Peter Gorman Archive
Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
DYING AT HOME - The Life and Death of an Ordinary Person
by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved
Lydia was born in Iquitos, Peru, the jungle city at the headwaters of the Amazon. There are no roads in or out of Iquitos, only planes—rare in her youth—and boats. I used to joke with her that she was a wild Amazon Indian, and she’d snap back that her mother wore shoes, proof of civilization, but a phrase exclusive to Indigenous in the area whose grandparents were enslaved by rubber barons at the turn of the century and taught city ways.
I met her 12 years ago. At the time, I’d been working the Iquitos area of the Amazon a few months a year for several years as a writer and collector of indigenous artifacts for museums. A new company working with natural medicines opened up and they’d commissioned me to try to collect plant medicines from the remote tribes with who lived on the border between Brazil and Peru. The trip meant securing a fishing boat capable of carrying supplies for the 30-days and 1,600 miles we’d be on the river, and a small crew who not only knew the river system, but wouldn’t be afraid to deal with the outlaws and pirates we might run into along the way. One name for the crew came up several times, a woman named Chepa Aguilar. She’d been raised on the river, I was told, and knew every one on every boat and at every military base we’d pass along the way.
I looked her up at a small restaurant she was said to be running. It was located just down the street from the oldest port in the city, on the toughest block in Iquitos. It was the shape-up block for dock hands, men who could carry three and four 90-pound sacks of cement on their backs up and down the 50-foot muddy embankment from the street to the boats at the port below. Their drink of choice was aguar diente—cane liquor—mixed with kerosene. Their smoke of choice was basta, crude cocaine paste. When the flat-bottomed riverboats arrived for unloading at dawn they were already a rowdy crowd; by afternoon heat, fights erupted regularly. Nobody went on that block who didn’t have business there.
The restaurant was a handful of tables set into the street level open front living room of a small house. Chepa, a stunning 25-year-old dark skinned, almond-eyed Indian beauty, was waiting tables. I introduced myself and ordered something to eat and a beer. Despite Chepa’s looks, it was really a tiny dark-haired woman on the sidewalk who caught my attention. She was bustling about, a broom in her hand, calling to one after another of the tough guys to run errands for her: go to the river and fetch her a pail of water, sweep the sidewalk, stop urinating in public. They all did as she asked, and called her Mama Lydia when they did.
“That’s my mother,” said Chepa proudly. “She’s the queen of this block.”
“Why are they listening to her?” I asked.
“She raised half of them. And the other half think she’s a bruja, a witch.”
Lydia’s former husband, Demetrio, it turned out, had once been a wealthy man. He’d had his own island in the Amazon, with cattle, several families working for him, and a lot of boats. An accident and gambling had cost him his fortune, and left the family destitute when Chepa and her three sisters and two brothers were still young. All of them had learned to get by with their street-smarts and knowledge of the river. One of the sisters, Yolanda, had married an American oil worker, Joe Boatwright, and he’d built her a cargo and passenger boat that Chepa often helped run.
Though Chepa was much too pretty to take on the river with me—I thought she’d be more of a liability than an asset—I finally agreed at Joe’s insistence. But when the day arrived to set out, Chepa got cold feet. I thought we’d be leaving without her until Lydia showed up at the top of the port embankment, an old duffel in hand.
“Wait!” she yelled in Spanish, then “Here!” and she threw the bag in the direction of my boat.
A moment later Chepa appeared, though it didn’t look as if she wanted to come. Lydia took her arm and fairly pushed her down the hill to the boat, and we were off.
A month later I came back to the restaurant and told Lydia I was thinking about marrying her daughter.
