Days of Reckoning – and Waiting

2014-11-07 10.52.21

Candy wheels around our mother

For a little over a week after the rapid decline of my mother and her friends’ concerns brought me to my mother’s, I was in a state of shock – it all felt so surreal – and I felt a desperate urgency. I was on the verge of tears much of the time and I felt depressed, especially in the mornings. But now Mom is relatively stable. Greatly diminished in capability, without much quality of life, but she’s not getting visibly, or at least quickly, worse. We have slowed down, at least for now, into a grueling day by day of uncertainty and trepidation. And a lot of sleeping.

November 6, 2014

“Oh, you’re up!” she says. Her speech is a mumble, and not much above a whisper. “Took you long enough. What time is it?”


“Oh, then you can go back to bed then.” She begins to sing. “You just called to say you love you.” A word was off and the tune was off. She sings it again.

“It’s ‘I just called to say I love you,’” I say. I sing it.

“That’s not the right tune,” she says. “It’s a country song.”

“It’s a Stevie Wonder song.”

She looks at me for a moment. “It’s a country song too. I think. Of course I can’t remember who it’s by.”

* * *

I’m on a client call but my ears prick up. Is my mother calling? Something doesn’t sound right. I open the bedroom door to see her vomiting into one of the blue bags we keep around. Meanwhile, my client wants to talk about his strategy for an interview with McKinsey & Co.

Afterward I come out to find that Mom’s old friend from Rangely, Linda Berry, has arrived to spend the day. Linda, who was a nurse for thirty years, is applying lotions to Mom’s back and straightening out the folds in her shirt to minimize bedsores.

Mom says to me, in her murmur, “Was Brianna here yesterday?”

I already dread answering her. Brianna is Mom’s granddaughter. She lives in Alabama.

“No,” I say. “She wasn’t here.”

Mom’s eyes fill up with tears.

“But you may have felt her here,” I say. “Or maybe you met her in a dream.”

“I’m losing it,” she says.

* * *


She is cold. I lay her featherbed on top of her blanket and lean down to add the heat of my body in an embrace.

“Do you need anything else, Mom?”

“What I want,” she says, her voice breaking, “I can’t have.”

I hesitate. Would it hurt to ask?

“What is it you want, Mom?”

“To get up,” she says, and now she is crying.

I lean down and cradle her head in my arms and put my face against hers. “I love you so much, Mom.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“For what, Mom?”

“Always on you,” she says.

* * *


Linda reminds Mom of some of their happy times. Going to the Sleepy Cat Ranch near Meeker for a fine dinner where “we were treated like ladies. So nice to live in Rangely and be treated like a lady.” And did we remember the time both women and their kids went up Dragon Road, above Rangely, to try to cut down a Christmas tree with an axe whose head fell off after every swing? Or the night, very late, when Mom had diarrhea and had run out of toilet paper, and neither one of them had enough gas in their cars to do any more than drive to work the next day, so they both set out walking and met halfway so Linda could hand my mother a roll of toilet paper.

“It was always amazing to me how she could just toss together such a wonderful meal,” Linda says. “It would take me all day and still wouldn’t be as good.”

They were both in Montrose together from 1987, when Mom arrived from Steamboat Springs four years after Linda, to 2002, when Linda moved back to Rangely.  After Mom’s divorce in the late 1990s, and before I bought her the house she now lives in, she bought a trailer.  “She bought that little trailer and she put it on a credit card, until a week later when she got a bank loan,” Linda says. “She always found a way. She was just so . . . and she still does, up to this very latest when she can’t do her own stuff. Very independent.”

This morning Mom’s abdomen was in great pain and she wanted to take a bath. I told her I had a coaching call and wouldn’t be able to help her out of the tub. She said, “I can get out. Independence is so important. Just being able to move a finger on my own.” She demonstrated the finger movement.

* * *


How did humans endure the end-stage ravages of cancer without painkillers? They must have been in such terrible pain that they’d just ask someone to kill them with a rock.

* * *


Where are all the men? It’s fascinating. Compassion, caretaking, and leave-taking must be women’s work.

Another day in which my depression is at bay. I wonder if my depression was being caused by my resistance, as well as the suddenness of it all, and whether now I have inevitably become more accepting of something that is no longer new, and that shows no signs of reversing itself.

* * *

I read about a study.  “Mass General study demonstrated the value of palliative care. Two groups of stage 4 lung cancer patients were given the standard oncology treatment, but one had a series of conversations with a palliative care specialist. The latter group chose fewer days in hospital, stopped chemotherapy sooner, went in hospice earlier and suffered less. They also lived 25 percent longer.”

* * *


At about 1:30, Mom asks for salad. Adam doesn’t think we should give her salad. Adam and I take forever to go out and buy it and prepare it, but when she puts the first forkful in her mouth, a smile spreads across her groggy features and she gives a thumbs-up.

The hospice nurse just can’t believe Mom is eating salad. She’d told her yesterday that she should have only clear broth until she hasn’t vomited for 24 hours. Salad is too rough, too hard to digest!  The nurse also tells Adam and me about the restlessness shown by people shortly before they die – lots of wants and needs, nothing satisfies. She says that’s the stage before the “transition” phase, wherein the patient comes to accept the reality of dying.  I feel my attention wandering away from the topic.

“But she’s not ready for that,” the nurse says. “Some people go quietly, and some fight tooth and nail. That’s your mother. She’s angry. She’s really pissed off. I would be too. So maybe she won’t be able to go with acceptance, maybe she will.”

It makes me indescribably sad to imagine Mom passing away while sad, angry, or afraid, rather than at peace. As I think about it, I realize I always assumed she would accept death before it comes. I pictured her patting my face, a weak smile on her own, and telling me it was all right, it was all going to be right.

* * *


I lean in to hug Mom.

“I haven’t seen you all day,” she murmurs. (Of course she has).  “Come here.”

We hug like that for a while. I pull away for a moment. “I’m so sorry this has all happened so fast. It must be very disorienting.”

She nods. “I’m not sure where to go from here.”

* * *


Mom says, “I keep thinking they’re going to tell me what to do. I think I’m being taken away.”

“By who, Mom?”

“Like kidnapping,” she says.

Oh my. Is this the confusion stage, which comes not long before death, or is this medication?

“I’m always asking where you are,” she says. “’Where’s Chris?” she said, using my old, and middle, name. “Where is he? I want to know where you are.”

* * *


“I know more about nutrition,” Mom says, defiantly, as some of us talk about what the hospice nurse said. Meanwhile, Linda says she learned long ago to give the patient what she wants.

* * *


She’s more groggy than usual, even less coherent or alert. I think she’s sleeping more, too. Whatever the cause, she sometimes asks childlike or confused questions, or makes non sequiturs. Again I wonder if this is the confusion phase, or she’s just medicated. But she’s no more medicated than in the past. She’s certainly not pressing her pain pump more, because we track that. Maybe it’s the confusion. ☹

* * *


Her eyes open. “Should I go to my bed now?”

“Sure, if you want to. Do you want to go now?”

She nods. Adam and I take all her things into the room, and then we support her weight as she sort of walks to her bed. She gets in and I begin to throw Oma’s wool blanket over her top sheet.

“I’m sad,” she says.

I pause and look at her. “I’m sad, too, Mom.” I climb up and hold onto her. “What are you sad about?”

She says something vague that I’ve forgotten.  Then she says something about money with X’s on it.

“Maybe that’s why I’m agitated,” she murmurs.

“Why, Mom?”

“Because I need to get to the money.”

* * *


“Do we have enough money for the cab?” she asks. It is as if she is relaying the content of her dreams in real-time.

Eyes closed, she lifts her left hand and wiggles it.

I say, “Plenty of money, Mom.”

She nods, satisfied.

* * *


She seems to be in more pain, and we press the button on the bolus more often. Somehow she has kept down the salad she ate.

She picks up the vaporizer pen in one hand and a lighter in the other. She seems on the verge of trying to light the pen, as if it were her glass pipe, when I take the lighter out of her hand. Another time, she seemed unsure which end of the glass pipe to put to her mouth.

She is confused. She is irritable – is that similar to being agitated? The hospice books say that confusion and agitation happen when the patient has one to two weeks to live.

* * *


Adam picked up Candy at the airport. I was on a conference call with my team at Physician Cognition.  Adam told me that when Candy went into the bedroom, he could tell that Mom knew who it was before she opened her eyes. Then she opened her eyes and they touched one another’s faces. I had wanted to be there to see them see one another again.

Candy says to me, “This doesn’t seem real.”

* * *


November 7, 2014

“It’s so surreal,” Mom says, “that we’re sitting here talking about death and dying.”

“It is surreal, Mom.  That’s exactly what it is.”

She begins to weep. It hurts me to see this kind of pain, such bald-faced fear and disorientation. I hold her head against my chest. “I know it’s all been so sudden, Mom. It’s happened very fast.” She presses her head against me. “But you’ve been so brave, and you’ve touched and inspired so many people.”

I think of one of my favorite pictures of her. It’s in brown and white. She is wearing a skirt, and she’s on a scooter. In this picture she always looked to me a little like Anne Frank – her age, her face, her hair, the optimism of her smile, her boundless humanity. Her hands are on the steering column of the scooter. She’s leaning forward, standing on one leg with the other pointed straight behind her. On her face a beatific expression, evidence of the capacity for joy so rare in the rest of her family. “What a life,” I say, “for that little girl from Erlangen.”

