Perils of Being - 3
by Paula Gunn Allen

December 29, 2006

My Dear Friends

I went out for my early morning Colombian coffee with a shot of expresso and the sun was just flaming in the east.  Pretty, firing the clouds that clump here and there.  The ravens were out, and the crows.  Mighty flyers, those.

Last night was hard (as was the 30th day and night).  Had a crying spell, or as near one as I can get.  Realizing that I'm old, I'm the elder, supposed to know things, to be the protector.  After all, I – and all of us who are the oldest generation (its not about years but about who is left standing) – are what stand between those younger and the awesome Unknown.  I think that song about “you are the wind beneath my wings” triggered it, although the spell had been coming on all day.  My daughter-in-law had told me something painful, and it stuck.  I become aware that hurt feelings are something very real, not to be dismissed with a contemptuous snort. That was a new idea.

            Mother had been so consistent in her dismissal of such feelings, most feelings, actually, that it only now occurs to me that she was missing the point.  Alas, poor mom. That means that her hurts were dismissed all her life, first by the adults in her life, then by her ‘inner adult.’  Mostly I wish my inner adult would go on a trip and forget to come back!

            Anyway, the feelings came up, as we say in California, and there I was: in the dark, listening to the scratchy radio (did I tell you I don't have TV hookup so can't use my favorite meditation device?) and the song came on.  Reminded me of the time in the early 80’s when mother was very ill, near death.  She had some kind of perocarditis, I think.  I had been to see her at the hospital and she was all but disappeared (not so odd for an Indian woman, actually).  But it was odd, as though only a tiny lump under the blankets was all that there was of her; the rest of her mass was elsewhere.  I remember that song playing through my head those long days and nights until she began to recover; I didn't know what I'd do without her, because I knew the only reason I had been able to go out into the world and do the things I had done, good, bad, and indifferent, professional, personal, spiritual, was that she was there, home, keeping the fire alight, tending to the world in a quiet way that appeared to be cooking, cleaning, ordering a human families life.

            Last night I was again faced with the dilemma.  I am  not old.  I am not wise.  I am not a protector.  I have no one to ask how to do something, what to do, someone who I just know is there holding the world together. It can't be me....I’m too small, too vulnerable, too ignorant.  But the ones who do know, who are older and wiser are all gone. 

On October 15 I was getting ready to go to sleep.  I was having a severe respiratory attack....asthma, emphysema, whatever.  I had spent the previous day in bed most of the day, out cold.  By fire day, which was a Sunday, I realized that I was sick and needed to go to the doctor, which I resolved to do the next day.  Barely able to breathe I crept slowly from my bedroom to the kitchen to get a glass of water then back to my room.  The trip was excruciating, my breath labored and loud.  Scary.  I sat at the edge of the bed and began to take my night meds when I realized something was going “Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  Bang.”  The TV was on, so I lowered the volume and listened.  Two thoughts flew across my awareness: raccoons, some one's in here.  Sully?  Mellisa?  No, they're gone. No Ms Kitty either....I had had to send my best friend and comforter to her original people, Sully and Melissa, because of the asthma, fortunately, as it turned out.

       Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  No, can't be raccoons.  Too regular.  Well, sh...t.  I got up and started for the door to the Funnies Room.  Fairly sure someone was in the trailer, I can't imagine what I thought I was going to do about it!  Old, unable to walk, to BREATHE, I was more than defenseless.  Even a raccoon could have had me for late night snacking.

        I snailed my way down the wall to the library door and looked in.  A very bright light shone through the cotton curtains.  HMO.  Maybe someone’s ill; maybe its an ambulance.  Maybe someone died.  Not uncommon at Ocean Lake, a mobile home park for over 55’s.  Some of us are WAY over 55.  Fire truck?

       I made my slow way to the back door, opened it and, YIKES!  The shed was on fire.

Well, damn.  For some reason I went back to my room for the phone instead of the living room one which was a bit closer.   My breathing was so labored I couldn't speak.  I dialed 911 and managed to gasp “Fire.  I want to report a...”  the operator said she'd connect me with the fire department, and when some one answered I said, between gasps, “Fire,” gasp, gasp, there’s gasp gas, “there's a fire”....

“What’s the address?” he said

 I gasped some more then said, “118...”,

“1184 North Main,” he cut in, “Right?”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking What a dude! Boy, was he on top of addresses in Fort Bragg.

Hearing my gasping, he said he was going to connect me with the ambulance.  “I don't need an ambulance,” I protested.  I figured he thought I was gasping because of smoke inhalation, but I hadn't inhaled any smoke least not from the shed’s flames.

“I'm connecting you with the ambulance,” he said again, firmly.  OOOH.  What a strong man!  Yikes! 

“I don't need an ambulance,” I insisted. I was sure that the Fire department would come right away -- Ft. Bragg is a very small town geographically as well as population-wise. The shed fire would be extinguished and after a bit of hoo-haw I could go to sleep.  So after hanging up from the ambulance dude who was coming despite my protests I settled in to wait for the cavalry to arrive and get things sorted so I could go to bed.

Then I realized that someone was knocking at the front door, calling my name.  “Damn.  I began to make my slow and breathless way through the extent of the trailer...some 50 get the door.  I forgot that I could go out the sliding door in the Funnies Room just a few feet from where I sat at my bed.  I could see through the kitchen window that it was my next door neighbor, Bill, and he was trying his darndest to get my attention.  But his knocks were weak, and the door doesn't resound particularly well.  His voice wasn't much stronger, for that matter.  I was laboring along calling, “I'm coming,” but you can imagine how much volume I could muster, given that I had no breath to put behind the sound.

