Coffee, Crested Butte, and Maker’s Mark

Crested Butte, Colorado
Crested Butte, Colorado. Photo: Alissa Walker.

I wrote this post few years ago. I wasn’t sure if I should share it with the world, but decided that some folks out there may be dealing with a sick loved one and may be able to relate, so I decided to publish it after all. Since I wrote this post, I am eternally grateful to the positive forces in the Universe and for good medical care because my mom’s condition is now stable and her quality of life has much improved since I wrote this post.

Even though I’m a repeat offender when it comes to kicking junk food and then eating it again, I am definitely a believer in the power of healthy food to heal. I’m always striving to eat a healthier diet, though I fall off the wagon a lot. In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with the way governments are run today is the diets of politicians. You can tell there’s a lot of heartburn, blood sugar roller coasters, and gas going on.

Oh, to think of the money we’d save on healthcare if people just ate better…

But some habits are hard to change. I think the “die” in “diet” is actually short for “die hard.” I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret Mead, who said, “It’s easier to change a man’s religion than his diet.”

I’ve been running into this issue with my mom. She’s been battling debilitating health and neurological problems as a result of contracting Valley Fever in 2008. Two of the worst aspects of her illness have been that she’s lost much of her vision and her sense of balance. Because of this, she’s a fall risk, and she’s had a couple of nasty falls that landed her in the hospital. Now she is in a wheelchair because we can’t risk her falling down. Being sick for so many years and sitting for such long periods has rendered her incredibly frail and weak.

I know she would benefit from eating super healthy, whole foods and I’ve done my damndest to get a cornucopia of plant-based protein smoothies into her, as well as greens, avocados, sprouts, fresh juices, goji berries, nuts, seeds. etc. etc. God knows I’ve spent a hell of a lot of money at Whole Foods and the farmer’s market. But in many ways, it’s been a fruitless pursuit (no pun intended :o) because she so often ends up taking just a few sips or eating a few bites and then pushing it away. Meanwhile, I have a supercharged, pulsating compost bin.

My mom was never a health food nut to begin with. She’s not necessarily a junk food junkie either; she just eats the typical American diet. Her sister in Michigan believes in the healing properties of See’s Candies and fudge from Mackinac Island. Now in her 90s, my Aunt Joan is in great shape for her age. Yet, the irony of seeing her baby sister so ill has torn her up. But when she sends boxes of sugary love from the Midwest, it does put a smile on my mom’s face.

If you’ve ever tried to get a really sick person to eat healthy food and failed at it, and you continue to witness them wasting away, you can’t help but opt for Plan B – which is getting them to eat something – anything – that has calories in it.

This is why, for my mom, and only for my mom, have I allowed for temporary lapses in my personal values and judgment. In fact, this one was a bloody sacrifice of all that I hold to be true, holy, and correct: On a trip to Salida (the closest sort of big town where she used to live in Buena Vista, Colorado), she asked me to take her to the McDonald’s Drive-Thru.

‘Are you really going to make me do this?’ I asked. ‘This is all you want to eat? McDonald’s?

She sat slumped down in the passenger seat, in her now baggy clothes, with the black eye patch that prevents her from seeing double askew on her face, and she nodded her head in affirmation.

I relented because I realized how unfair it was for me to hold her hostage to my own dietary philosophies just because I can drive and she can’t. If she was still able to drive, she could very well cruise right on through the Mickey D’s Drive-Thru, free of judgment and interrogation.

‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ I said. ‘I’m glad no one knows me in Salida. Anyone reading my blog about Earth- and animal-friendly things would think I’m a total hypocrite. What do you want?’

“A Big Mac with fries and a coke, and two hamburgers.”

‘A Big Mac, fries, and two hamburgers? You’re going to eat all that?’

“Hamburgers for the dogs,” she said.

I looked in the backseat at my mom’s Australian shepherd, Daisy, who was standing alert, panting with excitement, clearly knowing exactly where she was and what kind of treat she was about to get. And then I looked at my dog, Roo, leaning back in the car seat, disinterestedly looking out the window. I thought, Her life is about to change.