“I was always on the move,” she says, waving her hand slowly. “Couldn’t sit still.”

* * *


At other times she is still not coherent. There are the non sequiturs, the questions she knows the answer to. When we don’t hear her, and we say so, she is irritated and repeats herself, or shakes her head, with annoyance. In other words, the sort of thing I would do.

* * *


She wants to go out for a walk, so we three bundle her up and I carry her to her

Candy and Mom

Candy and Mom

wheelchair out front. We go to Main Street but she is cold and wants to go left for one block and then back home. She could already taste some hot tea. I did take some pictures of my mother and sister that I’m very fond of.

* * *

It broke my heart to see her just sob with the pain from her bedsore. Candy was already sitting on the bed near her. I once again cradled my mother’s head in my arms and told her how sorry I was, and how courageous she was. But then I found one of those donuts that air travelers put around their necks to help them sleep. I fitted it under her, with the open side pointing behind her, so that her tailbone area was suspended. She felt instantly better.

* * *


I find that I still don’t have bottomless reservoirs of patience with her, but I do have nearly continual compassion for her. I attend to her quickly, I coo and call her sweetheart, I hug her and kiss her and comfort her. I’m always asking if she needs anything. I move with alacrity, just as I once admired my friend Julio doing, seemingly for everyone he met on the Camino de Santiago. I have probably done more of all this for my mother in the last eleven days than in all the rest of my life with her combined. I feel a little badly about that.

I wish Candy could stay here to go through this with me, with Mom, with us. With the original tiny family that was put asunder when I was thirteen, and my sister was taken away from me. We have never lived in the same house or even city since then. But she would forfeit her job if she stayed any longer. Forty hours is all we have.

* * *


Candy texts me to say she’s at WalMart. She’s looking for something for Mom, she says, maybe flowers or something that smells nice. I feel so helpless, she says, and she is so negative I was trying something positive. I wrote her back:

Yes, she’s in the irritability phase. Also all this anger and grief that she’s dying is combined with her own personality to make for some complaint. For all we know, she may also be suffering from severe depression. A lot of the symptoms are certainly the same.

To this Candy sent a frown-face icon.

I talked to Mom about metaphysics, about what I’d read and what I’d experienced and heard others experience. Beings of pure love was one that stuck out in my mind. I said we would both go to be with them, to be in their embrace of pure love and acceptance, the thing we’ve always craved most. She seconded that, saying it was hard to find. I recorded it on my phone’s voice recorder.

* * *

1:54p.m. She’s very negative right now. Everything has a tinge of annoyance – of anger, perhaps. She worries about details like repairs around the house and complains of them not being done sooner, and is anxious for them to be done soon. She worries about money. “What will it cost?” she says, when she hears that my Land Rover’s back door doesn’t close properly.

* * *


“Last time you were here, you weren’t here,” Mom says to Candy, sadly.

Unfortunately, Candy disputes this, and now Mom is both sick and not feeling heard.

“We didn’t talk about essentials,” Mom murmurs. That’s true, but Candy again resists.

“You might want to give some on this, Candy,” I say. “Mom did ask you guys several times to look through photo albums with her and nobody did, and she said even at the time that everyone was always on their phone. So it’s valid, even if it’s not a serious crime.”

But her anger, the bitterness, the sadness is hard to hear. It’s hard for me to feel. Silke says, “I can totally understand her. She tried her best and did so many difficult things and she hoped it would be enough. But it wasn’t.”

Yes. I think Mom feels cheated, betrayed by hope. To stay alive for so long, she had to have outsized, even unrealistic expectations about living, and very little thought of dying. “I know this is a surprise,” I’d told her earlier. “It really surprised us. And I know that’s scary.”

* * *

The hospice nurse arrives. Suzanne. Candy is also sitting on the couch. Suzanne examines the pain medication pump that Mom drags with her everywhere.

“She’s used twice as much medication in the last twenty-four hours,” says Suzanne.

Not long afterward, Mom begins to cry. I go to her and hold her. I am crying too, for the first time in a day or two. She looks at me and looks into my eyes. I look at her and want her to see only love.

“Did you hear that?” she says. “It’s double.”

“Is that why you’re crying, Mom?”

“It means,” she says, “I’m going to die sooner.” She weeps.

* * *


Mom says she thinks her unsteadiness could be due to her medication. Suzanne disputes that, gently but firmly. “It’s not your medication, Inge.”

“Well we don’t know what the problem is,” she says.

“Mom,” I say, “we know that the cancer is spreading in your body. It’s getting into organs and pressing against nerves, and it’s causing such pain in you that you have to take pain medication constantly. It’s making you vomit when you eat most food.”

Suzanne says, “Inge, I know you’re angry, and I get why. I do.”

“No, I’m not angry,” Mom says, and in a fairly typical Momism, she adds, “Sometimes I’m just pissed off” – she takes a breath, and then tears fill her eyes – “because I did everything right.”

Ah, there it is. I fight back tears to see such vulnerability and pain, such crushing disappointment.

“You sure did,” we all say. “You worked and tried hard. You did everything right.”

“I just need to take some time with this,” Mom says, her voice small. “Everybody is telling me what’s going to happen but I need to feel inside myself and see for myself.”

She cries for some time, on the way to the bathroom, and on the way back, once she gets into bed.

“You leaving doesn’t sound good, either,” Mom says to Candy.

“I know, Mom,” Candy says. “It doesn’t sound good to me either.”

* * *


Suzanne tells Mom she’s leaving, Mom smiles warmly and thanks her. Suzanne kisses her on the head.  “I know you don’t want to hear it,” Suzanne says, “but you just need to relax. If you keep being angry and fighting it, it’s going to shorten your life.”

“I didn’t have a lot of time to adjust,” Mom says.

“No you didn’t, but, whatcha gonna do now? You just need to relax, sweetie. Find your way into this new place.”

* * *


“Our world doesn’t exist without our mom in it,” Suzanne is telling Candy. She’s on her way out the door. She had told me the same thing a few days ago. She encouraged me to seek out support or talk to their counselor.

Today was a day of reckoning.

I’ve pushed out of my head any notion of the grieving I will do afterward. To think of that, on top of everything else, would be too much. I know I can only imagine the pain I will feel from the loss of my mother, from the suffering she endured, from my remaining guilt.  But one day at a time.

Mom's young friend Gregory gave this to Mom a few years ago

Mom’s young friend Gregory gave this to Mom a few years ago

The End of Suffering vs. The Will to Live

November 4, 2014

Mom and Adam in the kitchen store

Mom and Adam in the kitchen store

Mom reached for her lamp in the night and fell out of bed. It was a little after 4am. Adam heard her calling and helped her back to bed. He recorded a half milligram of Ativan and an unusual three pumps from her pain meds.

When I go into her room at 8a.m., she says, “I’m feeling a lot of pain from my leg. And I’m dizzy.”

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

* * *

She is irritable this morning. I hear her tone of complaint. It’s always been hard on me.

* * *


“I should get outside today,” she says, “don’t you think?”

“Sure, if you want to, Mom.”

“I need to take better care of myself.”

“You’re doing the best you can.”

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

* * *


She wants to call her bank because she has been convinced that she paid a doctor’s bill that she keeps getting in the mail.

“They’re probably not open till 9,” I say.

She looks at me. “It’s not 9 yet? This has been a long day.”

* * *


“She shouldn’t leave today,” Mom said, breaking into tears. She’s talking about Muschi. “But I know she has to watch her grandkids.”

Muschi brings mom fried potatoes and eggs. Mom begins to eat, and then to cry. She pushes the food around on her plate. I reach out to clasp her shoulder.

“I can’t do this all day.”

“Do what, Mom?”

“Watch her leave.” She looks at Muschi. “We’ve both been through this many times. We know how this goes.”

“Every time I’ve said goodbye to you,” Muschi says, “I’ve seen you again, and this time is no different, honey.”

* * *


I suggest that Mom turn over on her side, so as not to put stress on her bedsore.

“Which way?” she says. She speaks slowly, and a bit thickly, like a child just awakened.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. She begins to roll to her right side, groaning a bit as she does so.
“You can put a pillow behind her,” the hospice nurse says.

Mom turns her head toward me. “You stay here,” she says.

“I’ll just be your bolster,” I say. I climb onto the bed and support her back with my body. The hospice nurse is delighted. My right arm goes under the stack of pillows and my left rests on Mom’s arm. She dozes. I work on being present. Mostly asleep, she says something about a fairytale. “A fairytale, Mom?”

“He dies in the end,” she says.

We all die in the end, I think.

She is so fragile. So scared. I cannot but weep unobtrusively.

In the living room later, Adam surprises me by opening his arms. “Come here,” he says.
The instant we embrace my body begins to shake, and for the first time in my life I cry on a man’s shoulder, and his hug just goes on.  His eyes are wet.

I sometimes find myself wondering how I will manage during the period after her passing. Will I be able to work? I think I will just leave the house empty until spring, no renters, and then sell it. The work that needs to be done on it overwhelms me.

* * *


“I love you, son,” Mom says.