The lung cancer that killed Lydia was her second cancer. The first was at the tip of her cervix and showed up in 1996. Chepa and I and our two young boys—Italo and Marco, hers from a previous marriage—had just arrived for a couple of months in Iquitos when Lydia started bleeding badly. A couple of days later Chepa and her mom went to the doctor. When they returned Chepa had a square inch of meat in a small jar of alcohol. The doctor had simply, and without anesthesia, cut out what he thought was the cancerous part of her cervix. Lydia was screaming and hemmorhaging pretty badly. We flew her to Lima to see a cancer specialist. He told us that the doctor in Iquitos had pretty much gotten it all but recommended radiation therapy just to be sure.
Before we could start that, our 7-year-old son Marco’s kidney’s failed. Overnight. Out of the blue. He spent 17 days in intensive care being stabilized. The only explaination the doctor could give for a cause was that someone had done black magic. He recommended we take Marco back to Iquitos to try to find curanderos—healers—who could remove the spell so that Marco would be protected in the future.
Lydia put off her treatment to oversee that end of things. In her world, in Iquitos, magic is real. She took him to more than a dozen healers over the next few weeks, all of whom helped physically; only one of whom could identify the source of the problem. He was an old man in the jungle who suggested that in taking Marco from Peru, Chepa and I had robbed his paternal grandmother of loving him. She had tried to reach out with love to clutch him, but instead of clutching his heart, her anger at us had caused her to clutch his kidneys, hence the failure.
We were to take him to her as soon as possible.
In fact, Marco was an issue that had come between Lydia and me as well. While she approved of me as a son-in-law (I was the third anglo to marry one of her daughters), she thought of Marco as her son and hated my having stolen him from her to live in New York.
It was an issue that came up when Lydia was dying. It was one of many. She didn’t really want to die in the United States. She wanted to be home in Iquitos. But Iquitos couldn’t have given her the care she needed. And the four sisters with their families had all migrated to Fort Worth and she was here when she discovered that she had lung cancer.
She’d been ill in Iquitos, and Chepa—from whom I was estranged—with her sister Yolanda, had gone there to see what the problem was. They found her in the local free hospital, emaciated and near death. Cancer was suspected but not confirmed. They nursed her back to health, and last March got her on a plane and brought her up for only her second visit to the states. My home was the natural choice as a place to stay as I worked from it and would be able to care for her basic needs during the day more than the others. She was frail, cantankerous and in pain. But over the course of several weeks she improved. She’d walk around the yard, lay in a hammock, watch the Spanish equivalent of Jerry Springer shows that air every afternoon. On days when she felt particularly strong she would tell me she wanted some chickens so that she could make use of the unused chicken coop that sits on a corner of the property. She was strong enough to throw things at our cat when it had the audacity to come into the house, and would even occasionally do a load of wash and set it out on our trampoline to dry. She would even make frequent overnight or week-long visits to her other daughters’ houses.
Unfortunately, the pain persisted. There were several family meetings over what to do. The issue wasn’t really just pain, of course. The issue was what would happen if she had cancer? How would she get treatment? There was no money for a hospital if that was what was needed
One my brother-in-laws, Bruce, had connections with a cancer ward in Houston, but while he was arranging that one day the pain grew so unbearable that Chepa insisted I take Lydia to the emergency room. I was still new to the area and didn’t even know where a hospital was located, so in semi-desperation I called the United Way and asked where there was a reasonably-priced hospital near Ft. Worth. Someone there was very generous and had me talk through my needs and fears before suggesting I contact the American Cancer Society, which put me in touch with the John Peter Smith (JPS) Hospital on Allen Street.
Again, someone doing an exemplary job there had me explain the situation. No, Lydia was not a permanent resident. She was here on a tourist visa, not eligible for Medicaid or Medicare. No, I had no insurance and even if I had I couldn’t claim her as a dependent. Yes, I feared the emergency room might lead to inpatient care and the family could not afford to pay that.
Fine, I was told: bring her in to the emergency room. Pay that fee and declare that Lydia was financially impoverished. If Lydia needed inpatient care she would not be able to leave the hospital until that was decided. If she did, she was out of the system. But if she stayed, she would be taken care of for as long as it took, even through cancer therapy if that was what was needed.
