I hate July.
First of all, if you are a Florida resident – or a resident of any of the Deep South states that were once part of the Confederate States of America, for that matter – you know that July is when the summer heat starts rising to almost intolerable levels. It’s not, of course, the hottest month of the year; that prize goes to August, nor is it the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season -September wins that particular distinction. Nevertheless, the seventh month of the year can be hot, muggy, and thunderstorm-plagued, especially in Florida, which is known as the Lightning Capital of the United States for the number of lightning strikes within its borders.
I’m not fond of July weather; I’ve been caught in far too many subtropical downpours while walking back to my erstwhile home in Miami pushing a supermarket cart full of groceries or from a nearly two-and-a-half miles-long walk from the nearest Regions branch to count. It was on a stormy afternoon in July of 1974 that I learned the costly lesson of watching television during a thunderstorm; we lost two TVs on that misbegotten day – my older half-sister Vicky’s and mine. And it was on a hot July afternoon four years ago that I last saw Vicky – ever the Drama Queen – make a dramatic exit, very soap operatic, from the vestibule of a Miami-Dade civil courtroom after what turned out to be a legal disaster for her.
The biggest reasons why this time of year is my least favorite are:
- My mother died on July 19, 2015
- My half-sister, instead of waiting for the legal process to determine who got what from my mother’s estate, essentially took advantage of my emotional distress and stole things from what eventually became my property
Mom died before dawn on Sunday, July 19, 2015. I wasn’t with her during her final moments; her tiny ground floor bedroom – which had been our guest room for many years until she was told to move downstairs because she could no longer use the stairs due to the poor condition of her spine – was too crowded. My half-sister was there, of course, as were her two paternal cousins, Juan Manuel and Mauricio Pereira and Juan Manuel’s wife, Barbara. So was a hospice nurse from Catholic Services and a priest from the Archdiocese of Miami. With so many people in that confined area, Mom’s room was hot, claustrophobic, and too full of tension and sadness.
So even though I popped in and out every so often to glimpse at this tableau and get a last look at my unconscious mother, I kept a lonely vigil from the dining room, where I had my still-newish Lenovo all-in-one PC – I’d set it up on our dining room table so I could write articles for the now-defunct hyper-local news and entertainment website Examiner and keep my friends and family updated on Mom’s condition via Facebook.
Five years on, I still feel guilty about not being with Mom in her final moments, but that bedroom was far too crowded and there really wasn’t any spare room for me to sit comfortably. There were already six adults attending to my dying mother, and that room was the smallest of the three bedrooms in the townhouse. There were two beds – a small one that was a twin to the one I’d had in my original bedroom upstairs – and the hospital-style adjustable bed that Medicaid had provided for Mom in 2010 shortly before her fateful operation to repair her damaged spine.
The hospice nurse – a tanned brunette in her late 20s or early 30s in wrinkled navy-blue scrubs and a stethoscope hanging from her neck – had placed her medical bag on the “headboard” side of the bed across from Mom’s, while Mauricio, whose curly brown hair was turning gray, sat on the opposite end. Vicky had dragged the two chairs from the living room and one from the dining room for the parish priest, Juan Manuel, and Barbara. Vicky remained standing next to Mom, holding her hand possessively, and glowering at me balefully every time I popped by – which was at least once every 15 to 30 minutes.
Had Vicky not brought in her two cousins for emotional support that night, I would have kept vigil over Mom, too. It would have been an uneasy situation for my half-sister and me; when I was a kid, I had been fond of Vicky even though I did not like her mood swings and eating disorders, two traits that I noticed after she rejoined our family in 1969 after four years at a now-closed all-girls’ Catholic school in Parkersburg, WV. But by the night of July 18-19, 2015, we could barely tolerate each other’s presence.
In any case, I’d already said goodbye to Mom on the afternoon of the 18th; not explicitly, mind you. I never said, “Goodbye, Mami, I love you. Rest easy so you don’t suffer,” or anything like that while she was conscious or semi-conscious. I tried to convey those sentiments subliminally every time I popped into that crowded and hot room, but I didn’t say it…especially not with my nemesis within earshot.
The last time that my mom and I exchanged words had been sometime before 2 PM on the 18th. The shiftless home health aide that had replaced Margarita had arrived sometime after Mom woke up – around 10:30 AM – for the last time, fixed her a hasty breakfast, made sure she ate it, removed Mom’s soiled diaper, cleaned her up, then placed a clean diaper, and left hastily before 1 PM. On her way out, the HHA said, en castellano, “See you Monday.”