“I love you too, Mom.”

“More and more,” she says. “Not less and less.” She is silent for a moment. “Amazing how that happens.”

* * *


In the late morning, Adam and I look into flights, prices, and frequent flyer miles to get my sister, who lives in Alabama, back to Colorado.

Adam and Muschi hatch the idea of bringing in a proper hospital bed, one with air sacs that are supposed to alleviate her bedsore. It is delivered just before noon. Mom’s German friends Monika and Inge come as well, and talk to Mom. We have the bed installed in the living room – with a couch on either side for visitors, and the TV straight ahead so Mom can watch her German TV shows. The air pump that circulates air through the sacs is quite loud. I take it off the metal bedframe and sandwich it between two pillows, where it can barely be heard.

* * *


At around noon Muschi goes into Mom’s room to say goodbye. “I will see you soon,” she says. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Mom says, groggily.

“I love you so much,” Muschi says. She caresses Mom’s face and hair.

“Just go,” Mom says, not unkindly. She always preferred just to be dropped off at the airport curb, to avoid all the long goodbyes and drama that go with accompanying a traveler inside.

They say goodbye again, these two women who have been best friends since 1948, and who came to the United States at almost the same time, and Muschi departs.

* * *

My good friend Tedd writes me from D.C.:

i send you a big hug. cried again when i saw your mom’s pic with you. it’s so hard cam, i am really sorry you and your family are going through this. always your brother, tedd

So many people have written so many nice things, some by email, some on Facebook, and some in the comments on the blog.

* * *

Mom’s legs bear some weight today, but she still began crying as we came back from the bathroom. “I can’t even be dignified,” she said. She is now in her hospital bed, which we’ve put in the middle of the living room.

“You’re plenty dignified, Mom. Courage and grace personified.”

She gave me a skeptical look.

* * *

She is upset that Pumpkin doesn’t come to her as before. I know her well enough to suspect that she is wondering if Pumpkin senses something changed in her. What she says is, “It’s too much change.” She pets him and cries more than I have seen her cry.
“I’m just having a little falling apart,” she says.

“Don’t you worry about that, Mom. You have every right. I’m surprised you’ve not done it more.”

Somehow, my nephew Dylan materializes. He hasn’t contacted Mom since he moved out of her house about four months ago. She hears his voice as he comes in the back door. “I’m not ready for this,” she says. But he is here. She hears his tales of financial and legal woes and I catch what I think is impatience. He does kiss her on the head and tell her he loves her as he leaves to go to his second job.

But before he leaves, Mom says, “I don’t know how to do this. This has been such a horrible day. Muschi left. I can’t walk . . . I just want to go to sleep.”

Did she literally mean to sleep? Or something more final? “Whenever you want to do that,” I said, in either case, “you just go ahead.”

Not long after, she asks for another Ativan, sooner than usual, because she literally wants to sleep.

* * *

In the mid-afternoon, Mom has a hankering, she says, for steak and broccoli and zucchini. Adam goes out to buy these things and then prepares them. As a cook, Adam is very enthusiastic. The meat, though expensive, turns out not to be very good – not Adam’s fault – and I’m still hungry.

“I’ll fix you something,” Mom says.

“You’ll what?” Mom hasn’t been able to stand up to cook in the kitchen for over a week now. Cooking is one of the many basic pleasures she’s been denied.

“Help me up,” she says.

So we actually shuffle into the kitchen together, and Mom goes to the refrigerator, bends down to rummage around, finds chicory roots and yogurt, and somehow stands up long enough to slice up the chicory — and make a chicory salad with curry, olive oil, and garlic. I’ve had this before from her, with sour cream in place of yogurt, and it’s surprisingly good. The soundtrack to “Rocky” may as well have been playing in the background. To sit up, to get out of bed, to shuffle and stagger to the kitchen, to bend down and push and lift, to stand and wobble and cut and pound, to stretch toward a high shelf and carry, to stir, to shuffle and stagger back to bed, to get into the bed without much use of legs – she may as well have been competing in a decathlon. If her goal was to rage, rage against the dying of the light and do what she loved, she succeeded.

* * *

I know she has a lot of life left in her because she can still annoy me.

This reminds me of a Facebook comment by my sister-in-law Jannilynn’s mother, Linda. When Linda visited a week ago, she spent a good deal of time massaging my mother’s feet. In her comment, she said that she could tell from touching my mother that it wasn’t yet time.

November 5, 2014

I was wearing my ear buds last night, watching TV on my laptop, and didn’t hear Mom calling for me. Note to self. Adam eventually heard her, and helped her to the bathroom and back. We were both up again in the middle of the night with her, and as I was stirring in the morning I heard her hiccupping – three or four times, five or six hiccups each. And sure enough, she then started to vomit. Adam was holding the bag when I came out to help. She cried. When she was done she felt dirty, wanted all the sheets cleaned, wanted to brush her teeth and use mouthwash, wanted a bath.

“I feel like I’m walking into this strange place and I don’t know what’s going on or what to do. And I’m doing it all alone.” She wept.

* * *

Getting to the bath, and into the bath, and out of the bath, and dressed, and back into bed, was a trial.  She seemed in constant pain, and it took great effort to move in small ways.  “I just wish I could go to sleep.”

I wasn’t sure I heard her. “What, Mom?”

“I wish I could go to sleep. If it must happen, I wish it wouldn’t be prolonged. I just want to go to sleep.”

So maybe that’s what she had meant yesterday, when she said she just wanted to go to sleep.

“I know, Mom.”

As she was getting back in her hospital bed she said to me, crying again, “I don’t want to do this.”

“I know, Mom.”

She curled into a fetal position and wept quietly. Tears ran down her face. There is nothing harder to watch. I leaned over the bed railing and hugged her.

“When’s the last time we clicked my pump?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter, you can do it whenever you want.”

“Click it again,” she said. “I don’t want to feel anything. I don’t want to feel mad, sad, glad, nothing. I just want to be nothing.” I pressed the delivery button on the pump’s bolus. She had already used her glass pipe after her vomiting. Now I offered her my vaporizer. The marijuana would reduce her anxiety, and help her to sleep, and even help to prevent further nausea.

She had just taken a few draws on the vaporizer when Rob came by. Rob is Mom’s neighbor, the one who rolls the joints, and takes out her trash, and drops by to check on her.

As he walked into the living room his eyes took in her hospital bed. “Wow,” he said. I sort of hoped he wouldn’t do that. “You’ve got your own hospital bed and everything. Not doing too well?”

“Not worth a crap,” she said. “You’ve sure been gone a long time,” she said.

“My back has just been killing me,” he said. Rob had recently had back surgery. “I thought I had problems walking,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Light one up,” she said. “Let’s share one.”

So they did. Adam, who had begun to nap in Mom’s room before coming out to meet Rob, went back to sleep.

“It may have been a dream,” Mom said, “but I dreamt I was in a tub of pot water.” In a sort of fog now, she asked if there were any good movies out on Netflix or RedBox or at Hastings Books and Video. “I want to see a good movie,” she said. “Not weird, not heads chopped off, not muscles growing out of weird places.”

After Rob said goodbye she lay back and closed her eyes.

To sleep, perchance to dream.

* * *

In an email a few days ago, Julio had said he hoped I would soon share good news. I told him I wasn’t able to do that. He wrote back this morning.

Amigo Cameron
My spanish , my pseudoenglish aren´t good enough to express feelings
Only one thing i can tell you, Courage !
The fact that things like that happens, makes my “ faith “ collapse…
I insist, Courage !

Mom awoke from her nap and turned on the TV, she said, to get her mind off things. I was putting on my shoes to hang out the wash when she said, from her hospital bed, “I didn’t know I would be so incapacitated. I thought I could do stuff. Slowly, carefully, but I thought we would still be able to do stuff. Now I don’t even know where I am.”

* * *

7:52p.m. Mom is sleeping. She is losing the use of her legs, and feels pain in them. That may be due to the retroperitoneal tumor pressing against her spine and other nerves. I think a doctor told us this could happen. She is on constant pain drip, and must take Ativan around the clock to avoid vomiting. And today she vomited in spite of the Ativan. As it has been for over a week, the vomit was greenish bile.  The hospice nurse says that may just be her liver giving up, and she may be switching to liquids-only pretty soon.

Yesterday and today Mom said what was previously unthinkable: that she just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.

Her desire to end her suffering is finally starting to outweigh her will to live. And that is becoming my feeling as well, but more slowly. Because I’m not the one suffering, I can’t know how to properly weigh the pros of the longer life with the cons of the terrible psychological and physical suffering that life requires.

But I do know that the more time I spend fearing the end, the less time I’ll be spending with my mother.

* * *

At 8p.m. I walked into her room. “Mom,” I said. “Mom. I need you to take your Ativan.” She did not open her eyes. She just opened her mouth. I put the pill in her mouth and still without opening her eyes she drank water from the bottle I held to her lips. A few moments later, she groaned. “What is it, Mom? What hurts?”

“My butt,” she mumbled, meaning the bedsore.

Nothing to be done about that. I had already applied a marijuana and coconut salve. She whimpered again. I stood there for a moment, watching her, and then walked around the bed. I got up on it and put my head against hers.

