Up On a Roof

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A family selfie at the best rooftop restaurant around.

Tonight we ate The Last Supper, although there was no water being turned into wine, and no multiplication of the fishes and the loaves. I realize I’m mixing my biblical stories here, but bear with me.

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Night falling from the roof. Stunning skies were the icing on the sunset cake.

It was our last supper on the roof of this house we have lived in for the last year. A giant rental house with way too many antiques and monogrammed linens, but arguably the most stunning view in town. A house with an expansive rooftop where we sat with family members, and with new friends and old, and stared off towards the western horizon at the setting sun sparkling off of the reservoir. We took deep breaths and pointed at multi-colored clusters of houses and church spires and distant traffic lights. Sometimes we said it out loud and sometimes we all just thought it, but no one sat on that roof and didn’t realize how great it is to be alive.

A little over a year ago we crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo and drove directly south for ten hours to set up shop in a town where we knew no one. We formed friendships with people at lightening speed and with unsurpassed ease. The people we met were from different places and different backgrounds. They had widely varying political viewpoints and parenting styles. They were lawyers, musicians, entrepreneurs, chefs, doctors, artists, and farmers. Lots were from Mexico and the U.S. Others were from Canada or France, Ireland, England, Spain, El Salvador, and South Africa. They were like us, but they weren’t. We had never felt so enfolded.

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Wiley and his buddy Dutch brave the icy waters of Los Pozos.

We put our unilingual kid into a bilingual school in which he had no friends, yet he thrived. We joined a gym, we volunteered, we shopped at the markets. We went to the festivals and the art gallery openings and the music and the parades and the parties and we ate at the restaurants and drank with the locals at the cantinas. For months we didn’t leave home because we were so overwhelmed with all there was to do. Then we traveled far and wide, to places with names like Todos Santos and Merida and Xilitla and Patzcuaro and Tequisquiapan.

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It’s OK, I’m a veterinarian.

We saw the monarch butterfly migration. We attended the full-blown Mexican wedding of dear friends. We saw my favorite band play the first shows they’ve ever played in Mexico. We dangled over the edge of the fourth deepest sinkhole in the world, and visited the fourth largest monolith in the world. We swam in hot springs, repelled down cliff sides, and galloped on horseback across the plains.

Perhaps the most amazing product of this year away has been that we have become so much closer as a family. This has been the biggest and most delightful surprise. We spend more time together, and we do more things as a family, than we ever have before.

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Power to the People! In front of the statue of Morelia on the island of Janitzio in Michoacan.

And now school is over, and our timeline says it’s time to go back. Only we can’t. The truth is that we are happier here than any of us ever thought we would be. Whatever expectations we had have been exceeded many times over. I miss my clients and their pets. I miss snow, but only a little. I miss affordable almond butter. I miss my friends and family back home. But with every passing day this place feels more like home to me than any other place I have ever lived.

Lots of you have asked, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make this announcement sooner. We actually made the decision several months ago, and I let the clinic where I used to work in Fort Collins know of our plans back in January, so that they could tell my clients. But they sat on the news for some time, and only made the news public recently, so I felt that I couldn’t say anything until now.

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Gizmo, blissfully happy upon learning the news that the act of peeing will no longer involve traversing 2 microclimates.

So tonight was the last supper, but not because we’re leaving San Miguel. We’re moving out of this house because we knew that we couldn’t leave our cats in Fort Collins for another year, and we can’t have them at this house. We found another place where we can have them, and we’ll be moving there after we return from a trip home to the States in August. It’s not as grand as our current digs, but it’s comfortable, and it also has a roof with a great, although somewhat lower, less commanding view. But losing altitude also means much easier access to the house – no walking up enormous hills three times a day, which the dogs will appreciate as much as we will.

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High above Zihuatenajo Bay.

So look out U.S. of A. – we’re coming for you! We’ll spend a blissful month in the bosom of family and friends, starting at our beach house in Alabama and ending in Colorado, where we’ll collect our cats, and be back here in time for school. And if you didn’t get that visit in last year, you’ve been given a reprieve. The door is always open, so come visit. Who knows – maybe you won’t want to leave either.

No More Tears In Heaven

(Editor’s note: I wrote this post very shortly after the incident happened, which was in late March. I haven’t been able to publish it until today. I’m still making sense of what happened. I’m sure I never will completely.) A few months back I noticed a cord with a plastic pull hanging in our garage, associated in some way with the garage door apparatus. I speculated aloud as to what its function was, and my husband, who was standing nearby informed me that shortly after we had moved in he and my son were in the garage together. My son, who was eleven at the time, had seen the cord, which is only easily in reach when the garage door is in the “up” position, had pulled the cord, which disconnected the door from the automatic lifting device and subsequently caused it to come crashing down on its tracks. Luckily no one was standing under it, because they surely would have been crushed (had the “someone” been one of our two small dogs) or sustained a serious injury (had the “someone” been a person, like my child or husband).