The next day we did. The waiting room was crowded, and despite arriving at 7 AM, Lydia didn’t get to see a doctor till about midnight. He ran tests and ordered a bed for her. The hospital was nice enough to let me sleep on it’s foot in the emergency ward when I explained that this was simply too foreign a place for Lydia to stay alone. “Doc, my mother-in-law used to hide from the telephone ringing just a few years ago. She’s really not going to do well here without someone.”
Lydia had some of the most wretched days in her life living in the oncology ward at JPS while taking a battery of tests. After the first few days, she wanted desperately to leave. “I don’t care if I die, but I don’t want to be here any more.”
The daughters visited daily and I’d sneak my youngest, Madeleina, in some nights till they invariably tossed us, but it was still difficult to keep Lydia from leaving. She couldn’t eat, she didn’t understand the tests they were doing, and all the hospital machines and noise frightened her. She would confide in Chepa that she was certain I’d put here there to die and that Chepa should sneak her out. When she didn’t she’d tell the same things to Yolanda and Jessica and Amelia. They could hardly bear to see their mother like that, strapped up to the bed, tubes down her throat, losing weight daily, and it was all Bruce, Joe, the doctor and myself could do to keep her in the hospital until it was finally, after 12 days, announced that yes, she had cancer. It was in her lungs. She would undergo some visits with a Dr. Pearl at JPS, after which a course of treatment would be decided upon.
Each visit over the next several weeks took a whole day, and the family took turns taking Lydia to them. By late May, Dr. Pearl had decided that Lydia’s best chance lay in radiation treatment over at nearby Montcrief medical center. My oldest son, Italo, and I shared the 40 trips over the next eight weeks. Each was only a couple of hours, including the drive, and at the end of treatment, the doctors there thought Lydia’s prognosis was good. They’d all but gotten all of the cancer—it was a new cancer, not related to her prior cancer—and thought she might have several good years before she was attacked again.
She was weak but it was joyful. She moved from my home to her daughter Jessica’s for a stay with her and Bruce and their young son Chris, then on to Yolanda’s.
Follow up check-ups were about once a month, and the first couple were good. The only real problem was the Lydia wasn’t getting her strength and weight back as quickly as everyone had hoped. A phone call after the third visit explained why. A nurse at Montcrief asked me to come in to talk with Lydia’s doctor. I asked him to discuss it over the phone. He was painfully direct.
“Lydia’s cancer has reappeared and it is going to grow quickly. She is too weak, in my opinion, and in the opinion of her doctor at JPS, for further treatment. In other words, if we try to treat her, the treatment will kill her. If we don’t, she may live for a month or two. But she is terminal.”
He put me back on the phone with the nurse, who asked if we had anyplace to put her to die. I said I thought she’d prefer to die at home. The nurse asked if I knew what hospice care was. I didn’t. She said she’d have someone call.
It was all sort of a blur. I’d grown used to having Lydia around. I missed her when she stayed at the other homes. Fifteen minutes earlier I thought she was recovering. Now she had a couple of months. What was I going to tell Chepa? How would I explain it to Marco and Italo and Madeleina? What about the sisters and their kids? I’d lost my mother 25-years earlier and knew what that meant. Losing your mother meant that there was not a single person on the planet who had to love you no matter what. It meant you were on your own at the most difficult times, even 25-years later, even if you were a tough guy Amazon explorer. It meant there was a hole in you that you could not have anticipated and would never fill. Telling someone their mother was going to die was not something I wanted to do.
I think Bruce was the first person I called with the news. I think he broke it to his wife and Yolanda and Amelia and their families, while I spoke with Chepa and my kids. They had the same questions I did: How did the doctor know? What about another doctor? What about other treatments? What about jungle medicines? What about a miracle?
The reality was that Lydia was terminal. That’s why she couldn’t put the weight on, couldn’t get her strength, was short of breath.