Look at her hands, crossed over her abdomen. Inscribe them on your memory. They are thin now, fingers slender, the left one looks older, in this light, than the right one, which looks smooth. My right hand lies atop hers. These are the hands that have lovingly made me many a meal. They’ve caressed me and patted me on the shoulder or the side of my head. I take in her clavicle and collarbone, more prominent now, but familiar, a part of her I must have seen thousands of times without registering what they looked like.

I start writing in my head, and then I think about the fact that I’m writing in my head rather than being present with my mother, and then I’m reminded of Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, relaying the story of how her Zen master had told her, “Zen or writing. You can pick only one.” Which affirmed for me that writing is a form of meditation.

Pay attention. Be here now. See and hear her breathing.

I then began thinking again, this time about the two little books hospice had evidently decided it was time to bring and casually leave lying around. The books listed the symptoms that tell you someone is likely to die in one to three months, and when they’re days to weeks away, and when they’re hours to days away. Specific changes in breathing that I didn’t commit to memory apparently happen near and at the end.

She’s still breathing.Mom and Leaves

Missing Her Already

Mom enjoying the beauty in Ouray about a month ago

Mom enjoys the beauty in Ouray from her new wheelchair, jus a month ago

Adam arrived on Tuesday night. It’s good news:  he sleeps irregularly, so he’s often up in the middle of the night — just like Mom. He makes her coffee and breakfast and keeps her company before I’m even up.

On Wednesday morning there is an email from Julio, one of our companions on the Camino de Santiago. He must have read the blog post in the email he is responding to, but he cannot bring himself to mention it. He writes:

Inge , you look nice in the pic, i think last time i saw you, you were looking with less weight …
You still my heroine, my amazon, always struggling to survive and always nice smile. Olé …

She takes Ativan, otherwise known as Lorazepam. The label says it’s for anxiety, but the main benefit is to prevent nausea. The downside? It makes her very sleepy. She is usually sleeping, and when she is awake she is nearly still asleep. Her speech is slower, her cognition slower, her laugh also slowed-down. She is no longer alert. She makes a few jokes, but she isn’t talking about food and cooking, not watching TV, not making much conversation – even the kind that used to annoy me. Our shopping together, even with her in an electric cart, has stopped.

I judge myself for thoughts of missing my mother: am I being sentimental? Maudlin? But the thoughts continue: I miss my mom. She’s still here, but I miss her.

Mom groans and stirs on the couch.

“What is it?” I ask.

“I need something for my lung,” she says, reaching a hand around her right flank.

“It hurts?”

She nods.

Later, she begins hiccuping again. She has done this for a few months now.

“Something you ate?” Adam asks, tenderly.

“No,” she says.

No, I think, something that’s eating her.

And then she sleeps, and sleeps, head back, mouth partially open. Her face has lost its fat, and her skin hangs in some places and is taut in others.

My heart is breaking. My mother is still alive, and yet my heart is already breaking.

In the evening I heat up some drunken noodles, but before eating anything I stop in the doorway of her bedroom and watch her sleep. Her head is back, her mouth open. She reminds me of Oma, at the end. I go into her room and see her eyes open slightly. “Do you want the light off?” I ask. She nods or murmurs and I turn off the light. I bend down and kiss her on the head and hug her and put my head and face against hers. She says something I can’t hear. I tell her goodnight and she repeats herself so I can make it out: she wants me to lie in the bed for a while.

I go around the bed and crawl in. I had wanted to do something like this, but she was usually on her couch when she was awake. Now it doesn’t seem to make any difference if she is sleeping. She turns on her side and I lie next to her with my arm draped lightly over her side. My face is pressed up against the cloth of her pajamas at the neck and her hair. Every now and then, our breathing follows the same rhythm. I smell the scent of her hair and pajamas. She is so frail. My eyes leak water. I feel tears from my right eye drip across the bridge of my nose, down the other side, and around the left side of my mouth. I feel them wet her short, grey hair. I lie there, thinking of stopping time. Of making this moment go on forever.

Will my mother be here in a week?

After perhaps 20 minutes, maybe 30, I am hungry and want to return to my now-cold drunken noodles. I begin to extricate myself but she turns and puts her right arm across my chest and around the right side of my head. The fingers of my right hand clasp her upper arm. “You my sonny boy?” she murmurs. “My sonny boy.”

“Always,” I say, in a fierce whisper.

I try to be present, try to soak it up. Will I remember this? Let me build a memory. I feel her breathing. I feel her hand, lightly clasping mine on her stomach. I see the light coming through her open door from the living room. I can’t believe I am even here. I am so sad, so afraid.

I love her so very much.

Starting the Camino de Santiago, September 2011

Mom and I starting the Camino de Santiago, September 2011, with Don Julio Redondo of Bilbao, left

True History of the Camino de Santiago

Mom’s new favorite book, featuring Mom and Julio

Days on the Camino, What I Miss (Part II), and a Secret to Happiness

Typical Second Breakfast, greatest time of day ever

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and probably what I have missed most upon my re-entry into the so-called Real World are two keys of the good life:  the simplicity of my days unfolding one day at a time, and a clear sense of purpose.  We are meaning-seeking creatures, and we don’t live by bread alone. We also live by purpose, which is another way of saying meaning.

It had been a long time since my mind was not continually gnawing over the future (or, just as unhappily, the past), but that is how I lived for a month while in Spain.  On the Camino, my mind was rarely occupied by anything farther into the future, or more complicated, than the next meal (prepared by others) and rest break (I was able to handle these on my own).  I had a very clear sense of what I was doing, and why, and I looked forward to each unfolding stage of it.

Days on the Camino

When I woke up in the mornings on the Camino, I didn’t have to sort through options about what to do – one of many types of decision-making tasks that researchers tell us are mentally and physically exhausting.  I also didn’t have to wonder what would happen that day.  I thought, if anything, about First Breakfast.

A croissant or drinkable yogurt, coffee, perhaps jam, fruit.

After First Breakfast, we would begin walking.  Where?  Easy:  just follow the yellow arrows.  As we walked, I would begin slowly to entertain fantasies about Second Breakfast.  The food was often similar to First Breakfast, or at least there was more of it (once, at 9:15a.m. I ate an entire medium pizza).  And about two hours after Second Breakfast, I was pining for First Lunch.  It sounds like a dog’s life, no?  Or a child’s.  This simplicity and living in the moment is part of what Jesus, a famous lover of food and drink and the common table, meant when he exhorted us to be like children.

Marie Anne's wonderful First Dinner in Cizur Menor. Me, Julio, Marie Anne, Carrie

During some of these walking breaks and even while walking, I would whip out my (paper) notebook and take notes, or, if we were in a café or near a boulder with good seating, I might even open my MacBook Air and start writing up notes (one of the reasons I chose my Air was that its Flash drive makes it turn on as fast as a paper notebook, or a cell phone – I just open it up and start using it – with none of the endless waiting and wailing and churning of Windows or of computers with hard drives).

Almost always after my shower in the early afternoon, I would lie on my back on whichever of the 30 beds I slept in while in France, Spain, and Portugal, my MacBook Air on my thighs, the purring of other pilgrims napping all around me, and I would begin transcribing notes from my notebook, then adding other thoughts and uploading the latest photos from our cameras to Facebook, and voila!  A blog post.

But “a blog post” doesn’t really capture what I was doing.  In fact, by writing and sharing my thoughts and adventures for an audience, however small (you know who you are!), I think I was living quite close to my purpose.  I am still refining that; I welcome your ideas.

I have missed that sense of purpose.  It was a slight purpose, getting up every morning to walk, walking, eating, observing, taking notes, reporting what I saw, but it was a very clear purpose, and it seemed, at the time, to be enough.

I miss expressing even my most mundane thoughts on a regular basis, and knowing someone is likely to read it, and almost as likely to be grateful for something in it.  I miss, that is, what people in certain circles might call a “practice”.  Flower-arranging is a practice.  Karate is a practice.  Yoga and meditation are practices.  Prayer and good works are practices.  Anything done mindfully, or with love, or both, puts us in practice of being fully human.

For me, writing must be one of my practices.  If I skip it, it’s like skipping exercise:  I can’t be fully happy.


I have missed the sense of freedom that comes with moving my body in healthy ways – freedom, say, from worries about gaining weight because I can eat as much or as little as I want to.  (My Camino pants are still quite big on me).  I’ve felt this liberation before, and I want to keep exercising so as to hold onto it.  Now:  how to do that in this urban wilderness that surrounds me?

Yesterday, I sort of stumbled on creating a day that felt a bit like the Camino:  it began when I walked over a mile to yoga.  Did yoga.  I then walked over three miles on trips to the bank, to Karma Café for an Indian lunch, and along the Jersey City waterfront walkway, reminding myself now and then to look up and appreciate that a short distance away, over the Hudson River on which Captain Sully crash-landed his plane, rose the concrete mountains of one of the greatest cities the world has ever known.  Then I stopped in a Starbucks to take notes and drink my first cold chai in six weeks, and continued to a federal building to pay the last of my 2009 and 2010 taxes.

