The Perils of Being Paula

Last night I had a crying spell, or as near to one as I can get. Realizing that I’m old, the elder, supposed to know things, to be the protector. After all, I—and all of us in the oldest generation (it’s not about years but about who is left)—am what stands between those younger and the awesome Unknown. I think hearing that song “You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings” triggered it, although the spell had been coming on all day. My daughter-in-law had told me something painful, and it stuck. I became aware that hurt feelings are very real, not to be dismissed with a contemptuous snort. That was a new idea.

Mother used to be so consistent in her dismissal of such feelings, most feelings actually, that it only now occurs to me that she was missing the point. Alas, poor mom, her hurts were dismissed all her life, first by the adults around her and then by her “inner adult.” Mostly I wish my inner adult would go on a trip and forget to come back!

Anyway, the feelings came up, as we say in California, and there I was: in the dark, listening to the scratchy radio (did I tell you I don’t have a TV hookup, so I can’t use my favorite meditation device?) and the song came on. Reminded me of the time in the early eighties when mother was very ill, near death. She had some kind of pericarditis. I had been to see her at the hospital and she was all but disappeared (not so odd for an Indian woman, actually). It was as though only a tiny lump remained under the blankets; the rest of her mass was elsewhere. I remember that song playing through my head those long days and nights until she began to recover. I didn’t know what I’d do without her, because the only reason I had been able to go out into the world and do the things I had done, good, bad, and indifferent, professional, personal, and spiritual, was that she was there, home, keeping the fire alight, tending to the world in a quiet way that appeared to be cooking, cleaning, ordering a human family’s life.

On October 15, in my trailer here in Fort Bragg, I was getting ready to go to sleep. I was having a severe respiratory attack—asthma, emphysema, whatever. I had spent most of the previous day in bed, out cold. By fire day, which was a Sunday, I realized that I was sick and needed to go to the doctor, which I resolved to do the next day. Barely able to breathe, I crept slowly from my bedroom to the kitchen to get a glass of water then back to my room. The trip was excruciating, my breath labored and loud. Scary. I sat at the edge of the bed and began to take my night meds when I realized something was going “Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.” Two thoughts flew across my awareness: a) raccoons, and b) someone’s in here. My son Sully? His wife Milissa? No, they’re gone. No Ms. Kitty either—I had had to send my best friend and comforter to her original people, Sully and Milissa, because of the asthma.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. No, can’t be raccoons. Too regular. Well, shit. I got up and started for the door to the Funnies room. Fairly sure someone was in the trailer, I can’t imagine what I thought I was going to do about it! Old, unable to walk, to BREATHE, I was more than defenseless. Even a raccoon could have had me for late night snacking.

I snailed my way down the wall to the library door and looked in. A very bright light shone through the cotton curtains. Hmmm. Maybe someone’s ill; maybe it’s an ambulance. Maybe someone died. Not uncommon at Ocean Lake, a mobile home park for over fifty-fives. Some of us are WAY over fifty-five. Fire truck?

I made my slow way to the back door, opened it, and YIKES! The shed was on fire. Well, damn. For some reason I went back to my room for the phone instead of getting the one in the living room, which was a bit closer. My breathing was so labored I couldn’t speak. I dialed 911 and managed to gasp, “Fire. I want to report a . . . ” The operator said she’d connect me with the fire department, and when some one answered I said, “Fire,” gasp, gasp, “there’s . . .” gasp, gasp, “there’s a fire!”

“What’s the address?” he said

I gasped some more then said, “118 . . .”

“1184 North Main,” he cut in, “Right?”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking What a dude! Boy, was he on top of addresses in Fort Bragg.

Hearing my gasping, he said he was going to connect me with the ambulance. “I don’t need an ambulance,” I protested. I figured he thought I was gasping because of smoke inhalation, but I hadn’t inhaled any smoke yet.

“I’m connecting you with the ambulance,” he said again, firmly. OOOH. What a strong man!

