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Angi

My life with Angie

-Judith Acosta, Signpost

On August 17 at 5:45, with my husband sitting on the floor beside me, I held my eldest dog, Angie, as she took her last breath. Her head rested in my hands with absolute trust as I rubbed her gently behind the ears and kissed her forehead, taking in as much of her as I could before I let the technicians take her away. In the thirty-six hours since I let them lift her out of my arms, I’ve been wandering around the house looking for things she might have left around—clumps of hair, a toy, a half-chewed bone, a hidden towel. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was the first time in my life I lamented my own neatness. She was really gone.

She was fifteen and had been sick for more than a year. Homeopathy had kept her miraculously vital and calm throughout that time even though she had been diagnosed with both bilateral cardiomyopathy and carcinoma that had spread from her hip to her lungs. Even though she was still keeping pace with the pack and eating like the part-Labrador she was, I knew the inevitable was coming. And I thought I was prepared. After all, I’d had a year to accommodate myself to the hard truth. But the closer it came, particularly in these last few weeks as I had to help lift her up to go outside so she could urinate, I knew I would never be prepared. I tried to tell myself—as so many others were telling me—that when the time came I would be relieved. I would know it was the right time and it would be okay.

I know they meant well, truly. But I was not relieved. And it did not feel right or okay.

When I got the diagnosis more than a year ago, I made a commitment to myself and to her that I would see her through it all. I would minister to her while she was here and when it was time for her to die, I would be fully present. It was the least I could do. She had been my truly faithful companion for more than eleven years since I’d rescued her. She was my first dog, my mentor, and my trusted guardian. So when the time came I did what I promised I would do. I watched her die.

I had hoped that the people who talked to me about the “naturalness” of death were right. I had prayed for comfort in the way they had promised. But I didn’t feel it at all. I know that when I let go of her body, limp and without any of the fight she had in life, the Angie I loved and trusted and trained and struggled with for all those years was simply not there anymore. All her molecules were there. Everything that made her body run and sleep and sneeze and roll over—it was all there. But she was gone.

As I held her and felt her chin go limp against my thigh, the doctor placed her stethoscope on Angie’s chest and said, “Her heart’s stopped. She’s gone.” As my husband and I wept, the strangest thought popped into my mind: I’d heard people speak of dead weight before, but she seemed so terribly light, nearly weightless to me as if the greatest part of her, her ballast, had departed with her last heartbeat. She—my Angie, my sweet, crazy, devoted Alpha—was not there anymore. She had been there. But then she wasn’t. I do not understand it. And I find that no matter what I do I cannot understand that. Where is she? Where did she go? She was just here. I pace the house like a child whining a mantra, “I want my dog back.”

It must sound awfully naive for a therapist and homeopath to be so surprised by death. I have seen death before, though luckily not very much. But I don’t think the exposure has helped me understand or accept it much better, any more than the platitudes about the cycle of life.

When I was a very young psychotherapist, not two weeks out of graduate school, I worked at a hospital in New Rochelle on the medical/surgical unit. There were thirty-some-odd beds and all of them were filled all the time with very sick people. I was only there for two months, but I watched several people covered in sheets and rolled away by stretcher. It was a hospital. I was saddened by it, but I expected it.

There was one woman who was different. She never had a visitor, not a family member or a friend. She was a quiet person who always asked for books to read. Most people got in and out of the unit within a week or so. But she was in her room a long time, always propped up in bed, never in a chair or walking around. She was not assigned to my caseload, but I spent time with her anyway. She seemed so lonely. She didn’t talk much when I visited because she found it difficult to breathe, but she seemed to like it when I read to her or talked to her about the news, offering her some connection back to the world outside the window.

Once when I sat by her, she lifted her fingers straight up, though her arm remained flat on the bed. Because she was suffering with terminal lung cancer, I thought she was restless or uncomfortable and offered to move her pillows or adjust her bedding. She shook her head until I realized she just wanted me to hold her hand.

It only took a few days from the time I first held her hand to the last time. Her spiral downward was dramatic and quick, as if she could leave now that she had company. Or maybe she needed a witness. I don’t know. I never really got to know anything about her. We barely had a full conversation. But I came to care about her and never forgot her. I still think about the changes in her breathing as her time approached, how the muscles in her hand would occasionally contract as if to make sure I was still there, how thin she looked but how firmly her jaw was set as she finally let go. I stayed with her till the end but I can’t even remember her name. In my mind, she was more than any name or any identity that could have ever been assigned to her.

Mostly what I remember now is what I didn’t understand and what I still don’t.