Perceptions of Time 

After the sobbing at the tax office had subsided and I had gotten hold of myself, I saw that the next light-rail to Jersey City’s Heights left Pavonia-Newport in 24 minutes, and I did something absurd:  I decided instead to walk nearly three miles back to the apartment.  I remember Julio saying that his impression of Americans was that we would drive from the living room to the bathroom.  (Julio walks 250-300 days a year, sometimes across entire countries, or in Himalayas, and so on).  This 5K was for you, Julio!

Julio and I at, or after, First Dinner

I’m not disinclined to walk places anymore, because I’m not afraid of the discomfort of spending time so inefficiently.  That’s a big change.  It’s only partly a physical laziness that makes us drive.  Much of the reason we drive is because we are uncomfortable with the feeling we get when we do something inefficient, like walking, and then tell ourselves the following story:  I’m wasting my time.

This one story is a cause of much misery in modern life.

I was looking at Manhattan from Jersey City’s Heights the other

Under an hour, right, Julio?

morning and sized up the actual distance.  Based on my newfound experience in assessing how far away a village is and how long it will take to get there, I figured I could walk to Manhattan in under an hour, if there were a walking bridge.  It’s a shame there isn’t.  New Jerseyites are entirely denied the pleasure of walking into one of the world’s great cities.  They must either drive through a serpentine urban jungle, including underground, or dive underground with hundreds of other people in public transportation.

What I Miss, Part II

In a proof of the mathematical equation that says the grass is always greener, I offer the essay below as contrasted with what I said I missed just a few weeks ago while in rural Spain…

I miss other things.  Both of my cars are in Oregon.  One, the Land Rover, the World’s Most Expensive Ski Accessory, I want to sell.  Or to detonate, after first putting my HTC My Touch Android phone inside it.  The other, my BMW M3, I miss like my own child. I am reduced to public transportation here, or driving Adam’s Volvo, which is like driving an iceberg, or a continental shelf.

I miss a world in which a guilt-free nap is actually plausible.  Not that much has changed for me . . .  Of course, I don’t really need them anymore, since no one dares wake me up at oh-god-thirty.

I miss having feeling on two (or is it three?) of my right toes.  They still feel kind of tingly, if not entirely numb, just as they often did while walking in the Five Fingers.  And that was before I — “stubbed” doesn’t quite capture the crushing impact they made with a rock — on the trail.

I miss that on the Camino there was nothing more that could be done, with the result that I didn’t worry any part of the day about whether I could be doing more – a hallmark of the over-achiever, of the unhappy person.  Instead, for the first time in a very long time, I was doing all I could do – or all I was choosing to believe I needed to do.

In the Pyrenees

I know there is a secret recipe for happiness in that.

Mom: Navarette, Azofra, Santo Domingo, Belorado, Burgos, Leon, El Acebo, Astorga

Catching up on entries . . .

Navarette to Azrofa

It was a 21km hike to Azofra.  It was miserable for me, between this constant runny nose and the blisters on my toes.  (This rhymes).  I tried to ignore it, but snot ran down.  My kidneys started hurting too, and I don’t know whether I can walk 15km tomorrow.  I took a shower, the water was very cool, then I washed my clothes.  I was really freezing, so I lay down.  Julio wanted to know about dinner, so we went to a little but well-stocked store.  I got ingredients to make crepes for breakfast.  Tired of all this white bread.

I’ve been buying red peppers, which are sweet and juicy, my raw vitamins and a wonderful food.  It’s already October, where has the time gone?  Julio, Marie Anne, and Cameron are walking ahead while Carrie and I will take a taxi with backpacks too.

To Santo Domingo

We got here early and the taxi driver knocked at the albergue and asked the couple who answered the door if it was okay to leave our backpacks.  Carrie and I walked around in the chilly morning, trying to find a pharmacy, but it was still too early and everything was closed.  Finally, we found a bar and we stayed there for a bit to warm up.  Then we went to the square by the big cathedral and sat in the sun, drowsy but at least warm.

Close to the albergue’s opening time, we went to a small café and had a pizza.  (That’s all they had).  It was a lovely square with old-town charm.  When we got to the albergue, Cameron was already there.  This is by far the very best albergue.  Still new and clean.  The showers have lovely hot water, and we didn’t have to re-pump it every 25 seconds.  Nice, well-equipped kitchen.  Off we went, Julio, Marie Anne, and I, searching for food.  Then we prepared it.

We all left to wander around town and see more than just bed bunks.  I wasn’t sure if I was ready and well enough to walk 24km the next day, but I was willing to try.

I got up at 5a.m. and did my morning toilette.  I ate half a red pepper and had coffee and bread.  We left at 6a.m. and it was still pitch-black, but we saw our yellow arrow.  I thought my boots would be better, but after a few kilometers, my right foot was in agony, and my two small toes hurt like the dickens.  Next chance, I took my boots off and skin was hanging off my little toe.  The other one was raw hamburger.  My H’s were in an uproar, and there was a lot of blood, which created another problem.  By the time we stopped to rest, I was in a lot of pain, and just started crying.  I couldn’t breathe for all the snot!

Cameron came over to rub my back and give me some of his good energy.  I taped up my toes and went to the bathroom and took care of that problem.  They asked if I wanted to take the bus, but I didn’t want to.  I wanted to walk.  I just wanted to slow down, so that I could tend to things and not be run to the next place.  I also took an ibuprofen, and it started to kick in.  I was feeling a little better.  And then click-clacked the rest of the 12km.

Then we were near Burgos, in a private albergue (our first) with a swimming pool and other lovely amenities.  I told Cameron that I was ready to “throw the SOBs away” – meaning the boots.  Nothing feels as good as a good hot shower after 24km in hot weather.  I took the layers of band-aid off my little toe and the skin was hanging loose and pus was seeping out.  I wondered what possible function this toe has, other than making my life miserable.  We all rested before dinner, then went over to the restaurant.  I ordered mixed salad and roasted chicken.

The salad was all right, but the chicken came in a soup plate with fat/oil a half an inch thick in the bottom.  And in this greasy pond were the French fries (which I didn’t eat).  All that on top of those greasy eggs with jamon that I had eaten earlier.  It looks like pancetta but is too salty for me.

I fed it to the many cats that run loose here in Spain.  There was a DVD presentation of the Camino, set to lovely music.  We were delighted when we recognized some of the places we’ve been, and the assorted pain and difficulty associated with them.  This albergue has a kitchen, but no pots.  It’s damn difficult to get a cup of coffee.

The next day, we got on the bus, which was 35 minutes late.  The ride took just 45 minutes or so, but we saved two days of walking.


Burgos is absolutely lovely.  The old-town center has many squares with shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants.  Julio bought us some expensive jamon and cheese, presenting them like treasures, and we had a picnic on a park bench by the river.  The huge cathedral had masterly stonemasonry.  We decided to get a ticket and see the inside.  My goodness, all that GOLD!  Richly decorated altars, to whose glory?

The albergue was near, new as well, and huge.  There were seven or eight floors, a large kitchen, showers for each group of four, so that made it nice.  Marie Anne, Carrie, and I walked around trying to find some clothes, but a big problem was that fall fashion is in place, and then the sizes only went up to 44, or a 12 in the U.S.  My toe hurt worse and I was limping.

I took a shower and put on make-up, and waited for everyone to get ready for dinner.  It would be a thank-you to Julio and Marie Anne for their invaluable help.  We will leave tomorrow to take a bus to Leon.


October 4.  That was a nice and fine dinner, and good wine too.  We even had dessert, tiramisu for me.  I woke up at 4a.m. and after lying there for a while, I got my book and used my little light under the covers to read.  Later, Julio was awake, and we went downstairs for some automated coffee.  He then got the hospitalero to look at my toe.  He left and came back with betadyne and asked if I had a needle and thread, which I did.  He threaded these through the blisters, and stuff came out.  He also made sure that I understood how vital it was to take care of this at once in the next albergue, in Leon.  I then bought more stuff at the pharmacy.

We went to have breakfast near the cathedral, and it was another gorgeous day.  Julio said it wasn’t quite normal.  Then we went to the bus station to say goodbye, and that wasn’t easy.  I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.

We decided to go to the Museum of Human Evolution.  An impressive building and an amazing past, ancestors and all.  Lunch at a nice square, though it was windy.  Now we’re just killing time and flies in the lovely sun and surroundings.  We met pilgrims from earlier etapas and greeted one another like old friends.  Several said they were following the blog.

The bus trip covered two hours and boring landscape:  hot, land, sand, nothingness.


We arrived around 7 and took a cab to the albergue, then hurried across the street to have dinner, which was a piece of frozen lasagna, heated on one side, with laboratory cheese, for 10 Euros.  Then I had heartburn.

The hospitalero was one of the nicest and most accommodating of the Camino so far.  Smiling, too!  We had no pillows, so I used my jacket.  Woke up with my toes throbbing, but got up and ready for breakfast:  bread, coffee, jam (and margarine, my other nemesis).  We waited outside for Cameron.  A group of German men sat close by and asked questions about where I came from, where I lived, reasons for the Camino.  I started talking and pretty soon there were a couple more.  They asked who Carrie was, and how she came to be with us.  I told them that at first I had had reservations, and had said I was not bringing another teenager to Europe.

