Thursday, December 29, 2011

I do: In Sickness and In Health

I have always dreaded social etiquettes, particularly small talk stuff. More specifically, I dread how to respond to the simple query "How are you?" For a moment, I am torn between responding with the old cliche' expression "fine, how are you? And then diverting the focus away from me with anything, like "nice day, huh?" Or "How you doing?"

But for some 15 years now, since my wife became increasing ill, I have dreaded the question even more. "How's your wife?" From close friends or family who know of her illness, this scares me even more.

Should I just lie and say "fine", "she's better"? Or should I tell them the truth and launch into details on medications, side-effects, failed surgeries and treatments, incompetent doctors, and how hard it is to see her writing in pain 18 hours a day, and be unable to do anything about it?

With certain people, even after repeated updates on her condidition, I am shocked by by their response, "Oh, I didn't know she was ill?" "What did you say was wrong with her?" Don't they pay attention? I've told them a half dozen times over the past two years. Don't they know it hurts to be asked the same question again and again and have to repeat the same answer to the same person?

I know people mean well. They shake their heads appropriately. "Hope she gets better", "Tell her I'm praying for her", is little help. "Thanks, I'll make sure to tell her." I lie. But in truth, I almost wish they didn't ask. They innocently expect I'll say "Oh, she's better." But I can't. I wonder if they think I am making it up to gain sympathy?

I am so tired of the well-intentioned advice. "Oh, I was in a lot of pain a couple of years ago. I know what she if going through." No you don't. "I drank this tea, rubbed on this ointment, saw this doctor, and it went away." There is little we haven't tried already. The pain is worse, damn it. Name the med, we've tried it. Name the tea, she drank that, too.

Not long ago she got a phone call from a distant friend, who told her in a scolding tone: "You are still in pain? You need to get a hold on yourself. Get up, get out of bed. Do things. You are making yourself sick." My wife cried hopelessly for some time afterwards. If only it was so easy.

Obviously, this friend does not have to help me pick my wife up from the floor when she has dizzy spells and falls, or hear her moans of pain as she tries to walk across the room, or get in and out of bed. I know her friend meant well, but it did little to cheer up my wife, or to give her hope.

Ironically, some friends greet me and don't even ask about her anymore. Did they forget? Are they being discreet? Are they being insensitive? I guess they know what I will say already.

Chronic pain is unrelenting. It is mean, cruel. It is unfair. "Your wife is chosen by God", says one dear friend, "Her suffering will save many souls." But this can't be God's will. "All things happen for a reason". Oh yeah? I have heard them all. "Don't forget God performs miracles", they say in an attempt to comfort us. But there is no parting of the sea here. Instead, the sea deepens.

"How much worse can it get?" She moans in frustration. "Don't you dare ask that question", I scold her. It can get worse, much worse. I don't pray for miracles any more. God must already know we need one. I pray for courage to be her crutch, her support, but I am running out of what to say that will give her hope to live on. "Think about your kids. Think about your grandchildren. Think about the new baby grandson coming in April."

"I know, I know." She nods in tears.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ode To The Caveman: My Friend, Jesus Cuevas

As I was driving my wife to a pain clinic in Modesto this morning, we drove down Briggsmore Avenue, just blocks from where my late good friend, Jesus (Jessie) Cuevas used to live. He died in 2002 from complications with Diabetes.

I called him "The Caveman", his surname "Cuevas", meaning "cave" in English. But more than that he did tend to be loud, brash and a shade crude on occasions, a Chicano caveman, a Chicano Aborigine if you will.

We vaguely knew one another as kids, since my dad, then estranged from my mom, and his family lived at "La Sesion", as it was called in our Barrio, Spanglish for "section" as in "section house", since it belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad, providing housing for its workers.

It was one large rectangular yellow, wooden building with a series of small, two-room apartments. My dad and his dad, both worked on the railroad. When I visited my dad, I would see Jesse and we would talk. After my dad died, I lost all touch with Jess but would see him around from time to time. It would not be until years later, after I married that I would meet him again, this time to become close friends.

Living in Modesto with my new Mexican wife, we made it a point to shop for groceries as frugally as possible, and since I was only making a minimum wage as a florist at the time, that drove us to South Modesto, and Crows Landing Road, leading straight into the heart of "Oakie Town", as we called back then. We could get eggs, meats and vegetables much more cheaply than we could in downtown Modesto, especially at one Supermarket just past Hatch Road.

And it was precisely there one day that I again met up with The Caveman, who was working in the vegetable department. We shook hands and I introduced him to my new wife. He too was married at the time, and had two young children, a boy and a girl and as we left, we promised we would call him and invite him and his family over for dinner sometime. The year was approximately 1967.

And we did.

This began a renewed friendship that would flourish until 2002 when he died. We discovered so much in common between us. I was doing art work, drawing, painting, and found object sculptures and he was vastly impressed by my work, and the fact that though I was a meager florist at this time, I held a Master's Degree in Art. We also discovered that we liked to eat, drink beer and wine, and smoke a little "yerba" too!

