Previously Printed OASIS Journal 2015
Lucy Martinez was outside scraping away the monsoon-germinated weeds around her little Florence Junction ranchette when her cell phone rang; it was the jail, where she worked.
“Lucy, it’s Raquel.” Raquel Vega was the chief orderly in the infirmary of the Pinal County Adult Detention Center. “Maria’s back in the infirmary in diabetic shock. She’s refusing food and intravenous glucose. The captain told me to call you. Maybe you can talk her into eating.”
Maria Magdalena Ramirez was an immigration detainee, technically in federal custody, but the Pinal County Adult Detention Center was under contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service to house immigration detainees who were too seriously or chronically ill to hold in the other ICE facilities in Florence. Maria was originally incarcerated at the Florence Detention Center, but her erratic eating behavior, bingeing on junk food followed by fasting, left her in a coma in her bunk. Lucy and Maria were both Yaqui; not really friends, not relatives by blood or birth, but still somehow connected.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” Lucy said.
Crossing the Gila River into Florence, she passed the ICE Service Processing Center where the Border Patrol assembles the illegals it’s captured for deportation back to Mexico and elsewhere. Lucy’s grandmother, Asu Rosa, worked in the kitchens there during World War II, when the center was used as a camp for German and Italian POWs. Asu Rosa left the Yaqui Valley after the Mexican government built the Angostura dam across the Yaqui River and stole the water from the villages. Asu Rosa didn’t want to live among the Mexicans; they’d made a slave of Lucy’s great grandfather, forcing him to work on the henequén plantations in the Yucatan. Like other Yaquis, Asu Rosa had fled north across the border and settled in Arizona. Working at Camp Florence paid for her little house in the Yaqui town of Guadalupe near Tempe.
Lucy passed by the Central Arizona Detention Center, a privately run facility that contracted with the ICE to house a thousand immigration detainees. She had considered working there after her suspension as a Pinal County deputy sheriff, but she decided to stay with the Pinal County Jail because she was already vested in the retirement plan and correctional officers at the jail were unionized.
She checked in at the reception desk and proceeded to the infirmary. Unlike Lucy, Maria was a native Yaqui, born in Torim to a family of tribal activists that left her deeply suspicious of Mexicans, especially those from Sonora. She frequently refused to speak Spanish to her fellow inmates or the guards. One day in the detention center cafeteria Maria was ranting in Yaqui, and Lucy told her “kopalai.” Since then Maria had been calling on Lucy for all kinds of special favors, to intervene for her when she got into trouble, or to get her more access to medical care than was customary.
Lucy found Maria lying in an infirmary bed, sweating and mumbling, probably in Yaqui. She’d been hooked up to an intravenous drip.
“I thought she refused treatment,” Lucy said to Raquel.
“She did, but then she became incoherent, at which point the doctor decided she was incompetent and could be treated because her condition was life threatening,” Raquel said. “I think he put in a little tranquilizer to keep her incompetent until her situation stabilizes. Don’t ever tell her about an advance directive, or the next time she will end up dead without treatment.”
“So what set her off this time?” Lucy said.
“I wasn’t there, but Jeannine said one of the detainees, the fat, bitchy one with the orange and green spiked hair, Elvira.”
“I know who you mean.”
“Well, she was ragging on Maria about being an India. I guess Elvira is from Cuidad Obregón, not far from Maria’s home town, and she hates Yaquis. Maria’s so pint-sized she couldn’t stand up for herself. Of course, nobody else will stand up for her because some of detainees from Sonora understand enough Yaqui to know Maria is constantly dissing them.”
“So, let me guess,” Lucy said. “She got upset, refused to eat, her blood sugar crashed, and here we are again.”
“Right,” Raquel said.
Lucy had a hard time turning Maria down. Her story was a modern version of what happened to her Asu Rosa. The Sonoran State government kept building dams along the Rio Yaqui, siphoning off the water for new irrigated commercial farms and its thirsty capital Hermosillo, leaving the downstream Yaqui villages with only enough water to irrigate half of their crop lands. To escape this poverty, Maria married too young to an abusive husband who lived in Hermosillo. Fleeing him, Maria crossed the border into Arizona, moving to the High Town settlement in Chandler. After she got pulled over for suspected drunk driving (in reality, low blood sugar) and was arrested for driving without a license, the sheriff’s department turned her over to ICE when they suspected she was here illegally. The Florence Project took up her case for humanitarian parole because of her abusive husband; they were obtaining police reports from Hermosillo documenting her husband’s abusive behavior, and also arguing that as a Yaqui, she had the right to visit Yaqui territories in the U.S.
