SURVIVING IN THE ANZa-BORREGO
By Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
SAN DIEGO -- The thing about rural nursing is that you never know where the road will take you. It could lead to an old shack without electricity or a mobile home on a reservation, or it could lead to a mansion and everything in-between.
This weekend I was called to travel out to the Anza-Borrego desert to care for an elderly couple. The wife was end-stage Alzheimer's, meaning not able to walk, hardly able to stand and unable to care for herself in anyway.
I was on my way as the sun came up over the mountains and enjoyed watching the light spill over the long open vistas of the Santa Ysabel valley. By the time I reached Lake Henshaw and the rural reaches of northern San Diego county, the colors of earlyday on the land were vivid: blue lilac shadows on the mountains surrounding the valley on the north deepened then rippled away before the coral pink rushes of the warming hills.
The cottonwoods along the creekbeds were in various states of undress. The oaks wore nothing but mistletoe but the sycamores managed to hold on to flaming dry yellow, orange leaves, even when the Santa Ana winds that tear through here in Winter tugged against them with all their might.
As I reached summit and started the 6,000-ft. descent to the desert floor, I passed a sign that said, "Welcome to the land of sunshine, silence and solitude. A land ruled by the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. A land of badlands and arroyos." Yes, the mystique of the desert. The sign reminded the traveler ... "Make no mistake, they [the bighorns] are watching you." I involuntarily turned my head to see them, blending in with the rocks. Of course, I could not.
Down in Borrego, I found "Five Diamond" street easily and drove up a large adobe house, well back from the road in a stand of olive trees and agave. It was modest-looking from the outside, but as I passed through a Mission door into a courtyard with fountain, everything was cool and shadowed and inside the house was taken with the refined and understated opulence of the place.
Art was everywhere, much of it Chinese and Indian. There were lots of black-and-white photographs, while old, dark wooden tables and furniture pieces (15th & 17th Century, I learned later) stood in brilliant contrast to the light streaming onto gleaming white linens and polished sandstone floors. Bookshelves swept from floor to ceiling in every room, and huge clerestory windows looked west, out over the desert landscape to the west. Clear light was everywhere. Clear, cold light.
The 91-year-old Lord of this manor walked into the room, and any curiosity I'd had about meeting him was doused in an instant by the chill acidity of his presence. In a very short time I learned that the only creature in the house he deemed worthy of his time was his ill-tempered and loud-mouthed parrot, a green devil named Charles. He seemed to have a more fulfilling relationship with the bird than with his wife. Perfunctory one-liners were all she got, while Charles got endless coos and sweet nothings; I disliked him almost as much as the parrot.
His lovely wife, on the other hand had deep, piercing blue eyes. I introduced myself to her while she was still in bed. Weighing only 95 pounds and unable to speak since her stroke, I leaned into her eyes and chattered on a bit. She stretched out her hand to touch my face. She ran her fingers up to my forehead and over my hair, looking at me as if she had found something of great interest.
I fell silent as she continued to explore my face. Her utter directness and childlike delight made me aware of how much like a wall words can be. Silently, I accepted her invitation to let the walls come down.
Over the next few days it became clear that she was the real treasure of the house. Though unable to carry on a conversation, she smiled widely and encouraged me during many transfers in and out of chairs and bed, gratefully patting my back or hand each time. All the while, her husband wandered the house oblivious; in between his books, he daintily ate morsels and sweet-talked the feathered thing.
Even finding some of my favorite authors on his bookshelves didn't redeem him. Walker Percy, Edward Abbey and an impossible book on Krazy Kat (copyright 1947) with an intro by E.E.Cummings. None of these could save him. He was living evidence of the min described in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." How did he ever deserve her?
Ordinarily, a literary find might grant my foes some indulgence, but in this case they only furnished more proof of a male narcissism of a density suited only to the labrynthine corridors of Hell. Yes, he belongs in the cage with his bilious little bird.
His wife, the diamond on Five Diamond road, appeared stricken when I said goodbye. I know as I write this she is staring into the darkening light of her room as it gets cold out in the desert and the sun goes down. She is waiting in solitude to get up for dinner only to sit across a 15th Century table across from a man who will not speak to her.
She will be comforted and tended to by a Mexican-American woman with soft skin, laughing eyes and breath that smells like pan dulce on this night of the Three Kings. She will tell her that she is loved and still beautiful.
These are things a 91-year-old woman who feels invisible needs to hear.