A day or two later, I think, someone from Montcrief called. They asked if I knew what hospice was. I’d heard of it but didn’t know anything about it. The person explained that a hospice dealt with quality of life issues for the terminally ill, and would I like someone from a hospice to call and talk to me about the service. I said alright, though I wasn’t keen on the idea. We hadn’t had help when my mother died at home, and I didn’t really see why four sisters and all their families needed help now.
Perhaps the next day a representative from a hospice company called Vitas phoned to ask if I’d mind a visit. The person who appeared at my door shortly after the phone call explained that hospice offered nursing in the home—backed by available doctors—home health care workers, social workers to deal with grief issues, an inpatient unit at Baylor All-Saints Hospital if necessary, and a minister service. They’d supply medications, bring a hospital bed, oxygen tanks and any other necessary equipment to make Lydia’s last days more comfortable. It was all overwhelming to me, and particularly since I knew I had no way to pay for any of it.
“That’s not a problem,” I was told. “Is she on Medicaid or Medicare?”
“No. She’s a tourist, and she’s overstayed her visa. We’re trying to get an extention.”
“Oh, well, I’ll see if we can take her on without reimbursement.”
I was certain that was the last I would ever hear of Vitas, and was very surprised when the next day a call came saying there would be no problem, that Lydia had been accepted for free. I asked why she’d been accepted, and the woman explained that since Vitas worked with Medicare and Medicaid, among other forms of reimbursement, they were obligated to do a certain amount of charity work. Lydia fit the bill for someone who should die at home, since she had so many family members and was still able to walk around and such, so she’d been accepted. Simple as that.
The catch was that if we accepted hospice, Lydia was through with treatment, at least at Montcrief and JPS Hospital. If she began to recover we could always take her off hospice, but she could not be treated for free anymore. That was a tough one. If the decision for Vitas—or any other hospice we chose, since there were hundreds in the DFW area we were told—was made, there would be a depressing acceptance of the finality of the situation.
The sisters lamented the choice when I explained it, but Lydia was all for it, and a meeting with her nurse was set for Yolanda’s house, where Lydia was staying. I didn’t make the meeting, but it evidently went well, and the next time I saw Lydia, there were medications, portable oxygen tanks and such in the room in which she was staying.
Lydia stayed with the other sisters after starting the hospice for nearly six weeks before she returned to my house. By that time she looked sallow and considerably weaker than she had just weeks earlier. “I’m so tired,” told me her first night back. “My body wants to die, but I don’t want to die.”
The day after she returned, my son Italo retrieved all of the Vitas equipment, which now included a hospital bed, electric blankets and a number of other things we hadn’t initially asked for. We moved her bed and all the equipment into Italo’s room, the largest bedroom in the house, and he accepted it graciously, though it was apparent that he wasn’t pleased. What 18-year-old would be?
Lydia had been thrilled to be at her various daughters’ homes, but was also thrilled to be back and near Marco again. The only think that disappointed her was learning that the nurse who’d been visiting her for a couple of hours weekly, a woman named Rene, would no longer be her nurse. The hospice worked in teams, and Lydia was being cared for by Team 3. Rene was the Team 3 nurse for patients in the area where Yolanda lived; over in Joshua, where we were, someone else was the nurse. Rene and Lydia had evidently gotten along famously. Rene was a Latina, and so she and Lydia were able to speak Spanish together, tell jokes they both knew and talk about things in a way that Lydia had not only enjoyed but had come to depend on.
Lydia’s new nurse, a tall, pretty, angular woman with an East Coast quick wit named Cheryl Pritchett showed up on maybe Lydia’s third day back. I’d never been at Yolanda’s or Jessica’s when Rene had been there, so Cheryl’s first visit to our house was my first real experience with hospice.
