Unabridged Me

JUST ANOTHER WRITER

Coming to terms

October 17, 2019

“Did you hear that?” Laurinda asks as silence pulls me from my dozing state.

My mom’s friend and I sit up at the same time, searching the dark recliner ten feet away. Gears activate in my mind, and I count measured seconds. I reach and pass 50 before Mom’s lungs pull and push one breath of air, followed by noiseless darkness pushing my eardrums.

For one heartbeat Laurinda and I look at each other across the dim room. In a synchronized dance choreographed by three days together in a death watch vacuum, we stand up and move over to my mother’s prone figure.

“I think it’s time,” she whispers.

I nod as I move behind my mom, leaning down to kiss her forehead before whispering “I love you.”

Another raspy breath. Two short gasps. Silence.

The hum of electricity invades my ears, threatening a headache with its roar. Darkness wraps my shoulders, an embrace that grows heavier with each passing moment. Air seeps into my nose, my lungs afraid to scratch the night with an inhale as time stretches and presses on me. While my chest suffocates in black ink, my fingers separate from my mind and search for Mom’s pulse.

Nothing.

I shake my head at Laurinda, my fingers caressing Mom’s jaw before I step back. Like a newly wound clock, I move down the hallway with silent but solid footsteps. A strong wind of deep snores occupies the guest room. Minutes tick in each second as I shake Susan’s shoulders, urging her from a sleep drawn from 36 hours of hurried traveling.

“Mom’s gone,” I whisper after my aunt jerks awake.

The silence has followed me into her room, squeezing my neck and shoulders as I step away from the bed. I move in staccato measures, returning to my mom.

My hand finds a phone and hospice’s card. My ears hear echos of my voice talking to the on-call nurse. One hour, she says.

“One hour,” I say to Susan and Laurinda as metal gears direct me towards the recliner that has been my bed for the last two nights.

“Michelle,” Laurinda says, “she’s no longer here, maybe you should, I don’t know, cover her?”

I look at Laurinda, her words taking a minute to ease through the black quilt stitched around my mind. Tick tock, I walk to my mom and pull up her blanket, covering an expressionless face. The task complete, the clock resets to focus on the recliner.

I sit down. I pop up the leg rests. I pull up the blanket, a brown dual sided throw my friend lent me during the first hospital stay. I pull my legs up to my stomach. I put the pillow on the arm rest. I set my head on the pillow. I close my eyes. Except to open the door to the nurse and the mortician, I do not move. I do not sleep.

The silence wins, sinking me into darkness as time stops.

*

On March 31st, my mom and I sat in an ER room, staring in silence at the doctor as she delivered results against the beeps of a heart monitor. A CT scan showed a mass emerging from Mom’s pancreas and partially blocking her intestine, plus what appeared to be numerous cysts or tumors in her abdominal cavity.

On April 24th a biopsy confirmed the tumor was malignant. At the time, there was only 7mm space for food to pass through the duodenum and past the tumor.

On May 1st, we sat with the surgical oncologist and discussed whether it was more important to begin chemo or perform a GI pypass surgery. At the time Mom was still eating small amounts of food and protein shakes.

On May 8th, at the first meeting with the medical oncologist, Mom was hospitalized for emergency surgery.

*

“Mom, you need to get out of bed and walk.”

“I hurt and I’m tired. Just let me rest.”

“Every doctor who comes in here says you need to get moving. That’s the only way for the stomach to start working and for you to eat again.”

“Enough. Let me be.”

*

Due to Mom’s lack of recovery after nearly two weeks, another CT scan was performed. Though the surgery appeared successful, the tumor was threatening the artery to the liver and Mom had a blood clot in her lung. Mom’s GI track was still not working.

During the GI bypass surgery, Mom had a GJ tube installed. It is common practice for cancers involving the GI system, as the gastrostomy tube (G) can bring relief to nausea by draining the stomach contents while the jejunostomy tube (J) can deliver nutrition, hydration, and medication during times when the patient feels no hunger.

The doctors began tube feeding through a GJ tube to increase Mom’s nutrition and strength heading towards chemotherapy. Around receiving tube feeds, Mom drained her stomach to a foley bag. Both the draining and feeding were temporary measures.

