Part One -- The Accident
It was one of those evenings. We were enjoying the tranquil weather in our home south of Bahia de Los Angeles. Mary Ann was wrapped around her favorite television shows. I was pacing. I had planned on going downstairs to listen to some music but I know me and the volume I was in need of would have disturbed not only Mary Ann but our neighbors scattered up and down the beach. I grabbed my favorite Andrea Bocelli, dismissed myself and went south past Camp Gecko and off into the desert.
From the moment I was out of earshot I put Andrea in his place. At first everything worked well and sweet Italian arias are emanating from all my speakers. I was close to heaven and drove slowly south thinking and absorbing the warmth of the music. Then the CD began to break up. I stopped and cleaned it and found a place to park to avoid the vibrations. It still was breaking up and grew worse over the next few minutes. I was totally frustrated, angry. I had not been drinking any of my favorite beverages, which may actually have made things worse. I turned and headed home in a venomous state of irritation. Since there was nothing I could do to solve my problem all I could do was rant.
By this time it was beyond dusk, almost dark. I stomped the throttle and was going faster than I've ever gone on that road (not too much less than 80).
Just south of Camp Gecko there was, in the fading light, a spur in the road and I took the side road. Big mistake.
After about a hundred yards the road ended and I was still doing ~70. The road terminated into a sweeping boulder field. I tried to stop but couldn't. Vaca Blanca (Chevy Suburban) and I want sailing through the various sized rocks as I tried to brake. But it's hard to influence a vehicle that has very limited traction. I was hitting my head on the roof and smashing my back every time we launched and then came bouncing back to earth. Finally we came to a stop.
I knew I had major problems. I was bleeding from several deep wounds and many smaller ones. My neck was sore. But my back was the major problem. I had no ability to exit the car it hurt so badly. I sat there for half an hour, dripping blood and trying to analyze what I'd done to my back. At this point my back was the weak point. After sitting for what I thought was time enough, I tried backing out of the field. I may have pulled forward if that appeared simpler, I really don't remember much. At any rate I re-acquired the main dirt road. I had a totally chewed up driverside front tire.
I was about a mile from home, so I limped forward on the rim. After about 20 minutes I got home. My back made it all but impossible to exit the vehicle let alone walk. There are 19 steps that lead upstairs to our living quarters. I don't know how I climbed them, but I did. The Marine Corps had taught me so many, many years before how to reach down within your soul and make things happen even though they seemed impossible and I know that helped.
I don't remember arriving at the top step of the case, but Mary Ann tells me I told her what had happened, went into our home and spent that night and the entire next day lying on the couch or in bed hoping my back would stop aching.
Things didn't get better over the next 36 hours. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. But I was big on whining about a mistake that I had only myself to blame for.
The Pyramid Hotel, near the half way point between Rosarito and Ensenada was having a Baja Authors Book Signing that coming Saturday. We were due there to sign my new book. I didn't know how we were going to do it, but it would happen. Thursday morning we locked up the house for the 3 days we'd be absent. Mary Ann drove and I rode in the passenger seat with dog Dito just behind us, nose always poking holes in the invisible wall that was intended to keep him in the back seat. It never has worked and he is a member of our family and we permit him small encroachments into our front seats.
Not far south of Ensenada I was feeling weak and moved into Dito's territory in the back seat to lay down beside him. He was pleased. He is a wonderful dog and somehow he knew something was wrong with me and tried to empathize in his own way.
Somewhere entering Ensenada from the south I started feeling seriously ill. Suddenly I threw up what must have been a pint of blood on the floorboard. Blood covered Dito's entire blanket and was running off the sides. I was very scared. It was pure blood and I know how little of that precious substance sustains us.
Mary Ann drove into the Colon (as in Cristobal Colon) Hotel we have been patronizing lately. There she encountered some good friends, Selino and Reina, that run La Reina's restaurant in Bahia de Los Angeles. This was strikingly coincidental as they were there regarding business permits or whatever. They told Mary Ann about a doctor they knew and led us there. As I was weak enough I couldn't even think about walking, the doctor left his confines to my office in Vaca Blanca's back seat. He saw the large amount of bright blood and told Mary Ann to take me to the hospital immediately. He gave her the necessary paperwork and directions to the nearest hospital, which we couldn't locate even though it was only three blocks from the Colon Hotel. In a panic, she pulls into a Pemex station and ran from car to car asking if someone spoke English. Even though I speak adequate Spanish I was by that point unable to focus. She found a family that could show her the way to the hospital. They led us there. That family, while I will likely never see them again, our friends Selino and Raina, and Mary Ann perhaps saved my life.
