Thursday, May 3, 2018


I looked at the name on the caller ID and my stomach tightened.
“I’m so sorry, I wasn’t supposed to call you,” my sister’s caregiver was out of sorts.
I glance at the boarding time on the gate desk 7:00 am, and then at the time on my phone. “That’s okay, I have a half hour before my flight boards, what happened?”
“Your sister fell in the shower and I can’t get her up. She stood up to rinse herself off, she said she was dizzy and then she went down.”
“Shit,” I said. My friend next to me asked me what was going on. I mouthed, “My sister.”
My mind jumped into crisis mode. Was she going to be okay? Should I get on the plane? Should I call my parents? Should I call a friend to help the caregiver get her up?
“Is she hurt? Is she conscience?”
“She’s alert, but I think she bruised her knee and she won’t help at all when I try to get her up.”
“Hang up with me and call the paramedics. They may not need to take her to the hospital, but you are going to need them to help you get her up. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
I hang up the phone and dial my mother. I was so meticulous making sure everything was in place for every contingency. I had a phone tree for the caregivers to call if there was an issue. I was sixth on that list.
“I’m handling it,” my mother said by way of greeting.
“Should I stay home?” The pit in my told me I should stay, but if I stayed home not only would I ruin my vacation, but the vacation of the friend I was traveling with.
“No. go. She’s okay, enjoy your vacation.”
I pushed back the feeling of impending crisis and got on the plane. I purchased the Wi-Fi so that at least I could be in contact while in the air. 
For those who have not read my first blog, my sister has a rare form of early onset dementia called frontal-temporal-dementia or FTD. I am her primary caregiver.
I did receive texts while in the air.
“They took the shower door off.”
“She’s out of the bathroom, paramedics checked her out.”
“She’s in bed sleeping.”
She didn’t go to the hospital, at least that was something. I put on a movie and tried to relax on the last 2 and a half hours of the flight.
  The Cancun airport was chaotic. There were lines of tourist booths crisscrossing the building just as we exited customs. All we wanted was a cab to our hotel, and one of the guides shuffled us from booth to booth until we got to the right one. We paid in advance for round trip, which I didn’t really like, but no one was doing one-way trips.
I was still tense from the drama before we left, not to mention the whopping three hours of sleep I got the night before. Despite that I felt great pleasure walking out into the humidity and heat. I had been in the single digits when we left Chicago.
Our hotel, the Golden Purnassus, was about as I expected, needed modernizing but nice. For some reason, I was expecting it to be like it was in Jamaica with everyone aggressively trying to either sell you something or braid your hair. We didn’t run into that in Cancun. For the most part everyone was very nice and helpful and though there were people selling hats, sunglasses, shot glasses, seashells and yes hair braiding on the beach, they were by no means aggressive and politely took no thank you for an answer.

The first thing they did when we walked in was put a drink in our hand and seat us on a couch. A while later someone came over to us to check us in and give us a wrist band and literature on where to get what in the hotel. I had asked for the third floor, as was suggested by every review, but they put us on the second. I could see why people suggested that. The huge open lobby, loud and bustling with people, was open to the second floor. We were going to hear everything. I tried to talk to the woman behind the desk, but being Christmas week, my pleas fell on deaf ears.
Our first order of business after we settle in was to have lunch at the buffet and then head out to the beach. I had called home twice since we landed and everything seemed to be going okay. The shower door would have to be addressed at some point, but for now I could let it go. She was sleeping, as far as I knew crisis was over and I could answer the call of sunshine and waves.

Before we came down, I had checked to see if we could snorkel off the beach. When I went outside I knew the answer was no. Although the water was crystal blue, the waves were big enough to surf on, and there were plenty of people body surfing and boogie boarding, but no one was actually surfing. Part of the reason I had chosen this resort was for the prominently displayed beach beds in all the marketing material. The beach beds were there, but they were all empty and had a tacky handwritten sign hanging from one of the posts that said $80. That was not worth it to me, and obviously everyone one else, because they remained empty the entire week we were there. I commented, probably way too many times, to my friend that if they dropped the price to $25 they would probably have rented them and at least made some money off them.

