Panama 2019: Thinking about Minga

A dear friend has just returned from visiting her 96 year old mother-in-law. The elderly woman has had pneumonia, but is recovering. Her doctors say that for her age, she’s in quite good health and can indeed recover her energy and quality of life. But all the woman wants to do now is die. My friend went in an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to help her mother-in-law recover the will to live.

The story made me think about Minga. Before I went in November of 2018, I’d had intimations that Minga was growing tired of her dialysis regimen, and the attendant pains and indignities that went with it — like the severe leg cramping that made it hard to walk even a few steps. Who wants to be carried to the toilet, and carried back to a chair or bed? I suspect Minga would have thought that giving up on life was a sin. But I also suspect she was wondering with no small amount of apprehension what the next months and years, if she lived that long, held in store for her.

When I arrived in Panama City, I found her ebullient, happy to see me and eager to be part of whatever I proposed. She seemed full of energy. As regular readers of the blog know from pictures, we went to the mall. We visited Amador Causeway to see the ships ready to transit the Canal. We went to a dinner theater with folkloric dance. We took a drive around Panama City to see all the new buildings and neighborhoods she hadn’t visited in years.  We went to the roof deck of the hotel, with its gorgeous view of Panama City, and talked while Miley and her friends splashed around in the pool. We savored the hotel buffet, with more of a variety of foods than Minga was used to, and a dessert table with bite-sized sweets that seemed manageable even on her restricted diet.

Then I returned home, and five days later she died. I don’t think for a moment that Minga caused her brain bleed. But I’m wondering about the arc of her reportedly growing tired and listless, the big resurgence of energy, then death.

Maybe, like my friend’s mother-in-law, a body knows.

Panama 2019: F&F Tower, Panama City

Panama City has enormous contrasts: some of the most stunning new high rise buildings in the world, and some of the greatest concentrations of poverty. This F&F tower is visible from the Corredor del Sur when you come from the airport or the Crowne Plaza through the city on the way to the interior. Lily was nearby the other day and sent this pic. I usually get pics from a greater distance, often from a moving car along the Corredor.

The F&F tower won an architectural award in 2011 as one of the best designs of the year. The tower is often compared with Al Tijaria Tower in Kuwait, and Evolution Tower in Russia.

You might wonder how the poor feel about buildings like this when there isn’t enough money for food or health care or housing. The answer is they are very proud of their beautiful city, and the stunning high rise construction that draws the attention of the world.

The F&F tower is an office building. Clearly any office on any floor would have spectacular views of the city.

Panama 2019: Minga’s 78th Birthday

Yesterday, Sunday, would have been Minga’s 78th birthday. I turn 74 in May; she and I are just about four years apart in age. That difference seemed greatest when I first met her in 1967, at the outset of the Peace Corps years. She already had six children. She lived with Roberto Delgado; she’d already had children by three different men. Although I’d had a boyfriend for six years, I probably don’t have to tell anyone with a Catholic upbringing from that era how limited my experience was. Minga had a quiet authority and competence even then. I was struggling to define myself as an independent woman, finally out of the shadow of a mother whose constant theatrics sucked up all the oxygen in the room.

The age difference came into proper perspective when I returned to Panama ten years ago, and that was re-affirmed each year that I returned. Minga and I were both older women living alone. We were both mothers, and grandmothers — she first, then I. We were both political junkies. We were both grappling with issues of aging: she with mobility and overall health, me with role changes and relevance.

MInga’s birthday was always a big deal for her large extended family — cake, a birthday meal, balloons, lots of family around, a pinata from her daughter Mari. I love my Cinco de Mayo birthday, but the celebration of it is usually quieter, especially in these later years.

In 2016 friends Emily and her mom Mary were in Panama for Minga’s birthday. Minga and Emily celebrate their birthdays on the same day, so we had a big Mickey/Minnie Mouse themed party at Minga’s house. It was grand.

The bottom pic is Minga when she and I first met. She is twenty six.

Pinata made by daughter Mari, a pinatera.

Mary,Rufina, Emily

Minga and eight of her nine grown offspring: Marlen, Rufa, Angel, Teri, Humberto, Ita, Manuel, and Daira.

Washing the clothes, a daily chore for Minga. No running water at the house, so she either had to take the clothes to the river or carry bucket after bucket to fill her tub in the yard.