Then I told them the rules I had painted for her.  One, get up at 5:30a.m.  Two, no whining.  Three, no time for hair-fussing.  Four, no make-up (since rescinded a few times, for both of us).  Five, no going off alone.  One of the men said, “Wait, wait!  I want to write this down!”  Sure enough, he got his notebook.  Another man said this was the pastor, and he would use the material for his Sunday sermon.

They asked Carrie what her best and worst experience was so far, and she said without hesitation the Pyrenees.  They asked further if she regretted being here, and she shook her head vigorously no, and assured them that this was the best experience.  We took off, leaving the packs behind, and walked up some small cobblestoned streets.  The only other presence was the street-sweeping machine, cleaning up after the fiesta mess of the night before.  “Oh, gosh,” I groaned.  “Not another fiesta.  Everything will be closed.”  Sure enough.  But then we found a small café and had some form of a Danish (sigh).

The cathedral was just as impressive in architecture as so many others.  We went inside and heard Gregorian chanting.  We sat down and listened, being still and in the moment, while looking at the many gorgeous stained-glass windows in brilliant colors.  Cameron sat beside me, holding “the spot” on my back, then we left and looked through the town.  Lovely houses with lots of flowers and beautiful, colored paint.  We saw some tents, and these were the beginning of a medieval festival.  Many, many different items and so many colors and smells.

Drawback was, walking so much.  My toe hurt something fierce and at one point it was stinging like mad.  I sat on a bench and unwrapped it to see that a thread had cut off the circulation.  I am so sick and tired of pain.  We did have a baked potato while we rested.  Cameron is being frustrated not knowing how to help me.  I thought I needed to go back and take my shoes and socks off, just air out my toes and let them dry.  Later we found a Farmacia and bought Compeet for my toes.  Then we saw an Indian restaurant and decided to come back later for dinner.  A group of people sat outside in the yard of the albergue and we all visited.  Then a young man from Chicago and a woman from Denmark (who speaks at least four languages) joined us at the Indian restaurant.  We sat outside and had a really good meal, although in very small portions.

Lots of people started to move and go to different plazas for another fiesta.  Tables and chairs everywhere, families with their kids and/or dogs all around.  Old, young, visiting, laughing, and enjoying their fiesta.  It’s a nice way to see your neighbor, in a different setting, other than court.  Tomorrow we’ll take the bus just to the outside of Leon and walk the rest.


Lovely place here, too, and we LOVE the albergue.  Nice couple greeted us warmly, with smiles.  The woman, Marlene, immediately showed me a well-stocked kitchen.  The room had only two sets of bunk beds, and nice, soft mattresses and pillows.  Clean, too.  There are nooks and crannies, a terrace, and a park nearby.  Great town square and fantastic looking Gaudi house, almost like Hogwarts or some wizard’s home.  I went shopping and immediately made a nice lunch.

Later, Carrie and I went to town and bought curlers and tweezers, and hamburger at a nice carneceria, so I could make German hamburgers.  We ate on the terrace, which had a beautiful view, vast landscape with church towers, houses, poplar trees, and nice, nice weather.

We rested some, and went to see the first (?) chocolate factory, but it was more about memorabilia.  Then I bought new shoes.  The salesman was getting a bit nervous, as he didn’t have any more wide shoes to accommodate my right toes and bunion problems.  I finally found a pair of Salomons with Gore-Tex, slipped in and said “Ahhh!”  Cost:  135 Euros.  But the first 50 meters, and more, the next morning were pure heaven.  I wore them for about five hours, before having to change into sandals.

Someone said there were electrical lines on the Camino.  I envisioned these earthly currents running gently along my spine like some kind of Terra RX.

We hiked 22 kilometers with only a couple of stops.  One was in a lovely bar.  The bathroom had lights, enough paper, soap, and hot water!  All women pilgrims immediately brightened, and we thanked Pilar for these small luxuries.  She told us how important a clean and healthy liver is, and how that fact translates into happy, smiling people.  “All the poison is in the liver,” she told us.  She had a beautiful basket on the bar with fruits and veggies in it.

We came upon some strange but melodious sounds.  A young woman held a saucer-looking instrument that had several round indentations, and she struck and stroked it with her hands, thus making it emit this Tibetan-like melody.  We stayed a few minutes, then went on.

El Acebo

We finally came to the Albergue Pilar, and a profusion of flowers in the courtyard.   Tables and chairs with pilgrims sunning themselves and conversing.  No town to speak of, and the only grocery store had closed, so we had no groceries for the next day’s mountain crossing.  I had a big plate of pasta with oily sauce (tomato?), which promptly gave me heartburn.  We met Barbara from Bavaria again, and Rainer from Cologne.  Later on, there was Hans from Switzerland, who had walked all the way from there.  His Swiss dialect made him so familiar, and reminded me very much of my brother.  I really liked staying at the albergue there.

After a shower, I put curlers in my hair and the grandmother was surprised that there were no stickers to hold them.  I told her I wanted to look nice for my visit to the cross.

Belorado and Jamón

Belorado, Snore Journal.  The German word, schnarcher, better captures the enthusiasm of last night’s symphony.  Mom began it.  I wrestled with myself.  I felt badly that others were hearing her snoring, and that I might – might – have an ability to stop it that they did not.  I could go to her and wake her up and . . . what?  Normally you ask someone to turn over (that’s all it takes with me, but I have been aggressively, conscientiously sleeping on my stomach or side here), but Mom has sort of developed the ability to saw logs while lying on her side.  So waking her up might not work.  Besides, I tend to take on more responsibility than is really mine (except when I’m assuming the victim’s role, in which case it’s the opposite).  These people all signed up for the Camino, and paid a mere 5 Euros, knowing what they were getting into.  So why was I responsible for their experience?

I had lost one of my semi-effective earplugs, so I used the iPod again.  It works a little better at keeping out sound, though against the woman who took over from Mom, there was no defense.  I want to be clear that I am not glibly comparing a perfectly nice human being to a farm animal here, but her snore did in fact sound like the lowing of a cow, particularly the almost inquisitive higher note the cow hits at the end of the moo.

I awoke feeling sick again.  I normally don’t get sick even once a year.

But at least it was nearly dark in the dorm.  In the albergue municipal in Santo Domingo, the builders had thoughtfully placed a Salida, or Exit, sign over the door, taking care, so that it would be visible in the event of emergency, to make it as bright as our own sun.  I wore my eye patch, and Julio turned around in bed so that the sun was over his shoulder instead of in his eyes.

Belorado has really done a fine job of communicating its history to pilgrims and tourists.  They have carefully placed Spanish and English placards in front of the various ancient buildings in the village – which like many villages on the Camino goes back about a thousand years and has the churches to prove it – and these placards lead the visitor on a self-guided tour of the village.  On top of one of the village’s two small churches, or iglesias, as prominent as the bushy eyebrows of an old Greek man, there are four enormous birds’ nests.  These belong to storks.  We saw three of the graceful birds flying overhead a few days ago.

“Climb up there with my camera,” I said to Julio.  “Let’s see if storks are the kind of birds that will defend their nests.”

He laughed mirthlessly.  “They want more meat than there is on me.  I am good only for a soup.”

We were waiting for the 9:30 bus to Burgos.  Bus schedules are on a sort of best-efforts basis here, though, and it didn’t arrive until 10:05. At about 10, a little white van labeled Carneceria and Charcuterie pulled up right in front of us.  “Carrie,” said Julio, “turn away.  You don’t want to look at thees.”  She didn’t question him, and turned away, but during the four, or six, trips the driver made with half a pig, cut length-wise, draped over his shoulder, she did inevitably see how the jamon gets to her plate.  After the four, or six, trips, she also caught site of a white plastic bucket of pig’s heads.

She is now a vegetarian.

Two days ago we were walking on the Camino and found ourselves overwhelmed by the most foul stench.  I thought perhaps the fields had been fertilized with animal waste.  Then I thought we might be approaching an open-air sewage treatment plant, or perhaps the National Feces Factory.  “This is where they produce all the shit made in Spain,” I said to Carrie, “up ahead.”  She is required to produce a report when she gets back to school, and I try to be helpful.  I next saw some granaries, so I changed my guess and said the smell was probably fermenting corn or something.  But then I heard the oinking.  More jamón.

Julio says that the Chinese have now developed a taste for Spanish jamón, the best of which is so good because of the dry climate and the oak pellotas the pigs are fed.  “When that happens, jamón may get too expensive for most Spanish,” he said.

Julio and Marie Anne explained that there are about a half-dozen types of jamón, from the jamon de bodega grown in humid climes like his own Bilbao “that’s only good enough for frying or casseroles” to paletilla and jamon iberico (from the pig’s pata negra, or ham hock), which “melts in your mouth”.  In Burgos he would seek out some of the paletilla for us, opting for the 47 Euro per kilo variety rather than the one that cost over 120 Euros per kilo.

It really does melt in the mouth.  Carrie wouldn’t touch it.  Then it was time to check in to the albergue.  There was already a short line.

“Always Koreans at the front,” Julio said, and then addressed the Koreans in one of his signature phrases, one he has constantly applied to Mom and Carrie throughout the trip, “You are the best!”