Not in a fond way I was reminded of the time several years prior when my husband had related, several months after the event, the story of his successful execution of the Heimlich maneuver on the same son mentioned above. A true carnivore, my son, who had barely enough teeth to masticate meat at the time, had placed an enormous piece of flank steak in his mouth and choked while trying to swallow it. No one in my family seems to understand why discussing this incident inflames me, since in their assessment, everything turned out fine. And in their estimation, telling me about it in a more timely fashion would not have changed the ultimately positive outcome.

In the life of any person there are certainly many such incidents. Near misses. Almost calamities. Flirting with disaster, thank you, Molly Hatchet. As parents the hairs on our arms stand up as we allow ourselves a brief contemplation of “what if?”, and we smile and offer a silent prayer of thanks as that tiny package containing half of our DNA and all of our hearts runs off towards the next adventure.

At least, that’s how it usually happens. In a way so incredibly tragic that I am just now able to start to comprehend it, it didn’t happen that way for a friend of mine here. At a birthday party over the weekend her son, who was only five years old, drowned in a pool-full of kids, surrounded by several attentive adults.

How did it happen? None of us really understands it. I was only there to drop off my son, who was spending the night with the older son of my friends, who were hosting the party for their younger son. I got into a conversation with a couple of other parents from our school. We have recently staged something of a “bloodless coupe” and placed four new board members, all parents, which has energized the community quite a bit. We were having a spirited discussion about curriculum when I heard my friend Erica screaming for someone to call an ambulance.

It was all so unreal. One second I was talking to friends, and the next I was sprinting after my friend Chuck, who was hurtling over chairs and benches on his way to the pool deck. Even then in my mind I was thinking that at worse someone had fallen and cracked their head on the pool deck. But when we got to the side of the pool we found an unresponsive little boy with blue lips surrounded by frantic adults.

Someone had started CPR, but for better or worse, the crowd parted for Chuck and me. Somehow my brain went to that place that it’s supposed to go to when you’re trained to deal with emergencies. Airway. Breathing. Compressions. A-B-C. I rolled him to his side and cleared his mouth of vomit. I probed under his mandible for a carotid pulse, and felt nothing. Chuck started compressions, and I started mouth-to-mouth, pinching his nose and blowing into his mouth until I saw his chest rise. I had never actually done CPR on a human, and I remember when I got certified that mouth-to-mouth is controversial, since unconscious people almost always vomit, but it seemed like I had to try. In a fully-stocked veterinary clinic I would have placed an endotracheal tube and hooked the patient up to an oxygen machine, but clearly I couldn’t do that, so I did what at the time seemed like the next best thing.

I don’t know how long we tried to revive him on the pool deck, but it probably wasn’t long before someone made the decision that we needed to take him to the hospital, because waiting for the ambulance would cost us precious time. Here in San Miguel even if the ambulance does come it is likely not staffed by trained EMT’s, like ambulances are back home. So really all you’re getting is a fast ride to the hospital with sirens. My friend Erica, who lives in a tiny town six hours from here, told me that once a cyclist got hit by a car in front of her house, and when she called the ambulance, she was told she’d have to bring them gas money before they’d come.

So I think that ultimately the decision to drive him to the hospital was the right one, because we were only a short distance away. Chuck and I raced from the pool to the first car we saw with a driver, Chuck carrying his body and me cradling his head. We laid him on the floor of the back seat and started CPR again, and continued until we pulled into the emergency bay at the hospital.

For some reason it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get him back. Even as I was repeatedly checking for a pulse and not getting one, I thought his color was improving. And I wanted so badly for him to live! To come back to us and resume his ridiculously short life! To come back to his mother, who cherished him beyond measure. But after only about ten minutes in the ER our friend Ricardo, who is an MD here in town and had met us at the hospital, came out to tell us that he was gone.

It was so overwhelmingly impossible to believe this news. I remember in vet school our Emergency Medicine professor showed us a study that someone did comparing people’s perceptions of how often comatose people are revived in the ER, versus the reality. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but suffice it to say that TV hospital dramas have skewed our beliefs far towards the positive side, but the reality is that most of these cases don’t make it. And I don’t know whether his chances would have been any better in an American ER or even an ER in a bigger Mexican city. I don’t even know how long he was under the water, but surely it couldn’t have been long. How did it happen so fast?

I spent some time over the next couple of days wondering if there was more I could have done, or something I should have done differently. I asked myself why I felt that I needed to be one of the ones working to save him. After all, I’m a dog doctor, not a people doctor. I remembered another story from vet school, this time about a couple of doctors from the vet teaching hospital where I went to school who were on a plane headed to a conference when that Hollywood-moment occurred and the flight attendant asked over the intercom if there was a doctor on the plane. My vet friends related that they waited a minute, looking anxiously around them until, seeing no call buttons go on, rang theirs. When the flight attendant arrived and they told her that they were veterinarians, uproarious laughter ensued from the seats around them. Some asshole even yelled out, “Hey, we’ll let you know if he needs his nails clipped!” to chorus of even more laughter.