“I don’t need an ambulance,” I insisted. I was sure that the Fire Department would come right away—Fort Bragg is a very small town geographically as well as population-wise. The shed fire would be extinguished and after a bit of hoo-haw I could go to sleep. So after hanging up from the ambulance dude who was coming despite my protests, I settled in to wait for the cavalry to arrive and get things sorted so I could go to bed.

Then I realized that someone was knocking at the front door, calling my name. Damn. I began to make my slow and breathless way through the extent of the trailer—some fifty feet—to get the door. I forgot that I could go out the sliding door in the Funnies Room just a few feet from where I sat at my bed. I could see through the kitchen window that it was my next door neighbor, Bill, and he was trying his darndest to get my attention. But his knocks were weak, and the door doesn’t resound particularly well. His voice wasn’t much stronger, for that matter. I was laboring along, calling, “I’m coming,” but you can imagine how much volume I could muster.

So when I got to the door and opened it, a worried Bill and his little dog stood aside and beckoned me out. I made my way along the porch to the bench and sat. “Can’t breathe,” I gasped. “Can’t walk.”

Bill said that the dog had wakened him and his wife, Mary, with his barking. They had gotten up and seen the fire through the window. So Mary had called the Fire Department and he had come over to waken me in case I was asleep. I didn’t say that had I been asleep, I never would have heard him. I didn’t say anything but “Gasp, gasp.”

The Fire Department’s here, I see. Good. This will be over in a little while, I think, gratefully.

Then he’s all, “Let’s get off the porch.” I’m, of course, not moving. I am beginning to catch what little breath I have, and moving is not something I’m prepared to do. “I can’t walk,” I say, wheeze, wheeze. We sit, I enjoy the small fresh breeze moving the leaves of the little tree of some unknown variety that grows next to my porch. Bill is plainly agitated. He can barely sit still. Meanwhile, I’m looking up at my neighbor’s roof and the sky, and I see that sparks are flying from my trailer to hers. Oops.

A cop comes. A big guy. “You have to get off the porch,” he says. I am not arguing, now. Seems like a prudent move, but I can’t walk. “I can’t walk,” I say. “I can’t breathe.” Bill and the officer try to help me. Each taking an arm, they more or less drag me along the porch and down the steps, across the street to the police car. I think I’m gonna expire, literally, right there. “I can’t breathe,” I whisper. “Stop.” But they don’t stop. I think they thought I was too weak, old, sick to walk. I think the part about not being able to breathe, which was why I couldn’t walk, didn’t penetrate.

Whatever, I made it to the officer’s car, sat down, and gasped my way back to almost breathing again when the ambulance people came, sans gurney, to drag me to the ambulance, another terrifying struggle to stay alive with people “helping” me—helping me drop dead that is! Somehow I manage to get up into the ambulance, no small feat given how far off the ground the first step is. The attendant gets oxygen going for me, and then a nebulizer. By now the ambulance is filling with smoke, and it has that awful, unforgettable smell of a home burning. The smoke the ambulance collected will have a serious effect on my lungs several days hence. But for now the driver has to maneuver his way through fire trucks that have parked somewhat obstructively. He’s blocked, but the police and fire people are urging him to move out.

He does, with some skill, and then we are on our way to the emergency room. There they dose me with more Albuterol or whatever substance is in the nebulizer and shortly I am much improved. The doc, a friendly, witty man, gives me a prescription for antibiotics, which is what I was going to see the doctor for—but not in the emergency room, for heaven’s sake!

“You’re all right,” says a nurse or other attendant. “Is there someone you can call to come get you?”

I can’t call my kids, they have a cell phone that goes unanswered. Besides, they have the cats.

“Maybe you can go to a motel?”

Yeah, and walk there? I don’t think so!

