Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Last Outing

At a certain point, my mom ran out of things that she needed or wanted. Choosing gifts became difficult, until I remembered how much she loved music, and started getting concert tickets - something she'd never really treated herself to. I sent my parents to see lots of different shows - I even got them tickets to see Chris Rock in 2009. My dad thought he was a little vulgar. My mother absolutely loved him. My mother's favorite performer, though, and the person I sent her to see most often, was Johnny Mathis. She loved Johnny Mathis. His songs figure prominently in the soundtrack of my childhood. Because she loved him, I was raised to love him. I love him, still. I was happy to send Ma tickets to see Johnny any time he was in town because, as I've said, she'd never treat herself to something like that.

One day in early 2010...probably around March, Ma called me at work. This wasn't unusual. We spoke every day. On this day, though, I could tell there was something she wanted to talk about. After a few moments of beating around the bush she said, "Oh, look at that - you know who's coming to Tampa soon? Johnny Mathis. He's got shows here in April." So, that was it.

"Ma," I said, "I wish you'd said something sooner. I'm really broke, right now. You know I'd love to send you, but I can't swing it."

"Oh," she answered, "Don't be silly. I wasn't asking for tickets, I was just noticing that he's in town soon, is all. I've seen him so many times, already."

"No, seriously, Ma. I really am sorry. If you'd let me know a few weeks ago, I could have figured something out, but I'm flat busted, right now."

"Don't worry about it, and don't apologize. I don't want you running up debt. It's nothing. I'll catch him next time he's in town." she said.

When the conversation ended a few minutes later, I sat there, thinking about my mother, and all she meant to me. One of the reasons that she'd never treated herself to things like concerts when I was growing up was that she always put us children first. She never went to concerts or plays, but we always had books, clothing, food. She always managed to scrape together what we needed for school trips and book fairs - even during the leanest years. I got to thinking about all the crap I spent my money on - eating out, pay-per-view movies, magazines. Crap I didn't need.

Fuck it, I thought. Brown bag it for a month and buy those damned tickets.

I got on the phone and called the venue. The woman I talked to didn't sound very hopeful about my prospects, "Johnny Mathis always sells out fast here, you know...and this is just a month away. I'm afraid there aren't any good seats left."

"At this point, I'll take what I can get. If at all possible, I need a wheelchair-accessible seat, because my mother has a disability."

The woman's voice brightened up, "Oh, well, in that case, you're actually in luck. I do have one accessible set-up available. It's up high, but it's got a sweeping view: front row of the upper balcony, right in the center. No obstructions. And it's kept on reserve for wheelchair users, so this really is your mom's lucky day."

I ordered the tickets, and called Ma.

"Oh, Lana," she said, trying to hide the obvious pleasure in her voice, "You shouldn't have done that! It's really not a big deal, and I know you're low on cash."

I laughed, "Ma, you and I both know you mentioned the concert because you were hoping to go. And I've been trying to figure out what to get you for Mother's Day, anyhow, so consider it an early Mother's day gift. You and dad go, and have a great time, ok?"

Ma was in bad shape, and had been for a long time. Degenerative bone disease had made a wheelchair necessary. She lived with severe and chronic pain. 90% blockages of her arteries slowed her down in every way. End-stage renal failure made dialysis treatments the center of her life, and left her exhausted all the time. Chronic asthma made it difficult for her to breathe. Diabetic retinopathy had rendered her legally blind. Going out - other than for a simple drive or shopping trip, or to medical appointments - was just something she hadn't done in months.