So making my way to the door and opening it, a worried Bill and his little dog stood aside and beckoned me out.  I made my way along the porch to the bench and sat.  “Can't breathe,” I gasped.  “Can't walk.”\

Bill said that the dog had wakened him and his wife, Mary, with his barking.  They had gotten up and through the window seen the fire.  So Mary had called the Fire Department and he had come over to waken me in case I was asleep.  I didn't say that had I been asleep I would never have heard him.  I didn't say anything but “Gasp, gasp.”

The Fire Department’s there, I see.  Good.  This will be over in a little while, I think, gratefully.

Then he's all, “Let's get off the porch.  I'm, of course, not moving.  I am beginning to catch what little breath I have, and moving is not something I'm prepared to do.  “I  can't walk,” I say, wheeze, wheeze. We sit, I enjoy the small fresh breeze moving the leaves of the little tree of some unknown variety that grows next to my porch. Bill is plainly agitated.  He can barely sit still. Meanwhile,  I'm looking up at my neighbor’s roof and the sky, when I see that sparks are flying from my trailer to hers.  Oops.

A cop comes.  A big guy.  “You have to get off the porch,” he says.  I am not arguing, now.  Seems like a prudent move, but I can't walk.  “I can't walk,” I say.  “I can't breathe.”  Bill and the officer try to help me.  Each taking an arm, they more or less drag me along the long porch and down the steps, across the street to the police car.  I think I'm gonna expire, literally, right there.  Any movement, and they are forcing me to move, robs me of the little breath I have.  “I can't breathe,” I whisper.  “Stop.”  But they don't stop.  I think they thought I was too weak, old, sick, whatever to walk.  I think the part about not being able to breathe, which was why I couldn't walk, didn't penetrate.

Whatever, I made it to the officer’s car, sat down, and gasped my way back to almost breathing again when the ambulance people came, sans gurney, and drag me to the ambulance, another terrifying struggle to stay alive with people “helping” me....”helping” me drop dead that is! Somehow I manage to get up into the ambulance, no small feat given how far off the ground the first step is, and somehow get onto the gurney without collapsing just short of it.  The attendant gets oxygen going for me, and then a nebulizer.  By now the ambulance is filling with smoke, and it has that awful, unforgettable smell of a home burning.  The smoke the ambulance collected will have a serious effect several days hence. But for now the driver has to maneuver his way through fire trucks that have parked somewhat obstructively.  He's sort of blocked, but the police and fire people are urging him to move out.
             He does, with some skill, and then we are on our way to the emergency room.  There they dose me with more Albuterol or whatever substance is in the nebulizer and shortly I am much improved.  The doc, a friendly, witty man, gives me a prescription for antibiotics, which is what I was going to see the doctor for...but not in the emergency room, for heaven’s sake!...

“You’re all right,” says a nurse or other attendant.  Is there someone you can call to come get you? 

Yikes.  I can’t call my kids, they have a cell phone which goes unanswered.  If anyone’s still up they might notice that I called, but they won’t recognize the number so won’t listen to the message, I get.  Besides, they have the cats.

“”Maybe you can go to a motel?” 

Yeah, and walk there?  I don’t think so!

            So I call Charlotte and Druex, for whom I thank all the gods and spirits, and soon there’s Druex, and I get up and as we are leaving he sneaks me a stuffed bear he’s brought.  What a perceptive man, is Dreux.  I hug the bear as we get into his car, and off we go. We return to the trailer to retrieve some equipment I need to breathe.  The one of the fire fighters brings out some stuff.  Dreux goes over to the trailer, which is still smoldering, and then the Fire Chief comes over and gives me some instructions about the report, when it will be available for insurance people and such.  He tells me that the fire definitely started in the shed.  I say it’s probably because the workman who sealed the deck that day must have left the rags he used to wipe up excess sealer in the shed without putting them in water and/or a sealed metal container.

He also tells me that the insulation in the ceiling caught and they couldn’t stop it’s spread.  It was still smoldering more than an hour after they first arrived.  The shed was cinders, of course, and my car, parked in the carport with it’s nose a couple of feet from the shed, was totaled.  So there I was.  67 years old.  Sick, weak, homeless, without even a car to sleep in.  What the heck was/is this about?

Yes, I know, nothing personal.  As the bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens.”


A few days ago I was leaning on the trunk of my new car (1985 Toyota Cressida, belonged to one person, an elderly woman, who took extremely good care of it.  I call it my chariot; it’s a lot more car than my little Acura Integra, and driving such a vehicle takes some getting used to.  But I like it.  I feel like my grandmother in her Cadillac!  And in some sense, I guess I am.)

But, as I was saying, I was leaning on the trunk resting my aching back...or excruciating hip, or both....and happened to look down. I saw my left hand and a warm feeling of aesthetic pleasure washed through me.  Gee, I thought,  I have pretty hands.  For the most part I haven’t liked my hands, but that day their brownness, their strength, the length of my fingers, the raised  Then in a flash I was elsewhen, and a fresh small breeze was moving through me, or WAS me, and I as images of the blackened remains of my past flicked by I grokked: “Yikes!  I flashed.  I’ve been believing that was real!”  [and of course it’s not, the unverbalized remainder of the grok continued.]  YAHOO!

How I wish that nice feeling would stay.  But how grateful I am that I had a moment’s clarity, freedom, objective awareness.  That was what the fire etc is/was all about, after all.  You friend-warriors know what I mean.

So Happy western New Year to all, may Chinese New Year (along with Keresan New Year) come soon.  We wait through the long nights as earth makes her slow, endlessly repetitive journey around the sun, heading north about now.


Back to index for Perils of Being