Visiting Mom – Part 1

I debated long and hard whether or not to post the following account, but I wanted to put this out there and see where it lands. It is based on my personal experience, and how I saw and perceived those moments (and for the time being has nothing to do with birding.) I’ve changed the names of people I mention. The recount is meant to enlighten, to help (me?) process this life, and not disrespect anyone. 

Tw y Tere zoo

Mom and me at the LA Zoo, May 1979

Visiting Mom on Christmas Day (Part 1)

A 1hr Nursing Home Snapshot

“Come on Robert” says Cynthia, “it’s time to go and eat, lunch is ready.”

Robert is a tall black guy, with grey twill pants that rise above his waist. The remnants of who must have been an elegant man are visible in his posture and his delicate movements. A smooth blue dress shirt neatly tucked in, and a pair of sturdy shoes complete his outfit. It’s hard to tell how old he is, 60? 70? His hair is short and kinky, with threads of white, woven in here and there. His face is smooth, his lips pursed and his blue-eyed gaze lost somewhere else – in that distant world that Dementia and Alzheimer’s takes them to. Every time I see him I tell myself he must have been quite a handsome fellow when he was younger.

Cynthia takes his hand and walks with him slowly, helping him shuffle down the hallway into the dining room. Cynthia is his aid for the day. She’s in her late 40s, early 50s – and looks tired, very tired, beaten down by minimum wage, long hours and an unforgiving job. Her eyes droop, her long black wavy hair is that of an aging woman, too tired, too poor, too busy to spend time getting it colored and styled.

This is not a job for the lighthearted, or for those seeking recognition. “Thank you’s” are hard to come by, if hardly ever heard.  The aids are here to do a job, a great one – a job the rest of us weren’t up to the task to do. When I started coming to this place, over five years now, I understood very quickly that it’s not just work to them. They have an enviable level of human compassion and patience that most of us will never know – qualities that many family members and friends never develop because there was never a need to, or no one taught us how.

Edie is already in the dining room, sitting quietly at her table and facing the doorway, so she can see everyone that comes in. She has a bright red Christmas sweater on, her scapular necklace and her long white hair french braided to perfection. Her hands have started shaking now, making it hard to keep the food on her fork steady enough to make it up to her mouth. Eating on her own is one of the few independent functions she is still able to manage. When I first met her she could still walk, but for a few months now she’s been wheelchair bound, a natural progression when we’ve lost our ability to walk steady, and when we know a fall of any kind could mean the end of our life (more on “why” on a later post). She still converses and understands people, and always asks me about my son when I stop by her table to say hello. Panic and anxiety attacks have taken the best of her soul and who she once was, for twelve years now. Her mind is still there, but her body hasn’t followed. At seventy, she is dependent on everyone else for the simple everyday tasks we take for granted, from getting out of bed, to getting dressed, using the bathroom or brushing our teeth, as well as getting back into bed after a long, slow day at the nursing home.

The dining room is colorful and lively, always decorated to welcome whatever festivity is next on the calendar. One by one the residents settle in and take their usual spots, as the head nurse makes her rounds, leaving little pill cups at some of the tables for the mobile ones, or giving the medicine to others by scooping up some yogurt in a spoon, hiding the small pills inside, and feeding it to them. Edie takes her medicine cup, says thank you and smiles back at Sharon, the only real nurse in the facility – a strong Eastern European woman whose size and demeanor intimidates many, but who hides a knowledge of the elderly, and a level of compassion, that I’m secretly in awe of. (I used to think of her as Nurse Ratched, but have slowly changed my opinion of her over the years after seeing her engage residents in the most compassionate of ways.)

I’ve known Edie for over four years now.  Frank, her devoted husband, comes to see her after lunch every afternoon. I cross Frank in the dining room area when I visit my mom at lunchtime. As I leave to take my mom to brush her teeth, make sure her her diapers get changed and comb her hair, Frank is coming to take Edie to her room for a nap, where he’ll read to her their mail, a book or magazines to keep her informed about the world outside. But today is Christmas Eve and “Frank won’t be coming” she says with a sigh, “he doesn’t like driving in the dark anymore – so he’s having dinner with some friends from Church.” I hold her hand and smile, cringing inside for both of them and realizing at some point, this is what life comes to. I’m sad for Edie because no family member or close friend will share dinner with her on Christmas Eve; and for Frank, who probably wanted to be here with her and can’t because he didn’t feel safe to drive, too old and fragile to deal with a stranger in a taxi let alone take an Uber.