So I call my friends Charlotte and Dreux, for whom I thank all the gods and spirits, and soon there’s Dreux, and I get up and as we are leaving he sneaks me a stuffed bear he’s brought. What a perceptive man, is Dreux. I hug the bear as we get into his car, and off we go. We return to the trailer to retrieve some equipment I need to breathe. One of the fire fighters had managed to save some stuff. The fire chief comes over and gives me some instructions about the report for insurance people and such. He tells me that the fire definitely started in the shed. I say it’s probably because the workman who sealed the deck that day must have left the rags there that he used to wipe up the excess without putting them in water and/or a metal container.

He also tells me that the insulation in the ceiling caught and they couldn’t stop its spread. It was still smoldering more than an hour after they first arrived. The shed was cinders, of course, the trailer burned, and my car, parked in the carport with its nose a couple of feet from the shed, totaled. So there I was. Sixty-seven years old. Sick, weak, homeless, without even a car to sleep in. What the heck was/is this about?

Yes, I know, nothing personal.

A few days ago I was leaning on the trunk of my new car (1985 Toyota Cressida), resting my aching back, or excruciating hip, or both, and happened to look down. I saw my left hand and a warm feeling of aesthetic pleasure washed through me. Gee, I thought, I have pretty hands. For the most part I haven’t liked my hands, but that day their brownness, their strength, the length of my fingers, the raised veins—wow. Then in a flash I was elsewhere, and a fresh small breeze was moving through me, or WAS me, and I saw images of the blackened remains of my past flick by. I grokked: “I’ve been believing that was real!” (“and of course it’s not,” the unverbalized remainder of the grok continued.) YAHOO!

How I wish that nice feeling would stay. But how grateful I am that I had a moment’s clarity, freedom, objective awareness. That was what the fire etc. is/was all about, after all. You friend-warriors know what I mean.

But the evening after I picked through the burned-out ruin of the trailer, I realized that in the more shadowed region of my awareness, I was puking. Horrid, body-wrenching heaving. The loss was too much, too hard. I walked through the detritus of my life, and felt that the trailer was alive under the cinders; even in its blackened state, swathes of insulation hanging from the ceiling, glistening ebony tiles covering the floors, you could feel it, being. As though with a good brooming and some scrubbing it could sing again. It had been so COOL. I worked so hard, friend/helpers worked so hard, Frank of Frank’s Fixin’s, who learned a lot of his craft working on the place, worked so hard, and it’s being torn down by a back hoe as I type. The Funnies room (done in primary colors, replicated my childhood – thirties, forties, fifties. Route 66 had played a major part in my childhood travels between Cubero and Albuquerque, or Cubero and California. The decor featured Route 66 draperies, coca-cola icons, tin pictures, and similar kitsch, along with a large model of the Enola Gaye. The floor had been hand-painted plywood, white, with dribbles of primary paint splattered all over it, along with the shoe-prints of my granddaughter, who had helped me paint it). My boudoir with roses and lace (my girlhood dream boudoir). My art-deco bathroom that I had just called Frank about coming to complete—all gone. Swept downstream like the huge boulders and occasional rusted-out cars would be swept over the falls in the Big Arroyo in Cubero during summer floods. But not exciting and deliciously terrifying: just sad.

I made it to Christmas Eve, and find that I miss the Christmas Eves of my childhood and younger adult years terribly. Before we children went to bed (early so Santa would come . . . and so we’d be out of mother’s hair while she worked to make the Eve as BIG as it was gonna be) we had a traditional supper. This was because we were Catholics and in those days Ember Days meant no meat, and the night before Christmas was an Ember Day (can’t remember what Ember referred to other than dying fire). So mother made a huge pot of frijoles, an almost equally large pot of chili con torta, and fresh wheat tortillas. The red chili was Laguna stew—no cumin, oregano, white flour to thicken—just rich thick red chili paste made from dried red pods. The tortas were painstakingly made from whipped egg whites into which the whipped yolks were folded. The resulting batter was dropped a tablespoon at a time into hot olive oil, and tiny omelets, browned and sizzly, emerged to be put into the thick red chili broth. Oh, boy. Sometimes it was snowing and I remember one year going over to the store (Cubero Trading Co., next door to Grandma and Granddaddy’s, across the lawn from us.) I had a LONG stocking cap, all the rage among nine- or ten-year-olds that year (1948?) and the snow was falling at a good rate, and I tilted my head skyward and turned around slowly. It’s an image that has stayed with me all these years.