At the hospital, they wheeled me to an upstairs room, put me into a gown and began a process that had me incapacitated for several days.
Part Two -- The Hospital
Clinica St. Gabriel is housed in a small building on the corner of Calle Cuarta and Espinoza in downtown Ensenada. Two medical aides were called to the car. Once they determined that I was too weak to walk they produced a wheelchair and rushed me into a rustic and narrow elevator and into the bowels of the building. I was deposited in the only hospital bed in room 4, somewhere upstairs a story or two from the surrounding inner city.
Dr Jorge Catalan rushed into the room, introduced himself and began the process of establishing an IV drp from several bottles into my armp. Two nurses were on duty and they were assisting Dr Catalan when Dr. Rodolfo Munoz, a gastrointestinal specialist entered the scene.
My stomach was feeling nauseous once again and within 30 seconds I had cut loose with yet another large quantity of blood from my stomach. This issue was at least a quart of blood and covered the entire corner of the room. The nurses cleaned up the mess while one of the doctors began an extremely painful process of inserting a pair of tubes through a nostril and deep into some pit within my body.
I had assumed in my somewhat deranged state that my bleeding stomach was related to my prior accident. It was, but not in the context I had assumed.
The doctors asked about the specifics of the accident and I described them.
"Did you take anything for pain?" Dr. Catalan inquired.
I had taken nothing Tuesday night after it occurred, but the pain was so severe in my back that I began taking Ibuprofen. "After several hours I wasn't feeling less pain and I added a number of aspirin and 4-6 ounces of rum" I said.
"That's what caused your bleeding." Dr. Catalan said. "You can't mix Ibuprofen and aspirin together; they eat holes in your stomach."
Now this was truly welcome news to me. I thought I had somehow run a remote rib or other bone through my stomach; I could not imagine that much blood in such a short time. For the first time that afternoon I began to believe I wasn't going to die.
Via the tube entering my body the hospital staff emptied my stomach of all remaining blood. They pumped icy water down the tube and into my stomach. A smaller tube, inside the larger one, was a return for that same water after it had reached it's destination. After a number hours of the hydration process the return water became clear rather than red.
While this process was ongoing we were told I needed two units of blood to replace at least a portion of what I'd lost.
"The bleeding has been arrested." Doctors Catalan and Munoz told me. As the events of the evening drew to a close that hospital staff set up a bed next to mine for Mary Ann. I was glad she'd be there.
For three days I lay there on my back with tubes everywhere it seemed. I was dehydrated from the loss of fluids but there is some "setting" time for the stomach to recover and it must be completely empty during that period. For two days I was thirstier than I have ever been in my life. I could not have a single drop of water. When the staff came in every several hours to pour ice water into my tube, I could feel the iciness against tangential conduits of my body and I imagined I was drinking it. But alas I was left totally thirsty and uncomfortable with all the tubes and needles penetrating me. A personal invasion.
On Friday evening Dr. Catalan checked in for the nth time to see how I was feeling. Perhaps I was so rewarded now that I knew I wasn't going to bleed to death that I seemed to feel almost normal except that my back was now the focal point of my entire body. It took me several minutes to get out of bed and just as many to return. Over the three day stay I consumed a small lemon Jello serving.
"If things continue on track tonight, we can consider letting you out tomorrow, Saturday." Dr Munoz told me. I was surprised. But I was feeling much more stable since the bleeding issue had been stopped. The Dr. told me I should have my U.S. physician look at my back. While I had assumed I had smashed two disks, the doctor didn't think so. At any rate that biggest and immediate problem with the stomach bleeding had been put an end to.
