Thursday, May 09, 2013

Yelena Blumenau, Rest in Peace

Yelena was my late friend Daniel Blumenau's wife. I knew Daniel for years and have written about him previously. When I was in college and for some years after that, Daniel would hire his brother/my friend Phil and me to come in to do the last work at building jobs he had. And he always had interesting  building jobs: Jimi Hendrix' Electric Ladyland, Island Records' Carnegie Hall offices and their Grove Street town house, Oscar De La Renta's east side townhouse, that sort of thing.
    Well, we stayed in touch about once a year--he'd call to remind me that Phil's birthday was coming up--until about 10 years ago. Then nothing, but that was fine too. Until about two years ago, when he called to say his wife--a woman named Yelena whom I'd never met--was terminally ill with cancer and he wondered if I had any medicines from the jungle that might help her into remission. As it was, he said, the doctors only expected her to live another six weeks.
    I immediately sent off some Una de Gato--fresh vine, Cat's Claw in English--with directions on how to make it. Used forever in Peru and other parts of the Amazon basin for everything from bursitis to immune deficiency disorders, it's currently suggested as an adjunct medicine here in the US by most cancer and AIDS hospitals because of its fantastic ability to increase the T-cell count, bolstering immunity. (There's more to it, but not relevant to this story.)
    Yelena took to it fantastically, and in a matter of weeks was up and about. Unfortunately, a couple of months after Dan got in touch with me he had a massive heart attack and died. (Rest in Peace, Daniel B.)
    But Yelena, though crushed by his passing, had gotten the urge to stay alive and got in touch with me about going on one of my Jungle Intensive courses to the Amazon. I tried to talk her out of it, but when she insisted, I said okay. And so, with a large discount, she came.
    The other guests on the trip urged me not to take her out to the jungle because they thought she was too weak and wouldn't make it. I thought her spirit looked fine, and knew that my late teacher Julio's daughter Lady would be on the trip and be able to collect good medicinal plants for her--so off we all went.
    She was a delight. Started every darned sentence with "Darling..." and ended them all with "you're the best." She would walk down from her sleeping quarters to the river's edge (a small tributary of the Amazon) to bathe wearing a tiny bikini and six inch spikes. I urged her to wear the jungle boots I provided but she said they didn't make her feel elegant. So she fell, and fell, and fell. Spikes are not jungle appropriate. I let her fall until she finally switched to the boots.
    And she did everything asked of her in the jungle except, I think, one longish hike that she wasn't strong enough to make. If you saw her out there you would never have believed she was supposed to die months earlier. And when we got out of the jungle, Lady had indeed collected and prepared some medicines specific to Yelena's needs.
    And she had such a good time that she returned for the next Jungle Intensive some months later. Again, she was great and I was so proud of her.
    A couple of months later she visited my home--along with several other people who'd been on recent trips with me--for a long weekend of good food, good company and good medicine.
    Months, perhaps a year, passed, and we stayed in touch now and then, me just checking in and making sure she was making and drinking her Una de Gato and the medicines Lady gave her. She was.
    In December, however, she called to let me know she was dying. She was scared. She was having trouble going up and down the steps of the sailboat that Daniel had bought her and on which they traveled and lived for several years. She asked if she could come to my house for a little while just to be  in a different space and around my family--and particularly Madeleina--whom she'd grown immensely fond of. I was busy at the time but told her she was more than welcome to come after I got home from Peru in late February.
    And she did. But the woman who walked through the door at 3 AM (Chepa and her boyfriend Troy did the honors of the airport run) was not the woman I'd previously seen. She was very thin, very weak and having difficulty walking.
    But she was still lively and still full of "Darling's and you're the bests," and after a few days here she was gaining a little weight and asking me to go get pizza and ice cream and watching movies with Madeleina and I and even helped out in the garden now and then, and would take a chair out sometimes to sit in the sun in the back yard.
    Chepa gave her massages when she hurt--and she hurt a bit for a while as she came in using four to six Oxycodone daily and ran out after about two weeks--cold turkey with advanced cancer is not recommended or easy.
    And then, one night, she fell when she tripped on the mattress that was on the floor of the room she was using. And that was the beginning of a downward spiral. In the morning as she was explaining how she'd fallen, she and I both noticed that her stomach seemed to be noticeably swollen. I wanted to take her to a doctor but ran into red tape: As she had Medicaid in Florida, she couldn't be seen in Texas. I told doctors that we'd pay cash and they told us no, it was illegal to take cash for a visit from someone who had Medicaid, even if that was in a different state.
    It was an impossible bureaucratic hurtle, with the only solution being an emergency room, which she absolutely refused.
    Fortunately, after staying with us for a month, Medicare kicked in and the day it did we were at the cancer ward of a good local hospital. By that time she was considerably swollen, not just her stomach but her legs and feet. She was having more difficulty walking.
