The Gem at the Toe of the Boot

Sicilians are proud of their culture, customs, cuisine and laid back ambience.  Whenever we have visited that part of Italy, sooner or later we will hear the oft repeated phrase or some variance of it: ‘Sicily is the gem at the toe of the boot’.  You will also hear the Mafia spoken of with some ambivalence.  It is either blight or an integral part of the culture and a benevolent organization that looks after its own.  What I know for sure is that the food is good no matter where you find yourself in Sicily.

We were only two days from Rome.  The last days of a long Grand Mediterranean cruise.  The Captain had announced that we would be cruising through the Strait of Messina.  With packing, last minute exchanges of contact information, selecting gifts for our wonderful cabin steward it was akin to him telling us he was going to brush his teeth.   I did not pay too much attention.  I had too much to do, plus the grand final Trivia contest was coming up and though I was the weakest link I hoped my team would take home the first prize.  We did not, to our chagrin.  Our cruise pals came to say they had scoped out a great place on the upper deck for us to sit and watch the scenery as we traversed the Strait.   Since they were also busily packing we decided that we would go to the special cruise talk about The Strait of Messina.  We would therefore get the information and be able to skip the lazy time on deck watching the shore and instead do the packing.

My disinterest went straight out the window when the presenter started with: “Have you ever used the phrase ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ or ‘out of the frying pan and  into the fire’ or, ‘between a rock and a hard place?”  We all laughed as we answered in the affirmative.   She explained that we would be cruising through the Strait of Messina, the birthplace for all those expressions originating from the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. 

Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters who lived on opposite sides of a very narrow stretch of water.  They were the bane of Odysseus and his crew.  If in trying to avoid one monster they happened to sail too close to the other they really would be caught between a rock and a hard place.   Bumping up against either side would culminate in the same dire result, a watery grave.  I would hazard a guess that you would be hooked too with such an introduction.  The narrow stretch of water across which these two monsters lived is purportedly the Strait of Messina.

Packing could wait. We could not wait to get to our vantage point to sit and look for monsters and their homes as we cruised through the Strait.   We did not think about its reputation for very rough and dangerous tides forming whirlpools that could sink large boats.  No doubt this natural phenomenon was the explanation for the ‘monsters’ that plagued Odysseus. Neither did we enter the debate about the long proposed suspension bridge that would connect mainland Italy to Sicily over the Strait that was the hot topic of conversation at the time.  We were filled with the romance of the imagery of the Greek myth as we cruised through the land of mythology.

The journey is beautiful.  There is the blue of the Mediterranean, the green of the hills, the many picturesque villages dotting the coastline.  We watched a bus, a train and transport truck travelling across the water.  They looked like dinky toys but we could follow their journey.  There were many tunnels and we would scan the horizon waiting see where they would emerge.  Scudding patches of clouds would add another dimension and shade to the mountains as we sailed by.  The combination of nature, calm sea, new friends, and the aura of the myth made for a fantastic experience. From our vantage point all seemed peaceful and tranquil.

We made up stories about the people who may live in those villages, separated by mountains, seemingly isolated one from the other.   We were watching the mainland side and I wondered about the logistics of dating across the Strait.  “I am sorry dad, I missed the last ferry.  Can you come and pick me up?”  No wonder that for years that bridge has been a dream for so many.  If it ever comes to fruition, it will be the longest suspension bridge in the world.  Or as some refer to it, ‘a bridge too far’ when despairing that it will ever be built.

There was a moment of regret as we exited the Strait heading north to Rome.  We would be flying home from Rome via Frankfurt.  We were happy to be going home but after the serene, lazy sail through the Strait taking in the bucolic scenery, Rome and Frankfurt seemed discordant, a disruption of the peace, a too swift wake up call back to reality.

The Meander:  Cruising through the Strait of Messina was an unexpected pleasure.  There is one such treasure on every trip, cruise, and journey.  As in life you just have to say ‘yes’ when they come along.

A Sombre Tour

I did not sleep well the night before we landed in Dakar, Senegal.  I knew the reason.   We were going on tour to Ile de Goree.  So many of my friends had visited and told of the emotional toll it took as they walked through the House of Slaves. 

The House of Slaves on Ile de Goree is a Museum and UNESCO World Heritage site that commemorates the darkest period of man’s inhumanity to man – The Atlantic Slave Trade.

Goree was the holding port for slaves.   Of the approximately 45 million human beings who were torn from their homeland to be sold in the New World, nearly 20 million left from this place to face the treacherous Middle Passage crossing.   First begun by the Portuguese, this trade in human ‘cargo’ went on for three centuries from 1536 to 1848.

At the entrance to the Museum stands a statue depicting a female and a male slave.  They are bare breasted.  The woman holds onto the man her face uplifted.  The man’s hands are lifted high holding two parts of a broken chain.  He too looks upward.  There was an involuntary hush as we walked from the statue and through the doors of the Museum. The slave house had rooms measuring eight feet by six feet in which up to twenty persons, shackled by their necks and arms were held.  They were allowed one daily bathroom break.  Families captured together would most likely be separated here as they would be once they arrived in the New World.   If you came to this holding pen you had already lost everything including your name.   After all cargo was a numbered commodity not a person.   You got a number and your next official identity would come from the person who would buy you and therefore owned you.