“Well, you know it’s raining quite a bit outside, and it’s pretty cold too so maybe it’s best that Frank isn’t out in this weather today” I tell her, trying to make her (and myself) feel better with small talk. “As usual Edie, you look very nice today. This red sweater is beautiful. Did Frank buy it for you?” I speak in clichés, I know, but in my heart I want to let her know I’m present right there with her, if only it’s for a few minutes.

Bill[1], a new resident, is sitting next to Edie at the table. He has these large beautiful blue eyes, and a great smile. Though he’s unshaven today, and looking a bit scruffy overall, his smile and the glow in his eyes tell me he’s ok and having a good day. He wears a red university sweatshirt and colorful Christmas pajama pants with bedtime slippers. I’m sporting a huge smile because smiles are contagious, and I’ve just picked up on his, which makes me smile right back. I tell him it’s nice to see him again and gently squeeze his shoulder. He nods in acknowledgement.  Bill is in his late 70s, also suffering from Alzheimer’s like my mom, but he’s in the initial stages, or so it seems. His wife, who I met the first week Bill moved in, is at home, nearby and will probably come in later today. She took care of him for as long as she was physically able to, and then it became too much for her to handle. It happens to all of us. You think you can do it all, and you “do it all” for a very long time (in my case my father did it all, and I helped when visiting them or from far away as a “long distance care giver”), until you can’t do it anymore. And it’s not that you don’t want to. And it’s not that you are exhausted (because you are, and it doesn’t matter anymore), but it comes down to realizing the person you love can be cared for better and will be safer in place with amenities and comforts you don’t have at home. That the one you love can and will be cared for by someone who has training, who you can hopefully learn from too. And you make that heart-wrenching decision and don’t look back, because it hurts too much to recognize and accept your physical and emotional shortcomings.

Mom and me hands

Mom and me holding hands.

My mom was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s when she was 58 years old. She will turn 71 this coming July. She has slowly entered the late stages of this disease that has little by little, over all these years, shut down her mind and her body, and the normal functions we should be able to perform. She is still able to walk at a slow pace, mostly unattended, but is unable to speak legibly and I don’t think she recognizes me or my sister anymore these days. She does seem to identify my father who visits her on a daily basis for lunch and who takes her walking outdoors everyday, so she can get some exercise and sun whenever possible. I try to see her at least once a week now that I live closer, but sometimes even that is hard to do, because of my own family’s needs, because of work , because of home remodeling projects – all, I feel, both justifiable and terrible excuses.

The menu for today is enchiladas with black beans and white rice, and it looks delicious. Celia, the chef, is a short unattractive little lady, who cooks like a goddess. My dad brings my mom in after a few walks around the building (since it’s raining outside, we take her for a walk all around the perimeter of the facility, which is shaped like a square and allows for endless walking – and ideal activity for certain stages of Dementia and Alzheimer’s when “wandering” becomes a pastime). My dad tells her it’s time to sit down, and then he slowly lowers her into her chair (it’s like handling dead weight, so you have to be sure where and how you’re going to sit her). Once she’s safely in place, sitting all the way into the chair, with her back against the backrest, he then pushes her in towards the table, positioning her at an angle where it will be easier to feed her (he likes to sit to the right of her). It’s also imperative that there be nothing immediately in front of her that she could grab and that could distract her from eating or fall to the floor. It takes about an hour to feed my mom these days, as her food has to be cut or shredded into tiny pieces.

