Be Prepared

My friend Rachel and I have done a fair amount of traveling together over the last ten years.  Mostly we’ve gone to dog shows, with occasional side trips thrown in.  We like a lot of the same things—deerhounds, horses, art, jewelry, and husbands who stay home with the animals while we jaunt around the country. Rachel had a military career before settling down in Sierra Vista, AZ, and I know it drives her crazy that I am ALWAYS late because she’s always buttoned up early and squared away.  She has a big cargo van, which is even more spacious than my Ford passenger van, so occasionally she helps me out when I need to transport things. In exchange for putting up with my tardiness, Rachel gets to observe my idiosyncrasies and provide our other friends with endless entertainment by telling stories about me.

In August Rachel agreed to meet me in Colorado at my parent’s condominium there, which had just been sold, to help me transport my father’s artwork and my mother’s “collectibles” (yes, Mom loved tschotkes too!) back to San Diego.  Our mission was to sort through twenty years of belongings in twenty four hours from Friday evening to Saturday night, then hightail it back home 976 miles on Sunday morning to be back at work by Monday.  It was a tall order, but we managed.  Most of the furniture was to remain behind to be picked up and donated to Habitat for Humanity, including an almost new and very large television set.  Rachel’s tv at home had just gone on the blink, so I offered her the behemoth in the living room.  She said, “Let’s see how much room we have in the van.”  I said, “Let’s put it in soon, then.”  She said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to get it down the stairs—it’s heavy!” When all was said and done and oil paintings and antiques were sandwiched safely between multiple dog beds, space was at a premium and the television stayed in the living room.

At nine am on Sunday morning, Rachel was seated in the driver’s seat, ready to roll.  In true obsessive compulsive fashion, I told her that I needed to make one more “pass-through”, just to make sure we weren’t forgetting anything important. She sighed and watched the minutes tick away while I ran back into the house.  I realized I had forgotten the closet in the master bathroom.  And that’s when I discovered the treasure trove!  Packaged up neatly into one gallon Zip Lock bags, were dozens of complete first aid kits—the remnants of my father’s many overseas travels.  Each bag was perfect—alcohol wipes, benzoin, gloves, suture material, gauze, dressings, steroid and antibiotic creams, and band-aids.  Many, many band-aids.  My heart was aflutter—I saw a first aid kit for every family car, for the barn, for the spare suitcase, for the dog grooming bag.  While Rachel waited patiently in the car, I stuffed the first aid kits into garbage bags, laundry bags, grocery bags—anything that would hold them. She watched in dismay as I ran to the car and tucked my treasures into every spare nook and cranny.  I was very proud of my resourcefulness, and I offered her some of the take.

Four months later, she still enjoys telling the story.  She regaled the guests who had come to her home a few weeks ago to pick up their new deerhound puppies with the tale of her crazy friend, who walked away from a brand new big screen tv, not to mention crystal and porcelain and her mother’s mink coat (which incidentally made her look like the Michelin tire man) in order to stuff BAGS OF BANDAIDS IN THE CAR!  I let her have her moment of hilarity.  But I know, in my heart, that those band-aids will prove to be far more useful than the mink coat.  The next time someone calls out—at a dog show, on an airplane, at the gas station—“Is there a doctor in the house??!!!”—like a good Boy Scout, I will be prepared.

Back In The Saddle

An email from a reader early this morning reminded me that I have not given my Crab Diaries an update on the adventures of my eighty-eight year old Dad.  The story left off on our trip back from Aspen, Colorado where we held a memorial service for my mother on September 29.  The thin mountain air had proven too much for him, necessitating a mad dash to Denver to get him down from the altitude.  He was mighty tired after that journey, and cancelled a trip which was to have taken place the following weekend for a reunion of his old “travel club”, a group of plastic surgeons, most of whom are quite elderly now, who have been getting together once a year for at least the last forty years to teach one another while having fun in remote locations. The destinations have grown decidedly less remote in the twilight years, and while I was sad for him, I agreed that a trip to Chapel Hill, NC was not in the cards.

So you can all imagine my surprise when he announced, a week after the cancelled travel club excursion, that he was “still going to Viet Nam.”  Say what?  I knew that Surgicorps– the volunteer group of plastic surgeons, nurses, physical and occupational therapists and lay support team that he has travelled with for years– had a return visit planned to Ho Chi Minh City from November 1 through 12, but I was unaware that he had bought tickets.  His seven hour open heart surgery to replace a stenotic aortic valve was only this past March.  He swore that his cardiologists had given him the “ok” and I realized in short order that there was nothing that my sister or I could do or say to keep the man at home. I committed to an early morning wakeup last Friday to drive him to the airport.  As he walked with his suitcase to the car, I noticed that he seemed short of breath, and I said, “Dad, you really don’t have to do this—you have nothing to prove anymore.”  He insisted that he was “fine” and that “this is a test—to see if I can still do this.” For Dad, life is just a series of unending “tests” and he hasn’t failed one yet, unless you count hypoxemia at altitude!