Panama in the News

Panama is in the news, and not in such a good way. Panama, along with Miami, Spain, and Nicaragua, has long provided corrupt foreigners with an easy way to launder money.

“On Avenida Balboa, Panama City’s premier seafront avenue, the 50 story tower blocks form a near continuous wall of glass to the Pacific Ocean. At night, however, most of the luxury apartments remain in darkness and the basement casinos are eerily deserted.

Panamanian real estate was a favourite investment of the boliburgues,Venezuelans who grew rich on the back of their political connections to the late president Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.

But in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal it has become increasingly hard to launder money through the country, cutting off a potential exit route for those looking to cut loose from Maduro’s embattled regime.”

The Panama Papers, in case you forget or were not up on the scandal, involved the leaking of millions of documents from a tony Panama law firm that revealed how dodgy lawyers help offshore entities hide their wealth and evade taxes in their home countries.

Oddly enough, the influx of Venezuelan money touched our recent trip to Panama. Pippa’s bar, on the beach at nearby Farallon, used to be a sleepy little place which offered cold beer or rum and Coke and simple food. Now the place is owned by a Venezuelan, and is expanding exponentially. You can get Thai shrimp, and a full bar menu. You have to pay $5 for parking. I don’t know that the new owner qualifies as a millionaire evading taxes, but he’s clearly a Venezuelan expat with a lot of money to spend.


Panama 2019: Writing Around

I’ve done a lot of writing around how I feel about Minga’s death — characteristic of me to lead with my brain and my capacity for observation. Several of you have said you like the posts, which have given you a good sense of Minga, her family, and the images surrounding her death. I’m there in the posts, albeit indirectly as the gatherer and shaper of the information. I’m happy for the affirmation — thank you all who have commented.

Here’s what I haven’t said yet, at least not directly.

I really miss Minga very much, and her not being there on my recent visit was hard for me from beginning to end. Visiting her grave was hard. Not having her walk through her front door into the sunlight, arms open and with a broad smile, was hard. No one has the right to expect another person to be there all the time. We teach our toddlers early on that “Mommy is busy right now. You need to play by yourself for a bit.” But Minga seemed to sense how important it was for me that she was there each time I arrived in the village. On every visit up through winter 2017, she would look me in the eye at my departure and say firmly, “Pamela, I will be here when you come next year.”

She suffered kidney failure in November of 2017, and almost died, then went on dialysis. Her family asked me not to come then, as they were in utter tumult and didn’t have the capacity to take care of Minga and be responsible for me as well. I went in January 2018, when she was stabilized. For the first time, our parting did not include the assurance that she would be there. Nor did she say those words in November 2018, after our wonderful week in the city. I left on November 20th, and she died on November 27th. I knew she hadn’t said the all important words and it unsettled me, although I didn’t draw her attention to it.

I don’t much believe in premonitions. I think Minga just didn’t say things she wasn’t sure would likely be true.

Our friendship was uncomplicated in the sense that we never had to be anything in particular for each other, except “there”. When I returned to the village ten years ago, after a 40 year hiatus, she didn’t ask where I’d been, why I hadn’t come back sooner as I once promised I would, why I was there now, how long I was staying, or what I was going to do during my visit. I had been there, and then not for a long time, and now I was there again. To her, that’s all that mattered.

It was a precious, pristine, simple friendship, in the best sense of that word.

I miss her very much.

January 2018

Panama 2019: The Pictures I Take

Friend and regular reader Randi made an interesting observation about my Panama pics: they are almost all of people, not things or scenes or historical or cultural sites. She’s right, and that’s true not only of my Panama pics but of most of my photography. My abiding interest and passion is discovering how people make sense of their lives and create a sense of meaning. For me, that is revealed in human interactions, not so much in the physical context in which we live.

My first editor, Marie Cantlon, pointed out to me that I need more physical detail in my writing, that people are not disembodied souls but move in a physical world. She was right, all those years ago, although I don’t think I’ve made much headway in evoking the vibrance of physical space either in print or in photographs.

Hey Picture Lady, this post calls out for your comment. 🙂 [Picture Lady is my Rochester friend and reader who actually is a photographer, and a fine one.]

I do better capturing emotion with human interaction. Minga has my hand in both of hers.

Nature scenes a little stronger than other attempts to capture physical detail.

Looking into lobby of The Buenaventura, hotel in complex where we stay. So-so.

