Minga’s Death: The Fine Line of Intervening

Katie’s gift has prompted ongoing reflection about the difficult line I had to walk on my recent and last visits with Minga. Despite my long and deep relationship with Minga, I am not blood family — and in Panamanian culture, that matters. There is no concept, as we have here, of “chosen” family. Blood is blood. When Minga was first diagnosed, several of her daughters had strong feelings about what she had to do — and what they had to insist she do — to maximize her chances of staying alive. Their feelings came out of love. None of them, they told me in torrents of tears, was ready for Minga to die.

Clearly I identified with Minga, who although not ever a terribly introspective person was quite clear in saying what she did and didn’t want. I played the role that her sister might play if she’d had one, an aunt to the struggling daughters. I always acknowledged that I was not their blood aunt although I’d known them since they were little girls, and that I knew they were acting out of love. That said, I insisted they could not add the burden of their own grief to the heavy burden already weighing down their recently diagnosed mother. I said they couldn’t overwhelm her with their chorus of concerns, but that they had to let her speak. And they had to listen.

To their credit, almost all of Minga’s daughters ultimately supported Minga going to live with Ana, and trying things — like going home after each dialysis treatment — that the daughters knew, correctly as it turns out, would be too hard.

I came full circle with Minga during this most recent and last visit. I am sure she felt loved, and held, and secure that I would be there for her in the darkest moments. For her, that equated to being mothered — something elusive for her since her mother died when she was a little girl. She told me over and over that I had become her mother — something secure and comforting to her and a role I was happy to play.

I look forward to closing the circle with her daughters in January — all of them. I think it will be a more complicated task.

Minga’s Death: Gift of Remembrance

The Shutterfly ornament with pics of me and Minga on each side came from friend and regular reader Katie, who has been to Panama twice and knows Minga. I’m not surprised, Katie has a gift for picking just the right thing, and for noticing when someone is sad.

These two pictures are the bookends for Minga’s dialysis experience, and for the last year of her life. Lily took both pics. In the one where Minga and I are sitting, our heads touching,  we are in the restaurant of the Crown Plaza aeropuerto, Minga had just gotten out of the hospital — November 2017. She was desperately ill when her son Angel went to get her in the village and drive her to the hospital in Panama City. Once admitted, she was given dialysis several days in a row to bring her numbers back into ranges that were life-sustaining. At this point she had just learned that the only dialysis spot available was in the city, which would mean leaving her home for most of the week and staying with one of her daughters. The one she was with when this photo was taken lived very far from the hospital, three crowded bus rides and probably 90 minutes or so on top of the already grueling dialysis regimen. I believe Minga had not yet decided whether she could, or even wanted to, continue living under such difficult circumstances.

I had Minga stay with me in the hotel so we could talk, without her strong-willed daughters present, about what she wanted. Out of those conversations I was able to do four things. One was simply offer comfort for the difficult decisions ahead, which is what you see here. Another was to help engineer a change of living arrangements so that Minga moved to Ana’s apartment — closer to the hospital, and a calmer space. The third was to make the case to her daughters, quite forcefully and on more than one occasion, that Minga had lost her kidneys but not her mind, and they could not usurp her decision-making power about her future. Finally, Minga wanted to try to go home to the village after each dialysis treatment. I figured out how much that would cost for Minga and someone to accompany her, and left a fat envelope of small bills in her hand. The 2 hour trip after long hours in the dialysis suite proved to be too hard, but it was Minga making that decision — which restored her dignity and her sense of being in charge of her own life.

The other picture, in the lobby of the downtown Crowne Plaza, is November 2018. We’d just had a wonderful week, including the Mall excursion. Lily went out to check on the arrival of the Uber car that would take her and Minga back to Ana’s. I was leaving very early the next morning for the airport. Minga sort of leaned into me, and we had the moment you see here. I had no inkling that it would be the last time. Indeed, I was thinking how much stronger she was than the year before, how well she was doing. We didn’t speak. Minga simply rested into my body until Lily came back in to say the Uber had arrived.

A moment later, Minga was on her way.