Mom was released from the hospital, beginning her chemotherapy sessions that week.

My routine: Wash hands. Put on gloves. Pour formula into a plastic bag. Attach tubing to plastic bag. Prime tubing to remove air. Attach bag and tubing to pump. Put pump and bag in backpack. Flush GJ tube with 100 ml of water. Attach feeding tube. Begin pump. Administer abdominal shot of blood thinner. Wash hands. Try to write for clients.

Two weeks later Mom began vomiting, a common occurrence with chemo so we did not question the symptom. By the end of the weekend the fluid we were pulling from the stomach portion of her GJ tube changed in color and consistency. Over the weekend we took Mom into the ER twice, and both times she was hydrated with saline and sent home. By Monday she started leaking fluid around the tube site in her abdomen, despite draining her stomach regularly. Tuesday we went to her oncologist appointment and ended up in the ER. Mom was diagnosed with acute kidney failure and severe blood shortage.

The first week of June, Mom was hospitalized again. We spent two nights in the ICU as Mom was pumped full of fluids and blood in attempts to recover kidney functioning.

Despite all appearances, the connection between Mom’s stomach and her small intestine healed like a valve. The feeding tube that was directed into her intestine flipped, causing her stomach to close. Mom’s stomach was a closed balloon, filling with liquid every 12 hours.

That was the first time I watched my mom escape death.

After a week in the hospital, we were sent home with Mom carrying the foley bag attached to her G tube. Her stomach was still not pushing anything down into the intestine, causing bile and stomach acid to build up. While in the hospital Mom had a port installed into her chest.

A lot of chemo patients end up getting ports, as it allows IV treatments without having to access veins every week. More importantly, the port gave me access to feed her via VPN (a bag of lipids, fluid, and essential nutrients) for twelve hours every night.

My routine: Wash hands. Put on gloves. Lay out all the necessary tubes, needles, and medication. Via syringe, add multivitamin to the lipid fluid bag. Mix. Set aside. Put battery into pump. Attached tubing to lipid bag, priming tube to ensure no air bubbles. Attach tubing to pump. Put bag and pump into backpack. Put on new sterile gloves. Uncap the access to my mom’s heart. Wipe with alcohol. Flush with saline. Attach lipid tubing. Start pump. Administer shot into abdomen. Pull off gloves. Get a glass of wine.

I emptied the foley bag attached to Mom’s stomach twice a day, mentally noting the volume. Mom was taking in 2400 ml of fluid per VPN, and she was venting 2400 ml by stomach every 24 hours. Intake of water by mouth: nominal.

We went to the ER twice for dehydration, once after Mom passed out when a friend was with her and resulting in a scalp injury that never quite healed. Another time they sent her to the main hospital for overnight watch, just to make sure she was okay due to heart irregularities.

Add to the routine: prescribed saline bags when hydration appears to decrease, approximately 1000 ml every other day.

Mid-July Mom went back to the original GI doctor who performed the biopsy. This time they put in a stint to prop open the connection between her stomach and intestine. He removed the tube for feeding, leaving only a G tube for infrequent venting purposes, and gave Mom permission to start experimenting with solid food. As the doctor said, the plumbing works fine now. We felt a mix of relief, hope, and a little confusion. Mom no longer needed to drain fluid from her stomach, and for the first time in two months she was free from a foley bag.

Add to routine: medicine to move the stomach and intestines. Medicine to block stomach acid to prevent stomach bleeding. Both administered via artery port.

*

“Do you want yogurt or apple sauce?”

“I don’t really want either.”

“Mom, now that your stomach is working you need to eat. If you don’t eat, your stomach won’t work anymore. The doctors have cleared you, no reason to not eat.”

“Fine. Yogurt. Then a protein shake.”

“Thank you. Are we going to take a walk outside today?”

“No. I’m tired.”

*

Mid-August we had completed three cycles of chemo. It was time for another scheduled scan on August 15th to gauge success of the treatment. We never made it to the scheduled scan. Instead, Mom went into the ER with sepsis. A CT scan was performed by the ER doctor, and the infectious disease doctors searched for a source. The scan showed the tumor had blocked Mom’s liver and gall bladder. No source confirmed, but suspicions were blockage of the bile system caused toxins to back up into the blood stream. CT scan also confirmed chemo was not working.