We would listen to music, get a little high, and philosophize (bullshit) on life and art. We also shared our "Mexican-ess" and the ideology of the rising Chicano Movement, of Chicano Art with one another, and though his wife was White, she "understood" Mexicans.

In time, I began to challenge Jesse about developing his obvious interest in art. "Go to college. Take some art classes and get a degree", I urged him. The Caveman was about 30 at the time. "It's never too late, dude", I repeated. Apparently, it worked and in just a few years, Jesse had graduated from college with a Bachelor's Degree, and soon after, earned a Master's Degree in Art!

He went on to be hired at Stanislaus State University in Turlock, CA. as a recruitment officer and continued working as an artist, mostly painting.

Oddly, there was one painting which he worked on for years and never really finished, one inspired by an actual photograph of the famous revolutionary leader from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Emiliano Zapata, holding a rifle.

I am not sure why he never finished this painting. While it was part of his Master's project, he continued to repaint it, over and over, and each time he showed it to me, it displayed new strokes, new colors. We never really talked of why he could never just let it be, though that bothered, even upset me.

We also never talked of what that image of Zapata symbolized to The Caveman. Did he see himself and his own restless, revolutionary spirit in Zapata? Did it remind of his past, his buried cultural roots?

On his death bed in the hospital, I last saw him, a disheveled replica of the loud and boisterous Caveman he once was. He lay motionless, mumbling incoherently one moment, as if in restful sleep, a faint smile on his face, then he would erupt in a thunderous laugh and totally coherent dialogue. 

He died a young man, leaving his painting of Zapata unfinished. But though The Caveman might have lived to 90, I suspect he would have repainted his canvas again and again. But then, is anything ever really finished?

Monday, December 12, 2011

And Do You Think I Am On A Bed Of Roses?

The Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City houses some of the finest murals by "Los Tres Grandes" (The Three Great ones), Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, my favorite.

The massive murals 8' to 10' high and 20' wide, depict in powerful images and color, Mexico's turbulent history, its rich Precolumbian past, the Spanish Conquest, War of Independence, the Mexican Revolution, Mexico's role in world history and the cosmos.

One of Siqueiros' best murals depicts the torture of the last Emperor of the Mexica (Aztecs) Cuahtemoc, by the Spanish Conquistadores. Here, Cuahtemoc is pictured being tortured by the Spanish, clad entirely in armor, with no trace of humanity visible. The flames sear his feet and those of a friend, in fervent prayer. Cuahtemos's face is taut, filled with contempt, as he conjures his last ounce of courage.

His eyes appear teary. Every muscle taught. The red flames flicker off the face and bared canines of a snarling dog, and the metal armor of the soldiers holding steel lances. An Indian woman, behind him raises her arms begging for mercy.

When the roomfuls of gold that the Spanish believed the Aztecs possessed fail to materialize, accounts tell that Hernan Cortez, captures Cuahtemoc and with a cohort, bounds and lays them on a slab, lighting a fire to their feet, in an attempt to force them to confess the location of the "hidden gold".

When Cuahtemoc refuses, his partner supposedly begins to weep and cry out in pain, at which point Cuahtemoc turns and stoically says to him, "Do you think I am on a bed of Roses?"

Despite his short reign, after the death of Moctezuma II, (1520-1521) that ended with the conquest of Mexico in May of 1521, his story is told and retold in Mexican history with a sense of pride, symbolizing Mexico's refusal to bow down to foreign domination.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Reason For The Season: Baby Jesus

How we went from the beautiful story and celebration of the birth of a heavenly baby who came to save mankind from sin, to a fat, bearded White Man posing for pictures in a mall and  the death of this baby on a cross 33 years later to an Easter bunny bearing cooked colored eggs is tragic.

How can we be so afraid of offending others with our beliefs? In the watering down of religion, any religion, we lose its original meaning, intent.The clerks who are told not to wish clients a "Merry Christmas" and replace it with "Happy Holidays", the teachers who are warned not to decorate their classrooms with "religious symbols", to the debate of whether we should "ban" the nativity scene from the White House lawn is debilitating.

Have we gone overboard on separating Church and State? "In God We Trust", is still emblazoned on our national currency and "one nation under God" still uttered in the Pledge of Allegiance, which some Americans are now refusing to take.

Whether we believe in Jesus or not, in God or not, this is part of our American "culture" and we need not fear it. Doesn't Freedom of Religion guarantee that too? Religious freedom is not about the absence or banning of religious beliefs but about the right to believe what we choose, or not believe at all.

At the very least, shouldn't we preserve Christmas and Easter for example, just as they are, with all of their religious associations, as a cultural tradition, as we would any other cultural tradition, native arts, language or history?

In a society that includes so many distinct cultures as does our own, this seems to me especially vital, especially valuable.