Trying to wrestle back some parental control from the indulgent grandmother, I said, ‘Well, for God’s sake, don’t give Roo the bun.’

Daisy and Roo
My mom’s dog, Daisy (who is now in Doggy Heaven) and my dog, Roo, during a winter visit to Colorado.


Maker’s Mark

In addition to McDonald’s, my mom hasn’t lost her taste for whiskey. It just goes to show, you can take the Irish out of Ireland, put them on a ship, fast forward to three generations later, and the whiskey DNA still courses through the body as bright and Kelly green as the Irish countryside.

MakersMarkMy mom has lost nearly everything. She’s a bookworm who can no longer read and has trouble operating any device that will play an audio book. And she’s an introverted nature lover who can no longer hike through fields of Rocky Mountain wild flowers of her own accord. Depriving her of the last few things that she can still enjoy simply because they’re “not good for her” seems like cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“Valley Fever was bad for my health,” my mom once said. “Whiskey, by comparison, is as bad as drinking a Shirley Temple without the cherry.”

After she had a bad fall, ironically – last fall – it was literally her last fall before having to be in a wheelchair, she went into a skilled nursing facility outside of Denver for a few months for rehabilitation. On one visit, I wheeled her outside to enjoy the sunshine.

‘How was the food today?’ I asked.

“Not too good,” she said. “It’s boring. And it would be nice if they served a glass of wine with dinner every now and then.”

‘Should we break you out of jail and take you to dinner?’ I asked.

“It’s too much trouble,” she said.

‘No, it’s not, Mom,’ I said. ‘What do you want to eat?’

“Pizza,” she said.

I called my older brother, Ted, who lives south of Denver. ‘I’m going to break Mom out of jail. She wants pizza and would also like a glass of wine.’

“I’ll order a couple pizzas,” he said. “What kind of wine does she want? Red or white?”

‘What kind of wine do you want, Mom?’ I asked. ‘Red or white?’

“Bourbon,” she said, without skipping a beat.

‘Got any Maker’s Mark, Ted?’ My brother was laughing over the phone.

I find that my two brothers and I vacillate between trying to get my mom to eat better and do her therapy to all out spoiling her and giving her whatever she wants.

All three of us exhibit similar behavior when it comes to my mom’s wheelchair – that is, we’re in denial that’s she’s in one. Ted sees no need for wheelchair ramps and hauls her in her cumbersome, heavy wheelchair up and down flights of stairs.

Patrick has pushed her through muddy fields in the drizzling rain, with one arm on her shoulder to keep her from popping out of her wheelchair, and the other simultaneously holding an umbrella as he pushes her, so she won’t miss my nieces’ and nephew’s lacrosse games.

And since Patrick ordered her a lightweight, carbon fiber, all-terrain wheelchair, all bets are off. There is not a rocky, rooted dirt trail that will curtail me from pushing her on it.

What’s interesting is, in her illness, my mom has seemed to lose all of her previous anxiety over her own personal safety. I used to live in a motel-style building, where the apartment doors all opened up to the outside. I was on the third floor, and the hallway outside my door was actually a long balcony with a metal railing, overlooking a courtyard three stories down.

I never realized just how slanted the hallway was until I wheeled my mom out my door without putting on the wheelchair brakes. I forgot something in my apartment, and went back to grab it, and my mom rolled backwards across the hallway, with the metal railing the only thing preventing her from falling three stories down. Realizing what I had done, I lunged to grab the wheelchair. I was beyond horrified. But what was most astonishing to me was the placid expression on my mom’s face. There was no fear. She simply didn’t give a crap.


Crested Butte

Cafe, Crested Butte, Colorado
Ginger Cafe in Crested Butte, Colorado.

I’ve been in Colorado nearly a month now, tasked with the heart wrenching job of packing up my mom’s things as we transition her to a longer term skilled nursing facility. For a change of scene, I decided to take her on a day trip to Crested Butte, which is 68 miles from her town of Buena Vista.