A week later, I got this brief email:   “Hi…….everything is good. We have four long operating days…many cases…incredible variety.  I’m enjoying myself immensely but my hip is a big problem.  Definitely plan to have surgery when I return.  Cannot sightsee because of the need to walk long distances. That’s OK as I’ve already seen most everything.  Food is incredible…hospital puts out a feast for lunch!!! Hope all are happy and well. I am upgrading my return air ticket. Off to happy hour!!! Love….Dad”

According to the Surgicorps Facebook page, the team has now completed fifty eight surgeries in five days.  On Monday they will do their all day follow up clinic and then the plan is to depart for home.  In the meantime, Typhoon Haiyan has decimated the Phillipines, and is headed straight for Viet Nam.  There will be widespread flooding in the low lying areas of Southeast Asia.  I hope that the team will be safe, and that the populace has ample time to prepare.  Knowing my father, ever the optimist, I can only imagine that he is congratulating himself for his recent swimming workouts and thinking, “At least I don’t have to worry about altitude sickness!”   I guess hip replacement surgery is next on the agenda.  You can’t keep a good man down.

The Adventures of Dad, Yes, Again

You can ask anyone—I have absolutely NO sense of direction whatsoever, and am completely geographically challenged.  In fifth grade, just like everyone else, I learned all of the states and their capitals.  Today, if you put a map in front of me, I can still name the states of the West Coast, the Deep South, the East Coast, and I can always find Texas, but ask me about anything in between and I am flummoxed.  The names of the capitals are long gone, with a few exceptions.  So I accept full blame for what happens in this story.

 

On Saturday I left San Diego for Aspen, for my mother’s memorial service.  When she died, at age 81 last January, my father was hospitalized, too ill to even come to her simple graveside service.  So we decided to have the “unveiling” on Sunday, a Jewish ceremony where the engraved headstone is placed on the grave.  Traditionally this is done on the one year anniversary of the death, but one year will be January 7, and the prospects of flying in and out of Aspen in winter, not to mention the possibility of having a ceremony in a snowstorm seemed bleak. After the ceremony graveside, my father planned a luncheon for his friends at the Snowmass Club where my parents spent many happy years in their retirement.  Dad, ever the professor, had prepared a PowerPoint presentation of his life with Mom, and nothing, not even the fact that he is oxygen dependent at altitude and the protestations of his two daughters at being featured in the PowerPoint could dissuade him.  It was going to happen, and it did, without a hitch.  Fortunately, as the offspring with the most technical experience, I was chosen to advance the PowerPoint, which I did with great speed, finessing the most embarrassing parts.

 

All was well until yesterday, when Dad awoke with nausea and a headache.  Fearing altitude sickness, I made the executive decision to cut short the trip, and get an earlier flight out of Denver so that I could get him down a few thousand feet, rather than spend the rest of the day in Aspen at 8,500 feet to take the 7 pm flight we had booked.  After a brief discussion with American Express, I learned that I had about six hours to make it to Denver, return the rental car to the wrong airport, rush an 88 year old man through a very large airport and board the plane.  Remembering that last June, when we drove his car from Aspen to San Diego, his oxygen saturation was fine by the time we got to Glenwood Springs at 5,761 feet, I ditched the oxygen tanks and hit the road like the proverbial bat out of hell.  But there was just one little fact that I forgot, which is that Denver is east of Aspen, and to get there we had to go across the Continental Divide through Vail Pass and the Eisenhower tunnel, which is, at 11,158 feet, the highest point on the entire Interstate Highway system.

 

I told Dad to put on the pulse oximeter, and I watched with some dismay that as we climbed in altitude, his oxygen saturation fell in inverse proportion.  Somewhere just beyond Vail Pass, when his saturation hit an extremely low 77 %, he said, “I am going to take a nap now.”  Promptly his head rolled forward, and he was motionless.  My immediate thought was, “Oh my God–I’ve killed him.” Panicked, I scanned the shoulder of the road for a place to pull off where I could perform CPR. I had no cell reception. I could not call 911. There were no ambulances anywhere in sight. Beads of cold sweat formed on my brow.  I had a vision of myself, a lonely figure by the side of the road pumping my father’s recently operated on chest.  And then, all of a sudden, I realized that there would be no chest pumping.  If my father died with a spectacular view of the Continental Divide, having just honored my mother and seen all of his old friends, by falling easily into an eternal slumber, who was I to argue with that?  Fortunately, in that very moment of my epiphany, he took a nice deep breath and woke up.  I said, “Did you have a nice nap?”