Panama 2018: Gloria on Minga’s Funeral

I know it’s hard to keep the Panama people straight. As friend and Panama visitor Phyllis said, it’s like the Begats in the bible. And there are a lot of people who get mentioned. When we had Minga and Emily’s joint birthday party a couple of years ago, 57 of Minga’s extended family showed up.

But here’s a shot at clarifying: I visit two families in the village, although I certainly know others. The families are unrelated. One is Minga’s. The other is Gloria’s, the woman who cooks for us and is our general problem solver at the villa. Gloria’s late mother and Minga were age peers and knew each other from church, although the families lived on opposite sides of the Pan American highway and so were not immediate neighbors. Gloria is in her mid-40’s, a mother and grandmother. Minga was 77 when she died.

Gloria and Minga got to know each other well because both spent time together while they were with me. They developed deep bonds of affection.

With that as preamble, Gloria messaged me that she is going to the evening rosary led by the Prayer Lady at Minga’s house. Gloria said that the funeral mass was extremely well attended, as I suspected it would be. In a setting where basic medical care was sparse until a few years ago and hardship rife, Minga’s longevity conveyed something important. She was as close to village royalty as it gets.

Minga lived along one of the major roads to the market — a narrow dirt road until it was paved fairly recently.  Lots of people on Rio Hato’s south side walked by her home daily on their way to and from the market, or to the highway to catch a chiva into Panama City. She loved to be out front, receiving and responding to their called out greetings.

Minga was not only the linchpin of her family and my dear friend, she was a social pillar of the village. I imagine the silence from her front yard weighs heavily on people long about now.

Shutterfly Gift

Someone sent me an absolutely beautiful Shutterfly ornament with pics of me and Minga on front and back — and no hint of who might have been so thoughtful. If it was you, please let me know so I can thank you properly. The gift means a lot.

Minga’s Death: How Am I Doing?

Many of you have asked, very kindly, how I am doing with Minga’s death — anticipated, but not expected just when it happened, and especially after I’d just left Panama feeling encouraged about how well she was doing.

She and I had a long talk about death while I was there. She strongly hoped those of us left behind would not remain mourning and feeling sad, as her life had been rich and full and long. It’s true that for a woman of her era in the village, she lived a long time. Everyone else who was part of the co-op she and I formed during the Peace Corps years is long dead. I take her wishes as a guide, but feelings are feelings — and they come unbidden and uncontrolled, just as they are.

So, I feel quite sad, and expect to for some while — even as my life here unfolds in its interesting way, and even with the joy of Christmas upon us. I don’t feel overwhelmed with sadness, and am able to enjoy the good things that are happening. Pendulation, my friend Nicki calls it.

I do notice a curious lack of interest in working out, which surprises me because it almost never happens. I like my exercise routine, like the atmosphere of the gym, and feel better when I keep my regimen current. You might wonder why I don’t simply take a break and wait for the motivation to resume. The answer is that at my age, a break of even a week or so in exercise creates an uphill path to get back to the level I need to keep my blood pressure under control — even with meds. My zeal about exercise is a health thing, and an expression of valuing mobility, more than a vanity thing. I’m dealing with it by getting up and putting my workout clothes on, and going. My ingrained discipline, and the habit of exercise, take over from there.

I valued that Minga was perceptive in knowing that our relationship was a key element of my creating a psychological and spiritual safe space — something I wrote about last week. She would always look at me when I left and say “I will be here when you come back. You don’t have to worry.” About 18 months ago that shifted, when she needed me to take on a stronger mothering role toward her — something I was able to do, and happy to do. She stopped saying she would be there, and it was OK. I understood.

The architecture of my safe space has shifted, like a Jenga game. That’s an intellectualized way of saying that I miss my friend. I will miss her warm embrace, her soft skin, her stroking my arm as she sat next to me.

That, most simply said, is how I’m doing.

I actually started going back to Panama in 2008, but my pics on camera begin in 2009 when I got a smart phone. We had a fiesta with typical fokloric dress, and Minga insisted I wear a slip underneath, which was hot as Hades. The dress itself was scratchy and driving me nuts. Here is Minga adjusting my attire, because it had to be perfect.  I am hot, uncomfortable, and grinding my teeth. She is determined.  She won out, of course. I wore the slip, and stood still while she fixed my dress. 🙂

Such is the give and take of real friendship.