There was a Baja Authors Book Signing at the Pyramid Hotel starting at noon on Saturday. We've attended this every year and it is really a blast and, even though I was still in extreme pain I had a new book out and not ony wanted to be there but was expected. I had a table and could relax while visiting. Mary Ann had spent the night at the hotel and she and friends Suzanne and Pete had set things up for the next day. Then she returned to Ensenada to gather me up, pay the bill and head slowly north.
Saturday morning arrived and I took a shower with all the IV's still attached and dangling from my arms as I tried to clean up. I dressed in the clothes I had worn to the hospital. I packed my duffle slowly. It was impossible to bend from the small of my back. But the majority of my self-perceived life threatening problems were behind me. I was still weak but ready to continue on from there. When I heard Mary Ann's voice I was up and pacing, pulling the IV carrier behind me. We were both anxious about the hospital bill as we had a limited supply of cash and the hospital could not take checks. When we asked for the bill for the three days in the hospital, including both doctors, all the support, medications, etc came to $768, $350 for the doctors and $418 for the hospital and lab work. I had received two units of blood when I had first arrived. These totaled at $430. The entire stay, all inclusive had cost just under $1,200. Obviously we were well pleased and I can't begin to guess what this would have cost in the US.
Primarily though, even without considering the cost, the doctors and the entire hospital staff was very professional and efficient. I was in pain; I needed constant attention until that final discharge morning. All my needs were met with smiles and pleasure in the ability of one person's ability to help another. The hospital is small; I saw only four rooms that appeared to be for patients. In fact I believe I was the only patient admitted during my stay there. But much of that impression was based on audible information as it was extremely difficult to venture outside my room.
Once Mary Ann arrived and we had paid the bill, We shook hands with the good doctors Catalan and Munoz and with the entire staff. In my eyes at least we had been through a lot together. I would not for an instant question the quality of this small hospital in the noisy heart of Ensenada. You don't walk away from threatening events without carrying a memory, permanently etched in your soul. And there it was.
The staff wheeled me down to the ground floor and slowly, gently helped me negotiate the climb into Vaca Blanca. Mary Ann drove of course and took it slowly until I settled into the passenger side front seat. We stopped at a pharmacy north of Ensenada to fill the prescriptions the hospital had issued. As usual, they were a small percentage of what they would have cost in the US.
On to the book signing at Pyramid Hotel. I wasn't sure how I would hold up for a full day and night of partying. I knew I had been given guarded instructions regarding what I could and couldn't eat and drink. We'd just have to wait and see.
My hat is forever tipped to the good men and women of the Clinica St. Gabriel.
Part Three -- The Book Signing
I was discharged from Clinica St. Gabriel somewhere around noon on Saturday. We rushed north to the Pyramid Hotel where Keri and Mike wee hosting the annual Baja Authors Book Signing. The night before, Mary Ann had arranged for our friends Pete and Suzanne to set up our table as we would be late in arriving. They had acquired a location with a shade umbrella immediately adjacent to the small platform where several groups of locals would be performing songs and dances and near the bar where we could assume good traffic.
As the book is my first and published only recently, we sold quite a few copies. A number of folks stopped by just to chat and I was well rewarded by the small flatteries heaped upon me. I was very weak yet and filled with aches but the warm words of friends new and old were more than rewarding. But, while money is always an issue, it was not my driver in writing this book. Our family home, in rural Ventura County had burned to the ground several years before, taking all our photographs and family films of the boys growing up. Afterward I began writing with an intensity I didn't quite understand. Then one Saturday not long after the fire I realized that with written words I was recreating the destroyed images of my evolving family. The boys are now 27 and 29. We had shared many travels and out-of-the-ordinary experiences throughout our lives and times together. They needed to be recaptured.
Son Kevin stood by our table at the book signing for a time while Mary Ann, Michael and I wandered the event to visit old friends and make new ones. We purchased several new Baja books, stole a nibble or two from the booth of a new art and culinary enterprise just getting underway. Their food was excellent and quite high end. It is called Giorgio Santini Gallery of Fine Art and located near kilometer 40 on the old road between Tijuana and Ensenada. They offer gourmet specialty foods and wines. We also bought a new-to-us book "California -- West of the West" after meeting the author and discussing Baja California, a major subject of his new book. Mary Ann snagged a copy of the Baja Times newspaper. They have been quite successful in filling a certain void in English language reporting on peninsular events.