The dining room tables are covered with a thick protective plastic, à la 70s decor, showing a lively flowery yellow tablecloth underneath. Miss Gloria, an older African American woman, sits to the left of my mom, at the same table. Her eyes are always half open and she is slightly bent over and wheelchair bound, with a burgundy shall draped over her legs to keep her warm. Today she is wearing a burgundy sweater with little sparkles and two very ornate bracelets. Her nails are done in the color of lilac, most likely by CJ, one of the activities aids on site. Miss Gloria is always quiet, but if you talk to her, she will answer and is completely coherent. Her food comes pureed, and she is able to eat on her own, albeit very slowly too.

Edison is here today helping out too. He is 17 and works part-time at the center after he gets out from school. The athletic son of one of the Jamaican coordinators, his manners, kindness and compassion amaze me for someone so young. “Can I offer you some wine, cider or juice tonight?” he asks me as he pours water into my mom’s glass. Edison is another person I’ve come to admire here. After he finishes getting drinks for everyone from a push cart, he will sit down at each table and start feeding the residents whose family members aren’t present and cannot eat on their own.

Jesús walks in, always well kept in his impeccable crisp blue scrubs, bringing the remaining residents from their bedrooms or the wanderers who refuse to settle down for lunch. Earlier I heard him peek into my mom’s room and tell María – her roommate – “María, vamos ya, es hora de almorzar. Por qué no me acompaña y vamos juntos?” (María, let’s go, it’s time for lunch. Why don’t you accompany me so we can go together?).


María looks out onto the traffic outside.

A few minutes later, he wheels María into the dining room, setting her at the table next to my mom’s where three other residents have already arrived. A lady that is bedbound who doesn’t move and needs to be fed, another woman who has recently arrived, and Clinton[2], a partially blind, very astute and witty black man, will share the table.

María’s children or grandchildren are not here today either– but her bedside table beams bright with two elaborate flower arrangements that take the place of a too busy family member.

(To be continued in Part 2).

[1] Sadly, Bill passed away suddenly after being at the nursing home for just a few months.

[2] My favorite (funny) memory of Clinton is of one day when one of the staff members came by his table and said to María in Spanish “María coma” (María eat) to which Clinton replied in his deep voice “What, María is in a coma?”. 😊


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That Log in the Path

Last year I took a walk down this amazing boardwalk in a little “secret area” called Mitchell’s Glen in Green Lake County, WI. This glen was a place local Native Americans would visit in the summer (back in the 1800s and earlier), to reach a beautiful spring and plants that only grow in the unique micro-climate that establishes itself here.

img_0538On that morning walk, we came across the trunk of this large white oak that had fallen, probably days before, right across the boardwalk. I got to know the person who built this boardwalk really well (and consider him a true and treasured friend.) I’ve learned the care he brings to his work, and his respect for all things living or dead, so that others can walk along this path and experience the creek, the glen and this little sacred space in nature.

But that fallen tree trunk, that log in our path that very vivid spring day, seemed to symbolize so much more… like…

  • The strength in Nature
  • The cycle of life
  • The obstacles in our (life) paths
  • That maybe removing the large obstacles in our way can take more than 1 person
  • That we never know when it’s our time to fall/go – nature will have its way
  • That sometimes we can just walk right over some obstacles to get to our destination, but the obstacle will still be there when we look back
  • That nature can be incredible, forceful, beautiful, sad, and destructive all at once
  • That we should take pause in our own glen and take it all in, seeing both obstacles and beauty at once, for what they are and for what they may not be.

That log in our path turned out to be anything but a log.

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These amazing colors were on display last week at the botanical gardens in Palos Verdes. Looking at that space (located within the Rose garden) I felt the only thing missing was me, my Argentine mate and a May Sarton book. #everythingisbetterinnature #solitude #solitudinen#botanicalgardensrule #botanicalgardens

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Nostalgia on the Fox River

A personal memory that just silently screams Nostalgia.

Although it looks like a Fall photo, I took this one in the Spring of 2015, a week or so after the last frost had melted. 


Cabin on the Fox River – Berlin, WI.

I often get told here in L.A. (not asked), the affirmation “You miss Wisconsin”. And yes, I do miss it, and all of it’s stunning landscapes.