Peter Kreeft, one of the brightest and best when it comes to writing about the great mysteries, said, “We are shocked at the irreversibility of death although it is utterly familiar, utterly universal, utterly natural. We find the natural unnatural. Why? Let us be shocked at our shock… ‘This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations.’”

I am shocked. I am stunned by its finality, its emptiness, its contrariness—not only to everything my senses can fathom but to what my heart holds truest, that He has “put eternity” in us and no matter how we try to rationalize, empiricize, or explain it away with, “well, that’s the cycle of life,” it never, ever feels right. And I, like Kreeft and many others, believe that it can’t feel right because that is not what our souls—or our hearts—were created for. There is something in us, or to be more precise, we are made of something which is not temporal, which does not bow its head in acceptance to the last breath, which does not feel at home in the mortal, time-bound world and never will.

It is why, no matter how many times I hear from people, “it’s the way of nature,” it will never feel natural to me. And if Kreeft is right, then that gives me the most hope of all.

“Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”—Edna St. Vincent Millay

Judith Acosta, LISW, is a holistic psychotherapist with a private practice in Placitas, specializing in the treatment of anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma. She is also a classical homeopath and the co-author of The Worst Is Over. Her next book, Verbal First Aid for Children, is due to be published by Penguin this year. You may reach her at www.wordsaremedicine.com.


Gambling Saloon, Santa Fe

Gambling Saloon in Santa Fe

The Gambling Queen of Santa Fe

In another place and time, she might have been prosecuted or even condemned to death for her chosen profession. But in the rowdy, rough-and-tumble gambling center that was Santa Fe in the mid-1800s, the legendary Doña Maria Gertrudis Barceló was an influential and respected member of the social elite.

How did a young, married Hispanic woman rise from poverty and obscurity to become the most famous (if not notorious) woman in Santa Fe history? The woman known as “Doña Tules” or simply “La Tules” had timing, skills, savvy—and plenty of attitude.

Madam and courtesan, monte dealer and mule trader, Doña Tules was a shrewd businesswoman and exceptionally skilled at separating men from their money. Without ever learning English, the Sonora, Mexico native amassed a fortune as the proprietress of a popular gambling salon on the southeast corner of Palace Avenue and Burro Alley, near where the Santa Fe County Courthouse sits today. Between 1832 and her death in 1852, she was the confidante—and reportedly much more—to some of New Mexico’s most powerful political, military, and religious leaders.

After losing two sons in infancy and adopting a daughter in 1826, Gertrudis Barceló decided to turn her gift for dealing cards and reading men into a career that would make her wealthy. Her strategy: Capitalize on the insatiable gambling habits of the traders who traveled from Missouri on the newly opened Santa Fe Trail. Adept at the Spanish chance game of monte, she was soon stripping both strangers and Santa Feans of their “accumulated property,” according to one observer who visited Santa Fe in the 1830s.

“She dealt night after night, often until dawn, with ‘skillful precision’ as the cards ‘slipped from her long fingers as steadily as though she were handling only a knitting needle,’” wrote Mary J. Straw Cook in Doña Tules, Santa Fe’s Courtesan and Gambler (University of New Mexico Press, 2007). “With feminine bravado, Tules’s deft and beringed fingers swept away piles of gold, the result of perpetual practice, as she won time and time again.”

As many as a hundred monte tables operated in Santa Fe during this time, with stakes as high as $50,000. By 1838, town officials realized there was more money to be reaped by granting gambling licenses than collecting fines, and they sanctioned the formerly illegal activity.

In her gambling hall, frequented by soldiers and traders, politicians and priests alike, Tules was privy to high-level intelligence that she supposedly used to benefit the U.S. during an extremely turbulent time. Her relationships with Governor Manuel Armijo, Prussian August de Marle of the Missouri Volunteers, and other officials may have even changed the course of major events: for example, she is credited with alerting U.S. authorities of the Mexican-Indian conspiracy of December 1846.

Doña Tules remained colorful and controversial up to her elaborately planned and executed funeral, presided over by the newly appointed Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, the subject of Willa Cather’s renowned Death Comes for the Archbishop. Tules’s lifelong charitable acts had granted her access to the highest social circles of Santa Fe—and she hoped this last gift, to the church, would grant her safe passport to eternal salvation, despite her questionable activities. She was one of the last people interred within the adobe walls of La Parroquia, the old parish church on the Plaza that was later replaced by the St. Francis Cathedral. What became of her remains during the construction is part of the mystery that shrouds this fascinating woman.

The New Mexico History Museum (nmhistorymuseum.org) includes artifacts recovered from Tules’s estate, and other legendary characters in New Mexico’s history. Within its ninety-six thousand square feet are images, artifacts, and multimedia displays— piece by piece the museum has built a comprehensive picture of the state.

 

     

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