The afternoon passed too quickly. A trio of musicians had been playing most of the midday and was keeping the crowd stimulated. Late in the afternoon Keri had arranged for a group who performed several forms of Latino dances with great flare while the rest of us watched and listened appreciatively. It was an overcast, cold, gray day. I was worn down and at one point had Michael bring me a sleeping bag from our room. I wrapped it on top of my zipped up ski jacket and was still shivering. I guessed my recovery time was going to be longer than I'd hoped. But it was a fun time regardless. If you haven't done this event, pen it in for next year.
The formal book signing ended late in the afternoon. Many of us had signed on for an informal pot luck dinner and shoveled plates full of creative foods into our faces. Laughter was everywhere, visiting with friends, many of whom we hadn't seen since last year at this event. As 8 that evening, Suzanne opened her highly semi-organized tequila tasting. 6 - 8 people actively participated (and many more inactively) as Suzanne poured each brand of tequila into small portions into tiny paper cups and numbered them for identification without letting the participants know which brand name they were drinking. There were great discussions regarding which tequila was the best and the debates of course grew more and more animated and wordy as the tasting continued. Kevin and I were observers as he drinks almost nothing and I was on my best behavior for obvious reasons. By 11 that night we were all in bed and at least trying to sleep. My lower back was still trying to kick me for my prior bad behavior and rest was not easy to come by, but it had been a more-than-full day (week?) and eventually we all slept. It was rewarding to rekindle old relationships and make new friends. We were all from unique backgrounds and age/social/academic/economic levels and it was a great learning process just to understand each other's points of view.
In the morning a number of us gathered in our suite to say our goodbyes. For many of us it would be another year before we saw each other again. For a few perhaps this was the final encounter. Life continues and one never knows where she'll lead us. But true friendships don't fade for lack of a tangible visibility. We often carry simple memories throughout our lives forever and gladly, remember the personal experiences and warm moments shared.
Pete and Suzanne had arranged to spend a week at our place in Bahia de Los Angeles. They were looking for a house there, or at least terrain where they could build. My health was stabilizing and Mary Ann decided I was strong enough I could ride back to our tiny house in Ventura with Michael and Kevin and dog Dito. My Ensenada doctors had strongly recommended I schedule a visit to my doctor in the U.S. as soon as possible. I was arguing to go south with our friends but they convinced me to go home to the doc. Bummer.
We packed and chewed the fat and soon the trucks were loaded and we were hugging for that last time at this stage of our visits. Mary Ann would help Pete and Suzanne look around the bay for a place; I would schedule a doctor's visit. And have a week alone with Kevin and Michael, in itself something to look forward to. Then we were off to the south and the north, respectively.
Conclusion -- The Ride North
Kevin and Michael had ridden down from Ventura in Kev's F-150. Ww were returning to the U.S with his truck and the Vaca Blanca. Mary Ann would ride back to Bahia de Los Angeles with Pete and Suzanne in their great yellow Hummer. The boys and I were the first to leave the pyramid, around noon on Sunday. Dog Dito and I would ride the first leg with Michael driving Vaca Blanca. We would all stick together until we hit the border for the sake of security in numbers.
Kev drives pretty fast but Michael and I kept up with him. In the border line we were settling in amidst the pedestrians and street vendors wandering through the slow moving traffic My window was up and suddenly there was a tapping on the glass and I turned to see Kev, in his truck, acting as a vendor and wanting to know if we'd like to purchase a cold Coke. Somewhere he'd picked op an icy 12-pack. He handed one to Michael and we all laughed. From there on Kev was pretty much ahead of us.
In the slow moving line, Michael kept his window down. When a vendor flashed his/her wares or asked if we'd like to make a purchase Michael always said no but was totally respectful to the individual. We collected small change and a couple bucks to contribute to the Cruz Roja (Mexican Red Cross). It had been some number of years since the two of us had crossed the line together. I was silently absorbing the manner in which Michael dealt with the vendors and the children that barely had shirts on their backs. Some folks differentiate in their treatment of others based solely on income. I hope I have never done that. I know Michael has not. In that border line some of us get angry at all the fussing between drivers looking for the best lane. Michael stayed in his lane. If another driver had an apparent need to get into our lane and was polite, Michael always let him/her in.
