our journey began to show

Our trek through Morocco ended too soon, our flight leaving Casablanca to return us to the States to embark on our next journey navigating the healthcare system. Despite our best intentions of planning how we would battle Mom’s cancer and maintain our lives, there was no organizing that would prepare us for what was to come.

Less than a month would find me and my daughter moving in with my mom as crisis after crisis created a sandstorm that left us without visibility beyond the next moment. Doing the best we could, we hunkered down and tried to survive as the cancer and complications pummeled Mom.

There is a plethora of opinions regarding both my mom’s and my choices during that time. Opinions about treatment, opinions about lifestyle, and opinions about whether it was wise for Mom to take two weeks in Morocco instead of fighting her cancer. While some decisions were reactive and based on necessity, other decisions were weighed carefully. Six months after Mom’s death, I can say I do not regret any decision that we made.

Now is time for me to put into action the lessons I learned during the fight for Mom’s life. Of course, the first lesson anyone learns from death is life is short. Like my mom said in the Fall of 2018, youth is something that cannot be recovered once it is gone. Because of this lesson, I intend to stop procrastinating my own travel plans. The desire for world wandering was a trait that I shared with my mom, and I will embrace my desire to travel now instead of waiting until the “time is right.”

The bigger lesson for me is about leaning into life and not reacting based on fear. There are many things I have not done based on a fear: a fear of failure, a fear of rejection, a fear of having to do it alone, or a fear of abandonment. Six months ago, I experienced all four feelings in the space of one weekend. Having faced my deepest demons, I can move forward with the peace I found in the desert.

Just as I tried to meet all my mom’s needs in the last few months of her life, I will continue to try and meet her final wishes. While this does require me to embrace the fear of the unknown, sometimes traveling by myself and jumping into situations where I cannot control the minutiae, it is instinctive to combine my new approach of leaning into life with spreading my mom’s ashes and documenting a legacy for my daughter.

And so the Two of Us was born, a travel documentary about embracing life, wandering the world, and fulfilling my mom’s final wishes.

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Lynn Langway 10/04/1949 – 09/22/2019

 

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Ready, Set, Let’s… Wait, what?

April 3, 2019

“We have your test results.”

I sat on the visitor chair, frozen in my indecision whether or not I should go take my mom’s hand or stay where I was. The doctor glanced at me as she slid her rolling chair closer to the ER bed.

“It’s not good news.”

This was not what either my mom or I wanted to hear right now. We were set to start a trip to Morocco in two days. The trip was to be a celebration of my mom’s 70th birthday, my 40th birthday, and a time for three generations of women to explore another country.

Of all the potential options, the diagnosis that eased it’s way out of the doctor’s mouth was one I never considered. I’m not sure what most people do when they hear, whether rushing to their loved one was expected or not. I turned to stone. All sensation left my body as my face felt only the pull of gravity.

The doctor’s words and my mom’s questions came towards me through a telescopic lens while I looked between the two, expressionless. Once the doctor left, the chair released me from it’s hold and I lumbered toward my mom.

I set my hip up on the small bed, holding my mom’s hand that became twenty years more fragile in the space of ten minutes.

How am I going to tell Vivian we aren’t going to Morocco?

My mom and I sit and stare into each other’s eyes for forever in thirty seconds before either of us spoke. To anyone outside the curtain, our conversation might seem odd. Neither of us expressed tears or emotion. Instead, we talked about Morocco as we expressed our initial thoughts. Neither of us had emotion in our faces or our voices as we forced ourselves back from the edge of shock.

The other conversations would come as we left the ER, about phone calls and doctor visits, about what she wanted from me as her support, and what each of us was going to do the next day.

“Are we going?”

“I don’t know. I need to make some calls tomorrow.”

“Okay, I will call the company to find out cancellation policy and…”

“Oh, no. I assume you and Vivian are still going.”

For the second time in that witching hour, I turned to stone. I never considered taking this trip without my mom. And the thought of leaving her at home to deal with this by herself while I’m walking around Morocco was as foreign as trying to eat air. Which is what I was doing, swallowing nonstop as my mind moved at light speed.

“I want to go. Let me make my calls and decide.”

“Ok. Talk to you tomorrow. One step at a time, and no more than that.”

“One step at a time.”

*

Two days later, and we are stepping quickly through Denver International Airport as we grab fast food for Vivian and my mom and try to make our flight to Dulles. Neither my mom nor me really like being rushed to the gate, but today we all moved a little slower than usual.