Panama 2019 Reflections: On Minga

My friend Louise, also a blogger, has a new post up about obits, and what we might share if we had unlimited space. Here’s the link if you’d like to read her post in full.

I’m mindful that Minga had no obit. There would have been no place to post one, since there are no print newspapers in the village, and most people don’t have regular access to computers. I doubt any of the family gave a eulogy at her funeral. Sounds as if they relied heavily on Padre Raphael to conduct the usual Catholic service, in which personal remarks from the family do not play a part.

I suppose my blog posts from Thursday might constitute something of an obit.

Minga would have found the concept of an obit odd, I think. The people who needed to know she’d died, knew. So much for the informative function of posting an obit. I think if I or someone had asked her what she wanted shared publicly about her life she would have smiled and shaken her head. Talking about herself, or having someone speak for her, would not — I suspect — have felt right. She did talk a lot one-on-one about her early life, the challenges of being left motherless at five, the grueling day to day struggle of feeding nine children often on her own, and what she hoped her legacy would be. Her legacy to the world was her family: nine independent adults, all of whom had a way to earn their living, and with the obligation to be good and generous human beings.

I’m of two minds about an obit. Jerry had one, in what was then the print edition of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. The informative function was a high priority. He died very suddenly, and professional colleagues, clients, neighbors and friends needed to know what was happening and where and when they should come to pay respects. When you get older, like I am, that informative function shifts. Like Minga, the people who need to know when I die will know.

My two thoughts are these: an obit is a good way of drawing together the threads of a life and sharing with everyone how, in the end, you made sense of your time on earth. That’s easier for someone left behind who is going to speak for you to carry out if you’ve first laid out the framework, maybe even written the thing ahead of time. Louise and I have a friend, Julie, who does “legacy writing” with clients — and writing a sample obit is part of her approach.

My other thought, though, is to look back on the creation of sacred mandalas — intricate sand paintings — by Buddhist monks. A group of monks visited Rochester years ago, and I went to watch them work. They skillfully array grains of colored sand into a complex pattern, working for hours every day without appearing to tire. The construction of a mandala takes weeks. When done, they ceremoniously sweep up the gorgeous creation and dump it in the river. The message is something about the beauty and fleetingness of our material existence.

If you think of the mandala as representing the complex elements of a life, while it’s there in front of you it’s there, and visible for all to see. When it’s done, it’s not there, and can be conjured up only in memory. No one tries to say what the mandala looked like, or what anyone is supposed to remember about it. Each person in touch with the mandala carries his or her own memory. Nor does anyone try to preserve the mandala. It’s there in all its glorious color and complexity, and then it’s not. That’s the preciousness of life and the sadness of loss, all in one fell swoop.

I’m still going back and forth between these two contrasting notions. Glad to hear your thoughts.

Panama 2019 Reflections: On Minga’s Family

The most important take-away from this first Panama trip following Minga’s death is that her family is really doing very well. I was a bit concerned that the normal tensions that had built up during the long and difficult year of her dialysis would explode after her death. But that hasn’t happened at all. They are pulling together. They are doing what she wanted: keeping her home open and cared for so that any of the family visiting the village will have a place to stay. The two eldest daughters, Ana and Rufina, and the eldest son Angel are moving into the center that was left empty by Minga’s death. All three are wise and capable and have good hearts.

Daira told me that now I am their mother, which is deeply touching. They do have at least one living aunt in the village, Roberto Delgado’s sister, but she is very elderly and they are taking care of her — Roberto was much older than Minga. I will continue to be their Tia Pamela, their aunt of the heart. But the ones who are there every day, and who have the wisdom of experience, are the real matriarchs and patriarch: Ana, Rufa, and Angel.

Two of Minga’s adult offspring are not doing as well as the others, but they weren’t doing well before Minga died — having to do with issues in their own lives. I’ll be interested to see over time how siblings deal with the difficulties, instead of their mother. That’s a more complicated dynamic, I suspect.

All of the villagers, Minga’s family included, are closer to the ebb and flow of real life, and with fewer buffers and distractions, than we are. The family knows that Minga lived a full and rich life — rich in family, rich in her place in the village, rich in the sense that she knew exactly who she was and was calm and confident in her place in the world. That doesn’t mean she had no regrets. She constantly talked about having to leave school at third grade, and never having the opportunity to study. That was why she constantly exhorted her large extended family to study, to take the opportunities available to them that she never had. But on the whole, she was at peace with the world and her place in it.