To be honest, I forgot all about the concert, until I got home to a ringing phone one evening in April. I recognized my dad's cellphone number on the caller ID. I picked it up, in a panic. That number always scared me, because there was always the very real possibility that it was my dad with bad news about my mother. In fact, several times in the last three years, calls from that number had pretty much ALWAYS been bad news about my mother...calls to say that she'd tried to walk, and taken a bad fall. Calls to say that her speech was getting slurred, and that the doctors were sure she'd suffered a series of mini-strokes. Calls to say that I'd better book a flight and come out, because things were looking grim. During those years, I'd taken last-minute flights down several times after such phone calls, every time expecting to say goodbye. Every time, though, my mother had rallied, and made a remarkable recovery. Like that one time, when I flew to Tampa, and took a shuttle directly to the hospital, and set up camp on a recliner next to her hospital bed, where she lay suffering from infectious pneumonia. She was going to die, that's what they told us. The nurses brought me slippers, a pillow and blanket, and even a toothbrush and toothpaste, and let me move into the hospital room, so I could be there for her when she passed. She was so weak, so pale, but she was still herself. Her speech was labored, but her mind was as sharp as ever. We talked late into the night. When she got tired of talking, I set her up with my Ipod, so she could listen to the Chris Rock comedy album I'd downloaded for her. If she was going to leave, I wanted her to leave laughing. She lay there, listening and laughing, until we both fell asleep. In the morning, I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. She looked rosy. Her eyes looked so clear. She was wide awake and full of energy. She ate her breakfast with relish, and chatted away without struggling for air. An hour or two later, one of her doctors came in, talked to her, listened to her heart and lungs, peered at her chart, and said, "Your mother seems to be clear of infection and there's no water in her lungs. I had to come see for myself after the nurse alerted me, because I saw her just yesterday morning and, to be honest, I wasn't very hopeful for a recovery of any kind, let alone one so dramatic. I don't want to jump the gun, but, if she's still like this in 24 hrs, she can go home." And home she went. That was only one of many times that she got the best of the grim reaper.

But I digress. On this evening in April, when I got home to that phone call, I was relieved to hear my mother's joyous voice on the other end. She sounded so happy, and so full of energy. There was a lot of noise in the background, so she had to shout for me to hear her.

"It's intermission," she yelled, "We're having the greatest time! The seats you got us are incredible - front row of the balcony, right in the center. Even with my bad eyes, I can see everything on the screen, and Johnny sounds great - the best he's ever sounded! We're having such a great time, I just had to call and tell you."

My dad, who is usually a glass-half-empty guy, and who hadn't wanted to go to the concert, at all, got on the phone. He, too, was beaming. "I'm so glad I didn't get your sister to take Mommy, tonight. We're just having such a great time. Johnny sounds the best he ever has and, Lana, I can't remember the last time your mother looked so happy. It's been ages since she's gone out just for fun, and this is such a great show. Did she tell you how perfect our seats are? Have to run - intermission is ending!"

When they got home, hours later, Ma phoned me, again. "The boys looked so shocked when we got home," she said, "I don't think they remember the last time I got home so late, or so full of energy. I feel like my old self, again. Even your father had fun, and you know he never likes to admit he's having fun."

That was in April. Ma died on June 30th. The call for me to make last-minute travel plans to say goodbye were not in vain, this time. And, in fact, I didn't make it in time to say goodbye. She left us while I was somewhere in the air, trying to get there for one last laugh with her.  That's the way she wanted it, though. Nothing was left unsaid between us and, in fact, I spoke to her several times on the phone before my flight. The last thing I told her was that I loved her. But she knew that, anyway.

The day after my mother's struggle finally ended, I sat in the passenger seat of my dad's van. I felt battered. We'd just left the funeral parlor, where dad had left it to me to make whatever arrangements I thought my mother would have wanted. I knew exactly what she'd wanted, actually. It was one of the things we'd discussed that night in the hospital, two years before. As we drove away from the funeral parlor, the silence was deafening. My dad and I have never been anywhere near as close as my mother and I were.  We love one another, but there's always some awkwardness there. The silence made that awkwardness even more pronounced. Just as I was trying to think of something to say, he said, "The last time your mother really went out was to that Johnny Mathis concert. Remember, you got her tickets for Mother's Day? That was a perfect night. She was so happy, and had such a great time. We both did. We had fun together for the first time in years, and she didn't even seem sick, at all. I'm so glad you got her those tickets. I'm so glad that was her last outing, because I can't remember the last time I'd seen her so happy. She was her old self, again, for one whole night. I'll never forget it."

Happy Mother's Day, Ma.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The War On Women: Business as Usual

I keep reading about the war on women that's happening now in America. It's awful, what's happening - government trying to take control over women's health, sexuality, reproduction, and freedoms. I hate it. But it's nothing new.