 

Dad, I know you’re reading this.  I hope you’re not mad.  But if you want me to perform CPR roadside at the top of the world, you better let me know!

Get Along Little Doggies

Lately, I’ve been carrying around a couple of cowboys in my car.  One of them is riding a bay horse and leading a buckskin against the backdrop of the Southwest sky.  The other one is moving a small herd of Hereford cattle across a stream, cigarette dangling from his mouth.  A real Marlboro man.  They’re not real cowboys of course—they are the subjects of two large oil paintings by Western artist Karin Hollebeke that belong to my father.  The Marlboro man was painted in 1973—by then he should have known better, but depicting smokers in art and film was not as “non-PC” as it is now.  The two paintings have been riding around in the back of the old Suburban for about a week now—they don’t fit in my father’s new place, and I am not quite ready to admit that I love them.  My walls are decorated with Victorian etchings of dogs and children and beautiful women in flowing dresses holding parasols and looking wistfully over their shoulders.  I must have been quite the Victorian lady in my past life.

Art collecting seems to run in my family.  My paternal grandfather bought an oil painting by a British artist back in the 1920’s that hangs in my hallway now.  When my father did his stint in the Navy just after World War II, others may have had a girl in every port, but from the looks of his collection he spent most of his shore time buying paintings—oil paintings of Italian street scenes and water colors of Venice and Rome.  He says that the artists would line up their canvasses like ducks in a row, and move from painting to painting, one color palette at a time—first the water, then the boats, then the people, then the sky.  Then they would sell them to the sailors, five dollars a piece, and my Dad, arms laden with freshly painted treasures, would carry them halfway across the world, and more recently halfway across the country.  These paintings from the post war years, with their boats and colors and eager roustabouts are a reminder of a Europe recovering from the wreckage.

When our family moved to Texas, the art and artists of the old West, real or imagined, became the focus of Dad’s acquisitive instincts.  The canvasses were as big as the state we were living in, and Comanche’s in full war paint shared wall space with winter clad cowboys shooting wolves from the back of their saddles, and stagecoaches paused briefly to rest under mining city gas lamps before moving on to their destinations.  Hill country scenes ripe with bluebonnets bloomed in the bedrooms, and over the fireplaces.  These big ornately framed oils are the cargo my friend and I carried back to San Diego two weeks ago.

I used to make fun of Dad’s cowboys and Indians, spectacular though they were—especially during my Boston years when I strolled Newbury Street like a new sophisticate and bought colorful abstract lithographs and framed black and white posters from important art exhibits.  But then, one day nearly twenty years ago, lightning struck.  I was at Wind River Gallery in Colorado and in front of me was a magnificent bronze, aptly named Tatonka, by an artist named Buck Mahaney.  A bison bull, in full flight, had leapt into the air as an Indian brave on his buffalo pony bore down on him, his legs clenched tightly around the horse as he drew his bow and arrow and took aim at the animal’s heart.  In Native American lore, the animal must agree to give up his spirit to the sky and his body to the hunter and the bull’s leap symbolized his spirit that was leaving the earth, at that last moment between life and death.  I was smitten, and the proprietor recognized that the only way to get me out of his gallery was to agree to take payments.  A year later, the bronze was mine.

I am giving in to the Western Art gene, and my older son seems to have inherited it.  A couple of years ago he strolled casually through the house, running his hand over the bronze, and he said, “When you die, I want THIS!”  I said, “I’m not dead yet.”  But when I go, I suspect that my Dad’s art, Tatonka, and the cowboys in the back of the Suburban will find a good home with the kid, now grown up and working for the State Department who wore his boots and Stetson in his high school graduation photo.  Even if they have to travel half way around the world.

Mel’s Posh Junk

With apologies to any of the really nice people who live in Aspen, Colorado

I admit it—I have a little bit of an eBay habit.  May I be permitted to say that cruising eBay helps me relax after a long day at the office?  I have all my favorite searches set to notify me if one of my desired tchotchkes suddenly comes up for sale, and I have my favorite sellers marked.  One of them, a dealer from the UK, calls himself “Mel’s Posh Junk.”  I love that, since both my father and my stepdaughter are named Mel.  I’ve bought more than a few items from Mel’s junkyard, which seems to be a jewelry shop specializing in Victorian and Edwardian costume jewelry. Queen Victoria had nothing on me when it comes to gaudy brooches from the Scottish hinterlands.