Minga: Beginning the Long Journey to Healing

None of Minga’s extended family has the kind of job that allows for extended time off, no matter how one might be feeling about the death of a beloved mother and grandmother. On Monday, those with jobs to go to, as opposed to Ana who works from home, are back at work.

In the village, the prayer lady from the church is coming for nine nights to lead mourners in the rosary. The prayer lady’s involvement here is a must, as I learned from the events following Gloria’s father’s death. I shall keep to myself the Evil Twin comments about the $90 the church charges mourning families for this service.

Once the nine nights are over, the family will decorate Minga’s home for Christmas. She loved Christmas, and they think it’s what she would want. I think so too.

I know I have pictures of Minga in her living room with a Christmas tree, but no luck finding. Here are some others I came across that you might enjoy.  Ita is Minga’s daughter, and Joelito is Minga’s great grandson, and Ita’s grandson. His mother is Jari.

The next pic down is Minga’s daughter Daira. I thought this was New Year’s, but as I look longer think it might be Daira’s 20th anniversary of teaching. Left it in anyway.

The pic of Minga on the slide is one that I love — from 2015. The hotel in the complex where I rent put in a children’s playground, and Minga announced she had never been down a slide. She found the tall one too daunting, but with the help of her grandson Jorge — laughing as he walks away — she came down the small  slide and was delighted with the whole thing.

On the bottom is Minga at church with Naty at Naty’s confirmation. Naty is the daughter of Margarita, with whom Humberto lives. Minga was not originally thrilled, and Naty — who was five when her mother and Humberto got together — served as the bridge. Minga didn’t have it in her heart to be rejecting of a child, so gradually she warmed to the child’s mother too. This pic signaled Minga’s full acceptance of Naty, and her mother, as members of the family.

Rufina made Minga’s lovely dress, of course. This was pre-dialysis, when life was still good and the village was Minga’s full-time home.

Ita and grandson Joelito.


Minga and Naty

Reflections on Minga’s Life and Death

I’ve read a number of articles recently about an epidemic of loneliness, social isolation, in our country that is leading people to make choices that limit their life span: drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide. That loneliness affects people in all social classes, those with opportunities and those without.

By contrast, Minga lived and died securely held in a thick web of relationships with family, friends, neighbors, her church community, her cohort of dialysis patients, the nurses who warmed to her and took time to be kind, the visitors I brought to meet her, those who got to know her through the blog or a book event. She had much hardship in her life, but loneliness and social isolation were not a problem for her,  at least not as an adult.

She had a limited life in some ways, and a rich life in others. She was not a perfect human being. She was hard on her daughters growing up, because she needed them to be more responsible than their years. She has always openly preferred her male children and grandchildren. As recently as the week before Thanksgiving, when I was with her in Panama, she mused that her son Angel was the one taking the most care of her right now. Angel indeed was contributing to her care. When she couldn’t walk, he came at 4:30am three times a week to help Ana’s marido Raul carry Minga down the stairs. Angel is the one who got Minga a cedula, even though she had no birth certificate. All of life in Panama revolves around having a cedula, or national identity card. Gloria’s father never had one, and his access to things like health care were much more difficult. Angel was the one Ana called when Minga was in the ICU on the Tuesday she died, and Angel came.

But Ana saw to Minga’s daily care, getting up at 3am to get Minga ready for dialysis, Miley ready for school, and Raul off to work. She accompanied Minga to the hospital for her treatments, waiting there until Minga came out sometime between 9:30am and 11am. On those days Ana put in a full 8 hour day before she got to her own responsibilities: housework, grocery shopping, laundry, meal preparation, and then to her work as a seamstress, which constitutes a good chunk of her family’s income. She often accompanied Minga to doctor’s appointments as well. At night, Ana supervised Miley’s homework, made sure she was prepared for the next day. Ana is 64, not a young woman.

When Minga was touting Angel, I caught Ana’s eye. As we walked out the restaurant, I put my arm around her and said softly, “I know all that you do, and I am very grateful for the care you give your mother every single day.” She gave my hand a squeeze, and avoided meeting my eyes so that I wouldn’t see the hurt in hers. Ah, Minga, mi querida hermana, what were you thinking?

