Panama 2017: Checking in On Minga

I’m just back from Panama, and I thought I’d wait a week or two before checking in to see if Minga is in fact getting to go home on the weekends. The daughter with whom she is staying strongly opposes Minga’s going home, saying the decision is no longer up to her mother and that Minga has to get used to living in the city. Going home, the daughter believes, does not help her mother adjust.

I tried to create some balance among the other sons and daughters, getting them to agree that decisions about her health and where she wants to be remain with Minga, whose kidneys have failed but not her brain or her spirit.

None of them want to get into a battle with their divisive sister, which I understand. But there is Minga — desperately wanting to forge a compromise that will keep the peace in her family while still offering time in the village. That time is her lifeline, what she has to hope for.

I’m struck by the way that certain things in this situation are distinctly Panamanian — like the cultural belief that if I hire someone to help Minga with home dialysis, that’s evidence her family doesn’t care about her. I imagine that was true at one time in our country too, until we ran out of stay-at-home people to do the work of seeing to elderly relatives. Then our cultural beliefs adjusted. But other aspects of the turmoil surrounding Minga’s illness are common to large families everywhere: who is the favorite? Who is helping out, and who isn’t? Who gets to make the decisions, when an illness in an elderly person is disrupting everyone’s life?

I have no idea how long this situation is going to go on. Minga’s favorite nephrologist, Dr. Felipe, has told her she will probably not have a long life, even on dialysis. She seems tired and somewhat lethargic to me, although patient and enduring about the miserable trips to Hospital Dr. Arnulfo Arias. Her family is nowhere near settled on how the rest of Minga’s life should be supported, how their roles should mesh in seeing to what their mother wants and needs.

Family dynamics are truly difficult. The only thing harder, I suppose, is not having anyone to care about you, or for you, at all.

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