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Winter’s Hope

In 2013, we found ourselves living in Green Lake, WI (for three years). It was an incredibly exciting opportunity and one that allowed us to truly experience nature and the seasons like no where else we had been before. First (true) winters are always exhilarating because the world opens up to you in ways you never knew existed. Your first sled ride down the hill, the first time you snow-shoe or cross-country ski, midnight walks on the frozen lake under a full moon, or seeing the winter architecture in the trees, all so very beautiful.

But winters can be harsh and long too, and in places like the northern states, by February you are longing for the green leaves to come back and you wonder how you’re going to keep it together during those short very cold days when by 4pm darkness has set in, and you still have the long evening ahead of you.

I learned a lot from our winters in Wisconsin, and keep those memories safe in a tiny place in my heart.   I wrote the following piece hoping to convey at least a little bit of sense of what it was like for me to be there.


img_6716The hope is, we make it through this winter, once again.

Away from loved ones and friends,

from the warm beaches of your Mediterranean Sea

and the wide sandy esplanades of my California Coast,

holding on to this small family of three we’ve created.


The hope is, we have enough white oak and black locust

to make it through this Green Lake winter,

that root vegetables stay dry in our cellar

and there are wool blankets a plenty.

That underneath the vast winter quilt outside,

our lifeless garden renews itself in silence,

preparing to become fertile again.


The hope is, we find each other once more,

with long, good conversations, like the ones we used to have,

and the comfort of knowing

if we’re together, we have everything we need.


The hope is, that amidst our snow covered souls

the sun will continue to shine every morning,

reminding us that spring is but a few months away.

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You Said Wait

Today I revisited a poem I wrote for a college poetry class, with Professor Gail Wronsky back in 1998. It had been a while since I had explored the theme of nature/love/abandonment. After revising some terms, I feel it flows better now.


Great Plains image courtesy of World Wildlife Fund

You Said Wait

You told me to wait for you,

until you came back from catching grasshoppers.

I gathered twigs, grasses, water and dirt,

and with mud

built our abode.

And I waited.


You told me to wait for you,

until you came back from scaring off the crows.

I gathered sticks, wild cotton and boughs of pine,

and with love and thought

made our bed.

And I waited.


You told me to wait for you,

until you came back from fighting away the bears.

I gathered wild berries, fresh water, honey,

and the morels you like so much

and stocked our reserves.

And I waited again.


But you never came.

And the food spoiled,

and the bed stayed empty,

and the abode collapsed.

Life passed by me,

and I grew old.

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The Birds and I – observations on an April morning

The morning was going to be a mellow one. It was nice to have a morning off (I’d been longing for one), not having to rush through breakfast, makeup and deciding what to wear. Before the husband left at daybreak, I asked him pull up the persiana[1] covering the large glass window-wall across from our bed. He rolled it up just high enough so I could have a straight look at the bird feeders on the terrace. The sun was already with us on this April morning in Salerno.

I stayed in bed, ruminating in my brain, trying to understand the anxiety left inside from a night of waking up and falling back asleep, and waking up again. Over the years I’ve discovered that the true issues that keep me up at night are usually financial ones.

How can I earn more money? Could I continue to ask for that promised raise (month after month)? How are we going to afford the move back to LA? Should we dip into our savings? Would it be right to do so? On one hand, we could label it “an investment in our future”. But was it? Was this the right time to make this decision about moving? Should we wait? Wait for what? My parents weren’t getting any younger, and my mom’s Alzheimer’s wasn’t going to slow down and wait for me to progress. It was one thought after another, after another, a roller-coaster of constant thinking.We didn’t have any problems right now, but I sensed they could come.

After C. left, I got up (seize the day?) and make myself a bowl of cereal with a cup of Italian cottage cheese called fiochi di latte[2].  All an attempt of loosing weight and continuing to eat healthy (and why do all diet plans have cottage cheese in them?). Although I had always found it distasteful, with age, I’ve gotten to like it more and more.  By adding a spoonful of organic honey, corn flakes and a tablespoon of wheat germ, now I had myself a psychologically satisfying breakfast (the wheat germ is in honor of my father who, when I was a teenager, insisted I always add it to my cereal.)