The medical oncologist talked to Mom about options, which were very few in his mind. For him, she needed to recover from sepsis and regain strength before he would discuss any additional treatments. Chemo was off the table. The type of chemo that was ineffective for Mom was proven to be the most effective with the least amount of side effects. Any other version would have more side effects with less likelihood of success.

As the doctor said, he felt it would be practicing bad medicine to submit Mom to the side effects with decreased chances of success.

We had a meeting with the hospital’s palliative team. The doctor explained why radiation was not an option for Mom, as well as reinforcing and supporting why her oncologist was not going to pursue other chemo options.

After five days, Mom went home with IV antibiotics. At her next appointment, she was tested for immunotherapy and gene therapy. The oncologist did not have much hope for either, but there was a chance.

Add to routine: once every 24 hours administer 30 minutes of antibiotic via port.

The prescription was for 7 additional days after the hospital. Only 6 days after her last dose, Mom returned to the ER for her second case of sepsis. I watched my mom’s skin turn jaundiced in the first 24 hours as they tried to pump her full of fluids per protocol.

While in the hospital, we learned Mom was not a candidate for immunotherapy or gene therapy. We spoke with Intervention Radiologists about installing a tube into the liver to drain it to an external foley bag, and we talked with the GI doctors about installing an internal stint for the liver to drain.

The GI procedure was not an option due to the tumor. The IR doctor was honest about the risks of tapping the liver and what it meant, including having a bag she would have to carry around. Mom asked if it would help her live longer. The response was it would make her more comfortable. Risks associated with the procedure, combined with Mom’s current health, had a high chance of killing her. We decided against the procedure.

About three nights into our stay, I mourned my mother. I laid in the recliner next to her hospital bed, covered in my friend’s brown blanket in my nightly hospital repose since the first surgery, sobbing silent tears.

Hospital plan: comfort.

Once again we were sent home with IV antibiotics. Knowing how sepsis works and with no recourse for the source, I watched the days bleed by until we didn’t have antibiotics any longer. My mom gained 60 pounds in a few days, water weight her body shucked into her cells and abdomen. After pulling herself off hospice, my mom went into see her oncologist. He understood if she did not want to utilize hospice, but there was nothing else he could do to help her. He would continue to put in medical orders, but his message was clear: her liver was going to kill her in only a few weeks.

Our summer had been a quiet summer of routine and sleeping, punctuated by medical appointments and hospitalizations. That ended, and the time vacuum began on my birthday, September 10th of 2019.

A few minutes after midnight on September 22nd, my mom passed away from pancreatic cancer complications.

Hollywood and inspirational videos paint cancer as a slow wasting away until the person falls asleep and never wakes up. And maybe that’s the case with other cancers. Not pancreatic cancer. I watched as my mom’s major bodily systems shut down one by one, creating toxicity and decay. Until her last breath, my mom sat in her recliner hoping a miracle would save her life. Her fear of death was strong, but the disease was stronger.

I never questioned moving in with her. I never doubted changing my family’s entire life to be with her. Every choice I made was based on each moment, supporting my mom in the way she requested. I became an encyclopedia of events and medical jargon, medications and procedures.

For six months I didn’t look further than the day I was living. I tried to meet the needs of a five year-old with the increasing needs of a previously independent mother. What had become my life’s purpose ended in one weekend. Since my mom’s death, I have drifted aimlessly. It is not the loss of my mom, though there are traumas I need to process. Death is a part of life, and life continues.

Rather, I’ve tried to reinsert myself into my previous life. I don’t fit anymore.

As I start the process of cleaning out her house and cleaning out my mind, four words continue to haunt my consciousness. The four words started six months ago, but now is the time for me to act on them. I only hope I hold onto what I’ve learned through this experience to avoid inactivity. Instead, I will consciously choose life.

After all, life is too short.

Washing Off Peace in an Oasis

April 12, 2019

“I want to quit my job,” he says through the crackling of shaky wifi.