Since Maria was currently stable and unconscious, any discussions of her behavior would wait until Lucy’s regular shift on Monday.
Lucy left the jail and drove over to the Carestone assisted living facility in Glendale to visit her mother. She’d broken a hip a couple of weeks earlier and was upset about not returning to the little house on Calle Iglesia she’d inherited from Asu Rosa. Since the surgery, Chepa had been showing signs of dementia. Physically, she was capable of returning home, with assistance, but Lucy and the doctor were stalling to see if the memory problems might improve.
Lucy knocked on her mother’s apartment door and went in. Chepa was watching TV.
“Who are you?” Chepa said.
“It’s Lucy, Maala.” Chepa made a quizzical face. “Your daughter.”
“Oh. Are you here to take me to dinner?”
“Sure, what’s on the menu?”
“Chipped beef.” All of a sudden Chepa’s memory was back. “Your favorite. Are you hungry?”
“You betcha,” Lucy said.
Back in the apartment after dinner, Chepa became agitated.
“Lucy, when can I go back to my house? The physical therapist says I won’t be needing any more sessions after this Thursday.”
Lucy grew up in the house her mother had inherited from Asu Rosa, along with a series of uncles who “walked with” her mother over the years. Her father now lived with another Yaqui woman in Pascua village in Tucson. She’d met him several times while visiting Tucson for Easter celebrations, but like most Yaqui fathers he had little to do with any of his children. He’d written a barely legible note congratulating her when she graduated from ASU with her degree in criminal justice. She was the first polisiia in their family’s history. Hopefully, her ancestors would realize times had changed, and anyway she wasn’t becoming one of the Mexican federales—that would raise their ghosts out of their graves, for sure.
Lucy guessed this was a good time to raise the memory issue.
“Dr. Farnsworth is worried you might have had a little stroke during your hip surgery,” Lucy said.
“My hip is fine. I just told you that,” Chepa said. She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “Maybe you’re the one with memory problems?”
“Okay, what about when I came here today, and you didn’t recognize me.”
“Of course I recognized you. You’re my own daughter. That’s silly. How could I not recognize you?”
“Haven’t you been forgetting things since the surgery? Nurse Tatum told me you got lost getting back to your room from bingo last Tuesday,” Lucy said.
“That’s nonsense. Who told you that?”
“Who’s she? I never met her,” Chepa said. She gave Lucy the look that says you’re an idiot.
“Nurse Tatum is the one who takes you down to the therapy pool. Dirty blonde, taller than me, a little on the heavy side.”
“Oh, you mean Agnes. Why didn’t you say so?”
“Okay, Agnes said you got lost on your way back to your room after bingo last Tuesday.”
“I didn’t go to bingo last Tuesday. I had to go see Dr. Farnsworth.”
“That was the Tuesday before last,” Lucy said. “I took you to see Dr. Farnsworth, remember.”
“Are you sure I didn’t go in the van? I remember going somewhere in the van.”
“No, I took you to the doctor. You went in the van to get your hair done.”
“You know, you’re not a police officer anymore. You can’t just come into someone’s home and start interrogating them.”
“I’m not interrogating you. I’m trying to get you to see that you’ve got memory problems since the surgery.”
“I’m not answering any more questions without my lawyer. I know my rights, young lady.”
“What’s my name,” Lucy said. Mother crossed her arms and glared at her. After ten minutes of silence, Chepa fell asleep in her chair. When Lucy woke her up, she said: “Are you here to help me get to bed?”
“Yes,” Lucy said.
By Monday when Lucy returned to the Detention Center, Maria was well enough to return to the general population in Pod E200.
“Maria, what happened on Saturday?” Lucy said.
“Oh, my diabetes went crazy. I must’ve ate something bad,” Maria said.