Navarette, Azrofa, Santo Domingo de la Calzado


The fiesta two nights ago in Navarette was a pleasant surprise. (I note that fiesta and

Marco, Italian, runs a hostel in Brazil

siesta share the same root, iesta, which surely translates to “Let’s Stop Working Again”). I drank 1-Euro Rioja and ate two bowls of migas for 1 Euro each. On top of the merely 5-Euro albergue, it was a good day out.  A live band played Spanish and Latin tunes, and the usual English-language repertoire of Lady Gaga, Tom Jones, and Spongebob Squarepants. Mom and I began singing along to “Delilah” and were joined by Marie Anne. Carrie stayed at a safe distance, for there is nothing so terrifying to a teenager as an adult body animated by music, and it’s a close call whether it’s more horrific for the music to have been produced before the teenager was born or the music is that of the teen and her cohort. Small children chased one another through the crowd.

The Fiesta in Navarette

When we arrived earlier, we were greeted by the piercing sound of an instrument (perhaps a dulcimer) that must have been designed by the court jester of some Navarran king, with the intent of disabling his enemies. It seemed to operate, like a hacksaw, on the region between the ear canal and the spinal column. When we went to investigate the piercing sound, wondering if perhaps there might be old women splayed about in the square, stockinged feet pedaling at the air, desperately trying to cover their ears, we found a stage full of small children, mostly girls and a few boys. The old women were in fact watching, and their ears appeared to be wholly unprotected.  The girls were dressed in what was obviously the local traditional dress, snow-white dresses with flowers of fabric sewn on every eight inches or so, and white tights under shoes with red straps that wound up the calves like those of Roman soldiers’ shoes.

The children kicked uncertainly at the music and toward one another in a Jota Riojana that we could see being done correctly by a few older women and some teenage girls. There were a few little boys on stage as well, one of whom, 6 years old, we later saw (shown in the Facebook photos) at a restaurant with his parents and his eight-year-old brother. I got his mother’s email address and sent her the three photos I’d taken of him and the little girl whose hand he held.

Penance on the Camino

When you think of walking the Camino, the first thing you think about, if you are

The only triple-decker dormitorio so far

thinking clearly, is walking. But what you should really be thinking about is snoring. Get 12 to 50 strangers together in a room, and about 1 in 6 will be accomplished snorers. It’s an oddly intimate thing, to be let in on the unconscious behaviors of strangers. And of course the reactions to snorers are universal, ranging from amusement (if the snorer is going at it in the middle of the day and you have nothing better to do) to uncontained rage (if you are trying to sleep).   Marie Anne related a story of a German pilgrim who, fed up by the raucous snoring of two other pilgrims, exploded in a Germanic volcano.  “And zen,” she said, making a motion with her hands, “silence.”

“Did you laugh?”

“Of course!” she said.  “Eet was very funny.”

Some hostels will put 50 people in the same room. In others, there might be only 8 or 9. In any of them, a few features could benefit from some consulting:

  • Snoring – the solution? White-noise machines in every dormitory room. The quality of sleep would go up greatly for each of the 8 to 50 people. In the albergue at Santo Domingo, they actually had a Special Room for Snorers. It’s a good idea, but what is the incentive for a snorer to sign up to sleep with his fellows? It’s like asking cannibals to share living quarters.
  • Fresh air. Walk into a dorm room after people have been sleeping in it for several hours, and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a warm mist of accumulated exhalations. It’s unpleasant, but it’s also a sure-fire way to get sick. Every one of our five-person party has now gotten sick. Solution? Open windows and blankets.
  • Early-Morning Noise. I’ve written about noise before. Backpacks should be stored outside the rooms. (Valuables may be kept inside or in a locker). At the very least, pilgrims should take their packs out of the rooms in order to stuff and arrange them and turn bright lights on them.  Bathrooms and showers should not be close to the sleeping areas. Signs should stress that talking should be kept to a minimum, and then only in low voices (whispers are actually louder than a low voice). Julio should be barred from all albergues.

A recent discussion on a Camino-related website addresses this very issue:

Why do you stay in albergues? Do you enjoy it??
Is it for the price? Is it because you like the bunks? Snoring? Shared bathrooms?
Is it for the comradeship of other pilgrims? Penitence for past sins?
I am curious why some people actually choose to stay in albergues even when they can easily afford other type accommodations.

I actually do both, but some people seem to believe that not staying in albergues cheapens the experience and is not a “real” Camino. I just can’t figure it out.

I’m thinking the main reason is cost.  There is simply no comparing the 5-9 Euros a night with a hotel. Of course, in many of these villages, there aren’t hotels.

We walked about 20km from Navarette to Azofra.

Marie Anne says my face has gotten thinner. I may have lost a few pounds, though I eat a good deal more than I do at home, including fine chocolate by the half-bar. I have been doing this since I was a boy in Germany, and all my German relatives knew that the price of an audience with me was one or more bars of Milka or Lindt chocolate.  (They knew better than to buy Cadbury or Hershey).


They’re harvesting the rioja grapes, but slowly. Not far from here, it rained for about 35 days in July and August, and now it’s been sunny for the full two weeks of our stay, a combination that is expected to produce a good grape vintage.  Julio is convinced Mom made a pact with St. Peter.  We ran across a few vineyard workers who had made a fire out of dead vines and were about to roast an impressive array of sausage and chorizo on it. Mom tried to invite herself over for a bite, but the men didn’t understand her.

The novelty of walking and of small villages was wearing off. My feet still start to hurt after 10 or 15 km, and that makes the walking less than pleasant. I try not to wish it over, I try to stay in the moment, but on some days it’s not what I want to be doing for six hours a day. So my work here is simply not to resist, because walking is what I’m doing. When you resist what is, you suffer, right?

Tired. Maybe a nap. More thoughts than usual today.

Staying in Jersey City for a while – yes. Need winter clothes from Bend. Skis too? Sell some items before movers come – like the sectionals and beds, the big stuff. Get rid of the Land Rover.

Mom soldiered on during the hike to tiny Azofra (“They are so happy the Camino runs through here,” Julio said, “the other towns nearby are so jealous”), in spite of a good deal of pain and discomfort. She has terrible blisters on her toes, and her liver hurts. Once we’d arrived, I went to my room and took a rare siesta, and when I found her again, in the kitchen, she said, “I was in bed and couldn’t even get up.” She went to bed early. I met my roommate, an older Spanish gentleman who assured me that I could keep the lights on and do whatever I wanted and he’d be able to sleep. I read The Girl Who Played with Fire for a while, but the book weighed around a pound and it didn’t make it into my backpack this morning.

As a matter of principle, or something, Julio doesn’t shave while he’s on a walk. But his upper lip got sunburnt, so he shaved it. This made him look Amish, I told him. I think he got self-conscious about looking Amish, so he shaved the sides off, and now he merely looks Chinese again.

Saturday October 1, 2011 Santo Domingo

Mom was still sick this morning, but she was up early, as usual, and cooking German-style crepes (pfannenkuchen, prime ingredient of mine and my sister’s favorite food as children, pfannenkuchen suppe), which she invited Steffi to share. Kiernan, the young Irishman, scored one too.

Mom and Carrie took a taxi (24 Euros) to Santo Domingo. Julio, Marie Anne, and I walked. Marie Anne was also still sick, suffering from an inflamed Achilles tendon, and, according to Julio, not in her usual condition for walking, so we set a slow pace over the 15 kilometers. I left my pack with Mom to take in the taxi; twenty-seven pounds lighter, I moved like Gene Kelly. I used my poles like swords.

The air is noticeably colder. Julio says that as we climb to Burgos, we will need to wear more warm clothing.

The countryside was still rife with vineyards and growing drier by the kilometer. There were more of the elevated cement aqueducts the farmers once used to irrigate their crops; they now use perforated rubber hoses, but the cement is just too heavy to move. One rest area has the following:  a water fountain with potable water; three stone lounge chairs; a bench; and, near a fence leading into what is probably private property, a sign saying:

Prohibido Defecar

That’s close to “Defecation Prohibited”, or even “Elimination Prohibited” — “As if there’s a government involved,” I said to Julio — but the English version on the sign is simply hopeful:  “Don’t Shit”. But in the nearby tissue nearby I saw ample evidence of violation. (Some Germans pointed out that the graphic, which showed a man leaning forward with one arm bent high in front of him, the other bent high behind, if strictly interpreted, really only prohibited defecating while sprinting).

One panorama not far from Azofra will stick with me. The corduroy golds and browns of fallow fields all helter-skelter of angle, various plots of yellow or green with parallel lines sketched by either ploughs or vines, copses of trees, and finally the hills beyond, from the blue nearest us to the charcoal to the light-grey in the distance. I kept worrying that at any moment I would thrust my walking stick in front of me and tear right through the canvas. Naturally I had no camera on me.

We stopped at the club of our first golf course on the Camino, the Rioja Alta Golf Club, and where there are golf clubs there will be other firsts, like yellow Porsche Caymans and unsuccessful plastic surgery.  The bocadillo we at there, though, was delicioso.  Leaving the golf club, we passed through a large suburb of hideous (e.g., American-style) boxy apartment complexes that was almost completely devoid of life.  “Se Vende” (For Sale) signs littered every balcony.  Here was another example of the crash of the speculative real estate boom in Spain. It was like walking through a post-nuclear-holocaust landscape.