She was a bundle of energy and paperwork. She asked dozens of questions that I translated, took vital signs, checked medications and simultaneously asked about the family history. She called the doctor and asked for a report from the previous nurse, checked for pain, made notes and a number of calls and asked if I wanted a home nursing aid to come by and bathe Lydia—I didn’t. She discussed the disease process with me, told me to expect some good days and some bad days, but that there were not many left. She explained what all the medicines were for, from anti-anxiety pills to morphine drops and time release pain killers. Then whoosh! she was gone with the promise that she could be reached any day, but that if I didn’t call her she’d be back in a week. It seemed like minutes but was closer to two hours.
I asked Lydia if she’d liked her. She said yes. Cheryl had apparently passed muster. She’d passed muster with me as well.
It didn’t take Lydia long to begin ruling our roost again, the way she’d ruled the toughest block in Iquitos. The cat was back out. The dog was back in. She had decided she liked lemonade made with half-a-lime and bottled water several times a day, a touch of coffee with lots of milk and sugar, warm but not hot, salty crackers and sweet vanilla wafers and a host of other things I’d never seen her like before. She wasn’t moving around well, but she was still walking and could make a meal of chicken, rice and fried plantains now and then. She watched her television programs in Spanish while I worked at the computer, waited for my kids to get home from school, did my daughter’s hair and sat for dinner with us, though she preferred her own cooking, or that of her daughters, to mine.
Lydia could have good days and bad days in the course of an hour. In our time while the kids were at school she’d sometimes sulk, sometimes knit aimlessly, then pull the pieces apart and remake her skein of yarn, sometimes painstakingly sew-up little holes in my daughter’s clothing. We’d laugh about the way one of the Judges on one of her programs—a small claims court with defendants who always seemed to come to blows—always ended each case with “Yo a dicho! Caso cerrado!” I have spoken! Case closed! After which she’d bang her gavel hard. She’d have me make juice and then not want it, ask me for coffee just after I told her the pot was empty. She’d explain what I had done wrong in helping to raise Marco and Italo, though since she’d never had a hand in raising Madeleina she pronounced my parenting okay there. Once in a while I’d ask what I could do to repair my marriage; she’d shrug and tell me that with a girl from Iquitos the only things were to either get another woman and bank on her jealousy, or to have a good sorcerer make a potion. The problem with those, she’d remind me, was that after they wore off in five-or-seven years, the person would realize they’d been under a spell and wreak havoc taking revenge.
It was during one of those conversations when I realized that though I hadn’t been aware of it, I’d probably taken on the responsibility of Lydia at least in part to get points with Chepa. But by the time I realized that, I also knew I was well past that; Lydia staying at my home was about Lydia and me and my kids. She was a hurt pal, and though we had differences, we were coming to terms with one another: she losing her resentment of my taking her Marco away 10 years earlier; me forgiving her for encouraging her daughter Chepa to leave me. It was just about a sick friend and a chance to spend some time with her. We didn’t have a lot to really talk about—she kept her private history private to all but Marco, and didn’t enjoy politics or sports. One thing we did talk about sometimes was cancer.
It seemed to me that the whole concept of cancer was that there was a single cell with an ego problem. Every time Lydia’s lungs were calling for a replacement cell, this cell, perhaps a fingernail cell, was responding and putting one of itself in the place of the called-for lung cell. The lung, still without the replacement cell it had called for, called for the replacement cell again, and again the call was answered by the fingernail cell. Millions and millions of calls later, the lung was filling with fingernail cells, and never getting the lung cell it had initially called for. But if that’s what cancer was, then to stop it, all one had to do was get into the mind—so to speak—of that single, wild fingernail cell and convince it that if it persisted in replicating itself in the lungs, it would kill the whole body, including itself. If that cell could be convinced to do only what it was supposed to do—replace a particular fingernail cell when called on—and stop interfering with the lung cells, then it would help the whole body to live for many many years, and it would be part of that life.
I explained my idea to Lydia and we made it our job to try to find a way to contact that cell and communicate the issue. Sometimes Lydia would ask me to dream-the-cell, Iquitos’ style, and reach it that way. Sometimes she’d have me chant jungle songs to her, invoking good spirits to help invite the bad cell to come to its senses. Sometimes she’d just pray.