“Don’t you know how to avoid foods that are bad for you?”
“Yeah, but sometimes I got to have something, to make myself feed better.”
“What about your argument with Elvira Sanchez?” Lucy said.
“Yeah, her whole family’s a bunch of Yaqui bigots. According to Elvira, the Yaquis are always blocking the highway, protesting for some handout from the government instead of working.”
“You didn’t say anything to provoke her?”
“Nothing she could understand,” Maria said.
“You think people can’t guess that you’re dissing them when you are screaming at them in Yaqui,” Lucy said. “You’ve got to learn to keep a lid on it in here. Some of these people could hurt you bad if you make them mad enough.”
“Hey, I ain’t afraid to die. It might be better than this.”
“That why you refused the medicine when you went into shock on Saturday, to kill yourself?”
“No, man, I just don’t like that bitchy Mexican orderly. I won’t take no orders from her.” Maria looked up at the clock. “Hey, I got to meet with that gringa lawyer from the Florence Project in ten minutes. I got to get my papers from the cell.”
“All right,” Lucy said. “Good luck.”
Lucy checked her cell phone in her locker. There was a message from Dr. Farnsworth’s nurse about her mother. She called the office, and the receptionist passed her through to the nurse.
“Lucy, Medicare wants to discharge your mother from Carestone. They say she’s recovered from the hip surgery, and her mental problems are too sporadic to justify continued nursing home care. They agree she probably needs someone around to take care of her, but that’s custodial care, and they won’t pay for that.”
“How soon does she have to leave?” Lucy said.
“Friday. Thursday is her last physical therapy session.”
“I guess I could take some leave and see how she does home alone. My place is too small for the two of us.”
“I’ll send you a list of places around Phoenix that might take her, but they will all run a couple of thousand a month, more if she needs help with medications or activities of daily living.”
“Thanks. I’ll figure something out.”
Wednesday morning Lucy found Maria yelling in Yaqui at some of the other detainees. It was different than previous outbursts. Maria was taunting them, but she was smiling, she sounded happy.
“Ramirez,” Lucy called from across the room. Maria turned around, first frowning, then smiling. She came over to Lucy, almost skipping.
“Lucy, I’m getting out of here. The gringa lawyer, she got me humanitarian parole, because of my diabetes and because I can’t go back to my twisted husband in Hermosillo. I can get out of here as soon as I got a place to stay.”
“That’s great, Maria.” Lucy gave her a hug, against regulations.
“I just don’t want to have to live with a bunch of Mexican bitches in some halfway house, you know.”
Lucy had a really bad idea. “I might know someplace you could stay. I don’t suppose you know how to cook?”
“My wakavaki soup is to die for,” Maria said.
“Okay, I’ll be back tomorrow, hopefully with good news.”
Maria went back across the room and started lecturing the 200E Pod detainees again in Yaqui. They were all smiling. Either they were glad to be rid of Maria, or they couldn’t help being happy when one of them escaped ICE detention, even if it was an obnoxious India.
“Maala, sit here in your armchair and rest. I’ll bring in the rest of your stuff from the nursing home.”
By the time Lucy got everything put away, Chepa had fallen asleep in the chair. Lucy made some lunch and woke her mother up to eat it.
“I found somebody to stay with you for a few days, just until you get your full strength back.”
“I don’t know about having strangers in my house. I’ll be all right alone,” Chepa said.
“Oh, she’s not a stranger. Remember Rogelio Gonzaga from Torim? This is his niece, Maria Magdalena.” Chepa gave Lucy an uncertain look. “She’s supposed to make the best Wakavaki soup in the whole pueblo.”
“Oh, well, all right, but just for a few days, until I’m stronger.”
After lunch, Lucy talked Chepa into taking a nap. She drove out to the detention center, where Maria was waiting for her on the benches in the visitor area.
“Why didn’t you wait inside? It’s hot today,” Lucy said.
“I wanted to be free so bad, I didn’t care about the heat,” Maria said, wiping the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. “Can you believe it, that bitch Elvira had one of the guards bring me out a refresco? It was cherry, which I hate, but I drank it anyway.”
All the way back home, Lucy kept up the small talk, but in the back of her mind, she wondered if she was crazy to expect this to work.