Santo Domingo is named for a man (Domingo) who so failed at his monk studies that he was invited to leave. But he then spent the rest of his life building the area into a way station for pilgrims, and often got royal support for his efforts. The place became a village and now boasts numerous very old buildings, from a cathedral with fine examples of art to a Cistercian monastery.  And eventually he was canonized (Santo).

There’s a legend that repeats itself in various places in Europe, “the hanged innocent”. Most of them have the action taking place in Toulouse, but Santo Domingo has its own version.  (Legends are the bread and butter of the tourist and pilgrim business, along with relics like shards of Jesus’ cross, patches of his robe, and so on).  A man, woman, and their son, all from Germany, pass through Santo Domingo (or Toulouse) and stay at an inn. The innkeeper’s daughter propositions the son, who demurs, and she arranges to have his pack filled with silver from the church. The authorities catch him with it, and he is hanged. (This story could also take place in Texas).

After his parents walk all the way to Santiago and back, they return to the body, still hanging from the gibbet a month later, and are shocked to hear their son assuring them he is alive.  “Santo Domingo supported my weight all month,” he tells them (in Toulouse, it’s Santiago himself).  He neglects to explain why no one else has noticed him hanging there alive, or what he ate whilst hanging.  The parents leave the boy and run to tell the mayor, who is roasting chickens. He laughs, saying, “Your son is no more alive than these chickens,” whereupon the chickens spring to life, grow back their feathers, and run away.

The town still cares for two chickens.  Sheerly by coincidence, Julio and Marie Anne bought about two chickens’ worth of chicken breasts for lunch today, and added scrambled eggs just to get in the whole fowl lifecycle.

We were told that Azofra had a hostel like a fine hotel, but the one in Santo Domingo is at least as nice. Azofra had a cozy enclosed courtyard and a fountain in which pilgrims cooled their feet. The exterior was a modern design of stone and wood slats. It had a kitchen and rows of dining tables. It even offered double rooms for everyone – so far unheard of on the Camino. And the washing machine was free. (Curiously, the rooms lacked electrical outlets, so that we were all forced to stretch cords across the dining area to the two outlets available there).

In Santo Domingo, the hostel is several stories high. There is – and I’m not making this up – a lounge with a television. There are a dozen leather, or at least pleather, sofas. A kitchen. Lots of fine pictures of pilgrims walking. The construction is fine. And the showers are peerless. Six hooks on which to hang both old clothes and new, lots of water pressure and hot water, and no timer.

I write this after lunch as Mom saws logs and Marie Anne purrs in a lighter mode.  We’ll go to see the cathedral later. There is nothing I would like more than a yoga class right now.

An Audience with El Notario

El Notario was a very sober man. Small, neat, with a short-sleeved white shirt and a modest tie (so modest it bordered on immodesty), he exuded authority and self-assurance.

Julio made sure to legitimate me right away.

El es un abogado de Princeton,” he said.

“Harvard,” I said.  The Spaniards thought this was funny.

El Notario placed before us the documents that Eva had drawn up. He verified Julio’s identity and made him swear to translate faithfully (Julio would violate this by saying “blah blah blah” over extensive portions of the document). The documents contained so much legalese that even when they were upside-down, an American lawyer could read them: Latin is still the lingua franca of the legalist. They said that Don Cameron Christopher Powell did not understand Spanish, and that Don Julio Angel Redondo Garcia was acting as interpreter and translator. They also appeared to say that they had no real legal effect.

When all the preliminaries had been completed, El Notario reached for a Bic pen and held it up before me as if he were putting Excalibur into my care. He held up my passport before me and pointed at my signature as if to say, “It should look like this”. (Perhaps he did say that). I signed my name in two places.

He appeared to think we were done.

I explained to Julio that a document with only my signature on it would not be useful to the American authorities, who rather expected that the State, County, signature, and commission expiration would be filled out by a notary on the same document, and who would neither look at nor understand the beautifully produced four-page instrument that Eva had so carefully prepared for El Notario’s stylish signature.

To my dismay, El Notario was not reaching for his pen. “Notaries in Spain never expire,” Julio translated. “Their license to print money is forever, perhaps beyond death.”

“Could he write ‘No expiration’?”

Sadly, he could not.

He told us to come back in an hour, so that the separate, Spanish documents could be changed to reflect the fact he would be applying his pen to the English-language document. Like a man sitting in a cab from New York to Washington, D.C., I could see the meter ticking upward.

But there was one good thing to come of it all. “For the rest of Camino,” I told Julio. “You will call me Don Cameron.”

Morning Meditations in Logrono

It’s a crisp morning in Logrono.  It’s going to be another beautiful day in Spain, if perhaps a bit hot, especially given our late start.  The women have gone ahead, while Julio and I sit in a café-bar called Ibiza and consume bocadillos and café con leche (me) and hot chocolate (Julio).  Julio reads El Pais, one of the national papers, and translates for me the occasional outrage.  Julio often sounds outraged, but you don’t ever detect

Julio sweetly presents Carrie with a stolen flower

real anger, resentment, or bad faith.  It’s more of a stance, like performance art done by someone who’s a comic at heart.

I’m now sitting at a table outside Ibiza, opposite a park.  The streets are largely deserted.  The dearth of thinking I have done on where I shall live, or what I shall write, or what direction to take next in my vocations, is more than a little surprising.  There was a time when I could not get certain topics off my mind.  Now I can walk and have nary a thought enter my head that’s aimed more than a few hours into the future.

But I must credit my instinct with knowing what I need, and apparently what I need is, truly, a break from the thinking and weighing and analysis.  Indeed, yesterday I had an intimation, a sense, that the detachment I feel from the life I led before the trip would prove to be fertile ground for feeling my way into what’s next.  I had the sense that I needed to quiet the chatter of before so as to be receptive to the whisperings of what I might want now.  This is a change from what I expected, which was to have ideas drop into my head via the alchemical process of walking meditatively.

Some of the Spanish cheeses are delicious.  Yesterday I discovered ventero, a soft cheese reminiscent of freshly-made parmesan.

I’m hoping Mom’s ailments do not worsen.  It would be ironic if, on this spiritual-

Mom claps along in Puente La Reina

emotional-health pilgrimage, her health deteriorated simply because she could not get access to the food she needed.  Her diet in the U.S. is so rarefied and esoteric (compared to what now passes for nutrition in our country) that she usually has to shop and cook for herself to stay on it.  It’s even more difficult to be a vegan in Spain than in the U.S., and that’s not even counting the pilgrim’s diet.  To eat as a vegan here would require her to do more investigation in each town, walk farther, and spend considerably more.

But her spirits are indefatigable.  There is so much life in her that it’s unimaginable that it could leave her anytime soon.

Soaking the feet

A Visit to the Notary

Spain has some serious drags on its economy.  The lack of English is one; I can’t think of another country in Europe where the people speak less of the lingua franca of business.  Then there are the fueros, or dispensations, given to certain towns and regions over half a millennium ago, before Columbus “discovered” America, and which still provide tax breaks to people who live in those regions.

Then there are the notaries.

A notary, in Spain, is not someone who sits in a bank and stamps a document for you for free.  A notary, in Spain, occupies an economic role somewhere between a property lawyer and a machine that prints money.  In a transaction to sell a home, for example, a notary, in exchange for his stamp and some title research, extracts a mind-boggling 7-10% of the sales amount for his commission.

Julio and I went into a notary’s office yesterday. Notaries here do most of their work for banks – apparently they have contrived to make themselves legally indispensable to everything a bank does.  Julio spent his entire career working in banks, and said he’d never in his life been able to walk into a notary and be able to sit down in front of one without appointment or a wait.  But because the economy in Spain is so bad – the highest unemployment of any developed country, 21%, and 45% or so among youth – we didn’t have to wait.

Julio explained to the woman, Eva, that I had a document that required a notary.  He translated the woman’s response.

“They can’t notarize this for you because no one here speaks English.”

This was in theory.  Julio said he’d often seen notaries stamp a document without reading it, just as they do in the U.S.

I patiently explained that for the purposes of the title company that wanted me to have the document notarized, they would accept the stamp of a monkey, so long as the monkey could do two things:  (1) check my ID, to ensure that it was really me signing (authentication) and (2) check my head, to ensure that there was no one pointing a gun at it (no duress).  Also, (3) I was a lawyer.  I hoped this might have the desired effect.

Julio duly translated this.  The woman now said that they were only authorized to notarize documents in their jurisdiction, Spain.  Their notarization would not be valid outside of Spain.

“Can you ask her,” I said, “if she is willing to give me the stamp, I will pay her and assume the risk that someone in the U.S. challenges it?”

She was already nodding her head.  She left to consult with her colleagues about my document, which I had emailed to her and she had printed out.  When she returned, she said that I could return at 9a.m. the next day to sign the document in front of a notary.

“They can’t do it now?”

The woman walked away to retrieve a file and presented it to me.  It was a little booklet of bound papers, including a notarized document. Julio explained that my document, which I had planned to photograph in lieu of a scan and to then email to the title company, would need to be prettied up in such a binder before they could notarize it.  This was what they did for the big bucks.

We left and I bought Julio beer and jamon for his trouble.  We sat in the main plaza and enjoyed a good chat about Julio’s irreverent career as a banker, and his early retirement.