I've written a lot about my maternal grandmother, Celina, but I've never written about Jovita, my father's mother. Jovita was as different from Celina as possible. While Celina was bright and witty and full of joy, Jovita was uneducated, somewhat shy, and she had very little humor. This isn't to say that she wasn't a good person: she was, and she treated me well. Her life, though, was full of pain and tragedy. One of her earliest memories was of her father being murdered on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A terrible thing for a child to live with, and, in many ways,  it set the tone of her life.

Jovita moved from Puerto Rico to NYC with her little boy - my father - in 1946. She was a single mother, when that was not an acceptable thing to be.  She made her son the center of her universe, and worked at whatever she could find, to keep him fed and clothed and healthy. Usually piecework at factories, or cleaning homes and offices.

In 1963, my parents met and married, and my mother became friendly with her mother-in-law. One day, when my mother mentioned that she needed to see her gynecologist, Jovita revealed that she'd never been to such a doctor and had, in fact, never had a gynecological exam. My mother was shocked. She advised Jovita that it really would be a good idea to have an exam, and to start having them annually. Jovita agreed to go to my mother's doctor, Dr. Seissman. A few days later, my mother took her mother-in-law to the gynecologist for her first exam. My grandmother would have been in her 60s.

My mother waited in the waiting room while Dr. Seissman performed the exam. A few minutes later, my mother was called in to translate. Jovita, you see, only spoke a few words of English. My mother entered the examination room and found my grandmother sitting up, looking confused, and Dr. Seissman looking equally bewildered.

"Carmen," she said, "please ask your mother-in-law when she had a radical hysterectomy, and why it was performed."

This was news to my mother. She'd never heard about Jovita having had such major surgery. She asked Dr. Seissman if she was sure of this.

"Yes," the doctor answered, "I'm absolutely sure. She has no uterus. Nothing, at all. And it looks to have been done quite a while back. I'd like to know why this was done - does she have a history of cancer?"

My mother asked Jovita about it, only to have Jovita reply that she didn't know what a hysterectomy was, and that she'd never been sick in any way.  My mother asked her about menopause, and Jovita answered that, a year or two after my father been born - when she was just 30 - all the woman in her neighborhood in San Juan had been ordered to a government clinic. She'd been seen by a doctor, and told that she'd need to have surgery. The reason for the surgery was never explained to her. Her permission was never asked for. She hadn't been sick. She'd been ordered, by doctors sent by the U.S. government, to have surgery. They were doctors. They were with the government. Of course she trusted their judgement. The next thing she knew, she was recovering from this mystery surgery that had left a large scar. The doctors told her not to climb stairs or lift anything heavy, and that she would be just fine. They hadn't told her anything else. They hadn't mentioned that her periods would stop, or that she'd never be able to have another child. They hadn't mentioned that they'd ripped her uterus out in a government-sanctioned effort to keep the women of Puerto Rico from breeding.

After her recovery, my grandmother noticed that her monthly period never returned.   She assumed her "change" had come early, and never connected this to the mystery surgery she'd been forced to undergo.She was just about 30 years old.

My father's mother was a simple woman. She never had the chance to go to school. She was a functional illiterate who could read and write her own name, and little else. She'd been raised to respect and fear authority. When a doctor, let alone a government doctor, told her she needed surgery, there was never any question about what would happen next.

What happened to Jovita was not an isolated incident. She was only one of thousands - possibly a million - women n Puerto Rico that this happened to.  It was part of a large-scale government eugenics program that continued in Puerto Rico well into the 1970s. It was part of the very war on women that seemed to be on hiatus for a while, but now seems to be back in full force.

I'm not writing about this to point out that this is just business as usual, and that there's no point trying to change it. I'm writing about this because it breaks my heart that my grandmother was victimized in this way, that her most basic rights were violated like this. I'm writing about this because it's 2012, and we're dangerously close to seeing this sort of thing happen AGAIN. Forcing a woman to be sterilized is no different than forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy that she doesn't want. They're both assaults on more than a woman's body, but on her personhood.

The people who say that the "war on women" is just a dramatic contrivance of the left are denying their own history. My mother made sure to tell us Jovita's story because we must make sure that story never be our story, too.  Hell, no.