Panama 2019: The New Sofa Bed

During my November 2018 trip to Panama, we had that uproarious trip to the Mall — including buying Minga a new sofa bed to sleep on. We were on a lower floor of a department store, where we’d bought a couple of things, and I asked Ana if Minga needed anything else. I was thinking along the lines of a blouse or new underwear or a sweater because she often got cold in the dialysis chair.

“A sofa bed,” Ana replied, telling me that Minga had been sleeping on a cot for the past year in Ana and Raul’s small apartment.

I had the sudden funny mental image of our leaving the Mall with bags of new purchases plus a sofa bed strapped to our backs, but of course that didn’t happen. We went to a higher floor of the department store, where they indeed had sofa beds. Minga chose this one. The back goes down to make a flat bed. She stretched out on it, and seemed very content. Gloria and Lily were there in addition to Ana to help with the choice.

Minga died before the bed was delivered, but Ana tells me that Miley is now sleeping on it. Lord knows what Miley was sleeping on before. I’m happy the new sofa bed is being put to good use, and I know Minga would be glad for Miley to have it too.

Remembering Minga

Emily and her mother Mary traveled with me to Panama in 2016. Emily and Minga celebrated a shared birthday, and the entire Panama clan showed up in the village to celebrate.

While going through pics on her phone, Emily found this one of Minga at the condo I was then renting, out on the balcony looking toward the ocean. Remember that Minga never in her life lived in a house with stairs, or a second story. The concept of “a view” was not part of her expectation in having a home.

Back in the Peace Corps era, the land on which this upscale complex was built was used by villagers to graze their cows — including Minga’s then marido, Roberto Delgado. The small circular mill he used to grind sugar cane to make raspadura was here. He sold each cake of raspadura — brown sugar — for a nickel. Their daily income in those days was under $3, maybe under $2. Minga and Roberto had five children living with them, and Ana living with Minga’s aunt. Ana sometimes came around at supper time for a plate of rice and beans.

Families came on Sundays to cook over open fires and swim the two rivers that go out to the sea, or to play on the beach. They’ve lost that access now, along with the use of the land.

Minga looks pensive to me in this shot. I wonder what she might have been thinking.

Panama 2019: Classy Hat

A hat with a brim wide enough to protect my face and back of my neck is essential for Panama. We’re right on the equator, and the sun is merciless, whether in the city or out at the beach. I’ve had this hat for a year or so, minus the feather adornment. I wear a hat in Seattle during the summer too, on strict instructions from my dermatologist. I don’t really like wearing a hat, so sometimes complying is a chore. Friend Nicki gave me the feathers for Christmas, and I can’t wait to step out in Panama City with my newly classy head gear. 🙂

Panama 2018: A Visit from Minga

MInga visited me in a dream, a very vivid one, and invited me along to her funeral. I took it as her way of sharing that final experience with me, in a way that I could manage — in dream.

She wanted me to know about the depth of her faith. I think I always understood that. In a very elemental way, Minga believed in a God that would never abandon her, and that belief allowed her to see life through. She had a lot of instability after her mother died when she was small, and always crushing poverty.  Late in life, the last ten years when her children  had grown and could help support her, she had the most financially stable period of her life. Her family, very small in number when she was growing up, blossomed: nine grown children, and I can’t count how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, plus the significant others of her sons and daughters. There were  a lot of times along the way when she could have given up, lost hope, and she never did. She knew God was with her.

Minga and I never had a conversation about faith. Questioning God’s existence in her life would have been like questioning the ground under her feet, the air she breathed, the large cast iron pot that sat on her fogon, the one for which she gathered firewood in the early years in order to cook. Her faith in God was solid, dense, all around her, as familiar as the trusted elements of daily life.

She certainly knew I didn’t go to the small village church when I was there, not even the year that I stayed for three months. She never asked why. Was it because my unbelief would have been inconceivable to her? Or, was she giving me room? I have no idea.

I liked the visit from her, in dream. I already had the images of her funeral, from the pictures and videos Lily sent. Now I had Minga, making sense of it all for me, guiding me through her transition from earthly life to an afterlife in which she unquestioningly believed.

I take it as a Christmas message, one of joy and hope.

Conscious Aging: Dealing with Death

Grief takes funny forms. I’m not focused on Minga’s death every day, not like her daughter Ana, with whom she was living and for whom Minga’s absence is tangible from the moment Ana starts her day. I’m thinking of the new sofa bed that we bought at the mall. I’m not sure it had even been delivered yet when Minga died. She may never have had a chance to sleep on it. Ana and Raul and Miley now have the sofa bed, and it’s really nice. I’m sure it’s in their living room — a new furniture purchase is rare. I’m sure they can’t sit on it, or rest on it or watch TV on it, without thinking of why and when and for whom it was bought.

I’m aware, as I plan for my annual trip to Panama, now less than a month away, how odd it’s going to be to arrive at Minga’s house and have her not there. She was aways at home on the day she knew I was arriving, waiting for me to pull up in the rental car. I can see her break into a smile, begin to walk toward the car. She would clasp me in a warm hug, both of us rocking back and forth. She very much lived in the moment, not thinking how long it had been since my last visit, or how many days I’d be there on this one. I was there now, and that’s what mattered. Her heart was full. We  had time.

I don’t think about Minga’s death every day, but I have a general feeling of being unsettled. I’ve had a string of annoying things to deal with — roof leak, raccoons, trouble with my new Pixel 3, car engine light on — none serious or unfixable. The leak is repaired. Gonzalo is taking the next step in fighting the raccoons: putting chicken wire down along the perimeter of the new turf. Apparently raccoons don’t like to walk on wire. A replacement phone is on the way. My car is fixed. But I’ve had less reserve in dealing with each of these things, found them more disconcerting and spent more emotional energy on them than was warranted.

Some part of me is working really hard beneath the surface, and there’s not much reserve for a sense of humor about raccoons.

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.