I pause for a beat, then ask, “and do what?”

“I don’t know. Not work. Not have stress,” he replies.

The bottom of my heart has been sliced open, and blood is draining into my stomach. “Do you want me to find a full-time job and you can quit?” I ask around the olive pit that just formed in my throat.

“I don’t know,” he replies.

“We’ll talk when I get home,” I say before saying goodbye as Vivian pulls on my arm.

Later at night my thoughts begin to circle in my head, and anxiety builds on itself. I think of the time spent earning the equivalent of minimum wage ghost writing for the few hours Vivian is in school or late at night. The time spent struggling to get her moved from school to dance while cleaning and shopping and cooking. The stress about paying bills and being pulled apart from every direction on few hours of sleep.

From the noise in my head, my commitment to my mom about going to every doctor’s appointment emerges.

I shut my eyes against hot tears of frustration and hopelessness.

*

Today started with me walking through the stillness, my feet moving as much backwards as forward in the deep sand. In silence, Vivian and I sat on a chair facing the East. The wind wound her hair in ribbons past my face as my scarf billowed towards the North. Mists of sand crested the dune next to us, settling in rivulets as it fell on the leeward side.

20190412_084049.jpg

Vivian tries to leave her mark, but it disappears quickly

At first I tried to keep the chair from sinking into the sand dune, but with both me and Vivian sitting on a small metal chair, the effort was wasted.

In silence we watched the sky turn pale blue in preparation, mixing small amounts of white until an orange line broke across the sky.

The sun cleared the horizon, bathing the sand for another day. For one moment I am breathless, and Vivian is still. The world stopped moving, and nothing and everything existed in one moment of time.

Unfortunately, the night was long and filled with the wind howling against the side of our tent. Vivian woke talking about dreams of monsters shaking the tent, and I explained about the wind. After watching the sunrise, we moved towards the dining tent for our breakfast.

Breakfast for me consisted mostly of coffee. My eyes felt as if the entire Sahara’s worth of sand was behind my eyelids. And it looked as if my mom and our travel companion weren’t moving any time soon.

Which proved to be accurate. Our 4×4 driver came to pick us up around breakfast time, and the three of us waited for over an hour as the other two gathered themselves together. Apparently the 4×4 plus camel ride caused our travel companion to have an injury to her leg. My mom is not sleeping, nor is she eating, so she is not doing well in the mornings in general.

20190412_090858.jpg

My little camel

While I walked around the camp, trying to absorb the last amounts of peace I could before we faced another long drive, Vivian pretended to be a camel on top of a sand dune. Our driver occupied himself by filling a water bottle full of desert sand for Vivian.

One by one, the other parties of the camp climbed into their Land Rovers, heading onward in their vacations. Finally, the two emerged from their tent ready to face another day.

Vivian didn’t want to leave the desert. In fact, she would have been content playing on the sand dune for another few days. Several times she was asked if she wanted to stay by the various people around us, and her reply was she didn’t have the right clothes. She said she would need their robe and turbans in order to live in the desert with them.

Though she told that to only me after they smiled and turned away. Vivian still barely responds to the people who engage with her.

Since we were last to leave, our driver was given a pair of glasses forgotten by another party within the camp. We took off across the dunes, following no set road other than our driver’s sense of where he was. We crossed another camp where initially we were to drop off the glasses. Instead, we picked up a pair of earrings as our vehicle slowly drove a circle around a man who was standing and talking to him.

20190412_064320.jpg

Since we were the last group from the furthest camp, we had the honor of sweeping up. I watched in fascination at the efficiency in which we relayed the two items to another truck in the middle of the desert, neither vehicle stopping to prevent sinking in the sand. Each vehicle slowed to a crawl as items were handed across open windows. The other truck turned, heading off in another direction as our driver turned us towards our rendezvous point with our regular driver at his hotel.

Once settled in our regular van, we turned toward Skoura in a long drive that would take us past ksars and a gorge where we could see their irrigation in play. Also, we stopped by a site to see the old irrigation system of Morocco.

Since above ground aqueducts would cause too much water loss from evaporation, they dug channels under ground from the mountains into the desert. In order to create a natural pump, they dug holes 30 feet deep in the ground which would create air pressure to move the water.

