Dear Melissa

During Linda’s last six months, she was participating in an experimental treatment for pulmonary hypertension and being monitored monthly by the Pulmonary Hypertension Group at Rhode Island Hospital. The nurse administrator who held the program together was Melissa Allahua. She and Linda bonded, and they chatted often about our life in Oaxaca. When Linda died, Melissa sent me a beautiful poem she had written about her, a poem that featured prominently that year, and this year, too, on my memorial altar for el Día de los Muertos. Then, six months after Linda’s death, Melissa and her then boyfriend and now husband decided that their first vacation together should be to visit me here in Santa Cruz Etla in Linda’s honor. It was a lovely, event filled, and moving few days together, and a gesture that I will always treasure.


This afternoon I received another letter from Melissa, written during a brief respite after her first year of med school. She was wondering how I was because she hadn’t heard from me for a long time, and neither had I posted any blogs on the website that Linda and I had maintained for years. I started penning a response (“penning”: isn’t that an anachronism?!) and it seemed to me that it might be posted as evidence of my appropriately jogged return to the blog-a-sphere.





You're right: hard to believe that a year has passed already since your first visit. I say “first,” because one always hopes for another!


You are also right in that I haven't posted anything on the website in a long time. Partly, I suppose, because I have been so busy with the four lives I am living: with my kids in the States; with my far-flung professional circle of colleagues; with friends in the Mexican community in Santa Cruz Etla and greater Oaxaca; and with the ex-pat community in San Pablo. The end game for Living in Silverado seemed to take forever, what with a couple of rounds of final editing, formatting, and creating the index; but the manuscript (another anachronism!) is now definitively off my desk, and my next interaction with it should be when I unpack the box of books that is scheduled to arrive in October. I've begun to go back on the circuit, so my lecture schedule—here in Mexico, and in the States—has picked up. Traffic at La Mesita eco-reserve has picked up, too--almost 4,000 school children this last year--so I have spent a lot of time preaching ecological responsibility to tykes from kinder to sixth grade on the guided hike through the reserve. Somehow the word has spread that I can be a resource for birding excursions, so I have ended up accompanying lots of very interesting binocular-toting people early in the morning out across the lomas and up unto the mountains. Plus I am now involved in a vernacular architecture project. All in all, I find myself too busy doing things to make the time to write about them.


Or at least, that's what I tell myself. I suspect the real reason is that I have lost my number one audience and severest editor, and the uplifting joy of sharing a rough draft with each other while Qalbá snoozes in the corner.


Health-wise we are both fine, at least within the limits imposed by entropy. It takes Qalbá longer to transition from sleeping to standing, and the creaking of her first few steps is almost audible. My annual checkup this year was at the Transplant Center at IU Health in Indianapolis instead of the Lahey Clinic in Boston, since I am now officially a resident of Indiana. It indicated that the 50-year-old transplanted liver is functioning with acceptable middle age vigor, while my 77-year-old lungs, scarred by the relentless aggression of the Alpha-1 anti-trypsin deficiency of my former liver, are showing some signs of emphysema. As Doctor Anne Hebert, who first diagnosed the Alpha-1 deficiency maybe 30 years ago, once told me: “If the deterioration of your liver continues to progress very slowly, you’ll live long enough to die of something else.” Of course a decade later the liver’s rate of wreckage sped up, and after a year on my back in the departure lounge waiting for my flight to be called, Dan Carpenter blessed me with the offer to transplant me half of his liver, bonding us for what is turning out to be a fairly long life. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving! Dr. Hebert’s perceptive quip, alas, also applies to the lungs with their decreasing ability to snag oxygen from the air, though I can’t imagine that anyone would offer to transplant me theirs.


Melissa, I admire—among your many other qualities—your determination and stamina. Here comes the heartiest ¡enhorabuena! that I can squeeze into a letter.


If you had celebrated the end of your first year in med school with a trip to Oaxaca, you could have joined me and the neighbors yesterday at the annual Santa Cruz Etla Chicken Snatch. How could any town end its festival without one?