Dinner was an adventure. We were very excited to see how the food in our all-inclusive resort was. I was floored to find out that despite having six restaurants, and being in Mexico, there was nowhere in the resort to get Mexican food. With the help of our concierge, who I had a bit of a crush on, we went out to eat for dinner most of the rest of the trip and the food was wonderful.
One evening on the way back on the bus from dinner 3 guitar players got on the bus. We were all having a great time as they were playing, and everyone was singing. I looked to my left out the window and next to us was a jeep with a flatbed on it. The flatbed had a mounted machine gun a Federale wearing a black mask standing next to it. I knew that there had been some issues with the cartels on the other side of the hotel zone, but the juxtaposition of the singing bus and the scary guy next to it with a machine gun was very disturbing.
On day three of our trip, we booked an excursion to Chichen Itza. It was a very long bus ride. We stopped for lunch at this small area to watch women make tortillas, eat very mediocre buffet food and get ripped off at a souvenir store. If you go on this excursion, never buy at the store the bus takes you to. There are venders lined up, hundreds of them, at Chichen Itza and you can barter with them and get the same stuff, or even better quality for a lot less.
If you didn’t know, Chichen Itza is an ancient Mayan community with the famous temple “El Castillo” built to worship the serpent got Kulcucan. During the solstice El Castillo was built in such a way that the light would make it look like a serpent was slithering down the sides. 

and several other buildings. Thousands of Mayans worshiped here. The structures are amazing, especially when you consider when they were built. Our guide was fantastic, explaining the types of activities that went on there and demonstrating the echo effect of clapping directly in front of El Castillo and the sound bouncing off the 98 steps at different times causing a bird chirping sound to come back at you. People used to be able to climb El Castillo and go inside, but thanks to stupid ignorant Americans who were defacing it, taking pieces of it for souvenirs and even urinating in the inside prayer rooms, it is no longer permitted. This was a huge disappointment to me.

There is also a ball court where they would play Pok-a-tok. The players would have to get a ball 20 feet in the air and through a small hoop using nothing but their feet and hips. The captain of the winning team would then be sacrificed to Kulcacan. I was so inspired by this I’ve begun to right a short story, or possibly a novella about a ball player.

When we finished with the guide and were left on our own, I decided to go see the oldest known astrological observatory. Unfortunately, either my map reading skills left something to be desired or their maps did. I never found it. I did however buy way too many souvenirs.
On the bus ride back, I received a phone call that my sister was in the hospital. A main component of her form of dementia is an extreme apathy. My 18-year-old goddaughter was taking care of my sister and my sister went into the bath room and after 2 hours of trying to coax her off the toilet she finally called the paramedics for the second time in two days. This time they admitted her. She was so dehydrated she was in kidney failure for the third time. Sometimes if someone doesn’t prompt her she simply doesn’t drink for days at a time.
My unbelievably mature goddaughter was with her for 28 hours. Arranged for her mother, my best friend, to get power of attorney. She sent me a picture of the two of them in my sister’s hospital bed. It was a very sweet picture of my goddaughter kissing my sister, but all I saw was my sister’s empty eyes.
The rest of the bus was asleep and I was on the phone with the hospital and my parents. I told my mother that I would fly home the next day. She told me that her and my father already had plane tickets and I should enjoy my vacation. The guilt of being on vacation while my octogenarian parents, one with rheumatoid arthritis, flew into a Chicago winter. But they insisted. One thing that was abundantly clear is that my sister could no longer live alone. We needed to get 24-hour care for her. While I was on the bus, instead of sleeping like everyone else, I spent an hour on the phone with my parents coming up with a game plan.
The next day was surreal. I spend my day going between standing in an ocean gloriously playing in the waves, to sitting on my beach chair calling doctors, hospitals, parents and potential caregivers.
I needed a distraction from everything, so we went for the evening to the permanent installation of Cirque du Solier. If you every get a chance to go to this, do it. It’s an hour and a half from Cancun in the middle of the Mayan jungle. The structure fits in perfectly with the nature that surrounds it.

 You get a tower of very yummy hors d'oeuvres and Champaign. The show itself did not disappoint. It was about a grandfather who disappears and his granddaughter searching for him. Besides the wonderful story and artwork, the performers, acrobats, contortionists, where incredible.