So yeah, we vets have some insecurities about what you think of our abilities. I can’t really even say what made me lay my hands on this boy, except that I felt that I had to. And honestly I don’t know if it was even possible to save him at that point. Sadly, we’ll never know. But I think I did the right thing by trying.

Death. So final. So many questions left unanswered. So much pain. Why did this happen? Surely, I’ll never be able to answer that. This little boy’s poor mother is lost. She’ll never hold his hand as they cross the street together again. She’ll never struggle over homework with him. She’ll never anguish with him because a girl turned him down for a date, or hold a grandchild in her arms.

The community is reeling, surely as it would be after the tragic loss of any child, but this little boy was heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that even those who met him only once and briefly were touched by him. Everyone remembered meeting him, and remembered his dazzling smile. We’ll never see him grow up, never know what he would have become.

A few days ago I watched sunset from the roof of a house in the beautiful and slightly funky beach town of Zihuatanejo, where we are spending a week. It was one of those fiery orange ball sunsets, oozing into the Pacific Ocean like a popsicle melting on a on cement in mid-August. Realizing simultaneously the beauty of this sunset and that my camera was downstairs, I mentally calculated whether I could make it down and back in time to get my phone and photograph the sunset. I decided that I would rather just enjoy the sunset, and wait until another day to get a picture. But, of course, there was no other sunset quite like that one on any of the other days that we were there.

Ultimately I guess tragedies remind us to watch more sunsets through our eyes instead of through our viewfinders. To be kinder, and to judge each other less, or at least less harshly. To say “I love you” more. To say, “you’re beautiful”, or “you make me smile” to each other more. To live in the moment, and to do things today rather than tomorrow. Because none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow. Life is a gift and a wonder and you’d better squeeze everything you can out of today. Because tomorrow it could all be over, for any one of us.

Here We Go, Literally, Again

Very nearly exactly fourteen years ago Wiley and I walked away from careers that we had spent more than ten years building to travel around the world.  Reactions to news of our plans varied widely, from astonishment to envy to worry for our safety.  I remember very clearly that when I told my mother we were going to spend the year 2000 traveling around the world, she said, “No, you’re not.”

We arrived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico on February 7, 2000, and returned to the U.S. on March 17, 2001, several months ahead of the events of September 11th that year.  Like most people I well remember what I was doing when I heard the news that a commercial airliner had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.  The demarcation created by that day is preceded by a naivete regarding our safety, both at home and abroad.  Since then, travel has required that we not only remove our shoes and submit to full body scans, but that we pause and consider the safety of our chosen destination.

For as long as I can remember since our return we have both said that we would do another Long’s Strange Trip at some point in our lives.  Becoming parents did nothing to dissuade us from this plan, but did give us pause to consider what type of journey would be best to have our son safely accompany us.  This led to considerations regarding his academics and his social life, and how we could teach him about what’s outside the boundaries of the United States while disrupting his normal development as little as possible.  Honestly admitting that none of us had the patience for home schooling left us with the realization that we needed to stay in one place, where Little Wiley could go to school.

Armed with this realization, we started looking for our destination.  Places that were more than three hours either side of our time zone were out, since we knew Wiley would need to continue to run his business while we were gone.  Canada was out, since we barely live through the winters in Colorado, so that left Central and South America.  We talked about Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, and Panama.  We visited Panama last year, and although it’s beautiful we were underwhelmed, and more than a little concerned about the school system and the lack of infrastructure anywhere other than Panama City.

I read about San Miguel de Allende originally in the magazine International Living.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was “officially” founded by the Spanish in 1541 as San Miguel, but “de Allende” was added to the name in the 19th century to honor Ignacio de Allende, one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, who was born there.  The region has a history of silver mining, and San Miguel became a prosperous town because of it.  After the Mexican War for Independence the city’s fortunes suffered, but discovery by foreign writers and artists in the 20th century resulted in the city’s prominence as a cultural and artistic mecca.  Much of the city’s amazing architecture is intact and well-preserved, and it hosts festivals of every kind and size multiple times per year.  With elevation of 6000 feet, a dry climate, and temperatures ranging from lows in the forties to highs of no more than 85 degrees the weather is fine most any day of the year.

We visited there in March of 2013, and at the end of the first day the three of us shared a growing sense of excitement, the feeling that this was the place.  We soon discovered the existence of a relatively new school that is run by an American and is seeking certification in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum, just like the middle school Wiley is slated to attend in Fort Collins.  On a second trip there over last Thanksgiving weekend we found a beautiful three bedroom house overlooking the center of town, and signed a lease starting July 1.  The only thing standing between us and this amazing dream at this point is an interminable things to do list that includes such trivial entries as rent our house, sell our cars, and find someone to take care of our cats (one of the owners of the house in San Miguel is deathly allergic, so while the dogs are welcome, the felines are not).  Feelings of anticipation and excitement routinely clash with dizzying waves of claustrophobia and despair that we will never get it all done.  So consider yourself warned – if you’re up for being pulled along on what promises to be an interesting and life-changing, yet occasionally uncomfortable ride, climb aboard.