Cottonwood PassClosed in winter due to its elevation, County Road 306 takes you over Cottonwood Pass, which rises above 12,000 feet over the Continental Divide. The western side is slow going because it’s a dirt road. Local residents lobbied not to pave the road in an attempt to keep traffic down. It’s rugged, dusty, and beautiful. I can’t remember seeing Colorado so green and full of insects and wildflowers. It seems to have soaked up all the rain that brown, drought-ridden California missed.

It was one of those perfect Rocky Mountain summer days, sunny and about 75-degrees, with sunlight sparkling off of Cottonwood Creek. “Creek” is a misnomer because it’s a powerful river in its own right, which twists and turns alongside the windy mountain road.

I pulled over partway up to let the dogs out for a bit. This time, I couldn’t talk my mom into getting out of the car, so she waited as I walked the dogs down a sandy dirt road along the river. Every 30 feet or so was another rugged mountain man in sunglasses and a baseball cap, some wearing waders in the water, and others standing on the river bank, all fly fishing in quiet meditation.

They made me think of a row of disciplined knights stationed along a watchtower during peaceful times. The vegan in me doesn’t get the allure of fishing, but the woman in me gets the allure of fishermen. Every one of them looked at me as I strolled by, and then slowly turned his eyes back to the river. One of the things I appreciate about the Rockies, which is in stark contrast to San Francisco, is that the men look at you like they ain’t never seen a woman before.

 Downtown Crested ButteColorful Crested Butte was surprisingly busy with tourists and it was hard to find a place to park, so I ended up driving a bit outside of town to find a place in the shade under some trees for the dogs.

By now, I’ve gotten pretty good at the routine of pulling my mom’s wheelchair out of the back of my RAV4, wheeling it around, putting on the brakes, and then helping her out of the car seat and into the wheelchair. On a good day, she carries her weight better than other days. But by now, I’ve developed some arm muscles because of all the lifting, even though she’s pretty light from the weight loss.

Undeterred by the bumpy dirt path into town (I tell myself these treks are a good workout), I pushed her from the car to Elk Avenue, one of the main drags in Crested Butte.

‘What are you in the mood for, Mom?’ I asked.

“Coffee and something sweet.”

She had already had two cups of coffee that morning. I started to give her the lecture: Are you sure you want to drink that? You know it’s dehydrating, and your cells need more water right now, and it will mess up your sleep tonight, and you’ve already had two cups… but I stopped myself and wheeled her up to Rumors Coffee shop.

When you take my mom out to eat, even for the smallest snack, you load up on napkins because  inevitably there will be a disaster zone of spills and food everywhere. But even though she spills a lot of it, she still loves her coffee. People look at her with curiosity, I’m sure they wonder what she has, but by and large, they go out of their way to assist us, holding open doors and offering to help. Sitting in the shaded porch of the coffee shop on a beautiful Rocky Mountain summer day was sublime. We weren’t there long before my mom announced she was tired and it was time to go.

Driving out of town, there was a little traffic jam of about six cars on Elk Avenue. The car in front of me stopped abruptly as the driver yelled out to a friend walking on the street, “Hey, Mitch!” Mitch walked up to the window and they chatted, as the five cars behind waited. Getting impatient, I drove around the car and the buddy named Mitch, picking up speed to pass them.

A bearded, long haired hippie dude with no shirt on rode up next to me on an old beach cruiser. Evidently having seen my license plate, he said, “Hey California!” He smiled with big white teeth. “Where’s the fire? Chillax a little. You’re in Crested Butte. Slow down and enjoy life!” He laughed and rode away.

On the drive home, we opted to take the fully paved route through Gunnison. All the windows were down and both dogs had their heads out. I put on some of my mom’s favorite tunes – Cat Stevens, The Eagles, and Kris Kristofferson. She turned her head, with the Rocky Mountain wind blowing on her face, and fell asleep.Save






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