Sunday, February 17, 2008

Advance Directives

One never plans for this sort of thing. Not really. Sitting in a hospital room on a Sunday morning, laptop balanced on my knees so that I can at least try to keep up with my work, a semblence of it, or perhaps more to momentarily lose myself in it, I ponder the Advance Directive the nurse has placed on the bed. Even a few short months ago, I probably would not have known what an Advance Directive means. But now that I work in health care myself, I know.

Listening to the now steady breathing of an ill parent on oxygen, I know. Glancing from moment to moment at the tense and watchful expression on the face of the other parent, on the other side of the hospital bed, I know. Concluding with a soft amen a prayer with the Latvian minister, dropped by with a burgundy-colored African violet, not unlike the shade of the Latvian flag, and now holding our hands joined in a circle around the bed, I know. Advance Directives are meant to direct families in advance of a health crisis. So that family members know. At what point do we let go?

Letting go has never been one of my strengths, and yet, even a short while ago, when at last I was able to let go of an incessantly and hopelesssly troubled relationship (someone wise said to me, "there are those hearts that are simply incapable of love," and a final puzzle piece fell into place), I grasped the concept. Let go. Once done, once I opened my clenched hand and let a tired dream, continually debased, fly away, it amazed me how easy it was to breathe again. As if I, too, had regained some inner ability to fly.

Now, this cherished life. Let go? Not a chance. It is not time. I am here to fight, to champion the process, step by step, of regaining health and well-being.

But an Advance Directive is a sound concept. It speaks for us if we should ever fall into such crisis that we can no longer speak for ourselves. It is a "living will" that directs our loved ones how long, and in what manner, we choose to fight for our own lives. Life is much, much more than the beating and pulsing and blood-pumping muscle of the heart—this organ so shaped like a clenched fist. It is, in fact, all about the capability to love. That moment of unclenching the fist to become an open hand. To put the welfare of another above and beyond our own. To rise above the baseness of life, as a machine that merely sleeps, eats, copulates, labors to maintain life, and sleeps again, to become the full and rich life of a human being. A being who strives to touch the lives of other human beings with love and care and nurturing.

Life is about who is sitting next to your hospital bed when you yourself have grown weary of it. Life is about the circle of hands joined in blessing above you, amen. Life is about fully realizing and appreciating this moment, in advance, and directing one's life path to lead toward it, leaving a trail of other lives made better by yours along the way.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Salt of the Earth - Part 2

Salt of the Earth - Part 2

Morning on a Chicago Saturday comes soft and easy. After all, I am the one in my daughter's warm bed, under downy blankets, and she, poor thing, is on the sofa in the living room. Nice to pull rank once in a while. Although it is by her insistence and my meek protestations that I end up in this sweet bed every visit. A tall window looks down upon the snowy street below, a bookcase reaches up toward the high ceiling, where a cat named Kiwi resides on the top shelf and reigns over the apartment in all her cat-ified glory. The wall is a collage of framed photos from Lorena's favorite travels: Prague, Venice, Rome, Krakow, Pompeii, Trinidad. Sconces with fragrant candles hang over the bed, a long, transparent red scarf hangs over the curtain rod, draping nearly to the floor. I consider staying in bed all day.


Today is the day we go to the salt caves. After a pot of coffee, Lorena and I head outdoors into the white Chicago world, brush the snow from my car, and head north then west to Irving Park. My daughter is at the wheel, and she drives so rarely (which is why she requests to drive today, so as to stay in practice), that I bite my lip with the effort to keep my mouth shut at various jerky maneuvers and near misses. I have only the highest respect for her walk or bike or use public transportation lifestyle. After a nasty accident back in her Florida days, when her little Toyota was sideswiped and sent into a triple somersault, landing in her the hospital with a gash along her hairline (and nothing else, thank you, Guardian Angels!), she stayed away from wheeled vehicles for seven years, and is now a great advocate of not owning one. Feeling a little car-sick from sitting in the passenger seat, I can only cheer her determination to be a responsible, non-polluting citizen of the world.

We spot the sign: Galos Caves, in bright blue script atop what appears to be a normal, everyday shop. As soon as we enter, however, we are greeted by a young Polish woman wreathed in smiles and speaking with a heavy Polish accent. We follow her gestures more than her words. Paying our dues of $15 each, we remove our snowy boots and, in our white socks, as directed, enter the "cave." Soft music soothes us as we enter the dimly lit space. Invisible birds twitter and chirp. Unseen waves roll in, shushing and splashing. Lavender lights shimmer over the salty stalagmites hanging low from the ceiling. The entire room, um, cave, is constructed of salt—imported, we are told by the young Polish woman, from the Black Sea. In our stocking feet, we walk on warm salt crystals, like coarse beach sand. A mermaid statuette keeps her eyes lowered as we walk by; oversized seahorses are carved into the salt, and buried lights in orange, green and blue glow from the walls. White lounge chairs line the cave walls, and we pick up soft white blankets at the entrance and settle into the chairs, trying to keep quiet so as not to disturb the two others already in deep meditation on the other side of the salt cave.