Vivian is excited, asking a million questions in the space of a breath while I try to keep up. Part of my mind is focusing on measuring my mom, her energy, and how she’s feeling. I won’t tell her I’m doing it; my mom insists on being self-sufficient. But in the space of two days, everything has changed.

While we do not have an official diagnosis, nor do we know exactly what the future holds, both my mom and I feel the pressure of how important this trip is going to be.

The flight is on-time, and we are on our way. We planned a night over in Virginia to give Vivian time and space to stretch her legs, run out her energy, and orient herself before the longer flight across oceans and continents.

20190402_155903.jpgAirtime is usually uneventful, as each of us finds our comfort moments in between jostling our boundaries and hyper-awareness of the hundreds of other people in the contained space. Vivian sits in the window seat, and Mom always wants to aisle, so I am left in the middle by default.

I have one moment where my physical location is a metaphor for my role in life as of two days ago. Now I understand when sociologists talk about the sandwich generation, stuck in the middle of taking care of children and parents.

I’ve never had to think about taking care of my independent and self-sufficient mother.

Stepping off the train from the concourse, I am struck by the distinct difference between Dulles International and DIA. Similarities are they are both international airports and have train systems. And that’s where the similarities end.

While DIA is filled with colors and textures, exhibiting art and paintings on every flat surface and flooded with light, Dulles is all glass and cement. The airport is military and utilitarian, a bunker set into the countryside of Virginia.

At baggage I make a mistake. I grab my mom’s bag and start walking.

“I can grab it.”

“But why don’t I just do it if I am able?”

The moment is sidestepped by a 5 year old. Due to Vivian’s waning energy, I take her bag and Mom ends up with her suitcase.

We planned the trip to Morocco with a certain function in mind: celebrate keystone birthdays while exploring the world. I have a feeling this trip will have more significance to our relationship as my mom and I adapt and navigate through an inevitable yet unexpected life change.

One step, and one day, at a time.

Communal Living (Part I)

November 13, 2018

“Hey, what can I help you with?” The foreman removes his ear buds and looks at me from his sitting position on the dusty root cellar floor.

I move further down the steep, uneven cement stairs as I look at two of the three workers I can see. The foreman stares at me, like I was interrupting their flow. I understand, clients don’t interact much and get in the way when they do.

“So, I’m taking my daughter to dance class. I was wondering when you guys will be finished.”

I edge myself to sitting on the stairs, barely fitting and aware a slight lean forward would tumble me to where the foreman is crouching. The second worker has his back to the crawl space that extends under 2/3 of the house, looking straight across the basement towards me, and finally I can see the third worker standing by a joist support that isn’t attached to the floor. Inside I shudder at all the times my daughter has bounced across the floor upstairs, unsupported. 

“Oh, yeah, we are just waiting on Jose, slow on filling up his buckets,” the foreman and middle worker laugh as they look towards Jose.

I look at the dozen and a half filled buckets, dirt and concrete the three have been hauling up for most of the day. My eyes travel across the expanse of what could be called my basement, for a lack of a better term. No, there is a better term. More like root cellar with a thin sheet of poorly laid concrete, overhead joists cut by unnumbered, poorly done infrastructure remodels and heavily burdened with HVAC and plumbing. Slowly I take in the 2 x 2 holes pockmarking the floor. In another day the holes will be filled in with rock composite, designed to disperse weight of two floors bearing down on 3 steel beams and 9 jacks. 

“Well, we are better off than I thought we would be, ahead of schedule, so we shouldn’t be here on Thursday but for some clean up or concrete checks,” the foreman begins talking his end of day dispatch talk. I catch every other word, distracted by sounds of my daughter while also mesmerized by what has become of the uneven floors. “So, I don’t think we have much more to do.”

“You guys can stay as long as you want. Just saying I won’t be here with you,” I smile. 

“Yeah, well, we are in a good stopping point and probably need to get checked into our hotel, if you don’t mind us leaving the buckets like this.”

“I was wondering if you would drive back down to Monument tonight,” I comment lightly.

Although there are structural companies and firms by the dozens in Denver, this company is from a town that is on the southern edge of halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs, the two main urban areas of Colorado. I don’t know much about Monument other than it’s a bit of a hill sitting on I-25, away from the mountains, so snow storms pick up speed and slam the small town.

