April 30th, 2012


Bright colors

My great-aunt Ana wanted to get her corneas replaced so she could see my wedding.

I back up. A little over a year ago, Ana was in the hospital, having been the second person in the world to undergo an experimental heart valve replacement procedure. She'd been having problems breathing due to congestive heart failure, and at 95 years old, she wasn't a great candidate for open-heart surgery. So they did a procedure to fix her valve using cardiac catheterization.

The surgery was a success.

I stopped by the hospital, while she was recovering, to tell her that Graham and I got engaged. I had always thought that asking the father for permission was utter and complete horseshit, but I knew that I absolutely had to inform Ana before anyone else in the family was told. Ana lit up, and she wanted to know EVERYTHING about the engagement, the wedding, Graham's family, everything. I talked about how it would be at the ranch about a year hence, and we would be getting as much news out as we knew. I remember mentioning that I was a little apprehensive about putting on a wedding, since my parents had eloped and all of my mom's family had eloped. Weddings weren't really part of my family's history. Ana looked at me and said, "Oh, weddings ARE a part of your family's history. And I'll be happy to remind your parents." I laughed.

The major setback that Ana had after her surgery last year was that her eyes started deteriorating. I don't think she had great vision to start with--she'd needed assistance walking in unfamiliar paths for years because she couldn't see gradations in the sidewalk very well--but apparently during the anesthesia, there wasn't enough oxygen getting to her eyes and her eyes started failing more rapidly.

But she didn't let it get her down or keep her at home. In early August, when Jose and our cousin Patrick left Houston to go to their respective graduate programs in Ann Arbor and Austin, she was the light of the party. She traveled to Miami in October to attend the baptism of THREE great-grandchildren. In early November, she took off to east Texas with a bunch of other family members for a small family reunion. We had a wonderful birthday celebration for Ana at an Indian restaurant in early December. And Ana was the hit of our engagement party in late December, wearing this AMAZING embroidered cape, charming the hell out of my friends, and being the last one to leave the party. She came to another party in early January, and we showed her how to work an iPad, thinking that may help her read the newspapers a little easier than a magnifying glass. And in the first week of March, she traveled down to Mercedes, right on the border, to put a historical marker on our family cemetery.

She couldn't wait for our wedding. All of her family was coming in for it, save one grandchild. She asked questions about Graham's family, wanting to know who everyone was so she could talk to them. She knew what she was going to wear, and according to her kids, it was all she could talk about. One of my cousins told me that it wasn't "Chistina's wedding." It was "The Wedding."

The second week of March, right after she came back from the Valley, she was supposed to have eye surgery. She had scheduled it enough in advance so she was going to have enough time to heal before the wedding.

But the weekend before the surgery, she had trouble breathing, and instead of going to the hospital for surgery, she was in the hospital for oxygen. This spring was particularly bad for allergies, and she succumbed to them.

I went to visit her in the hospital during my lunch break on March 13. She was fast asleep in her hospital room when I got there, and I thought I wouldn't be able to visit with her for more than a minute or two. But she woke up when my cell phone rang, and she chatted with me for well over an hour. She was really excited about another engagement party that some friends were throwing for us a week later. She told me that she had her outfit picked out for that party, too. She told me that the worse her eyes got, the brighter her clothes got. She wanted to know about my wedding plans, and how Graham was doing, and how my family was doing, and everything. I asked her how she was, and she said she was really happy to be at the hospital, so she could fight.

I had no doubt that she was determined to get to the engagement party the next week, but I wasn't surprised when it turned out she couldn't go. She'd just left the hospital and was in a skilled nursing facility, and she wasn't quite recovered enough to make it to a social engagement. I was sad that she wasn't there, but I was really happy that it seemed she was recovering.

On March 31, my mom and I were at the ranch two weeks out from the wedding. We were working on some project or another, and my dad called to tell us that Ana had had a stroke. Fortunately, she had been in the skilled nursing facility, and they were able to get her to the hospital and administer TPA within 20 minutes of the stroke. In the next few days, she'd have difficulty speaking, but it was clear that the stroke hadn't had much of an impact on her cognitive abilities.

I think up until a week before the wedding, there was still talk of her trying to go. At some point there was discussion of an RV or ambulance rental, but ultimately, I think everyone realized that it wasn't going to happen.

The last thing that Graham and I did before we left Houston to go to our wedding was to see Ana. Ana had met Graham's mother back in 2008, when my mother-in-law had come through Houston. And she recognized Jan and spoke a few words, in English and Spanish, with her. She looked a lot better than I expected her to look, and though she was quieter than usual, she was clearly following along in conversation and piping up when she had the words. We didn't stay too long, but we promised to come back with pictures and stories.

Almost every single member of her family stopped to see Ana on the way to going to my wedding. Sons, daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews. Everyone was flying into Houston anyways, so they stopped by the hospital before going on to the ranch. Two of my cousins stayed in Houston with her while everyone else went on to the wedding.

Last Saturday morning, April 21, my mom and I were running errands when my dad called. Ana had made a decision, and it was going to be hard on the rest of the family. She didn't want to fight anymore. At least one of her kids and maybe a grandchild or two had been with her non-stop for the last four or five days. My mom and I pulled out some of the leftover food from the wedding, and the family members that were here stopped by my parents house while they moved Ana to a private room. My dad, who deals with this exact situation on a daily, if not hourly, basis with his own patients, said that it was entirely possible that we could have several months with her, but you can never tell.

I went home on Saturday night, and I decided to make Ana a bouquet of paper flowers, since she didn't get to see them at the wedding. I chose the brightest color paper I had: red, orange, yellow and pink. I made 38 paper roses, and the bouquet was big and beautiful, and I was really happy I could do something that Ana would probably be able to see and appreciate. I also loaded my ipad with all the pictures I had so far of the wedding, so I could show them to Ana on Monday at lunch.

The next morning, I took the bouquet over to my parents' house. My mom and I had some projects we never had the opportunity to finish the day before, and I asked my dad to take the bouquet to Ana when he went to see her that morning. My dad suggested that my mom and I come to the hospital to give them to her, because he wasn't sure if she'd be awake when he stopped by. And, I could show her the pictures. We could take the light rail back to their apartment, or since it was a pretty day, we could walk.

When we walked into the hospital room, we found my cousin at the bedside, who had a stricken look on her face. She just blankly looked at us, and said "She's gone. Ten minutes ago." And we realized that Ana had passed away.

Ana Riddel was loved. And she loved. I'm really sad that I don't have her in my life anymore, but I know that she lived her life the way she wanted to, up to the moment she died. She was a woman of opinion and passion and beauty. She liked people unless she didn't. She fought and cajoled and made people listen to what she had to say. She was a fantastic politician, and she was a woman of great humor and compassion. She was a woman who would see a need, and instead of simply talking about what should be done, she went out and made things happen. Jose and I interviewed her for Storycorps in 2007, and we had a blast for an hour talking about her life. We probably needed six or seven hours. I could probably go on for pages and pages talking about the amazing things that Ana did over her nine and a half decades on this planet, but she loved me and she loved my family. And we loved her. And we had her for a long time, but with a woman like her, there's never enough time.

And while I am sad that she didn't make it to my wedding, I'm overjoyed that my wedding brought all of her loved ones to her right before she died.

We're having a celebration of her life next weekend. Everyone is encouraged to wear bright colors. I think she'll be able to see us.