I put an index finger to my lips as Lorena pulls her chair across the salt. I try to get the foot of mine to rise up for a more comfortable position, and it protests with a grating scrape and a high squeak. Huh. I can't seem to get it into position. Lorena is still fighting her chair, so I do battle with mine, squeaking and scraping and puffing and cursing in whispers. Birds twitter and waves splash, and I remember I am supposed to be feeling very relaxed. When the chair finally obeys my commands, I relax. Lying back, I scoop up handfuls of warm salt and hold it in my hands, palms up, the white blanket spread over me, eyes closed, blissing out into another realm. Yeah, okay. This is kewl. And if I was wondering what a space constructed entirely of salt might smell like, I smell nothing. The pamphlet in the lobby, however, claimed health-restorative powers. Positive effects on asthma, respiratory problems, high blood pressure, yes, even obesity, with 45 minutes in the salt cave, and you could expect your condition improved. Relaxation of any kind is surely helpful for all kinds of conditions, no argument from me. But obesity? I opened one eye to peek at the other two inhabitants of lounge chairs. Theirs sagged dangerously low to the salty floor. Maybe if they lay there long enough and skipped a few meals….

Eyes closed tight, I let myself sway into the sound of incoming waves. Invisible water sloshed and splashed and spattered and shushed and receded again. I tried not to think about the restroom. Listened to the birds. Twitter, chirp, twittertwittertwitter, and for a moment there, it sounds like Hitchcock's Birds, one swarm attacking another, twitter twitter chirp chirp chirp twitter, and I turn to my daughter and whisper:

"Those birds sound really pissed—"


Right. I reach for new handfuls of salt, warmed, and decide to let my mind wander in some other direction. Perhaps solve the upcoming issues in my novel-in-progress…. My creative muscle tenses. Let's try travel plans. Yeah. That's good. Where to go next?

I float away on visions of Europe, the United Kingdom, maybe Ireland, and for a while I am rocking on a melting piece of Arctic icecap with the world's last polar bear. The rocking ice cap lulls me into light sleep in which the ice turns into salt…

A polite tinkle sounds, and our time is up. After the other two leave, pointedly ignoring us, we stomp around in the crystallized salt-sand, peering more closely at the green mermaid, tracing the curves of the salty seahorses, pressing palms to the salty walls, plucking at the stalagmites overhead. Neat. The young Polish woman opens the door of the cave and watches us. She offers to take a photo, and we hand her a digital camera, stepping back into the lavender shadow of a particularly long stalagmite.

"I have a craving for something salty," I say as we emerge from the Galos Caves and enter the next door, belonging to a Polish restaurant. Here, too, everyone speaks with a thick accent. Who needs to talk when you have such a buffet of food unfold before you? We go into attack mode, and for the next hour, clean plate after plate. Sauerkraut with pork roast, cheese blintzes, pierogi, dumplings, ribs, asparagus, salads and fruit, roast beef and baked ham, boiled potatoes in dill, sausages and briny pickles. We eat until we moan.

"Maybe we should go back to the caves," I sigh. "See if the salt air cures obesity."

On our way back to the car, we detour into a grocery store to pick up a few items. I tug at my daughter's arm and point. A sign at the opposite end of the store: Passport Photos Here. My daughter's eyes meet mine and I need say nothing—she has the family wanderlust gene with bells on, she gets it. I am posed in front of a white screen, a young woman with a digital camera standing alarmingly close to my face, taking shot after shot. I blink at every flash, step back against the wall to avoid her shoes stepping on mine. The resulting photos have captured my look of discomfort. Add to that the burgundy scarf I am wearing, wound several times around my neck, coat collar raised, and my daughter takes one look and bursts into laughter.

"You look like a terrorist, Mama!"

The clerk with camera takes another look and hoots. "Taliban!"

The two roar with laughter while I roll my eyes, unwinding the long scarf, patting my collar down. Try again. The second set with my wincing smile look a little less threatening.

"Where to?" Lorena asks, eyeing the passport photos as we carry our groceries to the car.

"I don't know. Peru with you? But before that…" I think. Visions of exotic places pass through my mind, interspersed with visions of long lost home… Latvia. It's been… more than ten years. "I don't know," I say again. "Somewhere. Somewhere new. Or somewhere old."