This past weekend, I was tasked with traveling back to Colorado to make a disposition on the contents of my father’s townhome in Snowmass.  I love Aspen and Snowmass in the summer, when the lupines and Indian paintbrush dot the hills in front of the Maroon Bells.  I can remember some lovely trail rides from the T Lazy 7 Ranch and Brush Creek Outfitters.  I also remember taking a summer ride in the high speed gondola up Aspen Mountain, affectionately known as Ajax.  I was so dizzy from the added height and movement of the gondola up over 11,000 feet that I insisted on crawling down the mountain.  Literally crawling, on my hands and knees, all the way down.  I do not like heights.  Or icy cold.  Or falling down.  Hence, I am not nor will I ever be a skier. But that is another story.

Dad is here in San Diego now, and the sale of the condo closes in two weeks, and it was time to decide what was going where.  He decided to buy new furniture here, scaled to his smaller apartment rather than move the grander furnishings of the place there.  My chief mission was to get his art moved.  An artist himself, he has been a collector all his life, and the paintings that hung on the walls in Colorado are his most treasured possessions.  But what to do with the furniture, and the rather impressive contents of my mother’s closet?  I called ahead to several consignment shops in the area.  The first woman, from Aspen proper, came through with the realtor days before I got there.  With one dismissive wave of her well-manicured hand, she declared, “I can’t use ANY of this.  It’s SO very DATED.”  I decided to move “down valley”, as the natives say.  I figured that surely the good people of El Jebel, Basalt and Carbondale could use a living room and two bedrooms full of high end furniture.  I figured wrong.  The lady from Basalt was equally dismissive.  She walked the floors solemnly, proclaiming that no, she couldn’t sell this, or that, or even those.  Until she stopped at the table where I had placed my mother’s silver and antique Limoges for safe packing.  She said, “I’ll take THOSE.”  I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

On Saturday, my friend who had met me in Snowmass with her cargo van to transport the art, and I painstakingly went through my mother’s clothing.  She was a petite woman, barely 100 pounds.  Unfortunately for me, I cannot wear a size 4.  But she had exquisite taste, and a penchant for fancy labels.  We loaded the truck full of Burberry, and Ralph Lauren, and St. Johns, and cashmeres from Sak’s Fifth Avenue and leather jackets custom made in Italy.  We drove to the second hand store in Basalt where the proprietor could not be bothered to even direct us where to park, or help us unload the van. She took one disdainful look at the offerings, and said, “Most of this stuff will go directly to charity.”

My friend and I made the 960 mile drive back safely from Colorado in 16 hours on Sunday.  We did not want to stay overnight on the road with our precious cargo of Dad’s art, and Mom’s antiques. On Monday, Hector from Habitat for Humanity will pick up the contents of my parents’ 3000 square foot condominium.  I am quite certain that Habitat will find folk who are thrilled to have down stuffed couches in perfect condition, and sleeper sofas, and beautiful lamps, and my father’s custom made walnut desk and file cabinets. I am happy about that, because I want people who appreciate quality and construction to have the furniture.  I guess that Mel’s posh junk just wasn’t posh enough for Aspen.  Oh well!

The Adventures of Dad, Continued

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably figured out that my father is one tough old bird.  He was my grandmother’s first born son, and was yanked forcibly from his mother’s womb a month prematurely via a forceps delivery after her water broke.  As a result, his left brachial plexus was damaged, leaving his left arm paralyzed.  By good luck and sheer determination, the paralysis was not permanent and he went on to graduate from high school at 16, attend college and dental school, join the Navy, decide he didn’t like being a dentist, go to medical school, and ultimately become a world renowned plastic surgeon. It’s been a tough act to follow, that’s for sure.  There are two things I remember vividly from my childhood—the first is that wherever we went he was always on the lookout for imperfection in the faces of strangers, and never hesitated to let us kids know how he would fix such imperfections.  The second is that he was an artist, in real life and not just in the operating room.  In this age of computer modeling, it is hard to remember that there was a time when my father would see a new patient in an exam room, study her profile, sketch it on the white exam table paper, and proclaim, “This is how you look now.”  He would then draw an idealized portrait next to the first sketch and state triumphantly, “And THIS is how I will make you look!”  If you think there was a single patient who could resist that kind of sales pitch, think again.