* * *
After two weeks, Chepa and Maria settled into a comfortable relationship, even while Chepa’s memory problems worsened. Lucy left work early to take Chepa for a follow-up evaluation with Dr. Farnsworth. Chepa was still in her bathrobe sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a Twinkie with Maria.
“Maala, why aren’t you dressed? We have to be at the doctor’s in half an hour?” Lucy said.
“Who are you?” Chepa said.
Maria stood up with her hand filled with half a Twinkie and motioned Lucy aside. “She had a bad night last night. She didn’t know my name this morning either.”
“Why are you eating Twinkies? What about your diabetes?”
“Haven’t you heard? Twinkies are going out of business. I just had to have some before they’re all gone.” She popped the remaining half Twinkie into her mouth. “Besides, I shared with Chepa, and she seemed a little more alert afterwards.”
“Maala, come on. You have to get dressed to go to the doctor.”
“I’m not sick,” Chepa said. “And I’m not going anywhere with a stranger. My daughter will take me to the doctor, if and when I need to go.”
“Maria, get her dressed, please,” Lucy said. “We can all go together.”
They were a little late getting to the physician’s office, but it was all right because Dr. Farnsworth was running late, as usual. Chepa was given a form with her contact and insurance information, but she couldn’t manage to sign it.
“You can sign it for your mother, Ms. Martinez,” the receptionist said. “Right here on the bottom.”
“Don’t give that to her,” Chepa said. “She’s not my daughter.” She grabbed the form out of Lucy’s hand and gave it to Maria. “Here, you sign for me, Maggie.”
“Maggie?” Lucy said.
“She doesn’t like the name, Maria.”
“Since this morning,” Maria said. “She always called me Maria before.”
“You don’t look so good. You’re sweating. Your breath smells funny, like nail polish remover.”
“I had to bribe her with Twinkies to get her dressed. She made me share.”
A nurse opened the door to the waiting room. “Mrs. Martinez, the doctor will see you now.”
Chepa didn’t seem to recognize her name, so Lucy took her by the elbow, but Chepa shook it off. Lucy let Maria lead Chepa into the exam room. Maria was sweating even more profusely, so Lucy showed her to the one patient chair, while she and Chepa stood by.
Dr. Farnsworth came into the exam room. He looked at Maria in the patient chair and then rechecked the chart. “Mrs. Martinez, how are you?”
“Do I know you?” Chepa said.
“I did the surgery on your hip, Mrs. Martinez.”
Just then Maria slid out of the chair onto the floor.
“My hip is fine,” Chepa said. “Please help my daughter; she’s very sick.”
“I thought you only had one daughter?” Dr. Farnsworth said, looking at Lucy.
“I do, and she’s on the floor of your office,” Chepa said. “Help her, please.”
“She’s diabetic,” Lucy said. “She ate five Twinkies to persuade my mother to get dressed for this office visit.”
“It looks like she’s developing ketoacidosis. You’re sure she’s diabetic?”
“Yes. She was in the infirmary at the jail a number of times for both hyper and hypoglycemia.”
“I’d better give her an insulin shot. Then we’ll call the ambulance. She’s going to need intravenous treatment in the hospital at least overnight.”
“She’s going to have to stay in the hospital?” Chepa said. “Who’s going to take me home?”
“I’ll take you home, Maala,” Lucy said. “Later we can go visit Maggie in the hospital as soon as she’s feeling better.”
Lucy looked at Dr. Farnsworth. He shrugged. “This is out of my league,” he said. “I get you a referral for a neurologist. These aren’t your usual stroke symptoms.”
Maria’s condition was grave when she was admitted to St. Luke’s and placed in intensive care. After a few days, her condition stabilized, and Chepa and Lucy went for a visit.
“Asoa, how are your feeling?” Chepa said.
“Much better, Maala,” Maria said. “But I’m not really your daughter.”
“Nonsense,” Chepa said. “When you get home, I’m putting you on the Yaqui diet for the sugar. I already threw out all those terrible Twinkies.”
“No, not my Twinkies. Those were the last ones ever. I could’ve sold them, like for collectors.”
“You probably would’ve eaten them,” Lucy said.