I was dreadfully tired that last Saturday of my mother’s last day among the living. She had had a restless night, and around 3 or 4 AM she had become delirious and shouted my Uncle Octavio’s nickname over and over for what seemed forever. “Tayo! Tayo! Tayo!” She kept this sad and unnerving chant going until exhaustion finally induced sleep. I fell asleep around 5 AM but woke up shortly before my half-sister’s pet HHA arrived at 10:30 AM.
Nevertheless, tired, or not, I took my usual place on the bed across the tiny bedroom from Mom’s adjustable hospital bed as soon as Miss “See you Monday” had gone. I took a book and lay on the bed, shifting my gaze from the book’s pages to my mother, who was half awake after eating her breakfast and having been given one last change of diapers and bedclothes.
Mom and I didn’t speak much; she was only “half-there” and looking out at the patio through the bedroom window. Vicky wasn’t due to arrive till 3 PM; she is not fond of waking up early, and since her retirement from Metropolitan Hospital (it was closed by July of 2015 anyway) she usually slept till 11:30 AM or even noon. And even in those last days of Mom’s life, I preferred that she didn’t show up till late in the afternoon. Mom was relatively easy to take care of in the mornings and early afternoons because her Sundown Syndrome didn’t kick in until 4 or 5 PM. Vicky’s presence, especially in those hot, thunderstorm-laden, and tense July days, was often an annoyance and a trigger for conflict.
A half-hour passed. The only sounds in the room were the constant buzz of an air mattress’ motor, the ticking from a wall clock that hung on a wall next to Mom’s bed, and my mother’s still steady breathing. I looked at her nervously – the male nurse from Catholic Services who was in charge of Mom’s palliative care had warned me earlier that week that Mom didn’t have much longer to live; he said he thought she would hang on for 10 days at most given her condition, and that had been on Monday, July 13th.
Maybe it was the strength of the bond that we had, or maybe it was coincidence, but just as I looked at my mom, she turned her head in my direction and said, in a tired and pain-strained voice, “Alex.”
“Alex, can you please get me something for the pain? My back hurts a lot.”
Mom had been bed-ridden for almost half-a-decade since her successful operation to repair her shattered spine; for the first two years of her Via Dolorosa she had been good about getting out of bed and using a walker or wheelchair to get around. But sometime in the summer of 2012, she had a panic attack during one of our trips to the bathroom and convinced herself that she couldn’t walk anymore. As a result, she became prone to getting pressure ulcers (bedsores). Everyone involved in her care – including me – had to constantly shift her position on that hospital bed so she would not get many bedsores, but despite our best efforts, either she developed them, or when she was bedsore-free, her back would still hurt from being in a prone position and not getting enough physical activity.
I had been briefed several times over the past week about what to do if Mom complained of pain and there wasn’t a trained health care professional present: if Mom said she needed her pain pills, I had to give her a dose except, of course, if she had already had a dose and it wasn’t yet time for another.
Mom’s primary care physician – or maybe it was the doctor from Catholic Services, I don’t remember now – had prescribed tramadol, a powerful pain killer, in case Mom felt intense pain. (The hospice nurse also had a dose of morphine, but only she could administer it, and she was not due to arrive until 4.) I was my mother’s principal caregiver – her choice was made in 2010 over Vicky’s objections – and I was there, the Johnny-on-the-spot.
I looked at my mother. My heart pounded so hard in my chest that I thought it would pop out through my chest like the xenomorph from Alien. Cold sweat formed on my brow and ran down my cheeks, like the tears that were welling in my eyes.
“Alex, my back hurts,” Mom repeated weakly.
“Okay, Mom. I’ll go get you your medicine. Hang on. I’ll be right back.”
I rose from the bed and put my book down on the sky-blue bedcover. Half-blinded by the tears in my eyes, I made my way to the kitchen. On the Formica countertop, next to an aging beige Princess phone, was a vast array of plastic pill containers of various sizes. One contained the tramadol pills Mom so desperately needed.