20190412_105218.jpg

A very deep and old hole

Morocco has long since used generators and modern technology, but it was fascinating to see the miles of holes in a straight line from the mountains. So many man hours and innovation to irrigate agriculture in areas without water.

After a few stops at the Togha Gorges and for lunch, we reached our destination in Skoura. Our travel companion thought we were heading directly to Marrakech, which was too far from our desert stay for a one day drive. She kept asking our driver where he was taking us, to which he responded “an oasis.”

Driving down tight roads with corners our van could barely navigate, we reached our riad for the night. The land was purchased by a Dutch tour guide and her French husband 20 years ago and originally contained a grove of 6 date trees.

Since then they have literally created an oasis. Once we walked through the gates, we were welcomed by lush turf grass, tall trees, and pathways that meandered through various sitting areas. Our hostess gave us a tour, asked if we had any interest in swimming in the pool, and then showed me and Vivian where they had a play area with a slide and trampoline.

20190412_165805.jpg

Perfect place for Vivian

As excited as Vivian was about the slide, she was more interested in the free standing tree house that was near the horse pen. She played in the tree house until dinner. allowing me and my mom to take turns with a very hot shower to wash away the desert dust that had settled into every crevice.

The meal was well done with a crackling fire next to us and french music mixed with Frank Sinatra overhead. I felt very far from the desert, even as I walked along the lantern lit pathways to our room.

I am struggling with the paradox my mind has seen over the last few nights. Having gone from a family resort to the desert to this enclave oasis in the middle of nowhere, I am moving on autopilot and Vivian is struggling to maintain stability. We are on the downhill side of our trip, and I sense reality will be rushing towards us faster than I want.

20190412_212424.jpg

Possible Potion for Failure

April 7, 2019

Most of us are not aware of our cultural indoctrination until we force ourselves into isolation away from our comfort zone. This also applies to our patterns of living and existing.

As far as travel companions go, my mom is probably the least inclined to create conflict since she has traveled on her own in  large groups, often making long term friendships with people she chats up along the way.

Unfortunately, she has not been super chatty this trip due to not feeling 100 percent.

Since I have Vivian and am the person who found the tour company and took initiative on this trip, I am the one who carries the most guilt. Entirely on my own shoulders, created by my own nature.

The other two travel companions are both the youngest and oldest, with 70 years separating their life experiences. Today our long drive from Chefchaouen through Volubilis to Fez exhibited some of our inherent personality traits as well as our awareness to our environment.

Although each of us was emailed the itinerary in both detailed and broad strokes, not all of us read it in the same detail. I did not memorize our path, but I’m carrying it in my laptop bag for reference just in case. Also, I have a general sense that most of our road travels are not direct routes but have stops along the way.

So, did I know we planned on stopping at Volubilis to tour the Roman ruins? No, but I enjoyed and went along with it.

Our travel companion did read the itinerary in great detail, but she seemed to forget we were touring the ruins. Unfortunately, she grumbled a lot during the tour, often asking the tour guide if he intended to walk the whole way around. As she said, she’s seen a lot of Roman ruins in her lifetime. Plus,  tours are difficult for her as she struggles with the accents of our native guides.

At one point she sat down on a wall and we continued walking, picking her up about ten minutes later as we walked by again.

My mom was not feeling well due to driving out of the mountains, so she was struggling to be engaged in her usual manner, which involves notebooks and notes writing down main key points from the tour.

LRM_EXPORT_79934922203879_20190409_153645977.jpeg

Vivian’s crown in front of mosaic tile

Which left me and Vivian. The guide made Vivian a crown of flowers, which she took off immediately after he put it on her head. Of course, as soon as she became used to the idea and comfortable with him, she started pointing out every blooming weed as a hint for inclusion in her princess crown.

The Romans knew how to pick a site, as Volubilis is situated at the top of a hill overlooking a fertile valley where they could plant and harvest olives for Rome. After all, Rome was interested in harvesting the resources from Northern Morocco and cared very little for anything else about the countryside.