Dare to show resistance, to rebel and you would be relegated to two small cells, so small you were unable to stand up.  You would be shackled, seated, with your back against the walls.  A hopelessness seemed to emanate from these two cells. Doom, bleakness, darkness, defeat, despair hovered in the air. My stomach knotted. I gasped audibly interrupting the guide.

“Sorry,”   I said.

“It is OK.  Many people cry in this place.  In fact Nelson Mandela was almost in the same place you are when he wept.”

We continued the tour and came to the Door of no Return or ‘last look’ door.  I took a picture, the same place President Obama had had his picture taken.   I cried.  I could not help it.  I imagined the heartbreak as each one realized that once they passed through this door to descend to the waiting slave ship it would be the last look they had of their homeland.   Now they were losing the last vestiges of belonging, of home.

They had lost their personhood when they were traded for guns, trinkets, food.  There was a formula to assess the value of this human ‘cargo’.  Children as tall as a man’s leg, females tall enough to reach a man’s chest no matter their ages were desirable, even more so if they were virgins.  Men were assessed according to their weight.  If a man weighed less than 60 kilos they would be taken but kept in a special holding room at Goree and ‘fattened up’ with beans to ensure a better price when sold.

The strongest, fittest, tallest men were the most valuable.    They may be worth a gun or two or more.  No problem, as these were going to bring a high profit when re-sold in the New World.  Also, they were the ones most likely to withstand the rigours of the Middle Passage crossing.

I struggled for breath as I listened to the atrocities, to the barbarism.  I was ashamed at the description of the ‘cargo’, the ‘goods’, the ‘numbers’.  They were human beings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, princes, princesses, chieftains, innocent children.  There was no nuance or balance to my emotion.   What I felt was raw, rough, deep anger.   This was beyond cruelty.  And this abominable trade lasted for over 300 years!

I had studied this bit of history; I had watched the movies and documentaries, seen the depictions in books and listened to erudite speakers.   No cinematographer, no author, no speaker or history scholar could capture the emotion of seeing this up close.   Walking through the Stygian gloom of The Slave House shook me to the core.   This was evil, pure and not so simple.

The tour did not end there though the rest seemed immaterial until we visited St Charles Church, built by the Portuguese in 1658 and the place where you got the best view of the House of Slaves and Ile de Goree.  I could just envision the pious and devout congregants leaving mass and looking at the island, maybe see a ship loading the ‘cargo’ and mentally counting the profits the ‘cargo’ would bring.

The Meander:   I wept when I first visited The Berlin Wall and wept with joy as we were at the re-opening of the Brandenburg Gate by President Bill Clinton.  I wept at Auschwitz and said a prayer for my late brother-in-law, Theo, who was held in Dachau. I weep for sadness and weep for joy but my tears at Ile de Goree were the deepest most hurting tears I ever shed.  I was weeping not only for the 45 million but also for the current 20 or 30 or 50 million living in slavery.   For these the chains remain unbroken.

Oh, by the way, we are Celebrating Black History Month!

It’s a Journey

Life is a journey is an oft repeated cliché.  There is truth in it.  What better way to describe the path we each travel from birth to death.

My Bert and I recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.  I have been pondering our journey together.  There have been many journeys within the journey.  All began as unknown territory.

Journeys begin with hello.  They end with goodbye.  Some flash by like comets others are slow perambulations.   Some are sunlight, some are dark night; some give you strength, some make you weak.

Some you want to hold forever; some you can’t wait to let go.  Some make you laugh until you cry some only make you cry. 

There are journeys that you seek and journeys that are thrust upon you.

Some journeys lead you to people who become Lifeliners, friends forever.  Some lead to people who are fleetingly important for just a moment in time.

Journeys are moments, no matter the duration.   Some are landmarks of your life that help you find your soul, your strength, your spirit.   Journeys are multifaceted.  You juggle the segments, living them concurrently.   Journeys teach you to multitask.

Journeys are never straight, direct or easy.  Yet once you begin you must continue.

Some journeys seem never ending.  You stumble, ineffectual, distraught, full of fear, numb with disappointment.   You see chasms and dangerous cliffs, mountains that seem too high to scale.  There are twists and turns and unexpected obstacles.  These are the fragments that seem to be put in your path to frustrate you, only you.  Now comes the realization that this is really your journey, only you can walk this particular road, only you can make the decision which path to take.

 It is wonderful when you can take control of the journey.  You have solutions to problems, answers to questions; you dream the impossible and see it become possible.   You start out in uncharted waters diving into unknown territory and surprisingly make a safe, happy landing.   Yes, some journeys are wonderful, delightful and satisfying.