    The doctor at the hospital suggested--bluntly--that she would be dead in two to three weeks, and suggested she move into hospice care. She said no, she could still bathe herself and wouldn't do it. So the doctor suggested hospice care at my house. Again she refused. We left after getting a script for a pain killer much lighter than Oxycodone and a water pill to help her eliminate some of the excessive water she was carrying.
    The next couple of weeks got very difficult. As she went downhill, she became shrill. She would come into my room or go into Madeleina's room at 2 AM demanding more pain killers or that we make her hot chocolate--but in such a shrill way that it was difficult to maintain a loving demeanor. Or she would go after the pills herself, or make her own tea and leave the stove on under the empty pot. She had me buy clothes that she refused to wear, but also refused to go shopping for them with me. She had to be cajoled into leaving her room for lunch or a little walk. She was still eating well--which I took as a good sign--with two eggs or an omelete with cheese bread on the side daily, then a chicken drumstick for lunch and a small dinner of scallops and rice or swordfish. And she loved sushi. And a cup of hot chocolate at night.
    I was hoping she'd hit bottom and would start to get better, but when she didn't, we went back to the cancer center, two or three times. Each time they'd tell her they could give her stronger pain killers (she didn't want them because they made her feel foggy), hospice care or a new round of chemo. When she'd refuse those things, the doctor or nurse practitioner would ask "Then why did you come back? You know that's what we have to offer. There is nothing else."
   She had a dream of going to the MD Anderson cancer unit in Houston, but that was dashed when they told me they had no live in program: She'd get treatment, then go home. In Yelena's case that would mean getting an efficience apartment in Houston, because my home is about eight hours away and I simply couldn't move to Houston, even for a short period of time.
    A week ago Saturday, about 10 days ago, she called me into her room and told me she wanted to return to Florida. I will admit to a great feeling of relief when she said that, as what I was putting Madeleina through--and it was just about two months by then--was not fair.
    I didn't say okay. I told her that if she was serious she should ask me the following day and I'd get the ticket for her--and it was her money for these things, not mine, just to be clear. Then I called the airline and asked what the procedure was for a very ill but non-contagious person. They told me just to get her to the airport and someone would have a wheelchair and get her onto the plane and someone else would be waiting to get her off at the other end.
   The next day Yelena asked again--demanded shrilly if you want the truth--and I bought her a ticket for Monday afternoon.
   Monday was a long long day. Whether it was physical, emotional or what have you, that morning, while packing her things, she fell. And fell again. She couldn't walk to the bathroom or get her pants down when I got her there. When she was finished her business she told me to leave so that she could brush her teeth. I stepped out of the bathroom and heard a boom as she fell back against the tile wall. I called Chepa and asked her to get over as quickly as she could because I didn't think I was going to make it alone. Chepa came and we got her into my truck and Chepa wished her a good flight. I got her to the airport and the wheel chair and got her and her dog Stella booked and to the boarding line, where I kissed her and told her I was sorry that the medicines I had had not gotten her better. "They will, don't worry," she said. It was the first cheerful thing she'd said in a week.
    And then I left.
    I felt such a mixture of guilt for failing, guilt for being thrilled that she was gone, guilt at what I'd put Madeleina through that it nearly crushed me with its weight. And I prayed that she would make it home safely and that the miracle would happen.
   It didn't. She died three or four days after returning to Florida.
   I hope that her transition to the next life, next realm, next whatever awaits is a good one, one without physical constraints or pain or frustration or anger over getting ill. I hope that her spirit winds up somewhere wonderful. Have a good trip, Yelena. Your work here is finished. Rest in Peace.


shutterbug said...

Until we meet again Yelena, have a peaceful journey.....

Gritter said...

I am both sad and glad to hear of Yelena's passing. We consulted several times about her condition and, frankly, I thought you a bit of a superhero to do what you did for her. You are a good and fine man Mr. Peter Gorman. I hope to see you again soon.

Unknown said...

I met Yelena when her dog Stella and my dog Lucy became friends at the beach in Pompano. She was a sweet lady. I will miss her. Rest in Peace Yelena. Your friend Val

Germano11 said...

This story is very moving. It's very hard not to cry while reading your post. I don't know why but I felt something really strong for Yelena struggle to survive and for your good fraternal heart Gorman. Thank you for sharing this.


Live Peace International said...

Hello Sir. I am the Godfather of Yelena and am deeply sad to hear of her passing. She and Daniel came to our church on several occasions and Yelena was Baptised there shortly after Daniel's tragic death. I am very relieved as well to hear this statement of yours as just yesterday I was in the process of filing a missing person report. I would love to talk to you more if you have the time. email @ Fr John Nelson