LRM_EXPORT_79954583244393_20190409_153705638-1.jpegAs we walked, we looked at the various mosaic tiles and what they tell archaeologists about the house’s owner and the society in Volubilis. Currently, 58 percent of the ruins are unexcavated. Also, there was a large earthquake that disturbed the ruins, offsetting Caligula’s gate.

The tour guide had some interesting words to share with our driver when we returned to the van. Of course, I caught the exchange out of the corner of my eye. Just as I am catching many things out of the corner of my eyes and ears.

One thing I have become sensitive to is the word American. In our traveling to date, we have met and had casual conversations with a lot of different tourists. However, almost all are either European or Australian. We have not met another group of Americans.

So my awareness to the word is heightened, knowing the conversation refers to us.

I’m not so unrealistic to assume I can travel the world and immerse myself, blending seamlessly into whatever culture I’m in. The reasons I was so interested in coming to Morocco is because I would be exposed to so many different environments that are unlike anything I’ve experienced or would have opportunity to experience again.

Yet intellectual intents rarely align with initial reality. Part of the pressure on my psyche is I see and am aware of multiple layers of things occurring around us. Our travel companion does not care how other cultures perceive her, partly due to generation and partly due to her age.

Also, she has done a far amount of traveling, setting up dental clinics in Africa and South America with her husband.

My mother has always traveled in large groups, and I doubt her health allows her much awareness right now. Plus, my mother has always been more extroverted and engages with her environment on her terms in her perception, which is strongly rooted in conservative America.

While I do not understand the words between our driver and the guide, I understand the comments he made that I was not supposed to see. Just as I know our driver receives kick backs as he moves us through the country, calling his friends and maneuvering us for his benefit. This doesn’t bother me, as it is no different than any other culture in the world, including America.

I won’t even say I have much culture shock at this point, though I feel like I am violating norms without realizing it.

The part I struggle with the most is having a spotlight on me. I live my life in the background, watching and observing others while going unnoticed myself. I interact on a one on one basis with few individuals at a time, and for the most part am content to observe humanity from the audience. Easily done when I blend into the surrounding culture.

Now I am “American,” traveling with a 4 year-old and two elderly women. Unwanted attention was inevitable.

LRM_EXPORT_79972914685584_20190409_153723970.jpeg

Additions to Vivian’s crown.

After our short and what felt like failed “touring” of the ruins, we were on the road to Fez where we will be for three nights. I was sad to leave Chefchaouen, and I’m a bit doubtful this journey will be as seamless and effortless as I once thought, but I’m hopeful about what the rest of the trip will present.

With time and exposure, I will find my own comfort zone within this country and within this travel group of four very different people and a driver, who adds his own complexities to the potion.

For now, I will allow myself to absorb what I see and hear, playing audience despite being on display.

 

Updated: 04.13.2019 to correct the name of the Roman ruin.

Culture Shock and Watching Friends

April 6, 2019

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

“Have a banana and go back to sleep.” I look at the clock. 2:00 a.m. Two nights in a row.

“Okay. Here, I left you a little bit.”

“Thank you, now go to sleep.” I toss and turn, trying to get comfortable despite my aching left arm. No, don’t Google it.

I do, anyway. Of course, first result is a heart attack. Waves of thoughts drown my brain like what if I die in my sleep and Vivian is left alone in the room, by herself, in a country half way around the world from what she knows. Stop, you are not having a heart attack.

My chest tightens and my jaw aches as my brain struggles to get a gasp of rational air. I think about my mom, the issues she’s having and trying to hide, the vivacious and unstoppable person I once knew slowly disappearing under the strain of trying to keep herself the same.

Stop. You are having an anxiety attack, calm down. Deep breaths.

For an hour in a minute, I take deep breaths against a wet pillow. I’m not ready for any of this.

*

We woke to the sound of rain against the window pane. Looking at the clock, I realized I slept past my intended time due to two nights of interrupted sleep. Vivian was still sleeping soundly, so I started getting myself ready before waking her.

20190406_104824.jpg

Vivian’s favorite view from our room

Running about five minutes late, we met up with our traveling companion for breakfast before getting ready to meet our guide for the day.