And once a week Cheryl would drive up in her little white car and call on her cell phone to ask if it was okay to visit Lydia. Lydia quickly took to anticipating the visits and would often ask a day or two before Cheryl was due, “Mi infirmera? Quando vienes?” My nurse? When is she coming? She’d perk up for a whole day before Cheryl arrived.
I also looked forward to Cheryl’s visits: being able to talk with someone who knew this disease at its endstage, who understood what Lydia was going through and who could reassure me that I wasn’t messing things up or making them worse, someone who simply understood that there were times when I didn’t know if I’d made the right choice in keeping Lydia home and allowing my children to watch her die and could let me air those fears gave me the courage to continue.
The language wasn’t much of a problem between them after the second week. And Lydia would dutifully perform what she was asked: to point out pain centers, to breathe deeply, to show the color of the phlegm she was coughing up regularly, to describe her emotional state. One of her constant complaints, and one we couldn’t do anything about, was a toothache in the root of a tooth she’d had taken out years ago. It kept her from putting her bridge in comfortably, and made chewing difficult. Her only other pain complaints related to sore spots on her back that seemed to move daily; Cheryl said that was the tumor growing.
I’d give her one time-release morphine at night to help her sleep, then morphine drops in the day as needed. But she mostly said she’d rather be alert and in pain than pain-free and in a drug-induced stupor. She reminded me of my own mother at the end, in a morphine coma from a morphine IV. She’d wake up once a day or so and yank it from her arm and tell us all that she didn’t want to be in a coma when she was going to be dead so soon. Of course the pain overtook her intentions, and the IV went back in. With Mama Lydia, the drops finally came out every day a couple of times when she simply looked like she couldn’t bear it anymore.
The last few weeks got very difficult for all of us. Chepa was back at the house most nights after work, and on the weekends. Her sisters were making regular visits. But during the day it was me or my kids, who’d all come down with severe chicken pox during Lydia’s last two weeks. I joked with them that they were sympathy pox that they’d gotten just to be able to stay at home with their grandma during her last days.
In a way, it was good that they’d all gotten ill and had to stay home from school. Lydia’s disease had made a sudden move for the worse, and Italo, Marco and Madeleina were home for it all.
Lydia’s death and dying, particularly during those last two weeks, was an intimate thing. It was probably more intimate than anything most people will encounter. It wasn’t the horror of battle, or the terrible, immediate finality of a car wreck. It was a motion growing slower, a pain increasing incrementally, a decreasing mobility.
She began leaving her bed less frequently. She began calling out to us in a sort of broken, desperate voice: “Italo! Italo! Italo!” or whomever, maybe 40 or 50 times a day. When we responded she would ask for a lemonade, and when it was made, she’d complain that there was too much sugar, or too little, or that the lime we used wasn’t good and to make another. She’d ask for crackers, then refuse to eat them, then call out again. “Marco! Marco!”
When my kids got frustrated and would say, “Now what?” I would have to remind them that it didn’t matter if she called us in one hundred times a day. She didn’t want lemonade. She didn’t want crackers. She wanted to see us. She wanted a little human interaction.
Sometimes she would cry out in pain: we’d each listen for our name, but there was no name. There was just a sort of howling, “Ahhh. Ahhh. Ahhh.” Over and over, dozens of times. It was a sound that felt like it had all the pain, physical, emotional, spiritual, of the whole lousy world wrapped up in it. It was high pitched but deep, coming from some place in hell and it shook us to hear it, but there was no way to stop it. When that wailing began it was going to continue until it stopped. Madeleina would hear it and come running for me to hold her, or run to Italo for protection. It was dark. When I heard that sound was the time I felt most afraid for my children, for having thought it was a good idea to have Lydia live and die with us.