If ever I was going to doubt my father’s resilience, it was this year.  When my mother passed away in January after a long struggle with dementia, he promptly went into congestive heart failure from a stenotic aortic valve.  Ten years after his coronary bypass surgery, he had a second open heart surgery to replace the valve.  When we all realized that he could no longer tolerate the altitude of his retirement home in Snowmass, Colorado, he decided to move to San Diego, living with me while we sorted out his health issues.  After the heart surgery, he began to chafe for his independence, but was also not confident of his ability to meet new people, make new friends and start over at the age of 88.  We urged him to at least try, and so, two weeks ago he moved into the lovely retirement community of La Costa Glen in nearby Carlsbad, California.  The first week was a bit rocky—at one point the community lost electricity, and I had forgotten to supply him with simple safety gear—a flashlight, some candles.  He worried that he could not remember the name of every new person he met, until I reminded him that the reason La Costa asks its residents to wear their name tags is that no one ELSE could remember HIS name, either.  Sometimes I can’t even remember my own, these days.

Yesterday however I knew he had turned the corner.  He spoke excitedly about a dinner party he attended on Friday night, and about the bridge games he was playing, and about the Great Ideas sessions that the community holds where residents who are retired from all walks of life can discuss the nation’s problems, and potential solutions.  But the truth was revealed when he whispered conspiratorially over the phone, “And a lady has already asked me to partner up!”  I said, “Partner up?  What does that mean?”  He said, “You know—each person has their own living space, but you do EVERYTHING together, meals, activities, and ….you know!”  I said, “Dad, you’ve only been there two weeks.  You are going to have to beat those ladies off with a stick!  You need to play the field for a little while before you partner up!”   He laughed.  It’s good to know that life begins at eighty eight!

Moving Day

Two of my favorite people moved today. Well, actually one of them is a horse who thinks he is a person, and the other, my father. The horse, Norman, is a twenty five year old Lipizzaner who has been a family member for nearly seventeen years. Bred at Disneyland and born in May of 1988, Norman’s “fancy name” is Siglavy Deborah II, and he was raised and trained in a small but elite band of Lipizzaners stabled in Anaheim, California, their sole purpose in life to pull Cinderella’s carriage. When Norm was five or six, being a very smart horse, he figured out that if he leaned back in his traces, the other horses would do his work, and if he nipped at a guest, he didn’t have to go to work at all. And thus he was sold. He came to San Diego where he was retrained under saddle, which he evidently preferred. At her dressage trainer’s on a fine spring day, my daughter took one look at him with his pure white countenance and flowing mane and tail, and fell in love. What little girl wouldn’t want to be Cinderella? We’re still waiting on that prince.

 

My daughter grew up, and went to college, and then to medical school, and now is starting her internship in Internal Medicine in Boston. When she went away to college, we sold Norman with an iron clad buy back agreement to another young girl just starting her dressage career. When SHE went to college, we bought him back. At the time, having lost the paperwork, I couldn’t remember the price I sold him for. As it turned out, I paid more to buy him back than the girl’s parents paid for him. That joke was on me—but he was worth every penny. For the last several years, this highly trained dressage horse has been out to pasture in my back yard. He may be twenty five, but like my Corvette, he’s got low mileage.

 

A month ago my daughter finally agreed that his talents were being wasted, and we started to look for a person to be Norman’s person—to ride him, love him, groom him and fuss over him the way he deserves. She called her old dressage trainer, Tina Caldwell. Tina came over and rode him and despite his long vacation from saddle and bridle, he performed like the good little horse he has always been. Over the weekend, Tina called and said she had the perfect client who had just moved to town, and wanted to take some dressage lessons and have a nice horse to ride on the trails. She knew just the horse. Norman left today in an eight horse trailer, all alone in the big rig. He whinnied a few times for his buddy Dash, but loaded like a pro. He will never be sold again—he’s out “on lease”, but if he can make another person happy trotting down the trails and doing his rocking horse canter in the arena, he will honor all the years of his training, and after all, it’s not every day a girl, or a woman, gets to feel like Cinderella!

 

Coincidentally, today was the day my father had arranged for his movers to come. He has lived with me for the last six months, since my mother died and since he had an aortic valve replacement at the ripe old age of eighty seven. His condominium in Snowmass, Colorado is under agreement, and he has arranged to live at a lovely senior community very near where I work, called La Costa Glen. I am happy because he will be nearby, and given his recent health set-backs, this is a good thing. In horse years, my Dad is only a little bit older than Norman. Like Norman, Dad is far too young at heart to be put out to pasture yet. He is going to go where he can play a little bridge, a few holes of golf, and just possibly, take up painting again—a boyhood love put aside by the demands of an intense career in plastic surgery. Tonight I looked at the membership roster at La Costa Glen. It included four retired Admirals, and twenty five retired physicians and I pointed this out to my father, who decided immediately that it would be fun to do a weekly doctor’s lunch.

 

Though I will miss having them both at home, there’s life in these old boys yet!