So far, I have been unable to eat everything put in front of me. Not from a lack of trying, the food is delicious. I can see the various influences of cultures from the Roman olives to the foods brought back along the spice routes from India. It’s like I’ve died and gone to foodie heaven.

Unfortunately, the serving sizes are massive. At the risk of appearing rude for not eating all the food, I eat what I can before pushing myself to sickness.

Unlike some of the other tourists staying in the riad, we bravely face the mist and rain in order to experience ChefChaouen. We meet with our guide for the day in the downstairs lobby of the riad. While previous travel has involved wandering around finding nooks and crannies, the compromise involves 4 guided tours.

I’m beginning to understand the benefit of guided tours.

The first thing we learned is why Chefchaouen is blue. There are many reasons, but the primary had to do with diseases and mosquitoes. Children were at particular risk, so in order to protect the children the whole city was painted blue. When asked why blue, the guide’s best guess was something in how they make the blue dye puts off a scent that is a repellent.

It’s true, there was not a single fly or bug to be found in the old medina.

Also, the color blue was specific to the Jewish refugees who were part of the original formation of the medina and is of significance to Islam as well. And the blue repels the sun, creating a naturally cool environment inside the houses in the hot summers.

So really, all the reasons people have heard are true, according to our guide. All except the Jewish refugees coming only during WWII. The Jewish community was second in the country after the Berbers, long before the Moors and before Morocco’s conversion to Islam.

As we wandered up and down the small corridors and steep stairs, our guide educated us on the strong original culture that resides within the walls of the old medina. Despite addition of electricity in 1948, most houses still use candles for lighting, the old Arabic dialect is still used, and protection of the children is still the number one priority of all residents.

Revised rule #1 still stands for this trip, but my first discomfort from cultural shock is slightly relieved while in this small town. As my cultural shock subsides, Vivian’s will increase, though.

In the upper part of the town near the newer sections outside the medina walls, there were tourists in every pathway and alley. The further we meandered and talked, the fewer tourists we saw. Instead, we found people going about their daily lives. Children ran bread from their homes to the local bakers as we were told about the local infrastructure supporting the elderly with no family and the destitute with no money.

0704-2019-110389443500091475174.jpeg

The medina wall against nature

While my mom and her cousin were awed by how many families live together in a single house, anywhere from two to six families of five or more people, I was struck by the vibrant green of the mountains against the blue city.

After the French defeated the Spanish, the medina was no longer allowed it’s own king and government, and the city grew outside the walls though hampered by the terrain. Also, as the city grew in size the threat from monkeys, wolves, and other wildlife including invaders grew less. However, the old city within the walls remains a cultural entity of purity while an international tourist magnet.

After walking for about two hours, our travel companion was ready to head back to the riad for a rest and I was tired of carrying Vivian on my back while trying to balance an umbrella. Our guide walked us through the maze of streets to the riad, and Vivian and I went in search for lunch on our own.

So far, walking the streets alone with my daughter, finding the restaurant suggested by the riad, and spending an hour just me and her has been a highlight of this trip. For just a moment, we were flexible and immersed in exploring and experiencing.

I am starting to get a sense of watching friends, though. When Vivian and I walked to the restaurant, we were greeted at the door by someone who was expecting us. Yet at no time during lunch did they greet anyone else in that manner.

0704-2019-115569443731891514096.jpeg

The skylight over the riad plaza

We returned to the riad to relax in the room before joining my mom and her cousin for supper. I feel confident of the small portion of the medina we’ve learned so far, walking from restaurants and the riad in increasingly larger circles. Another day or two, and I could easily navigate the tiny town on my own.

However, we do not have a couple more days as we are scheduled to leave for Fes.

The awkward dance of not stepping on each other’s toes will become more awkward the next day after leaving the protection of the tiny blue city in the mountains, as we come face to face with the reality of traveling together, traveling as Americans in Islamic North Africa, and traveling as each struggles with their own bit of travel sickness.

0704-2019-113402143890218744921.jpeg

Wet and Winding Roads

April 5, 2019

Path of Morocco

Day 4: Casablanca – Rabat – Chefchouen

First, I would like to state I am not a professional travel writer. Nor am I professional blogger. In fact, I never considered myself a professional anything, even when I had a professional sounding title many lifetimes ago.