Before sorting through my desk, I picked up my binoculars and Birds of Europe guide in case any of the usuals decided to pay an early morning visit.

While I checked email, the first to show was a Great Tit – or a Blue Tit- and his partner or close friend. You’d think I’d know the difference, but I’m not that attentive of a birdwatcher yet. My family and friends think I know much about birds, but I really don’t. I know more than them perhaps, and I’ve been interested in the topic for a long time now, but that doesn’t really get you anywhere when you belong to an Audubon society. I’m a member of four clubs, two in the US (LA Audubon and Santa Monica Audubon) and 2 in Italy (Birdwatching-Gaiola and EBN Italia), but even so, I’m still an amateur birder. However, see me with my binos hanging from my neck, my bird guide under my arm and my camera, and I exuded birding experience. As the fabulous Eddie Izzard said, 70 percent is how you look, 20 percent how you say it, and 10 percent what you say.[3]

Back to the Great Tit (Parus major) that visits us. It’s hard distinguishing the female from the male, but they are both quite beautiful. They have this sort of black mask that begins at the top of their heads (officially called the “crown”) to right under the eye line, down their face to their beak, then chin, becoming narrow down their throat, forming a black line that descends down onto its chest.

One of our spring visitors, the Great tit

I observed them for a while, and all my admiration for their beauty went away in a second when I saw how the male (it must have been a male) would push the seeds away with his beak until he found the one he wanted. This meant that quite a bit of good seeds fell straight to the ground, explaining the mess I find each afternoon on the terrace when I come home (he goes for the black sunflower seeds – as the book said he would – probably because they are the most fatty). But why be so picky…? Ungrateful behavior can be found anywhere these days… even within the avian community.

There is quite a lot of work that goes into eating a seed for them. With strong resolve, GT (my nickname for him) chooses the seed he wants, then turns around, holds it between his feet and the edge of the bird-feeder, banging it relentlessly until the shell comes off and he is left with just the seed. I timed it and it took the little guy about 15 seconds to do it.

The daily visitors snacking on black sunflower seeds.

The tits are usually never alone. While they’re up in the feeder eating, the house sparrows are down on the ground getting whatever scrap falls their way. These common house sparrows are considered “resident birds”. Resident birds are low on the “excitement scale” to me (right after rock pigeons, seagulls and crows). And I have a feeling they know this – where they stand on the list – because of the way they carry themselves in this brown matte shades of theirs, as if with humbleness, trying to blend in like undeserving creatures. As most unfortunate creatures too, they seem to eat what they can find, and are not picky of seeds, crumbs, insects… they appear to be simply grateful that there is always something to snack on.

House sparrow (female) one of the “residents”.

By late morning, the last visitors were the quite sympathetic robins, who stopped to get a drink at the water fountain. Even in Italy, we can tell Spring is here because the robins have arrived. Here we have a cute pair that comes and goes, and even though the robin is not a resident, it keeps house around here for most of the year. Their face is round, with a kind gaze that makes you all warm inside. Their way of hopping around with their very skinny legs, their great big orange chest and the lack of a neck, gives them a funny appearance. You cannot not like a robin. You just like it. The male resembles your chubby uncle Charles, or your neighbor Bob. But since these are European Robins they’re probably more like a Carlo or Roberto. In any event, when they come here they also seem to be mellow visitors, less demanding than some other birds their size. The Princeton Field Guide nails it when it writes about their character calling them “wary, but by no means shy”.

And as noon rolled around and I got back to writing, the few visitors I had took off, looking for a place to hide from the sun. That was my queue that my time was up, and that I too needed to get up and get moving. I didn’t have seeds to shell, or places to hop and fly to, but a part of me wished I did. I would love to hang out with other birds my size one day and meet up with them at the water-cooler. That wouldn’t be a bad life.

[1] Shutters that roll up, typical of European and Latin American countries. Aka “Persian Blinds”.

[2] Literally translates to “flakes of milk’.

[3] “Dressed to Kill” – 1998

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