I wiped away at my eyes to get rid of the tears. I needed to see the labels on the containers to make sure I gave Mom the correct medicine. She had so damned many – iron pills to prevent anemia, blood pressure medication, Xanax to calm her down…
Finally I grabbed the container with the tramadol. I read the label, making sure I got the right dose (it could not exceed 300 mg. a day, as Mom was over 75 years of age). I cupped my hand and dropped a single pill into it. Then, making sure I didn’t drop it, I walked as fast as I could to Mom’s room.
“Here, Mom,” I said.
“Can you put the pill in my mouth, my boy?”
I looked at Mom with the purest emotion I could convey and tried to smile reassuringly. “Sure, Mom.”
She opened her mouth like a child playing “Here Comes the Airplane” when being spoon-fed by a parent or grandparent.
Carefully and with no small amount of sadness, I placed the pill on her tongue. I made sure it wasn’t too close to the tip so she couldn’t accidentally spit it out. I unscrewed the top of her water container, removed the stopper, then poured some water into the top, which doubled as a cup.
Mom took a sip. Made a “yuck” face as she swallowed the water. It probably wasn’t chilled enough.
I had been told many times to check if Mom had swallowed her pill. At this late stage in the process, she was having difficulty swallowing small pills, so I had to make sure the pill had gone where it was supposed to.
“Mami, can you stick your tongue out for me, please?” I said.
She blinked at me and tried to smile a bit. Stuck out her tongue. The pill was still there, stuck on the surface of her tongue. Apparently, Mom hadn’t had enough water to wash it down. I poured more water into the metal cup and tried again.
Mom gamely tried and took another, larger sip. Looked up at me, almost childlike, with her lovely brown eyes.
“Let me see your tongue again, please.”
She stuck out her tongue. It was hard for her to do so. I could tell by looking at the strained expression on her face. The pill was still there.
It took two more attempts, but finally, on the fourth go-around, when Mom took a long draught from the silvery metal cup, she swallowed hard. And when she showed me her tongue afterward, the pill was gone.
“You did great, Mom,” I remember saying. “Great job.”
“Thank you, Alex.”
“You’re welcome, Mom.”
Those were the last words spoken between mother and son on July 18, 2015.
Mom drifted off to sleep not long after that. I stayed at my post until Vicky arrived at 3:30 PM. We conferred – almost civilly – about Mom’s morning and afternoon routine, the pain flareup, and my giving her the dose of Tramadol. Then, after exchanging Thank yous and You’re welcomes, I grabbed my book and went to my makeshift writing room in the living room.
 See yesterday’s post, Why July is NOT My Favorite Month: Part One.
 In 1969, we lived in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. I was born in Miami, FL, where my father, Jeronimo, had first co-owned a small air freight airline with his friend Jorge Garcez, then flew a WWII surplus C-46 for a Salvadoran airline, AESA. After my dad’s death in a plane crash near Miami International Airport on February 13,1965, my mom’s parents convinced her to rent our home in Westchester and move to Bogota, where we could live and have the family nearby. Mom agreed, though she later admitted that she regretted her decision, and eventually sold the house that my dad had bought for her as a gift to celebrate my birth In 1963. Vicky had been shipped off to the school in West Virginia along with our cousin Maria Clara, partly because Mom had been told that many wealthy Latin American families sent their girls there to get a good education in an all-girls environment, but mostly because Vicky – who was 15 at the time, was giving our mother a hard time with her anger and rebelliousness. Mom had her hands full caring for me and coping with Dad’s sudden and tragic death, and she didn’t need the aggravation from a teenager and her tantrums.
As a result, I didn’t really know my half-sibling until she arrived in Bogota in the summer of 1969. I knew of her and had a few fragmentary memories of her from when I was a toddler, but I wasn’t aware of her personality quirks until I was older.
 She was, per her contract with Nursing South and Medicaid, supposed to visit Mom every day, including Sunday, but she convinced Vicky to let her have a day off on Sundays. Vicky, who hated the previous HHA – who was more diligent and got along with me better – and got her to quit, coerced me into agreeing.
 Sometime in 2012 – the same year that Mom convinced herself that she could no longer walk – she started exhibiting strange behaviors in the late afternoon and early evening hours. She’d be lucid and aware of where she was and who she was with – usually the “good” home health aide, Margarita, and me – and enjoying her TV shows (especially Judge Judy; Mom loved Judge Judy) when, all of a sudden, confusion would set in, followed by terrible mood swings and temper tantrums. She would even refuse to take her medicines, either claiming that she had already taken them or, worse, accusing me of trying to poison her. Good times, those were not.