That being said, this journey through Morocco will not follow any specific format. Why? Because this blog is as random as I am.

This morning we left Casablanca to begin the road portion of our trip. In order to see as much of Morocco as we can, we have a few days when we are in the car for large stretches of time. The black Mercedes van is nice, and half the seats face backward.

By default of age, Vivian and I are facing backwards.

My mother gets motion sickness, and I deferred to our other travel companion. Vivian is young, and in general I don’t suffer from motion sickness. Though the mountain road we were on later was going to challenge my tolerance.

After driving the toll road for close to 45 minutes, we detoured to take the coast road to Rabat. A backward perspective gave me a different view of the crashing waves bombarding the sea wall after we passed.

0604-2019-055092811833247378816.jpeg

Kasbah entrance: Rabat

In Rabat, our driver apologized saying we have a scheduled stop to see the kasbah but it is raining. Three of four said meh, who cares about a little water let’s stop. While my mom’s cousin stayed in the van, Vivian, my mom, and I walked the gardens and ventured into the medina a bit beyond the kasbah walls.

0604-2019-055267910934998258065.jpeg

Vivian escorts us around the gardens

A quick side note: my mom and I have different traveling styles. She prefers organized tours where she can feel safe and watched after while exploring all the various countries of the world. And she’s been to most at this point. My travel style is to land in the airport, have reservations for the places we intend to sleep, and figure it out from there.

This Morocco trip is a bit of compromise for both of us. I researched and found an organized private tour company who handled mapping out an itinerary complete with a driver, half board of food, and organized tours in each destination city, and my mom agreed to a small group. Her point regarding Vivian’s age and my mom’s age was valid, and my point about organized tours not liking young children is a fact. This is what we came up with.

After returning to the van just as the rain began to fall in larger drops, we continued on the road. Once again, we began our route on the toll roads, lulling our group into sleepy stupor that ended as we began our ascent into the mountains.

Winding roads, though beautiful and fun to drive, are a challenge to the hardiest of stomachs. Especially when facing backwards.

After several hours, and without any major stomach issues, we arrived in Chefchaouen,

20190405_110800.jpg

Vivian gets courageous beyond the kasbah walls

the blue city. Our driver dropped us and our bags, introducing us to the man from Riad Cherifa who would escort us to our beds for the next two nights.

The original part of the city where we are staying is inaccessible by car. Tuktuks bring supplies like propane in and out of the city, while the majority of the residents walk. Built into the mountainside, the blue city took our breath away as we walked for the first time in several hours.

Greeted by aromatic mint tea and biscuits, we made it to our rooms to turn around and eat our first Moroccan meal.

The blue city is comfortable and has an ease about it, though the streets are often crowded with tourists depending on time of day.

The scheduled guided tour tomorrow will be our chance to fully explore the city, learn why the city is blue, and test our endurance for walking.

I’m not worried about myself. My other three travel companions might have a difficult time. Vivian because she is so young, and my mom because she is not at full capacity. Only time will see how we hold up.

Walking back from the restaurant, I experienced my first culture shock. While I will learn I have nothing to worry about within this tiny mountain town, I had my first moments of concern.

Normally Rule #1 between me and Vivian in public is she has to stay within my eyesight. If she can’t see me, I can’t see her and that means she will lose privileges. Other than that, I’m relatively lax about her proximity to me.

Up until this point I’ve seen distinct interest in Vivian from a few women, interest that Vivian shies away from but I can understand the women’s response. In our return to the riad Vivian was leading the party, walking a few feet ahead of us playing tour guide. Along the way there was distinct interest in her from two of the male vendors. I did not respond to the first as a threat because he was introducing her to two children.

The other wanted to show her turtles and pets he has in his shop. I watched with discomfort, stepping in when I felt it was time for us to continue walking.

For the time being Vivian’s new Rule #1 is she is to hold my or her grandmother’s hand when we are walking in public.

Cultural differences are starting to present themselves to my consciousness.

20190405_154959.jpg

Vivian and Sparkles admires the sheep with Chefchaouen in the distance

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.