Why did I pick a company so far away? Of all the PMs that came to bid work, this one felt the most genuine, honest, and forthright about all my concerns. Choosing a contractor by intuition? Yes, that’s what I do. Plus, they were all about the same price, and this one could do it without me having to play contractor and hire additional companies to move HVAC and plumbing.

“Oh, yeah, well we were actually going to put up cots here if ya didn’t mind,” jokes the second worker, his full beard still well formed after a day of hard labor.

“Sure, you can stay here. But in full disclosure I gotta tell you I’ve smudged this house three times in two years, and there is still stuff going on,” I meet the eyes of the second worker, expressionless. 

For one heartbeat there is silence. Confused, the foreman tilts his head as he searches my deadpan face. The second worker, his shirt rolled up to show sleeves of black and grey skulls, tribals, and Americana, stares in my eyes frozen. Jose nervously jokes, “that would explain the shadows,” breaking the spell. 

The foreman jerks towards Jose, and the second worker laughs. I laugh and say, “seriously, guys, I was kinda hoping you hauling out dirt would take care of some of this. After all, this has got to be the creepiest basement and crawl space I’ve ever experienced.”

All three voices chime in a harmony of believing disbelief, as the second worker moves quickly towards Jose. Jose laughs, “damn, man, you’ve had your back to that crawl space most the day. You thought you felt sumthin, maybe you did.” The second worker shakes himself as he sits on a bucket of dirt. 

The foreman looks at me, asking,” have you really experienced things?”

“Yeah, I have. Voices and things, mostly at the beginning.”

The truth is this house called to me, before I could even sense it. In fact, the reason we found this house was because I was being driven mad by our last house. In all rational sense, we shouldn’t have bought the house we were living in. We made it six months before deciding to sell. Denver was still in a crazy real estate frenzy, so we decided if we wanted to get away from our poor housing decision with a little bit of money, we needed to move soon.  

Our real estate agent,  unlike the previous one, is a very smart man. I gave him some of my requirements, and he took me to different areas to test what I said. All in all, he knew I was a neighborhood buyer and not a house buyer. What does that mean? Houses are houses, and I can live in whatever. As long as I’m not going mad. But a neighborhood is beyond everything else. For me, the full environment needs to feel right, otherwise the house will never become my home. Plus, houses I like are found in neighborhoods I like. 

After seeing a few houses, and losing a bidding war on a house not far from here, we were getting a little frustrated. Day by day my sanity was wearing away. Until I received a call to meet our agent at a house under renovation. The minute I stepped from the car, I heard the crows cawing and felt this was our home. 

At the time the house was ripped to studs, lath and plaster torn to shreds and thrown into the crawl space below the floorboards. It didn’t matter. This was my home. The potential I saw. The feeling I sensed. This was my dream home.

Though it really wasn’t. My preferred house is a Craftsman bungalow, complete with full brick porches, pane and stain windows, and solid wood bookcases around coal fireplaces. Second to a bungalow is a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian, complete with bay windows, crown and dentil molding, and a solid keystone above every window. Third is a hardy American four-square, complete with wrap around porch, butler’s pantry, and solid wood trim everywhere. So this house, a simple four room folk Victorian with a 1920’s kitchen and bathroom addition, wasn’t even in the running of my dream homes.

That didn’t matter. The crows called. The walls spoke. This was my house, despite my rational senses stating I saw the potential in the blueprints and I could pick my own colors and I could choose the octagon marble floor and subway tile in the bathroom and I could dictate gray cabinets with open shelves true to Victorian kitchens. This was my house bare boned and empty. 

My house per contract at the end of June. A house we didn’t move into until the end of September. We bought the seller’s reasoning that contractors were hard to find, though come to find out that wasn’t the full story. We bought the surface because it seemed reasonable. After all, two years later and Denver still has more cranes in downtown than the four-state area combined. We played understanding because we had no choice. Our house had sold while we were in Panama, a single buyer offering more than asking, and rent back was not an option. Finding another house was not an option. After all, it was a seller’s market. And this house was my house, the decision was out of my hands.

So we figured it out, living in a loft downtown where energy bombarded me 24/7. We took deep breaths, feigned patience, and ultimately moved in before the house was finished. We reasoned the chaos of the workers was less than the chaos of loft living, and at least we were home. Though that first night made me question if moving here was right. Or maybe this house wasn’t mine, after all. 

To be continued…