Each one has a life journey.  How you travel it is up to you.   You can accept the help of friends and family with grace.  You may show gratitude for the kindness of strangers.  You may be lucky to give love and have it returned twofold.  In the end your journey will be a reflection of your truth, of you.

More than 50 years ago My Bert and I like so many others have over the years, made a decision to walk our journeys together.    What a journey it has been and continues to be.  On this challenging leg the decision on how the journey unfolds is mine to make for both of us. I can make us both miserable; bemoan the unfairness of it all or I can embrace the privilege that it is to be a caregiver to the one you love and to whom you are the world.

My Bert and I are still saying hello to love, to life, to joy.  We embrace the moments and while they are fleeting for him and lasting for me they are our moments.  His journey and mine will commingle as they have for more than 50 years.    We will continue to walk in tandem and greet each day with hope that it will be a good day.

The Meander:   The day you are born is the day you begin to die.  That is inevitable, inescapable and undeniable.    As my Bert and I continue to say hello at the dawn of each new day I hope we will both be able to rise to the occasion and be ready to say goodbye at journey’s end.  In the meantime we will keep on with the journey.  We will live the moments and not look around the bend.    Why bother? What is there will come without fail.

Sweat and Small Stuff

Caregivers are the experts at not sweating the small stuff.  We have no choice.  Start sweating and you would morph into a walking swimming pool.  As we continue the journey I am often surprised at what gets thrown into the small stuff bin.  Most people would be sweating buckets at what we cavalierly designate as small stuff.

A diagnosis of dementia brings instant despair.   Thoughts are of death and the horrors of caring for a loved one you can only envision in the final throes of the terrible disease.    Contemplate possibly living for eight to twenty plus years with the spectre of death hanging over you and nothing, absolutely nothing is small stuff.

Having been handed life sentences for two, we gird our loins to tackle the issues as they come.

Among the first was the constant repetition of questions that drove me nuts.   Same question, over and over.   I would vary the answer just to keep my sanity.  Now: “What time is it?”  “It’s eight o’clock.”  One, two: “What time is it?” “It’s eight o’clock.”  If it continues long enough I may get to:”It’s nine o’clock.”   No problem: small stuff.

The hearing aids somehow get stored in the freezer.  Hah!  The bread knife is in the washing machine:   small stuff.  If my Bert ‘helps’ by washing the dishes and I have to go on a treasure hunt to find where he has put them away?  So what?   I give him a big smile and loud thank you.  He is happy, while I hope I am able  to find everything before bedtime.

A ray of sunshine comes through the window and I see a film of dust on the coffee table.  I choose to see the sunshine.  I will get to the dust later.   I have to cancel my hairdresser’s appointment because my Bert’s appointment is taking longer than anticipated, no problem, I will wear a hat.   My Bert exhibits an inappropriate sense of humour or lack of rectitude in announcing loudly in church or a restaurant: “I have to go pee.”  I used to be embarrassed.  No longer: small stuff.

The little irritants that used to be stressful are just that, little.  So he puts on his t-shirt backwards, shaves off his eyebrows, wears two different coloured shoes (I did not catch it in time) to his ‘club’:  Small stuff.

In great anxiety I consult our counsellor.  I am distressed as my Bert now has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)!  Want to be bored out of your gourd?  Watch my Bert make his breakfast open-faced Gouda cheese sandwich.   For the rest of the world, and formerly for my Bert, bread, cheese, put one on top the other and voila – open faced cheese sandwich.  Now my Bert has to cover the entire surface of the bread, just so.  I have watched as he carefully rearranges the cheese pieces until the bread is completely invisible.  The cheese must not be too uneven which will result in complete dismantling  and new reconfiguration of the same piece of bread and  cheese pieces.  I have seen him look at the composition and not being satisfied take another slice of cheese to even out the masterpiece.  The construction must then be divided into four equal parts.  The precision with which that is done is awe inspiring.  The greatest architect would be tested to get it any more precise.   The yogurt, juice, banana, tea, are another post!  I reported all this and tearfully asked:

“What can I do about this OCD?” 

“Nothing.  This may be just his way to have some control in his ever increasingly uncontrollable world”  was the answer.   So, I did nothing.  Now I will even point out a small space without cheese which my Bert will immediately fix.  Hah!  Small stuff.

I asked one of my Lifeliners what constituted small stuff to her and she answered: “Everything.”   We all laughed but related well.  We wished everything was small stuff.  Of course, it is not.  We have learnt to de-clutter our caregiver lives by paying attention only to the essentials.   I determine the very important issues by asking:  Is this a case of emergency?  If the answer is no then it is just small stuff.   It’s self care or rather, self-preservation.  

The Meander:  As the journey continues you do recognize what is important and gain confidence in identifying those issues, new behaviours and changes that need immediate attention, help and/or professional intervention.   My greatest accomplishment each day is to see my Bert happy, teasing, being himself, inadvertently cracking a joke and ‘helping’ me.  All the rest is just small stuff.