The next day I found out that they were releasing my sister from the hospital and sending her to a nursing home. She probably needed to be in the nursing home with the occupational therapists for at least a week, but thanks to our wonderful healthcare system, her new insurance was not going to cover skilled nursing facilities after December 31st, three days from now. Since I was going onto Isla Mujeres island snorkeling the next day and out of communication, we needed to get everything into place that day. With me interviewing and my mother checking references, we settled on a full-time caregiver. She was going to work the first 2 weeks while we found someone to work weekends.
Isla was beautiful. Calm, crystal blue waters. I found this dive shop with 14 thousand reviews on trip advisor. We had booked a group snorkel trip. When we arrived at the dive shop, we were pleased to discover that no one else had booked on our tour and it was just us. We received our instruction and equipment. My friend was very nervous and kept making the owner promise that nothing would happen to her. Ultimately, she chickened out and was content to just hang out on the boat. That left a guide all to myself. As per usual for me, the life vest pushed itself up my ample chest and was trying to both choke me from the front and shove my face into the water from behind. Life vests are required in Mexico less for saving lives and more to prevent people from diving down and ruining the reefs. My guide was wonderful enough to let me take my vest off and just sling an arm through it. The rest of the experience was incredible. We saw schools of brightly colored fish, some stingrays and barracudas. I loved every minute of it.

Shopping on Isla is great. If you want Mexican silver and not get ripped off, Isla is the place to go. I picked up a silver and precious stone necklace for my goddaughter to thank her for taking such good care of my sister. I also picked up a silver necklace of the Mayan calendar for my friend that was taking care of my dogs. Without the support I have from family and friends who might as well be family, I don’t think I would make it.
Just when you think it’s safe…
I woke up the day of my flight back. I grabbed my shorts and top to go down to the buffet for breakfast. I lift my leg to put it into the shorts and something in my back popped. The pain is beyond excruciating. My friend knocks on my door and I hobble, half -dressed, to open it. I’m sobbing. After taking a handful of Advil, we found a chair that I could tolerate, and she went down to find out about a doctor and to grab us some food. When she got back upstairs I was still unable to move. Like my knight in shining armor, she packed my suitcase and helped me get into my clothes. We found out that if we wanted to see the doctor, it would be 2 hours and $150 and he probably couldn’t do anything for me.
My poor friend had to carry my backpack and purse as well as her own. We did get a wheel chair in both airports which made it easier. The flight back was not too bad. I tried to stand as much as possible, so as not to stiffen up. The Lyft home, we went to my house first, so she could help me inside with my luggage, and then she went home.
The next day, I hobbled to the nursing home to visit my sister and my parents. She was looking better, but mentally you could tell she’d declined. After visiting my family, I went to the chiropractor. Turns out your back is not a fan of standing for hours in pounding waves. He diagnosed me with a sprained back and said that he couldn’t do anything, it was just going to have to heal on its own.
Three months later and my back is finally healed enough to where I can work out. The caregiver situation is finally stable … for now.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The longest day

We knew we were in for a long day. I had never been to the French Rivera so we picked the excursion that covered the most ground. It was a cruise, it did say the activity level was strenuous, but how bad could it be? Famous last words.
Up at 6:00, although amazingly early for a vacation, it was worth it. Pulling into Nice during sunrise is a spectacular sight, the pink, orange, blue and purple backdrop to the lighthouse that juts out into the sea and the lights of the mansions built into the rock like fireflies dancing on the mountains mesmerized me. I had my camera out in a flash snapping pictures of the sky, water, skyline and yachts as far as the eye could see.

We were out of our room by 6:30 and up to the buffet, which we lovingly referred to as “the trough”. After downing some quick carbs we ran across the enormous ship to make it to the theater for our 7:00 designated meet-up time.  There were almost a hundred people there, all wearing round stickers of various colors with group numbers . Ours was red with 23 on it. It only took a short while for them to call our number and we were off to trek back across the ship to catch our tender into town.  When we reached shore we were again arranged in our groups and off on a ten-minute up hill trek to our bus.
My friend had run to the washroom so I was very concerned that she wouldn’t make it before the bus left. I kept trying to tell someone that she had been left behind but it was falling on deaf French ears. Bus after bus left and no sign of her. Finally, she came pushing up the hill moments before we left. Relief.
Okay, we were on the bus, no one left behind, it was time to relax.
“My name is Sylvie, I’ll be your tour guide.” She proceeded to give us a brief history of the area and an overview of the route we were going to take from Ville Frenche where we landed into Nice proper. If you’ve ever been to the area you would know that the amount of time it takes to get from one city to another is less then the time it took her to explain where we were going.
We arrived in Nice by 8:00. Everything was closed. This was the first round of a new game called “chase the tour guide”. By the time we stepped off the bus she was almost a block away. We chased her through a park. Every time we caught up she had just finished explaining something to the more spry of the group and with an “allez allez” was off again. We finally made it into the city center and I was unhappy to learn that we arrived on the one day of the month that the flower market was replaced by a flea market. After a brief dash around the flea market Silvie granted us a whole 20 minutes on our own informing us “If you’re not here, I gone”. We took a 3-minute walk to see the beach, but beside that there really isn’t anything to do that time of the morning in niece, so we walked back to the square where we were to meet Sylvie, grabbed a café and sat on the steps. As promised, she was there in precisely 19 minutes and 1 minute later we were off, “allez allez”.