Sometimes we get so wrapped around our own axels in our society and work and general hubbub that we forget that all of us deserve respect. I've always tried to live for the improvement of society in general rather than just myself. I had no need to "train" my children with lectures and statements and opinions, I just did what I did and hoped our boys would learn by observation. My tactic had obviously worked.
As I aged I was afraid that my boys would focus on the disturbances I had caused to our lives and forget the good things they had learned from me. Sitting in the border line, creeping slowly forward, I had the time to slow myself down enough to see that I was wrong.
We neared the actual border and dropped the last of our change into a child's donation cup. We answered a few polite questions for the American guard and were waved through. We headed for the 805 northbound. The remaining drive took us just under four hours. We had nothing to do but converse and philosophize -- which we are both big on -- and listen to a wide variety of music. Michael plugged his iPOD into the car stereo, selected random playback and we were set for the entire trip. I reflected on the music he was listening to a few years back when he was in audio recording school. It had been too wild for me to care about. But now, a few years downstream, he was playing music I truly enjoyed. So much so in fact that I'd previously changed to several of his stations on my radio buttons.
We talked and listened all the way back to Ventura. We were peers for perhaps the first time. Driving the car wasn't a place for a parent to make responsibilities for a child. It was not time to vacuum on Friday or clean up his room. It was just the two of us, with dog Dito hanging between the back and front seat and trying to find an excuse to climb forward. As we neared home I almost wished we had more miles to travel, to continue sharing equal lives.
Sometimes, I was thinking, I might miss just what great children Mary Ann and I have raised. Perfect? Never. But close as you'd want them to be. I could only hope that all parents have the opportunity to be as close as we were over those too few hours.
Alas, we pulled into our rural driveway and were greeted by aged avocado trees sprawling across our small lawn. Rows of lemons in the orchards arced gently down toward the Santa Clara River, en route to Ventura and the Great Pacific. Kevin had been home for some time. He had his friend Carly with him. We all hugged and Carly asked how I was doing; she'd heard of my plight and had tears in her eyes that were more meaningful to me than perhaps anyone will ever know. When we face an unknown it's always important to know that there are family and friends supporting us, even though my problem had been completely if accidentally self-induced.
Mary Ann was not due home for another week and it was a pleasure to spend time with my children. They are older now and I wouldn't want to bore them to death with my groaning about my back. I spent three full days on the couch and in bed. But they were always there in the background and I enjoyed listening to them talk and joke about a computer game they share, fending off a shared enemy.
A few days after our return home I was feeling a little better. We all went shopping for Mother's Day and shared the wrapping responsibilities., signed greeting cards and arranging packages on the dining room table for Mary Ann's appreciation just a few days away now.
But all that is behind us now, a week later. The five of us are back together -- when Carly is with us. I have been to my U. S. doctor. He told me that everything the Ensenada doctors did was directly in line with what he would have done. My lumbar disks weren't smashed, just bruised and would recover on their own over time. He confirmed that the combination of Ibuprofen and aspirin can eat holes in your stomach, but that I appeared to be well on the road to recovery.
"Stay away from Alcohol." he told me. I'll do just that. While it played no direct role in any of the recent events, it was making it hard for my body to recover. I agreed with him and I know that occasionally my drinking had made it hard on my family.
So it's a done deal now. Bad happenings can be used as tools to improve our futures and I've always known that. And there are still many more lessons to be learned from this entire experience. It just might take me time to sort them all out.
Mary Ann and I will be going back to Bahia de Los Angeles soon, just after Kevin's Birthday. The weather will certainly be warm by then, and the water blue and filled with sparkling wavelets and many birds, whales and dolphins. A breeze from the north will cool us. In that wonderful environment there is more time to review life thus far and make plans for our futures.
Remote Baja California is the ideal place to dig a little deeper into the thought process and I can only look forward respectfully to rejoining her. It's never quite the same when I'm not with her even though she can be a fickle mistress.