At night she always called me into her room, where Chepa would be in Italo’s bed with Madeleina close by, sleeping. Despite her medications, Lydia couldn’t sleep at the end until I rubbed her upper left back. We’d never been physical before, but she needed it. I would put my hand up underneath her shirt and feel the spot that hurt the most. It wasn’t hard. It seemed like she was giving off heat, enough heat that it felt like my hand was burning. I would rub and rub and hold her until she would turn to me with a quizzical look and sort of push me away, as if she hadn’t called me in the first place. Then she could sleep.
Sometimes, even at the very end, she would still be a version of herself. Just two days before she died, after nearly a week of not getting out of her bed without help, she got up and made herself a chicken wing with rice and fried plantains. Other times, she began not even answering us when we spoke with her.
But during those last two weeks, she changed. Not just physically, though she did do that, but in her countenance. She had never been someone who seemed ill at ease with herself—she yelled when she yelled, laughed out loud easily, scowled when she wanted—but suddenly she seemed peaceful. There was an ease in her eyes, a relaxed sparkle that she’d never had before. I’m not sure if the others saw it or felt it, but I was confident that whatever scores she’d had to settle had all been played out in those terrible bouts of wailing, and that she knew she was even up for this lifetime.
Cheryl had warned me that the last week might be difficult and had arranged for a room for Lydia in the hospice ward over at All Saints hospital in Fort Worth. The small ward was run by Vitas, she explained, and there were visiting hours day and night, and a kitchen where families could cook if they wanted to stay. There were fold out chairs and couches in the rooms for overnight, and pets were allowed. I thanked her but decided that we’d come so far, that it might be unfair to my kids to not have her home even at the end. There were times I questioned that decision, but my kids never did. Neither did Chepa. Her mom was home, her Marco was with her—covered in pox marks and itching like mad, but still with her—and that seemed fine by Lydia as well.
We did call on hospice services near the end though. One night her breathing got so shallow that we thought she’d die right then. So I called the hospice and asked for their minister to come out to administer last rites. Chepa’s sister Jessica came as well, and held her mom.
The minister, I’m not sure what denomination, wore a collar. He was tall and good looking, with quick smile and a legitimate air of decency about him. He arrived not long after I called and introduced himself as Jim Horton. He asked about Lydia’s faith. I told him I thought she was Catholic, but that in Iquitos, being Catholic was generally only a way to keep the protestant missionaries from visiting. He came into the room with me and began to talk with Lydia. She turned away. After a few minutes he and I left the room and he commented that she sure knew how to turn a cold shoulder. I noted that she could indeed. He asked what I wanted from him. I told him to leave her alone with Jessica for a few minutes and that Jessy would find out what Lydia wanted.
Jessy called him in a little while later, and when he emerged he said he’d administered rites and held her hand silently. It was probably exactly what she’d wanted.
The next time I called the reverend it was because Lydia had died. It was early morning, just before dawn, on Friday, March 12. Chepa had stayed up with her mom all night. Though she wasn’t speaking much at that point, Chepa called Peru and got her two brothers on the phone and held the phone to Lydia’s ear while they talked to their mom and made their peace with her. Then, at about 5:30 she had me call her sisters. The first to arrive was Yolanda, and her mom was still alive to see her. By the time Amelia and Jessica arrived with their kids a few minutes later, Lydia was gone.
I left the daughters and the grandkids alone with her and decided not to call Vitas—who would send Reverend Horton and a nurse who would call the coroner with the time of death—for an hour or so, so the family could make their goodbyes.
When the sun came up I was standing on our back porch and a beautiful thing had happened. The peach trees had bloomed. There hadn’t been a single pink flower in either one of them the night before, and here they were bursting with color.
I called Madeleina and showed them to her. "I know it’s sad, baby. But look at those trees. Whenever you think of grandma dying, remember that when she did she made the peach trees bloom."
"Don’t be sad, daddy. Grandma’s in heaven and she’s with her own mommy now."
Lydia’s death means little to the world. She was just an ordinary person. Special to us, no one else. We miss her.