Monaco was a short drive away, though the walk through the park to the palace was long, hot and a sprint from the moment we stepped off the bus. We were told for the third time in a thick French accent that Monaco was built “from land reclaimed from the sea.” .Brightly colored buildings with flower filled balconies flashed by in a blur. I held out my camera and snapped pictures as I ran though the cobblestoned streets.  The dash ended outside the royal palace. Again we had 20 minutes to explore on our own. With her right hand sweeping against her left, like a plane taking off, she said, “20 minutes, you not here, I go” and she disappeared into the crowd. This time 20 minutes was plenty. Monaco, though beautiful, is tiny. Some time with the souvenir vendors, pictures of the palace and a brief tour though the church where Princess Grace is buried and I had pretty much seen Monaco. 
Winding through the mountains to the medieval village of Eze we were regaled by the litany of celebrities that lived in those mountains and who’s house was whose. Elton John’s house must have been pointed out six times as was Bono’s house, guesthouse and guest’s, guesthouse. And again we were reminded that the land we saw below was “reclaimed from the sea”. By the time we parked at what I thought was Eze it was in the mid-nineties outside and not a cloud in the sky. This is where I understood the “strenuous” part of the description. The actual village of Eze was two and a half miles straight up and cobblestoned. Not only that, but we were supposed to follow the most fit 60-something woman I have ever met up this enormous hill at breakneck speed. I kept up for about three-quarters of the climb but then my friend became concerned that my face was the color of a ripe tomato and when she asked me if I was alright, I gasped for air and sputtered, “no”. Since she wasn’t doing that much better we had a little rest at the bottom of the final ninety-degree stone-stair push to the top. Of course, by this time Sylvie was quite out of site. I think I caught an “allez, allez” on the wind.

By the time we finally made it to the top the more fit of the group had had a bit of a rest and were heading into the village itself, which meant if we wanted to stay with the group, no rest for us. The Village is a series of stone steps going up and down in a snake like pattern, two stories down, one up, two down, three up, so on and so forth. Uneven ground with no handrails is not a good combination for someone whose nickname growing up was klutz. For safety’s sake I went as slow as I could keeping Sylvie’s “allez, allez” within earshot, even if I could no longer see her.
The hill was so steep that the walk down to the restaurant where we were having lunch was not that much easier, not to mention the midday Mediterranean sun. It was heaven to sit down and have a quite tasty lunch with a very fun couple from Canada. Our respite was short lived though.
Soon we were off again. Back through the hills where we learned yet again where Sir Elton John lived. I had barely gotten my stuff re-organized in my backpack when we arrived in Monte Carlo. The bus traveled the route of the grand Prix and then parked in a parking garage with seventy other busses. Sylvie informed us that the casino was another two miles uphill. I had read that you really couldn’t go in the casino unless you were dressed properly, which I wasn’t, and you certainly couldn’t gamble.
Sylvie told us that anyone that did not want to make the walk could hang out in the Japanese garden above the garage. My friend decided to make the trip to the casino, I opted for the garden. Surprise, if I was not at the bus in half-an-hour “she go”.
I took pictures of the Koi fish and relished in the bit of shade over the bench I was sitting on. I pulled out the completely squished almond croissant I had purchased in Nice seven hours ago. I was going in for my second delicious bite when a police officer approached me. He said something in French and when I showed no recognition, he pantomimed that I was not to eat in the park. No eating in public parks, what was that about? I put my croissant away and pulled my camera out again and looked at the day’s pictures.
We arrived back at the bus park at 4:30 after of course having Elton John’s house pointed out to me again and being told how everything was “reclaimed from the sea”. I have never not tipped a tour operator until that day. I almost limped down the hill and back to the tender port, “allez allez” still wringing in my head.