“You put her up to that, didn’t you?” Maria said. “Just like back in the Detention Center, you were always trying to keep me away from the junk food.”
“I’m going to bake you my special Curisi dessert. Your cousin Lucy got me some high protein flour to help keep your sugar down.”
“Tell her the rest,” Lucy said.
“We’re going to be taking the aerobics class at the Guadalupe Senior Center together,” Chepa said. “Turns out they let non-seniors with disabilities take the class too, so the sugar got you into my class.”
“I hate exercise class. I hate being bossed around,” Maria said.
“You’ve got to do something about the sugar,” Chepa said, tears in her eyes. “Cousin Lucy told me of all the times you went to the hospital for the IV treatment. You’ve got to bury me, not the other way around.”
“You’ll like the class, Cousin Maggie,” Lucy said. “All the instructions are given in Yaqui.”
Lucy was outside scraping away the new weeds sprouted from the recent rains when she saw the postman pull his truck up to the neighbor’s mailbox. In her mailbox, Lucy found a letter from Dr. Lucinda Torrez at Foothills Neurology. Chepa’s MRI scan showed evidence of a fornix infarct, which was most likely responsible for the memory problems Chepa had been experiencing. There was a number to call for more information. Dr. Torrez was busy with a patient but called back in fifteen minutes.
“Ms. Martinez, this is Doctor Torrez. We met at your mother’s neuropsychological evaluation.”
“I received your letter, something about a fornix infarct. Is that some kind of stroke?”
“Yes, it’s a very rare kind of stroke that affects memory processing. The fornix connects different parts of the brain. If it damaged, then memories from different parts of the brain can become scrambled. This seems to be the case with your mother, a confabulatory syndrome.”
“Is that why she thinks I’m her niece, not her daughter?”
“Probably what happened is that she lost some of her memories of you. When her brain began to heal, it started rebuilding its memories. The person living with your mother became the daughter, and the person visiting became the niece. Her brain is confabulating what memories she has left with her current experience.”
“Is this permanent?” Lucy said.
“Let’s say it’s becoming more permanent. Right after the stroke, there were a lot of gaps that might have gotten refilled correctly if anyone had known your mother had had this rare kind of stroke.”
“But now she’s filling in the gaps in whatever way makes sense.”
“Right. There’s no real medical treatment to restore a patient’s missing memories, especially once the confabulated memories had become established in the months following the infarct. You could try psychotherapy to help her recognize when she’s confabulating her memories. Unfortunately, the process of memory rectification can be stressful because the patient has no other memories with which to replace those confabulated. Sometimes the patient ends up disoriented.”
Dr. Torrez told Lucy to call back after she had thought more about her mother’s condition, in case she needed more advice. Lucy went into her pantry for the small bag of brittle bush leaves Yaquis used as incense. She put the dried leaves in the little pottery dish Asu Rosa had given her as a child and placed it in front of the statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe that Asu Rosa had brought with her from Torim.
“Kialem vata hiwemai/ chukula hubwa teune teunevu,” she chanted five times, as the leaves burned. First, you just look, later you will find, find. The only lines in Yaqui she could remember from the deer dance she had attended at the Pascua Pueblo when she was a teenager.
Lucy dialed her mother’s number. “Ne’esa, it’s Lucy. I got the report from the neurologist in the mail.”
“Why would they send the report to my niece, instead of directly to me?” Chepa said.
“There must have been a mix-up at the office. I’m listed as one of your emergency contacts, in case Maggie is unavailable,” Lucy said. “But, overall, good news. It looks like the little stroke you had should resolve itself without further treatment.”
“Wonderful,” Chepa said. “I am so sick of those doctors treating me like I’m an idiot. Do you want to talk with your cousin? We’re leaving to go to our exercise class at the Senior Center in a couple of minutes. She’s mad at me because I found her stash of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I threw them away.”
“Does she still sneak off to the snack aisle at the grocery looking for Twinkies?”
“Yes, she always comes back empty-handed. I hope they don’t start making those things again,” Chepa said.
“You’re a wonderful niece, Lucy, looking out for us the way you do,” Chepa said. “If your mother were still here with us, she would be very proud of you.”