Often I think about my mother. Mothers are strange beings, stranger than Grandmas even. Mine has been dead over fifteen years, but not really. She was nagging at me just this noonday. I had neglected to eat much breakfast, having lost the blueberry muffin I bought at the Espresso Hut (locally owned) just as morning light was breaking and the beautiful moon, shining from behind a gossamer cloud, was making her way toward the Pacific. I got busy and before I knew it I was ravenous. I bought some lunch and drove as fast as I could to the nearby Headlands where I could enjoy my meal and watch Grandmother Pacific be wondrously non-Pacific. So there I am, listening to a new Cat Stevens CD on my new/old car’s CD player and congratulating myself on my luck in a) getting such a cool if both outdated and too large car, and b) in getting such a perfect view in my favorite parking place. I am scarfing my lunch and here’s Ma, “Slow down! Chew your food!” She didn’t say. “Elbows off the table, Mabel,” though I was waiting. I had a smart-ass reply all set.

The hard thing about dead mothers is you can’t phone them. They don’t answer when you call, and by the time they return your call you’ve forgotten what you wanted to talk about or they’re so spacey you can’t understand what they’re communicating. Of course, mother doesn’t come by just to nag: sometimes she shares a joke. She liked the risqué kind. As she lay dying that last day, my sister-in-law was recounting the preceding hours. Mother’s breathing was so loud, and very powerful, causing the bed to hit the wall, making a banging noise, boom-BOOM, boom-BOOM. “Wow,” I said. “I wonder what the neighbors thought!” As we were laughing I looked at mother, still breathing that way, “stentorian” I think it’s called, and she was grinning.

That told me two things: she was aware of us, of her surroundings, although she couldn’t respond for the most part, and that dying was in some ways more terrible than I had previously imagined. I wonder what one thinks as bit by bit the body’s vibrant energy, heat, movement, vitality, goes out: feet, calves, thighs, and so forth. And you lying there, feeling less and less. Does the endocrine system shut down simultaneously? I mean, that matters because emotions as we know them come from the endocrine system, or so I believe. If it’s shutting down, maybe “mad, sad, glad, scared” don’t happen.

Does the brain or a gland secrete some joy juice or soporific so you don’t really notice? I surely hope so! Sometime after the dirty joke, I was passing by the foot of mother’s bed on my way to get another cup of coffee. Something in the situation reminded me of being in labor, so I said, “Not long, ma. Three centimeters, nearly four.” I swear she grinned a bit again.

During most of the last months before she died, mother seemed to be exuding a kind of joy that translated itself to me as a golden light. Not so much one I could see, but there was a sense of it—as though I would be standing in a golden light if I could see it properly. I’d go into her room to visit, feeling sad, depressed, and by the time I’d seated myself on the bed or chair I’d be in a state of joy. And the air smelled sweet and fresh, like spring.


Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna, Metis, and Lebanese) is a poet, novelist and critic. She was born in Cubero, New Mexico, and grew up on the Cubero land grant adjacent to the Laguna Pueblo land grant. For over thirty years she has been one of the foremost voices in Native American literature. Her published works include Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat(2003); Spider Woman's Granddaughters(1989); The Sacred Hoop(1986); and The Woman Who Owned the Shadows(1983). Her latest book of poetry is Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962-1995 (1998). Paula retired from her position as professor of English, creative writing, and American Indian studies at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1999. She now lives in Fort Bragg, California

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