The Church (big “C”, Catholic) honors the Holy Cross on May 3, so that is our village’s Patron Saint’s day. Though it is hard for me to get my head around the Holy Cross being a Patron Saint, nobody here seems to have any trouble with it. The cross from the little village church, as well as the statue of the Virgin Mary, are duly paraded around the village streets in the pre-dawn behind the tuba-rich high school band, the parade punctuated with a launch of skyrockets every time it stops for a rosary at one of the village’s six mini-chapels to the Virgin of Juquila. Up at the Agencia, Santa Cruz’s three-room town hall, in the afternoon there is a greased-pole climb, and a greased-pig chase, the former the province of testosterone-hyped teenage boys, and the latter limited to two- to six-year-olds. There are carnival rides for all ages, snack stands for the families, and lots of beer and mescal for the adults. Activities culminate after dark with a castillo, a three-story high construction of cane and baling wire loaded with fireworks, that swirls and spins, and burns and toots and roars and whooshes for three quarters of an hour while the sky lights up with exploding rockets.


Near sundown the following day, when most of the hangovers have begun to fade, those who are able to stand or stagger (some of the most serious drinkers are still tossing down shots of mescal), a selection of townspeople gathers up on the loma, on the stretch of dusty ridge top road that flanks a row of four giant eucalyptus trees. The Jalada de Pollos, the Chicken Snatch, has been announced for 5:00.  Punctually at a quarter to six families begin trudging trudged up the steep hill of Calle Pípila with their chairs and plastic tables to set up in the shade. At about six fifteen mototaxis overfilled with old ladies and overdressed teenage girls, strain their little two-stroke engines to bring up more and more folks. The band has begun its second cycling through its repertoire. There is lots of beer and mescal, horchata and tamarindo for the kids and teetotalers like me, tacos and memelas, candied apples on sticks, bags of popcorn and several local varieties of dry, Styrofoam-like Cheetos. Horses and their riders are gathering in clumps of good friends, cuates in the local dialect, here and there among the thorny huisache bushes. I forgot to bring my wallet with me, but I have just enough loose change to buy a big glass of horchata, a fruit flavored powdered rice drink that is a great antidote for heat-induced dehydration.


The Valleys of Oaxaca are still in the dry season, but a bank of cumulous clouds has come up from the east. They form a towering backdrop to the sharply-edged mountain peaks that rise a full mile above the Etla valley. More importantly, they mercifully shade the loma without seriously threatening to dump rain on anyone.


The Jalada de Gallinas works like this: A rope has been stretched across the road at a height of about 4 meters; one end passes over a pulley, so the rope can be tightened or slacked at will. From the rope dangles a live chicken, trussed by its legs. Dangling beside it are selection of other prizes: cans of beer, plastic colanders, bags of popcorn, spatulas, frying pans. The horsemen, about two-dozen men and women, have clustered their mounts a hundred meters down the road. At a signal, by twos, they gallop along the course, rising high in the saddle as they approach the dangling prizes. The rope-master’s perverse tightening and slacking at will adds a crowd-pleasing measure of difficulty. The riders stretch and snatch, and if they have been successful, clutch their reward and canter through to the turn. Then, smiling with their trophies or their disappointment, they circle back to the starting paddock for another try.


When the rope has been depleted of prizes, the rope-master lowers it and he and his crew restock it for the next bunch of riders from the piled-up loot and the cage of chickens. Families on the sidelines cheer their favorites riders. Or the horses. Or the chickens. No one seems to take any of this very seriously and everybody smiles —the band, the riders, the horses, the moms with their kids, the old men with their carrizo-cane shot glasses of mescal, even the teenagers when they are not busy ogling each other. I snap several pictures of my friend Tom Benenson—journalist, novelist, air-safety specialist, and former cowboy—doing his best on a spindly gray mare lent to him for the occasion by a neighbor. On his second gallop Tom successfully snatches, and then drops, a purple plastic washbasin. He calls me later in the evening to say that some kid rescued it for him so he had to take it home.


Melissa, all that was yesterday. If you had still been here this morning you could have accompanied Gloria (a Santa Cruz neighbor with two delightful daughters) and me down to San Lorenzo on the valley floor to see the colony of parrots who have nested in the huge eucalyptus trees near the bridge ov

er the Atoyac River. And then to take Qalbá for her morning up walk; today’s choice a hill two kilometers north of San Lorenzo that is completely covered with an unexcavated pre-Columbian city, ball court and all. From the top of the highest pyramid mound there is a 360-degree view of mountains.


It will all be here waiting when you come back . . .