Friday, September 30, 2016

Cortez the Killer

This morning I woke up to a strange sound, like a miniature helicopter. A black witch moth the size of a bat was thumping against my bathroom window. A window below was open but the moth had no plan B. I grabbed it and chucked it out the open window. It flew away.

Here in Mexico they call the black witch moth ‘Mariposa de la muerte’, meaning butterfly of death. If one enters a house where there is sickness, it is believed the sick person will die. 

Ever since we brought dad home from hospital our house has been infested with black witch moths. Every day I rescue one, help it circumvent a closed window or a screen door. But they just keep coming back. Even now, as I write this, there’s one on the wall above my desk. From the white V mark across its wings, I know that it’s a female. She hasn’t moved since morning.

Caring for dad at home has thrown up a plethora of new challenges. There’s no pattern to his needs, and he has no sense of time. Often he’ll come up with a whole new hair brained plan about what needs to be done, in the middle of the night. Still, he’s never short of praise, thinks mom and I are consummate caregivers that should be in business together. 

“Rectal cleaning service, mom and son business,” he quips, “$60 a crack. All repeat business - people need to shit every day. Discount for a month’s coverage. Market to Gringo retirees and seniors living in the South. No competition…Who the hell wants to clean assholes? No one!” 

He likes his wit like he likes his martinis, dry.

It’s hopeful and heartwarming to see him laugh heartily, but those moments are the exception not the rule. My time with him is mostly spent watching him sleep or just lie there, mouth agape, staring at the ceiling. Occasionally he looks up at me, but without his glasses I’m just a blur. 

What’s he thinking? Does he want to die? He hasn’t said as much lately. “I’m helpless,” he said last night, with a voice laden with confusion and remorse. “What can I do?”

“Not much.” I replied.

“Something has to happen…and I can’t do it from here.”

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t know…Do you?”


“Can we let it happen tomorrow?” he asked.


“Whatever…Will you come and look in on me from time to time?” 

“Of course.”

It took some effort and we shopped around a bit but we’ve finally got dad the home care he needs. Ernesto, a nurse who speaks fluent English, comes to bathe him on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Rossio, a physiotherapist, comes to help him with his muscle work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. She’s hopeful he will eventually stand on his own two feet.

As many people have been coming to fix the air conditioning. Like my father, it’s been working on and off lately. The situation is more bearable now that the temperature in Los Cabos has dropped a few degrees. But the workmen are unreliable, say they’re coming and never show up.

Gerry knows a guy who can fix air conditioners, and thinks we need a third opinion. “You don’t have to tear up the tiles to replace those air-con pipes,” he says, with an accent that sounds like both Cheech and Chong. “You can just put a little box against the skirting like this…” He bends down and runs his hand along the crease of the wall of my father’s room. “That way they don’t have to disturb Ian.” My mother frowns at this suggestion.

Considering our failing air, there sure is a lot of thin ice in this house. Caring for the old man is stressful. Sometimes we crack. Yet despite my mother’s anxieties regarding methodology, she is highly resourceful and practical. I admire her more than I let on; she thinks I talk down to her, regard her as intellectually inferior. But I don’t. She’s proved to me time and time again that she knows things beyond my scope, that subtle intuition trumps hubris, and that she has extra sensory sleuthing powers (she missed her calling as a private detective).

She keeps both husband and home functioning, has done for six decades. Her ultimate home, here in Los Cabos, was woven from the fabric of the more than two dozen rental homes all over the world that she made cozy for us to live in. Every new city to which we got posted involved my father flying out ahead of time and finding adequate digs. A month later the rest of us would follow. My mother would then correct his poor choices and find us somewhere magical to live. 

For me, home was never truly home until the shipment arrived. Therein lay my richest treasures, trapped for months on the high seas, possessions that grew more mysterious with the passage of time: Frogman Action Man and his blow-up Zodiac boat, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath LPs, and my six-inch reflector telescope. 

Toys and records aside, the family keepsakes too were a comforting continuum from one place to the next, the string that held together the bead of one posting to the bead of another. Now when I visit the house in Baja I see some of those totems on the walls and shelves, juju that triggers time machines, opens portals that I easily fall into.

Cortez is an angry sea. At night its waves strike the beach with an asymmetrical beat. For days now it’s been pounding the Baja coastline with massive swells, the consequence of a hurricane passing north west of the peninsula. Today, however, it’s calm.

Sitting on the beach, gazing at the salubriously tranquil water, and rubbing my injured shoulder, I think, “I could do with the hydrotherapy.” I stand up and stride into the surfy soup. Froth lashes at my shins. The currents are stronger than I had anticipated, but I continue wading out regardless. Once I clear the small stuff, I begin swimming breaststroke. It’s so refreshing.

Suddenly a swell rises up before me, much larger than anything I’d seen from the beach. Looking over my shoulder, I can see that returning to shore is no longer an option, and ahead, I cannot swim fast enough. All at once the wave brakes, thunderously avalanching a ton of brilliant white froth towards me. I dive underwater and swim beneath the surf. It sounds like exploding ordinance, like the beach is being bombed.

After surfacing, I barely have time to catch my breath when another massive roller, larger than the last, begins to rise up before me. “This one’s a killer,” I whisper. Hyperventilating to give myself more time underwater, I wait until the very last moment. On the face of it, time appears to stand still. Three pelicans skim across the crest of the wave, hunting for fish trapped in its pellucid sea wall. I dive under, and just in the nick of time, taking the brunt of force on my legs.

Resurfacing, I now fear for my life. The period between waves is insufficient to recover. Another comes at me, and then another, every time a bigger one. And I dive under them all, swimming longer and farther each time. Finally I get beyond the swell, and there are no more waves on my horizon. But I am some three hundred yards from shore and drained of all my might.

Under an azure sky, treading water just enough to keep my chin above the sea’s deceptively calm undulations, I think of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’. “He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns / Looking for the new world / In that palace in the sun.” The song is about Hernán Cortés, a conquistador who conquered the Aztecs and colonized Mexico for the Spanish, and the eponym of this sea on which I am floating. 

With a slow butterfly stroke, or moth stroke, I carefully swim back to shore, occasionally looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming up behind me. Sure enough a whole new set of waves is on my tail. Swimming side-stroke now, with an eye on the breakers, I take a chance on riding them. Every wave, as mighty as it seems, simply picks me up and gently plants me closer to the shore, before breaking just beyond me. I can’t believe my luck. In due course, and much to the surprise of the Mexicans who have been watching me all along, I step out of the surf and calmly walk back up onto the beach.

Dad is sitting on the porch in his rocking chair, comfortably surveying the view. Rossio, his physio, got him to stand momentarily while she shifted him from his wheelchair to the rocking chair. Progress! Soon he’ll be back on the dry martinis as well.

Looking around I notice something is missing. The black witch moths have all gone. 

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