Minga had the life she wanted, the life that suited her. We don’t always know that when we are younger, and busy, and just trying to keep our heads above water. We know it only in retrospect, from the vantage point of our older years.

Minga’s life in the village would be too confined for me, too small. But I’m in awe of the long line of people who carried her heavy casket down the left lane of the Pan American highway, cars and trucks whizzing by in the right lane. I’m touched by the outpouring of grief as she was laid to rest.

Hers was a good life. She was loved, in all her imperfect humanity. Rest in peace, my sister of the heart.


Minga and Gloria: Changing the Culture

Jewish people are scarce as Martians in rural Panama, although there’s a longstanding and rather wealthy Jewish community in Panama City, dating back to World War I. Gloria worked for such a family when she went into service at age 16, and they treated her badly. We’re all prone to over-generalize, so in Gloria’s mind, all Jewish people must be  mean just like her employers.

I was surprised when I first heard her say it, and said gently “But Tio Jerry was Jewish, and he was a good person. Tia Sally is Jewish.” 

No puede ser. It can’t be. That was Gloria’s first response, because she loved Tia Sally. I could see the wheels grinding in Gloria’s brain.

Another deeply held generalization in the village is that rich white people are unkind and treat the people who work for them like trash. Remember that many people from Rio Hato keep house, or cook, or do outside maintenance work or indoor painting or pool maintenance for the wealthy villa owners in the complex where I rent. The villagers are paid astonishingly low wages, the outdoor people can’t come into the house to use the bathroom, and most owners don’t even offer a bottle of water to men working for hours in the hot sun.

Remember that “rich white people” includes anyone with the keys to a car, a credit card, nice sunglasses and fancy sandals rather than simple flip flops … you get the idea. It includes me and all of my friends.  I knew we’d made progress when I overheard Gloria’s youngest son, Luis, vigorously defending Tia Pamela and my American guests to the boys hanging out in his front yard. Not all rich white Americans, he told them, are terrible people.

My niece Bryna and her family, and nephew Peter and his family, came to Panama in 2016. I have pics of them with Minga, which I can’t find — organizing anything, including photos, has never been my strong suit. But there they are with Gloria. Max, in sunglasses in the bottom pic and blue shirt in the top pic, had just had his bar mitzvah. As part of his bar mitzvah project, Max had raised $200 to buy and distribute food baskets to the poor in the village. All four kids shopped in the local market, assembled the baskets, and we all went to distribute.

What Minga and Gloria would have heard the local pastor preach about at Sunday mass, caritas or charity, is tzedakah in Judaism: the call, the moral obligation to heal a broken world. Gloria was astonished at these kids. Minga, of course, welcomed the Jewish half of my family with open arms.

Something shifted on that trip, a set of assumptions or generalizations forever changed.

Life with Minga and Gloria and the village — what I call the Panama Adventure — has indeed been a powerful one, comprised of many threads. The Panama Adventure has moved and touched and changed us all.

Minga’s White Casket

Lily sent me several pictures of Minga’s living room, where her casket was placed and the vigil held. This is probably the most appropriate one to post. I’m so glad, if Minga wanted a white casket, they were able to get that for her. Many flowers, pictures of her family, seem perfect to me. Because of no embalming, the person is under glass, with just a window over her face for people to see — you can see just a small part of the top of the casket raised.


Minga’s Funeral Mass

Lily has been a stalwart in sending me moment by moment pics and videos of the funeral mass, the walk to the cemetery — yes, they walked, with six strong men carrying Minga’s casket the four miles — and the actual burial. A lot of what is done out of our sight at a funeral here happens there with everyone looking on. The casket is lowered and the dirt filled in before everyone leaves. Everyone is present in their best attire, children included.

The casket is simply beautiful, and looks heavy. Most that I’ve seen there before have been much more basic — or, the deceased is wrapped and buried that way.

Minga’s admirer from dialysis, a patient also, the one we call Mr. White Shirt Guy, came with his sister. He has a name, Sr. Armado.