Minga valued loyalty, faithfulness, helping those in need even when she had little to share. She was a very feminine woman who took time with her appearance. She hated quitters, always saying you needed to sigue luchando, continue fighting. She was pretty bad at picking men. She knew every grandchild and great-grandchild, and never held back from insisting on the family standards they were expected to meet. She believed in luck — she bought lottery tickets even when she had no money to spare — and in the Virgen del Carmen.

She was, like all of us, a complicated and interesting person. Dialysis was hard, but she fought to live until the very end. Her family then carried her the last miles to her eternal rest.

Panama 2019: On Gloria’s Faith

If you’re a person of faith, you have to account for the fact that some people really get the short end of the stick in life. What does that say about God, presented by most religions as loving?

On one of our last breakfasts, Gloria launched into her belief that I am a living angel sent to her by God as her reward for keeping the faith through many years of trials. That really hits on all my old Catholic stuff, but I recognize and respect that Gloria has the right to make sense of the world within whatever framework she can. So I smile and nod and stay silent. I’ve heard this story of my alleged angelic qualities several times.

When I first met Gloria ten years ago, she was employed by a wealthy Cuban-American couple who owned the villa I first rented. They were imperious employers, to say the least. Gloria had many family problems: her youngest son’s leg kept breaking, unable to support the weight of his growing adolescent body. The treatment for his club foot had been limited, and did not involve physical therapy. Her mother was aging and not so able to ride herd on three rambunctious adolescent boys while Gloria was away for weeks at at a time, as she was required to do when the Cuban couple or renters were in residence. Gloria’s marido, Luis, worked near the city and was only home Saturday mid-day through Sunday night. They often went for weeks without seeing each other. Gloria herself had many health problems, some related to the extreme malnutrition she suffered as a child. She was miserable, overworked, often in severe pain, and near despair.

That, she tells me now, was God testing her. And she met God’s challenge, because her life has gotten steadily better over the ten years. Now she is a new woman.

Well, she is a new woman — funny, confident, assertive. I wish she would take more credit for the hard work of personal transformation, attributing more to her natural intelligence and resilience and less to angelic intervention. But as I say, people have to make sense of the world in their own terms.

I think Gloria has changed as a result of the role modeling and encouragement of all the strong women I’ve brought to Panama, and whom she’s gotten to know — often without any shared language. Gloria thinks her life has changed because God tested her enough and finally decided to cut her a few breaks.

Here’s my evidence of women drawing strength from other women — Tia Sally and Gloria. Gloria doesn’t need evidence for her world view, because her story is all about faith.

Panama 2019: Best and Worst

On a purely solitary note, the best this year was the ocean, which was absolutely delightful and enticing. We got in every day, despite the occasional appearance of Medusas and other dangerous sea creatures.

On a more interpersonal note, the best was seeing Minga’s family close ranks and come together after her death. My sister of the heart would be proud.

Runner-up bests, in no particular order: Gloria’s cooking. Getting word that the frightening news about Gabrielito’s heart was in error, and that he is likely fine. Seeing Luisito in university and Miley headed there, likely to surmount the poverty into which they were born. Exploring more of Panama City than we usually do. Continuing our streak of ten years with no injuries or significant illness, even as Tia Sally goes out alone in the pitch dark around 5am to run while avoiding the heat. The family gathering on the first Sunday we were there, which was Minga’s deepest wish — that her family continue to gather and celebrate. Sun and 90 degrees every day. Sunrise and sunset, every day. Gin and tonic at the hotel bar. Three weeks of uninterrupted camaraderie with my dear friend Sally.

The worst: only one really. The Bone Collector thing, which freaks me right out. Actually they’ve always done that — scooped up whatever remains after three years or so and put it all in a small box somewhere else in the cemetery, to save space and make room for the next dearly deceased. I remember that from the Peace Corps days, when people were merely wrapped and didn’t even have caskets. A deceased got a three year ride in an official grave, and then had to make way. Freaked out though I was, I left money for Gloria to pay the Bone Collector for dealing with Arturo’s remains, and specified that someone should at least paint his name on the little bone box. Right now, in the big white interment thing holding his casket, there is no name.

Glad to hear what posts you found most interesting, or least. 🙂