What These Beds Have Seen

When I arrived at the former monastery, roughly ten days ago, I knew by the unkempt and run down buildings, it would not be a pretty sight inside. Despite the numerous buildings that made up the compound, most were locked up and seemingly out of use for several decades.  Only one building, just beyond the chapel, looked like it was still in use, as families with young children huddled around the visitors entrance, telling stories and discussing who their children resemble.  All the adults have the same concerned, uncomfortable look on their faces, as if to say – I can’t wait until they day I don’t have to come to this place anymore. 

HandsThe old sign reads Pulmonology C and as I walk down the odd smelling hallway I notice that in fact it isn’t a hallway. If I jump I can see over the temporary walls into the makeshift rooms that have been created from what is one massive room where I can imagine some 25 years ago everyone was just thrown in all together. Not that much has changed, I estimate, only now there are 6 beds to a room, each room with its own thin 2 meter high walls that allow every hacking cough, fart, or moan to be heard by everyone in the entire wing.

As I walk into my grandfather’s room, I quickly glance at the 5 other beds and their occupants; a young man sitting in hospital pajamas reading the newspaper casually next to his bed. An old man looking quite sick, reaching to over to grab a glass of water, a middle aged man wearing a breathing tube under his nose fast asleep, an older gentleman wearing reading glasses sitting up in bed eating a yogurt, and a charming little old man who has fallen sleep while sitting in a comfy chair next to his bed.  And there among the very sick and the not so sick, lay my grandfather, 92 years old, fighting what is certain to be his last battle against pneumonia and a body that is starting to shut down on him. Without his glasses, his teeth, and his loud greeting- I hardly recognize him.  But as I approach he greets me, making a quiet little joke about how more days in this place and his beard will be just as long as mine.

The next few days this became a ritual. Take the long drive to the old hospital and sit with grandpa. Tell him stories about what vegetables we have managed to grow in his garden and who called to send him kisses and wish him a speedy recovery.  Eventually it would be jello time, the only thing my grandfather seemed to take pleasure in – “It refreshes me”, he would say, as he slurped down another spoon of the trembling red treat, which would usually be followed by a coughing fit.  Day after day my mother and I would do this, and with each passing day he would speak less, open his eyes less, and eventually lose interest in the refreshing afternoon snack.

In just one week in such a place, you notice everything going on in the rooms and beds all around.  Who seems to be getting better. Who gets lots of visitors. Who screams and moans in pain in such a coarse voice that you find yourself running outside to escape that horrible sound every 30 minutes. And above all, you notice who disappears and why.

Hospital“The man who was sitting up in his bed yesterday breathing heavily with the machine hooked up to him, where did he go?” I asked a nurse.  “Where do you think he went?” the man answers me in very matter of fact “use your brain” tone.  The man who had been in the corner bed for only three days had held court on his first day, sitting in a chair not attached to any machines as numerous visitors came to chat with him.  By the third day he was in bed with an oxygen mask, not chatting to anyone and only his daughter and son-in-law by his side.  That night, he died.

This story happened three more times that first week. One was an pale looking old man I had helped to reach his water. The next day, his bed was empty, clean sheets awaiting the next patient. I didn’t need to ask the nurse, I could tell by everyone’s behavior what had happened. By the fifth day the gentleman with the reading glasses, who had so often been walking the halls in his slippers and often seemed concern about the well being of my grandfather, he was now in bed with an oxygen mask. His pajama top was opened, revealing his bare chest pumping in an out like it was out of control.  He sat in bed for hours, it looked as though any minute he would finally get a handle on breathing, but that minute never came.  As I said goodbye to him that day, I smiled and wished him a better day tomorrow. He answered with a stale look in his eyes and gave me the thumbs down.  Again I shouted to him and put my fist in the air, “you can do this, I wish you strength!” Still breathing heavily he shook his head no – pointed to himself and then pointed solemnly towards the ground like things would only be getting worse.  The next day his bed was empty, the nurse was busy gathering some of his personal items in a bag.

Strangely enough the weakest looking person in the room is the one who is still there, my grandfather.  Everyday he is a little less there, and every day a new person takes up whatever empty bed there is.  The charming old man who often fell asleep in his chair was sent home.  On his way out, still wearing hospital pajamas with his dress shoes, he mumbled best wishes and good health to all as he ran towards the exit. My grandfather, now heavily medicated and rarely lucid, did not even notice. Maybe its for the best, as he told me on his first day in the pulmonology wing, “I this place mark, you either get better or you go crazy.”

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ctrp425 Back Roads and Highways of Life

Somewhere out in the country side of western Portugal, I’m driving around dodging goats and tractors while reflecting on life’s challenges when you exist across borders. Instead of the usual world news issues and under reported news this is a more traditional stream-of-conciousness podcast that some people out there may be able to relate to when it comes to old age, economic problems, small towns, and ch-ch-changes. Join me on the back roads and highways of Portugal’s loveliest pear and wine regions.

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ctrp411 From the Basement Studio Where It All Began

Newark Image: Designbydexterity / flickr

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, my parents built a studio in the basement of our home. This plywood and carpet creation would become the home for The Voice of Portugal, which proudly served the Portuguese of New Jersey for almost a decade. It was this very spot where I first spoke into a microphone as a child. 20 years later I’m standing on that same spot, recording a podcast update about this current journey in the United States, and the new projects I have launched this year.

I mention 2 new projects; 2 new weekly podcasts Im involved with:

Newz of the World – A weekly news review co-hosted with Tim Pritlove

United Academics Podcast – Interviews with Researchers from the World of Physical and Social Science

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91 Excellent Years, And Counting

I can remember at the end of every summer when I was kid, having to wake up before the sun came up, to get a ride from the town’s lone taxi driver, who would take us on the long journey via the treacherous and twisty national roads of Portugal before the dawn of highways, to catch the plane back to New Jersey.  Right before my brother and I would get in the car, my grandparents would do the routine: wish us a good trip and ask us if we forgot anything. Then my grandmother, who even back then never had trouble speaking her mind, would speak a dramatic line like she was rehearsing for a very poor rendition of McBeth, “I probably won’t see you next year, as I’m old and I probably won’t survive til next summer.” This would be followed by us half-laughing at her over-dramatic delivery as we’re trying to focus on the journey ahead, and the traditional, “oh be quiet with that stuff” from my grandfather.  More than 20 years later, I’ve noticed my grandmother no longer says it, as I guess around the age of 90 it is simply implied.

The beauty of having grandparents around the age of 90, who are still of mostly sound mind, is that you can ask all the questions many people never get to.  Instead of learning about your family based on second or third hand stories, you have the very people who lived unbelievable moments and did the kind of hard work that seems impossible for any modern day work-from-anywhere self-employed person. You also get to watch them reflect on a world that they have observed for almost 100 years… even if they were too busy or napping for many of those years.  In an era where we stash our elderly out of sight and praise the virtues of being young, I’ve had the good fortune of never losing touch, and always being enlightened/entertained by one set of my grandparents.  Even better, throughout my life, I’ve gotten to help my grandfather in his orchards, listen to my grandmother in the kitchen, and laugh at the cold weather while sitting with them around a fireplace.

Not everyone gets to do this. That truth never eludes me. It is a rare treasure that no one is guaranteed and many are denied. I would call that one of the main reasons I would share stories about them, to share the wealth in some tiny and perhaps naive way.

Today my grandfather, José da Fonseca Jr. turned 91 years old. Whatever his age, however different my world might be from his, he is a part of everything I do and the way that I do it. Parabens Avô!

 

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