We head home, because we have others awaiting us. My sister, Daina, is coming in from the Chicago 'burbs, and my daughter's roommate, Melissa, my sister's eldest. A little later, Ilze joins us. My daughter quite randomly ran into another young Latvian woman, because, well, as we all know, Chicago is a small town. Peopled with so many other ethnic backgrounds that at times it seems another Poland, another Lithuania, and with a sizeable community of Latvians, too, why not meet someone who is here from Latvia? Ilze has been in the States for three years of her 22, working as an au pair for a local family while attending university. The moment we meet her, her ethnicity is evident in her features and her coloring. She is a stunningly beautiful young woman, blue eyes, long blonde hair pulled back with loose wisps curling around her sweet face. I step back for a moment to enjoy the view: the three young women are a wonderful match. My own blondie, cousin Melissa, and Ilze; all blonde, all blue-eyed, all brimming youth and beauty and energy.

Back into the snow, a little more sloshy now. The skies are blue, the sun is bright. In Latvian, we call such a winter sun, "saule ar zobiem," or, "sun with teeth." My sister and I follow behind the younger generation, walking the city blocks until we reach a small café, dawdle over coffee, comparing notes on where everyone's lives have been and are now headed, decide we are each one blessed and happy, if with some small whine here and there, nothing worth noting. One such blessing is to sit in our circle of younger and older women, our similar features, our similar tastes, our similar gestures, all reminding us of the wonder of shared genetics. The world is small and we like it that way.

For dinner, we need to drive, however, so the five us pile into my sister's van, Melissa at the wheel, and we find a parking space apparently marked just for us, a half block away from Jane's. And no plain Jane, this. Melissa has chosen our dinner venue, and her choice is prime. We are led into a small place of bricks and wood, bar along one side, but beyond that into a room that opens up in pure white magic. These are our white days, it seems, of salty caves and snow blizzards, and now this serene room of white walls, white floors, white tablecloths, white chandeliers, and on each white table, a crystal vase of bright red roses. The food is equally stunning. We pass plates and nibble from each other's meals, rolling our eyes with culinary pleasure. Chowders and shrimp and scallops and chicken stuffed with mushrooms and lamp chops in figgy sauce, followed by carrot cake and crème brule and bread pudding. We moan and laugh and lick fingertips and stuff our mouths until our eyes bug out. Conversation rolls and chatters and sparks, until I am reminded of the twittering birds in the salt caves. We talk in Latvian, back to English, back to Latvian again, until the waitress doesn't quite know what to do with us.

"Your Latvian is perfect," Ilze says. "As if you were born there."

For a moment, my mind reels, traverses land, ocean, land again, and time. I was 15 the first time I went… home. And met a boy, 15 years old, who played his guitar for me, who spoke to me in a soft voice, his eyes never leaving mine, who walked the cobbled streets of Ventspils and Riga with me, showing me his world, so different from mine.

"Perhaps," I say, "I was."

Seventeen years later, both of us with a failed marriage behind us, reunited. He was the love of my life. For seven years, I crossed the ocean every year, back and forth, keeping a part of my life on either continent—children here, husband there, with a dual citizenship. I lived with a divided heart. Until I couldn't anymore. The last time I saw the steel door close at the Riga airport gate, dividing the two of us forever, as effectively as the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union had for the first seventeen years, was the last time I saw him.

I closed my eyes for a moment. Another life. Gone. I looked around the white table: my sister, my daughter, my niece, and this sweet young woman who crossed the ocean without hesitation, expanding her horizons.

"Will you stay?"

Ilze shrugs slender shoulders. "I will finish my degree here. After that? Maybe. We will see."

I nod. "Yes. We will see. Where home will call us, and which one."

When Lorena and I curl up in our jammies on her sofa, waiting for the video movie to start, I think about the passport photos I've tucked into my suitcase. My sister has gone home, Ilze has gone to hers, Melissa has changed clothes to go back out on the town with a friend. The snow has started to fall again outside, turning in the light spilling from the street lanterns. Lorena lights candles, another habit she's inherited from me, and we tuck a blanket around us.

It's been ten years since that passport has been used… more. So much life has passed, some of it healing and sweet, some of it brutal. In December, when I rose on the morning of my 50th birthday, the boy I met when we were both 15 had sent me an email of warm wishes. He remembered.

Lorena leans her shoulder into mine as the opening scenes of the movie unfold on the television screen. "You seem distracted…"

"Yeah, well."

"Thinking about your passport…?"

I laugh. Family. Might as well be naked. I pat her jammied knee. "You have any idea how much I love you, little girl?"

"Love you, too, Mama. Where?"

I take a deep breath. "I've been thinking about Ireland."